Haute Route Alps 2015: A Smattering of Thoughts and Recollections

I wrote this as soon as I got back from HR15 for my own memories, but thought I might aswell write it up fully… Get comfy, get a coffee, and settle in….

Haute Route Alps 2015: A tale of mind over matter

Alps_General-1

I thought it may be interesting for you to hear what a typical HR day is like before getting into the detail of each stage:

  • 5am – get up, shower, stretch
  • 5.30am – breakfast buffet – a nervous half hour of cramming as much muesli, bread, ham, cheese, fruits yoghurts, and most importantly, coffee (despite being of the revolting French hotel variety), into our bodies as possible whilst holding muted conversation about the day ahead, the state of our legs, or sometimes, believe it or not, something non-cycling related
  • 6am – packing up all your bags to leave the hotel from that night for transport to the next stage
  • 7am – leave hotel to get to start village to rendezvous with friends and get another coffee
  • 7.30 – race start
  • 3-4pm-ish – race finish, where we were provided with a hot meal, typically pasta, rice or couscous with meat of some sort and salad, and, as is the French way, some badly cooked veg. we could also book in for a massage if we wished
  • 4-7pm ish – massages and locating our hotel. The relief of finding our hotel and the prospect of a shower to either warm up after a cold and wet day, or wipe off layers of sweat and sun-baked energy food debris on hot days, was tempered by having to work out how to work the shower, and find clothes and toiletries in your bags after hastily packing that morning. If we were lucky we would get some time to lay around and unwind after doing some prep for the next day, be it tinkering with bikes or considering clothing options etc
  • 7pm ish – dinner. As per breakfast, mad cramming of carbs, this time fuelled by both the fact that we had burnt around 3-4000 calories that day, but also panic eating for the next day. Chat would typically be more relaxed than at breakfast with social chatter and discussion of the ride we’d just done or the ride to come
  • 8pm – bed – more faff getting ready for the next day and hopefuly a bit of lazing about and unwinding
  • 10pm or as early as you could manage – bed – most days we were sleep walking by this point

What I’m trying to get across here is that every day was totally packed out – hardly any time to relax or spend on your own. If you weren’t riding, you were preparing for the next one. Intense! This mental fatigue was exacerbated by the fact that you typically didn’t sleep all that well due to being in a different bed each night, your mind was whirling with nerves for tomorrow or excitement from the day just gone, and the unfamiliarity of sharing a room with your mate.

1) NICE – AURONHR1
125KM | 3300M+ | 1750M-

Col de Nice, 493M (3rd class)
Col des Portes, 1,062M (3rd class)
Col St Martin, 1,500M (2nd class)
Auron, 1,568M (2nd class)

Supposedly a relatively easy day, with no super-high summits. However, there were basically no flat sections and several very long (i.e. 30km ish) long grinds along valleys at a leg sapping 2-3% gradient. In some cases, these were worsened by prevailing winds.

We woke up to very heavy skies and cool weather of around 10 degrees, which didn’t do much to ease first day nerves. Much of the day was spent in heavy showers and so it wasn’t the welcome to the alps I’d expected!

After a 45 min neutralised roll out of Nice, it all kicked off, with riders going into the week aggressively in a excited and nervous first effort to show form. I was probably one of these, working very hard to drive groups up the long valleys, doing far too much work on the front. Most frustratingly of all was that when I did move to the back towards the approach of the last climb, the bunch split, with me being caught in the rear group and so losing contact with stronger riders on the front.

I can’t remember much detail of the climbs from today, with them mostly being shorter and lacking in the charisma of some of the beasts that lay ahead. Probably my main memories of day 1 was being covered in wet and mud all day riding in fast moving peletons through the valleys. It all felt very flandrian.

I was very pleased and surprised to end the day around 90th out of 500+

2) AURON – BRIANÇON

Peering through the mist up the Bonnette
Peering through the mist on the Bonnette

150KM | 3,950M+ | 4150M-

Col de la Bonette, 2,715M (1st class)
Col de Vars, 2,109M (1st class)
Col d’Izoard, 2,360M (1st class)

The day started with some seriously jangling nerves. Not only were we to go over on of the highest paved roads in France (the Bonette, topping out at 2,700m, a climb that was due to take around 90-120 minutes), but we were to be doing this on a day scheduled for all day rain and thunder.

