Haute Route Pyrenees 2016

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This was a fantastic experience and one of the best bike rides I have done. With seven days of back to back racing it crossed 19 Pyrenean cols and took us through beautiful rolling countryside and spectacular mountain scenery.

Whilst doing the Haute Route is probably double the price of an equivalent multi-day organised ride (like the Raid Alpine that Lillian did in the following week) I feel it was worth it, both for the unique experience of taking part in a mountain stage race and also because there is a ton of work in organising a week long race for 400 competitors. The logistics, route signage and marshalling were excellent. All the essentials are provided by the organisers plus some welcome extras such as a massage after every stage. Accommodation and food, where everything but the evening meals was provided, was good enough and in any case hunger and extreme tiredness mean that I was not feeling fussy.

Finally, as it was a multi-day event, you could get to know a lot of other riders so it was a great opportunity to meet people and share in the camaraderie that comes from undertaking an arduous challenge together. Strangely I never slept very deeply and I woke early every day with legs that hurt more than the day before. That changed on the morning of the final stage when my legs actually felt better for the first time. I’m not sure why: perhaps I had ridden myself to fitness; possibly running my legs under a cold shower (which I had started doing) really did help with reducing stiffness; or maybe my body knew that there was only one more day to go and was on a high. Whatever the reason, it was surprising and very satisfying to get to that final day and realise that not only could I ride my bike, but that I had the energy to ride it hard and race.

I wrote a blog for the Haute Route website every evening which I have reproduced below (with some minor edits). Hopefully it gives an insight into the ups and downs of doing such a seven day stage race. And in answer to a previous blog on this site (Duracell Bunny vs Haute Route Pyrenees), the training I had done worked a treat; I ‘Kept on Running’ (or in this case cycling) it and enjoyed nearly every moment.

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Profiles_Pyrenees

Stage 1

Day 1 promised to be a challenge, both because of a forecast of nearly certain rain and the tactical question of how hard to ride the first 75km. The terrain was rolling so there was a definite benefit to being in a faster group. However, with 1200m of cumulative ascent before the first major climb, starting too fast had the potential to destroy the legs and make the rest of the day a suffer-fest.

We took some team photos at the start – which was by the Atlantic coast – and then rolled out for the neutralised first 11km.

Stage 1 Start

I almost immediately lost track of my team, partly because we were all wearing the Haute Route Mavic kit we had been given… along with about 100 other riders. About 400 riders started, about 50 of which were doing the Haute Route Compact (just the first three days).

With hindsight we were too relaxed and too far from the front when the timed section started and the ‘race’ started. I missed getting in the first group but after some intense bursts of effort ended up in what I think was the second group. The forecast had been accurate and it had started raining – luckily not too heavily though about an hour into the ride my front wheel slipped from under me on a slippery roundabout. I picked myself up quickly with the only damage being a couple of grazes. While I was getting back on my bike I was passed by all the riders behind us, and to my surprise I saw that what I thought had been a group of 30 had grown to nearly 100!

Everyone had their names and nationalities on their race numbers, which was good for identifying people and starting conversations. On the first climb (the Col d’Ahusquy with 850m of ascent) the group split up. Some ramps were so steep it was hard to ride up them at anything other than maximum power. I left behind most of the riders in my group and got into hill climb mode, treating the climb as a race in its own right. Bad idea. When I got to the top – where the timed section stopped – it was dank and misty. A pity as I am sure the view would have been spectacular.

Ahusquy

I waited a bit for one of my teammates but was getting too cold and decided to ride down. As I swung my leg over my bike I felt a cramp shoot down my thigh. I definitely went up the climb too quickly!

The descent was not timed so I took some photos and went slowly to maximise my recovery time.

Ahusquy Descent

Other competitors reading this should remember this guy as his brakes were making a horrendous screeching noise

I hung around a bit more – with many others – at the start of the second and final timed section waiting for a strong looking group to form for the 28km rolling section to the start of the final climb to La Pierre St Martin. On the initial slopes of the climb a fellow Londoner (Arthur), an Aussie (Antony) and I dropped the rest of the group.

Antony and Arthur

Antony and Arthur setting a fast pace

Arthur powered away and I put my head down – ignoring all the advice we had been given to look at the view – and dug in for the 16km ascent. The bottom half was very pretty and I managed to get a great photo of a horse going head to head with a car.

Pierre St-Martin

However towards the top we were climbing into the cloud again. My legs were tired and my power was down, but thankfully the cramps stayed at bay until the finish of the climb and the stage.

