The Haute Route events are as close as most of us will get to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what it feels like to ride a stage race

Cyclist - - Haute Route Alpe-d'Huez | Sportive -

For those with­out the time (or money) to spare for a week-long trip, the Haute Route se­ries also now in­cludes a se­lec­tion of three­day events, fea­tur­ing just as much pain but con­cen­trated into a smaller pack­age. These in­clude three sep­a­rate edi­tions in the United States, one in Nor­way, one in the Dolomites, one based on the Stelvio climb in Italy, one at Mont Ven­toux, and this one, cen­tred around per­haps the most fa­mous climb in the Tour de France: Alpe d’huez.

The for­mat for the Haute Route Alpe d’huez is sim­ple but sav­age. Day one is a 15.4km in­di­vid­ual time-trial from the bot­tom of Alpe d’huez to the top, tak­ing in its fa­mous 21 hair­pin bends and 1,135m of as­cent. Day two is the ‘Queen Stage’, a 151.3km loop that starts and fin­ishes in the town of Alpe d’huez and in­cludes 4,600m of climb­ing, in­clud­ing the HC climbs of the Col du Glan­don and Col de la Croix de Fer.

Day three is a ‘mere’ 78.7km in length, yet some­how still man­ages to pack in a fur­ther 3,300m of climb­ing, in­clud­ing vis­its to the sum­mits of Les Deux Alpes and the Col de la Sarenne. By the end of it all, the par­tic­i­pants (or those who fin­ish, at any rate) will have

cov­ered a dis­tance of 245.4km and as­cended more than 9,000m, in­clud­ing climb­ing Alpe d’huez it­self by three dif­fer­ent routes.

The num­bers may be fright­en­ing, but be­fore the event starts I am more ex­cited than in­tim­i­dated. In my en­thu­si­asm to get go­ing I ar­rive far too early for my time-trial slot on the open­ing day, so much so that I have time to write and send some post­cards be­fore I’m fi­nally called onto the ramp for my de­par­ture.

When I set off, I force my­self not to rush at the climb, aware that my train­ing rides on my lo­cal leg-tester are no real prepa­ra­tion for the 8% av­er­age gra­di­ents of the Alpe.

I am ex­pect­ing to quickly reach my phys­i­cal limit, but as the climb con­tin­ues I find I’m en­joy­ing my­self more and more. Tick­ing off the num­bered hair­pins one by one helps break the time-trial up into man­age­able sec­tions, and the sight of riders up ahead gives me some­thing to chase. By the top I have over­taken 14 and been over­taken by only four, which I notch up as a per­sonal vic­tory – even if I am still way off Marco Pan­tani’s record of 36 min­utes, 40 sec­onds set in 1995 (though he may have had some ex­tra help).

The harder they come...

Af­ter an as­cent of Alpe d’huez that went bet­ter than ex­pected, I am feel­ing con­fi­dent about day two. How­ever, at the ride brief­ing that evening, any thoughts of an easy ride to­mor­row are shat­tered when event am­bas­sador and re­tired pro Emma Poo­ley is in­vited to tell the as­sem­bled crowd what to ex­pect.

She re­calls a train­ing ride back in late July 2010 – when she was at the peak of her climb­ing pow­ers. As part of her race train­ing she took on the same three-moun­tain route that we

I am ex­pect­ing to quickly reach my limit but as the climb con­tin­ues I find I’m en­joy­ing my­self more and more

would be tack­ling the next morn­ing. Near­ing ex­haus­tion, she came to a halt near to where an un­sus­pect­ing French fam­ily were en­joy­ing a nice quiet pic­nic, and was forced to beg for some food to give her enough of a boost to make it home.

‘On that day I’d rid­den the Col de la Croix de Fer a lit­tle too hard, de­scended the other side and to­tally blew up on the Glan­don try­ing to get back over,’ she says.

