Haute Route 2: What goes up must come down

By John Whitney in Courchevel, France | Monday, August 20, 2012 3.55pm

Bike riders often fall into two camps – those who like to go up, and those who prefer to come down. Many cyclists will say they climb to descend, preferring the thrill and adrenaline rush of a helter skelter descent to the interminable suffering of a 20km climb.

I'm sat squarely in the 'climbing for climbing's sake' corner. As ascending is primarily about fitness, it's something I've worked on during every ride since I became a cyclist and something that I've made sure I put in the training for. Have a look at my BikeRadar Training profile and you can follow my training routine.

Descending, too, is something I've increasingly become comfortable with though – on the short, mostly non-technical climbs we get in the UK anyway – and while I by no means consider myself a first-rate downhiller, it's not been something that's held me back.

Until this week, that is. Starting on Sunday in Geneva and winding up on Saturday in Nice, I'm riding the Haute Route, a 780km sportive-come-race that takes the haute (or high) road through the Alps, taking in legendary cols such as Courchevel, Glandon and Alpe d'Huez.

Believe me, this thing is brutal – even though I am just two stages in. The region is currently in the grips of a heatwave and, judging by some of the fraught-looking cyclists in bits at the roadside, the demands are starting to wreak havoc on bodies and minds.

Even a cursory glance at our roadbook shows how much we have on our plate. The basic premise of the event is that the road to the Med is almost exclusively mountainous. You're either going up or you're going down. Today, stage two's 105km from Megève to Courchevel, was the first and only time we spent a prolonged time in the valley, a stretch only included for logistical reasons.

It's the ultimate test of an amateur rider. You obviously need to have the legs to power up 19 cols, but months of training has seen to that – I've managed top half finishes on all five cols in a field that includes some of the wiriest cyclists I've ever come across.

But you also need supreme bike handling skills and, as I've said, while I'm not too bad on this score in the UK, transferring to descents of 20 to 30 minutes is a different kettle of fish entirely. Mountain descending isn't a skill I get to practise every day, so it's highly frustrating to have people I passed on the climb take it back going down the other side.

In Britain you can almost get away with a lack of downhill prowess. But in the Alps you can lose serious time in minutes, creating gaps in the peloton that are virtually impossible to bridge in the valley. Tuesday's mammoth stage includes ascents of Col de la Madeleine and Col du Glandon, before finishing on Alpe d'Huez. The trouble is, it starts with the descent from Courchevel, so I might out myself on the back foot immediately.

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In Britain, descending is rarely a problem. I usually take the right lines and never overshoot corners, so why do I lose my nerve on a mountainside? Riding on the other side of the road is certainly one reason, but it's more about the gruesome plunge to an unfortunate death should I overcook a bend that worries me. So it's basically all in my head, rather than a major technical deficiency.

This wasn't helped by today's sight of one of the guys I've been riding with lying bloodied and bruised in a ditch. His inner tube had exploded just before a corner on the descent of Col des Saises while doing 60km/h.

Yes, the ditch he fell down wasn't big compared to some, but it could have been. It's an uneasy thought to have with you all the time, and a shackle I reckon will take some breaking before I feel as at home going down mountains as I do going up them.

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