Category Archives: Haute Route

Stage 7 – Dignes les Bains to Vence

This was it. The final stage. Just 127 km to make it to Vence and the end of the real racing. There was still the ride down to Nice but that would be done in convoy and as a victory parade.

My body just had to get me through this last day. Cumulative fatigue has been showing on all of us. My eyes were looking so sunken and weighed down with bags. I'd been finding it really difficult to sleep through the night. The fluid intake meant I was up 2-3 times each night and every time I did my knees creaked and caused me a lot of pain. At least this morning we had some good news. A 7:30am start meant we could stay in bed a little longer. I was looking forward to the ride. I wanted to make sure I gave it everything and improved on my position from the previous day. At the same time I couldn't wait for the emotion of finishing, getting my finishers medal and seeing my wife down on the finish line in Nice.

After yesterdays stage to Mont Ventoux I really wanted to try and give it everything up the first climb to stay in touch with a group of people I knew I should be able to keep up with. It now felt like a familiar routine. The flag dropped and we all rolled slowly out of Dignes. A 3km convoy allowed us to warm ourselves up and get the legs turning. By now the pain in the knees was a constant reminder of the physiological stress of this race. Across the timing mat and the normal acceleration of pace. I tried to stay above 220 watts. This was a strong pace for me but I did want to see if I could do it and then keep going strong at the end. The Col de Corebin was a really pretty climb. You could tell you were in the Southern alps now. I tried to take it all in and make the most of the last 5 hours on the bike.

I crested the climb not too far back from some of the riders I'd been much further back on this week. It felt like I had given it a good shot. Unfortunately the descent was neutralised. Whilst I'm not quite as quick at descending as Ian and Simon I wasn't far behind and descents were certainly sections where I made up places. Even so, this was a cracking descent. Really enjoyable. Sharp hairpin bends, tight narrow road and stunning views out into the valley. Out onto the main road we gently rode down the remainder of the neutralised section in a big group. Across the timing mat and back into race mode. A few people stopped just before but quite a few pressed on so I sprinted hard to join the back of the group and the speed leapt up. No rolling pace line here, just a few brave souls putting in a turn and towing the rest of us along. I was tucked in about 30 people back focussing on staying calm and recovering before the next climb, the Col de Leques.

The peloton didn't last long once we hit the climb. I settled into it and tried to maintain the pace of the previous climb. Fatigue was a problem and I felt pushing that hard for a second time and so early in the day would give me trouble later so I knocked off 10 watts and carried on. Half way up Laurence caught me up. I pushed to stay with him not wanting to drop further back. Even on the last day the urge to race is there for everyone. In fact we all saw it as a last chance to do well and pushed harder. Roll on Nice and a dip in the med! We came over the climb together, grabbed a quick feed and carried on.

Another fantastic descent brought us out at the bottom of the lake at Castillon. It was now getting really hot. The next climb was like going up in a furness. Not a difficult climb but so hot and still trying to push on. Laurence pushed on ahead, I felt like there was nothing in the tank. We were now off the main road and on a quite mountain road. A few km from the top Tim came alongside. Another quirk of the Haute Route. I'd not met either Tim or Laurence before but we'd shared the same flight out of London together. Now here we were sharing climbs on the last day of the Haute Route. Tim urged me to get on his wheel. He was having a good day and we set a fast pace up the remainder of the climb. At the feed station at the top of the climb we caught up with Laurence who'd suffered late into the climb. With the heat we were having to stop at every station now. Water bottles were not lasting long.

On the descent we were flying down but then coming into one of the hairpin bends we saw security guys waving at us to slow down. An ambulance was treating a rider prone in the middle of the road. It was a guy that we had spoken to in the bike check line in Geneva 7 days ago. An american guy, probably in his late 50's riding an amazing screw together titanium travel bike. Turns out he'd come off and fractured his leg. It's devastating when you hear about things like this. We're like one big team and you want everyone to make it to the end. To come so close is gutting.

That slowed us down for a while on the descent. Off the bottom of the descent and it was time to form up a line again. It was a long tab into the Col de Blaine, probably the hardest climb of the day. It was becoming so difficult to stay in the group. We were now 10 people. A couple of us dropped off whilst trying to eat and the chase back on was frantic and leg busting. But you have to do everything you can to stay in the group otherwise you lose so much time.

Onto the Col de Blaine, the climbs were coming thick and fast, it was what made the day so tough. This was short but steep and with the temperature still rising I found it a real struggle. By now it was down to Laurence and me taking it in turns to pace each other up. It didn't take long to get up but then a bonus. The descent was neutralised so as we rolled across the timing mat at the top we could stop for a nice break. The feed station was full of broken people. Peter was there looking like he was having a really tough day in the office. A lot of people were.

Just one more climb remained though. A short descent led us to a long section of flat leading across a plateau and into another long descent. This one would take us all the way to the bottom of the col de Vence. Just at the top of the descent a French guy came past, shouting out, “I know this descent, follow me”. This was brilliant. The guy clearly did know the descent as he picked the apex on each bend, braking just enough to get round the corner. We flew down the mountainside and on our right, amazing views across the Alpes Maritime. We'd left everyone else behind. The sun was beating down. There was not a cloud in the sky. I began to think back across the whole week. Geneva seemed like a lifetime ago.

