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.
I’ve already written about an amazing week in the Pyrenees here; seven days where I felt in some of the best form of my life and had awesome experiences to match, yet unfortunately picked up a hip strain I am still struggling with as i write (three weeks later). What follows details the week of racing from Nice to Geneva over the French Alps. It 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.
HRA Stage 1: 172km, 3700m+
The day started hot, and it stayed that way. The nervous and excited peloton gathered on the Promenade des Anglais at sunrise, and it was already over 20 degrees. The exhilaration and adrenaline of my companions, fresh for the week ahead, directly contrasted my weary reluctance. Having spent all of the day prior in the back of a van as I transferred over from Toulouse, and not arrived into Toulouse till early evening, the legs felt heavy and the head felt groggy.
After a long neutral section that provided me a chance to spin out stiff legs, the flag dropped and the timing started.
We were soon at the Col D’Ascros, more a drag than a climb, set on that tricky 5-6% gradient that I find so hard to be effective on. I let myself climb in a bunch that felt suitable for me. Having had the wind taken out of my sails by a disappointing end to the Pyrenees, and slightly fearful as to how my body may react to riding again, I re-set my power targets and let what would be would be. The descent was timed, and as always, I gained places through the twisty and technical roads, pushing hard in a bid to find myself in strong company for the long drag up to the base of monster sized Col de Cayolle; the sleeping giant which dominated the stage profile.
Sure enough, I got myself into a big group of around 20-30, and it took little to organise a pace line. Despite the multiplicity of natinalities in the group, the etiquette and technique of road riding is universal. I was surprised by how steady it was; compared to the Pyrenees, it felt relatively tame – perhaps a testament to the enormous stages we faced through the week, maybe due to the rapidly increasing heat, or perhaps due to my finding myself slightly further down the field than I was typically had last week.
Although my mind was in a bit of a hole, the terrain was epic and expansive; the typical dusky, deserty feel of the Maritime Alps, that scrubby arid feel akin to South Spain and the Canaries, was incredible. We passed through huge expansive gorges framed by rocky towers, a trundling, off-guard convoy of riders about to be set upon by an Indian ambush in a spaghetti Western.
The Cayolle was a climb unlike one i’ve experienced before. With 1500m of gain over 32km, I’d done climbs as long and as high. But the heat was intense, and it felt like groundog. Without distinct sections demarked by towns, mini-descents, or changes of topography, the road felt unchanging, and the scale of the ascent endless.
I struggled immensely. My depressed heart rate symbolised neatly that the passion wasn’t there. That self-destructive impulse to suffer so essential to success in riding had gone; left somewhere in roads leading to Toulouse. However, somehow, i was dropping people. If you could stagger on a bike, riders were doing it left, right and centre. My garmin told me it was 34 degrees, and the heat of the sun must have pushed it above 40. Mad dogs, Englishmen, and Cyclists.
The feed station at the summit was like a field hospital of wars gone by. Riders were sprawled out on the grass, shoes and helmets off, feet elevated. The Cayolle was a climb of attrition, and it had taken more than a few prisoners.
The long neutral descent was a welcome relief, a chance to hydrate and re-fuel. It did however reduce my desire to tackle the short final climb to Pra Loup. I dug myself deeper into a mental hole as I returned back toawards the valley floor. With a week of riding ahead of me and full of fatigue from the Pyrenees, I was competing with riders on fresh legs, and I questioned why I was bothering. The short climb to Pra-Loup passed quickly enough, and it was only its brevity that motivated me to give it any sort of effort.
I was amazed to find that I finished in 52nd on the stage. Whilst I had found the day immensely tough, heat acclimatisation and a head wisened as to how and when to race by the ride in the Pyrenees seemed to have done me some favours.
HRA Stage 2: 128km, 3700m+
The profile says it all. Three immense cols, a tiny bit of a valley, and little else. With each mountain pass casually surpassing the mighty 2,000m elevation mark, the day wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
The race organisers had taken the last minute decision to alter the timing sections laid out in the roadbook (from which the profile above is taken), and neutralised the Vars descent on safety grounds. As such, we were faced with three enormous time trials. For an endurance whippet such as myself, the day was not favourable. Bigger, stronger riders were able to power up the cols and use the neutral sections to sit and recover at their leisure and fully recoup for the next massive effort. My physiology favoured the long agonising burn of prolonged time sections, where no time for mountaintop picnics and sightseeing was available.
