You know how these things go: another birthday and you run straight into mid-age crisis territory. Some guys get a sports car, but I was looking for something more, say, physical. Upgrading from Ironman is a bit of a challenge, but when my friend Eric talked to me about the Haute Route—a seven-day cycling race for 450 participants in the Alps covering 900km and climbing over 20,000m—I was immediately hooked.
So, here I was in a late August Saturday afternoon, stepping off the train in Geneva, on my way to register and get the 9km prologue on. I didn’t have much time to prepare for it—not quite three months elapsed since I signed up. Also, I live in Houston, which is pancake flat so I didn’t have ideal conditions. But my coach, François, knows what he’s talking about. That’s good as I had never done a single bike race, let alone a multi-stage one. I also hadn’t gone up or down a mountain in several years. So I had a few questions in my mind as I lined up for the start. Going through the starting gate and powering up and down the side of the lake Geneva brought me back to reality.
I’ll tell you, I came with a bit of a cocky attitude. I’m certainly not a great cyclist, but I think I do ok. Well, my performance in the prologue is nothing to remember (138th), and I got chicked twice. That Saturday, it downed on me pretty quickly: this is the most serious group of riders I’ve ever been, with and I’d better up my game (in my defense, the two ladies who went faster than me are Emma Pooley and Chrissie Wellington.)
Stage 1 started Sunday morning. 130km and over 3,100 meters of climbing through the Col de la Colombière, Col de la Croix Fry, and Col des Aravis to take us from Geneva to Mégève. That day was ripe in lessons too, thanks to my roommate Nicolas, a strong cyclist who knows a thing or two about climbing and descending. For one, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight: while my Cervélo S2 is great, its front rings (53/39) are for the flats; climbers go with something like (50/36). Oh really? I thought all I needed was a 11/28 cassette. Oops. As I quickly ran out of gears on the slopes of the Colombière, I began to wonder how I would fare on much steeper slopes later in the week. Another lesson was that it is always a good idea to bring your own nutrition to these events. I didn’t, thinking I would find some at the race village in the morning, and ended up climbing la Colombière on a half bottle of water. Second oops. I eventually picked up some nutrition at the points provided by the organization and made it to the finish in an uneventful way, in the 200th spot.
Then came the after-race ritual: get a slot for a massage, shower, eat, get the massage, go to the hotel, get our luggage, unpack, check the bike and ready it for the next day, return to the race village for the briefing, eat, go back to the hotel, and try to sleep. Wow, not much time to enjoy the Alpine sun! We also developed a nice routine with François: I’d send him the programmed stage in the evening and he would tell me how to approach it, where to pace and where to give it all. His guidance was instrumental in keeping me confident.
Stage 2 on Monday was to take us from Mégève to Courchevel. Another 130km with a bit more climbing: 3,900 meters, going through the Col des Saisies, Col du Cormet de Roselend, and the Ascension de Courchevel. On the first col, I hooked up with Ally, a Scottish fellow I had met the day before in the massage room. He introduced me to his team, Vélosophe: a Geneva-based team with folks from 7 countries or so that turned out to be the coolest team in the entire outfit. Just a bunch of great guys! We hit it off immediately and decided to ride together. The group eventually broke off a bit, with Daan riding faster, and me trying to stick to Gerry’s wheel. As it turns out, Gerry and I would have an agreement for most of the week where we would ride with each other most of the time. Yeah, 90% of the time he would be the one riding in the front, and I would be hanging on for dear life. And he was fine with that. I’m telling you, Vélosophe fellows are insanely cool. That second day, I felt I was getting a hang on the race: how to pace myself in cols, how to judiciously use and bypass nutrition points, how to dress, how to nurse my back, and how to work well within a group. Gerry and I made it to the line in 5h (6h counting the neutralized sections) in 130th place or thereabout.
