Having ridden numerous Haute Routes before, I took the plunge and entered into the Iron race for 2017. The Iron challenge is that for those stupid enough to do two events, and I chose the Pyrenees and Alps. Why these two? I’d have loved to have ridden the Dolomites, but having ridden the Maratona (and a write up here) earlier in the year, i’d had a taste of Italian riding, and more simply, because the Pyrenees are the best place in the world. I fell in love with the Pyrenees a few years ago on my first visit, and the affair continues. The Alps were thus the logical companion to the Pyrenees and although I’m less a fan of the busy roads and ugly resorts of the Haute Alpes, their immense scale and mind-boggling epicness are always staggering.
Having ridden the mini Haute Route Alpe D’Huez (see a piece on this here) 6 weeks prior, and spent the month before the Pyrenees focussing on quality over quantity, crushing myself on the turbo trainer doing short and brutal intervals that left me seeing stars and wheezy of breath, I felt in pretty good shape. I was aiming for a top 50 in both events, but was unsure as to how to play it, and how to pace myself over two weeks. As a solution, I did what I usually do and didn’t think about it, taking the ‘let’s ride and see what happens’ approach.
What follows details what happened, and attempts to not be too inward, but reflects on the unique character of the Haute Route, the riders within it, and the way we interact.
This post looks at the Pyrenees; my reflections on the Alps will follow shortly.
HRP Stage 1: 174m, 3500m+
We rolled out of Anglet at a highly antisocial 6.45am, with the sea behind us and the wind in our sails. Everyone was fresh. Everyone was buzzing. From the newest of Haute Route riders to the most experienced of Triple crowners, today was day one, kilometer zero.
For the first three hours I fought to held my position in something akin to a road race. Bunches of 40 or 50 of us steamed through the luscious green and flowing rivers of the basque foothills, in a landscape that seemed plucked from a cartoon – constantly rolling hills with no senee of order or rhythm, mounds of earth dropped at random. The pace was super-high and the sense of adrenaline and exhilaration palpable. With the western foothills of the Pyrenees ever-visible in front of us, we marched to our battlefield with trepidation, exhileration, and that bizarre camamaraderie mixed with malevelonence tht can come over a Haute Route peloton. A lot of riders go into The Haute Route unaware that this type of riding may be involved, and it can atch them out. If you’re not comformtable going knuckle to knuckle in a peloton moving 40kph+, you’re out the back.
The Col de Burdincurutcheta, Bargagui and Soudet were the first of the fortnight. Featuring prolonged steep sections, and set on those typically Pyrenean narrow, twisting, undulating roads that can bamboozle some and yet so enthral me, I was in my element. The clock didn’t stop all day, and the descents quickly revealed those who’d been to the mountains before; the levels of braking and the smoothness of lines reveal a lot about a rider’s experience. The descent off the Bargagui was pretty intense – sheer drops with no barriers on the road to catch you, off camber sections, and some very fast stretches. A lot could be gained, but even more could be lost – permanently – down that col.
I found myself on the final 30km run in to Oloron with three others from countries dotted across the globe, and the universal languages and handsigns of cycling soon enabled us to settle in to a strong and co-ordinated unit. We rode hard and cohesively to the finish line. Handshakes, slapped backs, and a protein shake on arrival.
28th on day, I could barely believe it. And whilst I couldn’t help but be exhilarated, that nagging doubt – ‘is this sustainable?’ – lingered in my mind.
HRP Stage 2: 158km, 2800m+
I woke up looking forward to this stage, a lot. It was more or less identical to that of the second stage in 2016 race, and I remember totally buzzing on my way up the Aubisque and Marie-Blanque.
