In a word…superb.
Ok, I can’t leave it at that, so here’s the content.
A lot of people had asked me prior to this event how was I going to approach riding 7 consecutive days across the Alps, climbing over 21,000m and more than 800km, topping out and sleeping at the 2000m above sea level.
I’ll admit I had a game plan and that was to backload the Haute Route Alps by taking it easier on the first three days, test the legs out properly on the “rest” day (stage 4) which encompasses an 18km TT climbing 1200m to the top of the Galibier, survive the queen stage, the day after (stage 5) and then smash out the last two days.
The reasons behind my game plan were centred on a few objectives. I wanted to see how my legs and lungs would adapt to heat and the altitude, particularly as the second stage took the riders up to the highest point of the whole week, the incredible Col de la Bonette – the 7th highest paved road in Europe.
La Bonette was my biggest concern. Earlier in the summer I’d had the privilege of watching many stages of the Tour de France and having a go at the various climbs on this year’s parcours as preparation for the Haute Route Alps. I had a bad day on the Col de Forclaz, followed by the HC climb up to the awe inspiring Emosson Dam (the finish to stage 17 of this year’s Tour de France) which was largely down to me pushing my body as hard as I could without food or water, watching the tarmac melt before my eyes. It was a hard lesson and a good one at that. Eating is not cheating and water is essential, particularly after climbing 2000m in as little as 30km in 35 degrees heat.
And so after a variable first day, where I tried to ride at a calm and collected pace, I found the final climb up to the Auron ski resort attritional at best. Not quite firing as I would have liked to, but quick enough to surprisingly drop the peloton which I got into on the valley approach. It sometimes surprising what two days off the bike can do to your legs and mine felt worse, not better for it and my concern grew about the Bonette.
As it turned out, it was the most chilled out and enjoyable climb of the week and a supreme day in the saddle. The views just blew my mind and the descent was proper fast. The Col de Izoard was on my bucket list as the king climb for the week, but the Bonette was on a par. Sometimes when you lower the bar of expectation, you end up with a pleasant surprise.
On stage 3, the Col de Izoard did not disappoint despite the bar of expectation having been set as high as I could reach. A truly wonderful climb into an amphitheatre with an alien-like setting. The descent again was spellbinding and as faster riders caught me on the downs, I started to get a feel for the hairpins and getting the racing lines dialled in properly. This was the day when I started to properly flex the legs and powered my way in typical TT style up the Lauteret, dropping the uncooperative sandbaggers, but pulling a very small group of grateful climbers who danced past me up the Galibier and acknowledged my effort or kept me in beer for the rest of the week.
But it was stage 5 when the turning point came. Even though I had a vague recollection what was going on in the GC, I began to recognise the riders from previous days. Taking the laborious climb up the Col de la Madeleine was not much of a master-stroke but a necessity. I was happy to go backwards and watch riders pass me, my stomach was using my energy to combat the steak tartare from the night before (what was I thinking – doh?). This day was truly the queen stage, 141km and 4200m of climbing finishing with the punishing ski station climb to the upper echelons of Courchevel. And because I’d been forced to take it easy on the earlier Col de la Madelene climb, this gave me enough time to say “bye bye” to steak tartare for good and allow me the good fortune to power and pass a significant number of riders to the finish, feeling in great shape. A classic case of negative splits and a good day to try out my new Team JMC race jersey (the other one I bizarrely lost in Lake Annecy earlier in the summer – that’s a tale in itself).
And the final two days were a formality. I’d found my groove now and was growing in energy and drive as most riders were beginning to tire and fade. They looked jaded and some even cursed me for my enthusiasm with every climb. On stage 6 it felt effortless like I was on a fast monorail climbing the Col de Saisies towards Megeve, it was that old cliché – riding into form. On the final day, I even had my race face on, catching most of the riders ahead of me in the GC and getting into an old fashioned ding dong of a race which again gave me the opportunity to do a massive TT style stint up a shallow climb, to then recover when the peloton I was pulling tried to thanklessly drop me all the way to the final timing mat of the race which merited a few comments along the lines of “dark horse” and “where have you been all week?” to which I answered…
“Riding the Haute Route”.
That’s what it was. A high level ride, occasional race, a test of the body and mind. A great event.
Or in one word…superb!