The Haute Route Pyrenees (August 2016) was my “A” race of 2015/16; my absolute focus for the year and the driver behind pretty much all my training. I signed up in late 2015 and used the eye-watering entry fee as motivation to give it a really good shot. 8 months later, standing on the start line on a fresh Basque Coast morning, with 9,000km of training miles (and a solid taper) in the legs, I felt ready.
Haute Route events are “pro experience” multi-day races with an emphasis on climbing. Anyone can enter but there are cut-offs on each stage and many people don’t make it. The field is pretty varied – a few sponsored teams, a handful of pro triathletes, many amateur racers and of course those just hoping not to DNF. There were 387 starters. It is tough. 800km and over 20,000m of ascent means only mountain goats will be competitive, which is why I spent most of the year focusing on endurance, recoverability and developing the physique of an 11-year old boy. Pacing is key, which was a concern because I simply didn’t have the experience of multi-day racing. I planned to listen carefully to my body and tried, early on, to get a feel for how hard I could push each day without jeopardising the rest of the race.
Stage 1 – Anglet to La Pierre St Martin (143km / 3,500m+)
Stage 1 video highlights here.
To a chorus of Garmin beeps, the race kicked off after a nervy 10km neutralised start. The pace was quick from the flag, with everyone wanting to hold a fast group for the rolling 75km before the first climb (Col d’Ahusquy, 13km @ 6.5%). It rained, it was foggy, I got cold and crashed when my front tyre blew on a brake-dragging descent. Mavic turned up and filed down my rim while I waited with a foil blanket round me, seriously questioning why I was there and how I was going to limit my losses. I ended up solo’ing about 30km to the foot of the final climb and I was pretty spent before even starting the battle up to La Pierre St Martin (16.5km @ 7.5%) alone in the rain. A tough day and a bad start. The only saving grace was that my crash happened in a neutralised zone – a couple of the sketchier descents were neutralised for safety reasons – so the clock wasn’t actually running while I got sorted out. In hindsight, I went off too hard, with NP 230w or 3.9w/kg for the first 2.5 hours – no wonder I came close to bonking by the end of the stage).
GC: 64th (387 riders left)
Stage 2 – Pau to Argeles-Gazost (146km / 3,600m+)
Stage 2 video highlights here.
I woke up feeling drained and aching like mad, but determined to get stuck in and back on track. My plan for the day was to ride each of the climbs at a consistent, disciplined but hard pace. With little flat between the cols, it wouldn’t really matter if I didn’t stay in a group after we hit the bottom of the first climb. So I settled in, kept an eye on my power and tapped out a good rhythm up the Col de Marie-Blanque (9.1km @ 7.7%), Col d’Aubisque (16.9km @ 7.5% complete with eagles soaring high above the giant steel bikes), Col du Soulor (3.6km @ 5.1%) and the lesser-known Col de Spandelles (10.3km @ 8.3%). All stunning climbs; rugged, remote, and relentless. I finished strongly and my power didn’t slope off as the day went on, a good sign for the rest of the week. Pleased to have found my climbing legs, which felt all the better after a good massage and a cold beer.
GC: 51st (335 riders left)
Stage 3 – individual time trial – Col de Couraduque (16km @ 5.8%)
Stage 3 video highlights here.
I was looking forward to this stage both from a racing and an experiential point of view. The organisers go all out to give you a real pro experience. At 11:11, I was called up through the start tunnel and held in place at the top of the ramp leading down from the giant stage. Euro trance, countdown lights, flashbulbs in your face and locals going crazy as you wobble down the ramp; it was pretty cool. Then the climb kicked in. I have done a lot of work on raising my FTP and power-to-weight ratio this year, so armed with my numbers and making a small adjustment to reflect the context of a multi-day race, I set a target power (250w or 4.25w/kg) that I hoped would give me a competitive time without leaving me ruined. I stuck to the plan, sat at my target all the way up (not easy, as the gradient varied and there were even some flat and slight downhill sections where it was tempting to coast) and finished in a relatively comfortable 50:39. To put this into perspective, the winner clocked 42:42 and a top 10 finish needed sub-46. I definitely could have gone a bit harder but I think it was the right move given what lay ahead.
GC: 45th (333 riders left)
Stage 4 – Argeles-Gazost to Pla d’Adet (97km / 3,600m+)
Stage 4 video highlights here.
Arguably the toughest stage based on stats. After 15km of neutralised false flat, it was straight in to the biggie, Col du Tourmalet (29.8km @ 6%). The next couple of hours were simply unbelievable – the best experience I’ve ever had on a bike. I rode most of the ascent with a naturally-forming group of guys who were close to me in the GC, then with 2km to go and feeling strong, I got the nod from a Swedish lad and we kicked hard to the top, putting a good 60 seconds into the group and greeted at the summit by a herd of llamas and a crowd of locals cheering. We grabbed a bottle and raced into the descent, keen to build a gap. A safety bike came past and guided us down at full race pace, showing us the lines around bends and pushing the traffic over to one side. Lights flashing, whistles blowing, everyone jumping out the way as we hammered down and through the villages at 60km/h for upwards of 20km. I’ve never felt more excited on the bike, it was just amazing. Hourquette (17km @ 4.2%) didn’t provide the same buzz but was equally stunning, and the slog up the steep Pla d’Adet (10.1km @ 10%) was brutal in 35 degrees. I almost didn’t care about the results as I was on such a high, but pleased to see I was still moving up the rankings. A lot of DNFs, largely due to the intense heat. A truly epic day out and one I will remember for a long time.