Stage 1

The key stage stats (the Haute Route provided these top-tube stickers for each stage) 

As it was my first Haute Route finish I was surprised at how much running around there was – literally in my case as I went up the wrong road in the mist when I was returning from my shower and had to run to my massage appointment. The massage was very relaxing. I always assumed post-ride massages would hurt a lot but that wasn’t the case and I nearly dozed off.

All in all a good day. Just after I finished, my wife texted me that I had come 41st which was a surprisingly good result. Looking forward to tomorrow.

Stage 2

Now I knew a bit more about what to expect from the Haute Route, I wondered what new experiences Stage 2 would bring. These turned out to be good weather (decent views of the mountains and descents on dry roads) and tired legs (the massage seemed to work as my legs were not stiff but they weren’t as strong as yesterday by a long margin).

Stage 2 Start

The start of Stage 2 – I’d made it into the first start pen of 75 riders but we all ended up forming one group once the race started

The race started with the bunch riding a rolling 50km to the base of the first climb, the Col de Marie-Blanque (700m ascent). At one point we were snaking through some wooded hills in a long line. It was more like a regular road race. Unfortunately somewhere ahead of me someone couldn’t hold the wheel in front and the line split. That said I was pretty happy being in the second group as the pace eased. We only lost a couple of minutes versus the first group and I was able to get a bit of recovery before the start of the Marie-Blanque.

This had a steep final 3km (13% for one km according to the sign by the road). I let my group go up the climb ahead of me and took it easy saving my legs for the next two cols. Benny, the official ‘Lanterne Rouge’, passed me on the climb.

Lantern Rouge

Luckily this was not cause for concern as he was giving his legs a work-out before waiting for the slower riders to catch up so that he could begin his job riding near the back of the field.

Karen on Marie-Blanque

Karen, who I followed down the descent of the col

The way down the climb was pure descending pleasure. The road was smooth, the view spectacular and I had two very good wheels to follow with Arthur and Karen (both fellow Brits) riding in front of me.

Descent of Marie-Blanque (1)

Lots of animals randomly crossed the roads in the Pyrenees!

Descent of Marie-Blanque (2)

Arthur and Karen leading the way down the Marie-Blanque

I let Arthur go up the road on the next major climb, the Col d’Aubisque (1260m ascent). I could feel some incipient cramps coming on and realised it might be because I had only drunk about a litre of water in the first three hours of the ride. I chugged almost a full bidon and felt better as the climb progressed.

A couple more fast, but scary, descents took us to the final climb of the day, the Col de Spandelles (850m). By now lone riders were spread along the road and I proceeded to do my best to catch those in front of me. This proved tough going (I think I caught only two) though I felt strong on the climb especially in the final couple of kilometres. My teammate Andy finished shortly behind me.

Spandelles

We rode down the Spandelles together. Thankfully this was neutralised as, like the side we climbed, it was narrow with a poor road surface in places. I realised half way down that I was really hungry so I was relieved to climb off my bike and have my Haute Route lunch, shower and massage.

In spite of the tiredness I managed to improve my position over the course of the day topping the first col in 76th place and finishing in 61st on the day. I lost a few places in the GC dropping to 47th place… I guess I did go too fast yesterday. I’d better smash it in the time trial tomorrow and try and make up some time!

Stage 3

Stage 3 of the Haute Route was the much anticipated ‘rest’ day. It’s a measure of the toughness of the event that a time trail up the 15.7km Col de Couradugue (926m ascent) is considered an easy day! That said, it was a real pleasure to get up late, faff around and ride over to the start area at around 10.30am.

Riders were going off at 20 second intervals in reverse order of their GC positions and there was a lot of waiting around. I don’t think I have ever done a time-trail with such a relaxed atmosphere. I took photos, including a good one of my teammate, Phil, descending the start ramp.

Phil on TT

We were all wearing our à BLOC cycling kit which looked really good and we did the name proud by all riding the TT à bloc (i.e. at full gas).

I restrained myself from going too hard in the initial climb out of Argelès-Gazost as we weren’t warmed up. There were some flatter bits and even a downhill section in the middle of the climb where I pushed hard and started to pass a few riders.

My gear indexing had gone askew so I couldn’t use my lowest two gears. It was frustrating but I think it may have helped me get a better time as I had to do all the steeper ramps out of the saddle. The top half of the climb was on a lovely smooth road and as it was a dead-end there were hardly any cars. It was a great find by the Haute Route team.