Again, the groups were fast and feisty through the rolling foothills towards the first col of the day. However, at the front end of the race they were perhaps smaller – some were paying for the heroics of day one, where people inevitably can end up pushing far too hard. To start, the roads were wider and faster than yesterday’s gnarly basque foothills, and the riding felt more controlled and the nerves less jangly. However, around an hour in, we turned into very narrow, very off-camber and technical country lanes covered in dense woods. We were constantly either gently climbing or pedalling through fast descents, and it was a surefire way to separate the wheat from the chaff, with the less technically able or powerful soon suffering. There were many a time when I was yo-yo ing off the back, testing the stretch of the proverbial elastic to the max. However, full of the adrenaline and fire of the fresh and over-enthusiastic, burnt a match or two holding that wheel.
The Marie-Blanque is not a climb for the faint hearted – after a dangerously easy opening few km, the road rears up to 12% gradient, and stays there for 4km til the top. However, that’s the terrain that suits me, and though I gained handfuls of places, the hips were certainly not at their happiest.
The Aubisque and Soulor, names of Tour de France legend, are climbs that have blown my mind both times I’ve experienced. The bottom half of the Aubisque is nothing remarkable – pleasant enough as it winds through dense forests and ramshackle villages along a road that is perhaps slightly too busy. What tickles me is the majestic beauty of the top five kilometeres of the col, and the bowl of rock that forms the Aubisque’s twin peak with the Sulour. Known as the Cirque De Litor, the road leads you around the headlands of the mountains, enveloping you in a bowl of vast rocky crags so epic it’s hard to do justice to in words. Eagles nest here, and they’ve chosen a nice spot for their homes. Riding through this with a couple of new friends from the USA – Spencer and Matt – is a fond memory.
We ripped off the Soulor at a breakneck pace, chasing down a few riders up the road, knowing we needed a group for the final run-in to Pau. We lost Matt along the way but soon hooked on to a bunch to form a fivesome for the run home.
On roads that were ever so slightly downhill, and pushing on at a breakneck speed, we were back before we knew it. More handshakes and backslaps.
Another day done, and I’d somehow held 28th again, without feeling too out of my depth. This was far from expected and I was buzzing all afternoon.
HRP Stage 3: 153km, 3100m+
For the first time of the week, the weather was typically Pyrenean – the clouds were low and the air was heavy with mist. Not particularly wet, but damp.
Again, we faced a long roll in to the foot of the mountains. The infrastructure of the Pyrenees, with it’s relative scarcity of ski stations to house riders, means that lot of the host towns for the week were a little way out of the peaks, and it is this that forms the unique character of the Pyrenees race. In the Alps or Dolomites, feisty group riding is rare, with exception of a few dragging valleys between cols. In the Pyrenees, the riders set of en masse from event villages and head into the plains surrounding the Pyrenees. We set off together, and we fight to stay together as long as we can.
With about 4km to go to the first col, the roads narrowed and the first groups rattled though the winding streets of tiny villages, twisting around jumbled houses, adrenaline surged by the shouts of families come to watch us. As the group concertina’d in an out of bend after bend and little kicking ascent after ascent, resulting in those sprints for the wheel that can leave your veins bulging and stars dancing your eyes, I eventually was spat out, along with about 15 others. Reluctant to fight any longer, in the knowledge that we would split on the climb, I sat up. ‘Play it safe, don’t burn a match’ I told myself. The devil on my other shoulder laughed at me for being weak.
The Spandelles. Wow. The only climb that comes close to it is the Sarenne in the Alps, waiting for me next week. A tiny little track, littered with pebbles and stones, winding its way along the mountainside at ever changing and cruel gradients, like the path to a dragon’s lair. For the first 5km, we were climbing up towards the mists that had overshadowed out peloton first thing in the morning. What followed was one of the most magical moments of the week; we climbed through what proved to be a layer of cloud no more that 500m deep, and found ourselves basked in stunning sunshine, with the clouds forming a pure white blanket below us, reflecting the strength of the mountain sun. Amazing.
The Tourmalet is, in Pyrenean terms, as aar from the Spandelles as you can get. Wide, regular, and quite busy with traffic. Its opening half can be monotonous, but I climbed with new friends Matt and Dan. One of the beauties of climbing can be in its monotony. We paced each other perfectly, together for almost the entirety of the Tourmalet’s 80 minute ascent. Never more than a few meters from each other, we climbed in silence, mirroring each other’s moves, standing when others stood, sitting back in the saddle when others did – almost as though the other may know the gradient and nuance of the road better than us.
