Steep bends come in all shapes and sizes, but when, at only a month’s notice, you take on a competitive, organised ride that takes in some of the toughest parts of the Giro D’Italia and Tour De France, they are learning curves in the extreme. In a 10-day period of tackling the Haute Route Dolomites, from Venice to Geneva, and the Haute Routes Compact (Geneva to Courchevel) over some of Europe’s highest peaks, I’ve never felt so exhausted, exhilarated, or relieved in my life. I’ve crawled up 20km climbs at a slow 7kph, made 25km of vertical gain, and during long descents, hit an exhilarating 84kph. I’ve seen grown men weep at the top of mountains. But I have survived. Well, just.
It began in Venice, about as inappropriate, but magnificent a location you could imagine for any cycling event. Around 400 international riders paraded in a short prologue on the outskirts of the canal-filled city to herald the start. Even then tragedy struck for more than one rider – months of training down the drain by crashing when a wheel got caught in a tramline rail.
The next morning, after a transfer to the true start at Conegliano, we set off to climb the first ascent – Passo San Boldo. I was pleasantly surprised at how manageable it was, enjoying the sprightly lightness of a new carbon-framed Boardman and friendly chats with other riders through a series of tunnels and hairpin bends. However, as the day wore on, we gradually approached the longer, much steeper Passo Giau near the 123km finish. It felt back-breaking in its steepness. Many riders had to stop more than once to eat extra energy gels. I pressed on and gradually made it to the chilly 2,236-metre peak. Tough, but rewarding. The final hailstone-peppered descent was unpleasant, and my bike wobbled as I shivered, but was pleased to make it through the first day unscathed.
Day two (Cortina D’Ampezzo to Merano) moved from a three-star up to a four-star day of difficulty with three big climbs including Passo Pordoi at 2,239m the toughest. Again the jagged-rock scenery was magnificent, but also as soon as we hit anything above 2,000 metres, the altitude made every pedal stroke twice as hard. Before this trip I had never in my life experienced climbing uphill for 90 minutes without stopping, and was sweating out what seemed an entire lifetime of beer and cake. I was also suffering from the effects of a 7am start (up at 5am for breakfast), but still really enjoying it. And for the second day I’d arrived almost about hour under the cut-off time. But was it all going too well?
It is easy to underestimate the other aspects of cyclosportive preparation aside from training and riding a bike. The daily packing, preparing kit, forcing down your breakfast at 5am, leaving one large bag in one place, small bag in another, preparing your bike, finding the start line. All are hard enough, let alone feeling awake and well enough to cycle. Then when you’re finished, doing all the same again, finding your hotel, perhaps a bus transfer, plus eating, getting a massage (always very good) and attending a nightly briefing. It’s a military operation.
Haute Route is a highly organised event, but with its first venture into the Dolomites, there were some moments of chaos, especially in the Italian sections. It is no mean feat putting several hundred people across as many as 27 hotels over a single night at the height of the holiday season, but somehow they managed it. The information staff were overworked, but always very helpful. However, there were a few confusing, and also amusing moments. In one very grand Italian hotel, after a long day in the saddle, reception staff sent me to three different rooms in error. Each door was answered by pairs of tired French or Italian men standing in just their underpants, gesticulating in confusion. I assume they were also cyclists.
With a twin-room two-star hotel package the norm (different accommodation arrangements were also available at various price levels) it is also important to quickly get used to sharing a room with a stranger. My room-mate for the first week, Nuno Luz, was both charming, clever, upbeat, funny but also highly eccentric – to me a Portuguese version of the comic Italian actor Roberto Benigni. He would eat about a dozen yoghurts (or vanilla/chocolate puddings) every day, often in bed, or in the bath. And cheerfully commentate with clockwork regularity on his bodily functions and dietary needs. It’s also not easy getting used to the stench of another man’s kit. But that’s cycling for you. But we had very few tense moments, far more of laughter. Our first hotel in Venice, the Belle Epoque, had mirrored ceilings. What a terrible waste, we both joked, looking up as we both lay there in our twin beds.
But after the adrenalin of the first two days, despite trying not to overdo it, and several days short of sleep, I wasn’t quite right on day three to Bormio. I began to feel extreme pain in my left knee on the flat sections. Then my right knee also began to complain. I was going slower and slower. After 100km and towards the last climb of the day, the killer Passo Di Gavia (14% gradient in parts), my eyes were watering with the pain. With the broomwagon fast approaching, suddenly it just happened. I just stopped and got in, while my bike was put in the back. But I wasn’t alone. Several other riders were already on the bus. I was both relieved, but then felt a creeping, desperate disappointment. Was this all over for me? I’d never given in on a bike ride before. What would I do for the rest of the week? That night we stayed in a hotel in the Passo di Stelvio at above 2,700m. I woke in the night with heart palpitations. Was I having a panic attack? No, I realised, but only in the morning. It was just the altitude. “Now I need to go to the toilet,” said Nuno.
Day four heralded the Passo di Stelvio, a time trial up what is possibly the most dramatic and challenging road in Europe: a 22km climb up more than 1,500m of ascent. The rain was torrential. It was a hairpin maze twisting through cloud. It was the shortest day of riding, but I simply wasn’t ready for it. Back in Bormio I had a massage and saw the osteopath. They advised me to rest for a day, and then see how I felt. I was disappointed, but determined to return. I adjusted my saddle position a little to ease my knees. But to make a comeback on for day five, a marathon stage of 175km from St Moritz to Andermatt? It became a defining day of what seemed biblical proportions. And it was do or die for me.