My guide pulled ahead the minute we started to go up hill. Well I say uphill. It was more of a long gradual drag into a head wind. This was some kind of cruel torture. I had 14km to go, the wind was blowing hard in my face and the road looked like it was going downhill. Only the snails pace I was going at gave the game away. 5 long kilometres passed slowly. I could see a guy about 400m ahead of me but we were going at the same pace so there was no way I could catch him and share the workload.

Then two guys came past, going faster than me but not so fast that I couldn't get onto the back and try to sit there as long as I could. The pace was hard and I just hoped that they wouldn't wave me through for a turn otherwise I'd blow up completely. We caught the guy who'd been dangling in front of me as the pace continued. It was getting so hard to stay on. Then another stroke of luck. I was waved through for my turn just as the road started descending. This was 4km of descent into the final 2km of up to the finish line.

We all knew we were close and had to finish in style. We got quicker and quicker as we got closer to the finish line. The road started ramping up but not too steep so we kept flying along in our paceline of four. Round a right hand bend in the road and up further ramp then we saw what we'd all been looking for, the flamme rouge, well the 1km to go marker anyway. I thought I'd repay the efforts from the guys earlier and went to the front to put in a big effort to the line. It seemed like they'd given everything already as I quickly got a gap. So I pressed on, pushing out as much power as I could. 400m to go and I thought I'd gone too soon. The pain in the legs was horrible. Then there it was. The final timing mat. Leave everything on the road. I got out of the saddle and wrung the last drops of power out of my legs, raised my arms, then collapsed across the finish line. I'd made it. I thanked my companions from the last 9km as they came across the line and then set off down the descent to Vence itself, where a cold beer was going to get demolished.

The descent down was another beautiful fast sweeping one, but with one difference. This time I could see the sea! It also gave more time to reflect on the week. Well more of a reflection of the last ten months. That's another part of what makes this event so special. You can't just turn up and ride. You need to put in a lot of training. Winter evenings on the turbo trainer. The 6am starts to commute to work. The weekends given up to cycling. There's one person for me that's made all of this possible and that's my wife. I've been so lucky as she has been so supportive and understanding of me taking part. She's never questioned the time devoted to training, nor the money spent on kit. And she was waiting down in Nice. Time to get a wriggle on and go see her.

Stage 6 – Dignes Les Bains – Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux. The name alone is enough to strike fear and respect into the hearts of cyclists all over the world. It dominates the surrounding landscape, invading the horizon whenever you approach it. It's difficulties are numerous. First there is the height gain, over 1600m vertical from Bedoin. Then there is the really hard section up through the woods. 12km where the gradient rarely drops below 10%, the overhanging trees creating an oppressive oven like atmosphere in the heat of the day. There are no regular hairpin bends to break up the monotony, just the gentle curving backwards and forwards. Arriving at Chalet Reynard you come out into the moonscape, the exposed rock and earth magnifying the heat and exposing you to the brutal winds that blow through this lone peak. Then the final challenge as the last few bends rear up steeply and mean you have to give your all to get round and over the finish line. This really is one of the most difficult climbs you can do on a bike and one of the most rewarding.

All three of us have previous with the mountain. 5 years ago we did the Etape du Tour from Montelimar to Mont Ventoux. I'd gone okay up the mountain but my time of 2 hours 20 minutes would not be good enough today. Ian had put in a great impression of Caspar the ghost and put in a similar time. Simon had done a good ascent but earlier on this year he had done the Cingles du Mont Ventoux, climbing the mountain from all three sides in a single day. He knew every inch of the climb and that was playing on his mind.

But first we had to get there. 120km of rolling roads and shorter climbs to bring us into the foot of the mountain. By now we knew what was going to happen. We'd cross the timing mat and all hell would break lose as everyone tried to stay with the front group and get a fast ride. I'd decided to start at the front of the second group and try and jump across to the first peloton and try and sit with Ian and Simon as long as I could.

Lining up in Digne there was an air of excitement in the peloton. I think everyone had been looking forward to this stage. The count down finished and off we went. After a couple of kms I had the opportunity to jump the motorbikes and make my way to join Ian and Simon. It was great, finally, to be cycling with them. Then we crossed the timing mat and it all got interesting. I'd not been up in the first peloton before. Wow. This was different level. We were on a tight back road. The pace was incredibly high. 40 – 45 km/h. After every little climb or corner you had to put down about 400 – 500 watts to get back into the pace line. This really felt like racing hard. It was awesome. Coming into a narrow bridge I managed to avoid a crash as people hit the bridge and ran into the back of each other.

Soon however it started to climb. This was going to be about a 2o minute climb up onto the first plateau. Now my early morning lack of power showed again and I just could not stay with the lead gruup. I don't know if it was that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough knowing what was to come, or if my knees just couldn't take the stress as by know the pain in my patella tendon was getting really bad. Over the top of the climb I'd slipped back quite a bit but was still able to get into a big group of people as we set a fast paceline. The first feed station flew by, completely ignored by everyone. Spots of rain made the road greasy but still we rattled along, each taking our turn to do a short stint on the front. At this pace it only took an hour to get to the next feedstation. Here we all stopped to refill and refuel. A lack of organisation meant we all then carried on at different times. I suddenly found myself alone with a group of about 8 people about 300m ahead of me on the road. Decision time, do I put in a masssive dig and close them down to draft through to the bottom of the col de notre dame des abeilles or do I accept that would take too much out of me and continue solo. No way I was going to do this alone. 10 minutes later of burying myself I got onto the back of the group. That was so tough. It took ten further minutes of sitting on the back of the group to recover. I just hoped this hadn't taken too much out of me.

