Climbing a Giant

Climbing a Giant

Like any addiction, cycling will soon have you looking for a bigger and bigger hit. 


That’s why at 11am on Saturday 25th August 2015 (in 30°C heat), I found myself at the foot of Alpe D’Huez, the iconic Tour de France climb, a natural mountain amphitheatre, defined by its 21 hairpins snaking upwards from the valley floor a total of 3,749 feet, over 9 miles at an average of 7.9% and on Tour day swarming with 1 million near fanatical supporters.

This was going to be the biggest hit yet!

How do you conquer your Everest?

Ride on the day of the Tour

Would Manchester United let you have a quick kick-about on the pitch at Old Trafford before kick off?

During the Tour de France YOU can ride the very same roads that the Pro’s will a few hours later, soaking up the carnival atmosphere, benefiting from friendly shouts of ‘Allez, Allez!’Or even a gentle push from one of the massing crowd of supporters.  Okay the crowds are not there to watch you but they’re either too excited, too bored or too drunk to care and you and your struggle up the mountain is a welcome distraction.

One guy and his wife were enthusiastically providing a shower of fresh mountain water from a ‘bidon’ (French for water bottle) over the head of each passing cyclist. Then there’s the madness of ‘Dutch Corner’ – the party atmosphere, booming sound systems and probably indecent Euro-chanting made my tired legs spin faster and the effort dissipates.


You can race each other but it’s probably better to help each other.  Let the Pantani* of your group disappear round the next hairpin (the first one up can buy the beers at the top) and take it in turns with a well matched mate to be Ritchie Porte to their Chris Froome and vice versa (if they’re only wanting to be Chris Froome then they also owe you a beer at the top for your pace making).  


The mutual encouragement, just knowing someone else is going through the same pain, even snatches of  breathless conversation will see your hugging each other once you get to the summit, topped off with embarrassing fist-pumps and countless photos of your red oxygen deprived but smiling faces against the spectacular mountain back drop.














I’m not really trying to tell you how to do it - more that you should do it but these are some of the things I focus on to help summit / survive (delete as appropriate). 


Some people are born to climb and seemingly float up the mountain whilst effortlessly spinning they're pedals, whilst I’m punching out squares with mine.  What those born climbers do is stay in the saddle, rather than wrestle their bike uphill whilst stamping downwards on the pedals. 

Save standing in the pedals for the really steep bits.  Stay seated, get into a low gear and spin at a comfortable cadence and you’ll ascend efficiently rather that burning out by hairpin 6 of 21.

Bend the Mountain

The hairpin bends are your friends, they’re often shallower than the straights between them.  By speeding up as they flatten on entry, their centrifugal forces will ping you some way up the next climb on exit. (On the way down think of the hairpins as the equivalent of ‘air-brakes’, the skill and braking required to safely navigate them will save you from hitting Mach 2 and quite possibly nothing else).


Mind over Mountain

Yes, it’s a physical challenge but it's also mental. Listening to music or a podcast might work, but it seems wrong to cut out the natural sounds of the mountain (on non-Tour days think waterfalls, cow bells, birdsong and of course: heavy breathing).  

Instead try these motivational tricks:

  • Break the climb down, on Alpes D’Huez it’s easy, hairpin-by-hairpin – noting the names of the famous riders each bend is dedicated to (other climbs have kilometre markers, sometimes with helpful/unhelpful average gradients for that next kilometre).  
  • Set yourself challenges or rewards, a target time for the next kilometre or an energy gel after the next hairpin (scant reward I know but desperate times…)
  • Distract yourself by reading the names of the past and present Tour riders painted on the tarmac, or by thinking about anything else than climbing, like the electrifying descent to follow, or how many calories you’ve burnt and just how much you can eat that evening etc.



Ultimately though this is your opportunity to follow in the tyre tracks of legends, to get glimpse of what it takes to ride the Tour de France and to relish the freedom of being on top of the world – if that doesn’t motivate you to push yourself to the limit, nothing will.

Saturday 25th August 2015 will be remembered as the day that Chris Froome didn’t lose the Tour.  I will remember it as very special day when I climbed a Giant.


* The Alpe D’Huez climb record: 37’35’’, average speed of 14.34 mph (Marco Pantani in 1997).



The Author

Ben Walder

Ben is a keen cyclist, road and mountain biking, runner, skier and even enjoyed a brief flirtation with boxing. He’s cycled John O Groats to Lands End, London to Paris in 24 hours, 5 countries in 3 days and ticked off some legendary climbs from the Tour de France. When he’s not dragging his mates out on cycling adventures across Europe he’s being dragged around by his 2 young daughters to karate, ballet, gymnastics, tennis and swimming..


Trevor D.
25 September 2015

Trevor D.

purely armchair for me but what a fascinating insight! And good to have Marco Pantani remembered for his achievements rather than his sad fate.

craig t.
23 September 2015

craig t.

This sounds amazing and I am in complete envy of Ben doing this,. I love the saying 'You can race each other but it's probably better to help each other'. Very sporting.

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