L’Alpe d’Huez wasn’t number one on the list of Tour de France mountains I wanted to climb. Although probably the most famous pass to U.S. cyclists, l’Alpe (14 km, 8.7 miles) is neither the hardest nor the longest climb of the Tour. It’s not even a pass: it’s a ski resort. As a native of the Alps, I dream of such mythical mountains as Col de l‘Iseran, le Col de la Croix de Fer and le Mont Ventoux. Those names are linked in my memory with black and white film of champions of yesteryear wearing spare air tubes wrapped around their chest.
No climb was on the cards for me in 2009 anyway.
(A view from Le Bourg-d’Oisans: at the bottom of L’Alpe d’Huez.)
Yet a few weeks after June 5, when I landed in hospital for a severe colon infection caused by a bacteria, I set my mind on l’Alpe. Like a lovelorn adolescent, I obsessed over it without telling anyone.
There were many reasons why I wouldn’t be able to climb l’Alpe this year: among them, my illness, my training, and the lack of time while home in the Alps to prepare my legs with a few easier passes. I chose to focus on the reasons why, if I had a shot at any mountain, it would be l’Alpe. My parents, who start riding passes as soon as the snow melts in spring, told me last year that the Alpe d’Huez ride is easier than le Granier, a local pass I have ridden more than a dozen times over the years. (See previous entry
). That comment planted a seed in my mind that a year later grew into a big plant of a plan. If I could get strong enough to ride my familiar Granier this year, then I could ride l’Alpe; it was a simple, elegant proposition.
(The Alpine cyclists legs: thousands of kilometers in them.)
When a rider meets another rider on Alpine roads, they ask each other (in a literal translation): “How many kilometers do you have in the legs?” By early September, the answer of veteran cyclists such as my parents is in the thousands, with very few on flat roads. Mine was: “Zero on the road.” According to my training log, I spent more than 34 hours on the stationary bike back home in the U.S., from the beginning of July and early September. It looks a lot less impressive when you put it this way: it’s an average of half an hour a day.
I made it up le Col du Granier on Sept. 6, to my great joy. As soon as we were back to my parents’ home, I dropped my little bomb: “I want to do l’Alpe d’Huez,” I told my bemused husband and parents. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”
(Le Bourg-d’Oisans: getting ready for the climb.)
Two days later, we were on a parking lot near Le Bourg- d’Oisans at the bottom of the road to l’Alpe, getting ready for the climb, when my father dropped a little bomb of his own. He’d checked an information panel about the climb and it turned out that l’Alpe is longer and steeper than le Granier. My parents chose that moment to admit they hadn’t climbed l’Alpe in many years and didn’t remember clearly how hard it was. Now I was worried again. My plan of testing my strength and physical condition on le Granier looked flawed, at best.
(The stats of the start.)
L’Alpe d’Huez, starting at an altitude of 720 meters and finishing at 1,810 meters, has 21 hairpin turns (“virages” in French) named after the winners of the Tour stage. The record is subject to debate, so let’s just say that the fastest riders were Marco Pantani, with 37 minutes 35 seconds in a 1994 stage, and Lance Armstrong
, with 37 minutes 36 seconds in a 2004 time trial.
Seconds mattered to them, but not to me. I decided to stay behind my father and play it safe. The slope gets steep right from the start and I dropped to a very low gear ratio to avoid killing my ill-prepared thighs. After a couple of virages, I started to warm up and feel better. Every virage provided me with a goal, an opportunity to sip some water and enough time to recuperate for few seconds before the slope got steep again. I decided to focus on the first half and reassess my fitness after 10 hairspins. During that half, I thought of the excruciating stomach pain from which I suffered in the emergency room on June 5: any muscle pain on the way up l’Alpe would pale in comparison. That made me smile to myself.
After virage 11 or 12, I knew I could finish so I passed my father and went on at my own pace. The weather was ideal: sunny and not too hot. The view was breathtaking. I kept smiling to myself.
My cycling style had always been to go up the saddle (“en danseuse” in French) during climbs. “En danseuse” is the style of climbing specialists and I had made it my signature. That involves using on a higher gear ratio, which moves your bike forward a longer length with each pedal stroke but also forces you to go up the saddle regularly to get more power.
This year, with the lack of training, I adopted Lance Amstrong
‘s style on some of his big mountain wins: “la moulinette.” He used a smaller gear ratio than other riders. He would cover a small distance at each stroke and would need to pedal faster. But he had enough oxygen in the tank to pass his rivals, who were stuck in high gears and forced to make a bigger effort at each stroke.
It worked for me too. I finished in 1 hour 9 minutes, followed by my father three minutes later and my mother nine minutes later. I was 32 minutes behind the record, give or take the seconds.
(The suntan test: guess who spent time outdoors and who didn’t.)