Haute Route have now revealed the parcours for the Pyrenees and the Alps events in 2017, and the details of the Dolomites are due to be unleashed shortly.
As I’m riding Alps and Dolomites next year, I thought I’d do a little piece about what i think of these routes. I would have done the Pyrenees too, but I’m not going to lie, I don’t think i can be arsed.
So, firstly, here’s the Alps. I’m no expert on the climbs, event villages, and intricacies of the Alps, but having ridden two Haute Route Alps, the Marmotte Alps, and spent a lot of time around Megeve, I know a thing or two.
Read on dear rider….
There’s a few unpleasantly steep and unforgiving climbs on the route, including the Col du Granon, the Joux-Plane, Alpe D’Huez, and Sarenne. I’ve ridden all of these, and the most notable are the former. In my memory, they’re both very similar – that is, steep, rough, heavy / grippy roads, and open and exposed.
Col Du Granon
The Granon was very kindly gifted to us as the time trial in 2015. 11.9km at 8.6% was hard enough on the TT, but falling at the end of the 127km stage two – as a summit finish after already having taken on the Vars and the Izoard – it’s going to be a real test.
As you can see to the right, the road is incredibly rough, and, as if in horror at the barren and savage ramps, there seems to be no vegetation to provide cover at any point. It took me 56 and a bit minutes last time, having (inevitably) gone out too hard and blown at the end. I can’t see myself topping that in the midday sun (hopefully) with over 3,000m climbing already in the legs. Let’s see.
Col de Joux-Plane
As I rode the Joux-Pane as final climb of the 2016 Etape du Tour, I remember thinking (between wishing it all to be over) how much it reminded me of the Granon. The stats read hard (11.6km at 8.5%), and the climb is hard. It smacks you in the face from km zero, with a few ramps over 13%, and an average touching on 10% in the first stretches.
It’s notorious as one of the toughest climbs in the northern Alps. As with the Granon, the lack of shade, heavy road certainly don’t help, but the source of the pain lies mainly in the gradient. Just look at the profile below, it explains it all really.
The climb falls as the last ascent of stage six, with the event village being down the other side in Morzine. It will be interesting to see if the descent is neutralised or not – which would effectively render the climb a summit finish- as I remember the descent being very fast, very technical, and potentially quite dangerous. It was ‘raced’ at Etape, but that was on closed roads, making it a very different proposition.
The loved and the loathed
Like the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, it’s very difficult to traverse the Alps without passing over the Col D’Izoard and Col du Lautaret. And so it’s no surprise to see them both in the parcours for 2107, in stage two and three respectively. I have a real love / hate with both of these. Why? Coz this….
First time I climbed the Izoard was in an epic thunderstorm in the 2015 race. You don’t feel the cold and wet in the heat of a climb, but you certainly do in the speed of a descent. With rivers running down the road, and numb fingers barely able to grip the brake levers, that descent was probably the most terrifying of my life and something permanently etched in my memory. The organisers eventually decided to ferry the back of the pack off the col in minibuses.
The second ascent (I was there – promise – see pic) was the penultimate climb of my 10 day haute route in 2016. I was a broken man. Desperately clinging on to the pack the whole way, with deadened legs and heavy head, was a real test of character.
However, there’s something about that climb that is so brilliantly otherworldly and unforgettable. The casse deserte at the top is like something i’ve never seen, the tight twisting hairpins and dense forests in the upper sloped quite beautiful. And the three km of dead straight 8% climbing through the village of Arvieux that you can see stretch in front of you is a mind game that you can’t help but want to keep having another go at, in the intrigue of seeing if you can handle it better than the last time. Lets see if the dice fall favourably in that game in 2017.
Col du Lautaret
Apologies for local references, but, if you live in the Chilterns or around South East London, imagine Layhams Lane or Pishill. Then imagine it lasting about 27km rather than about 5km. That’s the only thing I can compare the Col Du Lautaret to.
The Lautaret is more or less the foothills of the south side of the Galibier, and is a seemingly endless, mostly straight and featureless, drag along a valley, about 3-6% all the way. So not really a climb, but certainly not flat or easy.
First time up it in 2015, it was the opening of the marathon stage that featured the Galibier, Croix de Fer, and Les Deux Alpes. I went up very steady, chatting with newfound friends, taking in the beautiful morning sun as it rose behind us. In 2016, it was the lead up to the Galibier, the final proper climb of my 10 day adventure. I’d already been over the Izoard – as referred to above – and my spirit was broken. I remember finding myself in a bunch with five Scandinavians, a mix of Danes and Swedes i think. Typically rangy and athletic, my companions eventually spewed me out of the back of the bunch like some poorly assembled smorresbrod, left to grind my way up the mind-numbing drag alone. Some dark times were had up that bastard valley road.