I’d ridden all the cols before, and knew what I was letting myself in for. I wasn’t overly looking forward to what lay ahead. Bike riding, and particularly the sometimes solitary pursuit of climbing, is a mental game, and I was dealing myself a bad hand. My heart wasn’t in it. Like the day prior, I was a little bamboozled by the fact that I had another whole week to race, and with a niggly hip, reduced strength, and by now very chafed backside, I struggled to comprehend how I was going to do it. I knew that, for me, survival on the day would come as much through intelligent riding as brute force.
I held my position in the first group on the road up to the Vars, ensuring that the eternal swamping of riders around the side of the peloton from the back up to the front didn’t catch me out. I might as well start the climb in a decent group and try to gain some advantage that way.
I inevitably went backwards on the climb, but not quite as badly as envisaged. Many riders past me, but the creaking of James’ (a buddy from last year’s Haute Route) bottom bracket was soon cast into the distance as I put time into him, and I was able to pass Ian, in his second week of the Triple Crown, as he uttered his trademark stream of expletives. Mentally, I was in a similar place to both that groaning bottom bracket and the evidently unhappy Ian. I took some solace from the fact that whilst I was going back, the lifeline to the very front of the field was just about attached.
Although the Vars descent was neutral, I didn’t dawdle. I knew the long valley section up to the Izoard that approached us would be miserable if ridden solo. The stunning valley through to the Southern approach of the col is enframed in rocks, and is perfectly formed to create a furnace. If I was going to cook down there, I wasn’t going to do so alone.
I was pleased to reach the timing mat to find a group of 10 or so already there, and I latched on just as they set off. Typically, at the front end of the Haute Route, riders fall into the rhythm of sharing the load equally when in a bunch. Not so here. Tour company Alpine Cols always enter a ‘superdomestique’ into each race, a huge engine with knowledge of the cols, who would sit on the front and tow their Alpine Cols clients around. And there he was. He moved to the front, and drilled it. Having somehow found myself in second wheel and thus responsible for hanging on to this ‘domestique’, I felt like I was being motorpaced, with the moto going just that 5% too fast. I stared at his hub and refused to let it out of my sight. A feral dog, chasing a bone tied to the back of a car. It hurt, lots.
I had already established a love-hate relationship with the Izoard from previous efforts on its southern face. On paper, it’s a tough climb, but no killer. But what’s on paper doesn’t always translate. It’s the mind games of the middle section, a dead straight 9% grind through the village of Ariveux, that eludes the profile maps and average percentages of roadbooks. The wide, grippy, straight road and expansive plains either side of it create the illusion of the road being nearly flat, and it makes progress feel interminable. I felt like I was wading through mud. A fair few didn’t seem to experience this issue as they sailed by me, unperturbed.
Feed station, descent, pootle through Briancon, and the col I’d not really dared contemplate – the Granon – loomed into my mental horizon. As a day that had effectively boiled down to three time trials, I’d been taking the stage one climb at a time, not bearing to contemplate anything beyond the next hour.
I approached the base of the Col du Granon with the enthusiasm of a turkey at christmas. The timing mat at the bottom of the col neared, and I dashed into a bush to empty my bladder. Procrastination at its finest. As I crossed the timing mat signifying the start of he col, I entered an hour of pure hell.
I was wiped of energy and had no strength. The hostile, harsh broken road to the dead end summit of the Granon never relents, and the 8.5% average gradient of its 12km feels flattering. Robbing riders of any source of sanctuary such as shade, easing of gradient, or smoothness of road, it felt like it was laughing at my pathetic efforts. That tell-tale dance ensued. Shifting back and forth in the saddle, hauling up into the pedals, dropping forlornly back down again – a constant search for power and rhythm that doesn’t exist. Initially, I was mentally and physically holding some form. However, the nail was hammered into the coffin around mid-way. One of the kilometer marker stones on the side of the road, those little signals of either such a torment or salvation, reared into view. Five kilometers to go, at an average of 11.1%. Something in my brain wilted. My mojo curled up and hid. Never has the finish line been so welcomed, nor has it ever arrived so slowly, both mentally or physically.
To have managed 52nd on the day, and find myself 48th on GC, bamboozled me. I had ridden the day lacking any strength in the legs, and the brain wasn’t in the game. Either the field were comparatively weaker than last week, or there were a lot of riders taking these early stages very carefully.
HRA Stage 3: 111km, 3200m+
There is nothing further from my ideal type of climb than the Col du Lautaret. A long, featureless grind, on heavy tarmac, on that sticky 4-6% gradient where it’s less about weight and climbing ability, and more about bullish power.
