Haute Route Dolomites Stage 5 Individual Time Trial

One more ride. A time trial to finish off this fantastic event and in my case the last of 12 days of hard racing through the Alps and then the Dolomites. Today’s task was simple. Go up a hill as fast as possible. In the last few days I’d pushed myself to the limit and still kept performing to a good level. This morning I was confident that I would go well.

The course was spectacular. We’d start in the historic centre of Bormio, roll out on the cobbles and then head out of town gently climbing. The official start would be nearly 5kms in, meaning that the first section was a very pleasant warm up. We’d then negotiate the 18 hairpin bends of the road up to the Torre di Fraeli, then we’d finish on the banks of the Laghi di Cancano.

As with all time trials we started in reverse GC order, so I’d be the 11th last rider. Riders in the rest of the field would start in 20 second intervals but those of us in the top 13 were separated by 2 minutes to ensure that we would ride individually. It was a good feeling to be in that top group, Fergus the commentator would make a big fuss of how we were the ‘fast men’. I was the oldest in that group at the end by a fair margin. It felt great to be mixing it with all the young guys, some of whom were a third of my age. Plenty of fist bumps between us all, great camaraderie and a relaxed feel at the start. As I entered the start platform Yazz was blaring out ‘the only way is up’ on the speaker system, I tapped my feet a wiggled around to it, always happy to get a dose of my eighties music.

Stelvio Man started just before me, Mitch from USA, was just behind me. I cruised out of the start and eased through that first 5kms at a ‘tempo’ rate, about 250 watts, nicely warming up. As the official start loomed I upped the pace to cross the line with momentum. A quick tap on my bike computer lap button so I could monitor my effort for the next 30 minutes or so of pain.

From this point we had about 10.5km to race. 9km of climbing at an average of about 6.5%, then a finishing 1.5km of flat to the finish. I started steady. The key to a time trial is not going too hard to early, no matter how good you feel. Respect the power numbers and stay at a sustainable output. I was disciplined. I suspected I would be able to do around 315/320 watts for the 30 minutes. 4 minutes in and my average was around 325 watts. Steady as she goes, don’t want any more than that. 4kms up the climb and Mitch caught me. He’d gone over the start line a minute and half behind me and he was flying. Mitch is a far stronger rider than I, not reflected in his proximity to me on GC. I was pleased to see him going well. His performance inspired me to dig deeper. I forgot my disciplined power figure study for a while and just tried to maintain the gap behind him for a while. The power kept coming, I glanced at the computer occasionally to see plenty of 340’s and 350’s. I felt strong though. Mitch stretched his lead on me a little but him passing me had a good effect on me. I’d probably played it a bit safe in the opening kilometres, a little unware of what I was actually capable of.

The hairpins on this climb are flat, line is crucial to carry speed through them and avoiding a power drop. Every inch of the road is required to stretch out each curve and keep on the gas. I sailed through the tunnels at the top of the hairpins. Kevin was there to cheer me on as I entered the hardest point in the time trial, 1.5kms of flat. That’ll seem crazy to some but it’s all about physics. For a fairly light rider like me the hills give me some advantage over the bigger guys like Stelvio Man. On the flats though those big men would be in their element. Their big engines would not be hindered by their weight. All I could do was minimise my losses to them. Stay low, stay smooth and keep chucking out the numbers.

I don’t know yet what I threw out on that last section but it was enough to lift my average for the 30 minutes to 330 watts, my biggest ever 30 minute effort. I finished 11th on the day, just ahead of Stelvio Man and I secured 11th in GC too.

So Alps and Dolomites were done. I’d put in 12 good days. Every day was raced as if it was the only day. I left nothing out there. My body lasted to the end and in fact, going on both my feeling and power data, I actually got stronger at the end. I remain fascinated, puzzled but excited by how good you can get at this sport despite the inevitable effects of age. This pair of events has left me even more incredible memories. The characters and camaraderie among my ride peers have been fantastic. The diversity of nationalities and ages has been wonderful. I loved every minute of the whole thing. Well done Haute Route and well done to everyone who participated in this special race.

Finally a mention of our team. We came third! It felt fantastic to share the podium with Tim, Paul, Mike and Riccardo. The teams above us on the podium were well ahead of us, filled with some very impressive athletes. It was a privilege to share the stage with them.

Our individual GC results for the Dolomites were as follows:

John Thomas 11

Riccardo Clerici 32

Paul Dirks 38

Tim Gray 52

Mike Thomson 99

For those of us who did both Alps and Dolomites, I came 4th overall, Paul was 9th and Tim 13th

Full results available here

Haute Route Dolomites Stage 4

105kms and 3500m of climbing. The thought of climbing Umbrail then Stelvio from it’s classic side would terrify plenty of cyclists. For some though, me included, this stage could turn out to be a relief. A totally different dynamic to previous days. The last few days I’ve been racing, chasing, hurting and concentrating to the max. The nature of today’s course was very different, two very long climbs and nothing else to do. Less tactical and more attritional. This would be a fitness test rather than a test of racecraft.

We rolled out of Bormio for a rather bizarre 5kms of neutral riding around the lanes to the south of the town before coming back to the centre. As the flag went down the pace was subdued. That suited me and many others just fine. No one looking to attack, the peloton was in patient mood. 5 kms up the road and no change. The pace was brisk enough though to have whittled our group down to about 20 but still felt comfortable. I spent 2 or 3 kms on the front. That way I could ride my own tempo and potentially delay any attacks. Sheltering in the pack on a climb has it’s benefits but so does being on the front too. I felt in control.

The Umbrail climb is basically the same as riding Stelvio from Bormio except that we turn left over the Swiss border about 2.5km short of Stelvio’s summit. The climb is about 16kms long, rising 1200m.

10 kms in and the action starts. The strong men attack. Loic, Marc and pretty much the top 8 riders in GC accelerate and gap the rest of us. Daniele (Stelvio Man) is happy to let them go and so am I. I know my limits.

Daniele and myself found ourselves in a group of about 7 riders as we approached the summit. I felt good, the whole effort to this point had averaged about 280 watts for the hour which was pretty comfortable compared to previous days. I had something left to give. I made up my mind to attack and try to take seconds from the guys in the group, particularly Daniele who was lying just a few seconds behind me in the GC.

I waited for my moment and with about 800m to the top I eased past the group as we approached a hairpin. I didn’t look back, just laid down what power I could. Next hairpin meant I’d see the gap clearly, I was clear. Just a question of holding on now. I crossed the timing stop about 15 seconds ahead of the others. In retrospect I wish I’d gone earlier as I think I could have gained more, but anyway, it was a good start to the day.

We enjoyed a spectacular neutral descent into Switzerland before coming back over the border into Italy to resume the race. The timing started about 15kms before we’d start the long climb of Stelvio from Prato allo Stelvio.

I crossed the line with Daniele, Jasper, Thomas and about 5 other riders. A good scenario. Together we would make a good group to get swiftly across the flats to the climb.

Stelvio is 24kms long and rises over 1800m in that distance, that’s a lot. A sustained climb of about 1hour 35 mins for our level of riding. I felt good at the start, Thomas and a couple of others pushed ahead and I went with them. It was just too much though and I decided to sit up and settle with the others behind.

The next 10kms were uneventful. The first half of Stelvio is a bit of a drag. Not much to see, just head down and work. I was looking forward to reaching the first of the famous 48 hairpins from which the ride would become far more interesting in it’s scenery and it’s dynamic. 11kms to go and I’m happy. Daniele is dictating the pace some of the time and so am I. I feel strong in the group. I don’t plan to attack but I’m confident that I’ll do well as the pace inevitably hots up nearer the top.

Most of the climb seldom climbs at more than 8% or 9% but there’s a short, steep pitch of about 12% with 10kms to go. I carried plenty of speed into it and then pushed hard in a small gear to the top. I didn’t intend to stretch the group but it happened. As I rounded the bend at the top I saw the group strung out. I quickly decided to push ahead. This would be a long way to ride on my own but I fancied it. If that ramp had split things like that I felt confident I could stay away.

A few minutes up the road and I look back, I’m quickly 30 seconds up. They’re not chasing. The gap gets bigger and I start to believe. I spent the next 2 or 3 kms just consolidating my ride. Steady effort, making sure I didn’t blow up. I checked the gap and it was well over a minute. I was happy to hold it there. 5kms to go and the amazing stack of Stelvio hairpins rises up above me. 5 kms to go and still 20 hairpins to negotiate. I love hairpin bends. There’s an art to riding them well and getting the maximum speed out of them. Get them right, in the right gear and right line and a rider can easily save a couple of seconds on each one. When there are 48 of them those seconds add up!

3 kms to go and I knew I’d stay away. I felt elated. I’d ridden Stelvio many times but never raced it. I’d made a good job of it. The final bends came at me quickly and although the legs were starting to scream, it didn’t matter. Everyone else’s would be too and I was in a good place on the road.

