I had some unfinished business on the Cols of the Alpe d'Huez Triathlon course. I've never admitted it here on the Triathlete Chronicles, but this is the only race I've failed to finish. I was pulled from the bike course by a Frenchman who purported not to speak English and bundled into the sag wagon.
Adding insult to injury, although I promised to write a Chronicle about my experience, I failed at that as well. In many ways, this is understandable. But it's regrettable, because I look back on that experience with a range of emotions. Mostly, I feel the vulnerability, sadness, and shame of failure. But there are also glimmers of defiance and desperation that often accompanies the persistence I hoped to show.
Being back at the Alpe, I'm reliving it like it's yesterday.
Today's task was a 130k ride on the Alpe d'Huez triathlon bike course. I set off from our accommodation in La Grave, starting with a nice downhill to Bourg d'Oisan, then through the villages of Livet, Riouperoux and Gavet before turning off the main road at Sechilienne. Each time I looked up to my left, I felt just a little intimidated by the mountains that towered above. I don't know how to describe how tall, steep and imposing they seemed.
Even so, as I peeled off the main road, the only real apprehension I felt was whether I would get through this day without getting lost. I'd almost managed to ride off the bike course last time I was here, and that was on a supposedly marshalled course.
The climb to Col de Grand Serre started immediately, up through the town of St Bartholemy de Sechilienne. I wasn't sure from the tourist map I'd picked up (and couldn't recall from last time) whether I was supposed to go through the town, so when I saw a local, stopped to make sure I was on the right track.
I was, so on I went.
Or more accurately, onward and upward.
I cycled along the switchbacks, back and forth across the face of the mountain, and many times had flashbacks of the triathlon. Like race day, I was a solitary rider. Unlike last time, I climbed calmly and with purpose. There was a familiar feeling of the climb continuing endlessly, but an unfamiliar feeling of being in control, like I was dominating the climb rather than it getting the better of me.
There were some amazing views, and unlike race day, I noticed them, and appreciated them. After some time, the summit was in sight, and before too long, I reached the sunshine of the village of La Morte.
A quick map check and chat with some fellow cyclists and I was descending through the valley, following the river as it wound through Lavaldien and towards La Valette. Soon enough, I was rounding the bottom of the bike course and heading back towards Bourg d'Oisan towards the bottom of the Col d'Ornon climb.
Just past the town of Entraigues the climb of Col d'Ornon begins. It's quite a subtle climb, but long. In today's hot conditions, the sun was merciless. Again, the imposing mass of mountains ahead had me doubting myself; wondering what right I had to be here. It was somewhere around here that I had been pulled from the race. Maybe the race marshall was right, and I couldn't make it up.
I couldn't dwell on that. I was armed with everything this time - a phone, money, a map and a phrase book. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
More than anything, I was battling the heat. I hadn't counted on the midday Alpine summer sun when I was training away in a mild Brisbane winter. It was brutal. Because I didn't have sunscreen, I kept my arm warmers on for protection, and rather than baking, I boiled. I just kept trucking on though, and soon the 10k climb was behind me.
At the top of the climb is a bar which I remembered form my race. At this point, the Frenchman stopped, got out of the van, pointed to me and said "Velo". I didn't know what was going on. He repeated "velo?". This time with more of a question, pointing to my bike, and to me.
I realised he was offering for me to ride the descent.
"Yes! Oui!" I exclaimed. I grabbed Lance out of the back of the van, put my helmet back on and wasn't seen for dust.
I remember feeling so free riding that descent, thinking of my friend Donna, who once said to me when trying to explain why she rode and raced, "I just love riding my bike." That's exactly how I felt, on that day. I didn't come here to be cooped up in the back of a van. I came to ride. I absorbed the descent, and at the bottom, I rode as fast as I could back through Bourg d'Oisan, before contemplating the ride up Alpe d'Huez.
Today, I'd used up most of my 130ks by the time I got back to Bourg d'Oisan. I toyed with the idea of finishing it off, but by this time, I was at peace with what I'd achieved. I didn't need to tackle the Alpe today, I could savour that another day.