The neutral start for the day passed all too quickly and we started the grind over the col. The front groups stayed together for the first 6-7km or so until the smallest increase in gradient and the slightest of accelerations from the front shattered the once 60 or 70 strong pack, with varying small groups being cast aside and left to their own devices. Some, including me, were caught between fighting to get back into the main group and sitting up to wait for reinforcements. Moments like that are fundamental to a day on Haute Route. The opportunity to get into wheels and gain easy seconds can be scarce on a climb-focussed event, and the benefit of fighting to get into them can outweigh the steady respectful observance of your power zones. The Contador vs Froome tactic, respectively. I foolishly tend to follow the former.
I tried to make it to the group, and failed. A huge effort, wasted; I fell short, and the desire to keep trying faded. Full of humiliation, I was mopped up by the bunch behind that had a enjoyed cinematic view of my doomed effort. Whilst the peloton competes with each other, they also sympathise. I hung onto them for the remainder, traumatised by thoughts of whether they had watched my foolhardy and failed effort with either empathic horror or voyeuristic amusement.
The descent was almost as hard as the climb; on a similar 4-5% gradient, it was one for pedalling down. Technique and skill did come into play to a small extent, but pure pedal-mashing power was much to the fore. I found myself on an uncertain and hesitant wheel, and the conundrum of forging on solo, or sitting back, finding reinforcements, and conserving arose again. I never like to place my luck in other’s hands in bike riding, and so I took charge of my own fate, in a painstaking effort to bridge to a couple of riders a few hundred meters up the road. Of course, I never made it. Same scenario as 30 minutes earlier, on the way up the hill. Caught in the middle, maybe gaining myself a handful of seconds, but wasting precious energy. The Lautaret could and should have been a doddle. Get in the draft, and sit. A taxi ride into the next valley. I made bloody hard work of it.
The Sarenne is as far from the wide and functional power climb over the Lautaret as you can get. The col is a beautifully gnarly backroad winding its way through forests and meadows, and eventually leads out to Alp D’Huez. Broken and battered, with deep cracks running through it and loose pebbles across its surface, it could almost be deemed a blot on the Alpine landscape, fit only for being shunned and cast aside into a pile with the madcap montain roads of the Pyrenees. And that’s what makes its beauty. Steep, wild, and very un-Alpine, I endeavoured to look up and enjoy it, grumpily resigning myself to a bad day, whether the legs felt that way or not. It’s a super-tough climb, and the descent off it was treacherous. Fast and off-camber, it took a nerve matched only by the size of your balls to descend with any sort of speed. A few came to grief down here and my main aim of keeping the bike upright succeeded.
Some neutral sections followed prior to the big summit finish of the day – the climb from Alpe D’Huez through Villard Reculas. The beauty of Haute Route is that as well as ticking off the big-name climbs, you get to ride a fair few that you won’t have heard of, and this lesser-known ascent to Alpe D’Huez, along with the Sarenne, trumps the rock star main approach to the ski station with ease.
Having ridden with sweary Ian through the neutral section, I slowly dropped him as we started climbing, leaving him to his trademark stream of expletives.With the previous 10 days weighing heavy in my legs, and in a mental hole as dark as the curses Ian was uttering, I both wanted his company, but was pleased to see I could distance him. I pushed on, and opted for isolation. The climb is long and tough, and the first 10km, set at grades of around 8%, were slow and grinding. To match the days of a squeaking chain last week, my headset had now decided to start creaking. The notion of that noise coming from my battered hip, the sinews and fibres of my mashed tendon grinding and howling, entered my mind, and in my solitude and lack of distraction, I couldn’t banish it. It’s amazing what an already darkened mind does to itself.
The mind games were finally cast aside after what felt like hours of solitude as two powerful guys caught me through the tight echnical, rolling village roads in the middle of the climb. I held their wheels, relieved at both the company and a change of pace. With the sniff of the line 10km up the road, a bit of fire returned to the blood. Knowing that the day was nearly done, blood returned to the veins. I had become bored of feeling sorry for myself.
The long and limber figure of Triple Crown rider (and, in retrospect, future winner) Utah Ben came into view. Constantly placing in the top 20 of very stage, he should not have been back with the chaff such as I; this prize-fighter was truly reeling. We exchanged words. Plagued by a stomach bug, he had neither slept nor held down food for the last 12 hours. I did my best to steel him, attempting to bestow some of my new-found courage onto him. I offered him all I could in such a situation; a gel and my wheel. He took the latter for as long as he could before drifting off, helpless. Having only exchanged brief conversations with him on the majority of days since the start of the Pyrenees, I nevertheless considered Ben a wingman. Faces that you recognise from the first week start to mean more when you enter a second week of Haute Route. Only they truly undersetand how much your legs hurt and what state your mind is in. A playground clique, aloof in our own misery, with the constant excuse of the prior week on our lips. I sympathised with Ben’s situation immensely, but there was nothing I could do to help as he slowly but surely lost my wheel. Laid low with sickness, he looked a shadow of his former self, and it steeled me. I wasn’t ill, I was just fatigued. Even if the legs weren’t 100%, my head and heart were fine. The sense of self-pity had to stop.