We were in a smaller group now which made it much easier to organise. Most of the guys were from S-Aero club plus a Zimbabwean and his English wife. This is the bit I really enjoy about the Haute Route. We all have a story to tell of why we are here, what we think, what we hope to achieve. The sense of shared adventure is there for everyone. Chatting to the Zimbabwean and his wife we reflected on the standard of riding, which was exceptionally high. There are very few who are out of their depth and anyone finishing in the top 300 would be smashing it in their local sportives. This really does feel like the pinnacle of amateur cycling sportives.

Notre Dame des Abeilles came, we took it easy, not wanting to go too deep too early. Judging by the times later on that day this is where I lost a lot of time. I should have gone harder here but it was hot and I knew there was a massive amount of climbing to come.

The descent down from the top was amazing. We took a different way down to the last time I was here. Tight, narrow and twisty. Just the kind of descent I love. I flew past about 15 people on the descent. Then a right turn, a few kms of gentle slope and across the timing mat. Mont Ventoux started here.

Soon the left turn came and we were onto the climb proper. It's really difficult pacing yourself for this amount of climbing. If you go off at threshold you will blow up before the top. I set myelf a target of trying to stay just about 200 watts and see how I felt come the end. I actually started to really enjoy it. Yes it hurt but the pace was good, I caught and passed quite a lot of people, some with the Haute Route race numbers on. Although it was hot it was not oppressively hot. Jersey wide open I was dripping in sweat but I wasn't over heating and wasn't running out of water. The peddles kept on turning over. It's a mental challenge more than anything, a climb like Ventoux. You have to set yourself for 1.5 – 2 hours of just going up.

On and on the peddles turned. The km slowly ticked down. I was counting down to the feed station at Chalet Reynard where I'd quickly refill with water and drink some coke. 4km to go, 3km to go. I passed a few more Haute Routers. Then I was out of the forest and at Chalet Reynard. A quick stop and off again. I was feeling really good now I knew I only had 6 km to go. I could see the observatory at the top urging me onwards and I put on a burst and settled into a high pace. This bit is where I'd completely cracked last time but it felt like that was not going to happen now. I retook a couple of guys who'd overtaken me earlier. 2km later they passed me again. A proper seesaw battle.

Ian then Simon came flying past down the hill shouting words of encouragement spurring me on. It later turned out that Simon had gone so deep trying to keep pace with Ian in the final kilometres that the medics had put him on oxygen!

As you get to the final km it ramps up to 10 – 11%. You pass Tom Simpson's memorial. So many of the british guys were stopping on the way back down to lay something down. The guys who had over taken me were 50m ahead. That was my target. I wanted to cross the line first. I upped the pace. We got to 30m before the final bend when I put in my effort. Mustering everything left I sprinted round them and up the final steap ramp to the line. Crossing the line and punching the air in delight I was overwhelmed with emotion. This is what this mountain does to you.

The view from the top is amazing. A glass of coke, a selfie and a deep breath of air and a feeling of elation. You feel like you are on top of the world.

A quick word about the family battle between Ian and Simon. They set a blistering pace up the mountain with an ascent time nearly 25 minutes quicker than mine. Simon just couldn't hold on in the last km and Ian crossed the line first. The gap? Exactly 48 seconds. The difference between them at the beginning of the day. They were now neck and neck again. Nothing could separate them. It would all come down to the last stage.

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.

Stage 4 – Alpe D’Huez Time Trial

Time trial day! I'd been looking forward to this ever since we signed up for the Haute Route. I'd never done a time trial before, and this was not just a time trial, it was up the 21 bends of Alpe D'Huez. There really was no trick to doing well here. Just an hour or so of flat out effort.

However the events of the previous day were playing on my mind. I'd had a 'jour sans' as the French say. A day without. The legs had nothing. I was really worried about how I'd do. The climb is straight forwards. It ramps up at 10% for the first 4 turns then is pretty consistently 7-8 for the rest of the climb. My strategy was to go fairly hard at the start and try and keep 230 – 240 watts, then once the gradient lessened slightly to ease right back to 200 watts. I didn't want to run out of gas as I had done on the Madeleine the day before. Then if I had anything left I'd give it some more at the end.

Anyway enough of the strategy, more about the experience. And what an experience it was. Riders went off in reverse order of the GC with the first person out of the gate at half nine. I was out at 11:08:20, Ian and Simon were off at 11:55 with the last person off at just after 12. There was a starting pen complete with starting ramp and a count down. A guy even held you on your bike so you could clip in properly.

Sat in the starting pen the anticipated nerves had been replaced by shear relief that it was dry and sunny. It would be hot for the climb. “812”, my number was being called. Up the ramp, clip in, then you're counted in. “3, 2, 1, allez”.

Bang, off. A quick wiggle through town then hit the first ramp. Wound up the power to 230 – 240 watts. The muscles felt fine, it was the knees that were really hurting. Quite a few people kept flying past me. All I could hope is that they'd come back to me later on in the course.

The steep ramp ended and the gradient eased off to 8%. All you can do at this stage is settle into the hardest rhythm you think you can maintain for an hour. Fortunately I was not having a jour sans. 220 watts felt sustainable. Now it's about managing the pain and the thoughts in your head – have I gone too hard, not hard enough.

Alpe D'Huez is a beautiful climb. I think it's the way you have the constant hairpin bends and that you have the constant reference point of the valley floor so you realise how quickly you are climbing.