As the Lautaret in the opening km of day three in 2017, I’m hoping that similar morning sun t0 that of 2015 falls on my legs in 8 months’ time.
Stage five. 180km, 4500m ascent.
That’s comparable to doing the beast that is La Marmotte Alpes. But swap out a nice little taper before the Marmotte for three hefty road stages and and Alpe D’Huez TT before, and a rest week after the Gran Fondo for two more Haute Route stages to, err, loosen the legs off.
Nuff said. Let’s move on quick!
The Descents and Neutralisations
The extent to which descents and valley roads are neutralised in the Haute Route can make a huge difference on your GC time, depending on your abilities and riding style. In an understandable nod to safety and conservativism, more and more descents have been neutralised in previous years. I totally understand the rationale behind this, but it can reduce a stage to a series of mountain time trials rather than a cohesive ‘race’.
There’s some very fast and expansive descents this year, notably the long and largely straight plunges off the high mountains of the Col de Madeleine (below) and Col D’Izoard.
Once i’ve got my eye in, I’m a relatively capable descender, and felt that I gained a lot in 2016 where we were racing on the descents. Whatsmore, when my blood is up, and the legs feel good, I seem to thrive on the days where there is minimal neutralisation (such as stage two in the Pyrenees 2016), planning feed stations to the tiniest detail to minimise non-moving time.
On the day I write, the minutiae of the route, such as the neutralised sections, are yet to be announced. However, for those attempting to get good GC placings, they can make as much of a difference to the parcours as the stage distances and climbs included. I know for a fact it won’t just be me awaiting info on what’s timed and what’s not with anticipation.
The triple header
As further discussed below, the route man has had his thinking cap on and come up with some great innovations and little quirks this year. A notable one is the trio of approaches to the Alpe D’Huez Ski Station. Two of these – via the Sarenne and through Villard Reculaz – fall on stage three, and then the infamous 21 bends fall as a time trial on stage four. You can see the terrible trio below, with the Huez resort in sight in each map: moving clockwise: the Sarenne, the Villard Reculaz climb, and the ‘classic’ Alpe D’Huez.
From memory, the Sarenne is hard, with steep pitches and narrow off-camber roads. And, in my opinion, the Alpe is popular because of the photogenic and unique 21 bends only. Having ridden up it on that Marmotte and the following day’s Grimpee D’Alpe, it brings only memories of minimal views, unpleasantly steep ramps, battered tarmac, and, well, lots of hairpins.
I’m not sure whether these three ascents have been included as a gimmick or, more likely, as a logistical and route planning manoeuvre, but it’s an interesting oddity and one that I’m not sure I’m looking forward to!
As referred to above, the route for 2017 is quite different to past years, paticularly in the first half of the week. The past few years had featured climbs that you could have bet your mortgage on being included, such as the Col de Nice, Col de Bonnette and Col Du Glaibier on the opening three stages. However, this trio are almost conspicuous by their absence in 2017, and this is a good thing. Change is always welcome.
The predictability of previous years the product of the route taking the same direction out of the host city of Nice and towards the first stage venue of Auron. However, in 2017 we head to Pro-Loup on day one instead, resulting in the peloton scaling the massive Col De Cayolle, and then straight to the Vars and Izoard on day two. The Vars and Izoard have always been a stalwart of the Haute Route, but they typically fall towards the end of stage two. The diversion to Pra Loup in 2017 means we get the joys of these two earlier in the week than typically.
NOT the Etape du Tour
It’s quite ironic that this year’s Etape du Tour is based on the Col Du Vars ad Col D’Izoard stage of the Tour de France. Look at the below profile. Looks similar to stage two huh? I’d be a bit gutted if i’d signed on for both Etape and Haute Route Alps…
Having ridden both these climbs twice already, i have no need of taking a ‘preview’ of them at the Etape, but I guess some will be glad of it. As mentioned above, I have a real love / hate thing going with the Izoard, and having been tempted to sign on for Etape to bury the hatchet with that col, I’m glad i held out in the suspicion that it would again feature in Haute Route and that score can be settled in late August rather than the July Etape.
The relentless to the last
Look at stage seven.
No easy roll home here. In the Alps 2015, and the Pyrenees 2016, the timed section of the final stage was either relatively short or relatively flat. However, the finale in 2017 looks a relentless barrage of smaller climbs, meaning long descents and recovery periods are a goner. Sure, the overall climbing for the stage (2,600m) doesn’t sound much compared to other stages, but consider what happened in the preceding six days. You will be a bit tired.
In other Haute Routes I’ve been a dead man walking on the final days. I’d better keep at least a little of my powder dry next year, or I’ll be in trouble.
This is being proclaimed as the hardest Alps route in years, and from my perspective i definitely agree. The bare facts – just under 900km and just over 22,000m of climbing – say it all.
On the day I write, the start date of 21st August 2017 is 265 days away. Better get riding.