Haute Route describe themselves as the world’s most prestigious multi-day event series for amateur riders. Colloquially, the Haute Route has gained the accolade of being the toughest amateur race in the world. But what’s it really like to ride the Haute Route and more importantly is it for you?
A series of coincidental events led me to ride my first Haute Route event. I’d just turned 40 and my wife booked us a long weekend to Crillon-le-Brave in Provence, principally so I could ride le Géant de Provence, Mont Ventoux.
Whilst I already knew of Haute Route, my interest was piqued by its mention in the documentary Icarus on Netflix. The brief shots of a challenging and action packed seven days of amateur racing through the Alps excited me, but left me thinking it was something for next year or the year after, after just a bit more training. A quick search was to change that, a new three day Haute Route event was about to take place.
When? The weekend we were there.
I almost didn’t enter. Not because I didn’t want to challenge myself, or because I worried I might not be up to it. But because the last batch of entries were full price, €695. Perhaps it was a bit much on top of the cost of the trip itself. It included a Mavic race kit, a rucksack, massages after each stage, a t-shirt, finisher’s medal and of course all of the planning, organisation and race support for the event itself. It felt like a finely balanced decision but I decided to go for it, knowing that there would be nothing worse than not entering and wishing I had. It was well worth every Euro cent, but I’ll come on to that.
I entered only 5 days before the event started. Don’t leave it that late if you can avoid it! It was so close to the start date that online entries had all but closed, but luckily after exchanging a couple of quick online messages I was in. I began to feel excited and reassured this was going to be something special. With only a few days to go it was time to prepare.
We’d already decided to drive from London to Provence, as we love road trips, particularly after enjoying some fantastic ones in the States during my thirties. The ferry and accommodation was booked. All that remained was preparing myself and the bike. Fortunately I’d started to taper the week before, maintaining training intensity but reducing the frequency of my rides. I ordered a box of Clif bars, a few tubes of SIS tablets and some porridge. The porridge was a breakfast back-up plan in case the hotel’s offering wasn’t sufficient for a hard day’s racing.
So, to the bike. I’d never ridden the high mountains before. My training rides are centred on the Surrey Hills, Leith Hill being one of my most regular challenges. I knew Ventoux would be a different world, but how different?
Despite their intentions, one of my brothers helpfully sent me a VeloViewer comparison, Ventoux was of a different world to my own.
Knowing Ventoux was roughly equivalent to riding Leith Hill ten times without stopping was helpful. I decided to switch my mid-compact chainrings (52/36) to full compact (50/34). However, having ridden a (very hard) Hard Knot Pass in the Lake District with compact chainrings and an 11-28 tooth cassette, I decided to also switch my cassette from 11-28 to 11-30. Then at the last moment I swapped it again to 11-32, just in case I was finding it tough on day 2 or 3. Luckily I live only a few minutes drive away from Sigma Sport and managed to pick up what I needed and readied my bike in an afternoon.
Following an early start and a long but fun drive, we arrived in Bédoin, the beautiful small town that lies at the base of Ventoux. I immediately knew that entering the event had been the right decision. The Haute Route was clearly in town and the central square was buzzing with various stands, cyclists of every description meeting and chatting and the iconic Haute Route start line. Signing in was swift, friendly and efficient and it was reassuring to see the quality of the race kit, the friendliness of the staff and the smooth operation of proceedings.
The first briefing meeting started on time and was a helpful reminder of everything I’d read in the road book. We were given a summary of the following day’s route and a detailed weather forecast, as well as some fun and inspiring thoughts on what to expect from the riding itself.
After remembering to ride on the right hand side of the road (after briefly forgetting), rolling into Bédoin from Crillon-le-Brave for the start of the first day’s racing was special. The air was cold and the sun was rising. The same buzz still surrounded the central square and riders were already lining up for the start. A last minute technical problem with my power meter provided a distraction from the nervous anticipation of the start, but soon we were away. It immediately became clear this was something different, something unique. Following the lead car with its amber roof lights and ‘Tête de la Course’ sign already made it feel like I was experiencing a professional race. Technically the event was on open roads, but the marshals stopping traffic to let the race through and a seeming respect from local drivers meant it felt like a closed roads event, albeit one where you needed to remember to watch out for the odd unexpected vehicle – and to generally keep to the right hand side of the road.
After 600m the neutral zone finished and the racing started. Immediately the pace picked up and the field began to string out. I worked hard to stay near the front, but not so hard as to be right on the front any longer than necessary. The riding was fast and furious at the front as the race passed through small villages. Shouts to warn of imminent pieces of road furniture passed through the peloton.