It was such a great experience. There were two feed stations where the people would run along beside you and give you water and coke as you rode. It really felt like the pro experience. I was loving it.

The bends tick down. Finally bend 1 comes up and you think you are there. But you've still got 2km to go through the village. By this point I was really trying to wind it up. Coming round the last roundabout it's a steep finish to properly kill you legs. Of course I had no option but to sprint as hard as I could. My legs were screaming in pain. I finally stopped the clock in 1 hour 09 minutes. Not brilliant but I was really pleased given the previous day.

Ian and Simon went at it hard. Finally there were some signs of life in the intra family competition. Ian went off first, Simon followed and caught Ian in quick time. Ian fought to get back on terms but ultimately Simon had the legs and too a total of 48s off Ian, taking him into the lead. Ian did not look healthy at the top. Signs of Casper the ghost making a reappearance maybe.

Our stay in Alpe D'Huez was nearly at an end. We started in the most miserable conditions imaginable and finished with a time trial in the glorious sun. Now onwards to Digne. On paper this looked like a transition day but the rider briefing showed that there would some really painful bits.

Stage 3 – Courcheval to Alpe D’Huez

24 hours on and I'm still trying to get my head around what we went through yesterday. The three of us have done many events were the weather has been bad. Yesterday was by far the hardest day we'd ever had on the bike. It was a perfect storm of the marathon day with 4650m of vertical ascent with driving rain, vicious headwinds, cold when the forecast said it would be warm, and all of this on the back of two hard days riding.

Let me take you back to riders briefing the night before as this really is the start. The weather forecast said rain, gusting winds but not too cold. That had everyone in a quandary about what to wear. Go full wet weather winter kit and you'd get too hot, don't take any wet weather kit and you'd get wet. Eventually all three of us decided to go with normal shorts, leg warmers, overshoes and the ever versatile Gabba.

The next morning began with a 6km ride down the valley to Le Praz, where the start village sat at the bottom of the Olympic ski jumps. The rain was already coming down and hot tea and coffee were being dished out. Sad news was running through the peloton. 8 bikes had been stolen the previous night leaving people unable to ride that day.

The start of the ride was a 24km neutralized section that was done in convoy down to the turn off to the Madeleine. Within 5 minutes I knew I'd not got the right clothes on and judging by the number of shivering arms shaking front wheels I wasn't alone. By the time the race start point was reached we were all soaked.

I'd decided to see if I could stay with Peter today so we set off at a strong pace up the Madeleine. By this time the rain was properly hammering it down. In the back of my mind I was worried I was going too hard at this point, there was a long way to go, but I hadn't pushed hard enough the previous morning so carried on. The Madeleine is a long long climb. 25km rising 1500m. We settled in for the long haul. After about an hour we started to come out of the shelter of the trees and this is where the lack of warm, waterproof clothing really started to get to me. I'm not good in the cold and wet at the best of times and now a strong wind was blowing right into our faces. Peter had ten yards then twenty. I realised I wasn't going to stay with him so backed off. It was now about surviving the day and making it to the finish line. It's so tough when you hit this point and you are barely a quarter into a long day.

The rain continued to batter us as we climbed up. I was getting worried about the descent now. It would be painfully cold and slow. Gerry then came past, upon hearing I was getting cold he offered up his spare gilet. I took it gratefully. By now we were on the final steep ramps of the Madeleine. Then we were over the top and felt the full force of the wind almost blow us back to Moutiers. Everyone was taking the plastic rain capes the organisers were handing out. Most of us couldn't even put them on.

The descent was long, cold and painfully slow. Having made it up to a height of 1990m we then dropped all the way into the Maureine valley at a height of about 500m. It was a case of keep the brakes on and tuck your legs behind the rain cape as best you could to keep warm as you tried not to lose control of your bike due to your shivering. I've never been so cold and wet on a bike. Luckily as you lose height things warm up. Down in the valley it was a good 8 degrees warmer.

It's a small transition from the bottom of the Madeleine onto the Glandon so pretty soon I was stuffing my rain cape in the back pocket and heading upwards again. Another long long climb. 20km long rising 1400m. With the last climb taking 2 hours this one was going to be pretty much the same. Descending the Madeleine it felt like I was the only one on the mountain, but now more and more riders were appearing. All looking wet and haunted. Soon a french guy, Francois, caught up with me and we sat at the same pace, chatting away in a mix of English and French to try and take our minds off the rain. It was working. The ride was actually okay now.

An hour into the climb, everything changed as we came out of the shelter of the forest and into the teeth of the headwind again. By now the wind had risen further and the rain was coming down horizontally. A group of three of us battled away through the next 5km to reach the key part of the whole climb. The last three km goes up at 10%, 11% and 10%, and we could see it looming ahead through the bands of driving rain. There was nowhere to hide. It was pure survival conditions. The switch backs went alternately into the wind then away. When you had the wind at your back you only had the vicious steep slope to contend with. When you turned into the wind all hell broke loose. Waves of water came rushing down the slope towards you and visibility dropped to mere yards. I stopped to put my rain cape back on as despite the gradient I was shivering uncontrollably. Francois carried on to the feed station at the top.

