A few days after the Alpe d’Huez race, my good friend Will and I decided to take on a route we had been looking at for years.
It’s always a fine balance when racing Alpe d’Huez between getting the right amount of rest and recovery around race day but also making the most of the incredible roads and famous climbs. However, with this being my 4th visit to the race and with my biggest target for the year, Ironman Switzerland, now behind me, we decided this trip was going to be more of an adventure.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my opportunities and objectives in the sport and in life generally and have often reflected on the phrase “If not now, when?” as a way to help me overcome those harder tests and take on new experiences. I’ve also been influenced a lot my friend, John McAvoy, and his constant strive to push outside of his comfort zone and live every day to the fullest.
We set off early on the Saturday morning, 2 days after the race, with 186kms and 5330m of climbing ahead of us. This year we were staying in Alpe d’Huez so would be avoiding the flat start of Bourg d’Osains. Instead we would descend the Pas de la Confession from Huez village before rolling along the valley and tackling all but the final 2km of the Croix de Fer before turning off and passing over the Col du Glandon. We would descend the north side of the Col du Glandon for what would feel like an eternity, ride along the hot valley to Saint Michel de Maurienne where we would refuel before turning south to tackle the 35km route up the Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. From here we would briefly take in the stunning views and blistering cold winds before descending again, via Lac du Chambon, back to Bourg d’Osains before finally climbing the famous 21 virages de l’Alpe d’Huez.
I'm not going to go into detail about the ride and each climb there are plenty of videos, articles and blogs around this route what its like and how it looks! However for me there was something important and special about that day and route.
Honestly in the morning I was scared of what was ahead, you can't really bail once on the route and there is no shortcut, once you're in it its on and you have to keep going. I think their is always comfort on a long day/ride knowing you can turn back or cut it short if needed but here it just isn't an option. You know for sections you will be slowly riding your bike uphill for 3 hours + pushing whatever power you can.
I love and cherish days like this, no one is making you do it, it's not a race and it matters to no one but yourself, yet the pressure, fear and excitement feels like any big race. I have realised I think since Lockdown I need days like this, I need moments like this I suppose to feel "alive" and like I'm getting the most out of myself. Without challenges or big days I feel empty and longing for those feelings again.
The day was brutal, physically and mentally I went to many dark places and genuinely wasn't sure I could finish certain sections. Yet once I was over the top of the Galibier with views of endless mountains, glaciers and roads I felt so privileged and content at what I was doing and where I was. I haven't had the easiest last couple of years for various reasons so to experience and find these feelings is rare and at times it takes something quite extreme. This won't be the same for everyone and I understand we each do the sport and races for different reasons but this is a big part of it for me and something that's taken me a few years to really understand.
At around 19:15pm we were back up in Alpe Dhuez and rolling home some 8 hours 45 later; broken, quiet, empty but equally full of pride, stories and moments that live with you for a long time. Rolling the last 2kms thinking about the hours before, the places we went and were is such a unique feeling to put into words is very difficult but you feel complete.
If I'm honest since coming back from the Alps and the last month I've struggled a bit, I've felt quite flat and without the next "thing". When you do these large days, races or challenges you certainly have a comedown after but I have found it interesting over the last few years that these are the moments and days that make me feel most alive and challenged. I don't see this as a bad thing, they have to be managed and planned but ultimately we all have to find what makes us tick and move forward.
I hope some of what I have written makes sense, it's funny you wake up the next day from something like that ride and feel a slight emptiness, a longing for more and a bigger challenge. So what's next?
In the words of Mary Schmich "“Do one thing every day that scares you...Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can"
After Switzerland and a week back on deck I fortunately had a couple of weeks annual leave booked in. I think for anyone who is doing an Ironman some time off after is pretty important! I was certainly physically and mentally a bit gone and it's hard to keep pushing forward after such a big event.
Two weeks in France was on the diary, the first week I spent on actual holiday with Rosie in Annecy. Some very fun light training and ticking over but mostly rest and recovery (or hiking, paddle boarding, cycling, swimming!). After that it was onto Alpe Dhuez for a week including a race and some fairly big bike miles.