Stage 3 was never going to be easy. Going from Courchevel to the iconic Alpe d’Huez it went on 137km with 4,100 meters of climbing through the Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon, and the last six turns of the Ascension de l’Alpe d’Huez. It didn’t help that when we left our hotel that morning it was already raining… and it didn’t stop until we hit the finishing line some 7 hours later. So we went to work. Daan and Gerry dragged me up Madeleine where the cold, rain, and wind where really hard. I lost contact going down as my camera flew off my bike, and I stopped to recover (most of) it. I re-made contact before climbing Glandon but the last three kms of that one at 10%, 11%, and 10% proved too much for me to keep up given my gears. I lost contact again in the last km. Luckily the descent was neutralized, and we were able to recharge before the last climb of the day. But to get there, we had to go down some more and my breaks were cooked: I had gone through more break pads in three days than in 4 years of riding in Houston. Yet another lesson: break pads do wear. Riding down to the bottom of the last climb of the day, Gerry and I caught up with Chrissie who was also struggling with her breaks. A few moments later, we hit the slopes of the Alpe and she powered away at an impressive speed. I swear she was smiling too. Meanwhile, Gerry was getting cooked and it was that time of the day for me to provide my 10% of leadership. It was a tough stage but a great moral booster. I started to trust in my legs: if they can take me over Glandon and this monster stage, I should be able to deal with everything coming my way. We placed in the 110th range, once again confirming our slow climb in the GC.
Stage 4 was a semi-rest day, with only 15km of riding. The catch is that those are the 15km going up Alpe d’Huez. In a time trial. After what must be the slowest descent off the Alpe in history to get to race start in Bourg d’Oisan, I changed my brake pads (what a difference!), downed a double espresso, and powered up the col. The plan was to work with Ally but we lost contact fairly early and ended going our own pace. My powermeter died off somewhere along the way, but I gave it what I had and finished in a gentlemanly 181th position. Note to self, stop skipping François’s workouts that call for FTP efforts.
Stage 5 was longer: 187km with “only” 2,900m of climbing. Fresh out of overcoming the Glandon and the Alpe, I started feeling more cocky. That was misplaced: the second col of the day Parquetout, while little known, was perhaps the most violent of the week, climbing an average of 10% over 6.5km. As I was climbing out of the saddle, I noticed that the gradient was spray-painted on the road every few hundred meters: 12.5%, 14%, 12%, etc. That became an indicator: you know you’re having a hard day when seeing a 12% feels like a breather! Anyway, I did what I could to stay in contact and, once we cleared the four cols, we faced a long flattish section. We found a good group, and started working with them. Our group of 15 riders or so was flying through the rolling hills, working efficiently, each of us taking pulls and averaging 40 to 45 km/h. That worked well until the two riders in front of me touched wheels. They instantaneously went to the floor, and I reached for my brakes. As the available road in front of me and to my right shrunk rapidly I could already see me joining them. As a last resort I banked left, not really hoping for much… and somehow I stayed upright. We immediately called the pompiers but after a few minutes it was clear that they were both fit to continue and we resumed our charge for the finish line. I hit it in 91st place.
Stage 6, the penultimate one looked good, in a masochistic way: 150km, 2,800m of climbing, including the Mont Ventoux in the last 21km. François had warned me to keep some in the bag for the Géant de Provence, and so I did. Approaching it perhaps too cautiously, I began gaining some positions (or at least gaining more than I lost) going up its hills. I’ve watched it many times in the Tour but experiencing it for myself was quite something: the trees stop, you hit the lunar surface, and all of the sudden you’re battling the wind. But what a view! I gave it all I had and made it home in 110th place.
Finally, stage 7 took us from Digne to Nice. With no riding the day after, this one was our last chance to gain places in the GC. With Gerry sitting close to the 100th position and needing only 6 minutes to break in the top 100, we decided to work for him, riding hard straight from the start. As it turned out, he didn’t need us. He did a great job placing himself in a fast group and finished an impressive 43rd on the stage, gaining the time he needed. The combination of steep hills, parasails flying close by, small villages, and the sea in the backdrop made it a very scenic stage indeed! It was also a good stage: I ended up in 78th position, getting 110th in the GC. The stage neutralized in Vence, and we rode as a convoy down to Nice.
Two days later, I’m reflecting on the week, and feel a big void. I’m spent, that’s for sure, but what an experience! The places, the people, the emotions, the pain. It all comes together to make an unforgettable week. I know the feeling from Ironman: during the race, it hurts so much that I want it to stop, but a week after I’m ready to sign up again. With Haute Route, I don’t need a week.