The Haute Route 2016 – or “Suffer, Fly, Repeat”
Over the last 30 years I’ve always been keen to set myself an annual sporting challenge, to provide a target for training. The pattern is that I sign up enthusiastically for the event the previous winter, and reflect over the subsequent months: “why did I ever say I would do that …?”. Eventually motivation / necessity kicks in, I train hard and complete it. I then say “never again” - until I sign up for the next year’s challenge ….
These challenges are nearly always mountain based; in my younger days they were climbing or running, more latterly cycling – although I did return to running in 2015 with the Lakeland 50-mile race, and a link to something I wrote about this is at:
In 2016 I was back to cycling, and I signed up for the Haute Route Alps, which covers 800km from Nice to Geneva in 7 days – with 22,000 meters of climb. That’s a lot of climb. White Hill at Challock is one of our longest local climbs, ascending 130 meters, so in the week I climbed the equivalent of 169 White Hills, or an average of 24 per day!
The organisers put on several versions of the 7-day Haute Route each year, in the Pyrenees and Dolomites, as well as the Alps. For 2017 there is a US version in the Rockies and also several “compact” editions over 3 days. The Alpine version is the original Haute Route, and the most popular, with 500 riders on the start line in Nice.
The format is a timed and ranked Sportive, but in France Sportives are far more competitive than in the UK, being termed a race, similar to the Etape du Tour. A link to the detailed Roadbook issued to all entrants is at http://issuu.com/haute_route/docs/roadbook_alps_2016 , which sets out the stages in detail, together with the rules, organisation, time cuts, etc.
Time cuts? Yes, each stage has a time limit, and if you miss it, then you are out of the General Classification (GC) rankings, although you are allowed to ride subsequent stages non-competitively. The time cuts are enforced rigorously, with broom wagons and a sweeper dressed in red (the “Lantern Rouge”) who rides to the time limit – you really don’t want to see him ahead of you! In 2016, 130 riders missed the time cut on at least one day, so were out of GC.
Six of the stages were between 108km and 145km each day, with 2,500-4,200 meters of climb, with one day as an uphill TT. There are usually 3 big climbs on each stage, with a summit finish.
A nice easy neutralised roll downhill for the previous day’s finish starts off the day, then over the timing mat, the start flag is waived, followed shortly by 1-2 hours of suffering in the heat on a climb. Fly down from the summit in about 30 mins with very little pedalling, then suffer on the next climb. Another flying descent, then yet more suffering on the final climb of the day, which may be a summit finish, or there may be a descent to the valley, finishing 6-8 hours (for me anyway!) after starting.
A bit like the Tom Cruise film, “Edge of Tomorrow”, tagline “Live Die, Repeat”, the Haute Route could be termed: “Suffer, Fly, Repeat” – times 3, per day.
Then, eat as much food as you can, sort out the bike, hope that your bag has been delivered to the right hotel, eat some more, bed by 10pm, then start again with breakfast before 6am packing up bags, ready to do it all again the next day. You are burning around 6-7,000 additional calories per day, so eating enough is critical.
I’ll run through the 2016 stages, but if you look at the Roadbook you can see detailed profiles and itineraries:
Stage 1 – Nice to Auron – 136km (4,000m climb) – easy 20km roll out of Nice in large convoy, 2 long climbs in temperatures between 30 & 40 C, then long uphill drag in a valley (where a group formed, working together) before the final 7k climb to the summit finish at Auron ski resort. This was a tough start, and left me wondering if I could handle the rest of the week. About 30 people missed the time cut.
Stage 2 – Auron to Risoul – 108km (3,400m) – a short but brutal day with a tough time limit! After the roll down from Auron, the climb to the highest point of the week, the Bonette at 2,715m, 24km of climbing at 6.3% which took over 2 hours. Then the Vars (of which the last 5km is around 10%), and I really suffered on the final 13km 7% climb to Risoul. Temperature still over 30C. I crashed on the climb (!) of the Vars, a guy in front of me just stopped in the road and nearly fell off, I avoided him but skidded on gravel & went over the edge, somersaulted down a grassy bank, bending handle bars, and a few cuts and bruises. First aid tents for both me and bike at the top of the Vars and at the end, but neither too damaged!
Stage 3 – Risoul to Valloire – 118km (3,000m) – an easier day, also a bit cooler. After the initial descent, a long flattish section long the Gul valley (historians will know that this is where Hannibal is reported to have crossed the Alps – on elephants, not bikes!) before more suffering on the very long climb of the Izorard (30km at 5%, steep towards the top). Fast descent flying down to Briancon, then another long drag up the Lautaret before the right turn to the Galibier at 2,645m by its south side, over the top and down to the ski resort of Valloire.
Stage 4 – the TT day, the Galibier! 18km at 7%, all uphill by its northern side. For those of us at the back of the GC, fighting time cuts, this was a relatively easy day: take it steady, conserve energy, and enjoy the views at the top after the finish, and the roll back down. It was also nice to have a bit of time in the town and the joy of spending two nights in the same hotel!
