Not so much a sportive as a cycling expedition, the week-long Haute Route is leg-shredding and life-changing in equal measure
Trapped in a race against time on the sun-baked slopes of Alpe d’Huez, I peel my body out of the saddle for one final push to reach the 1,860m summit before the cut-off. It is day three of the Haute Route, a seven-day, 780km timed sportive that takes 600 amateur cyclists from Geneva, over 19 mythical Alpine cols, to the coastal city of Nice. The race is dubbed ‘the highest and toughest cyclosportive in the world’ for its depraved 21,000m of climbing – the equivalent of cycling from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest 2.5 times. With 4,700m of vertical ascent, today’s 138km stage is the most appalling yet. And as my sweat-blurred vision shifts from the sparkling River Isere in the valley below – via the timer on my Garmin – to the chalets teetering in the ski resort above, I know I’m in trouble.
If I don’t make the cut-off I can continue the race but I won’t be recorded as an official finisher. After six months of grim training rides, lonely turbo sessions and a monkish abstinence from Kit-Kats, hot dogs and Peroni, that will hurt like hell. However, I have been pedalling for almost seven hours in late-August temperatures that peak at 96.8°F. My quads are flaring with lactic acid, my calves are convulsing in angry spasms and my heart is dancing to its own frenzied drum ’n’ bass rhythm. I’d quite like to collapse, vomit and start crying (in that order).
Sadly, there is no room for violins on a bike (just think of the extra weight) and my situation is no different to that of the other 600 riders who have travelled from as far afield as Australia, Brazil and Kenya. Earlier in the day we had grinded over the 1,993m Col de la Madeleine and the 1,924m Col du Glandon, carved through the thick molten air of the valley and been cheered by locals through pretty villages decorated with bikes covered in flowers. Yet in your darkest moments, carbon fibre, chains, compressed air and water seem hopelessly inadequate weapons with which to wage war on this Alpine landscape.
I battle up the mountain, past clusters of pine trees and sheer grey rock faces, before reaching the finish with what I think is minutes to spare. Only later do I discover that, due to erroneous calculations caused by my heat-frazzled brain and some paranoid chatter and mistranslations in the cosmopolitan peloton, I had slaughtered myself for no reason: I actually had 90 minutes to spare. Others weren’t so lucky. No fewer than 96 riders miss the cut-off, scrubbing out a sixth of the peloton in a single day.
Nobody said this would be easy. A stage race ebbs and flows with adrenaline and exhaustion, torrential downpours and blazing heat, wild excitement and blind panic. And the Haute Route is the closest you can get to sampling the life of a pro cyclist. There are rolling road closures, motorbike outriders, feed stations, evening massages and organised accommodation. Your luggage is collected each morning and is waiting for you each night. But such pampering requires you to do a deal with the devil. As well as combating the gruelling course, riders
can expect to endure a lack of sleep, illness, solidifying muscles, crashes and strict time cut-offs. The only question is: can you survive each day?
Stage 1: Geneva to Megève, 120km, 2,700m+
The race hasn’t even started and I’m already flying across the tarmac. It turns out that bikes and Geneva’s tram lines get on about as well as David Walsh and Lance Armstrong. As a result, I roll over the start line by Lake Geneva in the early morning sunshine with bleeding legs, a swollen knee and grated buttocks. I’m intimidated by the presence of so many lean, sinewy bodies and pristine kit labelled Dura-Ace, Zipp and S-Works. The Haute Route attracts an impressive breed of amateurs – and a few dreamers like me.
Troubled by pain, bike envy and a nagging doubt that I’m out of my league, I start to climb the 1,297m Col de Romme. With an average gradient of 8.8% and an 11% ramp in the first 2km it’s a horrible start to the week. Although higher at 1,613m, the Col de la Colombière that follows feels easier due to the incredible scenery of forested valleys and stark white-grey cliffs. But the final 6km hides a steep 8.5% to 10% kick that one British rider, Fran Blake, did not appreciate: ‘The Col de la Colombière was exposed with no shade and the heat was bouncing off the rocks. I had to wear arm warmers to stop my arms burning.’
On the final climb up the 1,486m Col de Aravis, idyllic meadows and wooden chalets make it feel as if you’re cycling through a French version of Hobbiton. Mont Blanc shimmers on the horizon. I arrive in Megève in 303rd place – beautifully average. Bruce Hart, a rider from New Jersey in the US, reminisces with horror: ‘The first stage was quite a shock to my system. I was dehydrated and suffering severe muscle spasms. I was very concerned about finishing.’
Stage 2: Megève to Courchevel, 105km, 2,700km+
Having struggled to get more than an hour’s sleep because of my shredded legs, the next morning I feel depleted. When we start riding I grumpily fight through the thick blanket of pine trees before arriving at the 1,650m summit of Col des Saisies. The descent wakes me up. Today is the only day with an extended valley section, which means I speed down the zig-zagging descent into Villard Sur Doron at 80kmh, eager not to be left alone in the valley. Yesterday riders were quiet with solitary worries, but today people are talking and working together. The final climb is to the 1,850m summit of Courchevel – a fancy resort of Michelin-starred restaurants. All the riders want is pasta.
Stage 3: Courchevel to Alpe d’Huez, 138km, 4,700m+
Day three is the queen stage. First up is the 1,993m Col de la Madeleine, which is a two-hour slog before a sharp 7-8% gradient in the final 12km. This mountain has appeared in the Tour 24 times and it was on this climb that David Millar suffered pain and salvation, abandoning the Tour here in 2001 (a decision that helped to convince him of the ‘need’ for EPO) and surviving the cut in 2010 after a momentous solo effort.
