Haute Route, famed for their brutal seven day stage races / sportives, launched their new concept three day events this year, and I rode the first in the calendar – the Haute Route Alpe D’Huez.
OC Sport nailed the route. It perfectly caputured all the different facets of the mountains that makes me so love these playgrounds for pedalling. The route was centred around the Bourg D’Oisins area, and in a breathless 72 hours, we experienced a taste of all of the various wonders of the high road.
What follows is as much a ode to the joy of the mountain pass as a reflection on the brilliant new event.
Day One: Alpe D’Huez Time Trial
The first time I rode the mythical 21 bends, I really disliked them. Bonking, and at the end of my tether in the closing hour of a crushing ride in the Marmotte, the endless bends and punishing ramps broke me.
Riding them fresh, when pumped full of adrenaline, glycogen and caffeine, they were a delight. For a ‘pure’ climber like me (i.e., a whippet) the potentially dispiritingly steep ramps of the first five ramps begged to be attacked, the smooth wide bends all the way up the Alpe acted like slinglshots, the kinder midsection treated as one to recover slightly and up the cadence.
When you want them to, mountains are pure exhilaration, to be attacked full gas, the most pure interval that you can find. No imaginary start or finish lines here. Just the never changing, ever constant foot and peak of a pass.
The rock star of mountains is one that offers no chance for relief, no excape. It exposes you when your weak, and celebrates you when you’re strong. That, for me, is the joy of the mountain. No wheelsucking here. No lazy riding.
Day Two: Glandon, Croix De Fer, Alpe D’Huez (via Villard Reculas).
A monster of a day. Three climbs of 25km, 28km, and 19km respectively, making for over 70km of mountain pass, and a total of 150km and 4500m+ ascent. It’s not that far off the stats of the Marmotte, one of the hardest rides in the sportive calendar, and the route is eerily reminiscent of it.
These climbs perhaps represent the opposite to the attack or die of Alpe D’Huez’s 21 bends. These climbs are journeys.
The Glandon, with its punishing early ramps, opening into a huge wide valley and glittering lake, the road aimlessly and unhurriedly winding its way along, before rushing to the peak via a sudden hairpin.
The Croix De Fer, 100 minutes taking you through so many climates, pastures and landscapes that it offers more memories than most full days in the saddle; the hot and harrowing initial climb from the Maurienne Valley, the steep and sinuous winding roads of the midsection, overlooking a valley so huge it almost defies belief, to the tranquil and shaded gentle slopes of the third quarter. And the final five kilometres, some of the most spectacular you’re going to get in the Haute Alpes – narrow roads winding up an almost cliff-like escarpment to the wind-blown craggy summit.
And then, the lesser know ascent of Alpe D’Huez from the North Western side via Villard Reculas, initially wide and functional, before totally changing to narrow, rocky, tiny and twisty village lanes.
Sometimes, mountains are an interval, a one hour full gas effort. But climbs like these need to be treated with respect, and the mindset needs to change. Sometimes, you must accept that you’re going to be climbing from anywhere between 70 and 100 minutes. Attack at your peril. Relax into it, open your eyes, let your mind wonder. Take it in.
Day Three: La Garde Balcony Road, Les Deux Alpes (via La Rivoire / Les Touches), Sarenne
A short and punchy day, taking in roads that feel more Pyrenean than Alpine.
The Pyrenees, for me, is the most stunningly beautiful place in the world. The tranquil villages, the cow riddled cols, the bluest of streams and the greenest of meadows. It feels like an age predating all the crap that we have come to love and loathe; digital screens, coffee chains, and marginal gains.
The roads of day three took us into a hidden Pyrenean experience in the heart of the Hautes Alpes. The La Garde balcony skirts along the side of the cliff face; wooden barriers and stone walls separating the tiny roads from the precipitous drop to one side.
Th climb to les Deux Alpes took us via a a a side road through the villages of La Rivoire / Les Touches, before opening onto the standard ski station approach. That side road makes for a tough yet beautiful climb amongst dense pines that hide you from the world and envelop you into their untouched beauty. The dichotomy between this opening section of the climb, and the manufactured bends and tourist coach friendly grades of the traditional approach, was striking.
And the Sarenne. Wow, the Sarenne.
Initally the road is absurdly hard, stupidly steep and teasing you with fluctuating grades through tiny villages that boast a natural and rustic charm that London coffee shops can only dream of emulating. The upper half, equally tough, attracting winds, requiring constant attention on what feel like farmers’ roads; broken, gravel-strewn and bumpy, worn down by farm machinery and herds of wildlife. You share this col with the world around you. Whereas the ski station ascents of Alpe Dhuez and Les Deux Alpe shut out stray cattle and encroaching fauna with concrete walls, the Sarenne lets it spill onto the road and form its very character; just like the jewels in the crown of the Pyrenees such as the Spandalles, the Horquette Ancizan, and the Porte Des Bales.
Mountains are one of the wonders of this world. They’re at their best when we interfere with them as little as possible, and ride them as nature intended.
Mountains are why I ride my bike. The diversity of experience they offer are never ending, but at least one of the things i discuss above will feature in each climb you tackle, and these form the bedrock of my devotion to the high road. They provide you a true test of strength of mind and body, and a chance to explore your mind and treat it to new things.
In an all too brief romp around the region of Alpe D’Huez and the Maurienne Valley, the Haute Route Alpe D’Huez offered me all of these.
The love affair with the Haute Route, and the high road, continues.
Find out more about the Haute Route Alpe D’Huez here: http://www.hauteroute.org/events/overview/alpe-dhuez-2017
All photo credits: Haute Route / Photorunning