At 13.1 kilometres long, 1803 metres high, and with an average gradient of 8.19% (max gradient 12%), Alpe d’Huez is one of France’s most iconic cycle climbs. Here, 54-year-old Lori Hoechlin recounts her experience of cycling up it an incredible EIGHT times in one day to achieve the feted ‘Everest’ – a continuous hill climb repeated until the height equivalent of Everest has been reached (a crazy 29,029 ft.)
In 2015, I travelled from the US to France as a treat from my son. He had a convention to do over there and had a plus-one ticket (I was able to fly first class and that was a treat in itself.) As a keen cyclist, I was also very fortunate to be going to France while the Tour de France was running. I was very excited to go, but also apprehensive as I knew I’d be on my own for the cycling excursions.
I started looking for cycling tours online and found one that meant that I would at least be staying with some other cyclists. I also found out that an acquaintance of mine was going to be in the area, so I was able to coordinate with her to cover the couple days I would be there before my own cycle tour started.
We were staying at a Bed and Breakfast and I was telling the other cyclists that I was considering doing an ‘Everest’ back home, which means you repeat a hill segment enough times in one ride to equal 29,029 feet or 8000m – the height of Everest. After I’d mentioned it, one of the cyclists said I should try Everesting Alpe d’Huez. I was under the impression that if a climb had already been ‘Everested’ by someone else, you couldn’t pick it. When I looked up the Hells 500 Hall of Fame (the place where they post the names of people who have Everested) it had just two names listed for Alpe d’Huez and no woman had ever done it. Because of that, I knew I could do it.
The more we talked and planned, the more excited I got about being able to do this epic adventure on one of the most iconic cycling climbs known. Why would I do one back home when it was possible to do it here? My girlfriend said she would SAG (support me) while I was doing it. The more we talked about it, the more I figured out that I just HAD to do it.
I had one day off during the upcoming week where there was nothing on the schedule. I had now checked into my cycling tour, and had made them aware of my Everest plans. The first day of the cycling tour, we actually climbed Alpe d’Huez. I really liked the climb and thought it would be the perfect one to do. And I hadn’t even seen all the reasons why yet.
When I was up there after the first day, I spoke with the owner of a bike shop, Cycle Huez, about being able to put my nutrition and clothing in his store and being able to come in after each one of the 8 repeats. He was happy to help me out, and so the plans continued to fall into place. The day before the Everest I was able to take a tram up the mountain right from where I was staying, and drop everything off at the shop. I spent some time talking with the store owner and tried to keep my mind off what it was I was actually going to do the next day. Every day I’d been staying there, we’d been having tremendous thunderstorms in the afternoon. This concerned me as I knew it would mean descending in wet conditions. Although I knew, worst case scenario, I could hang out in a restaurant or store until the storm passed.
The night before, I went to bed very early, as I knew it was going to be a very long day. I remember not falling asleep well, thinking about everything I was about to do. I pretty much was good on my gear, as I’d decided to ride a bike with better gearing for the extreme climbing. I also had all my nutrition planned for what I knew I’d need throughout the day.
The morning came early, but I was anxious to get rolling. When I left the chateau, it was cool and foggy – the first morning all trip that I’d woken up to that. I headed out in the direction that I’d gone before, but made a wrong turn at the roundabout. I ended up heading out towards the National Park and didn’t realise my mistake until after about 10 miles. Just an extra warm up before my climb! I knew that I couldn’t let something like that stop me. I was just hoping it wasn’t a sign…
Once I got to the climb, I just started pedalling. The thing about Everesting is just to make sure you don’t push yourself too hard—it’s all about pacing. The first couple of repeats were relatively cool and I felt really good. I didn’t really take a break after descending, since it took me 30 minutes to get down the mountain and I used that time to recover. I took off a layer at the bottom before starting to climb but that’s about all I did at the turnaround.
The cool thing about riding this climb at the time of the Tour de France is that cycling fans are already camping out on each of the hairpin turns and the road is closed to most traffic. When I went up for the third time, it seemed like people were beginning to recognize me as they started to give me encouragement as I rode by. I don’t think any of them really knew what I was out there doing. The few climbs in the afternoon were a little warm, but amazingly it was the first day there weren’t any thunderstorms. Did I ever get lucky there!
The weather enabled me to ride straight through, except for nature breaks and refuelling. I had a lot of my calories in the form of Carbo Pro in my bottles and would refill my bottle at the top at the Cycle Huez shop, where I’d stashed my belongings. I did have a few [energy] bars throughout the day and a sandwich late afternoon. (I now use a product called Spiz and pretty much do all my long events on liquid nutrition, adding a few bites of things to break up the monotony )
I did get a little concerned about charging my Garmin, because I couldn’t afford to have the battery run out – this is what would be used to verity my data with the Hells 500. I did stop long enough to give it a partial charge as well as touch base with my friend who was coming out to support me.
I went out to do another repeat and wait for my friend. I was so happy when she pulled up behind me. Not sure how she was able to get on the closed road, but I was so happy she did. She started doing a cheer for me and made me laugh so hard. You always need something to distract you from the suffering you’re enduring. She went on up ahead to get my winter gear out as it was getting colder. She’d made arrangements with the bike shop owner for him to leave my things outside as they were going to be closing up soon. Somehow, communication got messed up and he didn’t leave my things out. His store was locked. Luckily, his wife had given me a business card, so we were able to reach him and get him to come back to the shop. I wasn’t about to descend the mountain without my jacket as the temperature had started dropping considerably. This is really the only glitch I had all day. It gave me time to actually grab a sandwich – some real food – and wait for him to get my things.
I think I only had two Alpe d’Huez climbs left to do at this point. By now the Dutch corner crowd was getting crazy and the support from them was unbelievable. We had met some cyclists from Ireland while grabbing a bite to eat, and one of them agreed to go down and do the final climb with me. As we were doing that climb together, I felt my Garmin buzz, which I knew meant my battery was running low. I apologised to him and told him we needed to go faster as I couldn’t chance my Garmin shutting off.
Away we went to the summit of Alpe d’Huez where I got the ride and the credit for the Everest. It took me 15 hours 36 minutes to complete (grand total 134.1 miles) and was one of my best moments ever on the bike.
I’ve since done two more Everests—one on San Elijo Hills in San Marcos and one out at Mt. Palomar – but Alpe d‘Huez was by far my favourite. It was the perfect distance and steepness. Obviously being in such an iconic place and having people there cheering me on made it a much more enjoyable experience.
People often ask about my legs on Everest challenges, but they don’t really get tired because I’m not hammering the bike but settling into a climbing rhythm. My back usually gets to me before the legs. It just gets tougher at the end of the day, as the weather gets colder and it’s a bit more uncomfortable.
My top Everesting tips? Find the right distance and steepness to make your day no longer than it needs to be. Fuelling on a regular basis and not falling behind on calories is also very important. I find for my weight that I need to take in 200-250 calories per hour and I’m good.
I really want to go back to France again. If money wasn’t an issue, I would be back there every July for the Tour de France for sure.
You can follow Lori’s adventures in cycling via her Instagram account at www.instagram.com/lovetoride1415