It paid off for her though, as her re­sults for the lat­ter part of that sea­son show. ‘About a month later I won the GP Plouay World Cup,’ Poo­ley says, ‘and in Septem­ber that year I won the TT at the World Cham­pi­onships in Gee­long.’

When the dawn breaks, and with Poo­ley’s words still in my mind, it is with a hint of trep­i­da­tion that I be­gin the de­scent from Alpe d’huez that marks the be­gin­ning of Stage 2. The sun is not yet shin­ing and the air is chilly, and as we turn right through the vil­lage of Vil­lard- Rec­u­las my legs are still re­fus­ing to wake up to the task in hand.

I try not to think of the daunt­ing dis­tance ly­ing ahead, and in­stead just fo­cus on get­ting down the moun­tain safely. Sen­si­bly, the open­ing de­scent is neu­tralised, so there is no rush. The of­fi­cial start line is down in the val­ley, and be­fore I get there I peel off my knee warm­ers in readi­ness for the im­mi­nent in­crease in pace.

As I’m stuff­ing them in my pocket, the event’s Lan­terne Rouge glides along­side and we have a brief chat. He’s a ride guide dressed head-to-toe in red kit to let riders know that he’s the last man, and as we part ways I tell him I hope our paths don’t cross again un­til din­ner.

Call me a doc­tor

De­spite the dif­fi­culty of the course, the first time I think I might not com­plete the stage comes af­ter 121km – just 31km from the fin­ish. I pull up at the cor­ner of a hair­pin where the Haute

Route’s of­fi­cial videog­ra­pher is parked up, con­trol­ling a drone whose buzzing noise has been an in­creas­ing ir­ri­ta­tion for the pre­vi­ous 10 min­utes or so. He en­quires how I am get­ting on, and I ad­mit that I’m not feel­ing too great but that I in­tend to con­tinue.

My face must have told a more com­pelling story, how­ever, be­cause within 500m of set­ting off again an of­fi­cial pulls along­side in his car and tells me to stop and wait for the event doc­tor. I com­ply, and spend 15 min­utes sit­ting in the wel­come shade of a tree, as the in­ten­sity of the sun’s heat con­tin­ues to build.

When the doc­tor ar­rives, she takes my blood pres­sure and points out the salty tide­marks on my shorts and the dried sweat on the sleeves of my black jer­sey. She then hands me half a beef baguette and a ba­nana, and tops up my wa­ter bot­tles. The salt-packed snack is just the boost I need and a short time later I’m on my way again, but not with­out a warn­ing that if the doc­tor is called to me again there’s only one place I’m go­ing, and that is into the broom wagon.

The next 10km or so pass with rel­a­tive ease. The road ahead is largely flat, but my legs are heavy with the twin as­cents of the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Glan­don al­ready be­hind me. The sum­mits of those two climbs are only a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres apart, but to­day’s route took us all the way back down to the val­ley af­ter it crested the Glan­don so that the as­cent of the Croix de Fer was the full monty – all 30km and 1,500 ver­ti­cal me­tres of it.

The only climb­ing still left is the re­turn to the sum­mit of Alpe d’huez. I re­mind my­self how much I en­joyed rid­ing up its slopes yes­ter­day, and try to con­vince my­self that I am head­ing for a sat­is­fac­tory, if slow, con­clu­sion. I am to be proved wrong.

Just be­fore the turn-off next to the Lac du Ver­ney that marks the start of the climb proper, the road shoots up­wards and with the change in gra­di­ent all re­main­ing power evap­o­rates from my legs. The beef baguette bounce I’d ex­pe­ri­enced af­ter my road­side chat with the doc­tor has faded away and there’s no more fool­ing my body into feel­ing al­right.

I’m go­ing so slowly that it’s an ef­fort not to top­ple over, and a quick bit of men­tal arith­metic tells me I’m still over an hour from the fin­ish line de­spite be­ing al­most next to it when viewed as two dots on the screen of my bike com­puter.

