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Saturday, 7 August 2010

Going downhill.....fast(ish)

There was no time to stop on the time trial to take photographs, so here's a photo-panorama created from 5 photos taken between bends 9 and 8 on a subsequent ascent of Alpe D'Huez) of which more later)

Hopefully this gives some idea of what this climb is like overall, but there really is no substitute for being there.

The descent starts immediately you crest the small hill in Vieil Huez, and freewheel out of town, on a lane dedicated entirely to bikes. Cars have to take a one way system and emerge lower down. Despite the fact that I descended on the hoods all the way down, the stretch to the first bend still saw 60+kmh despite braking often and early. My descending is still hesitant, and although I remembered the 'advice' and reading about how to handle the hairpins, it wasn't until lower down the mountain that I started to feel remotely confident. There is a big difference between Etape descending, and descending on open roads where you have to share with cars coming up.

The first thing you notice going down is that even between the hairpins, this road is far from straight. Even kinks in the road can throw you over the centre line when reaching speeds of over 70kmh. My record on this descent, despite deliberately being careful, was 71.6kmh between bends 17 and 18. In fact, the gradient steepens about 100 metres before 18, and I almost overcooked it both times I descended this mountain. not really advisable on a hairpin bend with only a 2 foot wall separating the road from 500 feet of fresh air.

Secondly, it becomes painfully obvious that a climb that can take 85 minutes to get up, is over in just 19 minutes going the other way. This was a source of constant surprise all week, particularly as our campsite was in the bottom of the valley, and all rides started off going pretty much uphill.

Friday, 6 August 2010

30 years in the waiting

"La Montee Mythique." That's how Alpe D'Huez is billed around Bourg D'Oisans, "the mythical climb". Whether a stage that has featured in Le Tour on less than 30 occasions can be called 'mythical' may be debatable, but once you're onto the mountain the burden of your own expectations weighs heavy upon your shoulders. It feels even heavier given that the first four hairpins are the steepest section, and the granny gear has been in operation since the first 200 metres of the climb.

In my first teenage exposure to the Tour de France on, I believe, a weekly catch-up 30 minute slot on Saturday afternoon (I recall not whether it was Grandstand or World of Sport) I was astonished, not only by the speed with which riders ascended these monstrous mountains, but also by the fervour of the gathered supporters and the epic nature of the landscape. Standing out amongst these was the tangle of tarmac spaghetti up L'Alpe D'Huez with its 21 numbered hairpins. And it always seemed to be won by Dutchmen, Joop Zoetemelk in 1976, and Hennie Kuiper the following 2 years. It's still referred to in some circles as 'the dutch mountain' and rumoured that the local population in the summer months is 60% dutch. I can't vouch for the numbers, but I suspect there may be some truth in them.

To add to the mystique, each of the 21 'virages' has a plate containing the bend number, current altitude, and the name of past winners up the Alpe. Even the very first bend piles on the expectation. There it is, the name of the first Alpe D'Huez winner (earlier than I had known) Fausto Coppi in 1952. Of course, when the tour had been up the mountain more than 21 times, they had to start doubling up from the bottom, so Mr Coppi is joined by the name of the 2001 winner, one Lance Armstrong. These are still the only Alpe D'Huez winners to claim the yellow jersey whilst winning on the Alpe, and keep it all the way to Paris. Their names peer out from behind the branches partly covering the plaque on the first bend as if to say "What have you got, then?" No pressure.

20, 19 and 18 come quickly, Mayo, Armstrong (again) and Schleck joining the Dutch on these bends. After a sharp kick to 17, La Garde is reached at 16 and a turn off to a truly stunning road, the D211a to Les Balcons D'Auris, but more of that later. From 16 to 13 the gradient slackens slightly, but kicks up again to the tight bend at 12. Legs already tired are now starting to feel worryingly empty, but at least the early morning rain has subsided and sunshine is threatened.

For the first time after 12, glimpses of the road both higher and lower can be seen, and the valley floor and Bourg D'Oisans can be seen, ever smaller. Rushing water punctuates the silent suffering, though the falls are often heard and seldom seen, save for the river of water running headlong downhill in the gutter to your right. Barriers lean outward, little to support them from disappearing down the mountain. And then the church at Huez appears, and the ravines and rocks are replaced by gentler slopes and meadows. The apartments of Alpe D'Huez tower above, perched on the very edge of the top of the slope. Can we really still have to go up there?

7 becomes 6, "Gianni Bugno" on both corners. Griffephotos are taking pictures of human suffering at 5, and still the gradient continues. This mountain is unusual. Over its 13km of climb, there is not one bit of downhill, save for the last few metres in Vieil Huez itself. The left hand bend at 4 disappears and after a brief drag, so does most of the gradient. Changing UP for the first time since the bottom, confusion reigns as cyclists are 'advised' to turn right. We are not, we are to follow the 'classic tour de france' ascent. 3 and 2 pass as Marco Pantani appears for the first time on the corners. More photographers assault any remaining dignity at bend 2.

From Bend 1, the road to Alpe D'Huez climbs dead straight into the town. No sprint can be mustered, the cycle computer is playing up and time and distance are by now unreliable. Suddenly, there is no more uphill. Stand on the pedals, 'sprint' and be directed right to the 'finish'. Only after returning the chip do I notice the finish banner, the timing car, and the already successful participants. I am up the Alpe in 1:24:55, ahead of my target time, fragile physically and already in bits mentally. Apparently grown men regularly burst into floods of tears at this point. I didn't.....................but it was close, real close.