Coach’s remarks: Perfect Piers, speaking straight from the heart directly after the event!!
I love these style reports, thanks for sharing this with the team. This event is really starting to sound like a “must do” on the T2A calendar. Thanks Piers, this is superb and your so correct, it was purely for training and a week away from the office however, you seem to have really gone well here mate!!
Quickest race report ever… So I’m sitting on my balcony at 2000m looking over the most stunning setting imaginable. Snow capped mountains all around, lush green forests and ice blue lakes. On a good day France really does take some beating. I crossed the finish line about 4 hours ago, and have since been massaged, ice bathed, stretched, fed and watered. Too wired to hit the sack so what better thing to do than write a race report?
Thankfully for everyone concerned, this will be both shorter and less emotional than my Ironman SA race report. Mainly because I had agreed with coach that today would just be a training day looking forward to Busso in December, so I didn’t tell too many people about the race beforehand. I had zero expectations, it was impossible setting time targets on a course this mountainous, so I was super relaxed yet woefully prepared.
For ten weeks following South Africa, coach had me on a TZ1 programme, which for me meant biking less than 108 heart rate, and running less than 120. I stuck rigidly to the programme, driving myself crazy in the process, until a couple of weeks ago when I went riding with my mates in the UK and was left for dead as soon as the road turned upwards. So I panicked, and have spent the last couple of weeks thrashing myself to try and get the body used to riding in the Alps. Coach has not been amused.
I flew out to the Alps 5 days ago, spent the first three days riding over 200km in 11 hours with nearly 7000m height gained and honestly less than 10km on the flat. Throw in over 30km running off the bikes, and the inevitable happened and I came down sick two days before the race. So yesterday I did nothing more strenuous than sit on the sofa hoping my cough and sniffles would go away. Seemed to do the trick as I woke up this morning feeling better, but with my left arm having swollen to double its normal size due to an insect bite during the night. So much for a gentle pre-race taper and getting to the start line in peak physical shape.
So this is why I had zero expectations this morning. Anyway, enough of making excuses for a poor performance, on with the race proper.
Alpe d’Huez long course has earned itself something of a reputation in the six year it has been running. It is a typically French race, very well organised but with none of the namby pamby mothering that you get in IM races these days. The race briefing is mercifully short (“Look after each other out there, it’s a tough course”) and everyone is treated like adults. The pro- field is always strong, Team TBB have adopted the race as one of their own. Their preparation is even crazier than mine. Ride 300k from their base in Leysin on Sunday/Monday, easy 3 hour training day Tuesday, race Wednesday and ride 300k back Thursday/Friday. Nuts.
The race distance is a little unusual – 2.2km swim, 115km bike (2500m height gained), then a 22km trail run at 1850m altitude.
The weather has been perfect all week, and this morning followed suit. The swim takes place in Lake Verney, which is a huge hydroelectric dam managed by EDF where swimming is banned for 364 days of the year. The water temp was a chilly 16 degrees, but once in and swimming hard was not a problem. It really was a priviledge swimming in this lake, the water was crystal clear and you could read the writing on a wetsuit 5m away. One of the nicest places I have ever swum, definitely. I thought I had a good swim, found feet the whole way but still pushing hard, so was a bit disappointed to come out in 44mins. The Garmin said 2.7km which was probably down to my zigzagging, but I think it was a bit long as only one pro swam 30mins with the next quickest 33mins.
So an uneventful swim, quickish T1 stopping just to put on a cycle jersey (thought I would be warmer on the descents than with a tri top but needn’t have worried), then on with the bike. I used my road bike as the vast majority of others did, coach had recommended clip on tri bars but to be honest I couldn’t be bothered putting them on. I think it was a good decision – I’d do the same again if I raced tomorrow.