Through the final few kilometres of the stage up the final five bends of Alp D’Huez, I felt a tiny bit of strength come back. With fire in the brain and a renewed sense of purpose, I fought again, like I had done in the Pyrenees. I didn’t have the same strength of last week, but the mind is your strongest ally in making the best of a bad situation. I held on to the wheels that I’d jumped onto a few kilometres down the road. I never passed them, but not being distanced felt like a victory in itself.
54th on the day. Again, an unremarkable, but by no means disastrous placing, leaving me 49th on GC. However, it felt like something had changed during the stage. From the mental hole I’d been slowly but surely digging through the start of the week, I felt like a small fire had re-kindled in those final 10km. The simple act of racing through the middle of the final climb in the company of others – a brief throwback to the Pyrenees – and seeing how others suffered far more than me for reasons beyond their control, had somehow made me want to fight again. There were still four days left, and I wasn’t prepared to spend them feeling sorry for myself.
HRA Stage 4: Alpe D’Huez TT: 15km, 1150m+
I slept for almost nine hours after stage three. It felt like days. Never has the later start of time trial day been so welcome; a break from alarms typically breaking the civility barrier of 5am.
Having kicked my own miserable (and, by now, increasingly chafed) ass yesterday, and in the knowledge that today was a short effort, I felt more positive. As referred to with regards last week’s time trial here, I never place brilliantly no matter how hard I push in a TT – the full on one hour power of some of the peloton is too great for me to contend with. Nonetheless, the steep slopes and mini respite of the hairpins offered by Alpe DHuez’s iconic road structure suited me well.
I rolled down the col from my mountaintop hotel in nervous anticipation, and executed a token pointless warm up. Hopes of a cool and shady time trial after the furnaces of the prior days were abandoned as I stood restlessly in the pen. Despite only being 10am, the sun was up full, and he definitely had his hat on.
The organisers had place signs around the pen warning of a gastro-Intestinal virus sweeping through the peloton, stating that hands should be cleansed before grabbing food at feeds. This was the very virus that had bitten my friend Ben, the prize stallion left staggering on yesterday’s final col, and a friend from last year’s Haute Route, David. Back-to-back days of solid suffering and lack of sleep don’t do much for your immune system, and illness could easily be caught. It somehow fortified me further to know that, so far, I was safe. The muscles and joints may be battered, but at least the insides were functioning, and i drew some sense of resolve from that. I’m not the only one suffering in one way or another.
The TT felt good. Sure, I didn’t have anything like the strength I had ten days ago in the rolling hills of the Basque country, but I felt like the grinding dawdle of previous days had upped in pace ever so slightly. I was dropped by a number of people, and I only pushed past a couple of riders that started in front of me. Nonetheless, the power was up slightly and the body felt better.
I took further courage from the fact that I made it over the finish line and into lunch just as a thunderstorm started. Cyclists are full of superstitions and read meaning into everything, and I was happy to ascribe symbolism into dodging the bullet of a drenching.
Sure, 95th on the day is far from great – shading into the top 25% of the pack – but it was how my body and brain was feeling that I took most comfort from. The fire was taking hold, slowly but surely. I couldn’t do much about my legs, but the brain drives the body and it was slowly but surely taking charge again. I still sat in 49th on GC after the stage so all was to play for.
HRA Stage 5: 184km, 4600m+
Day five. The day we all feared. 180km, 4500m ascent. Stats-wise, a bigger day out that the Maratona, most Etape Du Tours, and nearly as epic as probably the hardest single day event I’ve ridden, La Marmotte.
We descended from Alpe D’Huez in neutral convoy, hushed in our own worlds of thought, apprehension, and growing adrenaline. The sun was still rising over the peaks, the sky was clear, and the morning was cool. These sunrise rollouts can be anxious and impatient affairs at times; penned in by riders, you just want the space to ride, and full of nerves, you sadistically want the pain of the climbing to set in. However, the dawn silence of the mountains, interrupted only by the buzz of freewheels, is a unique experience.
I knew the climb of the Col du Glandon pretty well having ridden it six weeks prior, and I was relishing its almost endless slopes and the variety they bring; the huge reservoir and claustrophobic woodland of the bottom, through to the short leg relieving descents and torturous steep kicks in the middle, to the huge spectacular meadow and valley at the top. Buzzing with caffeine and the majority of the bottle of maple syrup I’d found at breakfast, I worked hard. The adrenals had been stoked on the TT and were still firing. With only three stages of 14 remaining, purpose had returned.
