Owen wins gold at the “Granfondo”

 by Tony Butler

Probably the toughest test you can take outside of the Tour de France is to ride one of its toughest stages in the French Alps and beat the time of 8hrs 15 mins and receive a gold medal for your efforts. This one day event racing across the Alps covers 174 kilometres and climbing 5,400,metres in one day, finishes at the summit of the legendary Alpe d’Huez.

The ride runs through Isere, Savoie and the Alps, climbing over mythical passes such as the Glandon (1918m), the Telegraphe (1570m), le Galibier (2642m), le Lautaret (2057m), and the famous 21 hairpins of the Alpe d'Huez (1880m) to the finish.

Joining 7,500 other cyclists on the closed roads for this event starting at 08.10 to the song by AC/DC Highway to Hell, was very adapt. 

“Owen gives us this commentary”

First climb of the day, the Glandon I well remember it! 17 kilometres and and freezing cold at the summit it felt like it would never end.

Down the descent taking it fairly easy due to the fog and torturous hairpin bends on the upper slopes. Four bends in and I had a “mechanical”. My chain came off, this never happens to me. It must have been due to the bumpy surface and me rushing the change?

Off down the mountain again tensing up against the cold, it was not a relaxing experience. I was getting really cold so decided to stop in a village about half way down. I took the opportunity to drink plenty of water and get some food down me. Always conscious of the mantra “Drink before you are thirsty, eat before you are hungry”. Thankfully the organisers had neutralised this descent so there was no particular rush. So following a much appreciated ten break it was back on my bike to actually be able to enjoy the remaining downhill run.

Next it was The Télégraphe. Bunches of 100 riders a piece formed on this section and it was a case of deciding which bunch was travelling at the pace you wanted to ride and looked the most competent. Luckily I picked the correct one as this section for me passed without incident. 

Onto the Télégraphe proper another 17km or so climb and my favourite of the day. It was a good gradient where I could keep up a high tempo on top of my gears. It had plenty of bends with short ramps between each twist in the road. All very motivational.

Through the forests on the lower slopes then at the top as the trees diminished the views opened up to reveal just how high we were.

Topped up my water bottles at the feed station and despite the cold I polished off as least a couple of litres. Now down a very cold descent and onto the monster climb of the day, the Galibier.

I did not enjoy this one, Steep at the bottom but then not too bad, but then up long never ending wide passes and numerous false summits. It was again freezing at the top and brutal; it topped out at just over 2600 metres and ended with a real sting in the tail, a series of switch backs on a near vertical wall. Once at the top we had completed just over 100kms, only 74kms to go (Gulp). 

The great news was that other than the small matter of Alpe d'Huez it was downhill almost all the way. The descent off the Galibier was over 40kms long and brilliant fun. By now the participating riders were now spread quite thinly which meant I could really leave my brakes alone and enjoy some serious speed as overtaking was relatively safe. 

We now came to the base of of Alpe d’ Huez, by now only small groups of riders were forming as we were towards the front end of the masses. To loud cheers from the crowd the group I had joined arrived at the last climb of the day and immediately split to bits…..I felt pretty good, all things considered. By this stage I had already ridden over 170kms. My plan to eat and drink regularly had paid off and it looked like there was a good chance I was going to get below that special gold time limit, just the small matter of the infamous 21 bends which separated me and the finish.

The sun is now out and it’s starting to warm-up for the first time that day.

Now I knew The Alp would be a challenge so had taken the decision to pre ride it on the Friday before so I knew what to expect. The first three ramps between the start of the climb and bend 19 are the worst, they are both steep and long but I knew if these were dispatched then I had a good chance of making it to the finish. I took it as steady as I could and started counting down the bends, 21, 20, 19, 18, not feeling too bad, sipping my water regularly. 17, 16, 15, could do with some more water. 14 (no 13, great), 12 oh no, where has the power in my legs gone? I grovel to turn 11 and Huez village where to my relief there is a water stop. Having downed two cups of water filled and drained my water bottle another once and then poured some water over my head the strength started to return to my legs.

As you clear the outskirts of Huez Village you get your first view of the actual top of the Alpe d’Huez. It was still a long way off but now I knew I was going to make it. Bend 10 to 2 ticked off, Bend 2 try and look presentable (I failed) for the photographer.

Now I am in Alpe d’Huez village. The last bend is now behind me and it’s the last section for the finish. I cross the line then realise the Marmotte finish is still over 1kms away and it’s still uphill. At least now the gradient is gentle although at 1800metres there is a real chill in the air despite the sun.

Now I cross the line (Again to the sounds of Highway to Hell, should have been stairway to heaven)! Barriers corral me towards the finishing area where water, finishing certificates and in my case a Gold Medal were collected.

My finishing time was 7 hours 39 minutes (not bad for a 48 year old). It was over ! A Lift Home ? No chance because the roads are closed to cars I had to cycle another 18kms over that “Small Pass” to get my lift home.