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!

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