Riding across the Alps from Geneva to Nice on my bike in seven days from August 18 to 24, 2013 was the fourth week-long cycling event I have attended in the last two and a half years. The first two events were in California in May 2011 and 2012 and the third was in Colorado in August 2012. The main difference between the first three events I attended and the one I participated in more recently is that in Europe last week each stage was timed, there was no waiting for a group or taking regular breaks. There was also significantly more climbing, something that my friends and family know I take great pleasure in experiencing. In other words, it was the hardest cycling event of my life.
This seven stage in seven days event is called the Haute Route. I was part of an overall group of about 600 amateurs and a team of ten which I had put together. We rode on bikes through the Alps, covering 880 kilometers in the process and climbing twenty mountains for a total of 21,000 meters of ascent.
I am sure that each of the 600 participants came to Europe with some kind of a goal: some came to win, some came to finish – and everything else in between. I was somewhere in between. I went to Europe knowing I wouldn’t win but also knowing that I would finish.
At some of the dinners with my teammates while in France there was considerable discussion as to why seven married men with children and full time jobs, one very successful, now retired executive, a fundraiser for charities in his thirties and a young twenty-two year old man freshly out of school have signed up for something this gruelling. I was a bit surprised to learn that for some of my teammates a key goal was “to finish”. After all, every one of my them was well prepared, rode hard and looked quite good on the finish line. I guess then, they did way better than they expected.
Personally, I related the most with a couple of statements from my partners. The first one is from Scott S. who said that one of his goals was to; “Make my family proud – they made big sacrifices to allow me to accomplish this boyhood dream.” The other is from Marco who’s pre-race goal was “to gain experience for that kind of race.”
But really, why did I go to Europe to cross the French Alps on my bike? Cycling isn’t how I pay for food, private schools or family vacations. I had been wondering all year why I was spending countless hours on the bike (and in the car getting to the mountains) to train for such a crazy cycling race on a different continent. It finally started to become clearer to me in the middle of the event. Until then I guess if asked why I wanted to do the Haute Route I would have given a Sir George Mallory kind of answer. Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there.” Why ride the Haute Route? “Because it’s there.” I first heard about the event in 2011 the year it was inaugurated and I thought back then that I just had to do it. Seven long days, long climbs, difficult schedule, same meals every day, two star hotels; “What is there not to like?”
The truth is that you can’t get into an event like this without setting some kind of goal(s). While in Morzine, France a few days before the start of the race where my teammates and I met to train and adjust to the jet-lag, our group had an opportunity to discuss both personal and team goals. We all agreed that a top-ten team finish would be a good achievement and that we would aim individually to be in the group of the 75 fastest riders who get to start each stage ahead of the pack.
Being confident about my ability to climb, I thought that all I needed to focus on in stage one was to stay with the front guys from the start of the race to the bottom of the first climb, the Col de l’Encrenaz. When about 25 kilometers into the race I heard my teammate David Burke behind me saying we were only one kilometre from the first climb I thought I was off to a good start as David usually knows how to pick the right spot in the peloton. My main objective on the first climb was to go up at a good but sustainable pace, while keeping in mind this was a seven day race. I did the same thing on the second climb. Unfortunately for me I skipped a feed station, ran out of water and food and bunked with about 12 kilometers to go. I stopped at the last feed station and finished strong. I came in 140 th out of 600 participants. Even assuming I would not have bunked and not lost an estimated eight to ten minutes in the process, I would have finished between 95 th and 100 th, way short of my “top 75” objective. As it turns out my coach thought that I took it too easy on the climbs.
On stage two I started near the end of the pack with most of my teammates. That wasn’t an issue as rankings are based on true time (time starts when we cross the start line and stops when we cross the finish line). When we got to the bottom of the first climb I could see hundreds of people in front of me and that is when I decided to go. I compared this to blood in the water for a shark. My teammate Marco was the only one to join me – David was ahead as he had finished top 75 the day before and started in the front pack. I don’t know how many people Marco and I passed but we passed a LOT of riders. We did the same thing on the second climb the famed Cormet de Roseland. When I got to the top of the last climb to the village of Val D’Isere I was 134 th. Although I had a pretty good day I was still way short of the top 75 goal.
Stage 3 was the Queen Stage of the Haute Route, the longest and toughest day. I didn’t do too badly but spent way too much time on my own on a long stretch of road through Italy and lost considerable time. I did end up finding a couple groups to ride with in the last third of the stage and I felt strong towards the end when it mattered.
