Find the highest roads in the Pyrenees. Join the dots. Seven days. 792 kilometres. 16 major climbs, 18,300 vertical metres: welcome to Haute Route, Pyrenees, 2015, billed as the toughest, highest cyclosportif event in the world.
I nervously lined up with the other 360 riders at the starting line at the Atlantic beachside resort of Anglet. I knew that each individual stage, whilst tough, was doable. How, though, would I cope with backing up day after day? It was impossible to train for this event in Perth. Only one way to find out if I could do it – start pedalling.
Stage One was no gentle introduction – 137 kilometres with almost 3,500m vertical (as per the official guide – Garmin & Strava all gave slightly different altitudes, I have used the guide as a reference for this article). The 54 kilometres leading to the first climb looked flat on the course profile but it actually involved almost 1,000 metres of climbing through rolling hills at a very fast pace. I tried as hard as I could to stay with a pretty strong pack, burning, in retrospect, a few too many matches. Reviewing the data, I did what for me would, back home, have been a pretty solid training ride. And where had it lead me to – the bottom of the 1st climb on Day 1…
The Col de Burdincurutcheta was brutal. It kicked immediately for two kilometres at 12%, steeper than almost anything I had ridden before and far, far longer. The gradient eased for the rest of the seven kilometres of climbing but never below 7%. My legs screamed. I immediately regretted my decision to only put on a 28 to complement my 34 on the front. I struggled to keep my cadence high and spent most of the climb pedalling between 50 and 60. What I used for strength-endurance training in Perth became ‘survival’ mode on the Haute Route. It was going to be a long week.
A brief downhill quickly lead us to the 2nd climb of the day, the Col de Bagargui. It was mercifully short, a gentle 5% over 6 kilometres. I cruised to the top, topped up my water bottles and headed gingerly down the mountain.
The descent from the Col was terrifying. The road was narrow and steep, the surface slippery from the rain that had fallen a few hours before. I am a nervous descender at the best of times. I gingerly entered tight switchbacks with blind corners. Almost overshooting the 2nd corner did nothing for my confidence. Getting to the bottom became a matter of survival for me. As we dropped to the valley floor I was passed by heaps of riders, all more skilful, reckless and / or braver than me, but I didn’t care – I was very relieved to finish the drop with all body parts still connected.
The 3rd and final climb of the first day was to the ski resort at La Pierre Saint-Martin, made famous this July by Froome’s attack seven kilometres from the summit that destroyed the pack and ensured he would wear the yellow jersey into Paris for a 2nd time. I had read in the race guide that the climb was 24 kilometres long @ 6.5%. This is a gradient I love. This mountain, however, taught me how deceptive ‘average gradients’ can be. La Pierre Saint-Martin is typical of the Pyrenean climbs, beginning with a long, gradual rise alongside the river at 2-3%. The further up I rode, the more worried I become – if it is this easy down here, what will the 2nd ½ be like? I was to find out soon enough.
Five kilometres from the finish, I spotted a French rider 10 metres ahead of me. He was clearly in trouble. Swaying on his bike, zig-zagging across the road in an attempt to ease the angles, he looked like he was really close to giving up all together.
20 minutes later, when I looked up, he was still 10 metres in front of me.
It was that sort of day.
Exhausted, I crossed the finish line. I had survived. But how would my body cope with the rest of the week after such a punishing start?
Day Two was longer (159 kilometres) but with less climbing (‘only’ 2,550 metres). It included the classic Marie-Blanque and the Aubisque followed by a short climb to the Col du Soulor. The Aubisque was a majestic ascent, I could understand why it has featured in so many Tour stages. The major descent of the day was down the Soulor, less nerve-wracking than the previous day’s downhill section but again I took it cautiously and was very relieved to get to the bottom safely and roll back on the 25 kilometres neutralised section to Pau.
