Haute Route Pyrenees stage 5 Individual Time Trial

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Haute Route Pyrenees stage 4

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Stage 4 was always going to be massive. 4000m of climbing crammed into 102km takes some doing. Today we would scale Tourmalet again, then the gorgeous Hourquette Ancizan, with the Col de Portet providing a vey tough finish to the day.
Again, perfect conditions. The forecast was for even warmer temperatures. Suits me fine. I’m happy riding in the heat although many of the field would not be today. The only adaptation I make on hot days is popping electrolyte tablets into my drinks to manage the salty losses I sweat out on days like this.

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I was positioned right near the front at the start. We had a neutralised 8kms to start the day. I was in the second row, just behind the race leaders Ruari and Hannah. I loved those first 8kms. Being right at the front is very cool. No stress, no jostling for positions, the rest of the field respects the riders at the front and doesn’t barge in. The race director’s car along with the gendarmes and security motos make us feel very special and for a few minutes I can pretend to be a pro. I love it.
The timing started and the pace quickened as expected. The peloton stretched as we travelled gently up for about 15kms to the foot of the Col du Tourmalet. All was good with me, legs and body feeling OK. The Col du Tourmalet from the Luz side is 17kms long at an average of nearly 8%. It’s tough enough but fairly regular. The pace up the Tourmalet was firm but not too frantic. Everybody, including myself, was showing the day some respect and fear. Everyone would need plenty of beans left for the end of the day up Portet. The leading 40 riders started to split, for me it’s a relief when that happens. The very strongest 10 or so riders moved up the road and I found myself in a group of the ‘best of the rest’. I was really happy with how I was feeling, my power meter and heart rate numbers tallied well with how I felt. I felt good and the numbers confirmed it. I was really happy with the riders who I was with too, Alastair was there, Hervé too. Riders that I’d struggled to ride with in previous days now became easier to ride with. All the signs were good.
Mike Cotty who I’ve raced with on previous Haute Routes started to press on up the road from our group along with a couple of other riders. I was happy with where I was and not interested in chasing. One of the riders who went with Mike was Kristof, just ahead of Alastair in the overall GC. I told Alastair that a split was happening and that I was staying put. Alastair started to chase, he wanted Kristof’s wheel. Alastair chased for some time without success, he looked more laboured than I’d seen him in previous days. He ended up being absorbed back into our group and I kept encouraging him to ‘sit in’, to just follow another rider in our group and get things under control.
He did so and in fact got stronger at the top of Tourmalet. Hervé, Alastair and I crested in quick succession. A super efficient bottle delivery from Martin kept Alastair and I on the move without any delay. Then, ahead of us was a 17km descent to the foot of the next climb. That descent is very fast, after a few bends at the top there a long open sections where a rider can really let things go if they have sufficient skill and knowledge of what’s coming up.

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The roads for are not closed for the Haute Route, they are controlled and marshalled but there are still public vehicles that need to be safely overtaken on such descents. Most drivers pull over out of the way as soon as they realise they are in the thick of a bike race but a few screams and gestures are sometimes required too to get past. I lead a group of 4 or so riders down the first 5Kms, I had no idea who they were, just 100% concentration on the task. As we sped through La Mongie one of the riders came past me, it was Bruno Bongianni. This was perfect. I’ve raced with Bruno before and he is as good a descender as I’ve ever seen. I’m no slouch myself but to be able to follow his line for the next 12km was fabulous. The road surface was immaculate and we hit speeds of 85km/h as we hurtled down to Ste Marie de Campan.

 

We turned hard right and started our climb of the Hourquette Ancizan. This climb starts very steadily and doesn’t really challenge until it’s last 9kms. It’s not a super tough climb but very beautiful and as quintessentially Pyrenean as you’ll ever get. It’s gorgeous and every time I ride it I promise myself I’ll come back to it one day without a bike and just enjoy the area. As we headed up the early kilometres we were joined by more riders, I was delighted to see Alastair among them. I was concerned that the speed of the descent might have ‘gapped’ him too much but far from it, he’d only taken 20 seconds more than myself on that descent. He had worked hard as the descent flattened to get back on board our group, brilliant.
Our group forged on up the Hourquette together, everyone content to push on at a nice firm pace. The descent off the Hourquette is narrow and rough, the organisers sensibly neutralised it meaning a relaxed descent and plenty of time to eat, drink and contemplate our finale.
Col de Portet is big. At 2215m it is now the highest sealed pass in the French Pyrenees, a full 100m higher than Tourmalet. It’s steeper too. 16km at an average gradient of 8.7% is hard, especially at the end of a day. It was used for the first time in this year’s Tour de France and we were ‘lucky’ enough to be the first amateurs to race up it today.