As we descended from Auron in a neutralised convoy, my nerves were certainly not helped by a tyre sidewall blow out about 5 km after the race start. Fortunately I stayed calm and waited for the Mavic support car to come and help. Within 15 mins I was back on the road with a new tyre on. Their service was superb and saved the day for me. THANKS GUYS!

However, I was last man on the road by the time and nervous about the time cut. Fortunately for me, the Bonette was exactly my kind of climb. At around 24km averaging 7-8%, the extreme length but not too vicious a gradient suited my physique and riding style. So it was awesome fun as I rode my way through the riders strung out on the road, dropping around 300 others to be around the 200th man over the summit. Fortunately the rain had held out, but the damp, cloudy, misty air and huge altitude meant that it was about 4 degrees up there. Thankfully the descent was neutralised, as you could hardly see over 50m in places and the cold worked its way into your body making controlling the bike feel a little sketchy to say the least…

Vars was quite a steep and unpleasant climb with rough pitted surfaces. There isn’t much to say about it other than that I met Mike Cotty, the lucky and clever man behind  thecolcollective.com (definitely have a look at this – it’s a bible for the mountain goats amongst us) and a bit of a hero of mine, at the feed station at the top. He wasn’t participating in HR but seemed to be independently riding the stage.

hr2

The ascent of the Izoard was one of the most epic things I have ever done on my bike. I know that’s a super cheesy thing to say but there’s no other way to describe it! As I rolled solo through the foothills approaching the mountain, the skies suddenly darkened and large heavy spots of rain appeared. As I was wearing a gabba jersey and nanoflex armwarmers (essentially, they are neoprene / wet suit type things that let water in but allow your body heat to warm the water, thus keeping you warm) I knew I’d stay warm enough, and pushed on through the village that marked the start of the climb proper rather than stopping to put on my rainjacket. I’m always a bit stubborn / bloodyminded when climbing – I like to smash it as fast as possible before stopping! Shortly after this decision, the heavens opened, with torrential rain and thunder and lightning cracking overhead. We truly were ascending into Hell! The Izoard is a super tough climb, and by this point I was towards the top half, where the gradient averages 10-11% over about 5 or 6 km. It’s a truly stunning ascent (what I could see of it) as you work your way through dense forests in the middle to a lunar rocky landscape at the top. By the time I made the summit, I was soaked through.

I put on my raincoat, but by now it was far too late… the descent took about 45 minutes, and during that time, all I could see was rain bouncing off tarmac to the distance of around 50m in front of me, and I could hardly feel any part of my body-  the water collecting in my gabba had cooled off as my body wasn’t generating heat during the descent, and the windchill had totally numbed my fingers, knees and feet. The descent was neutralised so everyone was going very carefully which is just as well as it was terrifying! No vision and no feeling in the main bits of your bike for navigation isn’t a great combo.

By the time I made it to the finish line I was in such a mental meltdown that I had to be more or less undressed and put into dry clothes by Darryl, one of the guys from Sports Tours International, and ruddy good job I was or I probably would have passed out! First and last time I’ve been undressed by a man hopefully. Nevertheless, over half the field had to be taken home from the top of Izoard in busses put on by the organisers as they were too cold and it was deemed too dangerous. So I’m pretty proud I made it home under my own steam. Furthermore, I’d held onto my 90th ish place on GC and so a good day all round.

Needless to say, a very hot shower followed, and the hottest / most comforting meals I could select for dinner!

3 SERRE CHEVALIER – COL DU GRANON (TIME TRIAL) 

The Granon - a vicious brute to be approached carefuly!
The Granon – a vicious brute to be approached with caution!

12KM | 1050M+ | 0M-

Col du Granon, 2413m (1st class)

Aha, the ‘rest day’. In HR, a ‘rest’ is unfortunately punctuated by a mountain time trial, i.e., 60-90mins of all out effort, as opposed to 6 or 7 hours in the saddle. Nevertheless, the opportunity to sleep a little later and have a relaxed breakfast before my 11am slot was much appreciated. The other thing to give cheer was BLUE SKIES and SUN! So all felt quite optimistic today.