This two minute video may give you a feel of what stage two was like: highlights are Niall Henry climbing solidly @1.05 & a sound bite from Jacques @ 1.18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=es8Ra4QfE00
The days were long: alarm at 5.30, bags to the foyer, breakfast, ride, eat, back to the hotel, eat again, shower, attend the briefing outlining the route for the following day, dinner, hotel, organise kit for the following day, bed. Usually it was well after 11 pm when I got to turn out the light and sleep. I always set two alarms in the vain hope that it would help me get going in the morning, but it was still an enormous struggle to drag my weary legs out of bed to face the next day.
Eating was another real challenge. It was almost impossible to eat enough to match the calories burnt each day. When riding, waiting till hunger hit was not a safe option, so it was a constant battle on the bike to keep the intake up. No niceties here, food was shoved unceremoniously in the mouth with the sole purpose of fuelling the engine. I will be happy if I never see another muesli bar again.
Legs were struggling Day Three but we still had to ascend the Soulor (up the opposite side this time), drop down the other side of the mountain and climb the mighty Hautacam before rolling back down the mountain to our hotel. Another day, another 2,900 metres of climbing.
Day Four, the ‘queen stage’ of the race, had the Tourmalet for entrée, the Col d’Aspin for main course and the Col d’Azet for dessert. I loved the Tourmalet. For the first time in the week for me the ride leading to the base of the climb was at tempo, not at threshold, so I felt fresh at the start. Misty conditions meant that I saw little of the mountain but the gradient was a steady 7%. The hairpins kicked at up to 12% but they were only brief and survivable. I got to the top feeling strong but worried about the long descent to follow – it was with great relief that I was informed that treacherous conditions on the road meant that the officials had neutralised the long descent – no pressure to race down the mountain. Even so, it was a nerve-racking ride in very cold, slippery conditions. A café just before the next timed stage did a roaring trade as shivering cyclists poured in, desperate to get some feeling back into their peripheries.
One of the biggest challenges of the Haute Route was working out how to pace oneself. I knew how much I could sustain on a climb in Perth, but how would that translate to the massive climbs that the Pyrenees delivered? And backing up day after day? On Day 4, I got it right. The Aspin was a bump and I felt strong at the bottom of the Col d’Azez. The gradient let me spin, the seven kilometres flew by and I raced to the summit (the end of the timed section) well ahead of others close to me in the GC.
Day Five, the ‘rest day’ of the race was a 12 kilometres individual time trial from Saint-Lary-Soulan up to the resort of Pla d’Adet. 12 kilometres wasn’t long, but the altitude gained was the equivalent of doing 30 Mount Streets without the benefit of the roll back down in between the efforts.
The race dealt up good days and bad days: Day five was, for me, a struggle. I tried my hardest but paid the price for my strong finish the previous day, suffering severely on the long 10% sections. I plummeted back down the rankings. Looking at the picture taken at the finishing line, however, I think that I gave it my all.
The toughest stage of the race was Day Six – only 123 kilometres but with four major climbs giving a massive 3.9 kilometres of vertical (almost as much as the 3 Peaks Challenge). The first ascent, back up the other side of the Col d’Azet, was my favourite of the week. My legs felt (relatively) fresh after the short ride on the previous day, the skies were blue, the views magnificent, the length (10 kilometres) and gradient (7%) were both kind and I reached the pass feeling fantastic.
Two more very significant bumps (the Col de Peyresourde & the Port de Bales) lead to the mighty Superbagneres, 32 kilometres above the road. A 20 kilometres false flat at a relatively high speed meant that I wasn’t as fresh as I would have liked at the base of the climb but I was determined to do my best. This was, however, the climb that destroyed Bernard Hinault in 1986, savaging his lead over Le Mond and denying him his chance to claim a record 6th TDF victory. Legs sapped by the three previous climbs, it was an agonising journey up to the top. The Garmin told me I had done 110 out of 123 kilometres: I was almost home. The vicious gradients of the middle slopes, however, sapped the life out of my legs. The summit village emerges from the trees 3 kilometres from the finish, achingly close but still a long, long way away. I pushed on towards the finish, trying hard to ignore the pain. I kicked as hard as I could with 300 metres to go. When I crossed the timing line I rolled off to the side and stopped, slumped on my bike. I couldn’t move. It took me at least 5 minutes to summon the strength to traverse the 20 metres to the support van. It had been undoubtedly the hardest day of cycling of my life.
