September 1, 2012

Haute Route, done

Crikey, it’s all over!

It’s been a week since I last got off my bike, and I’ve not, yet, got back on it.

Two weeks ago, on Sunday 19th August, I got up at 5am for a 7:15 start in Geneva. The beginning of a week’s riding through the Alps, to finish in Nice on Saturday 25th.

First off - some compliments for the Haute Route organisation. Billed as the toughest and highest cyclosportive in the world, they do everything possible to make life around the event easier for the competitors. You are treated to the true PRO life - bags carted between hotels, sometimes even appearing in your room, breakfasts laid on, a small rucksack pick up at the start of every stage, and even a full on road book. All you need to do is eat, sleep and ride.

And ride you do. I found the week to be a heady mix of literal and metaphorical highs and lows. Stage one’s opening climb, the Col de Romme, was a toughie, with some steep ramps on it. My team mate punctured on the fast descent, impressively keeping the front end steady at over 50kph on a loose, gravelly, surface. I pushed on, with the Colombière up next.

On the Aravis an ugly old affliction cropped up - stitch. Sometimes, when racing and going really deep, I get a very painful stitch on my right side that can get as bad as preventing me from breathing properly. As I hit the lower slopes of the Aravis, not going especially hard at all, the stitch came on. I had to back right off and get to a ‘nose breathing’ state to control it.

By the final drag up to Megeve though, I was feeling fine, and with legs still feeling good I dragged a group over the line at high speed.

The only major downer to stage one was my Garmin broke, and I lost the stage stats. If you’ve read anything on this blog before you’ll know I’m a total number junkie, and needless to say this was almost devastating to me. Until I got a grip.

Day two passed with little to no drama, I was still feeling good.

Day three - the one I was dreading. Courchevel to Alpe d’Huez over three big climbs - 4,700m of vertical in total. And here was a literal down day. 5km before the top of the Glandon I suddenly ran out of juice. I’d started to struggle keeping energy gels in - I’ve long since dumped using actual gels, instead riding on Honey Stinger chews, which I find are far kinder to my stomach. However, by day three, I was sick of them. Almost literally. A rough night’s sleep and an increasingly grumbly stomach set up a bad day.

Still, on the positive side, the descent of the Col de la Madeleine is amazing! Some really fast, sweeping, bends. I had a lot of fun.

The last three kilometres of the Glandon are really steep, and completing them when almost totally out was tough. I managed to cram a load of fruit and muesli bars down at the feed station, and shot off for the finale. The slightly easier ascent of the Alpe via Villard-Reculas.

With seven km to go I was out, again. Purgatory, pure purgatory. I grovelled to the finish, glad to see the back of the stage. Tomorrow was the time trial…

Day four. I’d wondered for some time how this was going to pan out. With three days and over 10,000m of climbing already in the legs I couldn’t see me accessing all my current form. I’d decided I’d be happy with an hour - at the best of times not a bad assault on the full 14km climb of Alpe d’Huez.

On the morning of the ITT we’d been given start times at 10 second intervals. This was always going to be ambitious - and sure enough, the morning descended into chaos. I’d done a small warm up ride in the valley, but when I appeared for my start they were at least half an hour behind. I hid in the shade - the temperature by now reaching over 30 degrees celsius.

Team mate, Rich, and I decided to go out almost together, me first. He’d catch me, inevitably, and I figured I’d get motivation from his vanishing image. The start mat was just past the island outside Bourg d’Oisans, and the plan was to speed up off the roundabout and hit the start line fast, getting a bit of a run into the horrible first kilometre to the Alpe. Rich came past me even before the mat! I hopped on.

In the first kilometre Rich declared ‘this was going to be horrible’. By now it was up to 35 degrees. I settled in for the long haul. After a couple of hairpins I pulled away ever so slightly, and we did most of the climb about 10 seconds apart. With only 5km to go Rich passed me again, this was going to be my motivation for the rest of the climb. The photographer got a cracking shot of us rounding a hairpin, and it was used during the day’s briefing.

We crossed the finish line the way we’d set out - Rich, then me. Identical times, 57:10! I was ecstatic, I couldn’t have hoped for a better stage. 61st overall that day, my best stage finish.