I keep rid­ing, on and on, the gra­di­ent of the road of­fer­ing no respite. Even­tu­ally the fi­nal feed sta­tion of the day comes into view and with it a feel­ing of re­lief, al­most hap­pi­ness. There aren’t many events that would place a feed sta­tion just 8km from the fin­ish line, but then few fin­ish at above 1,800m. I wob­ble to a halt, find a spot in the shade and sip down a few glasses of cola and some wa­ter but can’t

I try to con­vince my­self that I am head­ing for a sat­is­fac­tory, if slow, con­clu­sion. I am to be proved wrong

bring my­self to eat any­thing. My body is beg­ging me to stop rid­ing; my mind is en­gaged in a mud­dled cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis, weigh­ing the hu­mil­i­a­tion of not fin­ish­ing a sportive against just how truly aw­ful I’m feel­ing. Oliver, a fel­low Bri­tish rider who has been my shadow for large parts of the ride, catches up and we start to chat.

He’s hav­ing a tor­rid time of it him­self but has re­solved that he’ll make the fin­ish what­ever it takes. He men­tions that, ac­cord­ing to one of the event staff he’d spo­ken to a short while be­fore, we are some of the last riders still left on the road, and that al­most half the field has climbed off over the course of the day.

The knowl­edge that I have sur­vived longer than some perks me up slightly, and in­spired by Oliver’s de­ter­mi­na­tion I de­cide to fol­low him down the brief de­scent that fol­lows the feed sta­tion and tackle the fi­nal few kilo­me­tres of climb­ing to the fin­ish line. The de­scent is over all too quickly, how­ever, and the mo­ment we start climb­ing again, Oliver pulls a lit­tle fur­ther away from me with every turn of the ped­als. This time I know I am fin­ished.

I turn back and find a mar­shal in the dip we’ve just rid­den through and tell him I am done. His ad­vice is to ride back up to the feed sta­tion. I look at him in­cred­u­lously, but with no al­ter­na­tive, I climb back on my bike and strug­gle wearily back to the feed sta­tion for a se­cond time. I lean my bike against the gazebo and make my way to­wards the open door of a van.

For­giv­ing, not for­get­ting

Look­ing back on the in­au­gu­ral Haute Route Alpe d’huez, I can say with­out hes­i­ta­tion that Stage 2 was one of my hard­est ever days on a bike. But that sim­ply gave me a new re­spect for the se­ri­ous­ness of the chal­lenge, and de­spite the dis­ap­point­ment of a DNF, I ac­tu­ally re­ally en­joyed the en­tire event. There are few more dra­matic places to ride than the myth­i­cal cols of the Alps, and it was made all the more spe­cial thanks to the ca­ma­raderie of my fel­low riders and the pro­fes­sional sup­port of the Haute Route team. The af­ter-ef­fects of my ef­forts on the Alpe meant that I re­quired a chest x-ray and a few days off work on my re­turn to Bri­tain, but I have since been de­clared fully fit again.

So I’ve signed up to do it again in 2018. Jack El­ton-wal­ters is web­site editor of Cy­clist and a glut­ton for pun­ish­ment

My mind is weigh­ing the hu­mil­i­a­tion of not fin­ish­ing a sportive against just how truly aw­ful I’m feel­ing

Pre­vi­ous page: This hair­pin over­look­ing the Lac de Grand Mai­son is tack­led up­wards af­ter 36km and de­scended, hours later, af­ter 115km Right: The false flat be­tween Vil­lard Rec­u­las and the turn onto the mid-slopes of Alpe d’huez of­fers some re­lief in terms of gra­di­ent but is rid­den in the full glare of the sum­mer sun

The sun creep­ing be­tween the low clouds dur­ing the early stages of Stage 2 hints at the blaz­ing sun­shine and heat that is to come later in the day. This rolling road is rid­den in both direc­tions, and proves to be a chal­lenge ei­ther way

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