TT Pano

We relaxed at the top enjoying the view and taking photos, watching the strongest riders seemingly sprint up the final couple of hundred meters to the line.

After TT

We all rode well. I came 27th and my teammates Andy and Phil 36th and 121st respectively. It was Phil’s first time trial (in fact the Haute Route is his first ever race or sportive!) and with hindsight he could/should have gone quicker in the final kilometre.

We all moved up in the GC which bodes well for tomorrow and I’m now 40th.

Team Mavic

We ended up in the same hotel as the Mavic mechanics – good guys to know (see Stage 6 below)

Stage 4

Stage 4 tackled the mighty Col du Tourmalet. I knew it from an étape du tour in 2010 which finished at the top of the climb. That time I suffered from horrible leg cramps for the whole of the 30km climb (which ascends 1780m from Argelès-Gazost). It was not a pleasant memory.

After a neutralised start of a few kilometres the timed section commenced on the false flat leading to Luz-Saint-Sauveur. This was fast and furious and unfortunately there was a crash a few kilometres before Luz. No-one looked badly injured but it caused the first group to split.

Actually it was not a problem as I was thinking we should slow things down and get into a steady rhythm on the steeper final 19km of the climb from Luz. I rode with my team-mate Andy and after dropping back from the group and we were by ourselves for most of the time. Although it was a sunny day it was pleasantly cool and the whole experience was very enjoyable, especially compared with six years ago when I had been reduced to walking at one point.

Andy on Tourmalet

Andy nearing the top of the Tourmalet

There was a feed stop at the top of the col, but I had learnt from Stage 2 that one can lose a lot of distance over other riders at these, so I just filled my water bottles, took a picture of some llamas (yes, really), and headed down the other side.

Lllamas on Tourmalet

This was mainly on a good road surface and was seriously quick. I was ahead of Andy at the bottom of the descent and had caught another Brit, Alex.

Alex on H-A

Alex dodging more Pyrenean ‘wildlife’

We worked together up the next climb to Horquette-Ancizan (800m ascent) where the timed section stopped and we were able to take a welcome break to relax and chat with the other riders. There only remained the descent and the final climb of the day to Le Pla d’Adet (900m ascent), which was also timed. In contrast to the previous two cols, which I would rate as the two nicest climbs so far, Le Pla d’Adet was hellish.

We’d been advised in our race briefing that it was going to be hot as most of the road was in the sun. Andy, who had re-joined me at the top of the previous climb, set an infernal pace and I had to work hard to keep up on the 10+% ramps. The finish couldn’t have come soon enough. Although this was the shortest stage of the Haute Route (at 97km) I think it was the toughest so far.

Pla d Adet View

The view from Le Pla d’Adet

Afterwards, we had the novel experience of catching the cable car (with our bikes) back down to the picturesque town of Saint-Lary-Soulan where we would be spending the next two nights.

Cable Car Descent

Sam (a fellow London Dynamo) taking care of the bikes in the cable car

It turned out to be another good day for me and I moved up a few places to 36th in the GC competition. I think it now a case of just avoiding losing time versus rivals or being unlucky with a puncture or mechanical. The men’s GC looks to be firmly in the hands of Cedrick Dubois but the women’s first place is wide open between two really strong cyclists, Camille and Laetitia, and there is a close fight for third. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the remaining three days. Still a long way to go…

Stage 5

Today (stage 5) was the queen stage of the Haute Route Pyrenees. After 3 cols we would descend back down to Saint-Lary-Soulan before starting the 22km climb to Lac de Cap de Long (1375m of ascent).

For the last three days my legs have ached every time I go up or down stairs but I have now learnt that it doesn’t mean that they are not going to work once I am on the bike. However, I am always worried at the start of each day that this day will prove the exception. Today, the omens did not look good. The neutralised roll-out at about 20kph in the chill morning air did not help the legs warm up one bit. When we hit the first climb back up Horquette-Ancizan and the front bunch accelerated away, I dropped back and did the ascent with teammate Andy and a fellow Brit, Tom. I was wary about going too hard knowing how difficult the final climb would be.

As well as the Horquette-Ancizan (810m ascent), the first timed section included the Col d’Aspin (430m ascent) and finished on the Col d’Azet (575m ascent). It was a beautiful ride with magnificent views, sweeping descents and good roads. The only scare was provided by a mare and foal that crossed the road in front of Tom and I as we descended the Horquette-Ancizan. I made some noise so they wouldn’t be startled. Tom went on one side of the foal and I on the other and all was well.

