I once spent three hours riding up Alpe d’Huez

The real kicker? I spent almost as much time lying by the side of the road waiting to die as I did on my bike.

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

Greg LeMond once famously said: “It never gets easier, you just go faster”.

I am sure the three-time Tour de France winner is absolutely correct, yet it is not something I can relate to in the slightest. Simply given the fact that two years ago I rode up Alpe d’Huez at an average speed of 8.2km/h.

Let me set the scene. August 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. With WorldTour racing resumed in August I headed out from the UK to mainland Europe in a converted camper van to cover the resumption of the calendar from Strade Bianche on August 1 through to the September Tour de France.

In between the rescheduled Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour were a few weeks where I could basically please myself. With movement over borders trickier than usual, it was best to stay in France. After some thought, I decided my destination would have to be Alpe d’Huez.

I drove up each hairpin, taking in the numbered signs decked out with names of famous riders. I tried to anticipate what each section of road would be like on the bike but that was a largely pointless task as I had never before ridden a classified climb in my entire life.

My thinking was, Alpe d’Huez is obviously going to be tough, but I want to be able to say I’ve ridden the climb. Therefore, by driving to the top, parking my vehicle there before descending down, I would give myself no choice but to scale Alpe d’Huez.

My bike was a fairly battered Claud Butler Roubaix with a new bigger cassette attached that I’d bought in Chamonix and spent an hour battling with in a camping spot in the shadow of Mont Blanc. I can’t tell you what size cassette it was because as you can no doubt tell by the cover photo of this article, I am not really into my tech and know very little about bikes. I ride them, very poorly. I never look the part or go that fast but I enjoy nearly every pedal stroke.

So, with the information you already have at hand you should be fairly worried about what the next 13.8 uphill kilometres had in store for me.

I descended down, hands hovering over the brakes and squeezing them with an alarming frequency. At the bottom of the climb after the hairpins there is a long straight road that takes you back towards Le Bourg-d’Oisans. I kept going down this road, because, I thought, it would probably be best to build up a bit of speed to take with me into the climb. Better to get the whole thing over and done with sooner rather than later, right?

I set off, my cadence increasing, clicking down a couple of gears as my speed increased. The road soon ramped up, the bottom of the climb is the steepest part. Very quickly my speed dissipated, the rotation of my legs slowed but I kept pushing. Inch by inch, gritting my teeth, I made my way up the climb. In my mind I was like one of the Tour’s climbers, battling against the gradient, a human taking on a big mound of rock and making it lie down before my cycling prowess.

That mental image lasted for all of 100m before I came juddering to a halt. Gasping, I climbed off my bike and sat on the grassy verge at the side of the road, blood pounding in my head, trying to not throw up.

I sat there for a good few minutes, then had a snack. Soon, a German cycle tourist came past and said: “You’ve just go to pace yourself,” which is objectively good advice to someone who clearly had no idea what they were doing, but in the moment I would have liked it if he could pace himself right out of my presence.

The realisation soon dawned that I had no choice. Despite already being beaten by the first hundred of 13,800 metres, all of my Earthly belongings and transportation were waiting for me at the top. I had no choice but to continue.

Timidly, I set off again. Taking it slowly. I tried to check my Strava entry when writing this to see how often I stopped for a break but the data is not there. If I had to guess I would say I probably rode 300m, then stopped for a few minutes, before tackling another 300m before another break. This is how I ‘conquered’ Alpe d’Huez.

Along the way, regardless of how terrible a time I was having, I took photos of the valley below and mountain scenery. Who knew when I would be in Europe again with the pandemic still swirling? Despite the pain and scale of the task I had at hand, I nevertheless felt very privileged. I was only able to leave the UK because it was for work. I thought of everyone back home unable to bargain their way into Europe because of their job.

So, I persisted, 300m on, a few minutes off. Rinse and repeat. I took my phone out and recorded a selfie video of me riding Alpe d’Huez, that’s where the photo from the top of this article is from.

Fashion aside (1. I am a cheapskate who point blank refuses to buy nice cycling stuff and 2) I will only dress nicely when my form deserves it) please just take a second to look at my stupid face. Mouth agape in utter perplexion of what I was asking my body to do. Brow furrowed as if I was trying to solve a difficult mathematical problem rather than simply ride a bike.

Eventually, after being passed by at least a hundred other riders, I reached the top. Relief washed over me. I took my phone out of my back pocket again to hit the stop button on Strava (by now it will come as no surprise that I ride without a head unit).

There it is, 13.85km (including the ill-fated ‘run-up) with an elevation gain of 1,078m back to my car. A max speed of 27.4km/h, an average speed of 8.2km/h. Powerful stuff.

1 hour 41 minutes and 25 seconds. Only a little over an hour slower than the climb’s record holder Marco Pantani. But the elapsed time tells the true story. 2-52-54. That means I spent 1 hour, 11 minutes and 29 seconds standing by the side of the road, half-hoping for some rockfall to smash me into a bajillion pieces so I didn’t have to ride my bike anymore.

So when the 2022 Tour de France tackles the climb on Bastille Day and winners and losers are crowned, I will for once have more of an understanding of what they’ve just accomplished, a barometer against which I can comprehend their effort.

One day I will return Alpe d’Huez to ride it again rather than sit in the press room. When that time comes, I think I’ll avoid a run-up.

Editors' Picks