Lillian and I have been going to Bourg d’Oisans, the town at the foot of the famous climb of Alpe d’Huez, nearly every summer for the last ten years. In fact, my first experience of riding Alpine climbs was in the 2006 Étape du Tour which finished in searing summer heat with the climb up to Alpe d’Huez. We have also ridden La Vaujany a few times previously, most recently in torrential rain two years ago with the London Dynamos. With all the personal history it was fitting that we should pay another visit in our sabbatical year.
La Vaujany was actually comprised of two events, a Grand Trophée event (like La Morzine) on Sunday 26 June and a hill climb the following Wednesday called the Prix des Rousses. In the former, we opted for the Mediofondo route which was 118km long with 2600m of ascent.
Joining us were two fellow Dynamos, Toby and Mike, who we had also convinced to switch to the shorter course. The fact that they had also spent the previous week ticking off multiple Alpine cols may have made our arguments more persuasive.
The start was chaotic with the 200-odd Mediofondo, blue numbered, riders being held back on a narrow road whilst the 400 or so Granfondo, gold numbered, riders had to squeeze past to get their start position at the front.
We were being quite relaxed and were surprised when the ‘blue’ course riders were allowed to roll forward and merge in with the ‘gold’ course ones. We lost a lot of distance on the first of the blue riders with the result that we ended up crossing the line about 30 seconds behind them when the race started.
The first section of the course was a fast and mainly downhill 24km to the first climb which was up to l’Alpe du Grand Serre by the ominously named the Col de la Morte (1000m of ascent). A group soon formed and a strong guy with a blue spotted top did some big turns on the front. As hardly anyone else seemed willing to contribute I ended up doing more work than I wanted just to keep the pace up. To illustrate the benefits of drafting, my average power for that first 32 minutes was 50% higher than that of Mike’s who was more wisely conserving energy at the back of the group!
Still, I didn’t feel I was pushing too hard and as we started the Col de la Morte four of us (Mike, Blue Spots and Sean, a guide from Stuart Hall Cycling who Mike had met in Mallorca) pulled ahead of the rest of the group. Blue Spots set a furious pace. I would have taken a photo of him if I could have summoned up the mental energy to get my iPhone out of my pocket. After about 15 minutes we let him go but Sean continued to ride quickly. We climbed over 600m in the first half hour of the climb and my average power was my FTP!
Towards the top of the climb I decided Mike and I should slow down a bit and shouted out my thanks to Sean for dragging us up most of the climb. He then slowed down saying he thought he was going a bit too fast and he would wait for us. As he was on the Granfondo course that was probably a wise move. We completed the climb together and on the following descent a group of around 15 formed.
The next climb, the Col de Malissol (175m) was added to this year’s course as there were road works on the regular route.
The group stuck together on this and for the next 30km until we reached the steeper section of the Col d’Ornon (600m), the penultimate climb on the Mediofondo.
This meant we covered the initial and less steep 17km of the Ornon at a fast pace. Two guys on the Mediofondo had got away and as we hit the 5km to go point (where the climb steepens to around 6%) I decided to try to catch them. I was pleased when I looked over my shoulder and saw Sean and Mike were with me.
Just below the top of the Ornon, we passed the faster of the two escapees, who I nicknamed Monsieur Bricolage because his red and white jersey had the word Bricolage somewhere on it.
Sean pulled ahead of me on the descent using the whole road to take some of the sweeping bends more quickly than I dared. Monsieur Bricolage caught me and luckily I was able to stay with him. Mike however dropped back. At the bottom he was not in sight so, with a twinge of guilt, I headed off with Monsieur Bricolage along the flat section to the next climb. We took turns on the front and he definitely gave everything because as soon as the road started going uphill again he was gone.
I passed the turn off for the Granfondo, saw Sean filling up his water-bottle and gave him a wave, relieved that I only had half an hour of riding left. (The Granfondo included an additional loop climbing to Alpe d’Huez and returning to the main valley via the Col de Sarenne making it 182km with 3850m of ascent.)
The final climb to Vaujany was short but steep, climbing 450m over (nearly) 5km. As I attacked the first hairpin I looked behind and saw Mike had almost caught me up. I waited for him and he mentioned that he had gone down the last descent more slowly because he had had some concerns about his rear brake. Although tired from chasing me, he seemed to have got a late surge of energy whereas I wasn’t feeling so strong.