In retrospect, I pushed too hard on the col, but sometimes, the heart rules the mind, and it was nice to allow a bit of passion back into my riding after lost mojo of earlier days. I bounced and yo yo’d back and forth with Felipe, a rider I’d met on Haute Route last year, and he became my pace man for the col. We were about on a par, yet he was making it look easy, whilst I wasn’t that far off my limit. I wasn’t going to let him nonchalantly cruise by; I needed him and was glad of his company, but wanted to drop him. That strange ever-repeating dichotomy of the riding the high road.
The spiralling descent off the Glandon was neutralised, and the Col de Madeleine awaited. This mountain had held me in a vice like grip since the route was announced. Having ridden it during 2015’s Haute Route, all I can remember was that it was incredibly hard, but amazingly captivating to ride, riddled with switchbacks and endlessly inspiring views. It proved as such.
Despite the Madeleine’s punishingly consistent 8% gradient, spread out over 20 long kilometers, the world in which it was set felt so serene, totally contrasting the inner turmoil of us riders. The meadows looked so brilliantly green and the idyllic villages were no doubt full of grandmothers baking baguettes whilst their hubbies played petanque. It was slow and hard going, but for once I didn’t mind too much. Like on the Glandon, I found my paceman, and without him knowing it, I set my tractor beam on him and refused to let him go. We climbed side by side for the best part of an hour and barely said a word, content in each other’s company. The rhythmic silence and that sense of the sublime – the beautiful, captivating horror – of climbing set in. The trance was only truly broken by the wild shouts and cheers of some kids from the balcony of a small tower block towards the top of the ascent. On trying to spot the source of the encouragement, I found nothing. That sense of being watched from afar, incapable of identifying the assassins peering down on you, was a little unnerving, and quickly brought into focus just how odd the sight of us riders pitting our bodies against the unbeatable mountains must have looked from afar… Suffering to the utmost, hating what we’re doing to ourselves, but cherishing every sweet moment. My paceman dropped me in the final kilometer of the climb, but he had served his purpose. I went over the Madeleine content with how I was getting on, feeling full of purpose, and adrenaline following from possibly my favourite climb in the Alps.
The long descent off the Madeleine was neutral and much welcomed, but the ugly slog of a long flatland drag up towards the Saises stared us in the face. It was timed, but it felt so pointless. On a day of three huge cols, the baking hot valley felt like a waste of time, but alas it had to be done. A group formed before the timing start, and we begrudgingly set off. The pace was strong, and as we rolled through in two efficient lines, we gathered pace to the point that it was getting a bit too hot to handle.
As we reached a short, heavy, shallow climb, a couple of the strongest in the pack happened to be at the front. They lifted the pace, perhaps on purpose, but more than likely unwittingly, and the 15-strong group stretched and strained, the tiny gaps between wheels symbolising the fraying that the slightest of gradient can cause in a bunch.I lost the wheel by a meter. I sprinted back on. It happened again, and I sprinted back. A minute later, that wheel was two or three meters up the road.
The veil descended over my mind as I felt myself blowing. That feeling of your head becoming cloudy and your eyes becoming a little vacant. I lost the will to fight for it again; one of those split-second decisions where you always wonder what could have been. Had I held that wheel, sure, I may have got to the end faster, but what state would I have been in for the climb? If you’d have asked me a week ago, with fresh Pyrenean legs, the answer would be a lot differnet I think.
Looking back down the slope, I saw three others had also been dropped from our group, heads hanging in defeat. This was us for the final 20 kilometes to the base of Col du Saises. In the beating heat and with around 3,500m of climbing already in the legs, the sense of fatigue was palpable. The pace slowed and the vigour of the riding waned. It only took the brave admission of one of us that he was cooked for us all to raise our heavy hands in shame. We were DONE. The pace slowed hugely, and the mind games began… one more climb, another hour of suffering. You want the energy sapping pre-amble of the valley to end and to get to the true effort, but neither do you want the trauma to start. People overlook just how hard the bits imbetween the mountains can be. The cols dominate the profile maps of each day, but a lot of the mental effort focusses on those forgotten bits inbetween.
The climb over the Saises was so much harder than I expected. Taking a different approach route to that which I’d ridden in various rides before, the roads were heavy and steep. I thought I suffered, but I passed one rider, a strong man of prior days, wobbling up the slope, head down, broken. I watched from afar in a voyeuristic fear of what I felt on the verge of becoming. As I passed, I offered up a gel; kind words wouldn’t help him now. He shook his head so wearily it was hardly noticeable. He didn’t speak. I didn’t reply. Sometimes, words of encouragement or compassion are pointless.
