The Haute Route Alps is 791km and almost 22,000m of ascent over seven consecutive days in some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. Regular Cicerone Extra contributor Jonathan Cook describes the experience of taking on one of the world’s highest and toughest cycle races.
It was September 2014 that with much trepidation I registered my interest in, and then signed up for, the Haute Route Alps 2015 without really knowing what I was letting myself in for. Why would I do that? The Haute Route offers something truly unique in that it is a fully timed and ranked authorised stage race for amateurs, with a level of support normally reserved for professional riders, and unrivalled in terms of difficulty. On top of this, this exceptionally tough challenge passes over some of the most beautiful and unspoilt mountains in Europe.
Now more popular than ever, selling out in December 2014, this year’s event was set to be the toughest ever, and for the first time run in the opposite direction, starting from Nice and finishing in Geneva. With the inclusion of several new climbs it promised to be punishing but potentially a hugely rewarding challenge.
In the lead up to the event we'd been given an official guide containing comprehensive information about each stage which I'd refrained from looking at in too much detail as the profiles and distances terrified me. After months of newsletters and training the event came around very quickly and I arrived in Nice on a hot Friday evening, a bag of nerves and not knowing what to expect.
Registration opened the following day at 9am and we decided to make the short journey down to the Race Village as early as possible. An impeccably organised registration finished with collecting our official Mavic Haute Route kit before some of the rest of our group took the opportunity to ride down the coast to Monaco. It sounded nice but I decided to save my legs for the week ahead. I selected my kit for the next day – cast into doubt by the threat of wet weather – filled water bottles and stuck the first stage profile sticker to my frame, showing the key points and nearly 4000m of climbing. No such thing as a warm-up day on this route.
At 7:30am we rolled over the start line in Nice in wet conditions. The first 15km or so of Stage 1 was to be neutralised with official race vehicles leading us out of the city to the foot of the Col de Nice but in reality it was pretty chaotic. One rider crashed about 90 seconds after we set off behind the motorbikes by misjudging a bollard.
First up was the short but sharp Col de Nice only 4km but with an average gradient of 8% before the Col de St Roch which was a pleasant climb. The descent was very sketchy – you could see why it had been neutralised. Next up was the Col St Martin which was all a bit of a blur but had some nice sections of tarmac. I was feeling good and determined that I should find a good group for the false flat of 25km or so leading up to the final climb. As luck would have it after a quick stop at the bottom of the Col St Martin before crossing the next timing mat I latched on to a big group riding far too quickly for me but managed to hang on at the back as we thundered through some classic rocky outcrops in the southern foothills of the Alps.
Turning on to the final climb of the day up to Auron, with gradients of over 10%, the group splintered.
It was a real grind to get up to the top and cross the finishing line but a great relief to finish Stage 1 unscathed.
We started Stage 2 after another early breakfast – the aroma of croissants and pain au chocolat filled the breakfast lounge. Thankfully the previous night’s rain had subsided but there was a definite chill in the air. I hadn’t thought I'd be using my deep winter tights when I packed them but the weather in the high mountains can be changeable.
At the foot of the Col de la Bonette the peloton came to a grinding halt as riders stopped before the first timing mat. Thick fog had enveloped the ascent of this mammoth 24km climb to the highest point of the Haute Route Alps at 2715m and the temperature dropped to just four degrees. It seemed eerily quiet as riders tapped away in silence for two hours or more, passing through some disused military buildings before the sound of an Alphorn being played pierced the silence. When we crested the summit we still had 130km to ride but during the descent the clouds parted and we were treated to truly spectacular views. Thankfully the rain had held off despite the cold.
On reaching the top of the Col de Vars, with sections of 12% which I wasn’t expecting, there was another feed stop before I descended and began what can only be described as the slog up the Izoard. About half way into this 14.5km climb it began to rain and thunder and lightning broke out. It was turning into an epic day. The last 4km were tough, averaging 9%. It was now raining very hard with flashes of lightning and the wind had picked up as we approached the summit at 2360m.
As we crossed the timing matt which marked the end of the timed section I put on one of the plastic rain jackets the organisers were handing out before descending the 30km or so to the end. I've never descended a mountain in such wet conditions but with my plastic bag I wasn't all that cold and even managed to enjoy it somehow.
It had been an incredible day in the saddle, three climbs over 2000m combined with the brutal weather conditions. Nothing can really prepare you for a day like this on the bike and every rider that finished deserved a pat on the back.
I've never done a time trial before, let alone a mountain time trial, so the 12km ascent of the Col du Granon with an average gradient of 9% on Stage 3 was going to be a stern test. However I looked at it as a potentially easier day with a much later start time of 11.30am, based on my overall position, and I hoped an hour’s effort at the most
The start was pure theatre with riders being called into pens in groups of 50 before being asked to take position on the start ramp. Three beeps and a countdown and off we went at intervals of 30 seconds. The first 2km or so were relatively flat which meant there was worse to come!
It was one hard grind as we climbed up through the trees and onto the bare slopes of the hills above, trying to catch the rider in front and not allowing our morale to drop as yet another roadside marker reminded us that the next km was rising at a rate of 8% and in some cases 12%.
