A lot happens in two weeks of the Haute Route. So much so that I’ve forgotten much of it already, and many of the mind-blowingly beautiful cols that I climbed, be they Hors Categorie bucket-listers or uncaregorised nut-busters, have merged into one.
Rather than giving you a laboured and boring blow-by-blow account of each stage, I’m going to try to encapsulate my experience in a series of stories and themes that stand out for me from the event.
However, to set it all into context, this is a potted history of my Haute Route.
I flew out to Pau feeling in good shape. The numbers were high, the weight was low, and I had kept my climbing legs moving with trips to Bormio and Alpe D’Huez, for the Haute Route Stelvio and Marmotte respectively.
I rode the initial stages of the Pyrenees (too) aggressively, securing strong placings in the top four stages. After my customary wobble in the TT, where I blew up and lost time, I clawed some positions back in an epic sixth stage. In the final stage, the demon of my 2017 Pyrenees returned to haunt me. On a parcours similar to the romp through the foothills of the final day last year, I lost contact with my rivals during what turned into a sprint over the only climb of the day, which fell very early in the stage. I was left exhausted and gutted, rolling in to the finish with a group of strong but ‘steady’ riders who were at least 40 places lower down the GC than me. Nothetheless, I finished 27thon GC for the week, very happy with my week of riding in my favourite place on earth.
The transfer to Megeve was easy enough, as I got to just sit in a van. However, at 10 hours in length, my body seized up, and I didn’t get access to the volume or quality of calories I needed.
I started the Alps very much on the back foot, with a puncture and a bonk in the first stage. The cold weather and my run down, under-resilient condition led me to developing a cold, and an awful chest through days two to four. I was capable but dopey and rough off the bike, but on the bike, I was a shell, lacking the energy and mental fight to push much above my aerobic threshold, slipping down the GC to an all-time low of around 100th . After a tactical ‘rest day’ on the TT, a day where I span up the climb easily and used the spare off-bike time to recover as best as possible, I felt a slight return of vigour to the mind and body, and was able to turn out a semi-respectable performance in the final stages to regain some time and finish 92nd in the week.
I had found myself in 4thplace in the Iron category (for riders competing over two weeks) at the end of the Pyrenees, however, with the loss of form in the Alps, this inevitably fell to seventh by the time we rolled into Nice at the end of the Alps.
Mind and body as one
A sport as inherently solo as endurance sports, be it cycling, running, or swimming, is as much about the power of your mind as the power of your body. How hard are you willing to push yourself?
There comes a time over two weeks of Haute Route where the mental flame starts to gutter. During one week, it burns bright throughout – there is always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel – that seventh day is never too far away. However, with two weeks, it can feel that there is no end – the tunnel doesn’t stop. This sense of endlessness can confound the brain a little, and fool it into giving up.
The exact point at which the mind starts to falter is easy to identify, like that moment your eyes glaze over and pupils shrink when you’re about to bonk. For me, it marked the start of the new week; day one of the Alps. The peloton hit the timing mat for the first timed section of the one-week race, and shots were fired. The bunch exploded through the rolling gorge at the bottom of the Col du Aravis. I found myself at the front of the third group on the road, maybe 40thin the field. Pedalling through a downhill bend at speed, I totally missed a pot hole the size of one of the UK’s finest craters, though I staryed upright and there were no immediate repercussions. A thought flashed through my mind. I dared not contemplate it. Within minutes the inevitable had happened, and I was at the side of the road, desperately fumbling with tyre levers in my frozen fingers in the icy cold valley. By the time I was rolling again, I was at the back of the pack, which was still well condensed having only just emerged from behind the car that chaperoned the convoy. The riders that would go on to for the top 30 of the race were 10 minutes up the road, and my chances of riding with and ‘marking’ them that day more or less over.
I was kind of pleased. The pressure was off. I had an excuse. Feeling exhausted from an aggressive week in the Pyrenees and in the back of my mind, nervous of having to try to do it all again fora week, that flame of competitive desire spluttered and flickered, close to extinction, 20 minutes into Alps race.