It really was a stunning bike route – definitely the best I have done on a race. Whilst Norseman and Embrunman were equally scenic, the fact that this was just 115km made it seem much more manageable and enjoyable. The first 25km were a false flat, but I found myself in the middle of this crazy pack of 30 or so riders, everyone riding two feet from the bike in front. It was impossible to get yourself out of it, as soon as you dropped back you’d be swallowed up by other riders. So I didn’t let myself get too bothered, just enjoyed the ride and put in very little effort for this first part. Thankfully once we hit the first hill the pack scattered and I rode on my own for the next 90km. The first col was the Alpe du Grand Serre, around 15km climbing at 5-6% through a shady forest. An absolutely lovely climb and good to be out of the sun. My plan was simple, take the first two cols steady and get to the bottom of ADH at 100km with juice in the tank. Surprisingly even though I was taking it easy hardly anyone passed me, which was a bit unnerving as I wondered whether I was going too fast. But I felt good so pressed on. In any case I knew I’d overtake most of the people who passed me when we hit the downhill. It always amazes me how bad most people are at descending. This is just free time you can put on your rivals for no effort – why don’t people practice more?
Once over the top we had around 25km of mostly downhill with a few short sharp climbs. As expected not a single person overtook me in this section, even though I didn’t really take any chances on the downhills and saved my legs on the inclines.
Soon we were onto the Col d’Ornon. I’d ridden up this the other way last year, and it is much steeper. Thankfully the side we rode was pretty straightforward, around 20km of gentle climbing at 4-5%. Again, I overtook far more people than took me, I just couldn’t get my head around this as I was taking it easy. Must be coach’s TZ1 training.
Over the top and 15km of downhill to the bottom of the Alpe. As mentioned above, I rode this last year and followed a pro biker down so I knew you could push this pretty hard without taking too many chances.
So we get to the bottom of ADH as planned with some juice in the tank. Last year I time trialled up ADH in just over an hour, so I set myself a target of 1.5 hours and just aimed to take it steady. The potential for the wheels coming off completely was high if I pushed too hard. By this stage it was really roasting, I checked the Garmin half way up and it read 37 degrees so it must have been over 40 in the valley.
Regardless of whether you like hills or not, every cyclist must ride ADH once in their life. It really is the Mecca for cycling and sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it. The climb is 14km long, averages around 8%, with 21 hairpins each numbered and dedicated to a winner of a Tour de France stage up the Alpe. Just seeing the names Armstrong, Schleck, Pantani, Sastre makes you push a little harder (even if they were all on he juice). The record is 38minutes set by Pantani and whatever he was taking at the time, scarcely credible. So to cut a very long story short, I got to the top in 1hr 13m, quicker than planned but having still rode relatively conservatively. Not a single rider passed me all way up. Crazy crazy crazy.
Bike completed in 4hr 59m, job done and pleased with that. By comparison quickest pro was an hour quicker. Nuts.
On with the trainers and out on the run – three 7.5km loops starting at 1850m altitude and going up to over 2000m, mostly gravelly trails up and down and hard to get into a rhythm. I felt pretty rubbish throughout really, so stopped looking at he Garmin as the slow pace per km was too depressing, so just stuck my head down and got on with it. It wasn’t pretty but I only got overtaken by a few and was steadily passing others, so always encouraging. The support out on the course was fantastic, the views spellbinding, essentially we were running up and down the ski slopes. An awful lot of people looked in serious difficulty out there, it was crazy hot and the up and downs relentless. Most were walking but I managed to get round without joining them. Although my Garmin did auto pause at one stage as I was running so slowly.
Picked up the pace a bit towards he end, round the 22km in 1hr 45m which I was pretty pleased with.
I felt surprisingly good crossing the line, no emotional quivering like at most of my IM races, just pleased that the job was done with no dramas.
So to sum up … this has been just as long as my IMSA report, hopefully less girly and emotional. As I sit here typing this I am thinking this was the loveliest race I have ever done, the course was brutal yet always interesting, so mentally quite easy. Most people were saying afterwards its as hard as an Ironman, but I didn’t think it was. The bike is definitely harder than an IM bike but the fact that you only run 22km makes all the difference. I cannot recommend this race highly enough – if you like the hills get over here and do it, and if you don’t like the hills just come anyway for the craic.
My finish time was 7hr 35m, I didn’t have a target so difficult to say whether that’s a good time or not, but I think I raced sensibly and didn’t really have much left in the tank at the end so I feel very satisfied.
Next stop Busselton, couldn’t pick a more different course ……