Eventually I made it. It was carnage up there. Wind whipped across the top of the climb. A panal van was set up with people huddling inside for shelter as outside the brave volunteers helped feed and water the riders. Out of the wind and rain came Francois. “My parents are here in the car, come and sit inside and get warm”. I didn't need to be asked twice as we both jumped in and covered his parents car in water. Gradually feeling came back and it was time to venture on down the hill. The next 20km had been neutralised due to the danger of trying to race downhill in such conditions. Not that it helped. You went as fast as you could and it still took 50 minutes to get to the start of the next climb.

One more climb to go, the back way up to Alpe D'Huez. By now the rain was starting to ease off and as I was now 1000m lower down it was warmer with the trees providing shelter from the wind. I had a new problem though. The time cut was now becoming a factor. I still had 2 hours to climb 1000m up to the Alpe but I was cold, tired and my legs just could not put out any power. Whereas the day before I did the last climb of the day at 210 watts I could now barely put out 150.

A thin line of cyclists was strung out across the road as we all went through our own inner battles to make it to the top. A final feed station with 9km to go allowed some much needed coke to be drunk and some banana to fuel the last push. A small road wound across the valley and down into the Huez, just below turn 6 of the normal climb of the Alpe. I now had 55 minutes to do the last section to the finish line. I knew I now had plenty of time so relaxed a little. I started to think about what I'd come through today. I was physically broken but managed to remain positive. My aim of finishing in the top third had probably been dashed today, but I had made it through something that many did not. Keeping this in my head I kept turning the peddles up to the finish line.

The lead event manager was waiting out in the rain to congratulate everyone who crossed the finish line. I collapsed across it almost in tears of joy that I'd made it. The media crew managed to get a few sentences out of me for the camera, not sure I made any sense (I did as I was later on the days highlights clip). Broken but in one piece.

Looking back I have to give a massive shout out to the organisers and volunteers who stood in the wind and rain and cold all day, cheering, feeding, helping dress us in rain capes. They were immense. Also credit that they didn't cut the course. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for and the allowed us the chance to do that. Finally a shout out to all the riders. In ten years time, it is this day that we will all remember, this day that will be our proudest achievement on this Haute Route. Only we know what we went through. Only we will really understand how tough it was. Front to back, we all suffered.

Stage 2 – Megeve to Courcheval

Total Distance: 130km
Total Ascent: 3900m
Key climbs: Col de Saisies, Cormet de Roselland, Montee de Courcheval

Team Stage Results
Simon: 4:26:59 – 35th
Ian: 4:27:04 – 37th
Niel: 5:09:47 – 154th
Team: 12th

Team GC
Simon: 8:16:57 – 37th
Simon: 8:17:01 – 38th
Niel: 9:26:08 – 142th
Team: 14th

Today I realised two things. First, we are most definitely racing. Second, it got real today, seven days is not like doing a one day event. Today the pain and suffering started.

I think everyone doing the event is racing to some degree or another. Some might be racing for the podium, others a top 10. Ian and Simon are definitely racing to stay in the top 40 and get as high as they can. I’m racing to get in the top third. Some are racing each other, some are racing themselves, and some are racing to stay ahead of the broom wagon, be that by 10 minutes or 2 hours. It’s what makes this so much fun.

It’s also what makes it so tough. A lot could take their time and go round a bit slower, take our time, enjoy the scenery. But we don’t we’re pushing as hard as we can. Everyone seems to be looking to find their own limits. It’s doing two, three, seven days of that that the pain starts.

My day was painful. It was painful for two reasons. First of all I could not get going this morning. It was quite chilly and I should have put leg warmers on but didn’t. Going up the Col de Saisies I felt I was going backwards. I reached the top in 188th place so I wasn’t wrong. Then on the descent of the Col, which was absolutely stunning, it got colder. I then couldn’t get going on the Cormet de Roseland and that was a long long suffer. Again, stunning climb. Reminded me a bit of the Port de Bales, just with a lake thrown in! It was really beautiful but at close to 1200m of ascent, damn hard.

The last climb was painful because I knew I had to make up time. So I was racing :-). It was a kind of good pain though. I got into a group with a couple of different people I’ve found myself riding with a lot, Peter and Erica and about 6 others. It felt like we all gave it everything on the climb. At the end Peter and I crossed the line together after a great climb. 103 fastest on that climb so definitely better than before. I have to thank the guy from the Novo Nordisk Team who did give a mighty pull on the front for what seemed like an hour. He really set us up for it.

Finally a word about the rest of Team Hurt Route who are involved at the pointy end of things. Another storming ride saw them come in 35th and 37th. How they do it I’ve no idea. There are some very good riders on this event and they are up there with some of the really good ones. The fight between them has yet to properly kick off, however a time gap has started to appear. Either by sneaky racing on Simon’s part or Ian not paying attention, but Simon got throught the timing mat after the last neutralisation 5 seconds ahead of Ian. Of course they then finished the stage together. Simon now leads on GC by 4 seconds!

Right. I now need to go and try and sleep and not worry about tomorrow. It’s a monster. 137km, 4650m of ascent over some fearsome col’s. Oh and it’s going to rain. Full on Gabba day I think.

Haute Route Stage 1 – Geneva to Megeve

Total Distance: 130km
Total Ascent: 3000m
Key climbs: Col de la Colombier, Col de la Crois Fry, Col D’Aravis

Team Stage Results
Ian: 3:37:31 – 42nd
Simon: 3:37:31 – 43rd
Niel: 4:03:18 – 133rd
Team: 11th

Team GC
Ian: 3:49:57 – 40th
Simon: 3:49:58 – 41st
Niel: 4:16:21 – 129th
Team: 11th

Wow what a day. All cycling days should be like this. Beautiful route and scenery. A real mix of riding from a gentle roll out, to 200 people in a fast moving peloton, hard climbs and awesome descents. Then finishing and having your bag of clothes handed to you. Shower, food, massage within an hour of crossing the line. An afternoon sat in the sun with a coffee and a recuperative beer. Topped off with a nice steak and chips for dinner. I think I must have woken up in cycling heaven this morning.