The next day proved the nail in my coffin, mentally and physically. I developed a cold overnight, with my respiratory system full of viscous fluid the colour and texture of the Powerbar gels being given out at the feedstations, my chest tight and wheezy, and my energy levels depleted. And just to aggravate it further, my hip flexor had started giving me serious grief.
I barely managed to stay in contact with a good group over the first climb of a grinding 150km, 4,000m monster day, only to have the group cruelly taken away from me at the start of a 50km valley when I was caught at the wrong side of a split, leaving me and two others to work together for the next 90 minutes. With more time losses, I became more mentally exhausted, compounding my sense of physical weariness. By the top of the Col Du Madeleiene – the centrepiece of the day – I was done. The racing instinct gone, I decided to get into the medical van at the neutralised top summit, my hip flexor and psoas so tight I could hardly walk, and my body so drained I could hardly remember my pidgin French. I was almost upset when they said I was physically healthy and able to carry on. They did however force me to wait with them whilst they force fed me coke and cake, my ashen face and sunken eyes a sight that seemed to shock and appalled them.
I fared little better on stages three and four, with huge climbs such as the Galibier and Izoard slowly draining the life out of me.
Each night after those stages, I’d find my hotel room and just sit in a daze, too tired to feel angry, yet with a fizzling resentment at myself for allowing the race – something that I’d being aiming for all year – to slowly run away with me. I wanted to regain the competitive instinct; even if it meant racing for 70th place, it would still mean I’d be pushing myself and doing what I enjoy most. Yet the perfect combination of illness and lost mental confidence meant that this desire would typically only last about as long as my energy levels, which seemed to deplete after the first hour of each stage as my body diverted its resources to fighting off a sickness.
By day five, I was tired of being tired, and sick of feeling sorry for myself. It was Time Trial day, and I did something I’d never done on a Haute Route stage. I took it easy. I decided that using it as a full-on rest day would enable me to bank a little recovery and hopefully salvage something for the rest of the week. And it worked. I finished a lowly 180th in the TT, but hardly broke a sweat. Come day six, my head was still heavy, and my lungs felt full of junk, but my energy levels were back. On that massive stage over the Vars, Bonnette, and Auron, I felt about 80% myself, whereas before, I’d felt 50% dead.
With the return of energy, I was able to stick in the wheels of stronger groups, and with this, my head grew stronger. The wheel hubs of riders in front of me became bones and I was the hungry dog, desperately chasing after the tasty morsel – just as I had in the Pyrenees. Sure, I was climbing at 10-15% off the power I should have been, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. Having the energy and wherewithal to fully take in the Bonnette was a blessing, as it’s an incredible ride. With its almost unending journey through dense pines, gushing waterfalls, lakes nestling at 2500m in the sky, and barren rocky summit, it’s one of the most staggering climbs I’ve ridden. My form was similar on stage seven, where I felt i managed to regain some credibility and confidence, and end the fortnight on a relative high.
What am i trying to say here? I guess it’s that the Haute Route is an experience long enough to go from the highest highs into troughs so deep that they feel inescapable, and back out the other side again. Like many endurance events, the Haute Route teaches you things about yourself that you learn elsewhere; about how deep you can push yourself both physically and mentally. I won’t sugar-coat it; there were a few nights in the Alps when I was so disappointed with how the race was turning out that I seriously considered pulling out. But by swallowing my pride and gutting out the week in a position that I’d never have contemplated racing in previously, I gained memories, friends, and experiences.
People ask me why I do two weeks of Haute Route rather than one, and sometimes I reply that I want to see how dark things can get. And life can get pretty dark, but it inevitably gets light again, and it’s important to remember that.
Would Suck (For a Wheel to Suck)
Moments after I punctured in the gorges of the Aravis, Adie Hill, Lanterne Rouge, boss of AlpCycles, and good friend, rolled past me, mid-pack. Always keen to stretch his legs in the early part of the stage before reverting to shepherding the weary souls at the back of the peolon for the final climbs, he spotted a friend in need and acted. We exchanged a few words, and for the next 40 minutes, I glued myself to his wheel. An experienced racer and tour guide, Adie perfectly paced me through the field over the top of the col, and through the fast flowing descent into the the Col du Colombiere. Sure, I wasn’t getting much of a draft on the Aravis’ 8% grades, but having a wheel to follow, a sense of obligation to him – to not let him down, a sense that we were in it together – leant me an extra few watts. In the long run of the stage, I may have burnt one of a dwindling collection of matches as we dropped around 100 of the lower to mid stage riders, but it remains one of my favourite memories of the whole fortnight.