We rode up the climb together and overtook around five riders on the Mediofondo course. He finished in 10th place and I crossed the line just behind taking 11th. Our time was 4 hours and 5 minutes, about half an hour behind the winner who was one of three riders from Velo Club Vercors (a local bike club) who between them had a clean sweep of the podium.
The initial results said Mike and I had come fifth in our respective age categories. When Lillian came in, she had come fifth overall (in 5.03) which led us to joke that fifth was the new first. Lillian also came second in her age category – which got her on the podium again – and the final results showed that I actually came fourth, missing third by a couple of minutes.
Toby came in a few minutes after Lillian looking quite chirpy and talking about the beautiful views on the ride, clearly demonstrating the benefits of a more laid back approach.
We all had decent rides, but based our power numbers we were not as strong as in Morzine, unsurprising given all the climbs we had ascended in the previous week.
After our pasta meal (very stodgy… the worst free one this year) we rode back down to the valley floor passing the faster of the Granfondo riders on their way up to Vaujany. We were pleased to see that Sean had passed Blue Spots. Sean had a good ride finishing 57th in 6.42. The field in the Granfondo was much more competitive than the Mediofondo, presumably because many strong riders were in the area to do the Marmotte, probably the most famous of the big Alpine sportives, which was due to take place the following Saturday.
Lillian and I did not say farewell to pain and suffering on the slopes to Vaujany as we knew we would be back there in three days in the Prix des Rousses. That evening Lillian started to sniffle; she had come down with the cold I had just got over. Consequently on Wednesday morning we didn’t know whether her good or bad legs would make an appearance.
The Prix des Rousses started at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez and first ascends the ‘mythical’ 21 hairpin bends, each of which is named after a winner of one of the stages of the Tour de France that ended with this climb. With c.1050m of ascent from the valley over 12km to the entrance of Alpe d’Huez village it is an achievement just ride up this in one go. We both decided to use the event as a way to try and beat our previous personal bests on the climb. After reaching Alpe d’Huez the route descended to the valley floor via Villard-Reculas, before climbing again and finishing 2.5km beyond Vaujany village, making the final climb 600m over 7km. The total course is 42km with 1750m of climb.
Nearly everyone we saw at the start, particularly in front of us, looked skinny and fit.
Once the race got going a fast group formed and broke away at the top of the ramp to the first hairpin. After that it was a case for me of keeping the force on the pedals and picking off the riders ahead who had started too quickly. Some post-ride analysis showed that when I got to the church below Huez village (about 60% of the way up) I was about 40 seconds ahead of my previous PB. However, a bit higher up I was overtaken for the first time which showed I was losing pace. Luckily I managed to hang onto these two guys and out-sprint them for the village, maintaining that 40 seconds and taking just under 51 minutes for the climb.
The descent was slower and more frightening than usual because most of the narrow and exposed traverse road from Huez to Villard-Reculas was newly surfaced and still had a covering of gravel. I completed this in a small group and although I was one of the slower descenders we reformed on the flat section before the climb to Vaujany. As we hit the first steep section of this I went ahead to try and catch the two guys who had overtaken me on the Alpe. However, they swiftly pulled away… I soon realised that I had gone too hard on the Alpe and this wasn’t going to end well for me. To paraphrase the words of a European cycling pro, I was feeling bad sensations in my legs.
Over the course of the next few kilometres I was overtaken by all six of the guys I had started the climb with. Towards the top of the climb I was caught by another person who wasn’t even in our descending group. Luckily for me he didn’t know exactly where the finish was – a mistake I made last year – and put in a burst of effort a few hundred metres too early so I beat him over the line. It was a painful way to end the ride and I was only slightly faster up to Vaujany than I had been on Sunday with many more miles in my legs.
That said, with a time of 1 hour and 55 minutes, I was a couple of minutes faster than when I did the event last year and had a higher placing of 39th which I was happy with. The winner was 15 minutes faster. I waited for Lillian but as I started to see several women riders finish and the time pass beyond two and a half hours I knew she had had a bad ride. A combination of tiredness and the cold meant that she was a couple of minutes off her PB on the Alpe and had nothing left for the Vaujany climb. Or as she puts it, “the legs said no”. The photos below show her approaching the finish and looking stronger than she felt.
So ended the Prix des Rousses and our trip to the Alps. It was a nice way to finish. The event is low key (around 250 people took part) and I like the way you have to attack the climbs at full gas so hopefully we will be back again with fresher legs…. it’s nice to have something pencilled in the diary for next year.