The first climb of the day arrived, Trois Termes. Twenty or so riders slowly pulled away from me as the climb progressed but I decided to settle into my own pace rather than chase at all costs so early in the stage. The climb was tough but once I’d decided to ride at my limit and not beyond it, it was enjoyable finding my rhythm and soon after another rider matching my pace to play cat and mouse with.
I’ve always been a strong descender, almost certainly due to to my downhill mountain bike racing past. It meant I was confident of making time up on the road down to the base of Liguière. My riding to chase the group ahead actually earned me a Strava KOM! Having caught the group ahead of me we started the 10.5km climb, most of which is 7%. It’s a climb that suited me. I found myself on the front of the group up the entire climb and I felt stronger than those around me. Perhaps because it was very similar in grade and duration to a couple of my regular Surrey hills strung together.
The wind had been blowing hard all day and the road to Sault at the base of Ventoux was where we were most exposed. Riding in a group was vital to saving energy in the cross headwind, at times mini echelons formed as riders struggled to find some respite from the wind and recover as much energy as possible before Ventoux.
We passed through Sault knowing that we would finish the stage at Chalet Reynard, two thirds of the way up Ventoux. The strength of the Mistral wind meant a summit finish wasn’t on the cards today. The pure climbers in the group began to pull away as the road steepened. I fought hard to stay in contention but bounced off the back of the group several times before the elastic broke. The climb from Sault was largely sheltered from the wind and once again deciding to settle into a hard but sustainable effort of my own made the climb enjoyable. A rider from Brazil bridged across to me and we silently supported each other, taking turns in front as the other began to fade. Then a rider in full Mavic kit rode past us shouting words of encouragement with a broad smile. None other than Frank Schleck!
One of my Brazilian friend’s team mates caught us and the three of us rode the final few kilometres together. As the finish line approached I put in a sprint to the line and finished first in our small group. I’d finished 41st for the day and had enjoyed my introduction to the Haute Route and my induction to riding the high mountains.
I’d recently ridden from John o’Groats to Land’s End in 6 ½ days and I’d learned that consecutive days of hard riding takes a simple shift in mindset. Feeling tired and having legs that aren’t fully fresh doesn’t mean the day ahead will be much tougher than usual. Perhaps you’ll be slower, but sometimes you actually feel stronger once you’re underway.
I certainly felt day 1 in my legs, but I was sure everyone else would too. The day ahead was going to be tougher than yesterday and the day had started colder, but I felt strong.
The race rolled out of Bédoin and immediately I was glad to have worn my gabba and arm warmers. Following a sweeping first 10km where the pace accelerated unreasonably, then calmed to an almost leisurely speed, the road began to climb through the Gorges de la Nesque. This is perhaps the most beautiful 20km of riding I’ve ever experienced. The road rose at a steady 5%, higher and higher above the stunning river canyon to its right. The sweeping views, increasing pace and the nervous jostling for position made it all the more thrilling. Clicks, bangs and shouts echoing though the peloton as we passed through the dramatic tunnels in the cliff as the road swept ever higher.
The following four hills began to splinter the race. As we climbed the second hill, I began to find the lead group’s pace hard to sustain, which made it all the easier to stop for a brief but necessary natural break at the base of the third. The excitement of chasing back on then started, riding over the top of the third climb I could see a small group and a Mavic support motorbike down the road.
Making up time through the downhill switchbacks is relatively easy as a lone rider, as the concertina effect of riders braking ahead of you is eliminated. I caught a rider who’d fallen off the back of the group ahead and briefly slowed to see if they would take my wheel, they tried but soon encouraged me to push on alone. The same happened with the next rider as I started to climb again. I steadily made time on the group ahead as the climb progressed but only caught them on the following descent. I dropped all but two riders as the descent entered the 24km false flat descent to Malaucène at the base of Ventoux.
Together we bridged to more riders left isolated on the road ahead, our group eventually swelling to 10. Few were willing to work on the front, those of us that did only taking half hearted turns. Everyone was saving what they had left for the final climb of the day. As we passed through Malaucène a few of us broke away. As the road kicked upwards I immediately found myself riding alone as the others in my group stopped to refuel at the base of the climb. I quickly passed a couple of riders ahead of me and then another who had stopped at the side of the road. There’s no denying it’s a tough climb from Malaucène.
The climb starts at 7%, ramping to 9% soon afterwards. Next was an undulating section where finding a rhythm became very difficult, only to be followed by a 5km 10% section, including a straight 3km which feels unrelenting to ride, because it is! Following a slight respite the road kicked again and I briefly engaged my 34/32 rescue gear for the first and only time. I was glad to have it, spinning whilst others were grinding, many almost to a halt. The views became ever more stunning but the riding remained tough all the way to finish.
