Stage racing is my absolute favourite type of racing, although previously it has always been MTB races, except for one rather eventful Ras de Cymru many years ago. With almost all my riding being on the road recently I thought I’d be out of luck and not get to do any more over the coming years. I knew about the Haute Route, but it always seemed inaccessible due to the entry fee but with the more recent organisation of several 3 day events it seemed more possible and especially given it would be the following week of La Marmotte. With other plans and ideas put together to get some writing work done in the week days in between the trip came together nicely, although I didn’t really appreciate at the time how much riding I’d be doing and how little recovery I’d have.
What cyclist hasn’t dreamt of taking part in the Tour de France? The chance to race day after day in incredible scenery and into the high mountains. As someone who absolutely loves big mountains and the Alps, I have travelled here almost every year since 2011 and the place holds me in like a magnet having done La Marmotte 4 times including this year and the Etape du Tour4 times including two in the same year when they doubled up and even doing Alpe d’Huez triathlon last year I am always on the look out for something new or big to do.
Held over 3 stages across 3 days Haute Route Alpe d’Huez is a stage race for amateurs but aims to emulate the experience of those racing in the pro peleton. Although the event was based around the town of Alpe d’Huez each day would be very different with a reasonably short 70km stage, the big one at 160km and stage 3 being a finalé with an ITT up the mythical mountain.
I was very lucky to have Alp Cycles present at the event and while I was not staying with them in the incredible chalet they use (lucky buggers!) it was great to have friendly and experienced faces to speak to and given Ade is now the lantern rouge for the event, he knows everything there is to know about it.
My aims for the event? I had no idea of the competition but after a decent, but not incredible La Marmotte I had a top 10 placing in my head to aim for.
Day 1 / 70km / 3000m+
Stage 1 started from Bourg d’Oisans, the town at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez, which meant a rather chilly descent down the 1180m mountain to even get to the start. Thankfully it was dry, which was something and with the option to carry extra layers down and drop a bag at the start it made it easier to stay warm. Bundling into the start pen with over 150 other riders there was a nervous silence with riders all ready to get going. The race format included untimed, neutral sections which were mostly on either a busy road or a dangerous descent and the race started with a 1 kilometre roll out to the base of the mountain. When the lead car pulled away the initial reaction was hesitant, but then Dean Downing, former pro rider and now riding for fun decided to sprint off. Thanks Dean! All hell broke loose and that anxious pent up energy burst out with riders sprinting full gas up the mountain! I was eager to stick with the group and my breathing and heart rate was fine, but my left leg started to get painful where I suffer from external illiac endofibrosis and I had no choice but to ease off and let the lead group drift away. It is the first time in a very long time that I have put myself into that situation and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is. I battled on, but it takes around 5 minutes of softer pedalling, at least 50w below threshold for the pain to ease and by that time I was way back. The route took us along the balcony road, which is a gradual rise with a huge drop to your right overlooking Bourg and the valley and it seemed mad to be racing along it, but the pace was slow due to the climb. The first timed section included a descent too, which was pretty good, but too straight for me to take advantage of and bigger riders were able to build up more speed and fly by and then I’d just be stuck behind people in the corners. A short transition section led to stage 2, which was going to be an uphill spring to Les 2 Alpes, starting on the back roads then heading onto the main road up.
Rising 720 metres at almost 8% climb it wouldn’t be regarded as an alpine great but was still longer and tougher than any British hill. As riders were passed and more passing the strengths and weaknesses were starting to become clear and I was digging deep to try and pass riders ahead of me.
“Must catch the guy on the 3T!”
“Don’t let that guy on the Moots get away”
As the climb progressed I found that generally the steeper the climb the better I seemed to be doing but anything remotely flat and I was heading backwards very quickly. After the summit of Les 2 Alpes and the following descent which was a neutral section we faced the toughest challenge of the day with a climb up the Col de Sarenne, sometimes called the back road up to Alpe d’Huez. The stats are similar but it has some challenges of its own, including the barren, baking hot south facing bowl that you climb into. I started the timed section just after another Brit and paced myself as well as I could, aiming to pass him before the summit, which I did around 2km from the top. The summit was a relief, but not the end of the day as the organisers had the cruelty to drop riders back to the main climb of Alpe d’Huez and tackle the final 3 bends to the finish line – all timed. For a relatively short stage the amount of climbing was incredible and riders were crossing the line quite literally looking finished.
One big day done, 13th overall which was OK but not great. Time to recover and prepare for the next. The organisation have every box ticked to make sure that riders are recovered and ready to fight another day with food available immediately after you cross the line and massages for all riders, to really make you feel like a pro.