In the false flat leading up to the start of the Col d’Azet we formed a group which, for the first time for me in this Haute Route, managed to work together in a through and off chain-gang.

Cyrille on Azet

Cyrille (a strong 50-59 year old Frenchman) and the rest of our group 

The relatively fresh legs and the knowledge that we could have a rest at the top meant the Col d’Azet, although steep in places, was fun to ride up quickly.

Foodstop on Azet

Foodstop on the Col d’Azet – nothing too tempting but all the essentials provided

After a non-timed descent, we formed another group in the initial 9km to the steeper part of the climb to Cap de Long. As the road narrowed and steepened I moved ahead with three riders from Matador Racing who are currently in third position in the team rankings.

Team Matador on Cap de Long

Richard, Stefano and Craig

Initially I could only just hang on and confess to a slight feeling of guilt for not contributing much to the group. As we reached the upper stages and saw the impressive dam that created the lake I felt relatively stronger and managed to stick with Stefano as he went ahead of the other two.

The finish was at one end of the dam which afforded a stunning view of a deep blue reservoir and the rocky and precipitous peaks that surround it (see the featured image for this post). It was the first time that I felt we were really in the high mountains. We located a café nearby and relaxed drinking coffee and coca cola before a ride downhill back to Saint-Lary that took a surprisingly long time (45 minutes!).

Team Photo on Cap de Long

Post-coffee team photo

Cap de Long Descent

Looking down the final section of the climb to Cap de Long

The stage was one of the most beautiful bike rides I have done. Just a nice day in the mountains with a bit of hurt thrown in at times. I did well coming 37th but strangely losing some places in GC to drop to 38th place. I saw the women’s leader Camille in trouble at the bottom of the climb to the Aspin (it looked like she had just fixed a puncture) and realised Laetitia was well positioned to take the lead, which she has now by a comfortable 13 minutes. So the women’s podium is looking like a clean sweep for the French as Amélie (also French) has consolidated her position in third place.

Stage 6

Did I say that yesterday was the queen stage? If by that I meant the hardest then I was wrong. Today (Stage 6) was for me the toughest one, and judging from other riders’ comments I wasn’t alone in feeling that.

The stage started with a climb up the road that we descended yesterday from Col d’Azet (730m of ascent) folllowed by a 60-70km section looping out of mountains to the north and returning via the second climb of the day, the mighty Port de Balès (1220m ascent). We all knew that it would be important to ride the first climb as quickly as possible in order to get established in a strong group for the flatter section. As the climb began only 800m from the start, our warm-up was blasting up the initial slopes of the climb. Brutal. After 10 minutes I dropped back from the lead group of around 25 riders and tagged into a chasing group that was climbing at the right pace for me. I actually rode the climb at nearly the same power as I had put out in the TT. 5km from the top I started to feel some bumps through my back wheel and realised I had a puncture. I couldn’t believe my bad luck.

However, one of the things I love about cycle racing is that you never know how things are going to work out, so I figured I may as well make the best of a bad situation. I continued riding, and when the Mavic support car came by I asked if they could fix my puncture at the top of the climb. They did this in about 5 minutes. Whilst it was frustrating watching the faster riders pass by I was able to take some photos, eat up a couple of bars and fill up my bidons.

Morning on Azet

Nicholas, fellow Brit and great descender, leading another group over the col

Once I got down the descent, I found myself with just one other rider so I thought my hopes of getting a decent result were gone. However, we were gradually caught by riders from behind and coalesced into a group of about 20. We obviously were going well as we then caught a group of 20 or so ahead of us which included Andy and many other riders I recognised. However, things then started to go wrong with this larger group. In spite of repeated attempts to get everyone to contribute people would not work well together.

About 15km before the next climb five of us broke away. It was far from restful but we gained a lot time on the group behind.

Breakaway Group

Our group of five (Mikael, Pelle, Michael and Camillo) breaking up a bit on the start of the Port de Balès

On the initial slopes of the Port de Balès we even managed to catch the group I had been original in on the climb to Col d’Azet.

Back with Original Group

All together again (including Laetitia, the leader of the women’s GC)

So in theory the puncture didn’t cost me any time. Now I just had to get up the steeper section of the climb without self-destructing.

This I managed and had the stage ended there it would have been one of the tougher single day bike races or sportives I have done. Unfortunately after a non-timed descent we still had to climb the Col de Peyresourde (780m) followed by a short descent then a final climb to Peyragudes (240m) where we would be staying for the night.

