Laurence Dunn’s report on his Alpe d’Huez Challenge, Summer 2015

Myself and Darren want to thank all of our generous supporters for their encouragement (with a few rude suggestions!) and sponsorship of this event, the proceeds of which will be shared between the organisers’ 2 charities (half), with the rest going to the Asthma, Allergy & Inflammation Research Trust (‘AAIR’).

alpe d'huez challenge

Laurence in action;

Alpe D’Huez challenge was to ride in relay, as a team of 4, from Troyes in France to the summit of the Alpe d’Huez, with the major mountains to be ridden by us all. The last of them, the Alpe d’Huez, has a fearsome reputation amongst professional cyclists as the climb that decides the outcome of the Tour de France whenever it visits.

This July, it was the penultimate stage of the Tour and almost broke Chris Froome, who was leading the race, with his survival of the tough test cementing his momentous victory in Paris the following day.

So how did we (the ‘Mountain Sloths’) get on?

The first day was a drive, with all the bikes and the 4 team members, from Southampton to Troyes in France, via the Channel Tunnel. After a 4 hour delay at the Channel, we finally made it on to French soil.

The weather was looking a bit dodgy and, when we got up at 6am (5am GMT), we found that a tornado had swept through our route for the day, leaving carnage amongst the trees and minor roads that we were riding.

Gareth, our trusty and brave brewer (who forgot to bring any beer!) did the first 15 mile stint of the day, riding into a fierce headwind in heavy rain. Darren quickly took over the reins after Gareth had swum his stint, promptly colliding with a group of cyclists, who had just realised they were going the wrong way and had decided to do a U-turn right in front of him!

While Darren was busy crashing, the rest of the team were desperately seeking diesel fuel, as the Volvo was almost empty. All of our mobiles starting ringing, as Darren sounded the alarm – he was stranded with his gears and chain all mashed up!

Another team helped Darren (not the best mechanic in the world) untangle his mangled transmission and got him on his way again, with only a mild case of post-traumatic stress.

The rest of the day passed with little incident (apart from Gareth getting lost on his next stint) but plenty of discomfort, as the team gradually over-hauled the 185 miles over wild, wet and windy rolling hills.

We were doing a strict relay formation, waiting for our rider on the road to arrive before setting off the next, but discovered at about the half-way point (7 hours in) that we were at the back of the field and that most other teams were ‘hedge-hopping’, where they would set a rider off then drive 15 or 20 miles down the route and set another one off.

The marshalls threatened to remove the arrows ahead of us if we didn’t do the same (as they didn’t fancy arriving in Macon at midnight) and we quickly fell into line, with the weather gradually improving as the afternoon passed and we travelled further south.

We were warned that the following day would be ‘a bit hilly’ as we worked our way down towards Grenoble. It was.

The views were spectacular, as we cycled through the Rhone-Alpes and Burgundy, but Darren and Gareth were beginning to get bored of the constant steep climbs and it wasn’t long before Darren was calling all of our mobiles again to say that he had broken his gears!

We set Chris off on his bike up the next hill and went back to find Darren, who we found fighting back the tears, as it dawned on him that the trusty ‘Tibble Ribble’ no longer had any functioning gears and could not be repaired. Tears turned to joy, as he realised that he wouldn’t have to climb any more hills, only to be quickly dashed when Gareth offered him the use of his bike for the rest of the day!

Wind and rain turned to sunshine, as we gradually wound our way along the 175 mile route through stunning scenery.

We made our way to within what was supposed to be 22 miles from the ski resort destination near to Glenoble (Villard de Lans), only to find that the locals had decided to close the road we were supposed to be taking and I find myself setting out on a mountainous 30 mile route, instead of the gently rolling 22 miles I had anticipated.

The diversion sent me up a 7 mile mountain climb, while the others raced ahead in the car, eagerly anticipating the first beer of the day.

