The words I have heard more than any other today are "bon courage". Roughly translated, the phrase means anything from "do your best" to "hang in there," but I prefer the more obvious interpretation: being told to "have courage" might be the best advice anyone could give you when you're attempting the Alpe d'Huez Triathlon.
The race was started four years ago by French triathlete and ITU 2002 World Long Distance Champion Cyrille Neveu. He used to invite friends to train with him in the area and decided to create a triathlon to showcase the spectacular scenery and famous local climbs. The long-distance race I'm about to do features a 2.2K swim, 115K bike and 22K run. There's also a shorter race the following day of 1.K/30K/7K as well as a children's triathlon, which takes place in and around Alpe d'Huez's outdoor swimming pool.
Immortalised by throw-down encounters in the Tour de France, the Alpe's reputation as one of the world's great climbs is richly deserved. Even driving a car up the wall of rock is exhausting. The tight turns and relentless incline demand constant attention and leave me wondering how the hell I'm going to make it to the top on two wheels and no engine.
Before today I'd never ridden in the Alps. My most significant encounter with hills to date was at the Devil's Ride Sportive in south Wales in June, when I was disappointed to have to get off my bike and push it up the Devil's Staircase, which has a 25 per cent gradient in places. For today's triathlon I've hired a bike with triple gearing to give me the best chance of making it up and over the three big climbs - the Col du Grand Serre, Col d'Ornon and the (count 'em) 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d'Huez itself.
But before I can think about the bike section, I have to get to grips with the overall race logistics. The Alpe d'Huez Triathlon features two transition areas, which means kit has to be placed in numbered bags and transported to the correct place for collection. The first transition area is by Lake Verney, where the swim starts. Everything we'll need for the run goes into a numbered bag, which the organisers transport from the lake to the second transition area, where we'll leave our bikes.
The organisers gather everyone for a briefing at the water's edge. The French version lasts about 10 minutes and is followed by an English translation, which lasts around 10 seconds. We're told to take care on the busy roads and that drafting is not allowed. It's a briefing of the briefing and I wonder what was lost in translation.
All the entrants pile into the water together before spreading out for the whistle. The buoys are so far down the lake that I can't even see them to start with, so I just aim in the same general direction as everyone else. I soon discover that in my rush to pack for the race I have brought a pair of old, leaky goggles so I have to flip onto my back several times to clear them of water and sort myself out. I also discover, after rounding the final buoy and starting to swim back toward the swim exit point, that the rising sun is blindingly bright, making me squint. I wish I'd followed the wise advice in a magazine called Triathlete's World to take a pair of tinted goggles to every race.
This is the furthest I've ever swum, but I finish in a respectable 44 minutes and head to my bike for the next section. It's a sunny day so I've covered myself in sun cream but for extra protection I pull on a cycling jersey over my tri suit. I can't help noticing that nudity isn't banned at French races - all around me people are blithely removing their clothes and pulling on cycling gear. With such a long race ahead, the transition area is relaxed. It seems more important to make sure pockets are full of energy bars and gels than simply to whizz off.
The first 20 kilometres of the bike leg are over in no time thanks to a gentle descent down the valley but what goes down must eventually come up and soon we're climbing the shaded section of the Col du Grand Serre. We've been warned about drafting, but people are cycling in little groups and chatting. Everyone has their first name and national flag printed on their race number so it's easy to start conversations. I speak to many British, Irish and American riders, but I can't find anyone who has done the race before. This seems like a one-time-only event and I'm starting to understand why.
The climbs are like nothing I've ever encountered before. The Col du Grand Serre isn't even considered tough but it takes me more than an hour to reach the summit. I'm not a confident descender so plunging downhill is just as challenging as the climbs but at least the roads are virtually traffic-free.
I've never taken a break in a triathlon before, but it seems that everyone is stopping at the first fuel station so I join them. A five-minute stretch while I refill my drinks bottles and eat some of the food on offer fortifies me for the next climb but the sun is already starting to take its toll. The Col d'Ornon is a mere bump by Alpine standards but I still find it tough and am relieved to see the fuel stop at the summit. Sitting in the shade to refuel, I chat to Englishmen Jamie and Chip. They're suffering in the heat, too, but still looking forward to the final push up Alpe d'Huez. Chip tells me his goal is to beat singer Sheryl Crow's time - she made it to the top in 1:37 when she was dating Lance Armstrong. I hope that I too can beat her time, too, but I'm about to be disappointed. I'll bet her boyfriend gave her tips.
A queasy feeling
After a compulsory refuelling stop in the town of Bourg d'Oisans, at the base of the Alpe, the climb kicks up, suddenly and brutally. A friend has warned me that the first 4K are the steepest, with a gradient of around 12 per cent, so I'm trying not to become too demoralised, but after just one hairpin I stop in the shade of a tree and sit on a wall for a rest. It's now after three o'clock, almost six hours since the race started. People creep past me but I continue to sit. I do not feel at all well.
The combination of heat - I'm told later that it was 40 degrees - exertion and the never-ending stream of energy products I'm forcing into myself finally take their toll: I throw up. This does nothing for my mood or my strength and I'm still at the first hairpin. Feeling sorry for myself, I climb back on the bike and keep going.
Every hairpin is numbered in reverse order and dedicated to a great cyclist, but as I ride past these illuminating signs, all I care about is ticking off the numbers and inching closer to the summit. It's so hot now that it feels as if my wheels are sinking into the Tarmac. The Alpe is south-facing, too, so it catches the sun all day and there's very little shade. The air in my lungs feels hot and my legs feel heavy; the climb is draining me.
Halfway up I decide to stop looking up to the road ahead: I know it will continue to stretch upward and it's becoming demoralising. I simply keep my eyes fixed on the road just in front of me and concentrate on each punishing pedal stroke. My right knee has started to hurt and pain shoots to my hip with every revolution. I start to wonder how I'm going to manage the run but shake the dark thoughts from my head - the rest of the climb comes first and it has become a matter of personal pride: me against it. I dig and find reserves of energy and determination that amaze me. I press down and push on. And I finally do it. I finish the climb. I beat it.
I had thought the whole race would take me around eight hours, but I've been going for longer than that and I haven't even started the run. The transition area has begun to clear so it's fairly quiet as I slowly pull on my socks and trainers. I am tired and sore but giving up is unthinkable.
Thankfully, my knee doesn't hurt at all when I start to run, but I slow to a walk almost immediately when faced with the first hill. I make a deal with myself: I'm allowed to walk the climbs if I run the flats and descents. In fact, very few people are running now; little groups of walkers form as people chat and encourage each other on the three-lap course.
I chat to two old guys who are manning one of the drinks stations on the course. They seem to be packing up but when I tell them I have two laps to go they laugh and say they're not going anywhere. There are all sorts of things to eat and drink: chunks of refreshing watermelon, chocolate that's almost melted to liquid, dried fruit and gallons of Coke. I'm not usually a fan of this fizzy drink but I reason that it can't possibly make me feel any worse and glug some down. I don't want to jump to conclusions, but I perk up a bit and manage to run most of the last lap.
The sun is setting as I finally cross the finish line, just under 11 hours after I set off. There are very few bikes left in the transition area but plenty of people have hung around to cheer the stragglers. I find out the next day that I came 481st out of more than 600 competitors but I really don't care. I have conquered Alpe d'Huez and finished one of the world's toughest triathlons. I know that in a few days I'll be able to look back and congratulate myself for having the courage to literally rise to the challenge, but right now I just want to lie down.