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

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