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Just before the final climb I had a minor panic as I realised I had no food left in my back pocket but I was rescued by the ladies leader in the event, Hannah who slipped me an energy bar just before the climb. The first few kilometres of the Portet are particularly tough, lots of double figure gradients and a very hot experience with no shade whatsoever. The road scribes it’s way up the flank of a valley with very few significant bends and therefore offers no rewards or changes in scenery like a ‘switchback’ road does. For about 8km the road just doesn’t change, hot and steep. Our group started to fragment on this stretch, sure it was tough but I felt on top of things and I found myself riding just behind Bruno Bongianni who I’d descended with earlier. Alastair was up the road and going well. About halfway up this beast of a climb it changes it’s character suddenly, we bear right and head up a series of hairpin bends up into the meadows. The gradients ease a fraction, it’s a little cooler and the changing panoramas help to anaesthetise our pain a little.
I’m still going well, still hanging on to Bruno. We have to negotiate cattle meandering on the road and the front end of my bike is slapped hard by a swishing tail. I’m knocked off balance and close to falling. That got the heart rate up even more. I’m now counting down the kilometres and just wanting it to be over. As we get 3kms from the finish we can see the red inflatable arch at the finish, it looks a long way up. The final kilometre is a beast at nearly 11% most of the way but the pain is short lived and the finish is there. I’m so happy, my legs have done there job, I feel like I’ve finally had a good day from start to finish and to do it in a place like this is incredible. As per routine I congratulate Alastair again, he finished 8th and maintained his 8th position overall. My 13th on the day lifts me to 15th overall in the men’s rankings, very happy to be moving in the right direction.

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Alastair, myself and several of our group spent some time at the top to recover and just savour the moment, you’re not often in places as special as this so let’s make the most of it. I reckon it had been one of my best ever days on a bike, and I’ve had a few good ones! Eventually we headed down the same road back to our overnight in St Lary. On the way down we were able to cheer on each an every one of our Alpine Cadence team members as they toiled their way up the Portet.
No dramas to report, all the team finished safely with Riccardo’s 66th on the day perhaps the most outstanding result. Tomorrow we have the Individual Time Trial, just 23km and one 1400m climb to do, almost a day off!

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 3

Today’s stage was 117km long incorporating 3300m of climbing. The principal ‘difficulties’ as the French beautifully describe climbs in bike race, were the Col du Tourmalet and the Col du Couraduque.

