One more day, 2 more stages. For our final day the Haute Route organisers decided to throw in 2 stages for us in an event first. Stage 7a would start in Pra Loup, with it’s main feature the ascent of the Cime de Bonette, the highest paved road in the Alps at 2803m. We’d then enjoy a break in St Etienne de Tinée before taking on Stage 7b. This one would take us all the way to Nice via the Col de St Martin and a few more subsequent lumps. In total, 193km to look forward to today and a fairly significant 3500m of climbing.
So, my final day of two massive weeks. Up to this point I’d ridden a close to perfect race. No mechanical issues whatsoever, good legs every day and good pacing and decisions made in every stage. I’d never been out of the top 10 in the Pyrenees and always in the top 20 in the Alps. Safely finishing in Nice was the main priority but I was very keen to finish with 2 more top 20 finishes to complete a consistent set. My legs had pleasantly surprised me throughout the event and I was confident they’d give me one more day of good stuff.
Neutralised for the descent from Pra Loup the race started just after Barcelonette. We faced about an 8km run in to the climb of the Bonette. No dramas there and the whole peloton hit the climb in one piece. Bonette is a big climb, 23kms long and rising nearly 1600m but fairly steady with it’s gradients. That is until the final 700m where it kicks up to average about 12%.
The early slopes split the peloton in a now fairly predictable manner. A leading group formed with around 16 riders, I was happy to let them go. I settled in and found myself part of a second group of around 10 riders. Mitch and Richard Scales were there too.
Progress up the Bonette was good and firm. German Nico and Aussie Peter moved up an away from our group. I stayed steady, no need to go with them. I’d be happy to ride solid and steady until the final kilometre and then dish out anything I’d got left on the nasty finale.
Mid way up the climb my legs felt good and I pushed things along a bit. It looked at one point like we might reel in Nico and Peter but ultimately they’d be away to the top. 8kms to the top our group starts to split. I’m left with Mitch and Richard. 5kms to the top, Richard pushes ahead, he looks strong. I feel tired, I’m struggling. Richard’s change of pace has hurt me and I’m resigned to letting him and Mitch go. I feel like I’m wilting. Is this my first real crack of the 2 weeks?
If I can just stay near these fellas until 3kms to go. There’s a fast flatter section there. I really don’t want to be on my own there. Either my legs came back or the pace eased. Whichever way I’m back with the boys and comfortable. We hit the flat bit and I sit in and enjoy the ride. Richard will know what the last bit’s like as he lives not far away in Nice. Mitch is in for a shock though. The finish of this climb is much harder than suggested in our briefing or roadbook.
We hit the final ramp with as much speed as possible. A series of smoothly timed clicks and we’re very quickly down to our smallest gears. A tough 4 minute effort ahead of us that goes on a bit longer than you want. I nose ahead of Mitch and Richard. I’m desperate to cross the line before them to secure a top 20 finish. I just need to time it right. Round the left hander with 200m to go. Heavy breathing fills the otherwise silent wilderness. Richard and Mitch are on my wheel. 100m to go and I pull away. I kick really suddenly and a quick glance back sees no one coming. Turns out I cross the line in 17th but great for the confidence to finish like that.
So, another step complete. Now for a magnificent descent of the Bonette, untimed, and a regroup in St Etienne de Tinée before the next stage.
Now for Alps Stage 7b, stage 15 for me. The first time I’ve ever done 2 separate bike races in the same day, pretty cool idea. Ahead of us we had about 30kms of gently downhill along the Tinée valley before hitting the climb of the Col de St Martin.
A wide road and no terrain that would separate us. They set us off in waves of 100. This was good news as the thought of 450 of us together on that road scared me. When you scale a climb and make the ‘selection’ of riders you get to know and trust the riders you are with. An easy, wide road means you’re mixed up with everyone. Lots of erratic and unpredictable riding. More risk.
As we headed down the valley I relaxed for a fraction too long and found myself at the end of the first wave of 100. There was an increase in speed at the front and the peloton got stretched. Gaps started to appear. I was in a bad place. Right at the back and on the brink of getting split from all the riders I wanted to be with who were positioned sensibly in the first third of the group. I chased, I was angry with myself, I’d lost concentration and taken my eye off the ball. My chase was good and I got back in touch. I worked my way up the group and scolded myself for having let things slip.
