Monday, July 7, 2014

The Climb: Alp d'Huez

I can't believe that our little adventure is over.  It seems like ages ago already.   Back to reality.  I will probably do a post later on in the week recapping some of the highlights of the trip as well as some pointers when traveling to destination races. 

When we were planning our trip, our main goal was to get to Italy as I'd never been there before.  Having to go to Luxembourg first meant that we were either flying into Paris or Frankfurt and driving from there.  Cost and flight availability had us going in and out of Paris, which wasn't a bad thing.  We figured that if we had to drive back into Paris that we might as well explore a bit more of France after spending time in Italy.  I honestly could have stayed in Italy longer it was so beautiful.  But had we done that, we would have missed out on the stunning scenery of the French Riviera and the French alps.  Once we realized that our route back to Paris would take us close to the French alps we decided that we should spend a couple of days there and tackle one of the Tour Climbs.  Thankfully it was closer to the end of our trip so I would be recovered from the race.  We decided on doing Alp d'Huez.  It wasn't a long climb but it was definitely challenging. 21 switchbacks in roughly 14km and over 1000m of climbing.  There was no way I was going to do it on my tri bike so we rented these sweet Pinarello Dogma's.  Full carbon and super light. 

We had looked at trying to stay in Alp d'Huez or Le Bourg D'Oisans but every single place was booked.  We had no idea what was happening but we assumed it was some kind of cycling race.  So we ended up in Grenoble, which was about a 50 minute drive away.  When we left Nice to head to Grenoble, G figured that we should go and scope out the bike store in Bourg D'Oisans first and then make our way to Grenoble.  We had roughly a 5 hour drive from Nice to Bourg, most of it on the highway.  French highways are the bomb by the way,there are rest stops, restaurants and gas stations every 15-20km so you don't need to worry about emergency pit stops.  And the scenery was pretty darn nice too given it was a major highway. It's not every day that you drive by old ruins and huge churches as you zoom along the highway.

As we got into the mountains, we knew we were heading into cycling territory as the roads were becoming populated with cyclists.  There were tons of people on the road. We even saw vans with bike racks in them.  We figured they were tour groups of some sort.  The closer we got to Bourg, the more cyclists we saw.  There was even a bike lane painted on the two lane highway.  We were in cycling Nirvana. 

We rolled into Bourg and stopped at a little restaurant to grab a bite to eat.  They even had a "cyclist's menu".  There were tons of people whizzing through town on bikes, along with guys in spandex with shaved legs sitting eating bowls of pasta and drinking espresso.  Go was so excited he could barely contain himself.  We finished our meal and went into the bike shop.  OMG it was JAMMED.  We spent a fair bit of time looking at clothes.  There were a few really nice pieces of kit that I liked but just couldn't justify the $$ on.  I had spent a fair bit of money in Italy and a ton of money at the race expo so I felt the need to restrain myself.  Plus I didn't really NEED anything.  I'm so bloody practical, haha. 

We chatted with the sales woman, confirmed our rental and dropped off our pedals.  I had been concerned about gearing but G checked the bikes out and told me I didn't have to worry about a thing.  The bike had a triple crank set on it, which meant that I'd be able to spin my legs up the mountain without killing myself too much.  Sweet, give me all the granny gears!  We made arrangements to be back for 9:00 am the next day and then headed on to Grenoble. 

