Our Haute Route Adventure by John Stirzaker
For those of you who don’t know Haute Route events are 3 or 7 day stage events taking place all over the world so riders can experience some of the finest cycling roads in the world with a level of support way above what you would expect on the average sportive. This includes local volunteers on every junction marshalling traffic, a village with Mavic shop, massages and lunches as well as Mavic and medical support on the road. But what truly makes the Haute Route experience something else is the comradery that you have for each other and riders from all over the world sharing one fantastic goal.
After my amazing time in the Alps last year, Alex and I decided we wanted to do a 3 day event together and after much debate plumped for the compact route as 2 days of 3,000 metres plus of climbing did not appeal to Alex. Ventoux seemed like the perfect start as it had been my first super category climb and we both love France and French culture.
Many of you will have seen the hours that Alex put into her training, many of them in the garage on the turbo as weather and work commitments made riding outside difficult at times, but after nine months of real commitment and focus she was ready to take on the Geant of Provence.
We used Sports Tours again for our transfers and accommodation, Roy and Howard were brilliant and the feed stations were always a welcome sight, although the one on Stage 1 was at the top of a 17% ramp.
The start of a stage is always neutralised so we kept at the back of the peloton knowing we would be taking it steady, although an early pee stop did have us coming across the broom wagon after just 2 km! We paced Stage 1 really well and made sure that Alex was fuelled really well for the climb up to Chalet Reynard, it was lovely being able to look around more whilst riding and take in the atmosphere which Alex loved. So after a couple of fairly long hills 4 and 7km long and a 10% ramp to the first feed station, we came up to the Category 1 18km climb to Chalet Reynard, this was the main challenge of the day and one we knew would be a leap in climbing for Alex after a decent day already.
Again we tried to ensure that we didn’t push it too hard, but as the road ramped up her back started to complain, so we had to manage the situation by taking an occasional rests but she fought through it and made it to the end of our timed section in an hour and a half. This was the longest climb she had ever done, with elevation difference of 700 metres (Cragg Vale is 300 metres) and was a massive achievement but there was more to come!
At this point we didn’t know for sure how many other teams were doing the Compact Duo, after the stage we found out our only challengers were a Spanish duo Duoimparables. Confusingly, the guy had left the lady behind and although he finished 6 minutes before us she finished 3 minutes behind us so we had a slender lead at the end of Stage 1. We didn’t attend the briefing at the village but Roy came back with the first of our KM markers and orders to be there the next day.
Stage 2 was an absolute stunner and on paper by far the easiest day for us compared to the original route. We started a lot better and managed to plonk ourselves on the back of another couple for the start and again we paced it really well, while looking out for our Spanish opponents. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Gorge de la Nesque a stunning 19 km “climb” of 2% that wound its way around the edge of a beautiful gorge with some amazing little tunnels through the rock at the top.
We then wound our way back to Sault and a neutralised zone, so we stopped for a toilet and coffee break of course. I spotted the other team come past us so knew we had something of a gap in the bag. However we were puzzled later on when we saw him coming down a hill the other way after seeing her stood waiting at the bottom of the hill??
The route then took us off main roads on to some quite technical descents which Alex negotiated really well, it’s amazing to think that before our Mallorca trip she really didn’t enjoy descending at all. The decision to give her clean road by having me following her has really paid dividends. We finished the timed route off with some tough little climbs on the way to Malaucene which were way more testing than appeared in the route book, but we pushed on through and just took our time enjoying the pleasant road back to Bedoin over the Col De Madeleine (not that one)!
The day finished with us still in the lead by a good 13 minutes or so, but we knew that day three was going to be a whole different experience with the time trial up the Mont Ventoux from Bedoin. We did attend the briefing this time and duly received our kilometre markers for leading the category although didn’t win the stage as a couple had gone from Original to Compact. So after having our picture taken with the mayor of the town we started to look forward to the next day and another excellent evening meal at the hotel.