This was my 4th year at Alpe Dhuez and taking on the world famous triathlon there. It is one of my favourite races in the world and one I feel should be on most athletes bucket list! You start with a 2.2km swim in a beautiful hydro dam with the Alps towering above, you then ride 120kms with 3200m climbing (3 main climbs) and the end of the bike is of course up Alpe Dhuez the 14kms 21 hairpin 7.9% average climb. At the top around 1800m you run a 20km undulating on/off road run! It is somewhere between a half and full ironman and always a long day out in baking heat!
It's a Thursday race and we arrived in the Alps on the Monday for a few days of "light" training and enjoying the landscape. One thing I find really bizarre before this race, possibly as you are all in such a small area is the couple of days before are a real pissing contest. Every run I was going on you'd seem to have people staring, judging etc, the same would be in the pool with guys sprinting past you or getting right on your feet. On the bike everyone looking at each others's set ups or how hard you're riding the Alpe before the race. For me I just don't get this, focus on yourself, your own race and save all the bravado and energy for race day!
Soon enough race day came around and I was heading down the Alpe to the swim start, I hadn't felt great energy wise all week and my plan was to just enjoy the day out and do as solid as I could. I hoped I would ride strong anyway after my recent form. I'll be honest I hate the swim at Alpe Dhuez its a fairly chaotic mass start and I always find myself getting dunked, pulled pushed and punched, this year was no different and I almost had a panic attack. I get why people enjoy mass starts and not rolling but this swim is just always chaotic. I kept telling myself it would spread out and strangely it just didn't, I guess I was swimming that pace a lot of guys can hold and just tried to keep to my own space as best as possible and control my breathing. It was a relief to get out the swim in a decent time! Into transition and all my kit was actually covered by Sam Long's wetsuit, for some reason he didn't use his transition bag and this cost me quite a bit of time. He got a penalty for this and I've seen has tried to justify it on social media since but we all had the bags..so I'm not sure I buy that.
Onto the bike and the first year for me on a TT bike, it's always a debate before the race which is faster but honestly I think if you can climb and descend any course can work on a TT bike. The start of the bike is fast and furious down to the first climb with a lot of guys fighting to move up the field its great time to get settled have a drink and prepare for the climbs ahead. I learnt in my years previous that guys go off so hard in this race, on the first climb it's like the TDF with attacks all over the place. For me I just stick to my own power, race my own effort and stay confident that I'll see some of the guys later. Coming onto the first descent I had a few guys passing me on road bikes and started questioning my choice, however just as I thought that on the next hairpin 3 guys went down in-front of me and crashed into the wall, this race is all about risk vs reward!
I felt strong enough on the ride, I climbed well but struggled a bit on the flatter long drag sections, it wasn't the same feelings as IM Swiss but to be expected I just kept the head down and tried to keep hydrated. Good friend John Macavoy was appearing in different parts of the course in a lead car and his encouragement and energy kept the spirits high and the motivation to keep pushing.
Off the final desecent I was still feeling good and mentally ready for the Alpe. Again from experience and years before I knew a lot of guys would be suffering up the Alpe and slowing down, the last time I raced I caught about 20 or so guys on the climb and no one caught me, I decided this would be a similar target! Unless you've ridden it its hard to explain the first 1-5 hairpins on Alpe Dhuez, they hit you like a wall and at that stage the climb seems fairly endless after already 100kms and over 2000m climbing its even worse! However I soon found my rhythm, good power to ride at and started catching a lot of guys, no one overtook me on the climb and I was able to drop anyone I was with. Good feelings to go into the run!
At this point I knew I wasn't in an amazing position, I knew the race had a seriously strong field so my hopes of top 15-20 were long gone but I wanted to aim for around top 30 or so. Onto the run I didn't feel great, I struggled to get into a rhythm which that course does to you and the altitude and ride were getting to me. I ran solid enough catching quite a few guys but was frustrated not to be able to go with guys who came past on their laps 2/3. I pride myself on my strong run so when it's a struggle I do find this difficult mentally to dig in. They had a new section this year running down the steepest airfield I have ever seen so this was killing the legs every lap along with all the other small ups and downs. I just tried to enjoy it, push the best I could and keep fighting on.