Regrettably, the descent was neutralised by the organisers due to fears of heavy traffic on the day’s public holiday. The descent is a beauty, and super fast, so I was a little gutted not to be able to race it. Ironically, in neutralising the descent, the organisers perhaps overlooked the fact that this would lead to riders pulling up and waiting before the timing mat that signalled the re-start of racing in order to wait for a group to work with on the final run in home.
Sure enough, I found myself in an group of about 40 riders – almost too large to be organised and safe – on the run home. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group as fast. With the smell of the line in the nostrils, about half of us drove the bunch home, covering 27km in an eye watering 33 minutes (that’s aroun 48kph). It was exhilarating, but the moment when I found myslf in second wheel and nearly sliding out on a greasy roundabout, was not something I wish to repeat.
27th on the stage. I still didn’t understand how I was doing this.
HRP Stage 4: 123km, 3700m+
The ‘queen stage’. Short, but packed with climbing, a couple of Pyrenean big names on the menu, and a summit finish on a col renowned for it’s grizzly steepness.
We thought yesterday’s morning dampness and cloud was Pyrenean, but today was more so. The clouds were damper, and the drizzle was falling hard. The roads were greasy, and the peloton approached the first climb of the day with respect. No mad pace today; the wind was taken out of sails thanks to treacherous roads and an acknowledgement of the bucket of climbing approaching us on this ‘queen stage’.
Along with many of my companions in the peloton, I went out unprepared; that top-notch lightweight rain jacket sat safe and warm in my luggage bag, whilst the lightweight gilet sat damp and cold on my shoulders. The spray off the roads was soaking my nobbly knees, and I felt myself getting cooler and cooler.
We hit the short steep rollers at the base of the Aspin and my legs refused to work. Cold muscles rebelled on me and the strength wasn’t there. The first groups went up the road and I watched in angry despair, and the theme continued over a climb too shallow to be effective for me. The descent was neutralised, and wisely so. Cold, dank, and limited visibility. Pretty much a representation of my mind as I seethed at being dropped on the ascent.
The Azet was enshrouded in similar mists, but the dampness lifted, and things started to seem more magical than miserable. My spirits lifted as the warmth started to return to my legs, yet the now intolerable squeaking of a chain washed clean of lubricant annoyed me to the extent that I waved up a Mavic car for a quick roadside fix. The driver of this car turned out to be Max Ruphy – the guy who bodged Uran’s gears into the 53-11 before his victorious Tour de France sprint (stage 9, 2017). To have him coat my chain in squeak-banishing lube was a kind of underwhelmingly cool experience. Probably not his most memorable mechanical experience however.
My buddy Chris and I raced through the technical descent and paced each other through to the Peyrousade, perhaps the dullest of the famous Tour cols. The wide open road made progress feel interminable, and it took Ian ‘Triple Crown’ O’Hara’s lunatic hollerings of ‘I’m fucking sick of this fucking shit!!’ to lighten the mood. Ironically, as Ian got more angry, my legs got happier. Peyrousade passed without incident and i felt more confident. The now scorching pyrenean sun was injecting life into my muscles, to the extent that the savage slopes of the summit finish on the Col du Portillon, and the border of Spain, were tackled with something approaching the fervour of the opening days. The luscious woodlands and varied climbing of the col felt a world away from the damp misery of the power climb that was the Aspin.
I finished a slightly disappointing, but by no means disastrous 47th on the day, leaving me 28th on GC.
What was more concerning than a loss of a place on GC, were the shots of pain through the tendon in my hip which had bitten me at regular intervals through the day. A long session with the awesome masseus I ensured I saw every day and the Haute Route osteopath followed. A strain was diagnosed and I felt pretty anxious about how or indeed if the injury would worsen, with 10 days of racing to go. A trip to the pharmacy soon followed and pain relief gel was added to the medical cabinet travelling around in my suitcase.