I crossed the line for 10th place on the day. Very happy indeed. I suppose this day suited me more than the previous ones and I exploited it. I’m still amazed at how my tired body keeps performing after all these days. This was day 11 of the Haute Route double for me and I feel just as strong now as I was at the start. The numbers confirm it too. I averaged 277 watts for my Stelvio effort of 1 hour 36 minutes. That’s good for me in any circumstances but very satisfying to chuck out efforts like that after these two massive weeks and at altitude.

So, just one more day to go, and it’s a small one! We finish tomorrow with an uphill time trail up to Laghi di Cancano. 15kms and about 40 minutes of pain remaining. No problem!

Haute Route Dolomites Stage 2 and 3

STAGE 2

Stage 2 was going to be a big ride. 2 major climbs, Falzarego and Valles, 16kms and 18kms long respectively. No neutralised gaps so today would a real race feeling all the way.

A short scamper around Cortina to keep the locals happy and we were off. The pace was firm from the start and didn’t let up. By the time we’d got 5kms up the road there was a familiar selection of about 16 riders. I was the oldest there by a fair margin and felt like I had to work hard to stay with it. I was praying there would be no attacks between here and the summit. There were 3 or 4 riders in that group capable of attacking and spoiling my day. There were no attacks. We topped out on Falzarego as a group. I moved up to just beyond the middle of the group for the descent. There were one or two riders who I knew were not great on the descents and I wanted them behind me. On a fast technical descent, passing riders can be tricky. Get behind a slower descender who loses the wheel of the rider in front of him and you could be gapped quickly and lose minutes.

The pace was super hot. Rashid, Jasper, Loic, Marco and a couple of others got a gap on the rest of us. I was in a group of about 5 who’d get to the bottom of this 20km descent about 30 seconds behind the lead group. We’d dropped another group of about 6 behind us. I was happy where I was, I can descend ok but the nerve and skill required to be in that front group is just beyond me. I like living too. To do that 20 minute descent 30 seconds quicker would mean risks I’m not prepared to take.

In the valley we chased, taking turns on the front. All of us eager to push and get back to the leaders. They were working too though and although they were in sight the gap didn’t come down.

We entered the stunning lakeside town of Alleghe. Head down, watching the wheel in front I missed the next right hander. I locked up and came desperately close to coming down and taking others with me. A shot of adrenaline and heightened concentration followed. We got a good tow from a fuel tanker that was going just the right speed to help us be sucked towards the lead group. Alas, it sped up on the flat and we lost our chance.

The climb of Valles started in Cencenighe, the leading group would have got there about a minute ahead of us. A long climb ahead of us, I felt tired. I was chasing wheels and a feeling of hanging on. The strongest man in our group was self proclaimed ‘Stelvio Man’, Daniele Schena. He’s a Bormio resident and a very powerful rider. He pulled our group all the way to the top. He went hard all the way but steady as a rock. No changes in his output, like a metronome. It was hard to hang on but manageable.

As we crested Vallees we only had a 10km descent left to the timing finish for the day. I did my usual push near the top to be one of the first over. I knew the descent and where I could let things go. Jasper came past me, a very proficient bike handler. He’d made that first group off the Falzarego earlier on before getting dropped on the climb and coming back to us.

He sailed past me. Then he sailed up a dirt track on the tangent of the next bend. He was fine, just totally misjudged the corner. He’d be back with us a couple of minutes later. We threaded our bikes through a series of river hugging bends before plunging down a long, wooded straight at over 90kph. 3 kms later and we crossed the line. The exact positions didn’t matter too much, we all got similar times. I ended up 13th and dropped to 10th in GC by virtue of Kenyan Evan having a great day and overtaking me in the ranking.

We then enjoyed a very long transition ride to Trento with the highlight for me being the feedstops! It’s not often I get to fully appreciate a feedstop but this was different. The race was over and we had all the time in the world to enjoy the amazing spread laid on by the locals. Italy just knows how to do food, even in bike races, they excel!

So, a nice way to finish the day. The race part had been hard. The uphills, the downhills and the flats had all be keenly raced. I can’t remember a single lull in the day. It was tough to find a chance to drink and eat on the go. Let’s hope that tomorrow is different.

STAGE 3

Plenty of uphill today. From the beautiful town of Trento at 200m above sea level we’d slog away all the way to Passo Tonale at 1872m before then taking on the mighty Passo Gavia at 2621m to finish.

There were a couple of lumps to negotiate en route, neither any steeper than about 5%. I figured that we might get a big group getting to the foot of Tonale. Riders who had normally missed the selection of the top 16 or so riders might have a chance today to hang on for a lot longer.

We rolled out of Trento for a 20km neutralised convoy. I was on the front row behind the commissaire’s car along with Tom Cooling. It’s by far the least stressful place to be. Behind us there would be jostling for position and even a crash I heard later. Right at the front is easy though and I was able to have a great chat with Tom and that 20km passed quickly and smoothly.

The flag went down and the race was on. Any hopes of a cruisy group ride towards the mountains were dashed straight away. Attacks came and failed but succeeded in sapping valuable energy from all of us in our efforts to control things.

The first climb came, about 5kms at 5%. Not enough you wouldn’t think, to smash a race to pieces, but it did. The pace up there was so fast. I was a hanger on. That climb shattered the hopes of all but about 18 of us that got to the top with the rest. Staying with that group required a horrible effort. An effort I was convinced I’d pay for later on the wild slopes of Gavia. I looked at my ride data later and that climb ended up being about 12 minutes at 360 watts for me. I’m 65kg so it was something like 5.5 watts/kg which I can assure you is an horrifically painful experience for someone who is 54 years old next week.

Anyway, it was done. I and a few others around me felt like we’d be smashed around the ring and not quite knocked out. When would the big hitters start punching us again? Please give us a few minutes of reprieve. We did get short time to recover but the punching began again. The next climb was a little shorter, the pace was just as intense. I think I’d got so used to the suffering that I convinced myself that I’d just live with it. We all got over that one together. The next 30kms was less intense. False flat all the way, just slightly climbing all the time. I would shelter whenever I could although much of the ride was a ‘through and off’ rotation where we’d all take a few moments on the front before rotating back around. That collective working meant making much faster progress as a group than if riders were idling at the back.

We hit the foot of the Tonale climb. 15% at an average of about 6%. In the early ramps the group of about 16 was together. The pace was too fast for me. I desperately needed a split so that I was not isolated. I needed other riders to struggle with me and therefore give me company to the top. The split came. Stelvio Man let a few strong men up the road. There was a gap and I was happy. Stelvio Man would lead us all the way to the top. It was tough. I got a great bottle change from Kevin that kept me in the group. Tom Cooling wasn’t so lucky and lost touch with us. Staying in that group to the top was painful but getting dropped just wasn’t an option. The last 3 kms were into a strong headwind and I’d have been stuffed on my own.

We topped out as a small group for a timing stop. Just Gavia left now. I felt so tired, I really doubted whether I’d have the legs for a decent assault on Gavia. It’s a tough climb of about 16kms and if my earlier efforts took their toll on my legs up there I’d lose a lot of time.

I rode as slowly as I could to the next timing point. I needed as much recovery as possible. Most of the guys I’d ridden Tonale with were ahead of me, they would go over the timing mat together, without me. Riding up there with them would certainly have pushed me, maybe I’d have done better. But I was spent, I needed food and drink and after getting that on board I started on the climb with Tom Cooling and a few other riders below me in the GC.

I rode a gentle first 500m, trying to ease the legs back into action. The signs were good. 2kms in and it’s steep and narrow. Through the forest in a series of hairpins. I felt strong, partly through riding with slightly slower riders than my usual peers. I pressed on and as I emerged above the treeline into the magnificent, wild landscape I was away from the others. I was enjoying being on my own. No wheels to follow, I dictated and decided everything. Maybe not the fastest way to get up but it made me feel good. I was able to punch myself the amount that I wanted! The whole climb went well. I stayed strong to the end and got up in a respectable 54 minutes. I’d still managed a 275 watt effort for that time and considering the altitude, 2620m, and my earlier turmoils in the day, that was a solid finish.

13th on the day and still 10th on GC. Another really hard day but one where the legs did everything I asked of them. Tomorrow they’ll need to again as we tackle Stelvio from both sides!

Our Alpine Cadence Cycling team is excelling! We lie 3rd in the team event after superb performances from all. Here are our team’s respective GC positions after Stage 3:

John Thomas 10

Riccardo Clerici 31

Paul Dirks 38

Tim Gray 52

Mike Thomson 100

Haute Route Dolomites

Doing back to back Haute Routes is a daunting prospect for many who take up the challenge. With 900km and 22000m of climbing in our legs from last week, a few of us have made our way across the Alps to start Haute Route Dolomites. 5 stages and plenty of spikey profiles to keep us busy. A day of travelling and a day settled in Cortina have effectively meant 2 days of recovery for the legs…bar a short warm up ride yesterday near Cortina just to remind the legs of their day job.

Going into this second week some riders will be hugely fatigued and others will be riding into fitness. I’m hoping for the latter but never ignoring the signs from the body that would tell me things have been pushed too far.

On the morning of Stage 1 my resting heart rate is back down in the 40’s which is a good indicator that I’m in good shape. In the last few days of the Alps that rate would be in the high 50’s as my body worked hard to recover.

