Race report from the Haute Route Alps 2019. It’s a 10-12 min read – key take outs at the bottom.
As an endurance athlete, I live up when I get to race long distances in the mountains. Whether that’s on a bike, on tour skis or running. The longer it goes, the more I like.
So when I got the opportunity to ride The Haute Route Alps 2019 as a result of initiating an event partnership between Haute Route and À BLOC Beer, it did not take me long to decide.
The Haute Route Alps is a cycling event that hosts approximately 500 riders who start in a 7 day bike race from Megève to Nice covering 800 KM over 20,450m including some of the most iconic Alpine Cols. An epic event. No ultra endurance, but endurance enough to take pride in riding it.
Participants came from all corners of the earth to enter this sufferfest on a bike and in all sorts and shapes. From riders that were sponsored by heavy tabacco brands (hairy legs ) to super light cyclists with a non existing body fat percentage. I myself am not typically built for this endurance game. Being quite tall, I managed to push myself to a pré race body weight of 91KG. This basically means that I need to churn higher power outputs to ride as fast as the lighter guys and gals. Uphill, that’s a lost battle. On the (false or “Swiss”) flat though, I’m equipped with a big enough engine to perform at a higher level and pull a peloton at a respectable race speed. (Yes I can vouch for that. Kudos Frank!).
A week before the start of the Haute Route Alps I had a bad day on the bike when I rode with my neighbour and sports buddy Graham Friend. He’s an elite athlete with a great deal of endurance experience and he told me what exactly went wrong with me that day. My carb intake was far too low which made me slow as a snail and running out of energy. Not ideal on a 140KM / 4.3K vertical ascent ride. Anyway, I learned from this and took his advice in regards to what should be my feeding and recovery strategy on and off the bike. At least 2 gels per hour during every ride, feeding myself within 20 mins after the finish followed by a proper massage. This information was invaluable, as I needed to divide my energy and power consistently over 7 days of riding. I did not have a specific ranking based goal in mind, I just really wanted to perform consistently and enjoy the entire experience. (The advantage of going on a mini training camp in Alpine conditions helped Frank a lot here).
Day 1 – Megève – Megève. 97 KM / 2,700m vertical ascent.
A relatively easy day around Megève with views of the Mont Blanc for about 80% of the way. The first two days, I rode together with my buddy Anthony Walker from Le Chable who owns Kudos Cycling. The last 26 km were pretty much all going up to the alti-porte of Megève. I finished ranked 322 out of a group of 500 riders. OK, so this gave me a starting point which throughout the week actually became useful to proof that my race strategy worked out well.
Day 2 – Megève – Courchevel. 123 KM / 3,300m vertical ascent.
A 07:30 start with the first 9 km’s neutralised. I found the neutralised starts rather stressful as every traffic obstacle has a significant knock-on effect if you ride in a condensed pack. As I’m not experienced to ride in a large group, it was all hands on board. The organisation had done a great job blocking all intersections that we passed in these 7 days and having motorbikes riding along the peloton to pré warn and sometimes stop any upcoming traffic.
The reward at the chequered flag was sweet though – 360 degree views of the Alps. After the finish, we had to descent the same steep 8 km’s back into Courchevel which gave us the opportunity to shout encouragement to the other riders to the summit. Some might have hated me as I kept shouting they had to do one more big push to the finish which – in case of a few riders – actually must have been much more than one big push. Moving up a few places in the ranks to 319th position, I performed solid.
Day 3 – Queen Stage. Courchevel – l’Alpe D’Huez. 144 KM / 4,446m vertical ascent.
Big day with 3 famous Alpen Cols to cover. Starting with the Col de la Madeleine. A beautiful 25 KM long climb with an average gradient of 6%. The TdF has passed this Col many times, adding to the myth of this climb. Which equally counted for the two other climbs of day 3. I took on the Madeleine in smooth fashion leaving enough in the tank to cover the remainder of the stage. The Madeleine was actually such a nice climb that I started to “write” an ode in my head to her fluent and round curves, her sometimes hard-to-get and teasing mentality and her perfect timing to open herself up through a flatter section to gain some speed while I was riding to her top.
After a quick flat section, we got to the start of Alpe d’Huez. Known as the Dutch mountain due to many Dutch TdF stages winners at the top of this Col, the Alpe d’Huez is considered a myth for many (Dutch) cyclists. To be very honest, this climb did not hugely inspire me. Yes, it’s long and steep at times, but the busy traffic racing up her flanks and the somehow uninspiring views stand in stark contrast with many of the other cols we climbed last week.
Well, I could definitely feel some emotions welling up when I passed the red flag of the last kilometer knowing it was mainly flat and a bit down to the finish when images of Joop Zoetemelk in the mid 80’s and Gert-Jan Theunissen and Steven Rooks winning the stage in the late 80’s made me realise I rode on holy cycling grounds. Thoughts went as well to my uncle Ward, my cousin Ward Jr. and my sister Annemarie who climbed the Alpe d’Huez 1, 4 and respectively 6 times in one day (Alpe D’hu-zes) in remembrance of my aunt Simone who died of cancer. This all added to my finish scream that came straight from my toes. I finished the big day in good shape, reflected by my jump of 20 places in the GC to position 299.
