The Haute Route challenge I have just completed was like all the other multiple stage events I have done: a long and punishing exploit where you get so tired that all the days seem to get meshed into one. Everything is big blur after the second day. You get so tired you can’t even publish on your blog more than once. Over 800 kilometers ridden, 20,000 meters and 20 mountains climbed in only seven days in this incredible journey from Geneva to Nice.
At the end of the week you can’t really tell which climb was on what stage or what hotel was in which town. The meals are always the same, the people are the same and the daily routine doesn’t change. One of the by-products of riding hard for seven days in a row is that life’s complications and stress just disappear. You get too tired to worry, too tired to check emails, too tired to call the office, too tired to even think sometimes – other than to think about what time your massage is at.
Riding a pro-like multi-stage bike race is a truly demanding experience. So why do we do it? What motivates someone to ride hard for a hundred miles a day for six to seven days in a row? Personally I do it because I suffer from the Law of Progression Syndrome or LPS.
I remember spending an entire summer training for my first hundred kilometer ride. That was hard. I remember my first hundred mile race. That was really hard. If you had told me then that one day I would be able to do multiple centuries back to back I wouldn’t have believed you. And that is exactly my point: “Do today what looked like an unattainable goal yesterday.” If a century seemed impossible but you succeded in doing it then why not try two in a row. Get it?
Pros ride one day races (Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo etc), six to eight Tours (Tour de Suisse, Tour of California etc) and three week Grand Tours (Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana). As an amateur you can experience what it feels like to ride a one day pro race (as an example, for 95 Euros you can register for the Paris-Roubaix cyclosportive and do the whole course a few days ahead of the pros) and you can also experience what it feels like to ride a mountain stage of a Grand Tour (as an example, also for 95 Euros, you can do one or two mountain stages of the Tour de France). Once you have done a few centuries or a one-day pro-like event, the real question becomes: “How do you experience what it feels like to do a one week pro-like Tour?”
Everyone has his/her own reason for signing up for a week long pro-like race. This is how I personally articulate my decision. I love multi-day pro-like cycling events because of the immense physical and mental challenge they represent. It it is the ultimate personal test: “Can I get ready for it although it is not my job? Can I get ready for it although I have a family and a full time job? Can I complete the event? How much can I push my limits?” It is not just a bike ride, it is an adventure. It is an adventure that starts months before the actual event. You need to seriously prepare for it and once you show up, the real work starts. You constantly need to battle physical and mental fatigue, doubts, long stretches of flat straight roads with a crosswind and steep hairy descents. Each morning, you wake up so tired you feel like you can’t ride ten miles yet you go out and ride a hundred miles and battle the last three miles as if your life depended on it. What is there not to like about discovering the limits of your own body and brain?
There is something truly magical which takes place when you put together a group of several “A type” guys/girls and get them to work as team. It doesn’t matter if they know each other or not or if they only see each other once every six months. My experience is that it brings out the best in people. The difficulty of such an event makes it impossible not be happy for every rider that comes across the finish line. Cycling is a team sport and everyone that shows up understands it and behaves accordingly. We look after each other, we understand each other and we all support one another. My wife Mary Lou calls it my own special world away from everything, a place of its own in my life, away from all the stresses of life.
Stage 2 Description
Here is a short summary of what awaited us on the second day.
Scott Sherman thought that stage 2 route was amazing. I agreed with him but I guess that was before everything else that was to come.
Mountains, mountains and more mountains. Rode the whole way with teammate Marco from Zurich.
Organizer`s description of Stage 2
The Col des Saisies as a first course to start the day is not too bad. Followed by 15km of hairpins that twist their way down to the village of Flumet, which are more fun than technically difficult. The route climbs via Crest-Voland – tougher than the Arcanière road – but with spectacular views of Mont Blanc.
Leaving the Haute-Savoie for the Savoie, riders will then need to prepare themselves for big mountains and higher altitudes. The Cormet de Roselend reaches 1967m and the finish line in Val d’Isère is at 1840m. The climbs are about to get longer – 20km of solid uphill to reach the Cormet … On paper, day two’s 109km route doesn’t look any harder than the first day. But again, it’s deceptive and riders need to be careful to hold something back and remember: tomorrow is the Marathon stage.
