Haute Route 2015 – The Beautiful Brutal one

Peter Bennett

I’ll sum up the Alps Haute Route in a few words for you: Amazing. Horrible. Fantastic. Terrible. Awesome. Brutal. Beautiful. Sadistic. Wonderful. Hideous. Excellent. Gruesome. Magnificent. Horrendous. Phenomenal.

Phenomenal. That’s it. That’s the word I was searching for two hours into climbing the Croix de Fer. And when I hit 80 kmph on the descent from Alpe d’Huez. When my hands were shaking with cold on the descent of the Bonette and when I couldn’t catch my breath on the summit of the Madeleine. When I listened to an alpine horn through the mists on the Izoard and when my legs went numb with exhaustion on Les Deux Alps.

This High Route through the French Alps is phenomenal. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in sport and very, very certainly the most rewarding. It tested my fitness like nothing else. It tested my mental strength too and never – ever – did it get boring. I reached a near-spiritual high on the graceful ascent of the Galibier and a hypothermic low when I had to change a tube in freezing rain with chattering teeth and uncontrollable shaking hands on the descent of the Izoard.

It was only half way through this year’s Alps Haute when I ran out of adjectives. I’d nowhere else to go other than to the linguistic equivalent of gels, bananas, fruit cake, muesli bars and full fat coke, which, as it happens, were in abundance at the top of each mountain, laid on by the brilliant organisers.

There are three things that make the Haute Route Special. First, the organisation, which is fantastic from beginning to end. Nuff said, no argument. Glitches happen in life and they did here too; who cares. Second is the physical challenge of the route – 850km over 21 mountains, and 20,000 metres climbed all in seven days without a break…you be the judge…; and third is the scenery.
And it is this that reflects why we are here. Yes, it is a race and yes it is a challenge. But the French Alps are beautiful – staggeringly beautiful – and also very hard to ride up on a bike. That is what makes them so famous on the Tour and has now filtered down to us at the amateur level – we’re blessed that we can take them on.

The scenery in Haute is jaw-dropping spectacular, ranging from the unimaginable beauty of a dawn sun hitting the sides of the Galibier and the Lautaret valley, to the stunning scenic views at the top of Croix de Fer and back down to the merely magnificent vista from the Izoard as the thunder clouds roll in. I don’t want anyone to underestimate this – these are the best set of scenic views in sport. I challenge anyone to counter.

When riding the valleys we can see the majesty of the cols all around and when tempo riding the ascents on the sides, we pass through picture perfect villages, ski resorts and pastures that looked forgotten sometimes by the outside world. This is France at its very, very best.

hr1Why we ride

Climbing mountains that were carved by glaciers takes on a few forms but they generally fall into a particular pattern. First a long, slow incline up the U-shaped valley, that’s the time you want to be in a pack and not be riding by yourself; if you are unlucky, you’ll have steep section of a couple of ks to get to a hanging valley…try 12% at the bottom of the Croix de Fer. Then the long drag in a V-shaped valley to the summit – a steady grade, not too steep but enough to kill the nerve endings in the legs. Across a flat section, maybe even a downhill bit at a tarn and perhaps alongside a glacial lake just begging to be swum in and finally an inevitable zig-zag up the arête ridge at the back before crossing the col. It’s fascinating stuff if you are into geology. It’s not that fascinating when you are on a bike: it’s either 10C or 30C, and are 25kms into a 30km climb, your legs are screaming and your lungs bursting. By the top you are cursing any glacial god’s name that comes to mind and a few more besides.

A whole day on the Haute is exhausting. The whole week unfathomably hard. I’m lucky enough to have competed in many cycling stage races but nothing compares with Haute for us weekend warriors while time and again I found myself comparing the Haute to triathlons and particularly the two Ironman events I’ve done.

Indeed, I often heard my subconscious mind talking to my conscious mind halfway through an ascent about which is more difficult – an Ironman or the Haute Route? And the answer is the Haute Route. Definitely the Haute Route but it wasn’t without a bit of a debate. In the red corner, an Ironman lasts longer and takes a bigger effort to complete on any single day. You burn more calories in an Ironman than in a single day’s Haute stage for example and the range of skills required to swim, time trial and run is greater than riding up and down a few bumps.

But the blue corner fights back with the Haute being a seven-day event with the intensity of fighting your way up three or four cols in a day straining every muscle fibre in your body. Most stages finish on a mountain top, meaning you can’t stop and walk as a triathlete can in running the marathon leg, and controlling your bike on a mountain descent is nothing short of raw skill yet at the same time doesn’t exactly provide a mental break.