Seeing the summit station come in to view was a special moment, knowing I’d almost climbed Ventoux for the first time. The gradient dropped to 8% and a Mavic rider ahead of me was getting closer and closer, more encouraging words as I passed. Knowing the end was literally in sight enabled me to mentally and physically kick up a gear and power through the final hairpin towards the finish line. I was happy with 44th for the day.
Resting in the warm sun at the summit, exchanging stories, having a welcome cup of warm soup, all whilst taking in one of the best views in the world was very special.
The race of truth. An individual time trial from Bédoin to the summit of Ventoux. This wasn’t just any route, but the one most commonly taken by the Tour de France when Ventoux takes centre stage. I’d studied the road on the descent back from the finish line on each of the preceding days, but I hadn’t yet ridden it the other way, let alone all the way to the summit.
Riders set off in reverse order based on their overall placing. Being reasonably well placed, I started relatively late. The first wave of riders were reaching the summit just as my start time approached. The news came back that the Mistral was back and blowing hard, the finish line would now be Chalet Reynard. I knew it would take me around an hour to climb to Chalet Reynard and I knew the power output I could sustain for an hour, in theory. With only thirty seconds between riders and the knowledge that those ahead of you on the road would overtake you in the overall standing if they pulled away provided a strong incentive to ride hard.
Rolling off the start ramp was exciting, being the centre of the event for a moment. Rolling out of Bédoin the neutralised zone ended and the racing started. The climb begins steadily enough, passing through vineyards and St Estève at an average of 4.4%, a section of the climb comparable in gradient and duration to Box Hill in Surrey.
I caught one rider, not my 30” man but someone from further up the road. I then caught another only for him to then pass me! We continued to exchange places through the notorious forest section, close to 10km in length and a tough 9% average gradient. I was using my power meter to pace my effort; my rival was accelerating and then dropping back. The forest section was tough but finding a rhythm at my limit was the right way to go, the knife edge between pain and pleasure. The forest section feels long and unrelenting, each view further up the road revealing no respite and sometimes a kick to 12%. One rider passed me at an unreasonable pace, a moment equal in providing inspiration and consolation. Riding faster was possible, but not today.
The road eventually eased a little and shifting out of my 34/28 gear became a reasonable thought. I chased hard to catch my 30” man but never managed to bridge across. I sprinted for the line rousing the small crowd at the finish line for a few moments. I had a brief chat with my sparring partner and searched for my finisher’s medal which I’d missed in my haste to cross the line. I had finished 50th for the day, 44th overall (in a field of 400) and 17th (of 147) in my age group, but I had unfinished business.
I quickly took my race numbers off, put my medal in my jersey pocket and continued to the summit. The wind was blowing, certainly too hard to make racing a sensible idea, the organisers had been right to move the finish line. But as I climbed at a hard but slightly steadier pace over the barren lunar landscape of the final 4.5km I reflected on an incredible few days and just how special this place is and just how special the experience of riding the Haute Route is. It’s an other world experience I wouldn’t miss for the world. And one I’m certain to repeat.
But is it for you?
If you can ride a century, try riding two or three long rides on consecutive days. I think you’ll be surprised what you’re capable of.
Make climbing a regular part of your riding if it’s not already. If you can climb 10,000ft in a single ride and can complete longer rides on 2-3 consecutive days then you’ll be fine providing you find your own pace once the going goes upwards.
Make sure you switch to compact chainrings and possibly a 30 or 32 tooth largest cassette sprocket.
Eat a large bowl or porridge, overnight oats or muesli a couple of hours before the start of each day’s racing and keep well fuelled and hydrated throughout the day.
Keep in the wheels as much as you can, riding alone for too much of the day will hurt your time and your legs.
It’s an experience like no other. The feeling of a closed road UK Sportive, but with a real competitive element. The competitive focus makes it all the more exciting and motivating to push yourself.
Whilst the roads aren’t fully closed there is very little traffic and the organisers work hard to ensure traffic doesn’t interfere with the race any more than necessary, just keep your wits about you.
You’ll arrive feeling like a pro, ride feeling like a pro and leave knowing you’ve given everything you’ve got. Just like a pro.
With 3 day and 7 day Haute Route events taking place across Europe and the United States, 2018 is the year of the Haute Route. The only question is which to enter first!
Visit: www.hauteroute.org for more information.
My next article will focus more on how to train for a multi-day event and how to know you’re ready.
A special thank you to my wife for the idea and enjoying the ride too, just not literally!