Adie’s magnificent tow over the Aravis was not the only time I witnessed the power of a wheel in your eyeline. It’s not just the salvatory drafting effect of sitting in the slipstream on a flat road, but the mental strength that following a wheel gives you on a climb, and the rhythm it imbues you with. The Pyrenees saw us climbing the Tourmalet twice in two days, once from each side. On both occasions, the at-first mind-boggling endeavour of climbing for up to 80 minutes was lessened by the presence of others; having riding quirks and motions to observe, having people to share the occasional word with. As you climb in a well-paced group , you seem to become at one with them; they get out of the saddle, you get out of the saddle. They take a drink, you take a drink. Herd mentality. And when the pace goes up, although the drafting impact is negligible, having a rear hub in your eyeline definitely keeps you moving faster. It keeps you strong. You become a wild dog, chasing a bone inside the rear hub in front of you.
Not only does sharing a wheel keep the mind and the rhythm in check, but it builds bonds; friendships formed in the absence of words. Several times through the fortnight, the act of sharing wheels through the lonely suffering of monster climbs resulted in new friends for the rest of the week; allies with whom to share post-ride meals, to mutually calm nerves in pre-race pens, and to lend one of the most comforting things on a Haute Route – the power of a friendly face.
Eating is NOT cheating
A subject all-too sensitive bites back. Weight, health and calories. I turned up to the Pyrenees a true racing snake. My numbers were reasonable, and more or less where I’d hoped they’d be despite a long layoff in March with illness. My weight was, well, feathery to say the least. Two or three weeks prior to flying to Pau, I tipped the scales at the lower end of my desired racing weight, and I was very happy. A very careful diet had paid off. However, in the next fortnight, a little bit more came off, and the cheek bones became a bit sharper, the bones in my shoulders and pelvis a little pointier. Then a little bit more still came off. With a big final block of training, my body struggled to keep up. I questioned whether this was a good thing, but I didn’t look to rectify it. That little demon in my mind, the one that equates leanness with awesomeness, grinned with delight.
If you know me and read this piece……. You’ll know that I have an unhealthy preoccupation with food, one that takes the neuroticism all endurance athletes have with diet to a slightly further level (in case you’re wondering, I write about it as I find it helps me deal with it. This is not a cry for help or an appeal for attention. If you think that’s what I’m like just stop reading now). I struggled with the problem all season, and was the root of me becoming ill in March, as alluded to above, and as I discussed here.
Of course, having a kilo or two less to carry over hors categorie mountain passes is no bad thing, a favourable tilt in the power-to-weight equation. But for an event that is as much about your resilience and power of recovery as the Haute Route, I’d argue that a kilo excess is as much a lifeline as an anchor.
The day-by-day stresses of the race, the toll on your body and immune system of waking at 5am, racing for six hours, finding your hotel, finding food, then grabbing as much sleep as you could (typically not enough) means that you can get very run down, very quickly. It just takes one day of bad luck – maybe not eating enough, getting cold, eating something that wasn’t at its best, or having a particularly poor sleep – to knock your system out of kilter. And if you’re already pushing your system to its limit, tipping it to the border of poor health with a lack of reserves, this precarious position you is rendered all the more unstable.
Many of my friends in the peloton, none of them doctors, coaches or sports scientists, but experienced, intelligent riders, equated the onset of my headcold / bug at the start of the Alps, something that put an end to my competitiveness for four days, to fragility. Maybe I’d have been less susceptible to illness, or fought it off quicker, if I’d have had just that little extra meat on the bones. Who knows?
