Every 7 day Haute Route event has a time trial. In many ways it can be seen as a bit of a day off. One hill to climb, a much later start, so longer in bed and plenty of recovery time in the afternoon too. This has been a very ‘front loaded’ Haute Route with 4 very tough days to start, every rider was going to appreciate this day.
Nethertheless we still had a tough climb ahead of us. 23 kilometres to the Lac du Cap de Long at 2170m above sea level. As in the pros’ grand tours all the riders start the time trial in reverse GC order. The slowest riders in the field would start at 9.00am with the leaders setting off at around 11.00am. With 20 second intervals between each rider it makes for an exiting and sometimes scary game of chasing or being chased. Riders are sometimes torn between riding their own, well paced ride or getting influenced by the riders behind and ahead of them.
Time trials are a skill to be learned and a very different dynamic to the other ‘on line’ stages when the whole field starts together. Time trials are about pacing, emptying one’s reserves over the duration of the course. It’s crucial not to go too hard too early, blowing up at the end is disastrous for a good time. The ideal is a ‘flat lined’ effort with an ‘emptying’ of whatever is left in the last few minutes.
I wandered down to the start to see the first members of our team setting off. Ian rolled down the start ramp, cheerful as always. He’s in his first Haute Route at the age of 66 and he’s doing brilliantly. Consistent in his chirpiness and his riding, long may it continue.
I headed onto the course to ride the first few kilometres and familiarise myself with the gradients, bends and anything else that would help me to be as prepared as possible. The first part of the course was the easiest, gentle gradients of 2-5% for the first 9 kilometres. This section would be the toughest for me though. The final 14 kilometres was much steeper with irregular gradients but an average of around 8%. The physiology of bike riders, even the best ones, varies massively. The skinnier, climber type riders, which I would be classed as, would fair better on the steeper stuff. Bigger, more powerful riders would relish the flatter sections and dread the steep. This was a good time trial in that it at least had elements of both but the bias and majority of the course favouring the climbers.
I knew I would lose time on the flatter section to one or two of my ‘beefier’ rivals but I rode it smoothly and sensibly and managed my losses well. I knew that as soon as the road steepened I would get my chance to get my own back. I know it sounds crazy to the less informed bystander but as I was heading over the flats I was eagerly counting the kilometres down and hoping the steeps would come and rescue me soon.
Those steeper slopes did arrive and I was able to get into a rhythm on terrain I was more suited to. All was going well. No one had passed me at this point and I was homing in on several of my rivals up the road. For a few kilometres it became a case of ‘settling in’, monitoring heart rates and power output and just keeping the ship sailing nicely on with a view to ‘emptying’ whatever I had left at the end.
I love corners, they are an opportunity for me to gain seconds. Corners generally have different gradients on the inside and outside and skilful use of the right gears and right line can create almost a ‘slingshot’ effect out of the bend. Lots of riders are not so strong at this, they don’t practise or even think about it much. I do. I love the fact that I can sneak seconds here and there without extra physical effort.
As we got about 6 kms from the top some of the strongest riders in the field started to pass me. That was fine, I anticipated that, I was gaining and passing the people that mattered to me. The very best guys could sail on up the road and I wouldn’t care. Alastair pulled along side me and eased past. He’d started 2 minutes and 40 seconds later than me. I knew if he was riding well and as per previous days he should be catching me soon. For the first time ever in an Haute Route TT I was genuinely thrilled to see someone go past me. ‘Get in, get it done!’ I shouted. I’m so happy to see Alastair riding so well and getting just reward for the effort he’s put into the sport this year. Alastair eased away and I continued without any dramas. It certainly wasn’t easy, when I write that I’m in control of things like I was at this point, I’m actually in a lot of pain. It’s really hard. But it’s pain that I know I can manage and an effort that I can sustain. Again, it must seem weird to the less informed. Cycling is all about managing pain and discomfort better than your rivals and getting to like it!
Into the final 3 kilometres, still ok, still gaining, overtaking the right people. With 1.5 kms to go I knew there was a short descent prior to the last dig to the finish. I knew that many of the riders would be unaware of it. I pushed massively in the 300m prior to that descent to take more momentum down the hill and knowing I’d have a few seconds of recovery. Again, course knowledge and tactics saving me a few seconds. I got my reward of passing a couple of riders up the next ramp with my extra, preplanned momentum.
The final kilometre was a series of tight hairpins stacked on top of each other with a superb backdrop of lakes and mountains. Although I pushed myself to the limit I still had a tiny space in my brain to appreciate how spectacular this all was. Dozens of cyclists coming together as a result of the staggered start and now emptying themselves in a serpent of human pain to the finish line. It was an incredible sight. Each night The Haute Route organisers show an amazing video with footage of the day, I so hope they got that bit.
I crossed the line. 73 minutes of very hard work. I was happy. I recovered very quickly, an encouraging sign that I’m in ok condition. Yet again, straight to Alastair to let him know what I thought of his ride. Awesome, he’d come 6th, incredible. I was very happy with my 15th. After the ride I would upload all my ride data and very happy to see an average 274 watts of output for those 73 minutes. A fresh me without 4 massive days previously would be capable of about 310 for that period but I’ll take that 274 all day long in these circumstance! Most riders stayed at the top to take in the views and reflect on what they’d done and where they’d done it. Lots of selfies and scenic photos. Hard to envisage a better place to finish a time trial.
As we headed carefully back down the road Alastair and I stopped for a few more photos. We both shared a powerful sentiment that we were so lucky to be cyclists. The place we were in was very special. Do footballers, tennis players etc get this buzz from the different pitches and courts they play on? I don’t think so. We’ve picked an incredible sport to try to be good at.
All good from the rest of the team, no mechanical problems or dramas to report. We are all another step towards riding back into Pau on Friday. Tomorrow’s stage is another meaty day, 130kms with 3400m of climbing. It also incorporates the Peyragudes Altiport runway as our super steep finish. 300m at 18% to finish us off like it nearly did for Chris Froome in the 2017 Tour de France. It’s sure to be another very memorable day.