The next day we packed up our gear and drove in to Bourg.  We totally lucked out with the forecast,it was supposed to to be sunny and really hot. The day before had been overcast and cool.  We got to the bike shop and the mechanic pulled the bikes out for us and had us take them for a spin.  Mine seemed to be ok but I couldn't really tell.  It was weird to be riding a road bike again, I'm so used to riding my tri bike.  The mechanic said we should go and do a loop of the town to get a warm up in because the climb was only about 1km away.  So we took a spin along this little path around the outskirts of Bourg.  During the ride I realized that my saddle wasn't in the right position. I felt like it was too far back and it wasn't comfortable. So we made o ur way back to the bike shop and and them move my saddle frown a bit.  I got on and started riding.  Much better.  Now I really had a feel for the bike.
Not pictured - the TRIPLE crank set

We followed the stream of cyclists out of town to a roundabout and took the first exit which turned out to be incorrect but a quick u turn rectified that and soon we were heading towards the alp.  There was a line painted across the road that signified where the climb started. It was also where they had the timing chip start timing your climb.  When you rent bikes from this shop, they give you a chip to time your climb.  Apparently this is something they do for all the major Tour climbs.  You get a little chip that you put in your jersey and it starts when you cross the line at the base of the climb and then stops when you cross the line at the top of the climb. The bike shop will then print out a copy of your time when you're back.

I knew the climb was going to be long.  People told me that the first 3-4km was the hardest part.  The grade is steeper here so you're struggling to get into a rhythm.  They weren't kidding.  As soon as the road started to go up my heart rate spiked.  I immediately got into my granny gears and started spinning my legs.  I wanted to take it easy because I knew it was going to be a long way up.  The road was much wider than I had anticipated.  Most of the mountain roads we had been on were insanely narrow.  This was a pleasant surprise. There was plenty of room to pass other cyclists and cars still had a good amount of room to get by.  I tried to keep my breath in check and just focus on the road in front of me.  I didn't want to look up because I knew I had a long way to go and seeing how far would have messed with my head.  So I looked at the road in front of me.  I'd glance up every so often to look out over the guard rail and check the view. 

G was in front of me but seemed to be struggling a bit so I passed him.  I looked down at the speedometer on my bike.  I was chugging along at 10kph.  Sometimes it dropped down to 9, and at one point it got as low as 8 kph.  Those first few kms were a slog, no doubt about it.  What makes the climb difficult from a mental perspective is the fact that all the switchbacks are numbered, starting at 21 and counting down until you cross the top.  And it's not like the switchbacks are close together either.  Fun fact:  each switchback is named after a winner from this stage.  I think at this point each turn has two names on it, although I'm pretty sure Lance Armstrong's has been removed.  I didn't think to check as I was too busy grinding my way up the mountain. 

Once I got through the first few turns, it started to feel a bit easier.  I started seeing 11 kph on and off on my speedometer.  Sometimes I'd get as high as 14 kph in the turns.  Woohoo!  I never got out of my granny gear either, no matter how fast my legs were spinning.  My legs were feeling ok and I wanted to keep it that way.  I chugged along.  I got to a turn, looked around and didn't see G anywhere so I figured I'd better stop.  There were some turns that had a wide shoulder and somewhat flat shoulder that you could pull over and stop on so the next one I came to, I did just that.  I was probably about 1/4 of the way up and I was hot and sweaty.  I made a point to drink something.  I looked back and saw G grinding his way up.  As he got closer, I got back on my bike and started moving.  But not before I snapped this.  It's foggy because I didn't even think to clean my camera lens off.  I didn't realize just how sweaty I was.


G caught up to me and I hopped back on the bike and started grinding away again.  I was loving the granny gears and the bike itself was amazingly nimble and light.  I actually caught and passed two guys.  They caught and passed me when I stopped again a few turns later.  Then I caught them again.  It was like playing leap frog.  I kept pushing on.  I realized once again that G was nowhere to be found so the next opportunity I had to stop, I did so.  It was at turn number 11.  We were just half way up.  Good God.  I thought about turning around right then and there.  I sat there, caught my breath and waited for G.  I didn't feel like I was breathing hard when I was riding but every time I stopped I was gasping for air.  I figured it was probably the altitude.   G caught up to me and we took a breather here for a while.  I had a GU and drank some more fluids.  My legs were just starting to feel a bit tired so I figured I needed a little something.  I'm not sure how long we sat here for, probably a couple of minutes.  G was in a bad position on the bike, he felt like he didn't have any power, thus his slow ascent.  Normally he's way ahead of me on hills, he's a really strong climber.   We hopped back on our bikes and motored on. 