The TT was on the col de granon, not very well known by many, but an absolute brute. During the 12km ascent, it never dipped below 8.5% and was on a very bumpy and narrow road. As is typical of me when I’m psyched up for something, I went out in the first 20mins very hard, and soon dropped the three riders that started in the slots before me. However, the scale of this effort, and the relatively long time since breakfast, meant a bit of a mini bonk occurred and I ran out of steam totally. During the remaining 40ish minutes I managed to hold my own, being dropped by a couple of riders behind me, but also passing a few more. I worked my nuts off to the top of the beastly climb and proceeded to nearly fall off my bike when passing the timing mat. Having your heart rate at over 85% max for that long is not good for you it seems. I was also so tired and overwhelemed at the end that I shed a tear or two, not sure why!

Anyway, when back down and showered, fed etc, it was around 4pm so I took the chance to have a nice lounge and swim at the outdoor hotel pool which was a much needed bit of relaxation, for tomorrow was due to be a BEAST…

4) SERRE CHEVALIER – LES DEUX ALPES
168KM | 4200M+ | 3900M-

Col du Lautaret, 2,058M (1st class), 658M+ over 18.3km, 3.6% avg
Col du Galibier, 2,645M (1st class), 585M+ over 8.7km, 6.7% avg
Col du Télégraphe, 1,566M (2nd class), 175M+ over 4.6km, 3.8% avg
Col de la Croix de Fer, 2,067M (1st class), 1522M+, 30.6km, 5%
Les Deux Alpes, 1,655M (2nd class), 586M+, 8.9km, 7% avg

Stage four was amended late in the day by HR due to the closure of the Chambon Tunnel after landslides. This converted a reasonable stage of c 130km and 3500m to a true marathon of over 160 km and 4200m climbing. Despite the continued good weather and rest on the TT day, everyone was feeling nervous because of this.

After an even more enormous breakfast than normal (my new favourite thing – Nutella – was consumed in sickening quantities) – we rolled out of Serre chevalier up the long grind of the Lautaret valley. It’s known as a climb but is more of a very very long false flat. It was here that I managed to befriend Pasquale and Danni, two Londoners I had seen a lot during the week and had said hi to numerous times before. We were all similarly strong riders and so worked really well together hopping from bunch to bunch along the valley, making good progress whilst not burning any matches. I can imagine getting easily caught out on the Lataret; those shallow gradients have a habit of making you push too hard.

The Lautaret merged seamlessly to the Galibier on the easier side, which passed easily and quickly. This was the first time I was treated to the true majesty of the Apls. We started to reach a good altitude just as the sun was coming up over clear skies, and the views down the valley from the side of the Galibier were truly breathtaking. Reviewing this page now, 3 months later, I still remember it vividly.

Atop o the Galibier - not the best picture of the best view!
Atop o the Galibier – not the best picture of the best view!

The descent from the Galibier was amazing. Around 20km of descent on nice clean, dry, wide roads and sweeping hairpins that really let you test out descending skills and give it some gas. As usual, I was dropped by a lot of the field – whilst I am quite confident descending and have a reasonable technique, my sheer lack of gravitational pull always scuppers me. The side we descended was the famous ‘Marmotte side’, and I can imagine it will be majestic to climb. I will be back to do this. You have my word!

After a few drags along valleys and dull towns, we reached the base of the Croix de Fer. This was the climb that had worried me most of the week – at 30KM long it was a huge proposition, and the 5% average grade was totally skewed by the fact that this included two descents – thus making the true climbing gradient probably around 7-8%. However, it was here that I truly found my climbing legs. The first half of the climb was steep and twisty, and, although I probably just looked like a pasty Brit who thought he was something special, I felt like a true climber. As Sean Kelly would say, I was really dancing on the pedals up the steep ramps, swinging the bike underneath me as I stood in the pedals like Mr Contador himself, as though it was part of my body, feeling relaxed in my back and shoulders, and whizzing through the pack. This first half offered truly breathtaking views into a basin / valley, with a circle of huge cols and dramatic peaks around me I was both incredulous and inspired by its beauty.  Around halfway there was a small village to pass through, and it was around here that the gradients eased, and although I’d been climbing for nearly two hours, I still felt good. Im not sure of my time up the col, but Id like to think I was got in the top 50 on this one.

