Haute Route – Closing Thoughts from HRA17 stage racing is a whole new thing

An incredible and joyful (and exhausting) week in beautiful places. What an experience.

Wake up, quick shower, put on the kit that I’d laid out ready. Heart rate monitor strap on first, base layer, then shorts and jersey over those. Scoff a quick breakfast. Food into pockets. Helmet, gloves and shoes on; down to the bike and off we go.

So far so familiar, but something’s different. There might be fewer surprises at breakfast when it’s in my own kitchen (better coffee, too!) but head outside and the realisation hits that this ride just isn’t going to be so much fun as being in the mountains. I was struggling for motivation, not having anything to aim for or any training plan for the ride. A flat ride at a constant pace just isn’t satisfying after an experience like the Haute Route. Not that it’s surprising, of course, but I’m going to have to figure out how to have fun on the bike again.

Cycle, eat, sleep, repeat

What a week, what an experience. From the moment I arrived in Nice with plenty of time to spare (and an intact bike – phew!) it was straight into a bubble. Cycle, eat, sleep repeat. Very little from outside got in, and we were able to focus completely on the bike, the road and the mountains.

Or rather, there was no time or energy to focus on anything else! I’m used to finishing a ride on a Sunday afternoon and having a couple of hours to turn around before going out for the evening, or something. But with another stage twelve hours later there’s just no time.

The routine settled very quickly. Finish line, pick up day bag, recovery food, book massage, give bike computer to the coaches, eat, shower, have massage, talk to the coaches, head to hotel. Find room, pick tomorrow’s kit and food, pin race number on jersey, dinner. Back to hotel room, finalise tomorrow’s day bag, pack bigger suitcase, sleep. Wake, shower, dress, breakfast, drop bag, bike to start, coffee. Go.

With little variation that was my entire week off the bike. The rest of the time was either climbing a mountain at 230W or descending down the other side. The event is billed as being the closest an amateur gets to being a pro cyclist for a week, and the immersion is total.

But of course it’s not the routine around the stages that makes it, it’s what happens on the road. It was a chance to push myself harder than I ever have, in the most beautiful of landscapes possible.

The beautiful scenery was topped by the climb up the Sarenne on stage 3 and the descent down from the Col de la Cayolle on the very first day. A special mention goes to the view from the top of the Col de la Ramaz on stage 7, with its view over rows and rows of overlapping peaks of the Mont Blanc Massif.

High points: the whole of stage 3, the stage I’d been looking forward to for months, was so much fun that I had a grin all day. The Col de la Madeleine, the big beast of a climb on the queen stage, which was also the first climb where I paced just right to get the best speed I could, steady at the start building up to peak power just I reached the top and practically collapsing when I got there. (I had a good rest in the untimed sections that day!)

Low point: not actually on the bike but between stages 5 and 6. The evening after the biggest day, where I felt I’d overdone it and wasn’t going to recover for the next morning, was followed by the morning when I woke up feeling just as bad. It seemed a miracle when I hit the first climb of the day only to find that my legs remembered how to ride and went straight back to their happy pace. Just like that the good feeling snapped back.

But other than that dip, I was feeling strong during almost all the riding all week – the training worked, and I found peak form over the year for just the right week. It was a happy week too – being surrounded by beauty all the time, watching butterflies fly along my wheels while climbing in the sunshine and listening to the cows with cowbells plodding around the fields that they were kind enough to let me visit.

I found some new friends, and while I won’t get to see them much, given the spread around the world of their training grounds homes, we had great fun for a week. The whole event has a wonderfully supportive atmosphere – regardless of placing top or bottom of the results everyone was there for similar reasons.

What have I learned?

Training works. I had a plan to build aerobic power, and focussed solely on that. I was able to ride for ages at that power, and mostly managed to avoid harder efforts that would drain me quickly.

Pacing works. The advice from the nice people who make the InfoCrank helped me to get through my first multi-day event, feeling good about the speed I was going, and importantly not overdoing it early. They talked about how to pick a sustainable power for climbing, and that getting right means being able to go harder later in the week.

Recovery works. I had a massage every day, quads and calves, and was careful to eat quickly after each finish and to get enough each evening. On my first ride back in Berlin I didn’t have a massage and neglected to do any stretching – I regretted that the next day.

I don’t want to be a pro. It’s fun and all, but constantly packing up a hotel room and moving your bags around got tiresome pretty quick. Food is fuel and barely touches the sides, so there was no real pleasure taken from travelling in the culinary capital of the world. And yes, a week’s worth of energy bars is enough energy bars for a while, without even getting to the stories about “Dumoulin Moments”.

I did it!

It was the focus for a year and an idea for longer, and I did it! Getting a spot in the top 100 is a better result than I ever hoped for.

And now I don’t know what do next. This is probably the biggest race I can do, with more climbing than the mountain stages of a typical Tour de France. So how do I top it? I’m going to need another challenge, at some point. Probably not for next year, given how little spare time I’m expecting to have, but eventually I’ll need a new target to aim and train for.

In the meantime, I already can’t wait to get back to the mountains.

part of the Haute Route series