Soon after I crossed the timing mat at the bottom of the Peyresourde I could feel that my legs weren’t feeling strong. Even though I had eaten and drank at the top of the Port de Balès I think I was bonking. Two of the Matodor Racing guys overtook me and I feared a complete meltdown (it was also very hot). Luckily I passed a foodstop and picked up a couple of caffeine gels which seemed to help. It was the first time I had used the Overstims gel ‘tubes’ provided by the Haute Route and based on today I am a big fan as they seemed to help. I didn’t enjoy the rest of the climb one bit, or the final ramps to Peyragudes, but I managed to keep the Matador guys in sight and did not lose too much time in the end.

Once finished, it was amazing how quickly I felt better after having a drink and sitting in the shade.

Peyragudes

Evening light over Peyragudes

In spite of the wobble on the last two climbs, I managed to get a 33rd place which took me back up to 35th in the GC competition. I just have to try to keep that tomorrow!

Stage 7

So, the week has gone by quickly and we are now on the final day, stage 7. For the last six days I haven’t had time for anything other than riding my bike, recovering, and chatting with the other competitors (… and writing this blog). Although a lot of everyone’s energy is focused on cycling that main thing that surprised me about the Haute Route is how social and fun it is. There is a great feeling of camaraderie and although it is competitive it is in a friendly and positive way.

We could see that this was going to be another stage where you had to be in a group. After a neutralised ride down to the valley floor – which was actually quite scary as some riders were jostling for position as the bunch of 350 rode behind a slowly descending race car – the timing and the race started at kilometre 17. A fast bunch ride led to the start of the big climb of the day, the Col de Menté (870m of ascent). I had forgotten to stick on the profile for the stage on my top tube and I initially thought this was just a smaller hill on the way to the col. Consequently I tried to stay with the leaders. I asked someone if this was the climb and he looked at me as if I was an idiot saying “I’m not even going to answer that”, followed by “what does it feel like?”. Answer, it felt like the Col de Menté.

Like yesterday, the strategy was to go ‘à bloc’ and my average power was my FTP for the 42 minute climb. I crested the col with some familiar faces including Tom and a couple of the Matodor Racing guys. It was nice to roll over the top knowing that it was the last climb of this Haute Route.

Some frantic descending got me established in a fast group of 10 for the final section out of the Pyrenees towards Toulouse. This group swelled to about 25 riders and we then just had 80km of flattish terrain to go until the end of the timed section. It was very similar to a Surrey League handicap/road race back home in London. Most of the group were working well in a through and off rotation. There were a lot of futile attempts to attack; the most promising (for me) was at about 15km to go with Mike Coty (who I knew was strong given his 10th place in the GC) and three other guys who I had a couple of digs with. Sadly no-one had the energy to do a decent second turn and we didn’t stay ahead for long. Talking of attacks, special mention should go to Oliver, another London-based rider and 18th in the GC, who went solo off the front at kilometre 17. To his consternation he found himself ahead and solo at the bottom of the Col de Menté where he remained in the lead until about two-thirds of the way up!

There was no distance countdown to the ‘finish’ (i.e. at 141km where the timing stopped) presumably because the organisers did not want to people to sprint for the line. A foolish hope. I misjudged the distance, went too early and got over-taken by most of the bunch on the final rise. In that regard it was also like a Surrey League road race for me!

I finished 34th and maintained my 35th place GC ranking so it was a good day’s work and a fun way to end the Haute Route. There were 17 riders ahead of our group but our chase was quite effective as we were only 6 minutes behind the winning group of five riders. Cedrick and Laetitia both won the men’s and women’s GC competiton by a significant margin. Laetitia actually caught our group – a tribute to her superb descending skills and grit in chasing – but was caught in a small crash close to the finish. Luckily she was able to swap her bike and make it safely over the line. Andy came 51st and Phil 118th – very impressive for a man who only bought a road bike three and a half months ago!

St-Lys

We waited in Saint-Lys for everyone else to arrive and then rode the final 25km to Toulouse in a big convoy. It was nice to end the event with a gentle spin at the back of the peleton. Everyone deserved a collective pat on the back, in particular the Haute Route team for organising such a logistically complex event and all the marshals and volunteers who controlled the traffic and did a superb job; they were on every junction and I didn’t have to stop even once during the seven days. I am glad I’ve finished but sad it is over and am looking forward to doing it all again next year!

Haute Route Certificate (1294)

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