As we sit at the Britannia Pub shithole in Geneva, sinking a couple of smokey quiet ones, it becomes apparent that a) that went fast!, and b) it’s all such a blur we should take better notes.
So this final blog installment is as much a recollection of events before our demented and glycogen depleted brains forget everything that happened, as it is to write home and tell everyone how much fun we had…
Stage 1: Megève to Megève
104 km, starting from Megève, rolling down in a frosty alpine chill to the stunning gateway of Mont Blanc. The first hill over Le Bettex showed us where we live in the peloton food chain… neither T-Rex, nor ocean krill – maybe somewhere in range of a moderately dangerous marsupial with claws and a bad temper.
Main cols included and the summit finish in Côte 2000. It was at this point we knew we’d probably underestimated the strength of the front third of the 500-strong field. Events would show that most of the back third had overestimated theirs.
Stage 2: Megève to Col d’Loze
With a clearer sense of reality, we both addressed day 2 with caution. The 123km route ended on the daunting La Loze. We were taken unawares by the Loze’s final act of brutality – 23km at 6.6% hid ramps of 20% over the final 4km.
The maths don’t lie… that’s 59 repeats up Withers Way, for those who know what that means.
Stage 3: Courchavel to Alpe d’Huez
Suitably chastened, I’d learned to follow a highly stylish euro-classique rider by the name of Herve. Herve was a rider of panache. Think about that rider we all know with an ill-fitting high-viz jersey from Rebel Sports, crooked helmet, hairy legs, and an ungainly pedal stroke that says “my knees are entities unto themselves, and will go wherever, and whenever they choose in the act of motivating a push bike”. Herve is Michelangelo, to that rider’s Pro Hart.
As all good rip off artists do, I decided to shadow Herve’s every move.
He floated gently up the Col d’Madelaine, the first 25km climb in our gargantuan third stage. His early pace seemed slow, but he knew plenty that we didn’t, accelerating through the climb and disappearing down the other side like a magic act in a puff of cologne and appropriately-lengthened clean white socks.
I was left to ride alone up the Col d’Glandon, the second of the three sisters who, although not unattractive in appearance, had quite the spiteful sting to that tail. With 2km remaining of the 20km berg, one was left wondering how one might escape the mountain given that every possible exit route seemed to be obscured by towering mountain ridges. The answer was to, as Nemo would say, just keep pedalling, up.
After finally escaping the Glandon (probably my one and only mental crunch), we had a fast decent, a neutral feed stop, and a chance to climb the mythical Alpe d’Huez.
As mentioned in a previous post, finishing that stage was only half the battle, and it was best to keep the helmet on and the elbows out in order to get a hotel room, dinner and a massage.
Stage 4: Alpe d’Huez to Col d’Granon
With the Queen stage compete, Adrian and I both felt we had the measure of the remainder of the route. Stage 4 was definitely a “softer” day, starting with a long slow drag up the Lauteret. This berg is long, but not steep, and for once it felt like we were in a proper bike race, where you know, you can hold a wheel, ride at more that 12km/hr, and not be eating handlebars for lunch. The day finished on the nasty climb of Col d’Granon. Ok so yes, it was 12km/hr and handlebar sandwiches.
The highlight of that stage was the brief stop in Briançon. UNESCO listed, spectacular, and sadly, mostly missed by us as we swept through en route to meals and massages and dodgy hotel managers, running dodgy hotels.
Stage 5: Briançon to Col d’Izoard
Stage 4 was a solo time trial up the Col d’Izoard, starting in Briançon. We both thoroughly enjoyed the day, climbing well, finishing atop the famous summit, still adorned with road paint from Le Tour.
Stage 6: Briançon to Pra Loup
Into the business end of the trip, we departed Briançon for the last time. Our main obstacle was the Vars, but the peloton started with real intent to race. It was fast and pushy as Maps sidled up to me, grinning “I’m here”. This was much closer to our familiar domain, and the schadenfreude in us both delighted to see some of the more vocal “lungs on legs” types squirm in this style of racing.
A large group punched hard over a 2km initiation climb, followed by some roads best suiting the rouleur (including Col d’Pallon) to the base of Col d’Vars, 19km @ 8%. Riders filtered into familiar groupings on the main climb. I’d lost sight of my man-crush, Herve, and I felt the loss deeply. I grovelled over the climb, but had my moment of swashbuckle as I went down on the other side faster than a short skirt with too much lipstick.
One final push over the 8km ramp to Pra Loup, and we were home. Finally into a comfortable hotel, and with only one day to go the sudden realisation that our adventure was coming to an end.
Stage 7: Pra Loup to Saint Etienne
There is no doubting the mixed emotions we both felt waking for the last day of Haute Route. Tired, but with feelings of emerging strength, we both sensed we were gaining momentum. Missing home, but with an undeniable twinge, of the kind that reassures you that life is being lived as it was intended.
Taken in its entirety, the last day was a whopper! Separate stages, totalling nearly 200kms, with one major climb in each.
Stage 7, climbed Cime d’la Bonnette, allegedly the highest mountain road in Europe. This little beast climbed for 24km at 7%, and peaked at 2802m. The altitude was such at the summit that most riders resembled 2-pack-a-day smokers late for the bus.
Race timing stopped at the summit, presumably because the long drop into Saint Etienne de Tinée was potentially quite tricky. But, 24km at minus 8-10% grade, with ribbon-like switchbacks decorating a mountain of astonishing beauty was nirvana.
Stage 8: Saint Etienne de Tinée to Nice
After a brief interlude in Saint Etienne de Tinée, the peloton restarted for the final lunge for Nice. A combination of delightful sunshine, a very pretty village nestled in a valley of the alps, and the general sense of it all being a downhill run from here lulled more than one rider into a false sense of completion.
The reality was probably the most exciting stage of the entire journey!
Dropping further into the valley for the first 35km, the bunch tipped 50-60km/hr for, what felt like forever… I found my main man Herve again for the final major climb up to Saint Martin (16km at 6.2%). Entranced by the hypnotic beauty of his pedal stroke, I was like a moth to a light bulb. The practical element to holding Herve’s wheel was that he was easily the most efficient rider to follow on the subsequent fast, sketchy, and generally insane 30km descent down the back side of the mountain into the steep edges and Mediterranean weather of the final run to Nice.
Weather forecasts of violent thunderstorms materialised, and we raced through sequences of rain, hail, and stifling heat and humidity, seeming to pass through a different weather system every 10km.
Unperturbed by the weather, the distance, and the inevitable crashes, Maps and I both had our best results for the week, sliding our way upwards in the general standings.
Results were academic, however, and crossing the finish line brought us both immense satisfaction. Job done. We came, we rode, we had a laugh.
Actually, strike that. We had an absolute f@cking blast!
So it’s homeward bound now… back to the real world.
We can’t end this without acknowledging Mel Ward’s astonishing efforts in planning and arranging. Thank you Mel – your effort and organisation is greatly appreciated. The pressure is well and truly on Maps to come good with that Fendi… kidneys or not.
Signing off, Maps and Morgs.