Yet again, fantastic conditions greeted us at the start with a nice, warm day ahead of us. Despite the big altitude differences in the stage clothing and keeping warm at altitude was not going to be an issue, one less thing to worry about!
As we assembled at the start the stronger riders were all at the front. As an event like this unfolds a certain hierarchy seems to develop as riders prepare at the start. The leaders and stronger riders naturally head to the front with everyone else keeping a respectful distance. We headed out of Argelès Gazost for a short 1.7km neutralised section. As we rolled out I chatted away to Robert Jan, the young Dutchman who’d saved me on day 1. He’s a super strong rider on the flat but his climbing speed had meant that he’s slipped down the overall rankings a bit. He said to me that he was going to attack as soon as the timing started, the same as what happens at the beginning of most Tour de France stages. He knew he had no chance of staying away all the way to the finish but, quite frankly, he just wanted to do it for fun. To be out on your own leading a bike race is very exciting, the race director’s car right in front of you, no one else in sight, for a while at least. It feels really good. I’ve only ever experienced it once and I could totally understand why Robert Jan was keen for his few kilometres of glory.
As soon as we went over the timing mat, sure enough he was off. Now, I was the only one at the front of the peloton who knew he was only after short term glory. If everyone knew what I knew the peloton would have let him go and let him enjoy his moment. But they didn’t. The chase was on. Robert Jan’s acceleration at the very start effectively changed the whole dynamic of the early part of the race. It was game on! Fast and hard, for me at least!
The course took us through forested lanes and we started to climb a series of short ups. I was riding with Mark and Felix from our team and Alastair was a few wheels ahead. On the first sustained descent the peloton started to string out as we snaked our way through the forest in a fast, single filed procession. You have to have 100% trust in those around you, one mistake and things can go wrong very quickly. And they did. I approached a left hand bend and carnage ensued in front of me, 4 or 5 riders on the deck already with others running off to the side. I managed to find a passage through, I was lucky. Other’s weren’t. My racing friend Joris Simond came down in that crash, his race was over.  As I passed the drama I could hear shouting, swearing, all the usual noises from frustrated riders looking for who to attach the blame for the whole thing.
The crash had split the peloton, the slowing I’d had to do to negotiate the crash site left me and the others behind me with a gap to close. At first it looked serious, if we lost touch with the front group at this point it could be disastrous and maybe defining for the day. I put a big effort in, as did the riders behind me and we were relieved to bridge the gap after a couple of kilometres.
The next 20kms were fairly subdued. The peloton’s pace was moderate, the wide roads made everyone comfortable and we were transported nicely to the foot of the Tourmalet which started at the 48km mark. Tourmalet from the west side we did today is around 17km long. Most significantly it’s final 12kms average about 9%, that’s pretty tough. All the expected selections started to happen at the foot of Tourmalet. I was patient, I let Alastair ride up ahead and I stuck with riders who I knew I’d be more comfortable with like Xavier from France and Andrew from Canada. Everyone wears there name and nationality on their ‘dossards’ and you find yourself riding with a closely knit sub group of people during the week who are at a very similar level to yourself.
Tourmalet went OK, I felt tired, my power numbers were pretty low but I was OK, hanging in there better than some. With 5kms to the top I felt a little stronger Markus from Germany was on the front of our small group and I eased past him feeling better. Jim from the UK then moved up the road and I committed to his pace while the rest of the group stayed behind. Jim and I rode to the top together, he was strong and provided a good wheel for me as we pulled out of La Mongie, the ski town perched 4kms from the top. In the final kilometre I came to the front and pressed on to the top emptying myself of effort as much as I could. The image below might confirm that I do try quite hard sometimes!

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The descent down the other side was neutralised so it made sense to ride hard to the timing mat and then have a breather. The top of the Tourmalet was filled with the 30 or so strongest riders in the event. All taking advantage of the feed/drink stop that was provided and enjoying the luxury of not being timed. The timing would resume another 29kms down the other side meaning that the descent could be enjoyed safely and relatively leisurely. The descent on the Bareges side is fantastic but too busy with traffic to keep the clock ticking. Certainly a good decision from the organisers to neutralise it avoiding all sorts of potential disasters.
The second half of the neutralised section became flatter and a group of us formed chatting away and basically trying to conserve energy for our forthcoming efforts on the final climb of the day. I heard the chirpy voice of Ruari Grant, the overall race leader, looking very smart in his leader’s jersey. He’s a very friendly character, race leaders are not always! He’s a good friend of Oliver, our regular guide for Alpine Cadence. I had a great chat with Ruari where it became very apparent that he rides his bike for all the right reasons. Sure, he’s an amazing athlete trying to win the event but you could see that he was looking at the whole thing with more than just that in mind, it was great to hear how much he was enjoying the whole Haute Route experience, the stunning Pyrenees and the new friends he was making. I felt quite honoured to ride with him for a few kilometres, as soon as the timing resumed he was off into the distance.
The final timed section was 22kms long, mostly up. The final 6.5 km to the Col du Couraduque averaged a deceptive 7.5% with lots of ramps far steeper than that. The run in to Couraduque was going well for me. I was in the perfect group for me. Around 15 riders including Alastair. There were a few in the group a bit stronger than me and the rest about the same level as me. A perfect environment for me to be transported to the foot of Couraduque. My legs were feeling better than on Tourmalet, I felt for the first time in 3 days that things were starting to fire properly.
I went well up Couraduque. I let Alastair and a few other clearly stronger riders head up the road but I was feeling strong. Couraduque is beautiful, spectacular views and I know every bit of it’s 6.5km well. I felt inspired by the scenery as the views unfolded and the knowledge of how the road went and how to attack it gave me a huge psychological advantage over the riders I was with. I gently accelerated and soon gapped the riders behind me. I knew what was coming around every corner, what gear to be in and when to push. As I crossed the line I’d only gained an extra minute or so with my final efforts but to my confidence levels it was immense for me to finish on a high.
Alastair had recorded another very solid ride and I was straight over to him to congratulate him for a third day running. He finished 8th on the day and I was very happy to learn that I’d ended up 17th on the day.
As we rolled back to Argelès Gazost we were able to see how the race was unfolding for the rest of our team. The first rider we saw was Felix who finished today in an outstanding 34th place in the men’s event. All our riders finished safely and the new General Classification positions are as follows:
Melanie Bachelor 17th lady
Alastair Roberts 8th
John Thomas 17th
James Richens 45th
Felix Hoddinott 46th
Mark Fairgrieve 52nd
Duncan Carrier 115th
Brian Moher 109th
Riccardo Clerici 111th
Ian Arthur 191th

