Over the past 25 years I’ve built a love hate relationship with Alpe ’d Huez, one which I am now tied into for the rest of my life, as I have challenged myself to ride it once a year for as long as I’m still able.
This relationship began back in 1990, I was well and truly hooked on cycling and on a family holiday to Italy, without telling me, instead of taking a tunnel through the mountains my Dad drove us the long way via Bourg d’Oisans so he could take me up the hallowed 21 bends. This was my first experience of a Tour de France mountain, fresh on the road were the painted names of my idols, Lemond, Bugno, Theunisse. I didn’t have my bike but I emptied the gift shop of memorabilia, and filled a roll of film with photos and vowed to return. I’d have to wait two years, during a trip chasing round after that year’s Tour to first tackle it’s slopes. Due to our late arrival on race day I only managed to make it to the 4km to go banner, before the police said I could go no further because the race was coming, so I hadn’t quite conquered the mountain. To this day though, that first, all be it partial accent, is one of my greatest memories ever of riding a bike. The previous day I’d ridden my first mountain, the Col du Telegraph and earlier in the morning I’d crossed The Galibier but the scenes that greeted me on Alpe d’Huez blew my mind. Already thick with spectators, they treated us mortals as if we were the actual race. They chased us, poured water on is, a Coca Cola truck drove past and a woman handed my an ice cold can of coke. One bloke even ran alongside with his umbrella to shelter me from the sun. For the briefest of moments, our ramshackle group of teenagers were pro’s riding a mountain and I will never forget it.
Fast forward many years to 2005 and this is when I’d finally get to complete the full climb during that year’s Marmotte sportive. In fact for the next four years I rode this classic event which always finishes with the grueling ascent up The Alpe. Each year I’d arrive at it’s base, shattered, dehydrated and would drag myself up, counting every single pedal rev, wishing for it to end. Counting the kilometres, counting the meters, the centimetres even to the line. Each time I reached the top I’d say NEVER EVER again, each time I would have been prepared to give my bike away if anyone had asked for it, but still I kept coming back.
Once I’d four consecutive ascents under my belt it was then that I decided to set my self the challenge of riding it once a year. I’ve done another Marmotte since but usually my attempt takes place on a brief stop over on our family holiday. We usually drive, so whether we are heading to Italy, Southern France, Austria, it’s always via Alpe d’Huez. Always.
Each year I am determined, no matter how life gets in the way to arrive in better shape, with fresher and better prepared legs, and usually a slightly lighter bike and kit. This year I’d shelled out on a Super Record titanium cassette, I won’t quote the price in case my wife finds out how much I spent to save 50 grams! I also saved weight with a fresh pair of Specialized shoes and of course my new featherweight Huez kit. I know the climb inside out, I know where it really hurts and I know where I can recover. I know where to push and where to hold back. I know the line to take through corners and where a few seconds can be saved, but none of this makes it any easier. In order to do my best time I have to ride in a state of total discomfort, at the very edge of self torture and not for a second back off whilst all the time convincing myself it’s fun. I count down the famous bends from 21 down to 1 and the kilmoeters from 14 to go down to zero, each a carrot to chase, each a mental hurdle crossed.
This year the sensations were good on the valley floor, I completed my usual 30 minute warm up then set at it, every living second was uncomfortable from start to finish but I had to lay a good time down. I demand improvement, even though I’m now 43, ever year I seek a significant person best, but would I get one? Well, over the two measured distances, the first to the line in the town, I was two seconds off my best. TWO SECONDS! Then to the actual race finish line out the back of the Ski village I was six seconds faster, YES! A whopping six second improvement over 13km, my consistency is remarkable.
When you factor in the journey, age, the condition of my bike and kit, the weather, you name it, over the past four years all my times have been within a few seconds of each other so I guess that is just my limit. I have to be happy with how high I sit on the Strava leader board, up in the top 2%, but I always want more, I always want to be faster, this is what drives me. So that was this year, once the pain has subsided I turn my attention to next year, maybe I’ll afford myself an extra day’s rest, maybe take the race wheels, maybe that will get me that extra 30 seconds, we’ll just have to wait and see.
By Simon Warren author of "Greatest Cycling Climbs"More stories