The final day, theoretically a ceremonial role into town, happened to include the most challenging climb of the week. The profile of the Col de Mente made me very nervous – 9.2 kilometres at an average of 9.8%, it was longer & steeper than the torturous ‘back of Falls’. Despite (or because of?) the week of climbing I actually managed to find a rhythm and really enjoyed the ride to the top. Blissfully for me, the 1st 2 kilometres of the descent were neutralised because of roadworks. A re-group at the start of the next time section found me with about 10 other riders. As we still had quite a bit of descending to do, I expected to be dropped quickly by them but managed to stay with them – this didn’t bode well for the 90 kilometres grind to the timed finish, but I didn’t care, all I wanted to do now was cross the line. I made sure the SPR flag was waved with a few turns at the front, but, to be honest, I did a lot of cruising down the back. The group wasn’t very fast but time was now immaterial to me – I just wanted to get to the finish. The pace picked up with 10k’s to go, some big guys who had been passengers for most of the ride moved up to do some work. It was a fabulous feeling to roll across the last timing mat. Haute Route Pyrenees 2015 – tick.
I have never done anything as hard as this in my life before. I have ridden up big hills in the Alps, but the added pressure of trying to climb (and descend) at race intensity added a totally new dimension to the ride for me. Apart from the neutralised zones, there was no opportunity to relax and enjoy the ride – it was a constant matter of work, work, work, thrashing myself to catch a group that had dropped me on a descent, grinding out a constant tempo on a climb, constantly checking my output when the gradient eased to ensure I was maintaining my watts.
My primary objective when I signed up for the Haute Route was to get to the finish line alive – a bonus if I managed to complete all stages without being swept up by the Lantern Rouge. Finishing the race is no mean feat, but posting a competitive time was also a carrot for me. At the end of Day 1 I found myself in 75th position and more or less maintained that for the rest of the ride. Final standing for me was 78th overall, 12th in the 50 – 59 yo group. I was the 2nd of a fairly large Aussie contingent to cross the line. Given that it was a pretty strong field, with a few riders at the pointy end currently riding peripheral UCI circuits, I was very happy with my place.
Niall Henry also comfortably made the top 100, an extraordinary effort considering the mechanical /electrical issues he had to contend with. Heading out of Pau on the 3rd day he managed to complete 45 kilometres of tough, rolling hills stuck in his big chain ring, His front derailleur failed again on the TT and he rode up the mountain alternating between the big ring and grinding, grating, clashing on the small. He spent the last two days on two different, borrowed bikes but still managed to post a very respectable time – I am in awe of his efforts.
Similarly Jacques did an amazing job. He suffered more than most on the 2nd day and almost withdrew because of back issues but still managed to plough on, getting stronger each day. His ambition was finish in the top 150 and he ended up not far off the top 100. An outstanding effort.
It was the toughest event I have ever entered. By a long shot. I had ridden to my limit for seven consecutive days. I was pretty chuffed to finish. 54 years old, juggling training with a busy job, how good was I.
Then I stood and watched Christian Haettich cross the finishing line.
A horrific accident at the age of 15 left him with a left arm amputated above the elbow and a left leg that ends just distal to his hip joint. Determined not to let his handicap restrict him, he took up cycling. He started trying to ride on the flat, then the hill at the end of his street. He must have fallen off hundreds of time. Gradually he built up his strength and started entering events. He wasn’t very fast – at the Haute Route he had special dispensation to start ahead of the elite riders, and was often the last to complete the stage, sometimes perilously close to the cut-off time. He did, however, manage to complete the race within the time cut, to rapturous applause from bystanders, police, officials and fellow riders alike.
Toulouse, however, was just the end of week one of Christian’s challenge – he was one of 36 riders who signed up for the triple crown – back to back Haute Routes in the Pyrenees, Alps & Dolomites, all equally as challenging, with only one rest day in between. As I type, he has completed the Haute Route Alps and has one day of rest before he tackles the Dolomites route. Can he do it? I reckon he can. Cos he has already completed a Triple Crown in 2013.
The world is truly full of special people.