After the horrendous conditions of the previous day, the reward this time was the phenomenal views across the valley where snow-capped Alpine peaks were bathed in sunshine. Crossing the finish line was a welcome relief and it was only on the descent that I noticed just how steep the gradient had been. It was also a good opportunity to see the really quick guys coming through, as well as to take some pictures and at long last last enjoy some well-earned sunshine.
Ever since the organisers announced a change in the route because of a collapsed tunnel I had been dreading Stage 4. Originally scheduled to be shorter in length at 101km, with the change of course it now weighed in at a whopping 168km with an additional 1000m of climbing than originally planned. It also meant having to start the stage at 7am.
Thankfully we were blessed with clear skies again but it was another day where I was glad to have gloves and leg warmers in the clear fresh morning air as we wound our way up the relatively gentle Col du Lautaret before turning on to the Col du Galibier, another famous ascent in the French Alps.
This was one of the most memorable parts of the week for me, the gradient isn't too steep from this side and ascending the quiet roads at this time of day as the sun rose over the snow capped peaks in the distance is something I won't forget for a long time.
After a long fast descent followed by the short hop up from Valloire to the top of the Col du Telegraph the descent off the Telegraph was great and the next 90km or so were timed. Next, down the valley to the foot of the Croix de Fer the centre piece of today’s Queen stage where we began the 28km climb which for me was one of the hardest of the week.
By the time I got to the feed stop at the bottom of the last climb, just before the final timing mat, many riders were sitting in the shade to gear up for the final assault. I stopped quickly before the final 9km time trial up to Les Deux Alpes with another day ticked off, the end was closer in sight.
Another change to the originally planned course which meant more climbing, Stage 5 had also been billed as an easier day at only 115km but I found this stage tougher than the previous day’s monster – perhaps the accumulation of fatigue was finally settling in.
After a neutralised descent from Les Deux Alpes, riders attacked the Col de Sarenne, a 1999m climb with an average gradient of 8.3% which was accentuated in the last few kilometres. This was far from an easy task and I really suffered.
But it was good to enter Alp du Huez from a different route and even better to descend two or three of the hairpins before turning off and traversing across to Vaujany where we would pick up the Glandon. The view down to the valley really took my breath away.
I’ve ridden this way up the Glandon before many times so it was good to know what was coming. As we got on to the steeper lower slopes I was starting to feel better and decided to push on with my roommate for the week who had caught me up..
The climb up to La Toussuire was a 14km grind with sections between 7% and 8%, it was hot and it was a tough ascent. A rider named Gustavo passed me playing music from a small speaker attached to his handlebars, motivational he said. Later I passed him and another rider shouting at himself. The 5 days’ consecutive riding was beginning to take its toll!
It had been another tough day with the final climb eating deep into my reserves. A number of other riders missed the cut-off time for the day.
If I'm honest on the morning of Stage 6 I'd had enough and I wasn't the only person to be heard muttering ‘I'm never doing this again’.
Seven days is a very long time and the prospect of another bruising day with 156km and 3800 metres of pure climbing was a timely reminder that there really are no easy days on the Haute Route.
The good news was that out of the 156km, 126km were timed including the descent of the Col de la Madeleine. After a long chilly descent from La Toussuire and the now customary stop before the first timing mat we tackled the Col du Chaussy, another new climb for me which weaved in and out of a small forest taking in views of the Valley de la Maurienne. There was potential on a day like this to lose a lot of time so I really dug deep and hung on to some wheels. After the neutralised descent we picked up the Col de la Madeleine for the last 14km which was steep and unrelenting.
Descending was great as I touched on 80+km/h before hitting the valley floor which undulates all the way to the Col des Saisies and again I found myself in a good group for this section. I decided not to stop at the feed station before the final climb for fear of losing the group as did many riders. We all ultimately suffered in the afternoon heat.
This last 15km climb was not easy and I grabbed some water at the final stop before the final run into Megeve. It was a great feeling to come through this stage knowing that we were only one stage away from reaching Geneva.
So this was it at last – Stage 7. 71 timed kilometres stood between me and the end. It was a good feeling rolling out of the square in Megeve knowing this would be the last time I would have to get up at 5am for a while.
I'd been hoping for a neutralised day (as they have in the Tour de France) where there wouldn't be too much shake-up in the General Classification but all such thoughts went out the window at the foot of the Col des Aravis and the short Col de la Croix. The pace seemed to be as fast as it had been all week if not faster, as people chased extra seconds.
The last climb, the Col des Pitons, was a great climb, narrow and winding up through the tree lined road and I was happy to hear shouts of 11km to go from roadside supporters. The 1km to go marker was an even more welcome sight as we crossed the finish line at the top.
Crossing the final mat gave me conflicting feelings. On one hand I felt an enormous sense of relief and achievement – the months of training and preparation had been worth it – but on the other hand it was sad not to be getting up and doing the same the next day.
This is by far the best cycling event I've ever ridden, the toughest and best organised. The organisers do an incredible job of getting 600+ riders from A to B everyday, providing professional mechanical on-road support as well as post-ride meals, massages and accommodation. It comes closest to offering something like a professional race experience to amateurs.
It is inspiring stuff and now the aches and pains have well and truly worn off I could almost see myself being on the start line again next year.
Event website: www.hauteroute.org/events/stages/alps-2015
Total distance: 791km
Total ascent/descent: 21,900m/20,400m
Start: Nice, Promenade des Anglais
Finish: Geneva, Jardin Anglais