There are enough legendary cycling routes and gruelling trail runs to keep the most masochistic athlete happy all year round. This article presents a selection of my favourite events in and around the two resorts.
Every July, seven and a half thousand cyclists arrive in Alpe d’Huez for one of the biggest events in amateur cycling. After thirty-five years, this sportive well deserves its legendary status. The 174-kilometre course manages to take in some of the most famous climbs in the French Alps in its 5000 metres of climbing. The Glandon, Télégraphe and Galibier cols are all crossed before the race culminates with the twenty-one bends of Alpe d’Huez. Completing the Marmotte is a huge milestone in any cyclist’s career.
If one gigantic race is not enough, you could sign up for the nearby 175km Vaujany Cyclosportive a week earlier. Add in the 40km Prix de Grandes Rousses and a 13km time trial up to Alpe d’Huez in the intervening week and you will be in the running for the Trophée des Oisans. This takes in 400 kilometres and 12,000 metres of climbing over four races in a single week.
Whilst not an official ITU triathlon, this prestigious event brings some of the sport’s biggest names to race each summer. French national team triathletes are among the elite athletes who compete here regularly.
Previous winners include Olympic medalists, Emma Pooley (GB) and Nicola Spirig (Switzerland). The event was set up by former World Triathlon Champion Cyrille Neveu in 2006. The competition is not only for the elite though, anyone can enter and measuer themselves against the world’s best. The long and short courses each attract around a thousand competitors. A duathlon and a children’s race also take place over the five-day triathlon week.
The long course begins in the cold clear waters of Lac du Verney at 700 metres of altitude. The deep lake surrounded by beautiful woodland is usually off limits to swimmers, so this is a unique setting for the 2.2 kilometre course. The cycling is the biggest part of the event, both in absolute terms and relative to standard triathlon distances. It covers 115 kilometres, 3200 metres of climbing, three big cols and the twenty-one bends of Alpe d’Huez to finish. After this, a twenty-kilometre trail run completes the race.
The village of St. Christoph lies in the beautifully unspoilt Veneon valley, just a few kilometres from the pistes of Les Deux Alpes. Despite its proximity to the ski area, and the fact that it is one of the three historic communes that make up the resort, this small mountain village retains all of its remote charm. Looking up at the mountains you can see no sign of the lift infrastructure hidden behind the Diable ridgeline.
The Christolaise trail race is run in early August by the village, offering three courses from 12 to 40 kilometres, with 830 to 3300 metres of climbing. The race is very popular with locals, although it is less well known outside the area. The race starts and finishes at the Plan du Lac gîte, a few hairpin bends below the village, and all three routes begin with a 650 metre climb to the Mirroir des Fetoules. After this, the longer courses take runners on a varied and scenic tour of the upper Veneon valley with punishing climbs and technical descents. Passing through St. Christoph village in the final kilometres gives the villagers an opportunity to turn out and show their support before runners take on the last leg to the finish down the valley.
This race is a favourite of mine both for the scenery and for the friendly atmosphere. It always feels like the villagers go out of their way to make runners feel welcome in their community.
Not one, but two gruelling uphill trail races in a single weekend in July. Saturday’s Double Vertical du Diable packs a 1900 metre ascent into a mere seven kilometres of horizontal distance. The winners manage this in under an hour and a half, while mere mortals like myself take considerably longer.
The following day offers the 6 Heures du Diable (6 hours of the Diable). This takes place on a four kilometre, 650 metre course with a ski lift to return you to the start. The aim is to complete as many ascents as you can within the six-hour time limit. The entry price includes free sports massages at the top of each climb, as well as a post-race meal. The winners manage around eight climbs in the six hours, or over 5000 metres of ascent.
In July 1998, the Italian hill-specialist Marco Pantani sat three minutes behind the leader, Jan Ullrich, as the Tour de France arrived in the Alps. He took took the lead over the Col du Galibier and arrived at Les Deux Alpes in torrential rain to claim a nine-minute victory. Pantani held this lead in the subsequent stages to win the Tour overall.
Les Deux Alpes created their Granfondo to honour Pantani’s achievement. The 172 kilometre course takes in the Col d’Ornon, Le Parquetout and Alpe de Grande Serre, before following the route of Pantani’s winning ride up to Les Deux Alpes for a total of 4000 metres ascent. There is a time trial up the Deux Alpes climb the following day, where you can try to match Pantani’s twenty-one minutes. The event is held in late-August, when the weather is usually better than it was for the ’98 Tour, but it has had its share of rainy race days over the years.
Les Deux Alpes’ Defí Vertical is a new ski touring race from the resort at 1600m to the top of the glacier at 3600m. The uphill only route follows the pistes for the first half, then moves off-piste in the higher sections. This course design avoids meeting too many recreational skiers, as the on-piste portion is largely completed before the ski lifts open. Some of the off-piste parts are quite tricky, demanding kick turns on steep slopes that are often windblown or icy.
When I entered in March this year, I found my fast (for me) pace of the first half evaporating as the climbing got tougher and the weather worsened. The race is billed as having a choice of distances, but in fact there is simply the option to drop out at specified points. Competitors receive a time and medal for their completed distance. There were quite a few skiers who stopped at 3200m, mainly due to the weather, and the finish was moved down to 3400m because of high winds this year.
As part of the Coupe de France (French National Cup), this race almost did not make it into the article. I want to cover races anybody can enter, not ones where most people can only watch. The elite ‘A’ course is only open to FFME Licence holders, which rules out most people. However, there is also a ‘B’ course that is open to everyone and warrants a mention here.
The race starts in Oz en Oisans, on the edge of the Alpe D’Huez ski area, and heads up to the Alpette lift station, before continuing to the Perrin Sud (2640m). The ‘B’ course returns to the Alpette from here, while the ‘A’ course continues to the Dome des Rousses (2807m). The courses have several compulsory checkpoints, but in between these you can choose your own route. Add in some steep terrain to navigate, and the event becomes a mountaineering as well as an endurance challenge.
The ‘A’ course takes in 1950 metres of climbing and is open to teams of two with the FFME Licence. The ‘B’ course has 1250 metres of climbing and is open to all. As this is an off-piste event, all competitors must carry avalanche safety equipment.
At 20 kilometres and 700 metres of climbing for the long course, this is the smallest event I am going to cover here. However, this is a race I love doing and one I enter every January.
There are three aspects that set it apart from other trail races. It is run on snow, in the dark, and there is more downhill than up. The course starts at the top of the White Eggs lift (2100m) and finishes in the town at 1650m. All three courses have 450 metres more descent than ascent as a result.
The courses are 10km with 220 metres ascent, 15km with 450 metres ascent and the 20km course I mentioned earlier. If you are not used to running on snow, this is an interesting experience. Running in the mountains as sunset gives way to darkness is just beautiful. Headtorches are both compulsory and necessary for this one. The 20-kilometre circuit is the most interesting as well as the longest. After splitting from the 15km runners, a twisting technical descent leads to a long slog back up. This climb through the forest is where most of the height is gained. The race is becoming more popular each year. French team runners have made appearances and a growing number of trail running fans plan their ski holiday around it.
Feature image credit: Triathlon Alpe D’HuezLast updated on Oct 10, 2019
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