As hard as they are, an Ironman event is over and done with inside 12 hours whereas the Haute goes on and on. And on and on and on. That’s the clincher. And as my sub and conscious minds take it out to the pub car park to sort it out once and for all, I’d offer that the Haute easily takes the scenery prize too. That makes it a double winner.

hr2

It never got boring…the view from the top of the Galibier

To complete a Haute, and next year there will be four of them to choose from, one has to be fit, experienced and competent to start with. It isn’t for beginners. Yet beyond the basics, in another way, it doesn’t matter how good a cyclist you are – it is just as difficult if you finish first or finish last, it just takes longer if you are at the back but it is just a big a test for both because the output is the same. It’s ironic then that the hilliest event in amateur cycling is also its greatest leveller. During this year’s event I had just the same conversations about good patches, bad patches, sore legs, feeling strong, feeling cold, feeling great with the riders in the top ten as I did in the bottom ten. And everyone ended the day smiling; it’s not just the promo pictures that show this, it’s real.

This combines to make a fourth bullet point that makes the Haute Route so special – the comrade of the pack. When I was stuck on the freezing descent of the Izoard with a flat, I lost count of the number of people who shouted across whether I was okay before one guy stopped after just a few minutes to lend a hand. Having a chat on the road with an unknown neighbour happened thrice daily and ‘how was your ride?’ was the question I asked and was asked most at the end of every stage to anyone nearby, even those with hairy legs. What a fantastic feeling to finish every day on.

And that doubles down to my awesome ANZA team mates, David Cox and Vicki Goodwin. Two years ago, DC finished with a seriously screwed up knee and then had to cancel his entry for last year as he was on crutches so this was his Haute Route Redemption ride. That he rode it at all was staggering; that he finished 76th overall was incredible and that he rode it with such confidence was inspirational.

hr3Vic and Dave at Les Deux Alpes

That is, except for the time trial day of course when I beat him fair and square over 12km up the Col de Granon…the TT day was also when DC supplied the biggest BS line of the trip, bless him, at first admitting to me he couldn’t get his power going, and looking red-faced and puffing like a monkey on heat when I saw him, then attempting to say he wasn’t really trying very hard when he realised he’d been Uncled by 40 seconds. In the ‘race of truth’, nice try Looooooser. In fact this turned out to be a bit of a pattern as when he was then chicked by Vicki on stage seven he claimed his knee was hurting. Yea, right……

hr4hr5

 

 

 

 

 

Dave on the TT course full gas.                                                 A red-faced Spider monkey

At least I have the grace to admit that I was passed with honour 20 times over by Vicki, who appears to me to be (a) one of the coolest cycling chicks in the world, and (b) by her own admission have a screw loose somewhere as she is now on the Dolomites Haute. That (a) and (b) are almost certainly connected is a moot point; it’s point (c) that had me bamboozled – she can descend an alpine mountain like a pro wearing dishwashing gloves [lest I be accused of a sexist comment here, read on…]. Even when I started ahead of her at the top of the Bonette and Aravis I couldn’t get near her as she freakin’ flew past me. And it’s not her only quality as her climbing skills led her to seventh overall in the Womens’ GC by the end and the trash talk every night was top quality. What a great cyclist, what a great woman and what a great team mate to have.

hr6

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As cool as…                                                                                           Didn’t see much of this vehicle

 

hr8Help!

The bits and pieces of seven days in the Alps

Stage 1 (Nice to Auron).
A nice roll out in Nice. 15km of nervous neutral riding out to the first timing mat but there was only one or two touches of wheels and maybe a puncture or two, including one for the dude with only one leg and one arm. The Col de Nice was perhaps the easiest col we faced all week and just warmed us up as a rain shower came, then the Portes which was the first real test and split the pack to smithereens. Your heroes were in the first group but when Unc saw he was at 350W just to stay with the pack on the first hill past the mat, a sense of ‘screw this’ came over him and he fell back to a more leisurely pace. Lesson number one learned on this day: get with a group in the valley – it saves energy for the final climbs. And lesson number two…if you get given a gas canister by a so called “friend”, check it doesn’t have a hole in it. By the time we’d reached the Ascent of Auron, a big feeling of ‘what have we let ourselves in for’ was upon us. It then rained all night, which really cheered us up.

VG: Best bit: Finishing the stage. Worst bit: Hitting the wall with jet lag
DC: Best bit: Cresting the Col de Nice. Worst bit: False flat between before the start of the Auron climb; then getting chicked on the flat.
PB: Best bit: Getting through the nervous 15km neutralised zone in Nice without a hitch. Worst bit: Not being able to change a flat inside the timing zone then discovering my team mate had given me a used gas canister [he’ll remain nameless for fear of retribution].