Stage 1 is made up of two major climbs for a total of 102km and 2900m of climbing, stats that are becoming increasingly normal and unalarming!

We lined up in beautiful Cortina, a smaller field than the Alps, about 200 starters. Still some great riders around me though. The sharp end of this race was still going to have some big hitters. Loic was there, second in the Alps; Spanish Marco, a recent winner of the Pyrenees edition and the likes of Simon and Rashid who’d put in strong top 10 performances in the Alps. And then, of course, there were those mystery men. Those ones at the front looking cool and confident, Italy has a lot of them! How good would these people be?

We rolled out for a short, brisk, neutralised tour of the cobbled town before hitting the lower inclines of our first climb. The flag went down and the early pace was firm but steady. We had 17kms of climbing ahead, up to Passo Giau. The first 5kms created a selection of about 30 riders. It was a great start for me, a steady pace and the legs felt good. A brief flat section at Pocol saw an increase in tempo and speed. We hit the final 9km section to the top with about 20 riders.

Around 10 riders moved up the road to form a front group and I settled in with Tom Cooling, Rashid and a few other riders to find a good rhythm for these tough few kilometres. I knew there were at least 10 riders up ahead and I suspected that some of them would drop back later with the pace too hot. I was patient. With 2kms left on the climb I was feeling good. Everything functioning well. Good power numbers and a reassuringly high heart rate, another indicator showing that my body had recovered well from it’s Alpine exploits.

With 500m to go I pushed to the front of our small group. I knew the following 10km descent pretty well and I wanted to be first down on a clear road. In that 10 kms there are about 25 numbered ‘tornanti’. They are all different and previous knowledge is a big advantage to ensure getting good lines and speed out of the corners.

Rashid descends really well, he went past me and ended up taking nearly 30 seconds out of me at the bottom. I stayed well ahead of all the others though and Rashid and I both caught several of those who had topped out before us. There was a timing stop at the end of the descent which I crossed in 8th place overall. Next we had the chance to soft pedal for 10km of neutralised riding, roadworks and traffic lights forcing the organisers to cut this section from the race. Next challenge would be the 10km climb of Falzarego and it’s 6% average gradient. As the timing resumed I’d already made my biggest mistake of the day. I’d eased off too much in that section. I didn’t stay with the strongest guys and by the time we restarted they were all about 45 seconds up the road.

I was one of the strongest riders in the group I restarted with. Great for the ego but useless for getting from A to B quickly! The ideal scenario is to be riders a shade stronger than you. Riders that will pull you along. I pushed hard, with Tom, in a vain effort to bridge the gap to the leading group.

I pushed hard all the way to the top of Falzarego but we couldn’t close the gap. Maybe we could on the long descent towards Cortina? Over the top, fresh bidons from Kevin and off I went. I was hungry to catch the group ahead. We came across heavy traffic on the way down. Traffic that was being forced to wait for the lead group but we were mixed up in it. The roads are controlled for an event like this but not closed. We still have to deal with traffic issues sometimes. I got past most of the traffic pretty efficiently but behind me the rest of my small group were struggling. I was all alone. I forged ahead and through Cortina with no sight of the riders behind me.

I was frustrated with the traffic and with my own decision making. Now I was in no man’s land. Stuck in the middle with no one to ride with. My legs still felt strong as I started the final 30km loop of the race. The next 15km would be gently uphill, terrain where a group will make much faster progress than a solitary rider.

I kept the pace going, using up more energy than if I’d had sheltering options in a group. But the pace was ok. Every time the road opened up and I could see ahead I hoped to see riders… but nothing.

Then, a positive development. Tom and Kenyan Evan caught me. Strong riders. 3 of us could make good progress. My heart and hopes lifted that this could work out well. The three of us made good progress taking turns on the front, piercing the air.

With about 15kms to the finish we faced a stiff climb of about 4kms up to the spectacular lakeside village of Misurina. I quickly lost touch with Tom and Evan, they seemed super strong and I had a feeling of fading slightly. 2 kms up and I regained my head and legs, Tom and Evan had never got more than 20 seconds on me and I clawed it all back by the time we topped out at Misurina. It took big efforts to get back but those efforts seemed to come on demand.

Not long to go now, a fast rolling few kilometres and then a 1 km kick up the finish line. Tom was just in front of me as we went into the hard right hander for the road up to Tre Croci. He braked too late and locked up, so nearly highsided. He kinked and wobbled and could think himself very lucky to stay upright.

Into the final kilometer. 8% gradient all the way. The three of us were all ready to empty ourselves up here. With 400m to go I put in a dig that lost Tom. Evan was stuck to my wheel though. Another big effort and I still couldn’t shake this young Kenyan. With me spent he took 3 seconds out of me as we crossed the line with Tom coming in a few moments later.

So, all in all, a good first day. I finished 9th overall which I’m very happy with. Just a little frustrated at the unnecessary energy and stress I’d put myself through to get to that point. Anyway, I’ll learn from that and I’ll not make the same mistake again.

Our Alpine Cadence team is off to a flying start. We are in 4th place as a team with 3rd place just 6 minutes away from us. Individual results as follows:

John Thomas 9

Riccardo Clerici 30

Paul Dirks 46

Tim Gray 58

Mike Thomson 106

Haute Route Alps Stages 6 and 7

STAGE 6

A big day ahead of us. 140kms and 3600m climbing with ascents of Vars, Bonette and Auron to finish. This was a long stage that needed careful management. If things went wrong they could easily go wrong in a big way.

We had a sunny day to look forward to but a clear night meant a very chilly rollout from Briançon. 7kms in and the race proper started.

Right from the start Bruce Bird pushed ahead. A powerful rider like him is capable of riding away from the field and I decided to get on his wheel and cover his move. A couple of minutes later his paces eases and the chasing pack absorbs us. The next 20kms were fast and furious. A strung out group of about 50 riders threading our bikes through narrow lanes and villages. Full concentration needed to stay safe and stay on the wheel in front. This section would culminate with a steep wall averaging 12% for about 1.4km. A painful 6 minute effort that would need to be paced well. I hit that wall in about 30th position and patiently worked my way through riders. Once over the top I found myself in a small group where we worked together for the remaining 2kms of flat until the timing stopped. That first section of the day was always going to be the most stressful and hectic. I was glad to get it done safely and without losing any time to my rivals. The rest of the day would be long climbs and less stress, just hard work.

The timing resumed on the approach to the 19km climb of Col de Vars. We rolled over the timing mat as a big group that included all the top 30 riders in the event. That meant a nice swift run in to the climb and a chance to shelter and hide for a while.

I’ve climbed the Vars many times. I like it. As we head south, Vars gives you the first tastes of a Mediterranean change. The vegetation changes, the smell of the pines too. The ground is more arid and it nearly always hot.

On the first slopes of Vars groups started to form. I found myself with Franck, Richard, Steve Allen and German Nico. A great group and perfectly paced for me. Our over 50 category has been hotly contested and 4 of the top 5 in that mini race were in that little group. Young Nico became a temporary member of our oldies team and proved really useful to us on some of the flatter sections where he pulled us well.

Topping out on the Vars the timing stopped again. 2 fresh bidons from Carolyn and then a cruise down the neutralised descent into the valley. We regrouped for the run in to the Bonette climb. 10kms of flat followed by a 23km/1600m climb. The group was perfect as we crossed the timing mat. Bar the 2 race leaders, Loic and Antonio, all the other top riders were there. I got sucked along nicely to the Bonette and able to conserve valuable energy as we enjoyed the twists and turns of the ride to Jausiers.

Into the climb. Bonette is long but not particularly steep for the bulk of it. Lots of gradients between 6% and 8%. A case of getting a good rhythm and settling into the best part of one and a half hours of work. Most of the big hitters in the group rode away from me but I settled in for a great ride with Franck, Swiss Philip and a bit further up the road we were joined by Richard and Steve.

A pretty uneventful ascent, which is always great to report! A solid ride with good power numbers but always manageable. I saw a 5kms to the summit sign. I thought there should be 6 left. The final 800m of Bonette is a spectacular loop that rises steeply above the actual col. It’s the hardest part of the climb by far. I’d misunderstood the course details, I’d been convinced that we had to do the extra loop. Turns out we didn’t have to and we’d go over the col missing out the steep section above. Once this was confirmed to me by my ride colleagues I had a new lease of energy. What I’d subconsciously saved for that last last dig could now be emptied over the next stretch to the col. I went hard and strong to the col and put a few more seconds into my rivals.

Another timing stop at the top and a chance to enjoy an untimed descent of the magnificent road down to St Etienne de Tinée. A fantastically spectacular road, one of the best descents there is on a road bike. So nice to be able to appreciate it in a non timed section and actually look around and enjoy the moment.

In St Etienne we’d face our final timed section for the stage. 7kms up to the ski station of Auron. 3 kms of false flat then 4kms averaging about 7% to the finish. 9 of us rode over the timing start together. I instantly felt good. 7kms to the finish sounded so little. My legs still had something left. As the road ramped up with 4kms to go I felt like I could ride away from the group. No point though, and too risky. Be patient, stay with the pace and if the legs are there go for it in the final kilometre.

