Twelve months after racing - and finishing - the first edition of the Haute Route Alps, I'm back for more, only this time in the Pyrenees.
For those of you still not aware of the event, the Haute Route concept is simple: up to 600 riders compete in seven stages over seven days, including six road stages and one time trial, taking the highest, toughest road possible through a given mountain range. The event started last year with an 800km route from Geneva to Nice. It was a huge success and the organisers, OC Sport, had already decided before that event ended to copy the format in the Pyrenees.
So the Haute Route Pyrenees was born, with a route heading from Barcelona on the Mediterranean to the Anglet Basque Coast on the Atlantic. In line with this ambitious expansion, details of an event in the Dolomites in 2014 are right now being finalised. That event is set to end on the weekend that the original Alps event starts, during the third week of August. It creates the most tantalising series of events ever created for amateur cyclists, should you be that fit/crazy to entertain the idea of all three. This year 40 cyclists, dubbed 'Iron Riders' for the 1,600km and 40,000 vertical metres they have to ride, have taken part in both, including OC Sport boss Mark Turner, who's clearly a man who practices what he preaches.
The Haute Route is the evolution of an event like the l'Étape du Tour. Indeed, the route designer, Jean-Francois Alcan, was one of the guys behind the legendary French sportive. It's an event for cyclists looking for extremes, to get a taste of what it's like to ride the Tour de France, to wake up day after day knowing you have to once again drag yourself over mountains.
I'm writing this with the end in sight. Two stages remain, with the highest Pyrenean cols behind me. It's tough to say which event has been harder, given the time that has past since the Alps. There's a tendency to say that the event you're in, or the one you've just finished, is the harder one, because the memories are fresher. Of course, the Alps inflicted its own damage but the metaphorical wounds are just scars now, and the memories are fading fast. Even so, I'd say the Pyrenees has been the tougher of the two. For one, the climbs are much more unforgiving. Anyone who has ever ridden here knows the gradients can be uneven and severe. Climbs like the Port de Balès or the Tourmalet have long stretches between 8 and 15 percent, which makes cruising up climbs more difficult. They kill rhythm and drag you out of your comfort zone, and the accumulative fatigue gets increasingly difficult to manage. The competition this year also feels like it has upped its game. Many of the guys here also rode in the Alps last year and have perhaps realised that the Haute Route demands nothing less than your A game. Maybe word has spread just how tough an event it is, attracting those willing to push their boundaries and repelling those not prepared for the fight.
That said, I actually came into the event with far fewer miles in my legs than last year but feel like I've performed better, in terms of my position in the rankings and the numbers on my Garmin. I started off slow, unsure of how my body would hold up through the week, but have got stronger and stronger as the week has gone on. I feel pretty terrible whenever I'm not on the bike (writing this blog was a real struggle, given the way stage racing seems to fog my brain), but my power output is rising day after day. Today's time trial, for example, was a 13km slog up the eight percent Hautacam, yet I recorded my best finish of the week. A lot of riders are saying the same and shows that you needn't be put off by the idea of a week-long event. Maybe freshness counts for a lot, perhaps showing that endless miles of training is no substitute for a smaller amount of short, hard, climbing-heavy rides.
I've also enjoyed this event much more for several reasons. For starters, the Pyrenees are just a better place to ride a bike in terms of the challenge, the scenery and the roads. The area feels that bit more remote and has far less traffic. All the stage finishes have been in vibrant valley towns, rather than the out-of-season ghost towns of the Alps' ski stations. The organisers, too, have played their part and have undoubtedly learned lessons from the Alps. An event of this scale was always going to have to take time to find the right formula and they've used the feedback past riders have given them well. It's just the small things, like a suitcase with wheels and a better functioning procedure for post-ride massages. More importantly, they've found a beer sponsor in Heineken. I also know what to expect this time round in terms of managing not only my effort on the bike but everything else in between. Knowing when to rest, when to eat, when to get a massage are all vital pieces of the jigsaw and there really have been no surprises this year. I also know I can finish, which has been a real confidence booster all week long.
Most of all, what this week has done has confirmed my view that the Haute Route is now the best amateur road cycling event on the planet. The incredible thing is that it's only going to get better as its logistics are fine tuned further and I would urge anyone who hasn't ridden it to consider it for 2014. It may, given its difficulty, bring me to the verge of tears at times but pain is the currency we all deal in as cyclists, isn't it?
Look out for a full feature in a future issue of the Haute Route Pyrenees in Cycling Plus, once I've had a long lie down in a dark, dark room.