Whether it be coincidence or not, my minor recovery towards the end of the Alps came with a huge influx of the things I’d been avoiding for the past three months; calories. Time Trial Day, a solitary climb up to the ski station of Risoul. Typically a day where the top end of the peloton give it their all for around an hour in a bid to gain vital seconds or minutes over their competitors. At this point, languishing at around 100thafter several stages of feeling so awful physically and mentally that I wanted to scratch, I decided to treat it as a recovery and reset day. A breakfast more suited to the six hour days that we’d been taking on earlier in the week was consumed, and a very pleasant pootle up the climb followed.
For me, the Time Trial was no race of truth, but just a recovery ride. Get it done, get home, get rest. And the remainder of that day was spent refuelling, and re-fuelling hard. Having possibly lapsed into calorie deficit after huge days and a few poor post-race lunches and dinners on day two and three, stages taking us over monsters such as the Madeleiene, Saises, Galibier and Sarenne, I needed to get the body back on even keel. And when a system is battling illness and physiological fatigue, if you can’t give it rest, you give it the next best thing; fuel.
Stage six saw an upturn in form. With the feeding frenzy and easy day of the time trial the day prior, I started to emerge from the other side of the dense cloud of illness that had enveloped my system. I had the energy to feel competitive, and the wherewithal to take it all in. Gone was ‘survival’ mode, engaged was ‘compete’ mode. I was still far from my best, but I was far from my worst. Finally, I had fight.
Haute Route is an eating competition. During the race, calories are king. Whether it be the panic cramming at breakfast, the weary-eyed, heavy legged post-race meals, or the carb-frenzied dinner, more is more. It’s not easy to eat healthily at Haute Route. In France, vegetables are an afterthought, and beige food is best. However, for those days or weeks, I’d almost argue quantity trumps quality.
And to some extent, what goes into your mouth in the months prior to Haute Route is just as important as the commitment and energy that goes into your training. Many think it’s all about the pursuit of leanness. However, the majority of those that fill out the front 25 aren’t the hollow cheeked, stick thin climbing idyll. Instead, its dominated by the lean, muscled all-round athlete, those resilient enough to fight off the fatigue of a crushing week, punchy enough to dominate in the valleys, yet still with a power-to-weight that probably far exceeds those of the 60kg grimpeurs such as myself.
There’s a reason why Grand Tours are won by the long, lean, time triallists such as Froome and Dumoulin. It’s no different for us wannabes.
Sleep like a King, for Sleep is THE KING
One of the most precious things at Haute Route is sleep. Waking at 5am or earlier every day soon takes its toll. When you’ve spent around 6 hours racing, a few hours at the event village nervously wasting energy before the race, or staggering about eating, doing admin, and getting a massage afterward, and a few hours scouting out and eating dinner, you want all the sleep you can get.
Off-bike time doing nothing is at an absolute premium, and as we know, it’s when you sit on your ass that you recover, repair and get strong, not when you do the riding bit.
On Haute Route, leaving the hotel to seek out dinner can feel both an immense chore and a liberation; freedom from the intense environment of bikes, bike, bikes as you lay there on your bed looking at your bike crammed into a small gap of floorspace next to you, but also an immense task; walking 300 meters to seek sustenance, two whole minutes of unnecessary exertion. However, more tellingly, being France, dinner doesn’t happen til at least 7.30, leaving you scoffing dessert at 9pm and almost immediately going to bed in a minor panic that it all starts again in eight hours.
Those few hours between finding your hotel after the race and going back out again for dinner are precious, and the way you use them can be a key to success. Those that can nap are lucky. Rather that restlessly laying on the bed, attempting to unwind by listening to podcasts, attempting to read (remember that archaic activity?), or listening to tunes, those that can get even 30 minutes of sleep have a precious gain on their rivals. I unfortunately am not a napper, and as hard as I try, I just cannot nod off in the middle of the day.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to WHOOP, a sleep, HRV and recovery tracking device a few months ago. It monitors your heart rate, and movement, giving you a ‘strain’ score based on daily activity, and recovery score based on your sleep performance and heart rate measures.