HRP Stage 5 – Superbagneres Time Trial: 18km, 1200m+
Time Trial day is always a lot harder than you think it will be. Freed from the rhythm of the early starts and massive training load of the full stages, the body starts to shut down, thinking the stress is over. It leaves you feeling tired, and very hungry. This was certainly the case today, as I felt immensely groggy and tight legged all morning.
Along with the sense of your body rebelling against you, you have the unique mental challenge of the TT. The ‘go big or go home’ question arises – a day for recovery or a day for gaining places? Whilst I’m no Alberto Contador, I do ride predominantly on emotion and find it hard not to get drawn into the spiral of chasing down the man twenty seconds up the road (who is the place behind you on GC), and fleeing the man 20 seconds behind you, who is one place in front of you on GC.
The faffy and pointless warm up over the initial ramps of the col du Portillon was completed, serving no purpose beyond settling nerves given the excessive time between its completion and the start of the warmup, and I took my place in the pen, where the muscles would cool down and again and the nerves would re-build.
The bottom half of Superbagneres is undulating and tricky, and I inevitably went out too hard. As an endurance engine lacking the all-out one hour power of many of my rivals, I soon found myself getting dropped and, riddled with adrenaline, i couldn’t help but continue working above the target I’d set myself in an effort to catch on.
Then, 10km in and a massive 8km to go, it happened. That sudden sense that you’ve run out of gas. That moment of ‘pop’, the fleeting sensation of your sugar levels suddenly running out and the feeling of eyes glazing over. On the shortest day of the week, I’d bonked. The carb stores had somehow run out, and the gels in my pocket weren’t helping. Whether breakfast was too small or the load of the week had been too high, the lights had gone out, and I barely had the strength to get out of the saddle.
I dribbled my way up to the summit of the col, too frustrated and exhausted to appreciate the incredible rocky amphitheatre around me. Much like the Aubisque, the climb to Superbagneres is enclosed by epic peaks. Like a classic novel that sits unread on your shelf, the views were far from appreciated, as I stared at my stem and wished it all to end.
I reached the top and was greeted by friends pumped by the experience of a blast up this magnificent mountain. Too disconsolate and exhausted to relive or celebrate the experience, I grabbed some snacks and water from the feedstation, and rolled straight back down the hill to wallow through another prolonged massage and osteopath session for my still gammy hip.
On reflection, 85th on the day wasn’t that bad, and if you’re going to have a bad day, the TT is the best day for it to happen as losses can be limited. 5 stages down, and 30th on GC. This was beyond my wildest expectations but I now felt immense pressure to hold a top 30 position through to the end of the week.
HRP Stage 6: 131km, 3600m+
I had eyed this stage with suspicious nerves from as soon as I saw the road book. The long timed section from the base of the Port de Bales to the finish could lead to huge gaps in the GC, and tales of the brutality of the climb to Hospice de France loomed large.
Climbing straight out of the event village is never pleasant for me. The legs are yet to be loosened, and the head is yet to be in gear. Nevertheless, groups shot up the road straight away, as though they’d packed a turbo trainer into their bike bag and had been doing intervals in their hotel room as a warm up. I had to accept that i wouldn’t be capable of being right up at the pointy end this early on, and settled into the third or fourth group on the road. The Port de Bales is a majestic climb, and when ridden at 8am, it becomes something even more spectacular. The rising sun cast beautiful shadows across the greenest of meadows in the huge expansive valley that we climbed through, and the world felt beautifully quiet and serene.
