One of the greatest triathlons in the world and one of the toughest too! An alpine challenge with cold water, steep climbs and a noisy, crowd-filled run.
Where: South East France
Distances: Short (1.2km swim, 30km bike, 7km run) and Long (2.2km, 115km, 22km)
Size: Around 3500 triathletes
Official race website here.
- You MUST make sure you have stoppers on the ends of your handle bars – very strict rules here
- Read the instructions carefully RE Transition – there are two and there’s a great big hill between them so make sure you take the right gear to the right area
- Be prepared to get cold in the swim – 13 degrees is not an unusual temperature
- Perhaps wear 2 swim caps
- Unless you’re a strong swimmer, hang back a little and give yourself room during the packed swim wave
- Dry off after the swim – it’s worth taking a moment to get dry before cycling the first section of the bike route. It’s hot in the sun but still cold out of it
- Train for a hilly ride… obviously!
- Consider long sleeves on the ride as the weather can get chilly and change quickly
- In the climbs, you should shorten your stride, and let yourself go on the way downhill
- For more in-depth advice on the cycle route and technique check out this page from the organisers
Race video here…
What’s the organisation and set up like?
Signing up to the Alpe d’Huez triathlon is straight forward – search for the Alpe d’Huez Tri and you quickly find your way to their website. It doesn’t fill up too quickly so there’s plenty of time for prevarication.
If you’re travelling with a group, securing accommodation as quickly as possible is key. There is plenty as this is a full-on ski resort, but some of the best places will get booked up. You can rent chalets pretty cheaply for groups.
There’s plenty of time to pick up your personal pack at the sports centre in Alpe d’Huez in the days before the event – even on the morning of the race itself. The usual bits and bobs – chip, swimming cap, numbers, stickers etc etc. All explained in English as well as French.
Race day is a little different from some triathlons. There are two transition areas. One at the EDF Energy lake (swim to bike) and another at the top of the 21 hair-pin bends (bike to run). So first thing on race day was to go to the 2nd transition area (plenty of parking) and set up your space on an astro-turf hockey/football pitch.
You can then cycle or drive to the start at the lake. It’s a long cycle down if you’re staying at the top, so wrap up warm as you’ll hit some punchy speeds on the way down and it can get cold. And don’t forget anything like your wetsuit. It’s a long cycle back up to get it!
The transition area by the lake is not vast so get there early and get your stuff ordered. You MUST make sure you have stoppers on the ends of your handle bars. They won’t let you in to transition without having both!
What’s the course like?
Wet suit on, you have to clamber over some small rocks (partly covered by matting) to get into the water – be prepared to get cold. It averages about 17 degrees but can be a lot colder (13 degrees in 2013). They were fishing some people out with hypothermia before the first swimmers even arrived in transition. Two hats and a little warming oil might be a good thing.
It’ll get bumpy out there in the water. 1,200 swimmers took part this year and unless you’re a strong swimmer, the advice would be to hang back a little and give yourself room.
The water in Lac du Verney mountain reservoir is clear and clean. The setting is an absolute dream. Space is a premium from the middle of the field to the front. So sharpen your elbows – there are times when you just had no water to swim in. Stay wide for speed, stay back for space. It all eases after the first buoy.
Out of the water, there’s plenty of room for supporters to catch you and wish you good luck as you try to keep your balance (many fell over as they trotted through to their bikes).
Dry off – it’s worth taking a moment to get dry before cycling the first section of the bike route. We had the sun (25 degrees) and still felt freezing.
The bike course is quite simply legendary, with 3 mountain passes on the programme – the Alpe du Grand Serre (1375 m) and the Col d’Ornon (1371 m) – as well as the climb of the 21 switching bends of the climb to Alpe d’Huez, which has earned its well-deserved fame in the Tour de France.
Emerge from the lake and the first 15km takes you along the flat roads of the valley leading to the base of Alpe d’Huez before the climb. Use this time to take on water and energy. Draughting is a no-no, but it’s hard to avoid. The road is closed for a couple of hours only, just to allow the bulk of competitors a clear run up the mountain. Loads of English take part, so there’s a bit of chat going on, mostly about whether your fingers had thawed out yet. But the chat soon evaporates as the monster climb arrives.
You just have to grind it out and when you feel like throwing in the towel, grind some more.
We’re talking 10-12% climbs! non-stop for what seems like an eternity. It however make the elation of reaching the summit all the more acute and the views are incredible.
Into transition 2 (next to the finish line) and your emotions are split between the sinking feeling you get as you see people cross the finish line before you’ve even started the run, and the lift you get knowing it’s just 7.5k to go, and you WILL make it.
The run is a little odd at first. If you had no-one to follow, you could easily think you’d taken a wrong turn into some random street/parking area. Then it becomes more clear as you reach a rough track which edges along the mountainside, slightly up hill and at times wide enough for one runner only. Couple of water stations en route serving half-time style oranges and coca-cola too.
There’s a big chunk of the run up hill after the half-way point, but the last 2km is down hill. Bliss. The noise of the finish line in the distance and before you know it, people shouting your name (printed on your number) as you arrive, past transition, and over the finish line. More food after the finish line, decent village to pick up your latest gizmo, and bags of support along the route.
How difficult is Alp d’Huez triathlon?
Very. The bike is mountainous to say the least – clue is in the title! For this reviewer, the cycle is one of the hardest things I’ve done. You drop into the lowest gear once you hit the climb and the quads and calf muscles are screaming.
Many cyclists stop for a few breathers and take time to refuel at the nutrition stations on the way up.
The swim is particularly cold as well and it’s quite rough in the tightly-packed field.
Out on the run, it’s shorter than a standard Olympic distance (7km instead of 10km) but after the leg-sapping bike, it’s still tough. Plus there’s a big hill after the half-way point. Overall – a tough challenge – especially if you decide to take on the long course!
My Race Diary
By Paul Harrison, regular triathlete
Position: 909th/ 1074
Carb-loaded to the nostrils, trussed up like a rubber turkey in my wet-suit, hands and face screaming with cold as I breast-stroked, shivering, towards the start line, those words “never again” began ringing in my ears once more…
I’ll spare you the details, but aside from a moment on the 4th bend of Alpe d’Huez when the towel nearly, very nearly, found itself on the floor in the middle of the ring, and wiping the grimace from my face as I edged towards the official photographer near the summit, I made it.
It took longer to complete than it did three years ago, but hey, I’m three years older!
Never again… until next time!
Paul is also a regular at Windsor Triathlon – check out our review of that other iconic tri.