Tomorrow promises to be the toughest stage of the week, 4000m of climbing crammed into 103km. Tourmalet, Hourquette Ancizan followed by the Col de Portet. Portet is the new kid on the block of Pyrenees climbs, higher than Tourmalet and sealed for the first time this year where it was used in this summer’s Tour de France. Hot temperatures forecast tomorrow and that last climb are going to test all of us to our absolute limits. Hopefully tomorrow’s blog will still be a cheery one!!

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 2

Stage 2 looked downright scary on paper, 3 big climbs amounting to 3900m of climbing spread over 121km. The way my legs felt the previous day I was seriously concerned as to whether I would get through this day in good shape.

We woke to a gloriously clear day, the views of the Pyrenees as we left Pau were stunning. Our route would take us over 40km of fairly flat terrain before scaling the beautiful Col d’Aubisque, 16kms long at an average gradient of around 7.5%. Next would come the Col de Spandelles, 10kms at 8.3% and then a summit finish on the fearsome Hautacam, 15kms at 7.5%.
As per Stage 1 the ride began with a 10km neutralised section, as the flag went down for the timing start the pace increased a little but we ended up enjoying a relatively leisurely 40km run in to the first climb. When I say leisurely, the ride still required plenty of concentration and short efforts to maintain position in the group but careful and accurate ‘draughting’ behind other riders meant those first 40kms didn’t eat into reserves much at all.
As we hit the lower slopes of the Aubisque I felt pretty good. My legs felt as though they were almost back to normal after the abuse I’d put them through the previous day. I’d already made up my mind to ride conservatively and give myself the best chance of still having decent energy levels on the last climb.
The first part of the Aubisque climb was ridden at a fairly moderate pace by the leading riders, it looked like they were showing the day some respect as well. As we progressed further up the road the group started to split. 10 or so riders gently pulled away from myself and the riders around me.
I was happy where I was. I looked around at the characters I was with and it suited me just fine. I had raced with several of them before and I knew their level and that I was in the right place. Alastair had made the front group and that proved to be a good decision for him.
I often think of songs when I’m riding that sum up the situation. ‘Get Back’ was the one now. ‘Get back to where you once belonged’ summed up the fact that I was back in the group I should be in. The more I thought about it I felt so stupid in chasing Alastair and others the previous day and paying the price. Now I was happy.
I progressed to the top of the Aubisque without incident, frequently using the shelter of the other riders in the group, especially on the exposed, upper slopes that are vulnerable to the wind. Trusty Martin was at the top of Aubisque to provide fresh bottles and to avoid any of our team having to stop.

The decent from the Aubisque is epic. It’s spectacular, technical and dangerous. I adore it and I know it better than most of the riders around me in the event. My descending skills are fairly strong relative to many of the other riders in the event. I’m lucky where I live and how much practice I get on major descents. For so many of the riders in this event they just don’t get those opportunities to develop their skill due to where they live. A long descent that is tricky and unpredictable is an opportunity for me to make up time on the rest of the field. All went to plan. I rode well, good lines, no silly risks, just taking advantage of my strengths, that’s what cycling is all about.