Attacks came and went and I had them covered. With 2kms to go the group was whittled down to five of us. With a kilometre to go I pushed, maybe 400 watts for a few seconds, compared to the steady 320 I’d been on. Not enough to shake them off, a tester. 500m out I threw out a bigger effort and this one stuck. I looked back and the elastic was snapped. I rode to the finish alone, gaining a few seconds on rivals but more importantly gaining a huge amount of confidence that I could ride at that level at the end of a big day.

I strengthened my lead in the 50-59 category and moved up one place in GC to 11th by virtue of a disastrous mechanical problem for Krzysztof who’d been well ahead of me at the beginning of the day. Never nice to move up due to other’s misfortune but that’s often how it works in these events. It’s all about staying consistent and not having a bad day.

Just one more day to go. 170km between us and the finish line in Nice. Legs are good and I’m looking forward to the last day.

STAGE 7

One more day, but still a big one. 170kms and 2800m of climbing. A tough 16km climb of the Couillole to conquer early on followed by a long lumpy jaunt through the beautiful Cote d’Azur hinterland.

No neutralized start to test our patience today, we headed down to Isola and started the race proper there. We would start with a gently downhill stretch of about 15km. The pace started fast but on wide smooth roads all felt safe and manageable as our 400 strong peloton streamed it’s way down the Tinée gorge.

At the end of this stretch, just before the village of St Sauveur, there was a critical point. Careering down at 60km/h we would turn hard right, at low speed, onto a narrow lane and start the climb. A classic pinch point. I hit that point at about 50th wheel and on the left to give me space to get around the outside of any potential carnage. I got through ok . As I did I could hear screams and shouts from behind as the rest of the peloton suffered an escalation of the effects of that bend. There were bound to be shunts and crashes behind me, that’s for sure.

Onto the climb, I pushed hard in the early stages. I felt good as I passed lots of unfamiliar riders. 2kms in and the landscape opened up, I could see the state of the race ahead. I was about 30 seconds behind a lead group of about 15 riders. I’ll take that. I rode well and started to catch a few riders for whom the group’s pace was too swift.

I felt strong to the top, topping out just in front of Frank and a few seconds behind Richard. I was happy in that place. Later I’d look at my power stats and see that I’d managed to average over 300 watts for that 50 minute effort. Nothing special when I’m fresh but after 6 massive days in the mountains I was really happy to still be riding at that level.

A short, ‘pedally’ descent followed and I powered down it making up a few seconds on rivals in front. The timing stopped in Beuil. We’d now enjoy a 30km untimed stretch including possibly the most stunning gorge I’ve ever ridden, the Gorge du Cians. Even though we were untimed the pace was still strong. Skilful descenders will still be fast even when taking it easy. I couldn’t afford to get detached from these guys as I’d need them for the next part of the day.

When the timing resumed we were a group of about 15 and what a perfect group to be in. Richard and I plus the vast majority of young riders ahead of us on GC. This next 2 hours would be tough to hang in there with them but perfect to get us to the line in good time. We started with the 8km climb of St Rafael. A power climb of about 5% average. Fast. I counted down the kilometres as we ascended. I had to hang on but the pace was hard, yet another late in the event 300 watt effort where my legs continued to obey. I made it and was rewarded with some fabulous riding through forests and narrow lanes. Another 5km climb came along, yet more hard work but again the legs made it. Over the top of that one and just one climb left, another power climb, the Col de Vence. On the approach to the Vence we were caught by Bruce Bird. This was good terrain for him. He’d lost us on the Couillole earlier but his massive power had made up the gap and he would remain with us for the final stages.

Vence is seldom more than 4% and just a case of staying in the wheels and draughting as we ascended at close to 30kph. Nearing the top of Vence and Bruce made some moves. We closed them down but not without some massive efforts.

Over the Vence, 10kms of flat remaining with a kick up at the finish lasting about 700m. The bunch hit the final kilometre together. Nothing we did now would change any overall positions but there was still plenty of pride and kudos at stake. I watched Bruce carefully, as the road went up I pushed hard past him. I glanced back and the gap was good. The line took longer to come to me than I’d hoped but I finished well up in that bunch and continued to convince myself that I can sprint pretty well for a scrawny bloke!

The job’s done. I’d completed yet another 7 day Haute Route and yet again a consistent performance where I maximised my potential. This edition has been really special. The camaraderie among my peers in the peloton has been incredible, I’ve loved it. The banter, encouragement and good feelings have been wonderful. In that final hour I even had Dan Moignard offer to ride to the finish with me if I got dropped. I didn’t need him in the end but I’ll never forget that offer. And that’s indicative of the atmosphere I felt among the top 20 or 30 riders in the peloton. It was better than ever, so thankyou to all of you for making me feel good and welcome!

I think I’m probably prouder of this result than any other I’ve achieved in Haute Route. The field was strong and my age category was filled with great riders, several of whom could have won in the right circumstances. I loved riding with them and of course beating them too. I’ve trained hard this year, and in a more structured way than in previous years. Thank you Fred Ostian if you are reading this! His advice to me in the spring this year has proved invaluable. He helped me improve my riding performance and, in turn, improve even more my passion for this incredible sport.

I have to mention the rest of our Alpine Cadence team. Yet again, every member of our team completed all 900km and 22000m of climbing and in great times too.

Congratulations to you all!

Our final GC positions are as follows:

John Thomas 11

Paul Dirks 71

Guy Green 106

Tim Gray 126

Gwill Morris 129

Ollie Parker 142

Mike Miller 203

Duncan Carrier 228

Andy Cheshire 264

Lonergan Harrington 366

And now, straight to the Haute Route Dolomites, stay tuned!

Haute Route Alps Stage 5

A shorter stage today, 86kms and 2700m climbing. 2 climbs, the 35km drag up the Lautaret followed by a summit finish on the beautiful, wild but steep Col du Granon.

We enjoyed the luxury of an 8.30am start from Alpe d’Huez, a neutralized convoy all the way to the valley. A tedious and fiddly way to start the day with brakes on pretty much all the way down behind the commissaire’s car. Down to Bourg d’Oisans, onto the flats and the relief of being able to pedal again.

The flag went down and we headed towards Lautaret on a wide flat road. The whole peloton intact, I was swamped by riders who’d I not ridden alongside all week. I’d be glad of a hill and a bit of a selection…..I thought. Any hope of a shorter day being an easier day went out of the window as soon as the road ramped up. A few riders attacked and the pace was brutal. I was too far back and a shade too old to hang in there with the lead group that established itself with about 12 riders. I had my work cut out to be part of the second group of about 20, but I made it and the pace settled to something more sustainable. I hadn’t even had a chance to think about how I felt today. It had just been a painful and brutal 5 minutes.

Bruce was there in my group along with Steve Allen, Jaime and many riders who I was unfamiliar with. It was a good place to be though, enough of the riders were motivated to push a bit so this could work well. Bruce had a couple of goes to move off the front but we stayed with him. Into one of the long tunnels and Bruce made a move that stuck. He put the hammer down and as we emerged from the tunnel I was the only one with him. Scrawny me was having to chuck out such an effort to stay with this Canadian engine. I couldn’t cope any longer and had to let him go. I was absorbed by the rest of my group and settled for watching Bruce power up the road.

The rest of the long climb went well for our group. At one stage we got within 30 seconds of the lead group that Bruce had managed to bridge to. Attacks happened in that group too though meaning they moved up the road away from us. They would crest Lautaret 1 min 30 before us. Simon Crisp pulled us well in the last 2kms to keep that deficit down.

I grabbed a bidon from Carolyn as we crested and started the super fast 20km descent to the foot of the next climb. The road off the Lautaret is wide, smooth and very few bends to contemplate braking. Downwind too. This would be fast. We were 20 riders and I was positioned about 15th. I was comfortable but super alert. There was traffic to negotiate and I just wanted to make sure no big gaps emerged that would uncouple me from the train.

What happened next will be etched in my memory for ever. As I recollect the next few moments it’s like a slow motion action scene from a movie. I have no idea what caused the crash but I saw at least two men hurled high into the air, cartwheeling. Bikes exploded in different directions. Bidons and debris in the air. I’m travelling at about 70kph and this is all in my face. I’m lucky, I thread my bike through a gap along with Franck just behind me. I’m upright and intact and I start to process what is happening. I’m still careering down the mountain at speed, I look back and I can see men on the road, it looks bad.

I carry on with the group. There are instantly people on the scene to assist. Part of me feels bad carrying on but another realises that by the time we’d slowed down and climbed back we’d be just adding to a growing number of people at the scene.

We carried on in subdued mood to the foot of Granon. I had no idea who’d gone down and as I write this I’m still awaiting news as to how those guys are.

Onto the Col du Granon, 11km at an average gradient of nearly 10%. The pain of this beast would certainly distract us all from what we’d witnessed minutes before. I knew Bruce was somewhere on the road ahead and I wanted to ride a sustainable pace that would stay strong to the end. I found myself mid pack, a handful rode ahead and a handful fell back. It was hard but manageable. Richard Scales looked strong and I was happy to be a few metres behind him.