Then comes the 1,924m Glandon, the summit of which is guarded by three bends of 10%. By now the midday temperatures are into the 90s. Hydration and nutrition are critical and a combination of SiS Go Energy drink, Maxifuel Electro Tabs and Torq energy bars prevent me bonking like the sad figures I see lying by the side of the road.
When I arrive at the finish after my blast up to Alpe d’Huez, I see riders bent over their bikes in tears. A handful are wrapped in gold blankets and hooked up to drips. Adam Tranter, of cycling PR specialist Fusion Media, recalls, ‘I haven’t actually seen people look that bad for a while. Normally-chirpy people turned into unrecognisable creatures, unable to string a sentence together. When Tour riders finish a stage they looked tired, but they’re used to it. When the amateurs finished stage three, their faces personified pain and achievement.’
Stage 4: Alpe d’Huez time trial, 15km, 1,110m+
There are no rest days on the Haute Route, but the ‘easiest’ day is an hour-long dash up the legendary 21 bends of Alpe d’Huez from Bourg d’Oisans. The record was set by Marco Pantani in 1997 with a time of 37m, 35s. I finish in a humbler 1hr 11mins. I had been advised by local French riders to start slowly (the first 3km are the steepest) before making up time on the higher slopes. When
I get to the top my head is pounding and I feel sick.
Stage 5: Alpe d’Huez to Risoul, 136km, 3,700m
I awake on day five with the ‘Haute Route Flu’ that has spread through the tired peloton. My nose is streaming, my throat feels like sandpaper, I’m coughing and I feel too ill to eat. Unfortunately I have 3,700m of climbing to contend with. In a stage race, pedalling is only half the battle.
We first climb the 1,999m Col de Sarenne, then descend a rural track past goats and piles of sheep dung, which remind me how I feel. The 2,058m Col du Lautaret is guarded by a cruel headwind and the 2,361m Col d’Izoard, which former Tour de France director Jacques Goddet described as ‘a new version of hell’, almost finishes me, and others. Fran Blake recalls, ‘The feed station at the top of the Col de la Bonette looked like bears had been there.’
The descent through the Casse Desert, an unusual landscape of strange rocks and pine trees that looks oddly false, like a Hollywood film set, only adds to my fevered paranoia. I have to break the ride down into single kilometre chunks for the whole six-hour ordeal. When I arrive at the 1,600m mountain-top finish at Auron, I’m soaking wet after a rain storm and in pieces. It’s the worst day I’ve ever had on a bike.
Stage 6: Risoul to Auron, 98km, 3,200m+
I awake on the penultimate day to face the colossal 2,802m Cime de la Bonnette – the highest paved road in the Alps. The eerily abandoned Casernes de Restefond barracks and Camp des Fourches hunting base only add to the ghostly feel of this barren pass. After a two-hour ascent, the final kilometres around its horseshoe-shaped summit have a vindictive gradient of 20%. For UK rider Andy Wickham, this was the hardest climb: ‘The summit reminded me of Mont Ventoux – all rock and shale like a lunar landscape. The body is an amazing thing and will keep going. The difficulty is maintaining the right mental attitude to carry on when you think you can’t give any more.’
By now I recognise the names pinned to jerseys of people I ride with but never speak to. I can distinguish them just by the arch of their back or the colour of their water bottle, and I judge my pace on the familiarity of faces around me. When we arrive in Auron, the relief is palpable.
Stage 7: Auron to Nice, 175km, 2,900m+
There’s an air of excitement as the riders assemble under a pink and purple sunrise in Auron for the 6.45am start on the final day. It will be a day filled with joy and tragedy. After the 1,678m Col de la Couillole – the last major col of the week – comes a truly spectacular decent through Les Gorges du Cians. We speed past exposed red cliffs, canyons and waterfalls, plunge into black tunnels and fly past overhanging rock faces. My Garmin clocks 89kmh.
The descent sparks whoops of excitement around me, but the thrill fades when the heat rises and we have to ride another 100km to the finish at the 962m Col de Vence. Every pedal stroke hurts and every slight gradient is torture. It seems to take an eternity from the ‘10km to go’ sign to our arrival at the timed finish line. When we get there, most riders sit in silence: proud, relieved and utterly ruined. I finish the race in 302nd place, having cycled for 33 hours, 33 minutes and 28 seconds. The winner, five-time French mountain bike champion Peter Pouly, did it in 22 hours, while the slowest of the 474 finishers took 43 hours.
All that remains is a gentle roll into Nice under escort. The city’s palm trees and golden sands looks like paradise after seven days in the saddle. Riders celebrate by leaping into the sea, revealing some truly horrific tan lines. We decide to find the biggest hamburgers in Nice.
Our celebrations are tempered when news filters through that Swedish rider Pontus Schultz had crashed and died on the descent in Les Gorges du Cians. It’s a chilling reminder that every time you ride a bike in the mountains, you take extraordinary risks. They are dangers that every rider knows and accepts, but news like this still shocks you.
On the Haute Route I climbed some of the most iconic mountains in Tour de France history, yet my memories are just fragments of blurred grey tarmac, looming mountains, fear, exhilaration, muttered swearing, nausea, pain and pride. The Haute Route is a challenge, not a holiday; an experience, not a race. Wherever the hell Cyclist sends me next, it would struggle to compete with this.
What Haute Route Alps
Where Geneva to Nice
When The 2015 race is on in August
The alternative The new Haute Route Pyrenees is a 750km, seven-day race from Barcelona to Biarritz. It features 20,300m of ascent over 19 famous Pyrenean cols, including Peyresourde, Aspin, Aubisque and Tourmalet, taking place in September.