The total descent to the foot of the next climb was around 20kms, perfect! I arrived there having eaten good amounts of time into several of the riders around me. I made up my mind to ride up the Spandelles nice and steady, still trying to conserve something for the final climb. I’d earnt myself a bit of a buffer over some of the other riders and if some of them came back to me on the climb then so be it.
Spandelles is a lovely climb, narrow and up through the bracken it’s very pretty, especially near the top. As I started the climb I sighted Alastair just ahead of me, my swifter descent had almost caught him. He was looking strong though and he sailed away from me up the Spandelles and was soon out of sight. I was happy to tap away at my own rate. 2 or 3 riders caught me before the summit but all in all the 10kms of the Spandelles went ok. I felt so tired though. I felt pretty drained. I was really concerned as to how I’d put in a strong performance on the final climb, the Hautacam.
The descent of the Spandelles was untimed due to it being too gravelly and rough to safely race on. This meant a great opportunity to recuperate, eat, take a leak and stretch.
So, just 15kms left up the Hautacam. It’s a tough climb. Although it’s average gradient is somewhere around 7.5% you’ll struggle to find any of it that is that gradient! It’s a rampy affair with lots of steep pitches interspersed by occasional mini descents and flatter sections. I started the climb with a couple of other riders and to be honest the whole climb was quite uneventful for me. I tapped out a steady rhythm and I was really pleased with how my legs had held out. I wasn’t breaking any records but it was a solid ride and a massive improvement on yesterday’s antics. I finished the day in 17th place which I’d have bitten your arm off if you’d offered it to me at the beginning of the day.
At the finish I was able to congratulate Alastair on another fabulous performance, he finished 7th on the day and is now 8th overall in the event. All the rest of the team finished without too many dramas, Mark had to get a replacement wheel from Mavic support which didn’t cost him too much time but apart from that it was another very successful day. James had another solid ride to lift him to 42nd in the men’s general classification, Mark is in 47th place, Felix 55th, Duncan 108th, Brian 113th, Riccardo 114th, Ian 195th, Melanie 17th lady and your’s truly 17th. Brilliant!
Tomorrow sees use scale the iconic Tourmalet followed by Couraduque. A sunny and warmer forecast will mean lots of sweat left on the roads tomorrow, can’t wait!

Haute Route Pyrenees stage 1

Stage 1 of Haute Route Pyrenees is done. What a day and certainly plenty to talk about. Today’s stage started and finished in Pau, 148km with 2800m of climbing. The two principal climbs of the day were the Col de Labays and the Col de Marie Blanque. Both these climbs are tough, Labays is effectively 10km at an average gradient of around 9% and Marie Blanque’s final 4 kms are pitched at an average of 12%. This was never going to be an easy day.
The day started well with all 10 members of our team looking bright eyed and bushy tailed on the start line after a decent night’s sleep. The weather was great, dry and warm. The stage started with a ‘neutralised’ 10km section. This means that it is not timed, we were lead gently out of Pau behind the race director’s car. Neutralised sections are quite nice in that there’s a chance to chat will fellow riders and it ends up being a warm up for the day. As the 10km point approached the director’s car accelerated and Haute Route had officially started. Immediately the pace shoots up from the neutralised 20km/h to over 40km/h. Riders looking for a good result are desperate to get to the front and the peloton starts to stretch under the stress of the bigger efforts. The rolling roads south of Pau provide short, sharp hills to test us and the peloton starts to fragment as a result. 15kms into the race and there is a lead group of around 70 riders with a distinct gap to the rest of the field.