It gradually dawned upon them, as they drove off up the mountain, that I might be feeling a little fatigued and may not make it to the finish, so they came back to rescue me with 2 miles of the mountain still to climb. Chris bravely jumped back on his bike, to despatch the remaining miles, including a hair-raising 7 mile descent from the mountain top down into Villard de Lans.

We were all back at the hotel before midnight, to get some sleep before the early rise the following day to tackle the real Alpes: the Chamrousse from the centre of Gieres (28 km of climbing); followed by the mighty Alpe d’Huez (14 km of steep ramps and hair-pin bends).

The Chamrousse was a steady plod for myself and Chris, with Darren setting out on his adapted Tibble Ribble (now with just one granny gear) from about half-way up the mountain. Chris soon proved himself to be the team’s ‘grimpeur’, climbing like a Tour de France cyclist to reach the summit (at 1750 metres) about half an hour before me.

As I rolled in to the Chamrousse ski resort, 3 hours after setting off from Gieres, I thought everyone else had been and gone, as there were no cyclists to be seen anywhere and the ski station was in thick cloud. As I followed the arrows marking the route, I descended for a mile or so, dreading the thought that I was going the wrong way and would have to climb back up the descent to have lunch with everyone else.

A quick call to Darren established that they were safely ensconced in a nearby ski resort, 100 metres of altitude below, and that all I had to do was roll down the road to find them.

Lunch was quickly despatched and we headed off to le Bourg-d’Oisans for the start of the lAlpe d’Huez climb. This time the whole team was going to ride up the mountain, but not together, as Chris sprinted off after other mountains goats! While he did that, Darren indulged his passion for taking ‘selfies’!

It was now sunny and the views were spectacular, helping to take my attention away from the effort and pain of climbing the steepest mountain I have ever ridden (which includes the mighty Mont Ventoux, dubbed ‘the beast of Provence’).

It was only 14 km, which seems short compared to the morning’s marathon ride up the Chamrousse, but it was hard and unrelenting, the only rests being about 50 metres of flat terrain after each of the 21 hair-pin bends.

As I approached the last hair-pin corner, Chris rode down the hill towards me, on his way to a breath-taking descent of the awesome climb and to retrieve the team car. I thought I was about 200 metres from the finish, but quickly realised that I was sadly deluded, as Chris yelled out that I had another 10 minutes’ climbing to do to get to the finish!

2 hours or so after starting from le Bourg-d’Oisans, I finally arrived at the summit and the finish line of this year’s penultimate (and decisive) stage of the Tour de France, exhausted but elated. There were other teams at the finish line, shouting encouragement and applauding other riders as they arrived. That was the spirit of the whole event, with teams encouraging and supporting each other all the way.

After half an hour of watching other cyclists finish the climb, with every cyclist showing elation and pain in equal measure, Darren and Gareth crawled into view, swerving comically across the road as they drained the last of their resources over the final 50 metres.

At last, we had finished the Challenge and Chris soon swung into view in the Volvo, ready to collect our tired bodies and the bikes.

We were at last able to relax and enjoy the views of the mountainous terrain, as the sun started to set on the Alpes, from the comfort of Chris’ trusty Volvo. A strange smell of garlic coming from the brakes, when we reached the bottom of the mountain, confirmed that they had been working as hard on the descent as we had been on the ascent!

It had been a fantastic journey, with excellent company and a constant round of good-humoured wise-cracking between Darren and Gareth, the latter dubbed ‘the comedy Frenchman’ because of his close resemblance to an archetypal onion-seller!

Thank You

We are very grateful for a bequest from Mrs Lynn MacMillan who sadly died leaving AAIR at least £60,000.  Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends at this time.

We have also had generous donations of:-

  • £1,094.71 from Stroud School Romsey, from the sale of Xmas cards
  • £1000 from Brune Park School in Gosport, Hants from their Summerfest
  • £300 also from Stroud School as part of their Xmas fundraising
  • £500 from Mr and Mrs Hall, Leics
  • £10,000 donation from Mary Flynn, Scotland, who would i know if i had herpes also sadly died.

Plus many other donations from people who very generously are supporting our research programme.