With 5kms until the climb the road narrowed, we headed through the distinctive purple slate gorge after St Saveur. The peloton stretched again. I was again further back than I ought to have been. Now we were strung out almost single file. My legs are good but I’m at the mercy of everyone else in front of me being able to hang onto the wheel they are following. I can see Ruari’s orange leader’s jersey up ahead, we’re nearly at the climb and the stretched peloton means I’ll get there about 20 seconds after him and the leaders. The peloton slows to take the hard left hander to start the climb, I get a good line around the outside on the right and I make up useful seconds.
I still have to push hard up the first few hundred metres of the climb to get to where I need to be, when I see Richard Scales and Bruno I know I’m in the right place.
Col de St Martin is 16kms long and rises just over 1000m. This will be our final major climb of Haute Route Alps. Going over the top with the right people will dictate how the stage result will pan out.
A lead group forms, I’m just behind. I’m almost ready to settle into being one of the stronger riders in a second group. To hell with it, I try to jump to the leaders, let’s see what happens. Michael Latifi from Canada has the same idea. We both struggle to get to the leaders. We get there, just. A couple of kms on the back of the leaders. The pace is more than I want. I look back and the rest of the field is out of sight. The pace is too high. Michael and I are dropped. Staying with them for a while though has given us a decent lead over the rest. Michael and I work together and ride strong. This could still work out well.
9kms to the top, to my disappointment a group is catching us, ‘chill out Michael, there’s a group coming’. We get absorbed by the group and I’m back in my second group. Nothing ventured nothing gained. We had a go and not too many matches burned.
German Nico and Frenchman Nicolas are the powerhouses in the second group. They seem strong and content on the front. I sit in and hide. Nico is tall and gives me plenty of shelter. 1 km to go and Nicolas breaks away. No one follows. As we crest the top I get a bottle from Martin that keeps me going quickly. I go hard over the top. Those behind me are cruising. I know this descent well, a tricky one. Good for gapping people. I give it all I’ve got. Nicolas has gone over the top about 30 seconds ahead of me. On the straights I can see him, I’ll catch him. I look back and the gap gets bigger.
When I catch Nicolas I make it clear I want to work with him. The type of terrain coming up lends itself well to staying way. The rest of the stage now has lots of small ups and down, very turny and narrow roads. We don’t need a group. We can get to the finish we reckon. No such luck. Jeff Mahin catches us, with about 6 more riders in tow. My maths reckons there are about 15 riders ahead of us on the stage. I’m now in a group of 9. I want my top 20 finish.
We climb up towards Duranus and Levens. I love this stretch of road having done it many times before on our Grand Tour du Sud trip with Alpine Cadence. It starts to rain…a lot. Within a couple of minutes we have biblical amounts of water everywhere. We’re drenched and the roads have torrents running down and across them. We have a moto escort that helps. This is getting hard. Some riders are going to really struggle in this. This could be an opportunity. Nicolas is from Nice too, he knows the road. It’s him, me and Jeff. The three of us are careful but efficient. I sense we are gapping the rest of the group. Round a loop in the road and yes, they’re gone. This storm is perfect. We go really hard on the ups. The three of us were already probably the three strongest in that group and now we were away. I loved that stormy episode. Turns out there would be loads of crashes on that section and even people stopping and taking shelter. For me though it was brilliant and a highlight.
The weather cleared quickly, as we got to Levens the three of us were riding fast and hard on dry roads. 12kms to the finish. Lots of twists and turns to come. The front group had jettisoned some of it’s riders. We came across Marco, Ewen and Alan at various points, all spent from their efforts. As we flew past them we knew it was another place up the rankings.
5kms to go, almost disaster. Hairpin right, Jeff first, then Nicolas, then me. I brake too late and my rear locks up. Fish tailing down the road and perilously close to clipping Nicolas’ rear wheel. I get back on course and the adrenaline spike helps me push hard to get back with them both. 1700 kms of racing over two weeks and so close to my first crash with just 5kms to go.
Almost in Aspremont, finish of the timing. Jeff, myself and Nicholas cross the line as a group, no last minute battles. We’ve had a fantastic ride and we finish 11th, 12th and 13th respectively on the stage. Haute Route lays on a feed station for us before our ceremonial ride into Nice to finish. There’s a feeling of elation and relief, only contrasted by a frustrated Bruno who has crashed in the final stages and has a few choice words with a rival.