Although ‘body knows best’, it’s always reassuring when you wake up and you’re delivered a green ‘well-recovered’ score, giving you hope and steel for the day to come. Conversely, waking to find you’re ‘in the red’ and poorly recovered can be a bit of a blow to your confidence that lingers in the back of your mind. The Whoop is an awesome device for managing your training, but in the heat of the Haute Route, when you have no choice when you ride, it’s not always beneficial to look at your scores til after the stage for fear of any psychological performance-blockers. Anyway, back to the point…
The first five nights in the Pyrenees, I was in traditional hotels, and so had to seek dinner out. Going out for dinner meant a later than desired bedtime, and on those nights I would bank around seven hours in bed, of which only around six were spent asleep. As those nights of lost sleep went on, I could feel my mornings being fuelled more and more by adrenaline and caffeine, less and less by restorative sleep.
After a mammoth six-hour sixth stage on day six, the fatigue really started to bite. Not only the huge efforts on the bike but the stresses and fatigue of the daily routine were starting to grind me down. That night, I was staying in the tiny deserted ski station of Peyragudes, in in a small apartment with cooking facilities. I promptly engaged monk-mode. No restaurants tonight. Just a quick trip to the supermarket, a very basic meal piled into me at about 5.30pm, and bed by 7pm. Sleep that night was long and beloved, and the difference the next day noticeable.
The trend for staying in self-catered apartments continued in the Alps. More often than not, I was in what the French call a ‘residence’ with basic kitchen facilities. When struck down with a cold at the start of the week, my energy levels on the bike plummeted, and I was far from spritely off it. The hollow-eyed shuffle of a Haute Route rider towards the end of a seven-day event becomes markedly increased amongst the Iron riders as they reach the second week, and I’d argue that I trumped that, entering full on zombie-state.
With little else I could do to try to fight off the bug, I tried to max out on sleep. Wherever possible, I cooked for myself and ate by 6pm, sometimes only two to three hours after the ritual shovelling of the post-race meal into my face. I’d be in bed by 7.30 pm, attempting to be in bed for around ten hours. As the sleep deficit started reversing, the cold started abating, and the legs started moving again. My WHOOP suggested I was starting to recover properly, with the recovery score that it calculates rising from the disconcertingly low figures of around 10% that I was reporting at the start of the Alps week, into the slightly more acceptable 40-50% range.
It may be coincidence, but since researching and writing about sleep for an article for work recently, I’ve started to become more and more convinced that it’s the key component of recovery and performance.
Train hard, eat well, sleep lots. The fundamentals. And at Haute Route, you need to eat well and eat lots, and sleep like a sloth. Sleep like a king to conquer the high road.
A Paean to the Pyrenees
This bit isn’t a story, or a lesson, or a learning. Just a paean, to the heart-rendingly beautiful Pyrenees. Long-established as the favourite place I’ve ever visited, my ride there in 2018 did nothing to put doubt into my mind.
Sure, the Tourmalet is just a busy main road going over a very big mountain, and the Aspin looks and feels like oh-so many alpine passes, but there’s a lot more to the Pyreeness than these bucket-list cols. I question whether you’ll find climbs like the Spandelles, the glittering jewel in the crown of the Pyrenees, a fairy tale road that could lead to a wizards’ cave, or the Cap du Long, a journey through a nature reserve so lush with energy and wildlife that you could ride it foverever, anywhere else in the world.
The Alps in all their grandeur are something quite special I’ll give you that. The Maritime Alps around the Mercantour Park with their fertile beauty and sandy rocks are something quite stunning, and the imposing grandeur of the Haute Alpes, the scene of so many souls being crushed at La Marmotte, is breathtaking. But the Pyrenees still shades it.