From the pine forests overlooking Beaufort the long climb up to the Col du Méraillet and the Cormet de Roselend is what the Haute Route is all about: it’s a question of keeping the legs turning, keep the cadence steady. The same again on the final climb into Val d’Isère; a brand new venue for the Haute Route Alps in 2013. Riders should make the most of the flat sections on this 17km final climb from La Thuile to the finish line and not push too hard. Don’t forget to think about tomorrow!
Stage 3 Description
Ready for the high mountains and thin air. It was -1 C at the top of the first climb and 28 C at the top of the last climb. Today I was both the coldest and warmest I have been on a bike, all in the same day.
Great visit to Italy today!
Not my best day as I am a so-so descender.
Organizer’s description of Stage 3
This 164km marathon stage from Val d’Isère to Serre Chevalier offers a double dose of original riding for this year’s Haute Route Alps. Fully timed from the start line in the high-end ski resort of Val d’Isère, to the finish line in the famous resort of Serre Chevalier, the route passes into Italy for the first time ever. To tackle this big day, riders must make sure they still have enough left in the tanks after the first two days in the saddle.
In true Marathon spirit, there are no extreme climbs to be afraid of, but with 3400m total altitude gain, and 164km distance, it’s a long day’s riding. Uphill from the start line, riders will begin their day with a mere ‘warm up’ from Val d’Isère to the Col de l’Iseran. Starting with a 16km climb from 1840m to 2770m is not a gentle way to wake up – at an altitude where oxygen is in short supply!
Top tip: don’t forget to admire the views on the long, fabulous descent from the Col de l’Iseran, which winds through the magnificent Vanoise National Park. From Lanslebourg, riders will make a left turn to attack the Col du Mont Cenis (2084m), with its beautiful lake welcoming cyclists to the summit. With 10km cycling to climb 600m altitude, the first tests of the day are done!
Next on the agenda is the dip into Italy, where riders will join Giro d’Italia roads for around 60km. Be warned: from Susa to Bardonecchia is deceptive, with a 35km ‘valley’, which climbs steadily with no respite between these two Italian cities. The altitude gain in this valley is just 800m total, but if the wind’s blowing in the wrong direction, riders will need to dig deep …
The final section of this Marathon day is a more welcoming one: the Col de l’Échelle brings the route back into France through the Briançon countryside, via the lovely Valley of Névache. Returning to Serre Chevalier from the first Haute Route in 2011, riders have just 20km left to go! The end is in sight so it’s time to relax and enjoy it. Or, of course, there’s always the choice to pick up the pace to the finish line.
Stage 4 Description
A good day. Attacked the first hill hard with very good results. The rest of the day went very smoothly. I actually started to feel better on day four than on the previous two days. Adaptation?
Another amazing route.
Not that much climbing today, only 3,000 meters.
Organizer’s stage description of stage 4
Here come the big names! Col d’Izoard, Col de Vars, and the final ascent to Pra Loup – where Eddy Merckx famously passed out for the first time, and where he was defeated in 1975 by the French champion, Bernard Thevenet. Haute Route riders will cover these big 3 ascents in a total of 109km. Top tip: book a long massage the night before to help get over yesterday’s marathon stage and prepare for this mountainous one.
As with the marathon stage, the main enemy on day 4 is cumulative fatigue, which gets harder with each day in the saddle. A fit cyclist with fresh legs has nothing to fear in the beautiful Col d’Izoard, which meanders up through pine forests from Cervieres – nowhere near as tough as climbing from the other side via the legendary ‘Casse Deserte’. The same can be said about the Col de Vars. From Guillestre, riders climb 1100 vertical metres to the summit over 20 km. The 400m final climb up to Pra Loup should also present no great problems, with less than 8 kilometres of true climbing from Barcelonnette up to the main resort.
