The legendary 21 bends of Alpe d’Huez, with 1000+ m of height gain over 14 kilometres, are one of the most iconic landscapes of the Tour de France. Alpe d’Huez itself, perched high above the valley, is a Mecca for amateur riders who make the ascent in droves every day of the summer. So when work commitments brought me and Ryan to the resort for the week, how could we resist the temptation to tackle the climb on foot …
As ever when taking on a new running challenge, my personal goals were simple – completion and survival. Ryan’s were more ambitious: he was aiming for a sub-two-hour ascent, and determined to overtake at least one cyclist on the way!
We grabbed a lift down the mountain bright and early to beat the heat of the day and make the most of the long morning shadows. The bare landscape of the four topmost bends filled me with foreboding – by the time I reached the top in the mid morning, the exposed road would be scorching and shadeless.
Considering the popularity of the route, its start is unimpressive to say the least – a rather apologetic road sign beside the wire fence of an electricity substation. Perhaps the only bit less impressive than the start is the finish – an equally unremarkable sign opposite an underground car park. Unwary riders often stop short, failing to complete the climb and mistakenly dismounting at the welcoming terrace of cafes at the entrance to the village, or at the sign for ‘Bend 0’ just beyond – either of which looks more convincing as a finale to the ride.
The start of my climb went well. Having given Ryan a good head start (I wanted him well out of sight to eliminate all temptation of trying to keep up with him!) I was surprised to find I’d overtaken my first three cyclists within the first two bends. With trees and rocks casting plenty of shade, I felt strong and soon abandoned my early resolution to stop for water and a bite of energy bar at 3-bend intervals. I didn’t stop at all until Bend 9 (11 bends in and well past half way), by which time I was already both hungry and thirsty and starting to feel weaker. Too late, I regretted all those water stops I hadn’t taken on the first half of the hill.
Reluctantly stashing my bottles and cereal bar wrappers away and setting off again, I was alarmed at the gradient and the sudden fatigue in my legs – but, hopeful that the food and water would soon revive me, I pressed on.
Counting down the bends, I somehow missed number 7 entirely, so was delighted to find myself unexpectedly at number 6 where I rewarded myself with a celebratory water stop. From here onwards, I’d learned my lesson and my food and water stops became more and more frequent. The heat gathered force, soaring to over 30 degrees by midday, and I dreaded those top few turns with no shade and no respite from the sun.
Professional photographers are out in force on the road up to Alpe d’Huez every day, snapping each cyclist that passes. I managed a smile for the cameras, but by this time the heat was relentless and I was suddenly conscious that Ryan might well be at the finish already. I was overcome with envy and ready for the ordeal to end!
Dragging up those last few hot turns in the road, I struggled past a flurry of cyclists bringing my total of overtakings up to 9. The majority smiled and exchanged a word or two, but there were a few who were much less happy to be passed by a woman running – my cheery ‘bonjour’ died on my lips and I kept quiet! At the cafes at the base of the village, I passed a group who’d overtaken me earlier on the climb, and smiled as they hastily scrambled back on their bikes muttering about being beaten to the top by ‘La petite Anglaise’.
The final slog to the finish line through the winding roads of the town felt like a long haul, punctuated with one short treacherous downhill stretch (the injustice of being forced to lose precious height, only to have to regain it!) – but I gritted my teeth and ran on. Turning the corner to the finish, I spotted Ryan amidst a gaggle of cyclists, just one of whom joined him in cheering me past the line. I promptly collapsed in the nearest pool of shade, gasping and exhausted.
Checking my phone, I was amazed to see I’d made it up the hill in just under 2 hours – 1.57, in fact, compared to Ryan’s 1.49! So, how was it? Well, it was relentless, and I didn’t always feel that the festival atmosphere amongst the hoards of cyclists extended to welcome runners. But would I do it again? Absolutely!! I’ll be back in Alpe d’Huez in a couple of weeks time – and now I’ve got a PB to beat …
Footnote: This is an unpublished story from my Alpine blog archives. We never did get a chance to return and chase that PB – that will have to be a challenge for another year. My next 1000m ascent will be the Mamores Vertical Kilometre at Skyline Scotland in September. (Eek.)