GC: 42nd (292 riders left)
Stage 5 – Saint-Lary to Cap de Long (100km / 3,700m+)
Stage 5 video highlights here.
Yet another killer day, particularly given the intensity of yesterday. To be honest, early on I was pretty sure I had cracked. My legs felt so heavy on the first climb of Hourquette (the other direction, 10.3km @ 7.9%) straight out of town with no proper warm-up, and I had to dig really deep to stay with my rivals over the Col d’Aspin (6.3km @ 6.8%) and Col d’Azet (7.4km @ 7.8%). The final climb was horrendous. I had basically bonked by the time we reached the bottom of Cap de Long (21.8km @ 6.3%) and ran out of water with about an hour of climbing left. It was a truly stunning, remote climb through woodland, but I was in Disneyland by the summit and had to be helped off the bike for a short medical. Totally and utterly spent. Fortunately I only lost 8-10 minutes on those close to me in the GC, so perhaps others suffered too.
GC: 43rd (272 riders left)
Stage 6 – Saint-Lary to Peyragudes (131km / 3,500m+)
Stage 6 video highlights here.
Amazingly, I felt ok this morning after a good rest – a huge relief given the day’s profile. It began with a short, neutralised roll-out and then over the Col d’Azet (reverse) before a long 65km run to the foot of the day’s biggest climb Port de Bales (19.2km @ 6.4%). I knew I had to be in a good group coming over the top of the Azet, so I pushed hard for the 40 mins climb. With everyone worrying about losing their seat on the fast train, it was a frantic bottle-grab at the summit and a pretty nervy descent down the hairpins, with a couple of guys wiping out just behind me. Port de Bales went well and I put in a dig with 3km to go, gaining 90 seconds or so over the usual candidates and ultimately securing my best finish yet. Peyrasourdes (9.7km @ 8%) and Peyragudes (3.4km @ 7%) were uneventful and I held my place in the group, rolling over the line at the ski resort knackered but knowing I had put some time into my close rivals with only one more day to survive. I had come with a secret goal of finishing in the top 100. Maybe I could hold on to a top 50 now?
GC: 41st (271 riders left)
Stage 7 – Peyragudes to Saint-Lys (169km / 1,300m+)
The final day, and no excuse not to empty the tank (which was by now running on fumes). Like yesterday, today kicked off with a proper climb – Col de Mente (9.7km @ 9%) – before a long run-in, but this time there were no significant climbs later in the day so it was even more important to get in the fastest group I could hold over the mountain. With my new hopes of a top 50 finish, I went deep into the red on the climb, blasted down the descent and settled in for 2.5 hours of rolling chain-gang at a hard pace (given fatigue levels), averaging over 41kph for 95km. I didn’t recognise others in the group, which I knew was a good thing as they were all super strong and clearly higher up the GC than the bunch I had regularly found myself in. I tried to pull my weight, survived a couple of attacks from Mike Cotty (Mavic ambassador/endurance athlete who does the Col Collective videos, nice guy) and put in one final hard effort to sprint for the line before checking the live results… 20th place on the stage! Could not believe it, the day had played out perfectly and I couldn’t have ridden a second quicker. The result also meant my top 50 was in the bag.
Final GC position: 38th (269 finishers)
(Annoyingly, no power stats as my battery died after the first climb)
Somehow I made up enough time on the final stage to creep in to the top 40, which I was over the moon with. Ultimately these events are all about personal goals and ambitions, and I smashed mine, so I was chuffed to bits. Despite the pain and a few inevitable lows, I had one of the best weeks of my life and met some great people from all over the world.
Looking back at my stats, I’m amazed to see how similar my Normalised Power (NP) was on each stage. If we ignore stage 1 (got excited, went out too hard) and stage 3 (time trial), my NP every single day fell between 199 and 203. That’s consistent riding, and gives me confidence that I paced the race as well as I could have. Every night I wondered how I would get up and repeat the effort the following morning, but my recoverability was obviously good and I was amazed by the way my body quickly adapted to the demands of multi-stage racing, even within a few days. I’m really glad I put in the hard miles in training, particularly a few back-to-back days over long weekends etc. If you’re considering an event like this, it’s crucial to get used to riding hard for a few days in succession – a good excuse to book a training camp somewhere sunny, perhaps?
The Haute Route organisation was just amazing. They really focus on making sure you feel like a pro riding a grand tour, and it’s what they rightly pride themselves and market the events on. There’s full mechanical support from Mavic cars, live timing by Tag Heuer, good food/nutrition options, massages, daily race briefings and presentations, motorbike escorts and full police co-operation on the roads. It’s not cheap, but the experience was worth every penny for me. I originally put it down as a once-in-a-lifetime but it’s definitely something I’ll be looking to do again, possibly the Dolomites or the Rockies next time (there’s also an Alps edition). Please don’t tell my wife just yet…