As I progressed skyward, my fatigue-addled mind was constantly traumatised by the simple act of working out how much road remained until the end of the timing – we were actually ascending the Col De Bisanne, before a short descent and return kick for a final short stretch to the Saises ski town, and the end of timing. The kilometer markers at the roadside were pointing to the summit of the Bisanne, but we were finishing on the Saises. How long would there be between the two peaks? If I have five kilomoeters left of the Bisanne, how long do we have to the top of the Saises? And, if I’m climbing at xx km per hour, how much time is that?! The simplest of maths was ruining me.
My calculations had evidently been off. Thinking I had around two kilometres until the clock stopped, a mere five to ten minutes of effort, I rounded a headland and Haute Route’s ‘FIVE KILOMETERS TO GO’ signage came into view. At that stage of the day, the late addition of another ten minutes the mental effort was heart-breaking. I could have cried. Sure enough, five kilometres later, I felt like I more or less collapsed over the timing mat. The dissaray of other riders sprawled out on the verge behind the mat proved it wasn’t just me that was a little tired.
I finished 67th on the day, and was a little disappointed. Having worked so hard in a bid for a top 50 position, and to attempt to consolidate my 49th place on GC, I’d gained nothing. Although I’d only slipped one place – to 50th – but it was the principle that mattered.
HRA Stage 6: 146km, 3400m+
We rolled down the wide main road from Megeve at dawn, spinning out legs carrying the huge weight of the day before. I, like many others, had slept like a deadman, albeit from a distressingly short time. The standard procedure of these roll outs – that of riders endlessly swamping to the front, creating a little vortex of stress, ensued. A lot of the time, this is quite a pointless exercise, but today, those at the front when the timing started certainly benefited.
The convoy reached a junction and we turned at speed up a steep incline. As if in a test of bike handling, the three-meter wide timing mat was about 100 meters up the 9% slope, on the far side of the road from the bend we’d just taken. Riders streamed across to get through the gateway, cutting across others, bringing some to an almost standstill; a chaotic and claustrophobic start to the initial test of the day. This first little peak on the day’s elevation wasn’t celebrated as a categorised climb in the roadbook, but it could have justified such a status. Short and steep, right at the start of the day, it was approached with ferociity and vigour, and I went backwards, legs still in the hotel bed I’d not long left behind.
Having caught back onto a good group by placing foolishly blind faith in my tyres and bike handling, we were soon climbing the Epine, and again, I lost touch with my competitors. As a rider who normally thrives on the climbs and suffers in the flatlands, my fatigued legs seemed to have started going the opposite way since leaving the Pyrenees. I could still kick for a short period, but ask me to climb for over thirty minutes and I was gone.
Over the Epine, and down into a busy stretch of grinding valley riding through busy highways and bustling towns towards the Col du Colombiere. The parcours for the week had been fantastic, with quiet roads being taken throughout, but this was the one exception; a somewhat ugly and stressful hour of riding. Thankfully I wasn’t alone; I had David, a wingman from Haute Route last year, to share a wheel with, yet the situation wasn’t ideal on such a strength-sapping part of the day. The two of us had found ourselves in a similar predicament in the Pyrenees last year, caught in isolation between two cols, making the best of a bad situation as we worked together to limit our losses. We worked together well, yet we carried added baggage with us. Our sandbag claimed she didn’t have the strength to help us. I was dubious, but in no position to argue.
Sure enough, we reached the Colombiere and our female shadow from the valley floated off up the climb in front of us, full of beans and fast of legs. The Colombiere seems to mark an entry into another part of the Alps, with the Swiss Savoie feel taking hold; wide open valleys of little wooden chalets and verdant green meadows. It’s all so tranquil and pleasant, and the Colombiere fits into that benevolent environment perfectly, a gentle winding oh-so-nice climb that feels a bit too tranquil;, a bit unthreatening. A bit dull, and with my growing fatigue, without memory. It passed, and both the climb and neutral descent more or less passed me by.
The timing mat that marked the re-start of timing at the bottom of the Colombiere was cluttered with twenty or so riders looking for allies. We set off, and the pace line was established. With the lack of pinchpoints and juncitons to halt our progress, the pace imperceptibly wound up and up to what could only be described as breakneck, and there were a few shouts of protest. With a group this big, the concerns of a few go unnoticed. It is as literal an embodiment of survival of the fittest as you can get, and again, I found that though I’d lost my climbing legs this week, my ability to hold myself in a group through flatlands was growing. The bunch split and shattered and I stayed at the pointy end – having been dropped on the draggy ramps leading to the Saises yesterday, I was determined not to have it happen again.