I had comfortably made it into this group as had Alastair, potentially the strongest rider in our team. I was so pleased to see that Felix and Mark had made it in there too. We had a relatively flat ride as we rode further south to the foot of the first major climb which would officially start at the 50km point. Over the flats the pace slowed massively, no one wanted to push ahead and collectively we ambled our way into the Pyrenees at an uncharacteristicly slow pace for the Haute Route. James managed to join our group as did many other riders swelling the lead group to around 100riders. There was plenty of opportunity to talk to other riders and the atmosphere was very relaxed, it wouldn’t last for long.
As soon as we hit the first ramps on the Labays the peloton exploded and fragmented, a lead group of around 10 riders established itself with myself and Alastair at the head of the next group just behind. Labays is tough but seemed to go well for Alastair and I. We both got into a rhythm and found ourselves maintaining our positions in the field. My only concern was the fact that my heart rate was very high and my power output was higher than I’d planned. This concern would increase later in the ride as it would become apparent that I’d pushed too hard on that first climb.
A short but awkward descent followed. Damp, narrow, gravel in spots, all demanding our full attention to stay upright. As we scaled the small climb to the next feed station I started to get the first signs of cramp in my legs. Cramp is a mysterious thing that is still not clearly understood. Dehydration and electrolyte losses may cause it for some people but I know 100% what causes it for me, over exertion. Pushing my body beyond what it’s trained to do for too long and cramp reminds me of my foolish confidence that preceded it. I knew I had a problem. I also knew that I’ve dealt with cramp before. It’s something I can get through and out the other side but usually requires a period of less intensity and the right cadence or rate of pedalling. From 77kms to 96kms I had the opportunity to recover, another neutralised, untimed section and a chance to manage my sore legs.

The final climb is scary, the last 4kms are brutal. I got to the the start of the steep section together with all my main rivals and Alastair. The double figure ramps that followed would cripple me. I watch the bulk of the group ride off up the road as I was left with the stragglers who I’m sure would have their own tales to tell. I felt like the race was slipping through my fingers like sand. I was haemorrhaging time at an alarming rate and there was nothing my legs could do about it. Earlier in the day pushing on the pedals and seeing 320 watts on my power meter seemed so easy. Now I was writhing and using every sinew to try to get 250 of the damn things. I was cracking in a big way.
I lost 3 minutes to my main rivals in those 4kms and more importantly lost the chance to ride with them the final 37kms to the finish where being with other riders would be essential.
I crested the Marie Blanque and I’ll be happy if I never see that hill ever again. My priority now was to concentrate, ride smooth and fast on the descent in the hope that I might catch another rider to give me some much needed company for the flat finish. It was futile, as the terrain opened up I could see well ahead and there was no one in sight. The thought of having to ride this last section on my own was horrific, even if I’d had strong legs.
Then, I was rescued, a Dutchman called Robert Jan came past me and I got on his wheel. He was big (well, by cycling standards). He looked fresh, strong and fast. Most importantly he was super friendly. He knew I was in trouble and he deliberately paced his effort so I could hang on. Turns out he’s a time trial specialist, super strong on the flat, the perfect saviour for me. This was like coming close to drowning and being thrown a life buoy. Robert asked me if I was any good at descending, I told him I was OK. Despite his strength he was clearly a cautious descender and not choosing the best lines. I took control of any downhill sections and showed him the way. We’d done a deal. I help him on the downhills and he’d help me on the flats. Those flats would go on for 25kms so I was getting by far the best side of the deal.Robert pulled me to the finish and for that I am deeply in his debt. A selfless ride from him and I could not thank him enough once we’d finished. Without him I’d have probably bled another 5 or even 10 minutes from my result.
So I finished, rescued from a disastrous result and ended up losing about 4 or 5 minutes to my main rivals. Not too bad in the whole scheme of things.

I finished 21st but the star of our team was Alastair Roberts finishing in a stunning 9th place, an awesome start to the event. Everyone in our team finished safely, superb top 50 finishes for Felix, James and Brian. I’m so proud that we have 5 Alpine Cadence riders in the top 50. Solid finishes too for Ian, Duncan, Mel and Riccardo with Brian denied a top 75 finish by punctures and other mechanical issues. All in all a fabulous result from the team. Well done.

All the day’s results can be found here

Tomorrow is massive. 3900m of climbing over the Aubisque, Spandelles and Hautacam. Hopefully I’ll learn from today and ride conservatively up the first climb and not have to go through the turmoil of today. We’ll see!