Comeback in the cold
It is usually cold at 7am when you set off, but day five was even colder than usual. And that was at the foot of the first climb. But as we approached the top, Julierpass at 2,284m, we could not see 10m in front of us. We were in near-freezing fog and constant rain. In the ascent, the effort keeps you warm, but after the refreshment point at the top, you get cold very rapidly. I stuffed the usual energy bars and gels down my mouth and a piece of cardboard down my jersey. I put on long gloves – essential – and my waterproof gilet. I set off down the long, wet, windy descent, chattering swearwords to myself, and taking the water-logged bends carefully.
After several kilometres, wet through, I hit the foot of the next climb. It was there I witnessed 20 more riders climbing into an ambulance, shaking uncontrollably, wrapped in foil and suffering from hyperthermia, some of them in tears. The medical staff on hand were invaluable. Several more dived into a cafe and scrambled for hot chocolates and toilet roll. At this moment I gave myself a private talking to. I’m from the north, I said. I’m not giving in. I must not stop now or I’ll never ride again this week. So I rolled on, like some yellow-jacketed fiend, through the wind and rain. And so came the next climb, and then the next. And gradually the rain stopped. I began to dry out. On the beautiful valley floor I even stopped to take a photograph. And eventually I made it to the last, and fifth tortuous climb. Every day of cycling to school in winter, every gritty bit of walking in hills in British weather – they all got used that day. I’ve become an animal, a cycling animal, I said to myself. Dozens dropped out that day. But I have survived! The rain poured again, but I grinned for every 10km of the final non-timed descent to Andermatt.
“I need my food,” said Nuno, already at the hotel. “I need my sleep.” There was no stopping him. I was doing two events, and classed as an “iron rider” – irony rider would be more apt. But Nuno, alongside 10 others, was doing the Triple Crown – Dolomites, Alps and Pyrenees over three weeks. It is amazing how humans are hardwired to forget pain as soon as the finishing line is crossed. Either that or we’re all idiots.
And so for the rest of the Haute Route Dolomites I continued, painkillers helping, under the cut-off times, and day six’s spectacular view as we climbed out of Andermatt was my favourite. I was usually in the bottom 20%, but didn’t worry. The last Dolomites day from Crans Montana was a marathon 180km, but it was all a blissful blur to me. We finished, officially in Yvoire outside Geneva. I was given a medal. It was a beautiful day and I ate a triple ice-cream to celebrate. Together, feeling like battle-worn heroes, we all then rolled into the Swiss city to complete the ride in a mass peloton, the iconic giant fountain on Lake Geneva spurting through a beautiful rainbow in the sunlit sky.
With only a short prologue time-trial alongside the lake the next day, there was time to reflect on other riders. Most were incredibly fit. Haute Route is all about climbing and individual fitness, so there were few large pelotons in which to shelter. It was only at the beginning of the Alps event, on a long flat non-timed section, where there was a large peloton, that I realised just how high the standard was – it was cruising along at a professional level 50kph.
Despite taking in the Col de La Colombière, the first say of the Alps Compact was the smoothest of all days for me (although no day is easy), and I felt like I was nearly done. The last day up to Courchevel was much tougher, with two hard climbs, but somehow the Compact, a two-day taster for the rest of the full Alps event, while wonderfully scenic, was oddly anti-climatic. For me the main event was the Dolomites, the toughest ever Haute Route – and my first. With a time-consuming transfer back to Geneva, I felt that others who had only come for the Compact may have felt they were spending almost more time travelling than riding.
But overall while my greatest joys were arriving at the top of cols, and speeding down descents in dramatic scenery, the event is also about being among a mass of riders, all celebrating cycling – often against all the odds and perhaps in a collective expression of madness. Only about 10% of the riders were women, but most were outstandingly fast, several competing with the men in the top 10% overall. Olympic medallist and world record-breaker Emma Pooley was among several stars to appear, very much enjoying herself, and revealed how challenging she found it, was also generous enough to pay tribute to the riders at the back.
I very much enjoyed meeting a variety of characters en route, including a group who rode with custom-made bamboo frames, a 70-year-old Swiss rider (the average age was early 40s), cyclists from the Team Type 1 Foundation charity helping fight diabetes in developing countries, and the talented and highly-trained Mike Gluckman, who did the entire Dolomites standing up on a single-speed model. As Nuno put it to him: “I wouldn’t want to be your quads.” I also enjoyed several bouts of hilarious banter with Fergus Grant, a French-fluent Mancunian and superfit cyclist employed as the Lanterne Rouge rider, who, like a court jester on wheels, has the job of jollying and speeding up the rear of the pack.
But the one who made the greatest impression on me was the extraordinary disabled athlete Christian Haettich, who, riding with only one leg and arm, was on his way to completing all three events. This courageous individual attracts huge respect and inspiration. I feel humbled to have even been in the same ride as him. And, if I find the time to train, perhaps I will be worthy enough to join him again next year.
Peter rode the Haute Route on a Boardman Pro Carbon SLR
For more information on the Dolomites, Alps and Pyrenees rides, including videos and to take advantage of early booking discounts in September for next year’s events, visit the Haute Route website
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