Day 4 – L’Alpe D’Huez – Serre-Chevalier Briançon (Col du Granon) 80 KM / 2,700 m vertical ascent.
I didn’t feel very sad leaving Alpe D’Huez. I’m not a fan of these French concrete jungles smashed on a mountain plateau in the mid 70’s and left untouched since. Our neutralised exit went up and over the Col de Sarenne which provided a stunning scenery reminding me of the Scottish highlands. The grey and damp morning certainly added to the scene. The descent to the start of the Col de Lautaret where the timing of today’s race started was steep and at times quite bumpy.
I’m not a strong descender, specially not on steep and winding descents. This is mainly caused by a lack of confidence in myself and my material (which is totally irrational). Two previous cycling accidents that kept me off the bike for a while haven’t helped to fix this lack in my capacity as a cyclist. Close to the bottom of the descent, a dog crossed the road whilst I was passing at about 50km/h. Not a super close call, but close enough to affirm my insecurity in descending. Put me on a pair of skis and I do a 100km/h with my eyes closed. None of that on my bike.
At the bottom, time started ticking with the Col de Lautaret ahead of us. A 25km long climb with a gentle gradient off just under 5%. Hence important to hitch on to a group to keep a steady pace. I was fortunate enough to jump on the Manhattan Express how I’d like to call them. A group of 5 very fit and athletic riders from New York who wore their pink outfits much better than I did. Strong cyclists and fun lads. We kept a solid pace up the Lautaret where I was happy to return some of the favour by pushing one of their riders who wasn’t feeling very strong that day. Big Kudos to the guys from 9W Major Taylor Development Team.
The descent of the Lautaret was – even for a rider like me – easy. Wide roads that provided enough overview to leave the brakes untouched. After a quick descent, I beasted through a 10 KM flat section where I kept the odometer quite consistent between 45-55km/h. Only the Col du Granon separated us from the finish. An 11.4 KM long climb at 9.1%, meaning some serious climbing till the chequered flag. The scenery on the climb was stunning and I finished today’s “recovery ride” in a good mood. Climbing to the 293rd position.
Day 5 – Time trial up the Col D’Izoard. 19.2KM / 1,200m vertical ascent.
The Izoard is another Col that has starred more than once in a TdF stage. Starting in Briançon, it climbs at an average gradient of 5.2% to the Col at 2,360 where you’ll be awaited by breathtaking sceneries. As I’m not very experienced with time trial riding, I called my sister Annemarie (ex-semi pro cyclist) for her advice on how to best approach my preparation. She rightly mentioned to make sure I’d get my heart-rate at least twice into zone 4 at about half an hour before my start. The steep roads around Briançon provided the perfect context to do so.
The minute I got my cue and started on stage riding off a ramp, I directly got into the zone. I rode as quickly as I could into a heart-rate of 145 BPM which I figured I could keep for about over an hour. Starting with 20 sec intervals, I continuously had a marker ahead of me to focus on. I took over several riders who had started ahead of me and tried to cycle as much as possible in a TT position. Arms on the handlebars to ride as streamlined as possible. Not that it made any difference, but I thought to at least try to look like I knew what I was doing. Well, it did get me starring in the video of the 5th day (at 38’ and 60’) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l70RSomqvt0&feature=youtu.be&mc_cid=17cb7e323b&mc_eid=8e822ab395.
The first bit of the climb went really well. I steamed up and took over about 20 riders. When the climb got a bit steeper, I was over taken by some riders who started behind me, but I kept my heart-rate consistent in the 145-150 BPM range. The last 3 bends were great, as the earlier starters were supporting the other riders to the finish. After 1h:17m at an average power output of 288 Watts, I wasn’t disappointed with my performance. I climbed 2 places in the GC to the 291st position.
Day 6 – Briançon – Pra loup 104 KM / 2,300m vertical ascent.
As this was the 2nd to last day, I felt I could dig a little deeper and ride faster at a higher heart-rate. As Graham gave me the same comments after looking at my Strava data, I was focused to notch it up a bit. The first 30 KM’s went up and down and allowed me to keep a solid average speed. We were then served with the Col de Vars, a nice and equally climbing mountain pass that got us to above 2,100m. The descent was fast and I actually felt quite comfortable. The flat stretch to the start of the Pra Loup climb again went fast with a group that was formed on the go. Rotating with two Canadians and Steve from the Cayman Islands who I met at dinner the night before, we kept our speed solidly above 45km/h. The climb to Pra Loup went well, although the last kilometer did not seem to come to an end. My strategy to dig a bit deeper worked out nicely, as I climbed to 278th position in the GC.
Happy with this result, I enjoyed a relaxed afternoon with good food, massages and coffees with some of my new cycling friends.
Day 7 – Pra Loup – Nice 193 KM / 3,850m vertical ascent.