Our two main fears for the time trial had been the wind and how Alex’s back would react to so much climbing, the forecasts were a bit mixed with speeds of 35 kmh forecast at the top, it’s not called Ventoux for nothing! Windy is venteux in French… We understood after our stage 2 massage that Alex’s glutes were very tight, which would not be helped by two and half hours climbing so pain management would be critical.
If you have never ridden up a super category or Hors Categories climb I can tell you nothing we have in the UK can prepare you for the physical and mental challenge of climbing for 2 or more hours. You have to set yourself, preserve energy and think about little milestones not the top itself as well as drinking and eating all the way up. The climb from Bedoin is 21km long and the elevation difference is 1,500 metres, it has featured on a regular basis in the tour and is considered to be one of the toughest climbs in cycling.
The time trial stages always start with a descent down a ramp although for this event it was thankfully a bit less high than the one in the Alps, we were called into the pen to take our place in the queue with riders setting off every 20 seconds. When we realised the Spanish couple had not bothered turning up we knew the prize was ours providing we finished the stage!
The plan was to let Alex off first and I would catch her up before she crossed the timing matt, as you will see from the pictures she was very nervous on the top of the ramp. Anyway we met up and proceeded on to the village of Saint-Esteve which was the start of the fearsome section of 10 kilometres at an average of 10%. The approach is pretty steady and allows the legs to get warm with an average of around 5% for 4 km, but this shouldn’t lull you in any way.
The plan was always to stay at around 3 watts per kg to ensure we didn’t risk her blowing up and she maintained it really well, taking little occasional breaks and standing out the saddle helped to ensure that we kept moving. For the other lantern rouge riders you could see the immense effort they were putting in to just keep moving, from a German guy Jans with cerebral palsy, a British lad called Ian who was on an aluminium bike, with thick soled shoes and who weighed at least 17 stone and a young Indian girl who just kept tapping away up the mountain. All I could do was just keep motivating Alex and those others around us and try to pay my part in telling her what was due up and where we were. Seeing these individual battles was so humbling and made you realise how easy it is to take for granted the ability to climb tough roads.
Thankfully we made it to Chalet Reynard and the welcoming appearance of our Sports Tours support vehicle, a quick refuel and stretch and we were off for the remaining 6 kilometres of exposed road like some kind of moonscape with the promised heavy winds. Trying to draft in these conditions is always difficult and made it hard to give Alex some sort of shelter from the elements, thankfully it was dry and we could see the summit coming into view. We also made use of the few switchbacks on this section to keep momentum up and when the road changed direction used any tailwind however short.
It was such a battle to keep moving upwards but soon we saw the memorial to Tom Simpson and the most amazing scene you will ever see on a bike, the summit of Ventoux in front of you and the final cruel 8-10% section from the penultimate corner. After months of training and planning the end was in sight, but the Geant doesn’t give up so easy the last switchback before the finishing line is a cruel twisting 13% horror with a nasty camber and a ferocious wind on the day that threatened to blow Alex back down the mountain! All I could do was shout encouragement and follow her across the finishing line to claim our finisher’s medals and to enjoy the celebrations of everyone on the top, including the lady who had won the GC battle. Sadly she was hit by a car on her descent past Chalet Reynard, luckily no serious injury but she did have to go to hospital and smashed the car’s windscreen.
The descent back to Bedoin was going to be chilly and sketchy so after a quick photo at the signpost we picked up our Haute Routes bags that contained our thermal jackets and leg warmers. The wind down from the top was so bad we had to walk some of it and thankfully got a lift down with Howard from HR who went above and beyond again.
So to finish we had won the competition by default as we were the only finishers and had our presentation with the mayor and a very nice 100 euro voucher for cycling stuff (I gave it to Alex of course). It was a real achievement in my opinion for her as she had never done anything like this before and had confronted some real personal challenges. You’ll have to ask Alex if she would ever want to do another, but she loved the whole experience and it has made her realise how little our hills are. She felt it would have been extremely difficult to complete it on her own and more than anything we both appreciated sharing this fantastic experience in some stunning scenery.
For me I’m already looking forward to taking on the Pyrenees in August next year and some tough training ahead of it!
WE NEVER DID FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OTHER COUPLE…