Haute Route Pyrenees almost ready to go

So, just a few hours to go before we embark on stage 1 of Haute Route Pyrenees. We been briefed this evening and fed well. At 7.30 tomorrow morning we start in Pau with a 148km stage ahead of us. Two big climbs, Col de Labays and Col de Marie Blanque will give us 2700m of upward challenge. Around 350 riders are heading to bed now and it looks like we’ll wake to a beautiful day.

Day 1 of events like this is all about staying calm and not pushing too hard too early. With so much anticipation and preparation the excitement of starting something  like this can easily encourage riders to go too hard too soon with inevitable consequences later in the day as those early efforts take their toll. We’ve all got to temper our efforts and keep in mind that we have a big week ahead of us. I know only too well how easy it is to go too hard on the first day and to pay the price dearly with huge time losses on the final climb of the day due to bad pacing.  I just hope I manage heed my own advice! The beginning of this event is very exciting and it takes discipline to keep the efforts controlled. Some riders, myself included, will use power meters to help ‘cap’ and regulate efforts, other will ned to do it more by feel.

Tomorrow will also be a day of discovery as all the various fitness levels of the riders manifest themselves on the road and we all become aware of where we rank in the peloton. After a flat ‘neutralised’ first few kilometres we will be released to race and as soon as there is a significant rise in the road the peloton will start to fragment into it’s various levels. At this point we’ll start to discover who our rivals are likely to be for the week as we look around at who we are riding with after the ‘selection’ has taken place.

Time to sleep now, everything is ready, come on legs, show the Pyrenees what you can do!

You can track riders in the event live at https://www.hauteroute.org/live

 

 

 

 

Haute Route Pyrenees 2018

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This Saturday sees the start of the Haute Route Pyrenees cycling event. It will be our third consecutive year participating in this incredible race and this year with our biggest team ever. For the last couple of years I’ve written blogs on a few of the days to describe my experiences of the event and this year I’ll try to do this even more thoroughly in an effort to cover all the up and downs of what I consider to be the ultimate road cycling event for amateur cyclists.

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The next 7 days will see myself and the other 9 riders in our Alpine Cadence team ride 7 big stages through the Pyrenees, 20000m of climbing and around 800km of challenging terrain await us.
I usually come into events like this with quite specific goals, perhaps to finish in the top 20 or to improve on a previous performance in the event. This year is different though as last year in the same event I punched above my weight by finishing 5th overall. A result that was earned from a combination of consistency from myself and various misfortunes befalling my rivals. Believe me, I was certainly not the fifth strongest rider in the event but I was just lucky not to get any bad luck. 7 day events like this are all about avoiding your losses, avoiding a bad day. If you can get through 7 days with no mechanical issues and no pacing or tactical mistakes then you are very lucky, I was lucky last year.
With that in mind I’m really looking forward to this year’s event and in some ways not pressurising myself by having a particular goal. I had a fantastic result last year, it’s unlikely that it will happen again, this year I’m determined to enjoy every aspect of the whole experience and share it through my words.
As I write this we are travelling to Pau, the start/finish town for the race. The days leading up to something like this need to be as relaxed as possible, eat well, drink lots of water and ride a bike very little! Tomorrow we’ll all complete our registration for the event in Pau, attend a pre race briefing and maybe a short ride to ensure that all’s well with the bike. In the next 24 hours around 300 riders will arrive from all corners of the globe to compete. All sorts of different aspirations and goals, many riders just hoping they can finish the event, which is an achievement in itself. Other’s hoping for a particular placing or perhaps trying to do well in their age category in the event. The one thing all riders share in common is to make the most of 7 days of total immersion in incredible cycling in a beautiful place. The nearest opportunity to experiencing what pro cyclists go through. Riding a bike with like minded others and not having to worry about anything else. Huge amounts of hours on the bike have gone into preparing for this for each rider, most have entered the event 6-9 months prior, all the training, planning and preparation is about to be rewarded, and tested.

I get quite anxious and worked up in the lead up to events like this, double and triple checking everything from my equipment to the course details. For me it’s such a relief when the race itself starts.

Over the next few days I’ll try to convey in words what it’s like to participate in this thing. I know there will be surprises and I know there will be emotion. It’s going to be very tough but that’s what we’re all here for. Let’s the games begin!