The Haute Route organisation saved some of the best for last. Two stages on the last day of which the first included the highest paved road pass in Europe, the Cime de la Bonette at 2802m. After descending from the plateau that houses Pra Loup, there was a (Swiss) flat section where I positioned myself in a peloton to save as much energy as possible for the 23 km long climb at 6.9% average gradient that laid ahead of us. It was the first time this week that I felt fatigued and couldn’t keep my pedal stroke at a consistent cadence. Taken over by a significant amount of riders, I figured out that most of these guys were ahead of me in the GC as I started the day in the front half of the peloton. This eased me a bit and I kept riding at my own pace. I then got a bit frustrated that my average heart-rate was 5-10 beats lower then the days before whilst I was still pushing as hard. It could not be a lack of food as I was carefully timing my gel intakes. And then I remembered Graham telling me that, towards the end of the week, it’s harder to reach those higher heart-rates due to overall fatigueness. OK, now I could finally start to enjoy the beauty of the Bonette climb which resulted in a lump in my throat and goosebumps all the way done to my butt. I took some time to soak up the entire experience, the beauty of the untouched nature, the fact that I have been so happy riding my bike all week and the camaraderie with some of the riders. It kind of all came to me at this climb…. And then there was the last kilometer. 9% gradient, so best to swallow that lump and soak it up deep for that last big push. Views at the top where the race clock stopped where of-this-earth. Simply stunning. It’s there where I figured out I forgot my two bidons at the last food station 5 kilometers back down the climb. As I still had some time to descent to St Etienne de Tinée where the 2nd stage of the day would start, I didn’t mind riding down to get my two bidons and back up again, which meant I did a total of 3,925m vertical ascent that day. The descent into St Etienne de Tinée was simply stunning and made me drop back into my happy and slightly elevated emotional zone.
The second stage of day 7 started in St Etienne de Tinée and left the peloton with one more Col to tackle. But first a very fast 35 km down a beautiful gorge where I found myself in a big peloton of over 150 riders. I experienced the power of a peloton under full steam. By times, we reached speeds above 70 km/h. I was extremely focused and sharp as there were cyclist all around me and traffic coming up the other side of the road. Before I knew, we covered 35 KM in 40 minutes that brought us to the start of the final and last serious climb of the Haute Route Alps, the Col de St Martin. With 16.6 KM at 6.2% average gradient, it was nothing we hadn’t done before, but it being the last climb, it felt a bit bigger than some equal bumps we took on earlier in the week.
From the Col, it was a long descent to the last 30KM section that went over typical South French corniche roads. It’s then when it started to pour down heavily making me wet to the bone. With the finish in sight though and the outlook to be in sunny Nice later that afternoon, I couldn’t care less about the heavy rains. I just wanted to keep it in one piece to the finish. Which I did. Upon passing the last timing point 20 KM outside of Nice, the sun came out and the relief of having finished my first Haute Route made me very happy. Although it wasn’t till the official finish at the Promenade des Anglais in Nice where the big whoohoos came out and high fives were shared with my buddies Griet, Samuel, Philippe, Steve and lots off other riders. Without another stage awaiting us the next day, there was nothing between me and a 0,75L Blonde Leffe and a whole bunch of A BLOC Ultra Light IPA’s.
Some key take outs from this week::
A multi stage cycling race needs a very consistent approach. This means I had to pace myself and use performance data such as heart rate and power output to make sure I carefully managed my energy and power over the entire week. Food strategies and recovery off the bike were of eminent importance. I had a simple but efficient plan and stack to it, every single day.
I felt I was getting stronger throughout the week, even on a lower heart-rate. My confidence grew as well. I went from being uncomfortable in the neutralised descent on day 1 in a condensed pack of 500 riders to feeling very excited reaching speeds of 70km/h on the false flat down amidst a pack of 150 riders on the 7th day.
Having managed to increase my ranking throughout the week with 50 positions (I finished 272nd in the GC), I know where I can gain in a next similar event. If I push it a bit harder at the start of the week without throwing everything over board and if I improve my descending, I’m sure I could be amongst the top 40% of the pack in a next event.
As the entire pack goes through similar challenges such as painful moments and moments of pure joy, I soon felt great camaraderie with lots of riders. Their support, the short or longer chats on the bike, the gentle pushes if you see another rider suffering a bit harder than you do, the “allez, you can do this Frank” from other riders that saw me zig-zagging up a col, the Kudos given and received for work done at the head of a peloton, the shouting other riders to the top of the Cols…., it just all added up to a great sense of sportsman- and friendship.
As I was spending anywhere between 4-8 hours per day on my bike, the connection with like-minded with whom I hung out with off the bike, strongly supported my Haute Route Alps experience.
The CHF 500 I spent getting my bike serviced and prepped for this week (oouuch) was actually all worth it. The guys from Cross Roads Cycle in Martigny smoothened up my Burls Beast which held up great the entire week. I did not hear the disc breaks scream once.
And once again it became clear to me that I belong in the mountains. Being on or around Alpine giants makes me a very happy person totally appreciating life and the challenges it throws at me.
First Haute Route in da pocket. Certainly not my last!
Photocredits to photorunning.fr and Griet Neukermans