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

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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