I rolled straight through the feedstation at the base of the Joux-Plane; the last of the day, and a climb considered one of the toughest of the Northern Alps. With a full bidon and a gel or two in my pocket, I knew that procrastination wasn’t going to help me now. In my mind, based on memories from the 2016 Etape, the Joux-Plane had taken on a status as fearsome as the brutal slopes of the Granon, and I was filled with apprehension.
Sure enough, the Joux-Plane proved grim, but not quite the immense sufferfest that its cousin a few hundred kilometres south had dished out to us a few days prior. The gradient only averaged just over 7.2%, but was rendered difficult by bizarre off-camber banks and sections where the road tautingly ramps up to around 14% or so, shocking your legs into a sudden change in rhythm and motion.. Ian and I were soon cast to the back of our valley peloton as we climbed, and Ian’s lunatic shouts of anger inevitably ensued. I’d come to found these outbursts initially shocking and surprising, but as I grew used to them, they became comforting; someone else in as much distress as myself.
Once again, I spied Felipe about 100 meters up the road to pace me, and I didn’t let him out of my sight. He was the carrot I had followed up the Glandon only 28 hours prior, yet it felt like eternity. The range of emotion and experience on a single day at the Haute Route is so huge that it feels like time slows and the week stretches to a period that feels so much greater. The scorching rollout from Nice already felt like a months ago, and Anglet felt a different lifetime altogether. However, in that seemingly huge time scale, and in the 400+ field, you come to see the same people in the same positions every day. Natural selection flilters the field down to a bunch of personal allies and enemies around 30-strong, and they become your world for the week. Felipe stretched the elastic of my gaze as we battled the Joux-Plane to the utmost. On a few instances where he would disappear from sight for prolonged periods, I would begin an inner tirade that would make my shouty companion Ian down the road blush. It was as much anger at him for daring to ride away from me as a resentment at myself for being able to hang on. Nonethless, he would reappear again, time after time. I wouldn’t let him go, and I made it to the end of the timing with him still no more than a few hundred meters in front of me. A small inner victory.
I was unsurprised to learn that I’d placed in a relatively lowly 74th on the day, leaving me in 53rd on GC. However, there was only one day left, and then my journey from the Basque coast of the Pyrenees up to Nice would be done. I was determined to leave with no regrets and resolved to give it everything on the approaching final stage of 14.
HRA Stage 7: 139km, 2600m+
The final day of the week always heralds a return to life and vigor in the peloton. No matter how fatigued or frustrated, spirits rise and grit returns. One more day to give it everything and cap off what, for the majority, is the ride of their season.
The stage was short and punchy – 100km of non-stop timing across a handful of smaller cols, the first of which came straight from the gun. Whilst most of host town Morzine slept, riders attempted some sort of a warm up, enticing blood into reluctant legs, preparing to peform from the outset. G.C. placings front of mind, the streets were filled with anxious riders spinning up and down the deserted streets. No long steady neutral to get warm, no leeway for if you get dropped. Although Haute Route is a stage race, this had become a spring classic. First rider over the line wins.
Sure enough, the first two climbs, falling more or less back to back, were hit with venom. It’s amazing what knowing that the day’s stage is the last of the week can do to your legs and lungs. I climbed with more lust and power than I had all week, but, of course, so did the whole of the rest of the peloton. The morning was amazingly serene, and the dappled cloud made the light soft and eerie. We climbed towards the rising sun full of exhilertion and expectation, silent with our own effort, and resolve for the day to come, and reflection on the day ahead. In a rare break from the typically sheet-glass smooth road surface of the majority of the Alps, we rode pitted and broken roads. The difficult surfaces and narrow lanes added something to the raw energy and emotion of the peloton, and took me back to the prior week of the wild, isolated Pyrenees.
After the opening salvo of climbs, I found myself in a respectable but unremarkable position in the field. I formed up with a bunch of riders that I’d rarely seen in the week prior – a testament to how much the pack can shake up when the last day adrenaline kicks in. Unlike those I’d found myself with for the majority of the stages since Nice, they seemed unwilling or unaware of how to ride cohesively together. Neither prepared to drag them all trough the following 20km of rolling valley roads myself, nor to casually sit on the back and watch my GC placing slip through my fingers, I rallied them into action, and we eventually formed a cohesive but somewhat sluggish paceline. Initailly frustrated by the pace, I kept calm and hoped that this would mean that I was full of beans for those vital final kilometers.