Stage 2 (150km from Auron to Briancon).
I have one word: cold. In fact, I have two words: very cold. I’ll turn it into three: very feckin’ cold. The ride started in Auron cold, got colder in the descent to the start and we only warmed up on the first ascent to Bonette. The organisers had warned us that the entire day would see driving rain and possibly strong winds on the Bonette and although you can wear as many layers as a tropics-dweller has in his drawer, it is never enough. The Bonette climb is very, very long but the gradient not that bad except toward the end but at least it stayed dry. The descent is fab as it is equally long, has sweeping wide corners and lots of visibility for the scaredy cat descenders.

The Col de Vars is the opposite – nasty, brutish and short, it arrived with all the elegance of a boxer with gloves on arriving at a Swan Lake performance. Yuk. And then there is the Izoard, the dream killer with the moon landscape…that is if we could have seen it. By the time we were on it, the clouds had rolled in and the rain had started while the thunder rattled round the mountain peaks.

At the top, a howling wind joined its friends and the descent to Brianscon, which should have been the swansong for the day of climbing turned into a fight to keep the bike from shaking itself to bits with our shivering arms. Vicki put one in the eye for the cycling winter clothing market by wearing a poncho and dish washing gloves to keep out the cold and the rain – a genius idea that I was secretly envious of. Unc suffered a second puncture when almost home while Dave was close to hypothermia by stage end. Within five mins of the end of the stage, we all were in [separate] hot showers…just glad that one is over.

VG: Best bit: Up and down the Col de Vars when it didn’t rain like we thought it would. Worst bit: Descending the Izoard wearing dish gloves
DC: Best bit: Descending the Bonette and then descending Izoard on Emma Pooley’s wheel. Worst bit: The 5km rise to Cerre Chevalier after the Izoard descent when in deep hypothermia
PB: Best bit: Descending the Bonette. Worst bit: Trying to change a tube 10km from home in the freezing rain and with hands shaking uncontrollably from the cold.

Stage 3 (the 12km time trial).
The set off times were 20 seconds apart per rider and done in reverse order. Vicki was first off, then PB then DC and thankfully the sun was out. It was a bit nippy but once the sun hit the banks it soon warmed up. The course was 12km long with a flat half k at the bottom then about 7% to the top and all fairly steady gradient. It was a powerman’s TT course so I sat at 320W while Dave fiddled about with his HR monitor and Vicki just put her head down and rode like she stole it. Awesome ride, breathless at the top and finally we got to see the Alps. Dave was heard to mutter “Ooooo Pete you are so strong” at one point.

VG: Best bit: The sun came out! Worst bit: 2km from the top
DC: Best bit: 2 km from the top. Worst bit: the first 5km
PB: Best bit: Finding out I’d beaten Dave. Hahahahahahaha! Worst bit: I only got passed by one rider and he did so with about 500 metres remaining. Curses!

hr9

First time we saw that Alps…on the TT above Briancon-Cerre Chevalier

Stage 4 (1 million kms from Serre Chevalier to Les Deux Alps)
Wow, just wow. This was the queen stage only made possible by a landslide and a road closure that also messed up the TdF route this year. It’s wow on so many different levels: 1. The distance – 165kms through the Alps; 2. The cols we climb roll off the tongue: Lautaret, Galibier, Telegraphe, Croix de Fer, Les Deux Alpes…any student of the TdF knows the climbs are steeped in history, myth and legend. On any given day, these two were enough and then we were honoured by clear blue skies and an ascent to the summit of Galibier that I’ll be recalling when I’m at the pearly gates: pale summer sun glancing the rumbling sides of the Lautaret valley and as we approached the Desgrange headstone, a single, quiet alphorn playing a quiet sonnet. To call it breathtaking is the understatement of the year.

The descent of the Galibier is long and cold in shade, then a short ramp to the top of the Telegraphe before a steeper descent where Unc’s crap descending skills came to the fore. Then the beast. The Croix de Fer. 30km long at 5% but reverse out the short downhill bits and that becomes a myth itself. This thing goes on forever and you can see the top from about 10km out, creaking your neck upwards to see just how far there is to go. Cruel and unusual punishment which is entirely voluntary. The downslope from the Croix is massive fun, only tempered at the steep parts by the knowledge that we had to come up these bits the next day, then the valley past Alpe D’Huez (“thank God I don’t have to get up that mo-fo,” was what I said to my valley riding buddy). I spoke too soon: the ramp up to the base of Les Deux Alps, then the climb to the resort was just as sadistic. 165km done and one of the hardest days on the bike ever. Brilliant.

