How do you make your escape? It could be the daily commute, that 10 miles or so, to and from work, creating some head space, a time to disconnect and break a sweat. Or it could be something more adventurous, a ride through a new city or through towns and villages and into the countryside – taking in and appreciating your surroundings.
How about 21 hairpin bends over 13.8 kilometres of French mountain road? Rising from 717 metres to a summit at 1,860 metres - with an average gradient of 8.1 % to 13% at its steepest? The Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps holds huge appeal for both professionals and amateurs alike.
Inspired by Alpe d'Huez - Huez was created by Lorenzo Curci and Hugo Sanders in 2014, together with creative director Nick Bond. During the process of finding a name they kept coming back to this iconic mountain. “We wanted to express as best as we could all the ideas that we had about cycling and what we wanted for the brand. Alpe d’Huez is a mecca for cycling, a place of natural beauty and we wanted something that connects you as a cyclist to the great outdoors. Huez seemed to capture that idea of escapism,’ explains Lorenzo.
Tour historian Jacques Augendre once described the mountain as the ‘Hollywood climb’. During the race it's a place for spectacle, especially with the costumes, crowds and booze on Dutch corner, where cyclists can be adored or face the outrage from the crowd. In 2015 Chris Froome said, “I was on my absolute limits, I felt like I was dying a thousand deaths on the Alpe,” that year he faced the distaste of the crowd as well as having to resist recurring attacks from Nairo Quintana. Alpe d’Huez was the watershed, playing a pivotal role in his Tour de France win that year. So engrained is the Alpe d’Huez in the Tour’s narrative that on each of the 21 hairpin bends is a plaque with a name of a rider that has previously won the climb.
Alpe d’Huez first appeared on the Tour de France in 1952. It was the Tour’s first ever summit finish - although the mountain didn’t become a regular fixture of the race until 1976. For the pros, the key is in the speed you can make the ascent. The fastest climb recorded is 37 minutes 35 seconds, by the infamous Italian Marco Pantani (aka The Pirate) during the 1997 Tour. For the rest of us, it can be as simple as the challenge of getting to the top.
Yet what accounts for its celebrity? Alpe D’Huez is neither the highest nor the most visually remarkable landscape in the Alps. Perhaps its appeal lie in the details, the preparation needed to be equipped to deal with the un-predictabilities of the climb and descent that make this mountain so addictive.
In his book, Alpe d'Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling's Greatest Climb, Peter Cossins, cycling journalist and Tour de France commentator describes the climb first hand: “The initial three kilometres are excruciating, the change in tempo from the big ring riding in the Romanche Valley is so extreme that I soon found myself grovelling in the smallest gear,” writes Cossins. The ride takes him through the hamlet of La Garde en Oisans where he notes that whilst the gradient is not as steep above La Garde it does change regularly - which added to the effects of the altitude - make the ride much harder. At Huez comes sixteen hairpin bends one after the other until eventually the road eventually opens out onto meadow land and says Cossins “and there’s one final obstacle…an unnumbered hairpin that carries you towards the finish line at 1,860 metres…”
What a buzz to reach the top, and be rewarded with a view of the Grandes Rousses massif. It’s that feeling of you against nature, lungs on fire, legs aching from the labour of the climb – all taken over by that rush of adrenalin, the mountain range vista and the impending descent.
It's all about “what cycling makes us feel. That a peace of mind when you’re climbing, battling the mountain, that mantra you get in your head.” says Huez co-founder, Lorenzo Curci.“It’s about the ability cycling has to inspire you to get away from it all.” And so, Huez makes cycling wear that’s forward-looking, performance driven that allows cyclists to focus on the most important part of the ride – the experience itself.
‘Make Your Escape' is about a passion for cycling and the importance of community that underpins the Huez brand. "There’s a great sense of team in cycling. People see it as an individual sport because you’re a guy on a bike but actually there’s a lot more to it,’ explains Curci of his experiences. “If me and Hugo are training in preparation for a race we’re training together. It’s about picking someone up or pushing that extra mile when they can’t go any further up the hill, and that was often Hugo trying to push to me to dig deeper! We are always helping each other to move on.”
Huez are always looking to encourage cyclists to test their limits. As Curci explains, “we all cycle for different reasons and it not only brings us together, but it teaches us new lessons continually, lessons you sometimes can only learn by pushing the boundaries of what's possible.” In May this year Therese Sundström (or Tess to her friends) took up a challenge from Huez, to scale Alpe d’Huez 9 times ascending 8,848m in one day. It was a challenge she couldn’t resist, ‘It was something exciting, to look forward to and train for. It was definitely a challenge but I saw it as a fun challenge, it’s sounds weird but I did it for me.’
Cycling has given Tess an opportunity to travel, ride and experience lots of different places. For this particular challenge, much of her training was focused on getting used to being on a bike for a long period of time. “It’s a weird sort of addiction,” she says, “with long riding in particular – you experience so many different feelings.” It requires both physical and mental endurance. “There’s both pleasure and pain but there’s a point where you’ve got to block the pain out and almost get yourself into a meditative state,” she explains. After months of training leading up to a 200km ride with a climb up to 2,000 meters over 10 hours, a few weeks before, she was ready to head to the Alpe D’Huez.
Starting out on Sunday morning at 3am, Tess wasn’t sure what to expect, she was excited about the day’s ride and had a good idea of the route after her test run the day before. Yet, she was nervous about how her mind and body would react when put under pressure. “I just didn’t know how far I would go – I mean how do you tell your mind and body to keep going when it shuts down?” she says.
She chose to climb 1,000m each round. The first circuit went perfectly but during the second one she started to get backache, “I had to lower my saddle – and that mentally threw me, I had time to think” she recalls, She did another 3 laps and then took a break at midday. After some sleep, food and a shower, she did another 2 circuits. It was during the fifth lap she started to get a saddle sore and it was at this point that she felt she didn’t have the means to keep going.” Tess says. However, whilst disappointed that she didn’t complete the challenge Tess is still positive. “I mean, I’ve never climbed 5,000 meters in a day. I had already done a lot more than I ever had.”
Would she give the challenge another go? “My friends are always asking me to do something out of the ordinary so I probably wouldn’t say no!” After giving it her all, you get the sense that Tess can’t wait to get out there again and take on the next cycling challenge. So what is next? “I’m planning on going to Ireland for a week. I want to go somewhere with beautiful views and have an adventure…”