The sharp punch of the Col de Feu was mercifully short; gradients in excess of 10% were not the most welcome at this point after a long two weeks. In acceptance of the fact that I’d lose contact with the bunch, yet safe in the knowledge that I’d be able to catch on to a handful on the long descent to come, I dashed in and out of the feed station to refill my bottles.
Sure enough, I caught on to an Aussie called Marc riding with the tour group Two Wheel Tours at the base of the descent. And I can’t thank that stranger enough. For the 8km to come, I sat on his wheel as he paced me over the Col de Cou, a wide and winding climb on that benign 6% gradient that I always struggle with. As we started to climb, Mark looked around his shoulder for a wingman. He got me. I slotted in behind him, determined not to get dropped. It’s odd how much things had changed since the Pyrenees. Last week, I had been confident and strong enough to set the pace, this week, I was clinging onto the back. Mark set a consistent yet powerful pace up the col, and i was pretty much at my limit hanging on. We exchanged words and I warned him I would be useless to him – I wouldn’t be able to take a turn. He didn’t care, but also was conscious not to drop me; he wanted us to reach the summit together. If I fell back, he shouted encouragement and eased off a touch; he worked for me the whole way. Whilst riders bond and look out for each other on the Haute Route, I’ve never experienced such an awesome act of benevolence, particularly given that we’d not shared a wheel for the whole preceding week. Big shout out to you Mark. I owe you a beer, and a fair few seconds of G.C. timing.
I raced the following descent with little regard for caution. With only around 30km to go until the timing stopped, it was all or nothing. Arcing around the wide open bends, clattering through bumpy village lanes, hurtling towards the final climb of the week. The Saxel could barely be considered a climb, just a two to three kilometer rise; a true power climb. As I caught another whippet like myself at the start of the ascent, we shared words of despair. This was not favoured territory for lightweights. I climbed with everything I had left in my legs, conscious of a group of six or seven bigger rouleurs slowly but surely gaining ground behind me. I both despaired and celebrated as I observed their arrival. This was my ride home. A few seconds of agonising sprint and I latched onto the back as they rolled past me and we crested the draggy false flats of the summit.
The following kilometers were something of a blur. Mostly downhill to the finish line, we tore through the sleepy villages and quiet streets around the border of Lake Geneva. With little semblance of order or organisation, riders took to the front as much in the belief that they may be able to up the pace and bring us to the finish line faster as from the notion of ‘necessity’ that can be ascribed to taking the front of a pace line. Some of the hardest yet most exhilarating moments of the week came in those final minutes; no one was prepared to be dropped at this point. With my woeful, solo end to the week in the Pyrenees front of mind, I refused to fall back, and nor did I.
In what felt like the most ignominious of endings, we paused at a junction, crossed a road and rounded some houses, then, the finish line appeared 50 meters in front of us, down a pitted and run down country road. Over the line, and that was it; all over. Months of training, preparing, procrastinating, worrying. Done.
I almost didn’t want to cross the line for fear of the event that had so filled my life for many months coming to an end. Yet at the same time I was deperate to get it done. And sure enough, it was. Two of the hardest, most amazing, and most memorable weeks of my life. Writing this around three weeks later, it feels like a lifetime ago.
I finished 96th on that day, leaving me in 56th on the final GC. Admittedly this was just outside my top 50 goal, but, given how hard I worked in the Pyrenees and how awful I felt on a few days in the Alps, I’ll take that. I also scooped third place in the Iron ride category, winning a cheeky €100 to spend on Mavic kit. Which was nice.
The tales above possibly make it sound like I hated every moment, and admittedly I struggled as much mentally as I did from physical fatigue and a gammy hip. That shouldn’t make you think I don’t remember the event with fondness, and I have many amazing memories from the whole week, from the scorching aridness of the cols outside Nice to the luscious meadows of the Savoie en route to Geneva. The hard bits are somehow easier to write about, and those which make the Haute Route so amazing – it forces you into places and efforts you hadn’t previously thought achievable. Plus, everyone loves reading about a little suffering, right!?
Haute Route, I’ll see you in 2018.
As with the Pyrenees, a few shout outs to some of the folk who helped made the ride so ace:
- Darrel and Roy of Sports Tours International, best soigneurs ever
- Adie, Shelley and Max of AlpCycles for good chat, good croissants, good coffee
- Selena Raven
- Ian ‘I’m sick of this fucking shit’ O’Hara
- Felipe for being the carrot over so many cols
- Mark from Two Wheel Tours for dragging my ass up the Col de Cou
- James Naylor for blinding me with his bike
- David Morris for once again sharing some hard mid-week miles
- Guilherme and Bruno; Brazilian triple crown heroes
- Oliver B
- Big Ben Rabner
- 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?!