Haute Route 2021 – Stage 6 – GC 121 Serre Chevalier to Auron

A normal stage. A couple of big climbs, a couple of small ones and some fast riding on the flat.

140km – 3,650m – Vars, Bonette, Auron
Stage position: 109
GC position: 119

After the finish, someone described today’s stage as the dose of normality that this Haute Route needed, following the cold and huge queen stage with its 70km of descending, and the crashes yesterday. With its four separate timed sections including two big climbs and a much more typical up-and-down profile, on a day when I could wear my flimsiest warm-weather climbing jersey, this was much more back to normal.

Normal, that is, after a brutally fast opening section. We had the usual short convoy from the start out of Briançon, and then turned onto smaller country roads where the timing started. This first section was about 20km and mostly flat-ish, until the very end. The pace shot up and the group strung out immediately. I started to lose contact with the group before too long, until a well-timed Martin came past. I managed to get onto and follow his wheel as he pulled us back into contact. The next 20 mins the pace stayed high, and it was really hard work to stay with the group, mostly single-file the whole way. To stay on these groups takes repeated high efforts, not like the smooth efforts of climbing on your own. I’d be happy in any case with the section average of 40 minutes at 245W, but the first five minutes being above 300W makes sustaining it all the harder.

When the road straightened and we could see further it turned out we were on the back of the leading group, and could see the Tëte de la Course car that leads the race with its big sign and flashing lights. Finally we got to a short sharp ascent for the last kilometre or two of this timed section, which was enough to break the group up. At the timing mat I came in something like the top 70 riders. This is probably the only timed section of the week where I beat some of the rest of the Veloton team, and even my roommate (GC 21)! That’s the power of holding the right wheel.

The untimed section that followed was only a short descent of a couple of kilometres, neutralised because of some pretty open bends and a lot of damaged road surface. A lot of people took their time here, not just because the first half an hour had gone at such a brutally hard pace, but also because the views on this descent were just stunning. A wide flat valley floor was surrounded by peaks, and the morning sun angled in so that you could kind of see the shadow in the air below the mountains. I’m not sure the phone camera really did it justice_ (photos to follow, I’m afraid)._

Next up was the Col de Vars, with over 1000m up and with mixed gradients – some steep at the beginning, some flat in the middle. Just to keep you on your toes. I worried a little about how I’d go on the Bonette later after the first passage, so went for a conservative 230W as much as I could. I managed to persuade the leg autopilot to obey, and this stuck pretty well: I averaged 232W overall. This was another pass that we climbed in 2017 from the other side, so I recognised very little of it until where we stopped at the top.

From here we descended, the new untimed section decided after the crashes, and then started the climb up to the Col de la Bonette. There was some debate about whether this was the highest point of the week, because it wasn’t exactly clear which bit of Bonette we would get to. In any case it was higher than 2700m above sea level, and that’s plenty. I had “Let’s go fly a kit” in my head for ages, though now I think of it, Jo told me that doesn’t actually say anything about the air being thin. Well, suffice to say that the air is thin up there. I passed so many people on the Bonette. I went with the tried-and-tested 230W and kept that going for a long time, finishing in just under 1h40 at 226W. My heart rate monitor is on the blink, and thought I had a 15 minute section near the end with only 60bpm, and while I may be good on the climbs I’m not that good. The descent was another stunner (pictures to follow). It was much warmer now too, so didn’t have to worry about getting too cold even though we were so high up.

We’re definitely into new scenery here. As early as the fast section and some of the Vars climb, there was much more scrub than the lush grass and forests around somewhere like Alpe d’Huez or Télégraphe. The top (really most of) the Col de la Bonette is quite bare – the shapes of the mountain and its valleys are interesting, but there aren’t that many trees up there.

A windy descent brought us to the village at the foot of Auron. The last timed section of the day was a 7km climb up about 450m to the finish line and our home for the night. This was described by one of the Veloton riders as “about an Albis”, that well-known metric of height due to the hill near Zürich that we’ve all climbed in countless club rides. I took a good long rest at the feed stop here before the start, and then went for it. “Full gas”, and I held 260W up the climb to finish the day in 109th on the stage and 119th on the GC. The climb hurt, that’s plenty to push at the end of a 140km, 3600m day, but at least it only took 27 minutes! I’m very happy with that.

And suddenly it’s nearly over. Tomorrow is the last day of another Haute Route. But it is another long stage so we’re not quite there yet! Only two sections, an early “normal” climb that will take a little over an hour, and then some rolling hills to get to the finish line in Vence, before a 30km transition to Nice itself and the fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais.