I rode an Haute Route and a half in 2016; the full Pyrenees race, and a ‘bespoke’ Alps Compact comprising the first three stages of the race. This was kindly put together by Haute Route and Sports Tours International for me as there was no official Alps Compact available.
I’m just going to debrief the Pyrenees here, both in order to prevent boring you to tears, and to enable me to focus on a complete race, rather than an abriged event.
Prologue – the weeks and months before.
After a big block of training and racing in France in late June and early July, prospects were looking good. My time in the mountains had honed my race-craft, massively improved my descending skills, built my climbing power, and generally developed my experience and confidence.
A trip to see Vince at the Nuffield Health Performance Centre (aka ‘Vince’s pain cave’ as I like to call it) to get a second Vo2 and lactate threshold test a few days prior to flying off massively boosted my confidence. Although I’d gained 2% in body mass, my lactate threshold per kilo was up 12%, and my vo2 max per kilo was up 2%. Although weight is deemed the enemy for climbing types, as a pretty lean guy I was more than happy to sacrifice a kilo for more watts. Indeed, the massive physical demands of the Haute Route means that a spare kilo isn’t necessarily a bad thing – reserves of energy and general robustness are essential when pushing your body to its limits for around 5 hours a day.
I arrived in Biarritz a few days in advance of stage one in order to give me time to acclimatise, recover from the flight, and generally get my shit together. A 90 minute spin through the rolling hills of the Basque country further revealed good form and injected more confidence. The only thing worrying me at this stage was the portents of a lot of rain for the opening day, something furthered by occasional downpours so heavy that the rain was bouncing off the tarmac.
D-Day. It had begun.
Initial fears of a day one washout were slightly abated when overnight rain stopped as myself and other Sports Tours International guests were nervously piling breakfast down our necks in a melee of toasts, eggs, crossiants, cereal and fruit. The gabba jersey was thrown back in the bag, the normal jersey was retrieved.
The first 80km of the Pyrenees Haute Route was a rolling, technical and attritional affair through the bergs of the Basque country. We were battered by an array of short sharp climbs that would touch on 15% at times, reminding me of the walls of Exmoor or Yorkshire. I opted to take this section steady and stuck with Nick, a teammate on my Haute Route team (SSLL RT) and partner in crime on many past races and events. As we had done before, we managed to rally the motley bunch we found ourself in into a well controlled pace line, taking turns for 60secs or so before peeling to the back. Inital glee at dry weather was,ahem, dampened when we were struck by a torrential shower after around 40km and I could feel the legs seizing and aching in protest at the cold. Thankfully, the first climb was in sight and fears of getting too cold were cast aside.
The Ahusquy was a true Pyrenean welcome and a bit of a shock to those used to the smooth and benevolent climbs of the Alps. This mountain was a true Pyrenean gem – steep (well over 12% for long sections), narrow, and with cattle and cow pats liberally littered across the road. Climbing it through the dense mists and fog really left us feeling in the middle of nowhere, or perhaps somewhere back in time. My legs felt good, but I held myself back and didn’t dig too deep, nervous of making the mistake I made in the Alps last year and being a day one hero. Nonethless, progress through the pack was made, and my optimism remained high.
After a neutralised descent down the dense fog and twisting lanes of the Ahuquy, we were at the pinnacle of the stage before we knew it – the summit finish to La Pierre St Martin, a climb made famous in the 2015 tour by Chris Froome’s stinging and decisive attack. This was a proper Hors Categorie climb, at 16.5km in length and 7.5% grade. The legs still felt strong. After initially holding back when my other teammate Mel, a true TT and climbing powerhouse, went up the road, I eventually decided to have a bit of dig and used my powermeter to climb at a swift but not stupid pace. It was pretty satisfying to peg her, and Mark, a mate from the Alps 2015, back in the final 20 minutes, again, without feeling that I was pushing too hard. With the day done, the huge nerves of the opening stage abated with a satisfying performance (leaving me in 93rd) and the promise of settled weather for tomorrow.
Another long day beckoned. Buoyed by yesterday’s performance, where I realised I lost a lot of places by not hitting out on the rolling initial valleys, but gained a lot back on the climbs, I decided to have a good push today. The fact that none of the descents bar the final drop into the closing stage town were neutralised further made me fancy my chances. I’d witnessed a lot of nervy descending in the previous day and felt confident I could gain time on the descents.
We again started the day with a few hours of rolling valleys. Nick and I made a pact to stick together through this; we knew that we were good at marshalling small groups into effective pacelines and decided to try to do it again. And the plan worked, as we ended up churning out a lot of miles with just us two, a guy from Sports Tours called Tom, and A.N. Other. We were perfectly matched for each other and worked well, whirlwinding our way past countless other groups.
We eventually hit the first climb of the day, the Marie-Blanque and well, what a f-cker. It’s touted as the toughest climb in the pyrenees, not just due to the gradient, but because it’s almost arrow straight, thus offering no mental relief. This is the kind of climb that suits me (when I’m fresh) and that others fear. Relentlessly steep, with around 4km averaging 11%+, slighter guys like myself could utilise our gravitational advantage to good effect. This was probably my best climb of the week. On fresh legs I put out numbers I’d never seen before, and although I felt I flew up the climb, I also didn’t feel I was going into the red and that all was under control. Having my wits about me also meant I had the concentration and energy to descend rapidly.
The main climb of the day was the legendary Soulor- Aubisque double act, and the breeding ground of golden eagles. I was really looking forward to hopefully seeing flocks of these, and towards the summit of another satisfyingly strong ascent, I was rewarded by the sight of around six of these magnificent beasts wheeling overhead. The size was incredible and really made you appreciate the wild and untainted nature of the Pyreenes, far away from the ski stations and steelworks of the Alps.
The day closed with the ascent of a little known climb called the Spandelles, and wow it was tough. I’m so glad I was feeling strong up here, as it takes no prisoners. Like the Marie Blanque, it was relentlessly steep, but more variable and ‘pitchy’, with gradients rapidly fluctuating between 7 and 15%. To add to the misery, the road was barely over 6 feet wide at points, and littered with cracked tarmac, and pools of gravel. As the heat built, it was the first time i was looking forward to the top of the col and the end of the timin of the day. The legs were starting to burn and the head felt fuzzy. Fortunately i picked up a couple of others riding at similar pace, and we seemed to silently form a pact to pace each other through the mentally tricky final kms.
I finished the day with the 60th best time, putting me 69th on GC, and the splits revealed i was again only let down by the valley section where I could perhaps of pushed harder. However, confidence was still high, and the rest day / timetrial loomed where I hoped to consolidate my position and get a bit of R&R.
That tricky day had arrived, the TT up the little known Couraduque. Go hard and gain places, or go easy and try to recover as best as possible? I went into the day non-comitally planning to do something in the middle; ride the climb at a power that I would ride any other climb at, thus not attacking the stage but not sitting up and recovering. I was hoping this would allow me to consolidate my position. Having looked at the roadbook and strava segment, I didn’t think the col would be one that I could thrive on due to there being a 2-3km plateau halfway up where the grade falls to around 2%, thus allowing heavier more powerful riders to gain time on me.
So, following the nervous waiting in the pen for my start time, nibbling on jelly babies in the hope they would provide some sort of comfort, I was on the ramp and the countdown started. The major aim of my day was to make it down the ramp and not immediately fall off or have some sort of clipping in disaster in front of the riders waiting for their start slot. I achieved that successfully and hit the intial ramps on the climb. The ‘go steadyish’ plan immediately went out of the window. Bouyed by yet more positive numbers on the garmin and me very quickly catching the next man up the road (we go off on 30 sec intervals I think) attack mode was engaged. I am very bad at pacing myself, and when my legs feel good, I want to go. This is totally exacerbated when I have a carrot to chase, and the feeling of chasing down the men down the order from you and putting more time onto them is very satisfying (Haute Route sets us off in reverse GC order, as with Grand Tours etc.)
I hit the plateau mentioned above and had the dispiriting feeling of Rob from Athlete Lab (one of many new friends on the week) coming past me. After a brief but failed attempt to get onto his wheel I resolved to ignore him and keep pushing hard but steady. Dipping hugely into the red to catch him would do me no favours later in the week.
Having lost a little ground on the plateau, the course took a right turn and the climbing started proper, and tough it was too. In true Pyrenean style, the road narrowed, ramps of well over 12% mingled with short descents and tricky bends, and the sun did its blazing work. Today was the first of a heat wave in south france, with the mercury hitting well over 35 degrees in the full sun. As the road steepened, the pain in my legs increased, but the numbers stayed good. The fire in my belly burnt strong and I kept the legs turning, the numbers still telling me good things. As I hit the final hairpins before the summit, my buddies and team mates Nick, Paul and Mel started hollering at me to keep going, and it’s amazing what a bit of encouragement to do. Lactate burning blazes in my legs, I put in one final push and thankfuly it was all over. The first proper dip into the red of the week was done.
I finished the day with the 69th best time. I totally turned myself inside out, particularly in the second half. So to only be scraping into the top 70 was a touch disconcerting; the competition was fierce. Pleasingly though, my efforts had moved me to 68th in GC.. one whole gain in place. Staying in the top 75 was significant; with that I would be allowed into the start pen with the big boys of the peloton tomorrow. Haute Route allow the top 75 off separately at the start of stages to allow racers to stay together and prevent incidents and mishaps resulting from faster riders trying to dodge the slower groups. So, a tough, but rewarding morning on the mountain. Good power numbers, good weather, sort of good results.
I promptly scampered home to sit, eat, sit, eat, try to sleep, eat, eat. I’d been really struggling with sleep all week so far and was deperate to kip. Afternoon naps aren’t my forte and so I failed to get Zzzs in the afternoon, however, feet up on the wall and eyes shut was better than nowt.
A visit to the front pen and a trip up the tourmalet, highest pass of the Pyrenees and legend of the tour, beckoned tomorrow. Nervous excitement was high.
It’s silly really, but I found myself quite nervous to be in the ‘racers’ top 75 pen this morning. I knew I had the fitness and experience to be in there, but to be standing about with my adversaries was intimidating. Gone was the inane banter over a coffee begged from our newfound friends in black widows.cc with Mel, Nick, and Paul. Now was the time for solo reflection and self-psyching, interspersed with occasional chatter with a few others I knew from before Haute Route and had met in the previous days.
The first climb of the day was the south / west face of the Tourmalet. I knew from a previous trip up the col that the climb proper was preceded by around 10km of draggy, rolling false flat, and it was this that fed my nerves.
As expected, the second the timing started, the bunch accelerated like a rat down a drainpipe and the shitfest was on. The reason for those nerves was justified. The pace was being driven high at the front, and I was fighting to hold a reasonable position in 40th – 50th wheel. Personal space was certainly at a premium, with wheels 6 inches in front and behind my own, and touches of knuckles and handlebars being commonplace. For me, hanging onto wheels over little ramps of 5% or so gradient, which always string out a bunch, were agonising dips into the red; 30 second pushes at a power around 50% over my threshold.
The pace seemed to spiral upwards and upwards til the inevitable. About 5 wheels in front of me, there was a sudden crack of carbon on tarmac and array of hollers in various languages. There had been a touch of wheels, and two riders hit the deck pretty hard, with a couple of others tumbling over the top from behind them. I was just far enough back to navigate around the spillage of gels, spare tubes, bidons and other pocket paraphanalia. The bunch was split and riders were scrambling to get back onto a wheel. After a big push to get myself back into a bunch ,the ramps and hairpins of the Tourmalet started proper. My group was around 20 riders, and included the top two in the female GC, Rob from Athlete Lab who had very kindly dropped me in the draggy section of the TT the day before, and a few others I recognised from previous days.
The sun was still only just cresting the peak of the col in front of us, and it was an amazing feeling. Climbing in a group of elite riders over one of the most famous mountains of pro cycling, with the morning shadows lengthening as the sun rose, warming the air and spilling light onto rocks and barren fields around us was unforgetable. We climbed in silence for over 90 minutes; no one chose to speak bar the occasional essential communcation with other riders. The morning was beautifuly tranquil bar the buzzing of drivetrains and laboured breathing of the pack.
I make the climb sound like some sort of fairy tale. It wasn’t. The pace was high and in the final few kms, where the gradients reached a fierce 10-11% the elastic snapped ,and my bunch split. I made it over in about 15th of my 20, and the legs were burning.
With my entry into the bigboy pen, I’d spoken to Roy from Sports Tours, one of the most friendly, passionate and keen to help reps I’ve met, and asked that I have pre-filled bidons at the feed station at the top. The descent was timed and I knew that i could gain some time here. However, i also knew i’d need fluid after around two hours of racing. Sports Tours do a service where you give them a bag of whatever you may require at certain points in the race, which you then pick up at the feed station.
So, atop of the tourmalet, I found Roy, threw my empty bidons at him, grabbed my fully filled 3rd and 4th bottles , stuffed some solid food into my face, and within 15 seconds I was off again. It sounds silly, but doing this massively helps if you’re racing. If you stop, park up your bike, then fight through the feedstation frenzy to fill up your bottles, you lose maybe 3-4 minutes, and the mind switches off. To not have to even get off the bike and keep the mind engaged massively helps, and Roy was ace at making this a smooth process. A great soigneur. If only he’d clean my bike for me…
So, before I knew it, I was descending the Tourmalet. I vaguely remebered the nature of this from before, and wow wow wow. Open, flowing and, until the bottom half, very quiet, I knew that I could gain a bit of time with my newfound descending confidence. Looking at training peaks, I hit 83kph on the descent, and covered 18 km in 18 minutes, including a few slow stretches where I got caught behind a car. Bar the Madeleine from Haute Route 2015, it’s in my mind as one of my favourite descents ever. Loved it.
Althouh the buch fragmented on the descent off the tourmalet, I found myself back with some of my early morning cohort at the foot of the next climb, the Hourquette Ancizan. I knew little of this climb, but it was a proper Pyrenean beauty. A narrow little backroad, with cows the size of taxis casually strolling about in the surrounding meadows (and across the road), and streams and woodland scattered about nearby. The bunch went a little easier over this and I clung on. I think the effects of the pacey climb of the Tourmalet, the realisation that we still had three days left, and the horror stats of the final climb of the day (more of which later) were taking hold. The storm abated.
After the descent and a short valley drag, we were at the base of the Pla d’Adet, in the town of St Lary Soulan. To describe it as a furnace would be kind. The midday sun was strong, the clouds were hiding, and humidity was high. The garmin told me it was 38 degrees. Having ridden in both the Pyrenees and the Alps, it always seems that bit hotter and close in the pyrenees. Like the countryside and the roads, the sun felt more wild.
So, the plat d’adet. Eughh. On a day where I was fresh, this would be a climb built for me. On a day where fatigue was growing, and the heat was oppressive, it was torture. 10 km at 10%. The stats were simple and unpleasant. However, these numbers are deceptive; the climb had two short descents, thus making the true average climbing gradient around 11-12%. Whatsmore, like Alpe D’Huez, the rock face on the side of the road radiated the heat and intensified the pain of the climb.
Within 10 minutes, my legs were screaming at me. I was sufficiently fuelled and energised, but my legs felt like they were being torn apart, I could almost feel the muscles being shredded. The hard efforts of Day two and the TT were kicking in, and the legs were not co-operating. Getting out of the saddle felt hard and getting over my gear and spinning a good cadence when seated was tough. The climb took me 51 minutes and for at least 30 of those, I was defintely not having fun. Although no one actually passed me, I saw a group up the road putting a lot of distance on to me, and that dispirited me further.
Reaching the summit of the col and end of the stage was sweet sweet relief. I managed to catch up with Ant, a friend from Haute Route Alps and fellow Sports Tours guest, at the top and he too had suffered up the horror of a mountain. Ant is a tough and strong racer who was fighting for a top 40 GC spot, and so I was pleased that it wasn’t just me that suffered. On seeing the results, I think many people felt the pinch that day. Despite having no strength up that nightmare final col, I managed 50th on the day and moved up to 55th on GC. A tough, tough, tough but satisfying and very memorable day.
The queen stage of the Pyrenees had arrived. For some reason, I’d not really paid much attention to it and considered it one of the ‘average’ stress days of the week. Hmmm… maybe I shouldn’t have done that.
I started in the top 75 pen again, and after an all too brief neutral section, we were straight into climbing the ‘other’ side of the Hourquette Ancizan. I can’t remember masses about the climb other than that my body was not happy from the get go. I still was yet to get a good night’s sleep all week and had been unable to make up a few Zzzs with afternoon naps, an artform I’m seemingly incapable of. To top the massive weariness, my legs felt terrible. Just walking up the stairs in my hotel left me out of breath, and the muscles in my thighs felt like they were being torn apart. I could feel the damage in my legs, like the muscles had been shredded. Despite feeling turd, I just about clung onto the back of the group up the col. Fortunately a lot of the climb was set over very steep ramps, and I think this is all that enabled me to retain contact. Again, my reasonable descending skills kept me in contention on the way down before we immediately hit the Col d’Aspin.
The Aspin was mercifully short and I managed to just keep my act together here. I wasn’t dropping people at the rate of knots I had earlier in the week, but I wasn’t being passed by many others too. It was small consolation for me to see the leader of the female GC looking in a spot of bother up the col as I crawled past her; the punishment of the preceding stages wasn’t just taking its toll on me.
Having looked at the profile of the route the evening before, I knew it would be essential to get myself in a group for the 20km of false flat / valley that would lead us to the third col of the day. Thus, my heart sank when I arrived at the base of the Aspin to see only one rider a few hundred meters up the road; a guy called David who I had befriended the previous morning on the drag up to the start of the Tourmalet. We resolved to work as smoothly and effectively as we could through the valley, taking steady 90 sec turns to keep the pace up but allow each other a bit of recovery, hoping we would find others to help out as we rode. Whilst our pace wasn’t slow, it was far from that we could have commanded in a bunch of 10 plus, and I could feel my mullered legs getting weaker with each shift on the front. Thinking back, we were absurdly unlucky to not pick up any reinforcements on the way, and I think this section was the nail in my coffin for the day.
David and I arrived together at the Azet and resolved to try to stick together and pace each other up the col. We knew we were of similar abilities and having a comrade in tough times massively eases the misery. The descent of the Azet was steep and technical, and was wisely neutralised. The relief I felt as I reached the summit of the mountain and the neutralised feed zone to see Darrel from Sports Tours with a tray of baguettes was overwhelming. Feeling pretty sick and bloated with the maltodextrin of energy products, a savoury snack was heavenly, as was the chance to rest the brain and body for 10 minutes or so – no one is in a rush during neutralised parts of Haute Route!
So, the final climb, the mythical and little known Cap de Long. As a nature reserve, it had never been used by pro races due to prohibitions on certain sizes of traffic (or something). It was touted as the most beautiful climb of the whole three weeks of the Haute Route, and I wish I’d have been able to appreciate it more.
At 22km long, I was so relieved to get myself into a large group as the timing started again after the descent of the Azet. The first 10km or so of Cap De Long were more a false flat than a climb. Whilst I’m normally keen to organise and drive bunches along, I was more than happy to sit in the middle of my peloton and rest as much as possible. We eventually hit the climb proper, and inevitably the group shattered. Despite being only 7-8% average, I suffered like a dog. I felt well fuelled and was handling the 35 degree heat reasonably well, but the legs just wouldn’t play. No matter how hard I tried, they wouldn’t turn any faster than the crawl they’d fallen to. What followed was a pretty miserable experience, head down, legs screaming, blind to the beauty around me. The climb was set through one of the most spectacular backdrops I’ve experienced; lush and thriving flora and fauna and sparkling crystal blue lakes.
I made it to the finish at 62nd on the day, leaving me 56th in GC. I had to dig deep mentally and physically today, and day six, the stage I was least looking forward to, loomed large.
This was it, the day I was dreading. That massive valley drag in the middle of the profile above was giving me the willies. I knew that a failure to get into a decent group would be a massive detriment to a GC challenge, but also that riding in too pacey a group would put me in a lot of trouble for the huge wedge of climbing at the end of the day. The nerves I’d been feeling weren’t exactly eased by how horrible my legs felt again. The feeling of muscles shredding from yesterday had built overnight despite all the recovery methods (foam roller, elevated legs, massage at the race village etc) I had available to me being employed.
Cruelly, the neutral section today was about 3 seconds long before taking us to the steep ramps of the ‘other’ side of the Azet. I was hanging out of the back of my group within about 5km and was being passed by riders left, right and centre. Not good for the mojo. I did all I could to regain some time and catch onto a decent bunch over the descent, but to no avail. On reaching the based of the col, I found only Gabrielle, and Italian guy I’d seen on the road a few times. Despite no common language, we knew what was required; short turns on the front, trying to conserve as much energy as possible without losing loads of time.
After about 20km of this, including many a look over the shoulder or up the road for reinforcements, we were thankfully sucked up by a bunch of six chunky rouleurs who were slamming down the smooth wide roads. Both good and bad news this… whilst the pace was upped and the recovery period was lengthened, turns on the front to contribute some work were very hard, especially over the draggy rises later in the valley. Although I knew that the start of the Port De Bales would signal the start of well over an hour of climbing torture, I was quite glad of its arrival. Sticking in the wheels of my group was hurting me a lot; the pace was just a bit too high, but I felt no option but to hang onto them in order to keep me in a decent position.
Despite feeling pretty terrible on the way up, I reckon the Port De Bales is one of my favourite climbs in the Pyrenees. This was my first time up to the 1755m summit, but I’d love to go back. The first 10km or so of the 19km monster meandered along a beautiful surfaced road through a shady valley following a stream. Although the drafting effect was minimal, my group seemed to stick together in the knowledge that we had a long was to go; both on the col itself and the whole stage. The second half of the climb was fucking tough. As is becoming the theme of this blog, the ramps were steep, prolonged, and commonly rough and off camber. No chance of any smooth rhythm here; this was a long way from the Alps.
The promise of a bit of a rest at the neutralised summit and descent was all that kept my legs going to the top. I knew that Darrel from Sports Tours was set up at the feed at the top, and when I arrived I’d be able to get off the bike and stretch the legs a bit. And perhaps more importantly, have a baguette! My teammates and fellow Sports Tours guests Mel, Paul and I were increasingly finding that the neutralised picnics at the top of cols were one of the highlights of the day. Those guys were taking the ride a little easier than me and so would sit back, enjoy the views and shoot the breeze. As I was pushing a bit harder than them, I was always keen to keep moving for fear of the legs totally seizing and the mental fire going out., Nonetheless, 5-10 minutes of time off the bike and inane banter with Darrel really helped. Baguetted up, I slightly reluctantly made my way down the col.
As I dawled my way down the descent, the final challenges of the day loomed large; the infamous Peyresourde (have I spelt that correct?). At 10km at 8%, the col in isolation wasn’t anything to get too whimpery about, but at the end of a long long hot stage, it felt tough. A steep and scorching grind along a main road for the initial few kms did little for the failing mojo and faster-failing legs, however, a turn onto a quieter road opened up a stunning set of switchbacks with fortified walls around them; a truly magnificent piece of engineering. I was mentally suffering by this point, and although I was picking off a few riders, there were just as many coming past me. I knew that if the mind failed totally, the legs would completely go, and all i could do was distract myself… a bit of music, thinking about my blow out recovery meal on return to England, a but of mental arithmetic (‘if i’m climbing at this speed, and I’ve got this many kms to the top, it will take me this long’ etc)
The organisers added a real sting in the tail to this stage. After summiting the Peyresourde, an all to brief 2 km descent lead us straight into a 3km climb to the stage finish on the Peyragudes. 5-10 minutes of descent is noway near enough time to clear the legs of lactate and other evils after a climb, and to make things worse, we went from immediately down, to immediately up. And proper UP it was too, with the initial ramps of the Peyragudes being well over 10%. By this point, my legs felt truly bollocksed. Just turning my legs up those steeper ramps was a traumatic experience, and thinking that it would only be 15 minutes or so before sit down, shower, and proper food was all I could focus on to keep the motivation up.
I finished this tough tough day in a very average 82nd for the stage, however, miraculously clinging on to 57th on GC. One last push on the final day and the Pyrenees would be done.
By now all I wanted was to finish the week in the top 75. That penultimate night is tough. In your head it’s nearly over and you want to start relaxing, but the final stage is notorious for being fast, frantic and aggressive, with riders fighting for position in a final all out effort to gain GC places. Maintaining a bit of discipline and dodging booze and getting on the roller and doing my stretching was a bit of a mental grind, but I wanted to do all I could to optimise recovery for my flagging legs.
The last day in the Pyrenees. Shit or bust. Balls to the wall.
The final chance top bag that coveted GC position. A huge proportion of the peloton were stayging at Bageneres de Luchon at the base of the Peyrousade, rather than at the top of the col, where the stage officially started. As such, to avoid the cold, frustrating and tyre-popping neutralised descent, this chunk of riders joined the neutralised convoy at the base of the timing matt.
And what a shitfest it was. The division between each wave of riders had vanished and all of a sudden all 400ish of the Pyrenees peloton rolled over the timing matt as one. The only climb of the day was preceded by about 10km of slight downhill and it was hectic staying safe in the massive bunch whilst trying to work towards the front. The Col de Mente, steep and unrelenting, was something I should have been able to excel on, however, on battered legs, all I could do was try to maintain a place somewhere in the middle of the pack. As with yesterday, the stage was dominated by a hige valley section. Thus, getting over the mente with a big bunch of mates was key.
I’d reached the base of the climb with Nick, my teammate, buddy, and fellow ‘boss of the bunch. I distanced him in the opening kms of the tricky beast. Despit my best Nibali impression on the descent, carving past a number of riders, intending to try to reach a bunch to roll to the end with, Nick pegged me back, and glad of it I was too. The ‘terrier of the chilterns’ is a proper slippery descender and must have flown down there to regroup with me.
With my partner in crime in tow, we found ourselves in a bunch of about 30. Within about 10 minutes, Nick and I, with help from Karen, a super strong rider and self-proclaimed ‘Gob Shite’ from Yorkshire the group was whirling around relatively effectively. In retrospect, we probably would have had an easier time with about 10 of us; the group wasn’t all that well matched, with some surging hard off the front and a large number trying to hide at the back, contributing nothing. I found myself taking double turns nearly every ‘revolution’ of the bunch, getting increasingly frustrated at the passengers ath te back. However.nothing could be done; 10 of us wouldn’t have been able to peel off solo and so we had to make the best of a bad lot.
Today was the day I witnessed the first piece of really bad sportsmanship at Haute Route. Although those of us at the poiunty end of the pack were competing, alliances a#were formed and camaraderie was high; id shared drinks and gels with strangers, towed and been towed by unknowns, and shared many a motivational conversation with friends and foe.
With about 20km to the end of the timing, I’d noticed a bunch of four guys, all in a team, all in the same kit and so presumably club mates from home, sitting on the back. Having seen them on the road before I knew that they were strong guys and weren’t sheltering due to fatigue, but as a pre-concerted desire to rest and refuel for a final hoorah.
The four of them peeled off once , and I somehow shut them down, dragging the rest of the group with me. I didn’t realise at the time that they were actually trying to break away, I just thought it was an unintentional surge. Although my legs had been feeling terrible over the lengthy sweetspot efforts of climbs, I felt comfortable working over and under my threshold, as is the demand of group riding. However, the foursome attacked again a few kms later. This time, none of us were able to catch. A few of us peeled away to try to bridge, and we all caved after various lengths of time. This big effort on tired legs and depleted reserves left me with that sudden bonky feeling…. Loss of enthusiasm, strength, and co-ordination. Thankfuly I sensed this early and I double dosed on a gel and half a bar straight away. This just about pulled me back from the brink and I was able to hold my own in the remnants of the bunch and roll over the last timing matt of the week with Nick.
The dawdling of the bunch had left me 136th on the day – although the fact that massive groups were rolling in together meant time gaps were relatively minimal, and a final GC position of 60th. I’d have loved to breach the top 50, but am more than happy with 60th. I feel that I learnt a massive amount about my mental and physical capabilities during the week, and think that my return to the event in 2017 may yield me a more favourable result.
A quick word (or hunded) on my three days in the Alps.
My legs recovered a little on the day I transferred over to Nice, and I placed well on the gruelling first stage in the Alps. It did seem that the competition wasn’t as high as in the Pyrenees however, i was still off form but more than holding my own.
The second stage took us over the mammoth Bonnette, which i’d ascended in the beginnings of a thunderstorm in 2015. As you’d expect from the second hihest paved road in the Alps, the climb took nearly 100 minutes. However, i loved every second, and climbing in a well matched and rapid group took me back to my ascent of the Tourmalet the day before.
I went in to day three feeling totally shagged again, and the ascent of the Izoard, an otherworldly and very very tough mountain, emptied me totally. It was my second ascent of the col and it’s definitely a love/hate relationship for me. The relentless grind up the Lautaret, the penultimate climb of my 10 days, finished me off. I went over the final climb of the day, the easy side of the Galibier, with absolutely nothing left.
It was a shame that my final day was a bit of a whimper, but i managed to bow out of the Alps race at 62nd in GC, which is far better than expected.
Epilogue – the weeks after.
I’m writing this blog around 10 days after the 10 days in the mountains. I initially felt totally empty. Not of energy and strength, but of direction and purpose.I’d been thinking about Haute Route 2016 almost every day since autumn of 2015. My whole year of events and training was planned around it, and this saw me undertaking countless painful turbo sessions, endless training rides in both my local Kentish training ground and in the heart of the Ariege region of the Pyrenees, and competing in a plethora of events in the UK and France.
The only way to get over this dearth is to look forward however. The training has started again, plans for 2017 are in place, and a few ideas for things to keep me busy over autumn are hatching. Watch this space.
Thanks a lot for reading this. A bit of an epic blog, but it was quite an epic few days….
Endless thanks to everyone who helped / supported me in the lead up to, and completion of this, namely:
- Sports Tours International
- Athlete Service
- Verve Cycling
- Vince Christan
- Max’s Protein Bars