Haute Route 2021 – Stage 3 – GC 129 Tignes to Sarenne
A huge queen stage. High peaks, long descents, cold and rain.
182km – 4,500m – Iséran, Télégraphe, Galibier, Sarenne
Stage position: 121
GC position: 129
In 2017 the weather was delightful, the whole duration of the race. There wasn’t a drop of rain, and aside from the earliest starts it was never too cold. There was always going to be something very different about this edition, and it’s turned out to be the heat.
At 2700m it can get pretty nippy. We were warned at the briefing to expect the cold, and most people (not all) looked pretty well prepared. The forecast at both of the highest peaks, Iséran and Galibier, was for 4°C. But arriving at the peak, after hours of work, isn’t the problem. After that when you stop working, the sweat now makes you cold, and even multiple layers against the wind can’t completely stop the chill you get from descending at 50km/h or more. Add a sprinkling of rain and it only gets worse!
So instead of the flimsiest climbing jerseys this was a day for full-finger gloves, arm- and leg-warmers, merino wool base layer, insulated gilet and rain jacket on top to stop the wind! The special bag of cold weather gear, thus far unopened, came into its own.
From the early start we followed the descent in convoy again, but before long turned up the Col de l’Iséran, another of the climbs made famous (or even monumental) by the Tour. Most people didn’t push too hard here, given what was to come. The climb was beautiful with views down the valley to the next mountains and moon still above the horizon, and we all got the classic picture at the sign at the top. On a day like this it’s good to get the first climb out of the way without feeling like you’ve spent anything, and at least for me, that worked.
Often on a big climbing day like this the peaks are roughly evenly spaced through the route. Not so here, because after Iséran we descended for 70km. Yes 70. The first 30 or so were the usual mountain descent, somewhat steep with cow poo all over the place, but neutralised so that riders weren’t encouraged to take risks.
The rest followed a river valley gently downhill, at only 1-2% for the most part. You always want a good group to share the work in flat-ish sections like this, otherwise you spend much more energy to get to the other end. I had a great group that formed at the start, including the other riders from Zürich Veloton, my club. We rattled on with good speed, with almost all of the others in the group both taking turns on the front and riding safely (we haven’t had much other group riding to see this yet).
In one town the group split with some traffic. I was ahead in a small group and waiting for the rest to catch up when I thought I had time to pull over for a quick wee. I did not have time, and before the long the group got to me and went past. Oh dear, time to chase. I had to push for about 7 minutes to catch them. I was able to get a little drafting from some cars for a short time, and one of the event motorbikes paced me up to the group for the last few metres of the gap, but it was a big effort to spend, not that long before the start of the Télégraphe climb.
Once I caught them I managed not to do too much work and eat some food while we continued, but I didn’t feel like I recovered from that effort until well into the Galibier climb some two hours later. The Télégraphe went ok, but it was more difficult than it should have been to hold 220W there. It looks like it was the second best time I’ve done there, so that’s not too bad considering.
The unexpected difficulty was in carrying all of the spare clothes! On the long descent I still had everything on, gloves stuffed down my top. Once we started climbing that wasn’t an option! So I stopped to try to pack everything down as much as possible. Arm warmers in one pocket, gilet in one, but I still needed some space for food! So the rain jacket had to be stuffed into the back of my shorts instead. Probably not the stylish option but at least it worked.
After the Télégraphe is only a short descent to Valloire, the town at the start of the Galibier climb. They’re so close together that they’re really not worth considering to be two separate climbs, so much as one with a little dip in the middle. (I just learned the German word Gegensteigung, meaning a short climb in the middle of a longer descent. perhaps this is a Gegenabsteig?) With only a brief stop for more water from a little fountain in the town I started the climb, and it was soon after here that it started feeling like it was supposed to, but I still couldn’t sustain the 230W I would have liked.
It’s a long climb. Whereas the usual image of the big Alpine passes has a pile of switchbacks snaking up the side of the mountain, for much of the Galibier you’re on relatively straight roads, inclined up the valley. It’s somehow harder to motivate when you can’t see the next turn for miles. It was the other riders around that gave it some rhythm, seeing the next ones to chase, or the next ones catching up. At about 2000m of elevation (still with 700m to go!) there’s a little old bridge to cross to the other side of the valley, after which it does start turning and twisting a little more. There’s a small local cheese shop that advertises its Beaufort cheese on little signs for a while, and I’ve always wondered what state of disrepair I’d have to be in to give up on the climb at that point to buy some cheese by the kilo.
The rest of the climb was a bit of a blur, to be honest. I arrived at the top and the end of the timed section in personal best time for Galibier, after nearly 2h40 for the combination, including the short stops. As I reached the top, in the seconds after stopping when I was just trying to get my breath back, one of the event medics came running over! I tried to tell her I wasn’t having a heart attack. It turns out she was trying to tell me to breathe slowly in order to recover quicker, which I suppose was appreciated if unexpected!
Food, water, more food, aware of another 1700m descent and 1000m climbing to come. All of the clothes back on (which takes longer than you would want at that point, when getting cold but not quite in control of ones faculties), and just as the rain jacket zipped up it started to drizzle. We were told that the rain was heavy at the bottom, so tried to balance wanting to move to get away from the cold mountaintop with wanting to stay still to recover a bit more.
I found Timeas, a Dutch guy I’ve been riding with quite a bit. We rode the descent together and stopped before the timing mat to eat yet more food. Some of the road was damp and so we were slower descending that we might have, but it sounds like we were relatively lucky compared to others who had thunderstorms and heavy rain.
We started the climb together, but I decided quickly to stop to take off and stow the jacket and gilet. It took me about a minute before starting to chase him, and it wasn’t until 37 minutes later that I managed to catch him! (He still beat me on the stage by 9 seconds, I’ll have to do something about that…)
What a beautiful climb. This was my favourite in 2017, where it was even more pretty in the sunshine. It’s just a joy to go up through the charming tiny villages, forests and fields with cows with cowbells, and then above the tree line into the views of the valley and the distant mountaintops.
I didn’t go as fast here as in 2017, but that was in the middle of much shorter stage, not the end of an epic one. This was my highest placing among the stages so far, as it was last time. I do like this hill! That was a great day, and a really hard ride.
My club in Zürich is called Veloton, and there are four of us riding here. The others, Luise and two Martin’s are, frankly, much faster than me, and that’s fine. We agreed to enter the mixed team competition, in which the times of the fastest three riders on each stage contribute to the team time. Because they’re so fast the team keeps winning, and so on yesterday’s and today’s stage, at the evening briefing we all went up to have our photo taken with the local chief of tourism, and to be given a prize!
I have not yet contributed any times to the team, and unless something goes very wrong for one of the others, I very likely will not. But when we get to Nice, if it keeps going like this I may be a proud member of the winning mixed GC team!