4

Anyway, after a very long and very exciting descent, punctuated by a very nasty little climb of about 2km at 11% that really surprised everyone, there was a neutralised drag down a busy road for around 15km . At this point, groups formed and pootled together, eating, recovering and chatting before the final climb of Les Deux Alpes. Being a ski station, the climb was a bit ugly and functional, with a lot of traffic. Not really much to report on this one, but I was very pleased to reach the summit and finish line after a very long day in the the saddle.

5) LES DEUX ALPES – LA TOUSSUIRE
115KM | 3550M+ | 3500M-

Col de Sarenne, 1999m (1st class)
Col de la Croix de Fer, 2067m (1st class)
Ascent of La Toussuire, 1738m (2nd class)

I woke feeling a bit sick in the gut – like many others, I was starting to find all the junk in the energy gels and drinks etc were not being well received in my stomach, even though I was punctuating it with real food like savoury crackers, dried fruits, fig rolls, and bananas. Although my digestion was fine, I just felt really bloated and lethargic. Nevertheless I felt quite optimistic about the day, as, compared to yesterday at least, it should be quite straightforward – not so long, and not so much climbing. That’s not to say it would be easy – on any other day this would be a real fearsome ride.

The morning started with one of a few of the neutralised roll outs of the week in which we were guided down the mountain that we had ascended at the end of the day prior. These were truly beautiful on the clear and warm days. There was total silence bar the sounds of 500 odd bikes freewheeling down the mountain, with the sun rising over majestic lansdscapes. Moments like this will definitely be one of the lasting memories for me.

The climb of the Sarenne, and the first half of the Croix de Fer, which we climbed on the face that we had descended the on day 4, sapped my optimism and flippancy of the morning. The Sarenne is steep and narrow, and I felt stiff and weak. I was certainly unable to hold the power I had controlled the day before, and it was frustrating to be getting dropped for the first time in the week. This was also not helped by the grotty feeling in my stomach which was not encouraging me to eat and get the calories I needed, but also was not letting me feel fluid and natural on the bike like I had before.

5

The ascent of the croix de fer was a really really difficult experience because of this lack of strength, and also because it started to dawn on me that this would be by no means the easy day I had kind of thought. The long climb (c.24km) seemed to take forever as I counted down the km markers on the side of the road as I desperately tried to find both the will power and leg strength to get me to the top. After what felt like an eternity, the descent was great fun, very long and sweeping with a few rises to keep things interesting – even though I was in no mood to ride hard and spend energy on this day that I think may have been the low point of the week for me.

The climb to Toussuire was fairly unremarkable – not too steep and not overly pretty. My main memory of it was trying to hold the wheel of an older guy I had dropped about halfway up as we reached the final two or three km of the mountain,. It was one of those torturous climbs when the steeper slopes are at the bottom, and, though you think you’re done with the worst part when near the top, you round a corner to see the ski station finale about 4km in the distance, with a road averaging around 4% gradient all the way. Being able to see the end from that far out is torture! And riding on that kind of gradient is hard for me – not steep enough to be a ‘climb’, it was certainly one for the punchier heavier riders.

I was glad when the day was over and I spent as little time as possible that evening faffing about and preparing for tomorrow, trying to focus on R&R instead. My confidence had taken a real knock today, but I was still clinging on to top 100 in GC.

argaa

The hotel we stayed in was quite amusing – despite all being nicely done out and furnished, it was run by a family of three French folk, none of whom spoke English. It was up to us to try to speak French to them which was an unusual situation for us lazy brits! The amusement of the situation was that the three staff consisted of a receptionist-cum-chef, a manager / jack of all trades , and a lady who appeared to have one foot in the grave shuffling around helping out where she could. It all meant meals were very slow arriving which was a bit of a bummer when all you want is food and bed, but hey ho, first world problems.

6) LA TOUSSUIRE – MEGÈVE
156KM | 3800M+ | 4250M-

Col du Chaussy, 1,533M (2nd class), 1,286M+ over 15.2km, 8.5% avg
Col de la Madeleine, 1,993M (1st class), 1,151M+, 14.3KM, 8%
Col des Saisies, 1,650M (2nd class), 992M+, 15.4km, 6.4%

I cant remember much about Chaussy to be honest beyond it being very very hot. After the initial cool and wet days, the sun had been out constantly and the air temperature was very warm. I remember even I was in full on warm weather gear, opting for just armwarmers and, in a nod to the cyclists of yore, a newspaper up my jersey (which I would subsequently chuck in the bin) for the long descent out of Toussuire that got the day going.

The climb of the Madeleine was quite something, beautifully green and verdant on nice wide winding roads. I was still not feeling on top form and whilst still dropping riders, was also being dropped by others. However, by now I was used to it and was just riding within myself to limit time losses and try to make sure I had enough to get through the day. The descent of the Madeleine was also incredible – stunning clear blue skies in beautiful valleys and sweeping bends made it a truly exhilarating experience.

There was quite a long drag to the Col des Saises on undulating valley roads. I was more keen than normal to get into a group to share out the work here so that I could save as much energy as possible for the final summit finish. As such, I was able to organise a motley array of Italians, Canadians and Frenchmen into a nicely working group of six, and we all stuck together and made good progress up to the feed station at the bottom of the climb. I don’t remember much about Saises either. It certainly wasn’t the hardest climb of the week, but I remember it being quite mentally torturous in the scorching 30+ degree heat (this was one of those roads with no tree cover whatsoever) and the battle to keep turning a good cadence despite my lack of energy. I felt quite faint all the way through this section, with the fatigue and heat meaning I kept on feeling waves of such exhaustion I felt I could almost fall asleep on the bike!

6

Through the descent I stuck with an American guy I’d met earlier in the day and we worked well with a few others in the final drags into Megeve. Once again, I was pleased the day was over.

Despite just wanting to go home and get to bed once off the bike, I ended up spending an hour with the masseuses and osteopath about the increasing pain in my ankle and shin and funny swelling in my foot. They eased it all off but I knew  the last day would be a struggle…

7) MEGÈVE – GENEVA
129KM | 2300M+ | 3000M-

Col des Aravis, 1487m (1st class)
Col de la Croix Fry, 1477m (3rd class)
Col des Pitons, 1335m (2nd class)

This was it, the grand finale. Of the 130km route, only around 80km was actually timed, due to a long neutralised roll out from the top of Pitons, and a neutralised start from Megeve.

This all went on to mean that he pace was absolutely furious, with riders looking to take seconds out of their rivals and burn out all their remaining energies. This was not so good for me as I was too tired to be able to do much by this point. The climb of Aravais was actually a really nice one, as was Pitons – the latter being through a really dense wood, on a nice interesting windy road with no traffic.

The main thing I remember about the racing part of the day was the 20km ish of rolling valley before the final climb, which featured a couple of 20% ramps that took us all by surprise. Needless to say, my new friends from Dartmoor were in their element here! Fortuatnely I was at the front of the bunch when we hit both of these and so was able to skip into the little ring in good time and punch up the hill to the sound  of lots of frantic gear changes and shouts of surprise behind me… chain snap ahoy!

Stage 7... nearly... there...!
Stage 7… nearly… there…!

The final neutralised final section was fantastic, it was along a ridge after the ascent of Pitons – looking one way you could see Mont Blanc, and on the other you could see lake Geneva. I think that will be another memory from the week that will last a long time. The relief of us all was palpable, and pootling along with my new friends Danni, Pasqaule, Mel and Paul in the sun was a delight.

The closing promenade to Geneva, backpacks n'all
The closing promenade to Geneva, backpacks n’all

And that’s it. Over. Life feels a little odd without it! Although there’s a few tales of misery above, I would do it again without a doubt and approach it a lot differently, taking care to pace myself better and not let myself work too hard in groups of riders who were too willing to sit on my wheel. It was a truly life changing experience, and one I would recommend to all. I finished 116 on GC out of around 450 riders (around 50 had not met cut off times and so been disqualified), so I can’t argue with that.

Bring on Haute Route Pyrenees 2016.

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