Halfway up and all’s still ok, just behind Richard and I’m getting the job done. I sight Bruce a couple of bends up ahead. 1 minute 40. I figure he would have got to the foot of the climb about 3 minutes ahead so I think I’m gaining on him. I push past Richard and stay strong to the top. Bruce doesn’t falter though and still crosses the line over a minute ahead of me.

I’m happy again with my ride but as soon as I finish I’m preoccupied with the crash situation. We’ve heard sirens everywhere and heard of helicopters on the scene. It doesn’t sound good. How fast I am in a bike race doesn’t seem to matter in this moment.

I ended up coming 21st on the stage and maintaining 12th overall in GC. Bruce ended up pinching 13 seconds off me once they decided to remove our times from the crash descent from our overall times.

A tough day ahead tomorrow with Col du Vars and the mighty Bonette on the agenda, as well as a summit finish in Auron. More importantly my thoughts are with the crash victims and their families. I think the whole of the Haute Route peloton is willing those guys to be ok right now.

Haute Route Alps Stages 1, 2, 3 and 4!

by John Thomas, 25th August 2021

A long read due to only getting on top of my blogging at the end of Stage 4!

STAGE 1

110kms and 3100m of climbing to start us off. A slightly damp but mild morning actually gave us great conditions to start this epic event. As always I got to the start early, got my bike positioned near the front and then wandered off to do my usual nervous routine of toilet visits and faffing with my gear. I was excited but nervous, as I always am. I knew I was in good condition but I also knew that plenty of others would be too.

For me this is both a race for overall General Classification but I also love the ‘race within the race’ of my 50-59 year old category. It’s always well contested, sometimes I’ve won it. Who would be here this time to keep me honest? Yesterday I was introduced to Franck Lemasson who was competing in HR for the first time. He’s got top pedigree on a bike, very well known for his cycling achievements, especially in his southern France homeland. This week just got harder!

We rolled out of Megève for 10kms of neutralised riding on the run in to the first climb. As we reached Flumet the flag went down and battle commenced. As expected there was quite a pace, I was well positioned and kept in touch with the front riders. A moment of adrenaline surge for me as someone dropped a bottle in front, rolling across the road, just missing my front wheel. Memories of Geraint Thomas in the Giro this year and a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in this game.

As we started the ‘proper’ part of the climb, 7kms from the summit, the hierarchy of the peloton started to manifest itself. We were already in a group of about 25, clear of the rest of the field. That selection would happen most days as soon as the road went up enough.

That group was ominously led by Franck, he looked solid, strong and everything else I’d been led to believe about him. He pushed a firm pace. I convinced myself he was a stronger rider than me. I hung in there, slightly alarmed at the power figures I was producing but feeling ok. 4kms from the summit 2 riders went off the front, Loic Ruffaut and Antonio Garnero. I knew Loic was a class act and totally different level to most of us in the group. We were all happy to let him go. Those two would stay away all day in the end with Garnero sneaking the stage win.

As we crested Aravis our group got a bit strung out and I had to push hard on the descent to stay in touch with Franck and the others. By the time we got to Grand Bornand, the start of the next climb, we were a group of 12, representing positions 3 – 14 in the race.

12kms of Colombière ahead. Nothing too steep, average about 6%. That group of 12 was full of familiar faces to me. Dan Moignard, Krzysztof Szuder, Philippe Bechet, Simon Gergolet and a few more. It was like an Haute Route reunion, I started to briefly reminisce some of the battles I’d had with them all before.

This was not a battle though, we worked well as a unit and the group moved firmly and efficiently. 4kms from the time we caught sight of the two leaders, about 90 seconds up the road. That was enough to excite and motivate the likes of Daniel Lincoln, a poweful rider and Olympic athlete, who pushed the pace on a fraction more than I’d have chosen. The power numbers went up again and I started to wonder if I’d pay for all this later. We topped out on Colombière as a group and straight into the fast and precipitous descent down to Le Reposoir.

Safely down and into the 5km climb of the Romme. The timing would stop at the top and that inevitably created splits in the early part of the climb. Riders trying to gain valuable seconds in the rankings. A few guys like Phillipe went up ahead of me but I was happy in the middle of the spread. I looked back and saw the first signs that Franck might not be as invincible as I’d thought. I started to gap him which in turn spurred me on to push more. I topped out on the Romme in about 10th overall and Franck came in about 30 seconds later.

The next descent and 20kms of flats would all be neutralised, untimed. A chance to recover a little before the final climb of the day. The pace in the neutralised section was still quite strong though, not my idea of recovery.

We hit Sallanches, 25kms to go, 1000m of climbing to scale. We all went over the timing mat together and climbed the steep early section of about 3kms. A little respite before another nasty dig of 2kms. A few more ups and down later and we rode back through Megève. 8kms to go now, all up, to the Altiport above the town.

Philippe, Dan M and and a few others went off the front but again I was happy where I was, or rather, I couldn’t ride at their pace. I found myself with 4 riders approaching the final part of the climb, including Franck. He rode past me looking strong again, churning a big gear and throwing out lots of power. I hung onto his wheel. 1 km to go. I had no idea whether Franck could sprint or change tempo quickly, but I knew I could. I was hungry to test the water. I made up my mind I’d go all out and attack from 300m out.

I selected my gear carefully and put the hammer down. I glanced back and no one came with me. I went hard all the way to the line and earned myself another 20 seconds or so on Franck and the others.

When I saw the results I was delighted to have come 10th on the day. At the start of the day I’d have taken anything in the top 20. Franck was about a minute behind as was another oldie in my category called Bruce Bird. I’d never come across this Canadian but it would soon become apparent that he would be another player in our old man’s competition.

So, always happy to get Stage 1 done, all in all very happy indeed. Roll on tomorrow!

STAGE 2

Stage 2 would take us all the way to a summit finish in Tignes, 109kms and 3500m of climbing away. Another big day and about 4 hours of hard work anticipated. As I lined up at the start I was contently enjoying my 10th place feeling from the previous day but very aware that just behind me in the rankings were some big hitters. Turns out that Bruce Bird is a UCI age group World Champion, the event that I’m attending and hoping to do well in later this year in Sarajevo. He and Franck were a minute behind me in the rankings.

Another neutralised 9km start before proceedings properly got under way to the Col des Saisies. A 15km climb that I know really well. My legs felt heavy in the early stages and the pace seemed too much. 2kms in the good feelings came back, I felt ok and the pace seemed fine. It seemed that everyone, including the leaders, was a little scared of the massive Stage 3 we’d have to do. The first 10kms was ridden at a very comfortable pace, plenty of chatting, almost enjoyable!

5kms from the top came the inevitable cat amongst the pigeons as Loic attacked and took Antonio with him. The rest of us reached the summit together in uneventful fashion. The descent was super fast, a string of riders threading their way at high speed through Les Saisies and beyond. I was comfortable. I knew every bend well. I knew when I needed to brake and more importantly when I didn’t need to. I reached Hauteluce safely with the group with Bruce alongside me and Franck trailing just a little behind.

The road continued mainly downwards for the next 5 kms with total concentration required on narrow and sometimes rough roads. Before we knew it we hit the Roselend climb. 20kms with a flat section to recover a little at 8km from the top. I was in my familiar group as per yesterday. The pace was firm though. I needed to hang on and it was just a fraction too much. I stuck with it but very conscious of being one of the ‘hangers on’. The likes of Philippe, Dan M and Daniel L drove the pace. Bruce was there with me towards the rear, I was convinced he might ride away from me today but it looked like he was sharing some of the suffering I was going through. Past the beautifully picturesque flat section along the lake and onto the final 6km to the top.

All went well, the power numbers remained high but I was hanging in there ok. Bruce was dropped and Franck was still a little behind. The rest of us topped out more or less together with a frantic sprint splitting us a little to gain a second or two as the timing would stop at this point.

A chance to get some food and drink on board before the neutralised descent of what, I reckon, is one of the best descents you’ll find anywhere. And it’s on my doorstep! Lucky me! Again, the neutralised pace was pretty swift, still hitting over 80kph on several sections.

Into Bourg St Maurice and gently up to Seez where the timing would resume. 26km to the finish, about 1200m of climbing to scale. As we went over the timing mat on the lane up to Villaroger the pace was hot. Bruce and Franck were alongside me. I went with the others and my older rivals seemed to stay put. I was deep into the red but knew it had to settle at some point. It did, and we’d well and truly gapped Bruce and Franck behind. Through Villaroger where it was wonderful to see friends Martin, Sam, Ian and co cheering me on in the village square. Getting support like that is such a good feeling and an immediate injection of extra watts seems to come as result….for a short time! A short descent before up again through Ste Foy. I was close to my limit but I knew the gradients eased a little after the village of La Thuile. If I could hang in with the group until then I’d get a fantastic tow on the easier stretch. It all went to plan and I got my reward for my efforts, I reached Les Brevières with the group, at a pace I would never achieved without them.