But let’s go back to the beginning….

The alarm dragged me from my nervous sleep at 5:45. Plenty early for breakfast. Except everyone in the hotel had the same idea. 50 cyclists all grabbing bread, cereal, pastries, it was carnage. I think the queue for coffee was 7 deep at one point. Leaving the bags in the hotel lobby it was then a quick clip through Geneva to the start line. Suddenly 450 people is a lot of riders. Anxious faces throughout the starting pen. Ian and Simon were in the first peloton, I got myself into the third wave leaving.

Before we knew it the countdown had begun, 3….2….1…. GO! We were off. Team Hurt Route’s adventure had begun. The 25km neutralised zone became a social affair. Chatting to the people around you about the usual bike stuff. What events you’d done, how long you’d been training, what kit you’d bought.

Crossing the timing mat signalled the start of the real race and everything went up to 11. Pretty soon at least the first three starting waves all combined into one big peloton rattling through the French countryside at 40km/h. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself not to go out too quickly you can’t help but sprint to stay in the group.

Funnelling into the timing mat at the start of the Col de la Colombiere was like a bun fight. The peloton was still bunched up and being forced through a narrow gap. I saw one guy fall off and in trying to get out of his clips, pulled his cleats from his shoe. I hope the Mavic service car managed to sort it out.

Now we were on what we came for. Hills!! Colombiere was a fairly straight forward climb. The first 6 or so km were about finding your rythmn. Then trying to work out if your rythmn was going to be good for another 6 days! I wont know the answer to that for a while. A lessening of the slope half way up allowed a brief recovery before launching into the second half of the climb. This was more challenging and after a while you came round a corner and see the climb stretching away to the summit. I later found out that on that section I hit a new VAM record of over 1000m/h – 1074 to be precise (rules are, has to be a segment of over 30 minutes – handy that Strava often splits climbs so it takes care of flat sections messing it up!).

My pre-ride strategy had been to fuel at the top of the Colombiere and at the top of the Aravis, after the start of the neutralised section. That would minimise the stopped time. So quick stop for food and water then on down the decent.

The decents never last long enough and are always too cold. I came into the Crois Fry wanting a little bit more recovery and wanting to be a bit warmer. I really struggled with the first 10 minutes or so. My power was down on where it was on the Colombiere. Luckly the warmth came back to my legs and the speed went up. 50 minutes later I came over the top and sped past those at the feed station. Interestingly I climbed the Crois Fry at a lower VAM (989m/h) but did better in the rankings for the climb. On the Colombiere I was 177th, but on the Crois Fry 111th – maybe a few people went out a bit quick 🙂

The Aravis was just a 17 minute warm up and was over before it really got started. Probably a good thing as I don’t think I wanted too much more climbing today. Then my strategy paid off, crossing the timing mat I could then relax and enjoy my food stop without worrying about timings – this is a race after all.

The descent down to Flumet was the best of the whole day. Lots of switchbacks and tight turns meant you could work on your braking and lines through the corners really nicely. All that was left after that was a short sharp ramp followed by a gentle rise for 10km into a slight head wind. A group of us formed up but I think we all showed our lack of practice at running a chain gang as it was pretty disorganised. But by now the sun was shining and the finishline beckened. I crossed the line with a race time of 4 hours 3 minutes. Good enough for 135th on the day and putting me in 129th over all on mens GC. Ian and Simon again rode a strong ride coming in 40th and 41st seperated by metres. I’ve told them if they get to Nice together then they clearly haven’t been trying hard enough. I expect to see fireworks later on this week as they try to attack each other. As a team we stayed in 11th place overall.

Tomorrow will up the level a few notches. The same distance but with 900m more of ascent. I think how I do tomorrow will tell me how today went. Let’s hope I can still type tomorrow evening.

Prologue

Well that’s the prologue over and done. What a painful and intense 13 minutes of riding. The results are as follows:

Ian – 25th place – 12-26
Simon – 27th place – 12-27
Niel – 97th place – 13-03

A fantastic start for Team Hurt Route. We are currently in the rarefied air of 11th place in the team standings. I think there was a lot of sandbagging going on today and we all expect to plummet down the rankings tomorrow. Still, Ian was only 3 seconds behind Emma Pooley, former women’s world time trial champion and I was 8 seconds ahead of Chrissie Wellington, 4 time world Iron Man women’s champion. Where else could you get to ride and compete with world class elite athletes. Awesome.

It was a bit of a strange day. A lot of people milling around, trying not to spend money on kit, spending 11-17 minutes at full chat on the bike, all the while thinking of the next day. At points I just wanted to get on with the big rides. The prologue was great fun though. Well except for the crash I had trying to mount a pavement 5 minutes before the prologue. Doh! Amateur hour. Good job I brought a spare derailleur hanger as the old one got proper mangled. Anyway now major injuries, nothing a good bit of Sudocrem can’t fix.