The next few turns went by in a bit of a haze.  I was clearly only focused on the road in front of me because the next time I looked up at anything, I saw I was at turn number 6.  WOOHOO, only 5 left to go!  This definitely spurred me on.  I kept on rolling.  I came to a wide turn and there were a couple of older guys sitting there chilling out and a younger dude who was just getting back on his bike.  I chugged past him.  A few seconds later, he blew by me like I was standing still.  Amazing.

I started to look around a bit more.  I passed a nice little village.  I noticed that there were multiple bus stops on the way up but nothing on the way down.  I came across a photographer at turn 5 but he didn't get me because I was behind another guy.  I passed that dude and then at turn 3, there was another photographer who got me and then tried to hand me the card with the website info to order pics.  I laughed and said I wasn't taking my hand off the bars so he laughed and shoved the card in the back pocket of my jersey.  I was soooo close to the top, I couldn't wait to get off my bike.  The last little bit kicks up again in grade, ever so slightly.  Especially closer to the top.  The last little climb into the village seemed so much tougher.  I pushed it up that last bit and rolled into town.  I kept going until I saw the checkered line painted on the ground.  I figured that had to be where the timing chip stopped recording your time.  I crossed it and rolled the bike to a stop.  My legs were shaking a bit as I got off.  I leaned the bike up against a post and waited for G.  The town was FULL of cyclists all sitting on patios either eating or drinking coffee.


G finally rolled in and we made our way over to a patio for a coffee.  It was hot and sunny out and I easily could have spent the afternoon sitting there people watching.  We had our coffee and then checked out a few of the stores - all filled to the brim with cycling gear.  G bought an Alp d'Huez jersey.  We had seen people taking pics in front of an Alp d'Huez sign so we went and did that of course.


 Then it was time to head back down the mountain.  This is what I was dreading.  I asked G to stay with me.  He started moving and I followed suit, immediately grabbing the brakes and pumping them to keep me from going too fast.  I slowly made my way around the first corner and then stopped, my heart in my chest.  I was petrified.  I told G I didn't think I could do it so we sat there for a bit.  I got back on the bike, rolled around the next couple of turns and pulled into a little park.  I had a bit of a meltdown here and G was clearly frustrated with me.  So, I made the effort to go a little further but with all the cars and speedy cyclists whizzing by me, it was just too much for me to take.  I am not a good descender.  I don't mind going fast in a straight line downhill but add in turns and it makes me very uncomfortable.  This is something I clearly need to work on.  So I made it to this small little village that had a nice little viewing area that overlooked the descent.  I was nervous about being left there but I figured G was a good descender so he should be fine.  He headed down the mountain and I sat there and watched people whizz by.  It was a beautiful sunny day so I sat in the grass and soaked up the sun.  Roughly half an hour later, G rolled up in our rockin' Renault Scenic minivan and rescued me.

We made our way down the mountain and went back to the bike shop to return our bikes and timing chips.  The sales woman we had dealt with the day before downloaded the info from the chips and then says to me, Oh wow, you beat Gary?  I smiled and said Yup, and that was with 3 stops.  The chip time keeps going, even if you stop.  It took me 1 hour and 16 minutes to get up and it took G 1 hour and 20 minutes but to be fair, he stopped to adjust his saddle towards the end of the climb.  Even if I didn't make it down the mountain, it was still a pretty amazing experience.  It really goes to show you how incredible these tour guys are - they RACE up these mountains.  It's one thing to see it on TV but seeing it in real life....WOW.

Of course, I wore my Garmin.  I didn't use my Vectors so I don't have power data for the climb but, I've got everything else.  The route map is what kills me.  Look at the zig zags.





 It was an incredible experience, one that I'd love to do again once I get a bit more comfortable with descending, ha ha.


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