On the second half of the last lap I just relaxed I knew I was in 31st probably wouldn't catch anyone else and wanted to enjoy racing in such an amazing place. I had an ironman in me and this race was meant to be more for "fun". It's funny when you relax a bit, stand a bit taller and enjoy yourself I think you naturally start to run better. I crossed the line happy enough in 7 hours 44 minutes. Deep down I was a bit disappointed I wasn't more in the race or higher up but given the previous months and effort I think it was the best I could manage on the day. I have dreams of a top 15 at Alpe Dhuez one day and this is a race I'll definitely look to target in a future year.
Top tips for racing Alpe Dhuez!
- Pace yourself it's a long day with a lot of climbing, don't forget about the Alpe and the run!
- Pick your gearing and set up wisely, TT bars are a must but so are low gears
- Stay calm in the swim, keep to the outside and possibly start further back
- Use the downhills on the run, they hurt but can keep your pace rolling!
- Look around you, enjoy the landscape and where you are racing it doesn't get much better
- Stay a couple days after the race and enjoy the scenery, riding and what is on offer!
More to come on Part 2.
When I finished the last blog post I said I would write a bit more about the Ironman before moving on. It's been a few weeks and I wasn't sure if it would still really be relevant but sometimes with distance and time after an event and performance our thoughts and reflections are clearer.
I have looked back at my training, build up and prep and had time to consolidate what I did on the day and how it went. With an Ironman there are so many unknowns and even with all the training it still comes down to the day.
My build up I think was the best I could have done, the bike was the main focus and I'm still surprised with how well I rode on the day. This came down to some really specific workouts but also just solid TT time in the saddle and being confident in pushing for the hours. Also doing some long rides over 200kms meant the ride actually felt quite short and fast so mentally it was easier. For sure I think I could be more "aero" on the bike and work on my position and set up but right now that's not something I can afford to invest in.
I did wonder if I missed a good solid final 30km build run or so but to be honest I was so fatigued a couple of weeks before the race I didn't have time to fit this in. Looking at the race I am a bit frustrated with my run, 20-30kms the pace just dropped, my stomach hurt and I couldn't push what I wanted. I do feel I am yet to run my marathon potential in an IM. I'm unsure if its nutrition, harder training sessions or similar. However the only way I can replicate the feel would be to do 42km runs off a 5hr bike.. I plan to go away and look at this as I truly do feel I could run a marathon around 3:50-55 per km all going well.
My swim I was super happy with, I actually always swim better open water than in a pool and I couldn't believe how comfortable I felt in the swim. I was doing a lot of open water in the build up and a lot of wetsuit swimming which I really feel helped. Over all the races and distances I have done I do think the 3.8kms is my favourite to swim, you aren't trying or going full gas but its a smooth tempo rhythm.
The race and performance has given me a lot of confidence, after last years Ironman (my first) I did think I was solid over this distance so to have more evidence is a great feeling. I'm still far from my full potential over the distance which is really exciting. I. believe I know how to do an IM build up, race on the day and get the most from myself. For sure there is more I could do and race better but in a way im exactly where I want to be. I now have some quite big ambitions and certainly want to look at this distance and racing more seriously.
Final point - Kona. I have dreamt a long time of racing and going to Kona. Being on the island with the best athletes in the World racing on such a brutal course. I qualified at Thun and as customary was offered my slot and to pay there and then to head off this October. However I turned this down, quite simply I couldn't afford it and thus the issue with Kona and Ironman.
I don't even know the entry fee but I assume upwards of 600-800 dollars and they want you to pay the same day as you have just finished an already expensive ironman? The other issues is this years race athletes have rolled over from 2020/21 so the island is completely at capacity accommodation wise. I think to go for the week would cost in excess of £10k, it's just insane. I didn't race Switzerland to try and go but I find it hard to turn it down and how un accessible its becoming. Is it a World champs or just people who can afford it? Are the best athletes really there? It's funny I was 3rd overall and won my AG by a long way and you just get a trophy. Wouldn't it be great to get a free IM entry? Discounted entry to a race of choice or better yet a free slot to Worlds?! Anyway just some thoughts to close out this post, I'd have loved to race the Worlds and hopefully another year but the issues won't go away overnight.