My annual pilgrimage to Alpe d’Huez
Before I head of to Alpe d’Huez at the end of the week to ride the Marmotte, here’s a column I wrote for Cycling Active last year about my annual pilgrimage. This year I ‘plan’ to make my PB attempt during the Grimpee de l‘Alpe first thing Friday morning after the long drive down. Maybe in the heat of battle I will improve on my time, you never know, let’s wait and see.
Each year, come hell or high water I make a pilgrimage to Alpe d ‘Huez to test myself on it’s cruel slopes, and that time has now come. There can be no more talk of scales and training, of diets or intervals, it’s too late now, what will be, will be. It’s always a logistical struggle to squeeze my attempt into a family holiday and because of my ritual we never fly south, we always drive, yes, just so daddy can ride up a stupid mountain! My attempt often comes at the end of the nine hour trek from Calais which isn’t good for anyone’s legs, so this year I built some leeway into the schedule so I could ride the following morning, with relatively fresh legs. All I need is a two hour window, 40 mins warm up, (which should be longer) an hour to climb and about 20 mins to get back down, I have my routine dialled.
Arriving at the base a year older than the last year I’d made a vain attempt to offset the addition of the previous 12 months by taking a few grams of weight off the bike, marginal gains right? To do this, and in a moment of financial madness I ‘invested’ in a Super Record titanium cassette, I know, I spent £180 on some sprockets, to save me what, 50g, and maybe, just maybe a few seconds. What choice do I have though, I can’t turn back time, I can’t stop the advancing years all I can do now is throw money at the problem. I even bought a continental super light inner tube to carry up, saving 25g over a standard tube, also my new Specialised sub-6 shoes were the lightest I’ve ridden and the Huez* kit I was wearing was almost none existent. Perversely however, after making all this effort to shave a few grams here and there I dragged my f-ing i-phone up the climb just so I could update my bloody social media once at the summit.
So, to the effort. Sensations were good on the valley floor, my legs seemed to have survived the journey and I was ready, this was going to be the one I deified my biology and increased my VAM by 50 points to post a killer time. I hit the base at speed, then flew into the first ramp. You must hold back here though, full of adrenaline the temptation to charge up on far too big a gear is immense so click down and down and keep a lid on it. My adrenaline and excitement may if I’m lucky take me all the way to the first bend pain free, but from here to the summit is hell, pure hell. I force myself to ride at the limit of agony, at the event horizon of torture. Hindsight always allows you to think you could have gone faster but whilst in the moment it’s all the discomfort you can take and you know it. For the next 20 bends, the next 12 km there’s not a second I don’t want to stop, but not a second I can, I must set a new personal best, I MUST.
The relief of finishing on the empty road, way out the back of the ski village is pure heaven, always worth the effort, but did I go fast enough? I never look at my watch as I climb, I wait until I upload my data that evening so I can spend the rest of the day ruminating, or ‘moaning’ as my wife likes to call it. What would be the result, would it be a row of golden trophies, would I have defied my bodies limitations? Would I?
No. My time was almost identical to the previous years. I was three seconds behind my PB for the shorter distance into town (Vieil Alpe), (boo) but six seconds quicker for the full distance, to the end of the Tour race route (yeah). When you think of everything that happens to you in a year, all the up’s and downs, to be this utterly consistent is reasonably remarkable. But this is how fast I can go. I can climb Alpe d’Huez, at full tilt, with a VAM of just over 1200, I just can’t go higher, that is science fact. Now my time isn’t terrible. I’m currently 651st on the Strava leaderboard out of 33726 but I’ll always want to go faster. And I’ll be back next year, another year older (44!) and with an even lighter bike, determined, utterly determined to be better, that is what drives me, but no doubt it will be a case of all the pain, to stay exactly the same.
Stay tuned to see if I can better my time this year.
VAM is the abbreviation for the Italian term ‘velocità ascensionale media’, which in English means “average ascent speed”. The term was coined by Italian cycling coach Michele Ferrari and is the speed of elevation gain, stated in units of metres per hour.