Blog: Intensely cold swimming and brutal bike climbs at the Alpe D’Huez Long Distance Triathlon

Age-grouper Brian Carlin describes his race last week, where the swim was so cold his face quickly went numb and three huge bike climbs then followed

Swimmers at the Alpe d'Huez Long Course Triathlon

The flames danced hypnotically in the freshly-lit fire in the chalet in Vaujany (1125m altitude), giving welcome warmth after cloud cover had descended upon the Ecrins Mountains earlier in the day.


The cold mountain air had crept upon us as we retreated indoors, leaving us to reflect on the astonishing sunrise that morning. You could almost see the sunlight move through the valley until it arrived upon us and warmed us to the core. And yet, only two days previously we had been trudging through deep snow in shorts and trainers on the Col du Lac Banc (2715m) on our way to register in Alpe d’Huez for the Long Distance Triathlon.

The weather was shockingly cold with a local resident saying it had been the worst they had known it to be in the last twenty years. The swim in Lac du Varney is notorious for being cold but this year it was going to be an absolute shocker.

We descended from our chalet to Lac du Varney (700m) and racked our bikes and got ready for what we knew was going to be horrible. I just can’t do freezing cold water and had no idea if I was going to manage to complete the swim, never mind the race. Wetsuits on, and two swim hats, and everyone was “sort of” ready. The brave got in the water, swam across to the other side and got out. It was FREEZING! Those who got in the water soon got out and stood shivering on the lakeside. The start sounded and I wasn’t even in the water but I soon plunged in and got going. The sharp spikes of cold attacked my face which soon became numb. I didn’t find out until after the race that several people had been pulled out of the water after only about fifteen minutes.

It was a steep swim exit with guys there to drag you out of the water and up the bank. I somehow managed to find myself running into transition but most people shuffled their way and then required assistance getting their wetsuit off. Trying to get arm warmers, cycling shoes and a cycling top on was a nightmare. Everything was cramping up and transition was like a battlefield with bodies on the floor writhing around in agony – this was the first race I’ve ever seen athletes being assisted just to get kit off and on.

Cycle helmet on and all I wanted to do was ride hard and work up my body temperature, which I managed to do over about fifteen minutes.

There were three totally brutal climbs and although the bike course was only 115km, I climbed more in altitude in those three climbs than possibly the last three years of cycling.  The first climb, Alpe du Grand Serre (1375m), was a taste of what was to come. Then came what I thought was the toughest climb of the day, the Col D’Ornon (1371m). With a 42/27 chainring set I had no choice but to grind away with my thighs burning constantly. After rocketing along at up to 95kph on the descents and braking seriously hard into the bends, it was a joy to then cruise through the valleys. And then finally it was the 21 switching bends of the climb to Alpe D’Huez.

By the time I finished the climb up Alp D’Huez I honestly didn’t think I would be able to continue. It’s the very first time I’ve just walked out of transition but much to my surprise I soon found my running legs, recovered from the bike and was – for the first time in the race – starting to enjoy racing. Even the run had steep climbs in it with a couple of hairpin bends as part of the three 7.3km loop. I finished strong but was so glad it was all over… Yet it wasn’t. Our chalet was in Vaujany, an hour and a half’s bike ride away with an equally brutal 5.6km climb, as hard as anything we had already ridden in the race, still to complete before we could rest.

Without question, the Alp D’Huez Long Distance Triathlon has been the most challenging race I’ve ever completed. The freezing cold of the swim, coupled with the barbaric unforgiving climbs, leaves you questioning if running is possible at the top of the final ascent. The scenery is just breathtaking, with luscious greenery and contrasting aggressive vertical granite that has been sculpted and shaped over millions of years. The sense of achievement and pride in your finisher’s t-shirt is incredible.

Thanks to Tony, Rob, John, Si and Dave from Godleys Cycles. Great trip, guys.

(Images: Laurent Salino / Alpe d’Huez Tourisme)


For our gallery of the best images from this year’s Alpe d’Huez Long Course Triathlon, head here