I have to mention the organization of this event. So far it’s been fantastic. It’s clearly a step above even the best one day events. My prologue time was available on the website within seconds of finishing, team photos were automatically posted to my facebook page within 15 minutes of them being taken. The logistics of getting all our bags from hotel to hotel must be challenging to say the least.

Anyway, the fun of today is now over and tomorrow the real business starts. 130km from Geneva to Megeve. Three cols, two of which look pretty tough and one not too bad. Ian and Simon set off in the first group after their fast rides today and I’ll be in group too. Looking forward to it with excitement and not a little nervousness.

T – 3 days

It’s nearly upon us. In 3 days I will be assembling my bike in Geneva and preparing for the prologue time trial. 10 months of hard training is nearly over. And I can’t wait!

The ten months of training has been really good. I’ve made it this far without getting bored or pissed off with riding my bike. I think it’s helped that I’ve seen consistent progress throughout that time. Having a power meter has really helped me both in terms of managing the effort of a workout and of quantifying the improvements I’ve made.

I’ve shown great improvement in almost all the areas from 30 second power to 3 hour power. Interestingly the one that’s shown least improvement is the 20 minute measurement. I’ve been focussing on my threshold and sub threshold power so this should have shown improvement. However I think that’s due to the lack of proper testing at that timescale (it hurts!). Something to think about for next year.

A lot of the improvements are in what I’d call real world measurements. My PB home from work over a 4.5 month period has dropped from 1 hr 23 minutes at a respectable 27.8 km/h to 1 hr 7 minutes at 34.5 km/h. That’s a speed I never thought was attainable. My best hour power (bearing in mind I’ve not been doing all out time trials for an hour) has gone from 163 watts to 216 watts. My 5 minute power from 268 watts to 300 watts.

The most relevant measure came from a day trip to the alps I did back at the end of June. There I was able to do four climbs over the course of a day (Joux Plane, Joux Vert, Ecrenaz, Ramaz) and on all of them I averaged between 200 and 210 watts. If I look back to the post I did on my objectives for the Haute Route and what that would mean in terms of requires power output I seem well ahead.

My weight loss has also been quite successful. When I started training back in October I was 75kg. Slightly above a healthy weight for someone who’s 170cm tall, but no one said I was big or needed to lose weight. since then I’ve lost nearly 12 kegs and now am somewhere between 63 and 64 kgs (my weight fluctuates a lot!). My body composition has changed dramatically. I now have the shape I used to think I had! Walking up stairs I can see the individual muscles in my legs. It’s a bit scary that.

So I feel ready. I don’t think I could have done any more training. Not without losing a wife anyway :-). It also means I need to revisit my goals. Originally I said I wanted to come top 2/3. Now, looking at where I am top half if the field should be achievable and top 1/3 would be an awesome result.

There just one outstanding question. How will I recover each day. Have I go t enough distance in my legs. I won’t know until day three or four. But I have a target. Now it’s time to go race!

The Fred Whitton

The next big event of the season was the Fred Whitton. This long running UK sportive takes you on a full lap of the Lake District that includes some of the steepest climbs you will find in the UK. Names like Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass strike fear into the heart of cyclists across the land. It also takes place in early May which often means rain, wind and cold weather. A true test for the hard men.

Entry is limited to 2000 people and competition for places is so high that there is a ballot system in place. Ian, Simon and I (now known as Team Hurt Route – more on that in a later post) got our entries in and then waited. Luckily we were all successful. Sadly Neil was less successful but is making up for it by taking on LEJOG instead – nice consolation prize.

The course starts and finishes in Grassmere

Race day dawned with rain coming in across the hills pushed by a strong wind. With low cloud and wet roads it didn't look promising. As we queued up in the traffic to get into the car park the heavens opened, drenching the poor souls who were riding to the start line. We then caught a lucky break as the cloud passed, the sky brightened and we got off to a dry start, rolling down the road towards Ambleside and the first challenge of the day – Kirkstone Pass.

As soon as we turned off and started heading up hill it felt like everyone was pushing on fairly quick. Interesting given what was to come later in the day. I did my best to keep up with Ian and Simon but their pace was a little strong to start with. Bladders soon intervened and I caught up with them about half way up the pass. It was a good climb to start the day. One of the longest that would take us up to the highest point of the day but not too steep that you had to dig too deep. I really enjoyed the climb. Ian and Simon did leave me again but not for long.

The descent was fast and flowing. This was my first proper decent on my new Zipp 303's and all I could think of was the horror stories of rims overheating and tyres blowing off. Coming round a corner to find Ian by the side of the road mending a puncture (he's just fitted some ENVE carbon clinchers) did little to help the situation. Knowing that they would catch me up I pressed on through.

Riders had started to thin out by now so it was in groups of two and three that we went round Ullswater. I'd not been in this part of the country for years and it brought back the memories of my DofE Gold expedition as we came through Glenridding. Ian and Simon soon caught up. I don't have as much of a problem staying in touch on the flat so I tucked in behind as we upped the pace towards the next major climb. Not wanting to blow too early I let Ian and Simon push on as I settled into my own rhythm. Imagine my surprise when around another corner, Ian was fixing another puncture. I handed him one of my two spare inner tubes and carried on. If he had another one then good luck to him. I only had one more inner tube and wasn't jeopardizing my chance of finishing.

After Troutbeck there is a long stretch of rolling road mainly down the A66. Here I had another piece of good fortune as a Scottish cycling club swept past me just as I joined the main road. This was too good an opportunity to miss so I jumped on the back of the train and held on for a roller coaster ride.