Stage five was another literal downer. Feeding issues again ensured I grovelled up the final climb to Risoul. I’d tried to get gels in again, and this was my realisation that for the final couple of days I’d have to avoid them. Stage five also gave me one of my great memories - of many! - of this Haute Route. The views off the top of the Izoard are stunning, I made sure to look around a bit.

With feeding becoming an issue I decided to sandbag on stage 6 a bit. I found a comfortable group to climb in and settled down for the day. At each feedstation I only ate muesli bars and fruit - this seemed to work much better for me.

Another amazing memory, and another amazing descent. The Bonette. The views at the top are also incredible, I wish I’d taken a moment to take a picture or two actually, but time was far more important.

With my legs feeling OK and feeding nailed, I felt pretty good for the final climb on stage 6, up to Auron, and rode a bit harder than I’d been able to on previous days. 95th on the climb, happy with that.

And so to stage 7, the last day. At this point I can distinctly remember that I was very ready to be finishing. I just wanted it to be over. I felt fatigue like I’ve never experienced before, tired through to my bones. But the organisers didn’t want us to have an easy day - we’d have to tackle the Col de la Couillole, a 16km climb with 1,200m of vertical. I decided to give this some effort, and just take the rest of the day as it came. The start of the climb is narrow, especially when there are nearly 600 cyclists on it. It was an exercise in cutting through traffic. 102nd up it, that was good enough for me.

Another cracking descent ensued, running down through the Gorge de Cians. Running along with a bunch of other riders, all strung out in a line, going around long, sweeping, bends at over 70kph will be one of the most exhilarating memories I take from the Haute Route.

As I passed the 5km to go sign I felt a massive sense of relief - it was nearly over. It had been amazing, but at the same time incredibly tough, physically and mentally.

After going over the finishing mat I stood for a moment to ponder what I’d done. Then took the lovely sweeping descent to Vence. Within half an hour of finishing I had a beer in my hand, my first in 39 days. Just reward.

Some stats:

Total event time: 29h 5m 12s - 6h 30m 28s behind the winner, Peter Pouly. Finishing position: 135th (pleased with that - especially since it’s only 1 place below my first day’s finishing spot, 134th) Highest stage finish: 61st (Alpe d’Huez ITT) Calories burnt: over 20,000 For the number junkies: 1829 TSS

Some tips if you’re thinking of riding it for the first time - never underestimate the need for a smaller gear. Sometimes you are so tired you just want to spin the pedals. Go with a compact, put a dinner plate on the rear. Train. A lot. You want hours and hours and hours of endurance and tempo in your legs before this event. I would suggest getting at least a couple of back to back weeks riding in too - try riding every day for five or six days, putting four to five hours in during each of those days. You need to get used to that feeling of being shattered, but facing another epic days riding.

UPDATE: Somebody asked me on twitter what the group riding was like (this was from a person used to road racing in the UK). Well, during the 780km there are approximately 10 (yes, you’re reading that right - TEN) kilometres of flat. I might be slightly understating that actually, but in short there is a flat section of valley on stage two that really did warrant being in a group. Otherwise, you’re either going up or down. So what was the group riding quality like?

Well, up in the top rankings I’d guess it was probably good. Loitering down towards the bottom end of the top quarter, I’d say it was mostly bloody awful. On the flatish section of stage two a gent I was riding with suggested through and off. Brilliant - I immediately chipped in. And then it stopped. Only two or three other guys in our group of 20 odd ‘got’ through and off. We got a ball of about six of us working at one point, managing to educate a couple of chaps to join in smoothly, but mostly it was lost on people.

But then, on the last day, there was a shallow gradient section of a handful of kilometres, and we had a brilliant group that gelled and worked together immediately. I think, from memory, there was about eight to 10 of us, and it was smooth through and off as soon as the road went flat. Barely a word was said, it just formed. That was nice. So, in short, don’t worry about it. You won’t really need to bother.

And lastly, the big question. Would I do it again? A lot of the pain and suffering is fading, and I’m starting to remember all the good bits. The camaraderie, the excellent organisation, the simplicity of life on the event (eat! sleep! ride!), the amazing descents, the incredible views. It was, without a doubt, the best thing I’ve ever done on a bike.

But there is no way on earth I would put myself through anything like it ever again.