Haute Route 2021 – Stage 5 – GC 125 Alpe d'Huez to Col du Granon

A mixed day, with a good performance on my part but a heavy crash in the pack.

86km – 3,000m – Lauteret, Granon
Stage position: 102
GC position: 125

Well, where to start with today’s stage.

After a lovely little stay in Alpe d’Huez we headed in convoy down the hill. Today was more of the usual profile of an Haute Route stage, up and down with no flat. Unusually it was a single timed segment, without opportunities to stop and rest at feed stations in the middle.

The first climb was the Col du Lautaret. We actually came down it in stage 3 – Galibier is up from the top of the Lautaret pass – and there we hurtled along in only small groups, after the earlier climbs split riders apart.

In the other direction it’s a completely different affair. It’s long climb of 38km, but only averaging about 4%. It’s not steep enough to split groups, but not shallow enough that it’s easy to hold the wheel of whoever’s in front. So riding in a race situation where you don’t want to get dropped (I don’t fancy climbing 38km on my own, that would take ages!) is really hard work. It was much more like a criterium race (laps, not much climbing, bunch riding) rather than a mountain.

From when the flag dropped and the timing started, I stayed near the other Veloton riders. They’re plenty faster than me on a straight climb but I was hoping to keep with the group in this kind of setting. It took 1h40m to reach the top, in which I averaged 249W – I absolutely did not know I could sustain that for so long! I was really happy to stay with the group almost the whole way to the top, dropping off the back only in the last 3km before the top.

I filled my bottles at the top and started on the descent, also not too steep, a fairly major road with wide sweeping bends and lots of visibility. As I rolled out a marshall called out that there was a blockage in the road a couple of kilometers down. They’re good at giving information like this, and seeing the motorbike marshalls waving to slow down is also a common sight. But suddenly it became clear that “blockage” didn’t quite do it justice – traffic was tailing back in both directions because of a crash of riders, just on the exit from the tunnel. As I was waved through I only caught a glimpse of 2 or 3 riders and bikes down on the road. It had happened 10 minutes before I got there, not clear exactly how but with bikes and cars involved.

For the rest of the descent I was a bit shaken up, and seeing five emergency vehicles and a helicopter making multiple trips didn’t help. I just tried to concentrate on the road. At this point I was almost on my own, having been dropped from the group just before the summit. That at least meant that I was entirely in control of my speed and line down the road, without even many cars to follow me, traffic having been blocked by the crash. (They later removed everyone’s time from that descent, since many riders were still caught before the crash.)

On to Granon, which also featured in 2017. It’s consistently steep, around 10% gradient the whole way. That’s a bit too steep to spin properly (though my newly acquired 34-tooth cassette did help a lot!) and so you end up spending a lot of time out of the saddle, stomping on the pedals. The lower and upper parts of the climb are quite open and can get hot later in the day, though I was there early enough for the sun not to be a big problem. The forest section in the middle brings some welcome shade. As you get higher you see the city of Briançon (where I write this) below, in a bowl of mountains. It’s quite a sight, though I’m not sure the photos do it justice!

I finished the climb almost five minutes quicker than my last attempt. Combined with the big outlay of energy in the first part of the ride I’m really happy with that. This is my highest placing of the week, just outside the top 100, and brings me a few more places up the GC.

The “extra” prize at the evening briefing today was for the “best team spirit”, rewarding the team that finished the closest together. Having stayed with the same group as the other Veloton riders this was indeed my closest time to the others, and I was only ~11 minutes behind our fastest. Finally I was able to actually contribute to the team’s winnings! (When the moment came, they decided not to give us the prize because we’d already won so much 😂)

So, a mixed day. It was hard to enjoy either climb in the moment (one too long and hard going, one too steep!), but I was very happy with how I did on both, and with my result. At the evening briefing after announcing that the three involved were stable, the race director gave an impassioned call for care and avoiding risks, saying that the event is about racing uphill, not descending and crashing. This got a lot of applause and we’ll see if there’s a difference in how the peloton behaves tomorrow. They also announced that the remaining timed descent in tomorrow’s stage would be neutralised, which I’m sure will have a more direct contribution to avoiding crashes.