Haute Route – Stage 5 – GC 97 Alpe d'Huez to Megève

The queen stage of the event, long and high, and on a really hot day. The first half went well; the second half I pushed too hard, paid for that on the last climb and in recovery that evening.

182km – 4,500m – Col du Glandon, Col de la Madeleine, Col des Saisies
Stage position: 107
GC position: 97

Cycling is a sport of self-inflicted suffering, and today was a day for two types of this suffering.

The first couple of hours of today were familiar. The start was the same as the finish of Stage 3, and we rolled straight down the last climb of that day in a neutralised convoy behind the leading car. At the bottom was the dam and the lake at Allemond, and the quick passage to the foot of the Glandon, the traditional first climb in the Marmotte. This is a great climb, with a few different sections separated by short descents – the lower climb through shaded woodland, a middle section of switchbacks up to the Lac du Grand Maison, and a final open high-alpine section of (my favourite) cows with cowbells grazing in meadows.

Lots of people passed me initially here, but this wasn’t a day to be spending too much energy, so I was happy to let people press on and confident that I’d pass a lot of them later. One nice touch – my chain came off in a poorly executed gear change at one of the changes in gradient, and a French rider gave me a push from behind while I got it back in place, so that I wouldn’t have to stop to sort it out. Thanks Florian from Corsica! This climb seemed to pass without costing too much energy, one in the bag.

The descent from Glandon was neutralised – it’s far too steep and windy to be racing down it – but it still flashes by quickly. It wasn’t long before a group formed for the valley section at the bottom, before the timing restarted for the Col de la Madeleine. Just as I passed the timing mat a tractor that looked straight out of the twenties pulling a single huge hay bale turned out of a side road to follow us up the hill. Over the course of the first few switchbacks we could see it struggling up behind us … and totally unable to keep up with the cyclists going at some 12km/h! This climb went higher and higher, one of the biggest of the week with 1500m of elevation gain. Pretty views back down the valley, a fun looking ski resort to pass through, butterflies flying along with me and cows with cowbells. Lovely!

On the Madeleine I was able to hold pretty constant power for the whole climb, at 230W. The pacing coach had talked about seeing evidence of good pacing in being able to do more towards the end of an effort, as opposed to getting too tired near the beginning. So for the last four kilometres I started to increase the pace bit by bit. After 90 mins of a solid effort that felt pretty tough, but I was just about able to keep pushing, and by the time I crossed the line into the untimed feed station I was well into the pain cave, that acute exhaustion that I’ve been training for over the last year! That was the first visit of the tour – I was just happy that I’d been able to pace it well up the climb, and happy with the time.

I ran into my roommate Ales at the top of the Madeleine. He took one look at me, and gave me a recovery bar and a cup of coke!

I spent plenty of time having a little picnic and recovering up there, channeling Robin who spotted my tactical use of untimed sections, then headed off down the descent with a group with whom to ride the valley section at the bottom.

In the valley we had a good group of 10-15 riders, and managed to get a few of them taking turns on the front of group. Nothing quite as sophisticated as the chain-gang from Stage 1, but it was something. The trouble was that we were pushing a little too hard. Before long we were losing slower riders out the back – fine given that they wouldn’t be able to help with the pace, but perhaps indicating that we were going too fast. Before long, Ian from Ireland, another British Joe and I had dropped everyone else in getting quickly to the Col des Saisies. Great fun, but expensive.

It was a sort of conscious trade-off – speed in the valley rather than pushing alone through the windy flat sections, but needing time to recover once I got to the hill. But the last Col of the day was not to be underestimated, with another 1000m of climbing up into the high alpine heat, and I hadn’t kept enough in reserve. In hindsight I should have come out of the group when it was pushing too hard.

This one hurt again, both because of the hard work in the valley after an already long day and because of the heat, which by this point was really tough. There was almost no shade on this climb. I wasn’t able to hold the power output I wanted, and so probably lost a good few minutes here.

The day after we were here the Tour de l’Avenir was coming up the same climb. This is effectively the U23 version of the Tour de France, for up-and-coming riders. I suspect they took a lot less than my 78 minutes to get up there!

By the time I reached the top the damage was done. It had been a really hard day, and while the Madeleine went well I’d gone too hard for the later parts of the route. There was nothing for it other than to drink huge amounts of the water and coke at the feed station, grab a recovery bar to chew on for the descent (not fun with a still-dry mouth!) and head carefully down another winding descent to Megève.

By the time I arrived it was late in the day, and after wolfing down some more food, getting my massage (and having a consultation with the osteopath with a knee niggle, this was great fun in French!) I was too late to make my confessions to the Infocranks coaches. On to the hotel, more food, and collapse into bed.

That evening I was feeling more broken, more exhausted than I have after a ride for a long time. I was pretty worried at this point about whether I’d be able to recover for the next day. This is, after all, the challenge with a stage race.

part of the Haute Route series