Only 8kms to go and all up. Out of Les Brevières I made the decision the let the group go. There would be no drafting benefits now. The group had done it’s job for me and I knew I couldn’t sustain their pace all the way to the finish. I was also considering the prospect of tomorrow’s ride, and not wanting to wreck myself today.

I rode all the way to the finish at a pace that suited me. Not as powerful as early in the day but I certainly didn’t crack. A couple of other riders came off the back with me. I looked back down the road and I couldn’t see a soul.

I crossed the line in 13th place, a minute and a half ahead of Bruce and about 5 in front of Franck.

Happy again, two solid days for me, now it’s all about recovery as tomorrow is immense. 190km and 4500m of climbing will be thrown at us tomorrow in what will be the biggest Haute Route stage ever….gulp. Tomorrow there will certainly be something to write about!

STAGE 3

Massive, no other word for it. 190kms to ride with 4500m of climbing. The biggest stage ever included in any Haute Route event. This was always going to be a stage that needed treating with respect. A stage that had the potential to create big time gaps.

I slept well, not for as long as I’d like but well. Heart rate a little elevated as you’d expect but not too bad. A chilly start in Tignes with a neutralised first 10kms down over the dam and up through Val d’Isère. I got myself right behind the ‘tete de course’ car, so no need to jostle for a good position before the flag went down.

Off we went after Val d’Isère, steady pace, I was right near the front and my legs felt free and good. 4 kms into the 15km climb of the Iseran the big hitters started to push the pace and the inevitable splits started to emerge. I’m left with my usual suspects around me and still feeling good. 6kms from the top the pace gets hot and I let a few of them go, determined to dictate my own pace today. This day needed good pacing, I couldn’t afford to go into the red early in the day as the price to pay at the end of the day would be huge.

Bruce is just behind me and I ride to the top with Mexican Jaime who is a place above me in GC. The clock stops at the top and a chance to enjoy the stunning scenery on the descent down the other side. Saying that, I couldn’t hang about too long. The timing would begin again in Bonneval, after which there would be about 60kms of gentle descent and flat until the foot of the Télégraphe. I had to be in a good group for that section, no question. I got down there just in time to set off through the timing with about 15 other riders, more or less all of the top riders in the race….perfect. The first 30kms of this stretch went well. Fast but no stress, a chance to shelter and conserve energy. The pace lulled as we all reached for bars and gels and slurped on our bidons. This was great, I was relaxed.

Within seconds I see Bruce up the road. He’s attacked. He is an immensely powerful rider. Multiple World Champion in his age group and lying 2mins 30 behind me in our over 50’s GC.

Loic and Antonio bridged the gap to him. Rashid and I both tried but to no avail. They were away. Still 30kms to the foot of the next climb. I was the only one left in the group with motivation to chase. The rest were content to cruise. The two leaders were in an untouchable class of their own and Bruce was not a threat in the overall GC. But for me and my oldies race, I was watching my lead over Bruce evaporate as he and the other two rode into the distance. I was helpless and had to be patient.

We got a time check that they’d made 3 minutes on us with another 13kms to the climb. I’d estimate we reached the start of Télégraphe about 4 minutes behind them. Starting that climb I knew Bruce was now the ‘virtual leader’ in my race.

Télégraphe is 12km long and steady gradients of around 7%. A kilometre in I let most of the group ride ahead. Again I wanted to dictate things and not be made to ride at a pace that didn’t suit me. I had a solid ride to the top. All alone but never more than a minute or so behind the group ahead. Fresh bidons efficiently passed to me at the top by Carolyn and I was off on the short descent to Valloire.

Now for Galibier. 17kms of climbing and a tough second half. All alone, I make good progress. All on my terms, at my pace. I can still see the group I’d let go, about 1 min 30 ahead. I’m going well. I check all the dials in the cockpit. Power, heart rate all fine and sustainable. I feel in control. It’s a long exposed road and you can see for a long way up it. I still can’t see Bruce.

8kms from the top things ramp up. The legs are still obedient, the engine is ok, just do what you’re doing and be patient. 4.5kms from the top I get my first sighting of Bruce, in a bright red jersey. I time the gap as we pass through the same points. 2 minutes. 3kms from the top and the gap’s down to 1 min 30. The trend is good. No need to push harder. I’ll catch him near the top. The final kilometre of Galibier is tough. 10% average and at 2600m altitude, it’s hard. With 500m to go I’m on Bruce’s wheel. A brief exchange as I mention how we’ve both got here in very different ways! I pushed to the top and took a few seconds from Bruce. The timing stopped and a chance to feed and recover. The weather was looking imposing though. Rumbles of thunder and rain in the air. Time to get a move on and get down off the mountain and down to Lautaret where the timing would resume.

The 8km neutralised descent to Lautaret was wet and the heavens opened for a short time. By the time we got there though it was dry and I was with a great group of 8 riders, all strong and ready to go. No Bruce, but plenty of other good riders.

Next we had about 30kms of descent. Fast, technical in places but enough flatter sections to mean being in a good group was crucial. I got a great ride with the guys in that group. Sweeping at speed through long tunnels and we were at the foot of the last climb, the Sarenne, in no time.

Sarenne is 13kms long and rises about 1000m. Just 13km to the end of this epic stage. The first kilometre is steep. The other 7 riders went up the road and I stuck to my game plan of doing things at my pace. That group was always within sight but I was left to ride Sarenne alone….and I loved it! The legs were working ok, my power was down on earlier in the day but still respectable. This was all about managing the engine. If I had the legs I’d go hard in the last stretch but I just needed to make sure I didn’t blow. I enjoyed every inch of that climb. I enjoyed the solitude of what is a wild and spectacular place. I looked back down the mountain as I approached the finish, no one to be seen. I crossed to line at the top feeling strong, content, relieved and proud of how I’d managed my day.

I ended up finishing 11th on the day. Couldn’t be happier with that. Bruce lost 3 minutes to me when he got to Sarenne so I’d ended up extending my overall advantage over him to over 5 minutes.

A great day and a feeling of cresting the hill of the event. With a time trial the next day and then 3 apparently manageable stages after that there was a feeling that the worst was over……I hoped.

STAGE 4

Stage 4 was simple. An individual time trial up the iconic Alpe d’Huez climb. 14km with an average gradient of about 8%. We’d all ride it in reverse GC order, 20 second intervals, which meant I’d not be starting until about 11.30, brilliant, more sleep! I checked my heart rate when I got up. Elevated due to the fatigue of yesterday but only about 10 beats above my ‘fresh normal’, I’ll take that. Sometimes in an event like this my resting heart rate will go way higher than normal as my body works hard to recover. This morning felt ok though.

I warmed up around Bourg d’Oisans and my legs felt strong. A few little ‘opener’ efforts in the warm up felt good. As my turn approached I felt anxious as always but I was confident too. I started 20 seconds after Bruce, as we headed up the first 10% kilometre of the climb that gap stayed about the same. I was disciplined and kept the power steady despite feeling pretty good.

2kms in and I caught Bruce steadily, I eased past him and stuck to my own rhythm and plan. No looking back, just concentrate on me. A couple of bends further up I glanced down the road to see Bruce well back. My confidence was high, this was now a case of just making sure I didn’t go too hard and fade at the end.

Halfway up, all still looking good. I’m on schedule for a decent time, my power numbers are high but sustainable. I can do this. A few of the guys ahead of me in GC came past me….Philippe, Dan and Krzysztof. I encouraged them all as they eased past me, I was happy to see them riding well, they are all just better than me….and younger!

As we entered the final stages I felt strong and no signs of fading. I’d my own dedicated moto rider with me all the way, there in case of any problems and to make sure there was no one in the way. There’s one each for all of us at the top end of GC. He kept encouraging me, he was brilliant and I caught up with afterwards to thank him.

Through the town with 1km to go I got massive support and noise from the Alpcycles guys outside their hotel. That felt so good and gave me another instant injection of watts.

I caught Jaime and rode close to him on the fast final stretch. I chucked out a 600 watt effort for that last 30 second ramp, trying to leave nothing on the road.

Over the line, job done. 52mins 35 seconds. Not my best time up there but under the circumstances I was chuffed to bits. Another step closer to Nice. 12th overall and leading my age category. I’d have bitten your hand off if you’d offered me that at the start of this adventure.

The rest of our team are all in good shape too, here are our GC positions after Stage 4. Special mention to Mike Miller, who after a nasty crash on day one has recovered brilliantly. Also a huge well done to Lonergan who made the time cut in the huge Stage 3 and kept ahead of the dreaded broom wagon.

It’s all downhill to Nice from here fellas……well nearly!

John Thomas 12

Paul Dirks 74

Guy Green 108

Tim Gray 124

Gwill Morris 135

Ollie Parker 153

Mike Miller 213

Duncan Carrier 225

Andy Cheshire 259

Lonergan Harrington 380

Haute Route Alps 2021

Here we go again! Nearly 900km and 22000m of climbing between where we are now in Megève and our destination in Nice. This time it feels very special. It’s the 10th anniversary edition of this epic event and with all that COVID has brought us, it feels wonderful to be back participating in a big event with lots of people, almost normal!