So there it is – there’s still 3000m of elevation gain in this 4th stage, which never descends below 1300m of altitude and goes over 2000m twice. It’s not meant to be easy! It’s the Haute Route.
Stage 5 Description
The famed Cime de la Bonnette, the highest paved road in Europe. That is what I call a climb: 23 km to over 2,800 meters or over 9,250 feet. A flat out 1:36 hrs effort into the thin air is something everyone should experience (if you like pure constant suffering). Unfortunately I didn’t read the profile properly before the time trial and ended up keeping too much gas in the tank. Oh well, climb and learn.
I can’t describe how beautiful this place is.
No where to go but up.
Organizer`s description of Stage 5
This is what it’s all about! Stunning panoramic views of the Bonette-Restefond, breathtaking landscapes right in the heart of the Mercantour National Park, 2802m above sea level, 23.5km of physical exertion from the start line in Jausiers. A dream for any serious climber … a painful nightmare for any cyclist who over-does it.
The road up to the Bonette is difficult, with an irregular gradient. Steep sections are interspersed with easier hairpins, on rough tarmac – a trick of the eye and a tough mental game. Even the most talented climbers have paid the price on this road; in July 1993 Indurain and Rominger fought it out, a battle that’s still talked about with fear 20 years later!
Should riders really push it to the max on the ‘Individual Time Trial’ on day 5 of the Haute Route Alps ? Probably not. So, ride wisely and remember that the road is long! Be particularly careful in the middle section, close to the Cabane Noire: 3km of 8-10% awaits – with no respite – just at the most exposed, rocky and barren part of the climb…
The top of the ascent is slightly less steep, but beware of the altitude; at over 2500m, oxygen here is in short supply. Simply reaching top of the Cime de la Bonette is an amazing achievement – and one that all riders should be justifiably proud of, whatever their time.
Stage 6 Description
The second toughest day of the week but the most amazing scenery as we hit the Alpes-Maritimes.
I love climbing but going up 3,800 meters on a bike takes a little bit of preparation and mental toughness for sure.
Three big climbs and a little one.
Organizer`s description of Stage 6
Today’s route is yet again one to be treasured; an ‘out of this world’ cycling experience which passes right through the heart of the spectacular Mercantour National Park. However beauty alone is not enough to carry riders through this Category 5 day – the hardest on the Haute Route scale – and ranked the same difficulty level as the Marathon day. Why? Simply being the penultimate day is hard enough, but with 3800m of climbing over 133 timed kilometres, there isn’t a moment of respite to catch breath.
Passing through the Gorges du Bachelard, after the descent from Pra Loup, riders will approach the first col of the day – the Col de Cayolle (2326m). Then in quick succession come the next two climbs: the Valberg (1672m) and the Couillole (1678m) – which shouldn’t be confused with its namesake at the start of the stage. The peloton will then head North, where the road ascends back towards La Bonette … before a sharp left at St Etienne de Tinee to start the last leg up to the resort of Auron – welcoming the Haute Route for the 3rd year running. At 1600m, Auron is at a similar altitude to Pra Loup, but it’s a much steeper climb. “5 Stars” ? Yes, without a doubt!
Stage 7 Description
The final day, let’s head for the beach.
The forecast in Nice called for violent storms in the afternoon so the police in Nice made the organizers cut the route short and skip the first climb so we could get to the sea before the bad weather.
Turned out the weather was superb in Nice!
Organizer`s description of Stage 7
A mellow descent to the Mediterranean coast and a gentle cruise into Nice – the final destination of this cycling journey? Not really! First of all, there’s 1500m of climbing to the Col Saint-Martin, followed – with great care please – by the Gorges de la Vesubie. The final hurdle is the Col de Vence, which at nearly 1000m altitude, marks the very end of this 129km timed stage.
And finally! It’s done. At Vence, the peloton of the Haute Route Alps will regroup and ride as one, arriving together on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Getting to the end of this ‘highest and toughest cyclosportive’ is no mean feat! And cycling in a peloton along the Promenade des Anglais into the centre of Nice, after 7 long days in the saddle, is a memory to keep forever …