This is one of the best bits about doing popular sportives. I was in a group of about 20 people with some strong riders pulling on the front. Drafting about 7 or 8 places back you roll along at 40km/h with little effort. You start to feel like a proper bike rider! This carried on for about 20km. I was really getting into the flow of the ride. Legs were turning over well and we were eating up the miles. Then Ian and Simon swooped past again and I knew I had to at least show willing and jumped onto their coat tails and accelerated away towards the next climb.

Honister rears up and kicks you hard before you even know you've started the climb. An opening pitch round a left hand bend sees the gradient go almost immediately up to 25% and there is little let up from here to the top. Already people were walking and I'd engaged my secret weapon. My secret weapon is an SRAM WiFLi rear mech and a 12-30 Ultegra cassette. Not as silly low geared as a 12-32 so doesn't change the spacing too much over my normal 11-28. In fact it replaces the 28 with a 27, takes off the 11 from the bottom and puts it at the top with 30 teeth. It makes just that little bit of difference in helping to turn a higher cadence. I much prefer climbing that way and I think I'll leave it on throughout the summer to give me a few more options on the long climbs of the Alps. Here it was helping me just keep the cranks turning as my legs screamed with pain and my lungs gasped down air. At one stage I really thought I'd be off and walking and this wasn't even Hardknott. I dug deep into my reserves and clawed my way over the top. Looking back at the carnage with people walking and zig zagging up the hill I realised that I hadn't done too bad. Not long after, the welcome signs of the first feed station came into view.

And what a feed station! A fine spread lay before us. Sandwhiches, malt loaf along side the normal mix of jelly babies and sugar. Downing a few sandwhiches and filling up with water we carried on. Straight into the next piece of suffering. Newlands Pass. Steep at the start and steep at the end. By now I was settling into a rhythm on the climbs. Stand up and give it everything when it got really steep then ease off and try to recover using the low gearing when it got a little less steep. The weather was holding off thankfully.

Why is it that there always seems to be more up than down. It seemed like a minute passed before I was onto Whinlatter Pass. Ian and Simon had already disappeared up the mountain somewhere and I was just ploughing on at my own pace. My goal coming into the event was to beat 8 hours. A respectable time I thought. By this stage I was well over half way and 7 hours 30 was starting to look possible. Then the inevitable struggle started. You know the one where the wind is in your face, you aren't really going up or down but rolling lumps kill all momentum. You can't seem to keep the power going and the pain starts. That was how it felt from the bottom of Whinlatter all the way to the next feed station at Calder Bridge.

Again the food station was excellent. Sandwiches, sweets, gels, cakes, all laid out in a village hall where we could warm up and sit down. Oh and they had hot tea and coffee too. Just what I needed as a downpour 20 minutes earlier had chilled me to the bone. 5 minutes drinking a warm coffee and eating sandwiches and cakes was very nice! What also struck me was the amount of food still all wrapped up. I realised it was because not many people had come through the feedstation yet. This gave me a massive confidence boost. In previous years I'm usually in the latter half of the field and the food stops sometimes run out of water. To get there when most of it was still wrapped in clingfilm showed the training had been working!

All thoughts turn to Hardknott after the feedstation. Still ten miles away I tried to keep my legs spinning to prepare myself. I actually didn't feel too bad. I hooked up with another guy and we shared the workload as we headed down Eskdale. You could see Hardknott from miles away. The sky was dark and grey. Every 10 or 15 seconds a flashlight would go off as photographers captured the pain on the faces of those who could cycle up. Many couldn't and resorted to walking on the two steep sections. My second objective (after a sub 8 hour time) was to ride all the way up Hardknott. With 95 miles in the legs I wasn't too sure about it.

All you can do is give it everything you have left in your legs. If that's good enough to get you to the top then your good. As you cross over the cattle grid at the bottom it soon ramps up very steep. Standing up, I just tried to keep the peddles turning over. This was the steepest climb I'd done. After a couple of hundred meters the gradient eases off and you can get some much needed recovery. Soon, however, you are rounding a left hand bend and into the second steep ramp. Now it was really starting to hurt. The road was glistening with damp after the earlier rain, meaning grip was hard to come by. I did not want to give up though and kept grinding away. Fortunately a photographer was there to capture my pain and suffering!!!

And then round the right hand bend and it's done. Gentler slopes lead you up to the top. Only the descent and Wrynose then I'm practically at the finish line. Some descent mind. Steep, wet, no grip, scary!!! I think later in the day there was quite a nasty crash there which involved the air ambulance. Thankfully the braking on the carbon rims was not as bad as I thought it might be and I safely negotiated my way to the bottom.

Coming down after Wrynose I suddenly realised that a sub 7:30 time was on the cards. Way better than my target. So I started to really hammer it down. Where I summoned the strength from I don't know but finally I was sprinting up the last little ramp to the finish line and across! The timer stopped at 7 hours 22 minutes. In fact I was quicker than anyone expected as my cousins told the rest of the family that I'd be at least another hour yet and so they stayed inside eating buns! No one was there to witness my glory at the finish line.

It didn't matter though. I was so pleased with how I'd done. This is an event that a few years earlier I would have feared and worried over. Now I'd just finished in 7:22. A riding time of 7:05 at an average speed of 25.1 km/h. For 180km with 3400m of climbing. I was pleased. This was the best performance I'd ever achieved and I really felt that I was on the right track with my training for the Haute Route.