500 eager riders from all over the world, chomping at the bit to take on this mammoth challenge.

As in previous years I’ll try to find time each day to write about how it all goes from my perspective. There will be highs and lows for sure and I’ll tell all!

Chilling out at base camp in Megève before tomorrow’s efforts

This year I’m sharing the experience with 9 other Alpine Cadence riders, some of whom have ridden this event before, some completely new to anything like this. It’s going to be a massive week for all of us. For some of us it will be more than a week. 3 of us will travel directly to the HR Dolomites after finishing in Nice to put ourselves through even more pain and pleasure.

Duncan Carrier leads the warm up with Mont Blanc looking over us

Today in Megève is registration day. A short warm up ride with the team and plenty of relaxing in this beautiful venue. In the coming days our progress can be tracked live at https://www.hauteroute.org/

Tomorrow’s stage 1 will take us up and over the cols of the Aravis, Colombière and Romme before a summit finish at the Altiport above Megève. 110kms and 3100m of climbing to get us into the mood!

So, not much more to say right now, there will be plenty to talk about in the days to come. Wish us luck!

Earning my stripes in Bosnia

Well….hopefully.

By John Thomas, 18th August 2021

So what on earth brings me to Bosnia and Herzegovina? I hardly knew where it was on the map until a few days ago. Well, COVID has meant my usual work in skiing and cycling has gone for the last 18 months. That, in turn has given me more time to ride than ever before. Time to ride and time to reassess cycling goals. Goals in a sport like cycling are crucial, you need a good carrot to motivate you on those mid winter turbo sessions. I’ve had goals of long distance rides, world records, and specific races in the past. With the time that COVID had granted me I might as well aim high now, how about trying to be World Champion?

The UCI organises an annual Granfonfo World Campionships. It’s effectively the World Championships for age groups, with a road and time trial title available for each 5 year age category. Each World Champion is awarded with the iconic rainbow stripes jersey and the unwritten right to wear those stripes on their kit for the rest of their cycling days. Look closely at the jerseys of Mark Cavendish, Alejandro Valverde and all other past World Champions and you’ll see those stripes proudly paraded on collars and sleeves.

I first came across the event in 2013. I somehow managed to get a wildcard for the final in Trento and managed to finish 16th in the 45-49 category. 8 years on I’m a stronger and wiser rider. Getting on the podium or even winning is not totally unrealistic, so, this has become my goal and carrot that has driven me in recent months. The final of the event changes venue every year. Just like the elite pro World Champs the courses vary each year and suit different riders. Since Trento I’ve been waiting for a course that was hilly enough to suit my strengths and ideally with an uphill finish. Sarajevo 2021 fitted the bill, enough hills for me to have a chance.

I enquired with the organiser to see if I could get a wildcard entry to the final based on my previous performances. No chance this time. Strict rules enforced, I would need to go to a qualifying event. There are numerous qualifying events around the world where the strongest riders in each age category qualify for the final. I was set to try to qualify in Trento in July but the event was cancelled. Sarajevo became my only qualifying option. It would host not only the final but a qualifying event too, serving as a practice event for the organisers on more or less the same course.

So here I am in the Balkans, first time ever in this part of the world. It felt so good to be travelling somewhere, first time on a plane since for me since the COVID era. I was picked up from Sarajevo airport by the hosts of my apartment that I’d booked for the weekend. Unbelievably friendly and helpful, and very tolerant of my endless touristy questions about Bosnia and Sarajevo. Sure, I was here for a bike race but what a bonus to be somewhere so new and different to anywhere I’d been before.

I settled in and then rode the key parts of the course on the afternoon I arrived. I was ready.

Race day

I’m always nervous at the beginning of any race and this one was no exception. My ultimate goal in cycling depended on me at least qualifying today so I’d certainly loaded some pressure on myself. I’d travelled a long way and put a few eggs in this basket so I needed to perform.

As expected the weather was clear and hot. A 10am start in Lukavica, just outside Sarajevo was going to mean us riding in the heat of the day. I was well positioned near the front of around 300 riders. We received an announcement that the first 5kms would be neutralised, so the first little climb at 3kms would now be a lot less frantic. That little climb would have split the peloton if it wasn’t neutralised, we were now destined to be in a big group for the first 30kms of the day. That meant a fast and potentially dangerous first 40 minutes.

I’d tried to research some of my fellow, age group riders who were on the start list. There was a Turk called Ercevik who looked pretty handy when I found him on Strava. Race numbers made riders easy to identify and I spotted him at the start. He looked confident and strong.  I decided to watch him and ‘mark’ him if need. He started just behind me and my peripheral radar would be on the look out for his black and yellow outfit if he came past me.

As the race started at the 5km point the pace was fast as expected. For me it was all about just getting to the first climb at the 30km point without getting detached from the bunch. One we started going up fitness levels would dictate everything but until then I just needed to be towed.

The roads were generally wide and the surface good. This would always be the most dangerous and nerve wracking period of the race. 300 riders of different level of fitness and experience with no terrain yet that would naturally split the group. 300 riders having to trust each other not to put a foot wrong. At 15kms the pace was a steady 50 kph which was already too fast for some, our group was down to about 150. Over a wide bridge at 20kms and suddenly that horrible sight of riders going down in front of me. I’ll never know exactly what happened but a lot of riders got caught up in it. I was just far enough back to be able to brake and meander my way through the bikes and bodies. There were at least 40 riders ahead of the crash and they showed no mercy, continuing up the road at pace.

I was among a few stragglers who were desperate to catch that group. It was hard work, I needed to be back in that front group. If any of my 50-54 age group rivals were in that front group this could be the point where I’d lose the race. Plenty of motivation and lots of watts got me and about a dozen other riders back to the first group after about 28kms. I’d burnt a few unnecessary matches though in my efforts and I knew that could come back to bite me later.

So I hit the first climb in the lead group. I few of the big ‘rouleurs’ that had made it this far soon peeled off the back as we went uphill and we were down to about 25 riders after a few minutes of climbing. Johnny Hoogerland of Tour de France, barbed wire fame was there, retired from pro racing but still training hard and riding for the win in his 35-39 category.

The climb was about 10kms long, not steep by alpine standards but with a 3km middle section averaging about 8% it would certainly be hard enough to totally expose everyone’s level.

2kms up the climb and I took stock of what was happening. I was throwing out big power numbers to stay there but felt good. I had to respect those numbers though. No matter how good I felt I was nudging into the red and it wouldn’t be sustainable for long. I looked around the group. Every age group was represented by different colour race numbers on riders’ backs. I was only concerned by the orange 50-54’s. I could see every colour except orange around me. I checked again, still no orange numbers. No sign of my Turkish rival and it looked like I was leading my race.

That situation changes everything. Now it was all about getting to the finish as efficiently as possible and not getting caught by my orange men behind. Hoogerland and co were driving what was a hard pace for me. About 4kms into the climb I was happy to let them go and ride my own pace. I knew I wouldn’t be alone and sure enough I found myself with a few others who were either spent or had made the decision to ease off.

The steeper section of the climb went well, I rode my own pace and concentrated on a hard effort but one that I knew I could sustain. At the top of that climb there was a much needed drinks station, I was getting through plenty of water and grabbed a bottle without needing to stop. The next stretch was a lumpy affair with a 3km stretch of really bad road. Potholes and cracks every where. Huge potential for punctures or worse. Maximum concentration here and all went well as we threaded our bikes between all the hazards. Sarajevo has apparently promised to repave this section for the World Championship finals in October…..that doesn’t help me now.

Next came a super fast decent of about 15kms, punctuated by a few short ups. I’d checked the road out 2 days before and I knew exactly what to expect. Wide, good surface and very few bends requiring any braking. Very fast but very safe. I felt like I had dropped like a stone down that descent and was astonished to see Strava data later that would show the likes of Johnny Hoogerland ripping about a minute out of me on the descent.

So, back up Trebevic. I was with about 8 riders at this point. In the first minute of resuming climbing the cramps set in. I’d tried to stretch the relevant muscles out on the descent but this felt bad. I let the group go up the road while I eased off the watts and tried and hoped to ride through the cramps. This could all go seriously wrong. In my head I was being hunted down by my orange numbered riders and I could envisage them swamping me at any point. The next couple of kms went ok, I found a rhythm that seemed to spin the cramps away and I was holding about 30 seconds on the group I’d let go. I had to manage this carefully but as I looked back down the road at various vantage points I couldn’t see anyone behind me. The group that I’d let go started to fragment and my conservative pace was enough to catch a couple of them. The cramp was under control but only by easing off the gas. I was about 4 minutes slower up the same climb the second time around.

I needed water and the drink station was coming, but it wasn’t! For some reason it had disappeared, maybe they’d run out. I was out of water and anxious and thirsty with 20kms to the finish, mostly uphill.

I soldiered on, by this time riding on my own. As I glanced back with about 15kms to the finish I saw 3 riders catching me. If they were riders outside my age category this could be good, a group to drag me along. If there was an orange man in that group I was stuffed.

As the three caught me I was relieved to see young riders with different colours on their backs, no orange. Get the finish with these guys and I’ll win my race.