On stage 4, I was determined to follow my coach’s advice and stick with the front group until I couldn’t follow anymore. We left Briancon and immediately started climbing the Col D’Izoard. I stayed with the front guys for the first twelve kilometers of the climb. When the pace became too hard to keep up with the front group, I followed the next part of the coach’s advice and finished the remaining 7.6 kilometers at a more “comfortable” pace, if I can put it that way. At one point I turned around and saw my teammate David behind me. Dave was then our highest rank rider with a 63rd position overall after three days. I immediately thought that my coach Jason was right: If I go for it, I will do well. Do well? On a relative basis yes. I crossed the top of the Col D’Izoard in 95th position. Better than 140th or 134th but still way short of the top 75 rank. And it is then that I decided how I would handle the rest of week. If a great effort on a climb means a 95th place then the top 75 spot would remain elusive as I am at best an average descender. Why kill myself on the way up just to get dropped on the way down unless I take risks that maybe I shouldn’t be taking. After all, I don’t get paid to race, I pay to race. I started to relax and decided on daily micro goals instead of some illusive “top something” goal. I was always somewhat indifferent anyway to an overall ranking: what is the actual difference in my life to finishing 134th, 140th or 168th or 268th? Will it change the way my family thinks of me as a husband and father? Will it get me a higher salary? Is anyone going to remember my ranking come Christmas?
When I woke up the day of stage 5, the time trial up the 23 kilometers Cime de la Bonnette – the highest paved road in Europe – I thought: “Today is my day, all uphill, long and no downhill.” Riders started with 20 seconds gaps with the best ranked riders starting last. That meant the best riders were leaving after me. My first micro goal of the week was not to get passed by the stronger riders. I put in a good effort, met my goal of not getting passed and came in 124th with a time of 1:36:29 hrs. To this day I am convinced I could have down slightly better as I had misread the course profile and held back a bit near the top for what I thought was a tough, steep finish. Turned out there was a long flat section near the top. Oh well, what I mean by slightly better is not more than a minute or so, which would have moved me up by no more than ten spots. Another good and satisfying day without meaningful ranking results.
The last two stages unfolded the same way: good efforts, micro-goals attained and a really good time on the bike and with my buddies. When it was all said and done our best finisher was David with a 85th overall position and our team finished 34th out of 93 teams.
After stage seven most of our team members and I had a copious meal in a small Italian restaurant in the old part of town in Nice. Although none of the objectives in terms of ranking we set in Morzine a week earlier were met, everyone had a huge smile on their face and felt a great sense of accomplishment, knowing they had just completed one of the hardest one week event available to amateurs cyclists.
I assume that most people reading this post know me pretty well and had some idea as to why I participated in this event prior to reading this. But I think most readers must also at the same time wonder if I am the typical Haute Route rider. Based on my discussions with other participants I discovered that we share similar characteristics: “type A personalities; we have a full and active life outside cycling; we show up to the event with some goal, whatever it is; and we all leave the event feeling like winners (i.e. finish the event, finish top 200, beat your teammates by finishing 400th, etc., etc).” Not having a goal is a silly way to get through any competitive event. The point is that a goal adds a competitive aspect to the race and a sense of achievement once the race is over. Goals provide a good scoring system for people who like to keep scores and it sure helps you get up in the morning. Of course goals are also subject to change once reality sets in. In my case I wasn’t sure what to expect so it was hard to set a precise goal prior to getting to Europe. I subscribed to the goals set while in Morzine because I am a competitor–maybe even a bike racer–but I had no clue how realistic those goals were. It turns out these goals were way too optimistic, but realizing how strong the field was just made it even more rewarding to have achieved some good results here and there.
Once I got over my initial realization that we didn’t have what was needed to meet the goals set in Morzine I started to reflect on my “life as a bike racer” and remembered a conversation I had early in the season. It took place in Tucson back in March while I was having dinner at my friend Gord Fraser’s house. He had invited Pierre Hutsebaut, a veteran Canadian cycling coach who used to work with Steve Bauer’s and is now coaching David Veilleux from Team Europcar. This year, David became the first rider from the Province of Quebec to finish the Tour de France. At that dinner in Tucson Pierre asked me about my main event for the year and I mentioned the Haute Route and described it as a race. Pierre turned to his girlfriend and said: “It’s not a race, it’s a cyclosportive.” I explained the concept of the Haute Route, the teams and the timing but he just wouldn’t call it a race. I so hoped a pro like him would look at my event as a race, just as I would like to see myself as a bit of a bike racer. His verdict was simple: you’re an amateur doing an amateur event.