Lots of handshakes and words. An amazing shared experience is done. We cruise gently into Nice and through the ceremonial finish on the Promenade des Anglais. Families and friends are there to greet their heros and heroines. It’s a great atmosphere and a happy place.
I finished 13th in the Alps to complement my 6th in the Pyrenees. 1st overall in the combined event. Couldn’t have done any better and totally exceeded my expectations in every way. Happy chappy.
The rest of our Alpine Cadence all finished safely and can feel very proud of their achievements:
Adrian Beer Pyrenees 38th Alps 63rd Combined 13th
Felix Hoddinott Alps 80th
Mark Fairgrieve Alps 104th
Duncan Carrier Pyrenees 109th Alps 145th Combined 26th
Mark Roberts Alps 165th
Paul Martin Alps 219th
Luiz Capelati Alps 264th
Jardel Andreis Alps 286th
Andrea Azevedo Alps 299th (19th lady)
Riccardo Clerici Pyrenees 100th
Jon Bray Pyrenees 9th
Stephen Blackburn Pyrenees 15th
So as the dust starts to settle from 2 incredible weeks here are my thoughts about the whole thing. From a physical point of view I am shocked and delighted with how my performance held up for 2 weeks. I came into the event anticipating a very tough second week, a deterioration in performance, perhaps getting sick, just trying to survive to the end. It was very different from that. I rode strong every day, the fall off in performance didn’t happen. To the contrary, I think I got even stronger as the event went on.
I stayed healthy. Surrounded by riders who were coughing and wheezing I avoided coming down with anything. I got great sleep and we ate really well. Smooth logistics and maximising recovery time went really well and all contributed to me feeling good and doing well.
At the beginning of the event I anticipated having to pace myself during the 2 weeks, maybe having to make compromises and decisions on the road that would consider the days to come. That didn’t happen. Maybe because of fitness, maybe my competitive nature, whichever, I raced every day as if it was a one day event. Nothing held back. Every day felt like a full on race and I honestly can’t see how I could have gone harder or better on any day.
I made lots of good calls. When to let groups go, when to hang on, I think I judged it well. I never cracked, not once. I think my high mileage this year was a big factor in that.
Zero mechanical issues. Nothing at all. Lucky again. A simple bike that worked perfectly, manual gears, rim brakes, clinchers, put together by me, simple, good and reliable, thank you bike.
And the people………Haute Route is all about the people and the memories. Hard to know where to start. So many incredible memories of riding with great riders and great people. Bruno Bongionni, who I rode with first in 2016, he inspired me, and still does. Superb descender and climbs like Pantani on the drops! So enjoyed my riding with him and a chance to lead him through some of my local roads in the early stages of the Alps.
Hervé Gebel, classy rider, not as much time with him this time as previous Haute Routes but when I did it was always good. Richard Scales, so much time on the road with this man! Great rival and always reassuring to find him on the road as my marker of where I should be! Can’t wait to battle with you again Richard!
And the new riders, Krzysztof in the Pyrenees, always attacking! Roedi, at last I get to ride at your level for a bit! Jon Bray, sharing amazing days near the front, James C pulling me up the Aubisque, Jeff Mahin stage 1 of the Alps – fantastic to ride with, Michael L on the Col de la Loze, ouch! Mitch and Jeff in those battles on Pra Loup and Bonette. Nicholas on the last day in the rain. Ian O’Hara for all his encouragement, Stephen Blackburn for his experience and wisdom on the bike. Adrian Beer for being a brilliant bike rider and the ultimate room mate! Louis-Paul, we battled on Stage 1 in the Pyrenees and then we battled to Nice. Top bloke and look forward to riding with you again.
Oh, the list could go on and on. Such amazing memories and friendships made. Haute Route has the perfect blend of a great bike race but such a human experience. So addictive, I so hope we can do it all again together.
Rounding off each day with our Alpine Cadence team has been superb. Andrea, Jardel, Luiz, Mark F, Mark R, Adrian, Duncan, Felix, Paul, Riccardo, Stephen, Jon and trusty support man Martin. Being able to share the experience with you all has been so good.
My blogging for the last 2 weeks has been a very enjoyable chore. 30,000 words written about the 40,000 metres climbed! I hope my insights have been enjoyed by some and have conveyed the passion that I have for this sport and this event.
Bye for now!