11kms to the finish and another drink station enabled a desperate grab for a flimsy plastic cup of water, not sure much went in but it was something. 10kms to go and a nice 2kms descent on smooth roads. The three I was with were going well and I was so glad to just suck the wheels. One of them turned out to be the leading lady on the day, Laura Simenc, a classy rider from Slovenia. She and the other 2 had probably been behind the crash earlier and didn’t make the first group. They’d probably paced their day well though and they all looked strong.

6.5kms to go, the final climb up to the finish, averaging about 6%. 20 minutes or so of just getting home and dry. I was counting down every metre. I needed this to be over. Laura and the other 2 rode away from me and I would glance back down the straights to see if I was being pursued, there was no one. Barring a puncture I was safe now, my legs would only afford me about 75% of the power I’d usually hope for but it didn’t matter. I crossed the line alone in rather anticlimactic manner. The job was done.

I was relieved to see the results that confirmed I’d comfortably won my category. Turns out my nearest pursuer was 8 minutes back so it turned out to be a comfortable win….on paper.

The focus shifted to the razzmatazz of the awards and presentation. This was pretty cool to be involved in. It’s not every day you get to wait in a special UCI holding tent with the other winners like Johnny Hoogerland, waiting to be called up to the stage to get our shiny gold medals and winner’s jerseys.

Once that was all done I downed a couple of big beers in a nearby bar and was able to reflect on the day. I came here primarily to qualify for the final. To be in with a shout of a podium in the final I needed to win this qualifier though for my own confidence. I didn’t want to come back in October knowing that that some of the field had already beaten me. The final would be a far bigger field and far stronger opposition, this had been a test I needed to pass easily.

I’d learned a lot. I now knew the course well, a massive advantage when I come back. I also know how I’ll need to adjust my ride for the final. In the first hour of this race I’d ridden hard and and created an unassailable lead over my rivals. I’d ended up almost limping to the finish and paying for those early exploits. The final will be on the same course but an extra climb up the Trebevic meaning another 35kms and 800m of climbing. Another hour on the bike. I will need to be far more intelligent with pacing if I’m going to ride strong to the end.

Going to the final will excite and drive me in my riding over the next weeks. How successful I am in October will depend on not just me, but whoever else happens to turn up. I can’t control that. I’ll be good at what I can control though and I’ll turn up for that final with the best chance possible to fulfil my rainbow stripe goal.

Girona – where cycling belongs

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By John Thomas – 2nd December 2019

Colorful houses in Girona, Catalonia, Spain

Girona is now the home of over 100 pro cyclists and rapidly being discovered by amateur riders from all over the world. So what’s all the fuss about? What makes this place so good?

I first visited Girona in 2014 and was instantly smitten by it’s charming, historic centre. This small city of 100,000 inhabitants is nestled between the Pyrenees and Mediterranean, about 100kms north of Barcelona and 60kms south of the French border. I’d heard that Lance Armstrong and his team mates had made it home for a while and I knew it was becoming increasingly popular as a base for pro cyclists.

‘Just wait until you see how good the roads are!’ enthused  Dave Welsh, owner and operator of the excellent Bike Breaks shop positioned in the heart of the city. He wasn’t wrong, the roads surrounding Girona certainly provide a fantastic variety of riding.

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After having ridden already in many of Europe’s cycling hotspots, I felt that I’d really discovered something special in Girona, not overrun with riders but a wonderful balance of a great, liveable city where cyclists dovetail nicely into the community.

So, let’s have a closer look at why Girona ticks so many important boxes for the perfect cycling city.

 

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The City

Girona brims full of life, history and culture. Perhaps the epicentre of ‘real’ Catalunya. Catalan is very much the first language here and the feeling of passion and pride in all things Catalan is strong. It’s a city that’s extremely easy on the eye, clean, safe and sophisticated.

The vast majority of pro cyclists here choose to live in the centre and this is where the visitor should stay too. The charming network of cobbled lanes in the old town is atmospheric and vibrant. The bridges spanning the Onyar River provide a great vantage point to admire this colourful town. The magnificent Plaça de Independència is the perfect post ride drinks environment and the imposing 11th Century cathedral and city walls wrap the old town beautifully.

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Plaça de Independència

This town has a great vibe to it. The increasing number of pros that live here is evident. When you ride here you’ll see them. The same narrow lanes that once hosted the covert activities of certain pros are now being augmented with classy new bike shops and cafés courtesy of the likes of Rory Sutherland and Christian Meier and their entrepreneurial spirit.

Girona hosts a lot of pro cyclists and so does neighbouring Andorra where favourable residence and taxation laws contribute to having attracted around 70 riders making it their home in recent years. Girona and Andorra between them have turned into the biggest concentration of pros anywhere. When visiting here you feel part of something big in cycling. Girona appears to have become the pro cycling city. The notoriety of some of it’s former cycling residents is undeniable, it arguably actually adds to the excitement and intrigue of the place. Girona’s more recent and ongoing contribution to pro cycling  is a happy story though.

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The riding

Superb road surfaces, eerily quiet roads and a fantastic variety of terrain all await the Girona rider. The city centre itself is cycle friendly and feels safe to ride. 10 minutes or so in any direction takes the rider into a beautiful, rural hinterland. There’s no shortage of flat riding on the plains to the East but it’s the coastal riding and the multitude of climbs that provide the most indelible memories. The coastal stretch from Sant Feliu de Guixols to Tossa de Mar is a world class ride. A rolling, glassy smooth ride with the Mediterranean in your face around every corner.

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coastal riding near Tossa de Mar

Take your pick from a huge range of climbs. The iconic Rocacorba starts in Banyoles, 15km from Girona. This is is a climb made famous through local pros using it as their testing ground. It’s 14km of ascent will lull you in it’s first few kilometres until it ramps up in the middle to throw plenty of double figure percentages at the rider. The view at the top is stunning and it’s certainly a must do climb when in the area.

 

Mare de Deu del Mont is a little further out from Girona and well worth the effort. It  rather aptly translates as ‘Mother of God of the Mountain’ and it’s name will resonate in the heads of any rider as they scale it’s tough final slopes. 19km long and rising about 1000m gives the hopeful prospect of a climb averaging a little over 5% in gradient. With the vast majority of that altitude gain loaded into the second half though, this concave profiled challenge will certain hurt the legs in it’s latter stages. A spectacular summit awaits with the most idyllic spot for lunch on the terrace of the magnificent ‘Sanctuari’ restaurant.

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Mare de Deu del Mont

Right out of Girona you can scale Els Angels, a 10km, 4% power climb that culminates at the pretty Sanctuari dels Angels, famed for being where Salvador Dali was married. Over the other side and down to Madremanya and the superb vaulted village centre of Monells, the perfect coffee spot and one of many wonderful and beautifully maintained medieval villages in the area.

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approaching Madremanya

A week of riding in the Girona area will only scratch the surface of the massive range of rides available from the city. Other favourite rides for me include climbs to Sant Hilari, Santa Pellaia and Coll de Condreu. Head north west and inland to explore the volcanic Garrotxa region, head north east to sample the stunning Cap de Creus peninsular.

 

Access

Girona is easy to get to, from anywhere. Barcelona airport is an easy 75 minutes away with a wide range of long haul routes from all over the world. Girona’s own Costa Brava airport is just 15 minutes from the city centre and provides an excellent gateway to the city for European travellers. By road Girona is easily accessed via the AP7 motorway meaning road travel from nearby France and the rest of Spain is easy. By rail Girona is just 37 minutes from Barcelona on the high speed rail service. This same trainline links into the French TGV network meaning fast access from the rest of Europe.

Climate

Nestled between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Girona enjoys a very cycle friendly climate. Girona’s cool winters and warm summers make it rideable all year round. The best periods for the visiting cyclist are March – June and September – November when typical daytime maximum temperatures will be in a very agreeable cycling sweetspot range of 16-25°. December – February still provide great low to mid teen days and the 30° averages in July and August remain very manageable.

Eating

Cyclists will refuel in style in this town. Girona is a gastronomic paradise with a fabulous range of dining options with traditional Catalan cuisine beautifully mixed with plenty of internationally influenced options. Fine diners can enjoy the absolute best with the likes of Celler de Can Roca, until recently voted the finest restaurant in the world, now relegated to a lowly second! Every budget is catered for with a huge choice of three course menus including wine in the 15-20 euro range. More information on the best spots to eat can be found here.

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Monells

 

I’m lucky. Every year I get to ride in a wonderful selection of destinations worldwide, courtesy of working with Alpine Cadence. I’m often asked where my favourite place to ride is and the answer is easy and always the same. If I could only ever ride in one place this would be it. Girona and Catalunya tick the boxes so much.

Coming to Girona still feels like a discovery, there are a few more riders here than when I first turned up here but it still retains a special feeling, the cycling hoards have yet to invade! Some will suggest that Scotland is where golf belongs, that Austria is where skiing belongs. Well, perhaps Girona can lay claim to where cycling belongs!

 

Alpine Cadence visits Girona and it’s surrounds in April and May every year with its Training Camps and Volta Catalunya.

 

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