VG: Best bit: Climbing the Galibier. Worst bit: Missing the podium by [just] four mins
DC: Best bit: the Switchbacks on the Galibier ascent. Worst bit: Almost throwing up and the fear of the unknown on the Croix de Fer.
PB: Best bit: Climbing the Galibier particularly toward the top and looking down the valley toward Brianscon. Worst bit: My crap descending skills becoming apparent on the Telegraphe.

Stage 5: (115km from Les Deux Alpes to La Toussuire)
If that was the queen day, what the heck was this? Bang, straight into the Col de Sarenne. Not a very well known climb as it’s only been used on the Tour once and only going down it but it was hard as hell – technically the hardest of the week at 13km long and an average gradient of 7.5%, and especially so with legs not warmed up and dulled by yesterday’s monster. Timing stopped at the peak so a trundle across the plateau to the top of Alpe d’Huez where we took the back road down to the dam and the start of the Croix de Fer for the second time.

As predicted from yesterday’s recce, this was a brute of a climb coming up from the Bourg d’Oisans side and only let up once we reached the lake and the Col de Glandon turnoff. A fantastic descent and close to the bottom was a forlorn DC sitting by the roadside and complaining about his broken nipples. The problem a boy has.

The climb to the ski station of La Toussuire was the last one of the day and sans the 12% gradient the organisers had talked about the night before – phew. It didn’t make much difference though – the 8% gradient killed any hope of an easy finish although it did flatten out at the top so we all managed a little bit of a sprint finish and pretended we’d just won a stage in the Tour.

VG: Best bit: Smoking my PB on the final climb. Worst bit: dumbed down neutralised descents again and the restaurant that ran out of food.
DC: Best bit: Aggressive descent into the foot of Toussiere on an unknown Mavic wheel. Worst bit: very long climb up the Croix de Fer with a tacoed wheel and rubbing brakes.
PB: Best bit: Sprinting across the line in La Toussiere. Worst bit: Bottom of the Croix de Fer knowing I had it all to do.

Stage 6: (156km La Toussuire to Megeve)
The Col de Chaussy is the one that typifies hairpin bend climbing in the Alpes and is amazing as a shot from the air; on the road, it isn’t that difficult, at least compared with some of the other climbs we’ve done by now. After this, the fabled Madeleine with its staggering views from the top and it’s long, long road to the summit. But the killer of the day was the Col des Saisies, another lesser known and used climb, perhaps made famous by Floyd Landis’ mad solo attack the year he got busted for drugs.

I think after Chaussy and Madeleine, many people had forgotten about it, which they shouldn’t have done cos it was freakin’ hard. Again. Unc really started to feel the fatigue setting in, DC was complaining about his knee so was presumably getting passed left and right and even Queen Super Vic was feeling the strain. After 150km, we were beat. The only consolation was the downhill finish and as it turns out group ride into Megeve. This ended as being potentially the most difficult stage for many on what even the old timers were calling the most difficult Haute ever.

VG: Best bit: Best view from the top of the Madeleine and subsequent decent. Worst bit: last couple of ks of Col de Saises.
DC: Best bit: Catching the guys that dropped me on the flat on the way up Saisies and then descending toward Mageve. Worst bit: Long flat section done alone with such low motivation that I was signing Daniel Bedingfield in my head.
PB: Best bit: clicking up through the gears at the top of the Madeleine. Worst bit: 2 km from the top of the Madelaine when I realised I’d clicked up through the gears way too early

Stage 7 (130km Megeve to Geneva)
Phew. The easiest day of the Haute and because of the long valley between the two climbs of the day, a sense of this being the easiest too. The cols of Aravis and Croix Fry were the two most difficult of the day, followed by a long valley section that saw some enormous groups form. With local riders at the front hurtling through the small villages, this turned out to be technically the hardest bit of the whole trip.

The nasty sting in the tail of the Col des Pitons (aka Saleve) that overlooks Geneva was tempered by an easier gradient and knowing it was downhill to the finish from there. What a fantastic feeling. Descended the Pitons with a Velosophe beer in my back pocket – the best way, if not the most sensible way – to finish a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Haute Route.

VG: Best bit: Cold Velosophe beer at the top of Saleve after timing stopped. Worst bit: Surviving team mate attack [no idea what she is talking about here. Ed]
DC: Best bit: Enjoying tapping out a relative slow pace to the summit of the Pitons and being met with a beer. Worst bit: concern about recurrence of the knee injury.
PB: Best bit: Finishing. Worst bit: Losing the big group in the valley. Schoolboy error.

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