In 2018’s Haute Route, the action was focussed around double stopovers in Argeles-Gazost and Saint-Lary-Soulan, tranquil ski towns that feel no bigger than a suburb of Alpe D’Huez, Megeve, or Nice. Towns imbued with character and local produce, nestled deep in the heart of jagged Pyrenean peaks. Saint-Lary, a little bucket of civilisation in the midst of a dense cluster of mountains that form the Aure Valley, each uniquely awesome; the Azet and its haphazard villages and dense switchbacks, the Hourquette-Ancizan, a wildlife-strewn beauty, and them the Col Du Portet… possibly the most fearsome climb of the fortnight. And Argeles-Gazost to the North-West, again, a rider’s playground, with the big names of the Tourmalet and Hautacam not so far away. Stay in the Alps and you’ll reside in the ski equivalent of Benidorm to ride the cols; ugly, characterless shells devoid of humanity. Stay in the Pyrenees and you’ll be in a community, with all the riding you could want just a tyres’ roll away.
OK, maybe a little tale to finish this bit off, and something that typifies the Pyrenees in all it’s wildness. The Hourquette Ancizan, stage four. A low-lying pass that is akin to riding through a safari park, with huge herds of goats, sheep, donkeys and cows the size of busses wondering freely.
Having carefully negotiated my way around a minefield of animal droppings the size of a Haute Route rider’s bowl of Haute Route pasta as I climbed, chasing down a group I’d lost contact with off the top of the Tourmalet, I reached a small crest and sharp descent near the summit of the col. Plummeting through the shaded, narrow passage at around 50-60kph, my vision was limited, and I could make out little.
Suddenly, a donkey decides to stroll into the road from behind some trees to the right, casual and unsuspecting that an idiot thinking he’s in the Tour De France is streaming towards him. With around 20 meters to go, the donkey turns and looks towards me. If I didn’t have sunglasses on, and I could actually make out its features, I’d like to think we made eye contact. Knowing that it had the weight advantage, and that it was in it’ own living room after all, the donkey decided not to move, and that the middle of the road was where it wanted to hang. It looked un-fazed, casual. Time stopped. I decided to take the line as far to the left as possible. It’ll be alright.
10 meters to go. Looking good. With at least three meters to spare between an animal probably twice my weight and the verge, I started scrubbing as much speed as possible.
With about 10 seconds until I was due to make the pass, the donkey decides it wanted to check out something exactly where I was headed for, and ambled a few more meters into the road.
Zero meters to go. Still rolling at the best part of 30kph, I hit the grass, unclip one foot, and stick my leg out at what felt like a right angle, doing my finest Wout Van Aert impression, desperate to keep my balance. My chain jumps off, at risk of jamming in my frame. I shift into the small ring and it somehow saves itself. I smell the donkey’s breakfast as I pass by its head no further than 6 inches away. I count various blessings. The donkey carries on its day, unperturbed. Get out of my yard, boy.
In the Pyrenees, nature rules the roost, not ski tourists and cyclists.
So, to wrap up… a lot of these tales and lessons are on the negative side – I can be quite a pessimist and I believe that most things that are learnt are from mistakes or miscalculations. However, I don’t want that to make you think the Haute Route is a negative experience – far from it – the reason I keep going back is testament to its life-affirming, bond-building test of physical and mental resilience..
As many of my memories are of interactions with people during the race as of the pure on-bike experience. Be that Dutchman Rein lending me his wheel when he could sense I needed it most, me pacing John from Alpine Cols over the top of Tourmalet as he started to fade, a Danish guy who’s name I unfortunately have forgotten giving me one of his stash of energy bars when I was out of stock and out of gas at 2,700m on the Bonnette, or catching up with old amigos from previous Haute Routes out on the road. Indeed, there’s more than I could possibly bore you with here and so I won’t go on.
And of course, the mountains. Can you ever have enough? The Bonnette and Spandelles blew my mind again. That insane road traversing the Aubisque and Soulor, its rocky parapet and the archaic, roughly hewn tunnels. The absurdly lush meadows and beautiful light that seems to always grace the top of the Port de Bales. The sun poking over the top of the Galibier at 8am; a barabaric yet beautiful start to the stage, those crushingly hard final seven kilometres lit by the innocent morning sun.
Quite a few times on the Haute Route, I hated the mountains. When deeply fatigued, the endless exertion required to conquer them can ruin your mind. But that’s part of my love for them. They like to play hard to get. But of course, when you’re on form and in your element, you drink them in; the landscapes, the journey, the proof of form.
Either way, the love burns strong. Thank you Haute Route.