Stage 5 – Valloire to Courcheval – 140km (4,200m) – stage 5 is usually the hardest stage on each year’s Haute Route, and this was no exception. Short neutralised climb over the Telegraph, down to the valley, and after a fast flat section downhill on the main road, the stunning climb of Montvernier / Chaussy, then the very tough Madelene (14km at 8%). Long descent to an extra climb, ungraded, before the finale, the 18km 7% monster to Courcheval, where I was constantly on the lookout for the Lantern Rouge, but beat him and the time cut by 10 mins. Over 60 other riders didn’t make the cut on this stage, and were out of GC.
Stage 6 – Courcheval to Megeve - 134km (3,400m) – a little bit easier, the usual pattern of suffer, fly and repeat over 3 climbs, a highlight of the week being the magnificent views of the reservoir at the summit of the Cormet de Roselend after 19km of climbing at 6%, then descending off the final climb of the Saises to the valley and an uphill drag to the ski town of Megeve.
Stage 7 – Megeve to Geneva – 146km (2,500m) – the last day, felt easy in comparison with the others! Only really 2 big climbs (Aravis, 12km @ 5%, Columbiere 13km at 6%), a couple of small ones, and the finish at the medieval castle in the lakeside village of Yvoire. Nearly 2 hours inside the generous time cut, so time for a few (free) beers in the village, before all the riders were escorted the final 20km into Geneva in a large neutralised peloton to the final finish and celebrations. Some interesting riding from those who had enjoyed the local Yvoire beers rather too enthusiastically!
Final night after party in Geneva, which went on for quite some time, and I was very pleased to have booked an afternoon flight home!
Overall, I made the time cut each day and finished 350th out of 371 ranked finishes: there were 500 starters.
Points for those thinking of doing it in 2018 or future years:
It’s not cheap, and I would recommend booking with a tour company, rather than trying to sort out your own hotel or meals in what are small towns or villages. Imagine 500 riders + officials / supporters descending on somewhere village in the evening, and expecting to book for dinner. Much better to let the tour company sort this out, and if you book early, overall cost will be about the same. Total cost, with entry fees, accommodation, food and flights, will be around £3,500, cheaper if you book early and in a group.
Organisation is superb. Most roads are still open to traffic, but there were 40 motorbikes and 200+ marshals each day, who stop all vehicles at roundabouts, traffic lights etc, so you just ride straight through. Where it is very narrow the roads are closed, and on descents the motorbikes push all traffic to the side of the road, with marshals at all difficult corners, patches of gravel, traffic islands, etc, pointing out hazards. There are food and water stops regularly en-route, both provided by the organisation and also the tour companies, and Mavic cars & motorbikes provide mechanical assistance throughout the stages.
If, like me, you’re near the back, you learn the “tricks of the trade” quite quickly – which you see in the Tour de France with the sprinters on the mountain stages:
o Learn to descend (preferably practice as much as possible before you travel) – however bad you may be at the start of the week, you will improve rapidly, especially if the stage’s time cut is looming! But do not take too many risks.
o Improve mental arithmetic – towards the end of each stage you are constantly calculating how fast you have to go to beat the cut: I worked on a rate of 9 minutes per 100 meters of ascent for the last climb of the day – everyone at the back is doing similar calculations!
o Treat the time trial as a rest day: the time cut is very generous, and you can take it steady. There were guys around my level on CG who rode the TT hard, gained 10 mins on me, but missed the time cut on day 5.
o Do not go too hard on the early part of each day, keep something in reserve because if you blow on the last climb then you will really struggle, especially if the temperature is pushing towards 40C in the mid-afternoon.
Hope for good weather, but bear in mind that the mountains can be boiling hot, especially the southern Alps the closer you are to the Mediterranean, but there can be sudden storms. 2016 was dry, but there was a stunning electrical storm overnight on day 2, and on day 5 an overnight storm had left the descent of the Madelene with a lot of gravel and small rocks, so on the day the organisers decided to neutralise the descent, with individuals’ timing for the stage being stopped at the summit and restarted at the bottom.
Work on power to weight: guidance is that you need to have a FTP of over 4 watts per kg to finish in the top 250, and 5 w/kg to be competitive towards the front end. In 2016, the winner of the TT also set the Strava KoM on the climb of the Galibier, beating all the times previously set by the pros.
Accept that you will be very tired as the week progresses, and your HR and power output will fall to really low levels – high Z2 or low Z3 on climbs. My threshold HR was around 167, and FTP about 250w – I was struggling to keep HR about mid 140’s and power 190w - 200w on the last climbs as the week progressed. These sound ridiculously low, but everyone I spoke with had similar experiences with their HR and power dropping.
Do the event when you are younger if you can – I’m 58 now, and there were only a few riders older than me last year. Average age of Haute Route riders is around 40. Keeping a decent w/kg ratio is harder as you get older – body fat levels and muscle mass change as you age, although not helped by too many cakes!
So, would I do it again?
Yes – I’ve entered the 2017 edition! This promises to be even longer (900km) and harder, with the monster stage 5 being 182km and 4,500m of climb. I’m hoping to make the time cuts again this year, but if not then I’m pleased to have completed at least one edition of this great event. But, I’ll give it my best shot!
“Suffer, Fly, Repeat”