I found myself in a decent group of around 8 others at the base of the climb, and the pace was steady. It felt too sedate at the time, but in retrospect it was perfect. The smooth and efficient rolling on and off the front of the group became an almost calming rhythm as we all wanted the help of our rivals as much as we wanted to put time into them. This is the strange irony of the Haute Route. Without team mates, our competitors become our domestiques, and we collaborate as much as we compete. We relish signs of weakness in our partners on the road, but we despair at losing them and the draft of their wheel. There was thus some joy in my mind as a few of the bunch were spat out of the back during a few draggy rises, but I did regret that this meant the reaminder of us would have to pull all the more frequently
The Col De Mente eventually saw me drop. The hip was twingeing and creaking away and I just couldn‘t manage. The fast and technical descent was my salvation as I raced back down in a desperate endeavour to catch back prior to the valley that, on the roadbook, looked ominously long and grindy, and took us back to the final climb of the day.
I found myself in the valley with just two others. One guy strong, one guy less so. The clocks were ticking and the awful dilemma ensued – ride on hard and hope we catch others to form a larger group with, or soft pedal and wait to be caught? We opted for my go-to, and typically foolish, decision in such situations – ride on and ride hard. We soon lost our engine room to a puncture, and the two of us looked at each other in mild despair. We rode on and soon hooked up with a third, and the three of us ground our way up the busy main road in the midday heat, grimly marching on towards the climb to the Hospice de France, the tales of its savage gradients front of mind.
At the foot of the Hospice, I prolonged the inevitable and did all I could to ease the forthcoming pain by emptying my bladder in the male cyclist’s universal toilet – a bush. Within a minute of stopping, a group of at least 15 riders steamed up the road and passed me. I’m sure the others in my pitifully small group that had worked so hard up that valley uttered as many oaths as me.
The Hospice de France lived up to its horror billing. Seemingly either a 14% gradient or a 3% descent, on lunatic narrow, off-camber roads, the twinking streams and waterfalls and verdant pastures around me went unnoticed as I tried to tame the insane climb. The fairy tale kingdom of the Pyrenees that we experienced in the Spandelles returned, but this felt like one of the harsh morality tales of the brothers Grimm rather than the happy ending of a Disney story.
To top off a very tough day, and deliver a cruel kick in sweatiest of chamois, the finishing straight was set on yet another ridiculous gradient, and as if that wasn’t enough, was covered in loose gravel. I mustered energy for a final kick. Sure, the watts increased, but it felt like time slowed as it felt like i waded through mud, en route to the finish line.
I finish a pleasing 43rd on the day – a bit of a rallying after the TT. I had by now however slipped out of the elusive top 30, down to 31st on GC. A big day beckoned tomorrow.
HRP Stage 7: 157km, 1300m+
From experience of this stage last year, I knew it was going to be a shitfest. No neutral, and one heck of a lot of flat. Hold a wheel or lose a heck of a lot of time. Crush yourself over the col de Mente and get down it fast, get into a group, and hang on for dear life. The weather did its worst for a day like this, a day when groups would be fast and furious, nerves would be high, and brains would be tired. Drizzly rain and wet fogs enshrouded Bagneres de Luchon, and the roads turned into the greasiest of ice rinks.
From the second the netural roll out proceeded, the tone of the day was set, with riders swamping arounf the sides of the convoy to get a position at the front of the pack. This was pretty typical on any given day, but today, every Tom, Dick and Harry was at it.
As soon as we crossed the timing mat, the race was on. Somewhat unfathomably, the pace immediately went up to 10,000, and we were racing through roundabouts and careering around street furniture with a disregard for sense and safety. Within 10 minutes the inevitable happened, wheels touched, and riders hit the deck. After a brief hiatus in hostilities to ensure safety, the madcap charge towards the Col de Mente resumed. We clattered through now wide and fast roads and there was no time to think, drink or even consider a pacing strategy.
We rattled over several sets of train tracks, bidons exploding forth from several riders’ bottle cages across the road. A full bidon is like a ticking greanade to a skinny road tyre, and the peloton watched with bated breath as they innocently rolled around, unaware of their own power. We navigated the minefield unscathed, though who knows what may have happened down the field as the bottles continued their haphazard wanderings across the tarmac.