Day 2 / 1600km / 4500m+
The big day; a very big day! For those familiar with the climbing ranking system for cycle races it featured 3 HC (Hors Catégorie/ Out of Category) climbs, which are the biggest of the bunch. Having recovered as well as possible after the previous day my legs were feeling surprisingly fresh and ready to go. After a neutralised section to the base of the Col de la Croix de Fer I felt good enough to take up the pace as the timing begun. It was also a tactic to try and control the early pace and hopefully avoid problems with my leg. It worked as although a few KM in there was a fairly big bunch of riders, my leg was fine. The Croix der Fer is an evil climb, in total 25km in distance but features 2 short descents along the way and anyone focusing on just the elevation will be heart broken to see 100 hard earned vertical climbing metres disappear. Standing at 2067m tall, it is the highest point of the whole race, but with just 45 kilometres completed there was still a long way to go.
A long neutral descent to the Maurienne valley followed and then what should have been a simple and flat 10 kilometres to the base of the next mountain, except for a big crash that wiped out 2 riders in the small group I was riding with. I put my brain firmly back in gear; it was time to concentrate and prepare for arguably the toughest mountain of the whole race, the Col du Glandon. 20 km with 1433m of climbing with the steepest sections at the very top. The lower slopes were within a group of 4 riders before deciding to drop back from one rider setting a pace that was just fractionally faster than I was comfortable with. Sometimes having a rider pace you up can be a huge help, but sometimes it can be a fast forward to hitting the wall and I wanted to prevent the latter. Of the 4 riders, the other 2 stuck with me, perhaps also feeling the pace was a little too hot.
The lower twisting slopes gave way to the more open but narrower middle section and then finally the summit was looming. After what has already been a relentless climb the final 3km are extremely tough at 10%, 11% then 10%, which the KM markers on all the climbs will remind you of all too easily. A steady climb had paid off and I summited feeling reasonably good, passing the rider who pushed harder earlier and started the descent back down the Croix der Fer. Being the reverse direction to the earlier route I asked myself what was worse: A climb broken up by a few descents of a descent that feature a few climbs? When one of those climbs is almost as big as anything that the British Isles can offer it puts everything into perspective. I caught an Italian rider called Fabio who had joined me for the majority of the descent and he seemed happy for me to take the lead downhill, which I was more than willing to do. As we rounded the Lac du Verney near Allemond I prepared myself for one final climb. Fabio dropped me like a stone as the climb to the finish began and I felt like I was sinking. The final climb, another back road to Alpe d’Huez via Villard Reculas was thankfully shaded, making the heat a little more bearable before rejoining the main climb for the second day at bend 4. The finish line was a very welcome sight after 160km and over 6 hours of extremely hard riding, but almost immediately the thoughts turned to recovery and the final day. Once again, with food waiting, massage done and everything as easy and quick as possible it was as smooth as possible. Looking at the results later it had been a great day for me, finishing 7th on the stage and moving up to 6th overall.
Day 3 / 16km / 1135m+
Alpe d’Huez is a mountain that is steeped in Tour de France history with many cyclists looking to set a time and compare against the greats of both cycling past and present or get under that magic “1 hour” marker. Stage 3 was shorter and just a single climb, but for me my absolute worst nightmare. An individual time trial up the mythical mountain with riders set off at 30 seconds intervals in reserve GC order.
Having had a strong Stage 2 it meant a reasonable wait for me but worryingly the fastest riders would be chasing me down almost immediately. Alpe d’Huez might not be the prettiest, the hardest or the biggest mountain to ride but when you are at the base, looking up at the resort that appears to be a spec in the distance it is certainly intimidating. Rolling down the clouds were thick but I had taken a chance and decided to drop down with just my race kit, which was a big mistake as it started to pour with rain after a few bends and by the bottom I was shivering uncontrollably. I asked if I could start early, to try and get warm again but that wasn’t possible. Luckily the MC for the event I know from previous Alp Cycles trips and he was amazing and lent me a jacket and bought a coffee. By the time my turn came to start I was feeling much better. With 21 bends ahead it was time to suffer!
The long road up to the first hairpin is probably the toughest, heart rate going through the roof trying as much as possible to control the desire to give it beans on the steep and surprisingly long section to the bend. Despite trying to keep my power within numbers I know I can usually achieve I had to ease off even before bend 1 as I could feel my left leg suffering. From bend 21 here the hairpins are more frequent and up to 18 are the steepest to La Garde. Soon after La Garde my leg was slowly starting to improve and as the rider who started 30 seconds behind me caught up I decided to try and stay with him. The middle section is a series of twisting roads where the only brief respite is the flatter section on each of the switchbacks, or should you be in TT mode and aiming for a fast time this is where you can click down a gear or two and build some speed up. I had a 3 minute lead of 7th, but he was out of sight and I had no idea if I’d drop a place. All I was able to do was give it everything and hope for the best. From the village of Huez the finish starts to feel closer, but with 6 hairpins still to come and over 4km it hurts! The final section, from bend 1 up through the start of Alpe d’Huez is cruel, dragging out the end before the final straight road that takes you up to the Chrono finish.
Ride done, collapsed over the front of the bike I get my breathe back and think about the days been. The feeling of accomplishment is great and the event has been a big success for me and something I am really glad I did. I would love to do the 7 day, which should suit me even more although the level of competition there is another level. Big thanks to everyone at Haute Route for a great event and Alp Cycles for all the amazing support!