Haute Route: a pro experience at the pointy end of the peloton

So, what is the Haute Route? Well, it’s pretty much the closest an enthusiastic idiot / weekend warrior can get to living the life of a pro cyclist.

The Haute Route is a series of seven day stage races taking place over the Pyrenees, Alps, Dolomites, and Rockies. The seven days of racing sounds tough, but don’t stress, the organisers do give you a ‘rest’ day. However, on that day they also make you do an ITT up a mountain. So, only 60-90 minutes or so of pain rather than 5-6 hours. Mmmm restful. 

Whilst the riding is brutal, with an average stage being around 120km in length and at least 3500m in gain, the organisers do a lot to make life easier for you. They really do make you think you’re riding the Tour De France (other Grand Tours are available), with iconic Mavic cars and bikes patrolling the road to offer assistance, hundreds of assistants martialling the roads  to control junctions and keep you moving in the right direction, and the broom wagon looming large at the back.

With the broom wagon comes the competitive element – the stages are fully timed (bar some dangerous descents, which are neutralised), and you’re awarded a GC position for the week. Competition is super-high, with ex-pros and Olympians rubbing shoulders with amateur road champions and cat 1 racers, as well as the odd broom-wagon dodging overly-moneyed MAMIL on a Pinarello of course.

The Haute Route Pyrenees 2016 was lucky enough to be graced by three Black Line Londoners; Deenzy, Mel, and that new guy who didn’t come to the Box Hill rideout. We all opted to go through the Sports Tours International tour operator,  who do huge amounts to make a stressful week easier; organising airport transfers, briefing you on the stages to come, and most importantly, providing mountain top picnics resplendent with sandwiches and coffee in the neutralised feed zones.

We’d all met and become friends at the 2015 Alps edition, had all placed in strong but not outstanding positions, and so knew what we were letting ourselves in for in 2016. Mel was targeting stage glory in the TT, Deenzy would take whatever an old man can salvage from his decrepit legs and booze riddled innards, and me? Following a summer of training in the mountains and riding in lots of races / grandfondos etc, I thought I’d try to ‘compete’ in the Haute Route rather than just survive it. I knew I wasn’t going to be up there in the top 10% of the peloton, but reckoned I could get a bite of the next slice of the cake.

Having worked my way up to 68th of around 400 riders on GC in the first three stages, day four was my first stage starting in the prestigious top 75 ‘racers’ pen, and ironically enough, my first rideout in my virgin BLL jersey. As I stood in the pen of purgatory, chowing down on a peanut butter, banana, and jam sarnie eyeing my adversaries, nerves were high. I knew the pace would be breakneck from the moment we escaped the neutral zone. My adversaries in the pen looked lean and lithe, and I felt a little like an imposter. The fact that the parcours almost immediately took us over the 19km ascent of the Tourmalet didn’t exactly calm me down.

Team BLL

As expected, the first 10km of the stage leading to the base of the Tourmalet was taken at punishment pace. The pack of 75 looked and felt like a road race, surging up the draggy valley to the start of the col at well over 40km/h. Personal space was at a premium, with touches of knuckles with your neighbour a common occurrence. Just clinging onto the wheel in front over some of the pitches in the road lead me to push well over my power threshold and my heart rate monitor was close to breaking point.

Eventually the inevitable happened – CRACK – the sound of carbon on tarmac. A touch of wheels about 5 riders up the road led to two riders hitting the deck and a shrapnel of bidons, bars and other bits and bobs spilled across the road. I managed to dodge this, but several others were caught up.

Thankfuly the spill calmed the temperament of the bunch and of course, split us up. I found myself in the third group on the road, consisting of riders 30-50th ish on the road. We took the rest of the climb at a hard but achievable pace, and it was certainly something I won’t forget. Like coverage you see of Nairo, Chris, Alberto, Vicenzo and co, we attacked the 10% ramps and swept around the hairpins as one compact unit. There was no benefit to be had from drafting, but the psychological benefit of company, and the desire to keep your enemies close, kept us together.

We were climbing the west side of the col and were enshrouded in shade for the early kilometres of the climb, as the sun rose behind the far side of the mountain. The experience of riding in the lengthening morning shadows as the sun peeked over the summit, climbing through the barren rocks and empty fields of the Tourmalet’s landscape, accompanied only by the noise of burring chains, clicking gear changes and the odd communication between riders, was certainly something I won’t forget. I’m no pro, but it sort of felt like it. Riding further down the field can feel a little like any cyclosportive, with small groups of riders strung along the road. However, being up in the pointy end, riding in well matched and aggressive packs that are truly racing each other, really adds to the pro experience provided by the Mavic cars, marshals and massages etc.

I’m perhaps making the climb sound like some sort of Rapha-esque romanticised vision of a bike ride. This was certainly not the case. As we reached the ever steepening final kms, the attacks went and a few small groups accelerated off the front. Knowing that I was in a field of more accomplished riders than myself, with my legs searing with the lactate of around 80 minutes of hard climbing, I kept my powder dry and stayed with the remnants of my peloton over the crest of the col.

Having grabbed my pre-filled third and fourth bidons off my awesome ‘soigneur’, Roy, from Sports Tours International at the feedstation, zipped up my jersey (no gilets required on a day that reached 40 degrees C) and stuffed a piece of Duo bar down my gob, the breakneck descent followed. Topping out at 80kmph and averaging almost 50kph, this was almost as incredible as the climb.

As to the rest of the day, well, two more climbs followed on a day that reached, in Haute Route terms, a relatively benign 100km and 3,400m in total, and I finished 50th on the day, moving me to 55th on GC.

I faded towards the end of the week as my legs failed to keep up with the abuse dished out to them early in the week, but I finished a pretty pleasing 60th overall. I’d have loved to have breached the top 50, but hanging on to 60th feels pretty good to me. That elusive top 50 will be my project for Haute Route Dolomites 2017…

Jim Cotton