Stage 5 – Bourg D’Oisans to Digne Les Bains

The joy of the time trial the day before is that we actually did get to rest for a bit. An afternoon of lazing around in the sun, eating and enjoying a couple of beers made us feel like were on holiday. Albeit not a holiday in most peoples definition of the word. After a couple of hours downtime it was soon back to the routine with the briefing for the next day.

When I first looked at this stage on the road book I thought it would be a fairly easy if long day due to the distance (189km). It did look like it would be stunning scenery as we made the transition from the Alps to Provence, through some of my old stomping ground just south of Grenoble. The evening briefing soon changed that view. 2900m of climbing crammed into the first 100km of the race followed by a fast run in to Dignes in very hot conditions. The climbing included the Col D'Ornon straight after the start which would be difficult with no time to warm up. Then after 30km we hit the Col de Parquetout. 7km at 10% with the first 1.5km actually being fairly gentle. It made for a horrible proposition. Then if you find yourself alone for the 60km of flat you could lose a load of time and have to do a lot of work just to get to the finish line. The organisers said it was a day for the sprinters. To me it looked like a day to fear. The weather did seem to be set fair although we were moving further south and losing a lot of height so it would be hot. Staying hydrated would be key.

The distance meant an early start in the morning. It was actually still dark when we set off down the mountain to Bourg D'Oisans. I'll never get bored of that descent. It was even better this time. Swooping down in the semi-darkness with the suns light hiding behind the mountains. Beautiful. The weather forecast meant we could also dispense with overshoes and jackets. It promised to be a good day on the bike.

The neutral roll out only lasted for 2.5km then we were into the Col D'Ornon. We'd all assumed it would be a bit of a gentle start given the distance. How wrong were we! Across the timing mat and bang! Everything is wound up to 11. You've got the choice of going deep so early in the day or holding back and feeling like you are pedaling backwards. I tried to keep on pushing hard but a combination of my knees starting to feel incredibly painful and the knowledge that this was just the first of four climbs held me back a little bit. Mind you I was still averaging over 200 watts as I churned my way up the mountain. I think this has been one of the most difficult things to come to terms with, the fact that it is frantic right from the start. It's partly to do with the fact that we are all racing but I think it's also to do with the standard of rider. There's very few who haven't trained long and hard for this and very few that aren't wanting to give it their all every day.

However there are really good sides to this. We are all in it together and we all spend a lot of time cycling with each other. You very quickly know the people who go at your pace and start to collect on the climbs. I bumped into Francois again and was chatting with him for a while. Fellow haute routers chatting in the peloton.

The descent off the Ornon was fast, furious and bloody freezing. It was down to about 5 degrees on the descent and I wasn't wearing much in the way of warm clothing. Still, when it's not raining and you can really nail it, you don't worry about the cold too much. It wasn't a neutralised descent so I could make up some places here. I counted them off in my head to make me feel a little better 🙂

Then onto the Parquetout. This was horrible. Continuously steep at between 10% and 13% it wound it's way through the woods. The shade was a relief in that it kept the temperature down but the mossy growth over some of the road made you worry for grip. Everyone got into their own personal world of hurt. The chat stopped completely as we ground out the climb metre by metre. In my head I was both cursing the route director and complementing him. He'd taken this supposed easier stage and turned it into a brute. There are clearly no easy days on the Haute Route. Every one will have you plumbing the depths of your commitment to keep on going.

Crossing the timing mat was a relief. A quick refuel and off down the descent. From here on in things did promise to get a bit easier in terms of gradient. I found myself alone during the first half of the Col de Festre. This was so tough, with no wheel to follow it felt as though the wind was straight in my face. It's funny that despite there being 450 cyclists in a 10km stretch of road you feel like you are the only one out there. We also all commented on the fact that no matter where you are on the course you always feel like you are are the back. You only focus on what's in front of you so think there is no one behind you. Anyway, soon a group came by and I managed to hang on to it's coat tails and ride it up to the top of the Festre. This can be some of the hardest cycling. You know the advantage you get from being in the group on the flatter sections so you bury yourself to stay on during the steeper parts.

Then, half way down the descent of the Festre, it all changed. Suddenly I'm in a group of 6 and we've formed a chain gang going down a main road at a ridiculous speed. Taking turns on the front and riding 6 inches from each other's wheels we were flying down the mountain at speeds touching 70km/h. This was amazing. The further down the descent we went the more riders we collected. Moving onto the approaches of the Col D'Espreaux we were still rolling though our turns and keeping the speed above 40km/h. Now I could have given the course director a big hug. This was awesome. We all felt like tour pro's on a break away and it felt good. We knew there was a neutralised section at the top so gave it everything to stick together and help each other up the climb as fast as we could. This is where you feel like a proper cyclist. You've trained hard for 10 months and now you are getting pay back. 15 people in a peloton spinning up a climb in provence with the sun baking down. The grins wide across our faces as we crossed the timing mat, into the feed station and the neutralised section. That was one of the best 90 minutes I'd ever had on the bike.

Things did not stop there. By the time we'd reached the flat on the bottom of the descent with about 60km to go we were in a group of about 50 people. I'd worried about being by myself for this bit and losing a massive amount of time. I needn't have worried. Soon a british guy with a beard who looked like he shoudl have been riding a single speed started to take charge of the situation and organised us into a rolling pace line. For those of us who don't do club rides this was the first time we'd ever done this. The idea is straight forward. There is a line of you on the right and a line on the left. The right line is the faster line. When you are at the front you keep the pace constant and then the second you are ahead of the front person on the left line you pull over in front of him and knock a few RPM off. This means you start conserving energy as you drift backwards in the line. Meanwhile the person who was behind you on the fast line keeps the same constant speed until he/she is ahead of you and pulls over in front of you and starts falling back. The drift back down the line can take a good couple of minutes. When you realise you are at the end you move back to the right and join the faster line. As you are still protected by riders ahead of you it is an easy peddle as you start moving back up the line and towards the front. Then the guy in front of you peals off to the left and you are back on the front, not changing cadence or speed but increasing your power to overcome the increased wind drag. We carried this on for nearly an hour and a half, averaging 40km/h. The sensation of effortless speed was amazing.

As the finishing line grew nearer the nerves in the peloton increased and the organisation broke down. People jumped off the front whilst others chased down. It felt like everyone wanted to get the small advantage to be across the line first. I felt strong so got involved at the head of the group, helping to bridge gaps and chase down those trying to break. I kept a close eye on the Garmin so I'd know when the finish was coming up, carefully positioning myself in 3rd wheel. Then there it was, about 400m away. Trying to use an element of surprise I jumped immediately and sprinted clear of the peloton. It worked and I was free, rolling across the timing mat a second or two ahead of the rest of the group I was in. Okay so it was only good for 163rd on the day but it felt brilliant.

Sadly my moment of glory didn't last too long. We had a 6km roll into town along a cycle path. This was not timed as the felt it would be dangerous to be racing along a cycle path. They weren't wrong. I was merrily bimbling down the path with one hand off the bars, admiring the scenery when I hit a large lump in the path. I went crashing down on my left hand side and gave myself a nasty dose of road rash. Fortunately the bike was fine and it was just my skin and pride that had taken a battering. Such is the life of a pro cyclist.

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