The truth it turns out was that Pierre was right: “Although the Haute Route involves bikes, teams and timing we were mainly a bunch of guys just trying to get to the finish line in good time and who view themselves as bike racers.” I am not disputing the fact that there was racing happening at the front of the group, including our own David B, but my point is that most people participating in events like the Haute Route get the most out of the event by meeting some personal goals not necessarily linked to a certain ranking.
Everyone is now back at home or on their way home. As I am writing this in Montreal over red wine and French cheese, I know that although the best ranking I achieved was 95th on the climb to the Col de L’Izoard, what I was able to do is significant as it seemed like an unattainable goal to me just a few years ago and is still feels like an unattainable goal to most of my cycling buddies now. What I did in Europe was to “pretend to be a Tour de France racer for a week and finish the event looking and feeling like a star (even if only in my own mind)” and that is what truly matters.
Personally I am a husband and father first, then a businessman and an amateur cyclist last. That is who I am. The guy who won the time trial climbing the Cime de la Bonnette in 1:05:28 hours and equalled the record for that climb is a bike racer. Everything that happens in the main pack is defined by one main factor: we are all overachieving men and women who are passionate about the sport but who have lives outside the sport that have a larger meaning than just cycling. Most guys on our team would get to the hotel and FaceTime their wives and kids, return business emails and have conversations about all those things. Most members of our team also said they would consider doing it again next year “if their spouse could be with them.” Cycling is hard and most people I saw on the road this past week looked pretty tough to me and they sure never gave up. More than their ability to race, being focused, determined and tenacious was what clearly defined the participants.
It also needs to be pointed out that ultra hard cycling events seem to bring the best out of people. You can’t stop on the side of the road to stretch your legs or back without dozens of riders asking you if you are ok or if you need anything. The atmosphere before, during and after every stage was relaxed and collegial. I asked the masseuses on the last day how the riders behaved and they only had good things to say. On the last day the organizers held a celebration at which they showed a video highlighting the best moments of the week. In the video they showed a rider who in my view was the heaviest rider out of 600 participants. We all saw him on the climbs with his shirt unzipped, huffing and puffing, sweating, looking like he was struggling but always looking very focused and determined. When the group saw him on the video the crowd went nuts and applauded loudly.
I got the feeling more than once that my coach was somewhat disappointed by my performance. He had me more than ready and all my power numbers were where they needed to be right before the event. We both knew already that I recover very well after very long rides which means I can ride hard and long day after day and still be able to perform. Once again my power numbers on this trip clearly demonstrated that. Jason is a real racer and a pretty good one too so I assume he would get pleasure out of me getting the best of my fitness. When I fully debrief with him I will assure him that no matter how he feels about “how well I should/could have done” I will assure him that once again he perfectly prepared me and as a result I had the best cycling week of my life by a long shot. With the experience I gained this year I can now focus on a different kind of preparation for next year which will include – maybe – a more consistent “racing” approach to cycling. Maybe. The truth is that five to six hours a day of suffering, focusing on staying safe in a big pack and being careful on the fast descends with tight switchbacks provides me with a chance to escape a very busy business schedule for a week and it makes me a happy dad/husband. Doesn’t that mean more than anything else? There is not price for that.
While I was in Europe my wife Mary Lou would text me and advise me to listen to my coach so I wouldn’t come back with regrets. The reality is that no matter what, I will always think that I could have done better, regardless of how hard I tried. I will always think I could have pushed more during the time-trial, gone faster down the Col de L’Iseran and not get dropped by fast guys in Italy even though I was trying real hard at the time. In order to make sure I didn’t leave France with too strong a feeling than I could I done better, I decided to add “stage 8” and the day after the race ended, I went on a solo five hour ride and rode 102 kilometre and climbed 2,100 meters while everyone else was taking the day off.
Thinking that I can do better next time is what keeps me going. I’m not sure what Mary Lou meant when she advised me to listen to Jason and go hard but to me it meant to go as hard as I could but leave just enough in the tank so as to leave the door open for that very important conclusion: “You did good but you can do better so keep going man, keep improving and working hard.”
So what next? Here’s what’s next. The Haute Route this year consists of one week event from Geneva to Nice through the French Alps and a one week from Barcelona and Biarritz through the Pyrenees. Next year the organizers are adding a week across the Italian Dolomites and Swiss Alps. I am thinking that doing the Dolomites/Swiss Alps event followed by the French Alps in 2014 would set me up well for the full three week event in 2015 – or maybe doing three weeks in 2014 would be a heck of a nice 50th birthday present.