Having just about kept contact with the front groups to the bottom of the Col de Mente, burning far too many matches to do so, I was already too tired to climb at any strong pace. Riders streamed up the stacked hairpins of this amazing climb like mountain salmon, swimming up the hill. Due to conditions, the organisers had taken the wise decision to neutralise the descent, and this would prove a salvation for me. I ignored the feedstation at the summit and whizzed through, enabling me to regain contact with a strong group towards the base of the descent. I felt the day was almost done. Ensoncensed into a fast group, I just had to cling on til the end and I should have a top 35 position in the bank. Or so i thought.
Little did I realise ex-pro Ted King was on the front of the group. Cold, tired (and weak) legs eventually gave way as he powered the bunch over a series of cruel little ramps. I realised with desperation that I was last wheel, and the rear hub I’d been starting at in an effort to fix it in some sort of tractor beam slowly pulled away from me. An agonising minute or so of giving it all I had to try to catch on ensued, but the tractor beam failed. The group rampaged up the road, and my spirit broke. Dropped.
I rode on, hoping for reinforcements to appear behind me, the salvation of my day. They didn’t come. 20km of desperate riding on, I arrived at a feed, and, lost for what to do and in need of a break, I paused and filled my bidons. Obviously, just as I had stopped, a group sped into sight. I got into the pedals, and somehow jumped on the back as they slowed up through a village. Already deep into the red from the sprint to get into the group, the bunch concertinad and sprinted around a few junctions. I couldn’t hold on. Legs riddled with lactic from my previous effort and my heart, sluggish with fatigue, by now maxing out, I couldn’t hang on. Dropped. Again.
I was so angry and frustrated I wanted to both cry and throw my bike in the ditch. It’s the closest I’ve come to wanting to give up a Haute Route stage. In grim isolation on the damp Pyrenean road, the world was dim. Visions of the glorious tear up into Toulouse, tattered. I was so far from the romp for the line with a crew of new camrades that I’d invisaged. I’d wanted to share the end of an epic week with the pelton I’d raced with, the guys I’d shared wheels with on the road. And, in my mind, with each grinding pedal stroke, i lost another place on GC as my rivals sped off in front of me.
What followed was pure misery. 60km of solo riding, bonked out and dribbling through the flatlands. My socks were waterlogged with storm water, and my chain, washed dry of lube, was squeaking and creaking (again!). Simple symbolism of the pathetic mindset I’d dug myself into.
I crossed the line for the week in utter despair. Totally disconsolate, I got my finisher’s t-shirt and medal, found some food and sat on my own to chew over the day as groups of others drank beers and ate pizzas in wild celebration.
I was actually quite surprised that I manged 127th on the day. Losing time on the climb and then losing minutes of time during my hours of isolation weren’t as damaging as I’d envisaged. I lost a fair few minutes that day, but it could have been worse, and I held on to a final 38th on GC. Had I held that wheel, I could have made top 30 for the week, but Haute Route is a cruel beast and there’s no space for the weak.
At the time, I was beyond devastated with my result on the seventh day and its impact on GC. In retrospect, I’m pretty proud. I’m not the most naturally talented athlete, and that result came through hard work and a lot of grinta. I can only look back on the Haute Route Pyrenees now with immense proudness and fond memories. Many good memories, many more new good friends, and a final ride that I think put a hair or two more on my chest.
A reflection on the Alps will follow soon….
Shout outs to:
- Darrel and Roy of Sports Tours International, best soigneurs ever
- The Bloody Yanks, Spencer and Matt
- Adie and Max, of AlpCycles for good chat, good croissants, good coffee
- Selena Raven
- Caffeine gel Gretchen
- Chris ‘the authority’ Fisher
- Ian ‘I’m sick of this fucking shit’ O’Hara
- Dean Koaweaefargalsayky
- Big Ben Rabner
- Dan Simms for keeping me in check on the Tourmalet
- Mike ‘saddle averse’ Cotty
- Lots of others whom i’ve forgotten
- The handful of those who chatted to me and asked if i’m ‘the mountain mutton’ . I thought only I read this blog?!