It's the morning after the hardest week of my life. On the banks of Lake Geneva, I'm passing time in the Haute Route race village before my flight home to England, shambling about like a hungover party-goer realising the morning carnage once the lights have come up. I'm surrounded by two distinct groups of people: the weary like me who have just completed the first Dolomites Haute Route edition, 954km from Venice to Geneva, and the energetic souls who have just arrived to begin the Alps Haute Route, from Geneva to Nice.
Recognising a survivor of the Dolomites (hollow cheeked, thousand-yard stare) and a new recruit for the Alps (fresh faced, full of joie de vivre) is easy. Some, like Portugese Sergio Costa, a top 30 finisher in the Dolomites, are back to sign on all over again for another go. Sergio is actually one of 11 doing the ‘Triple Crown’ – all three Haute Routes back-to-back over three weeks.
The eagerness and excitement he displayed a week ago in Venice, however, are long gone. He feels good, he assures me, and has raced strong right up until the end of the seventh and final stage but that was in relation to a field of equally tired riders. With a boisterous group fresh of the plane, his apprehension for the week ahead is apparent.
I'm just glad to be booked onto the 15:25 Easyjet flight to Bristol. One Haute Route a year is plenty. It's always an amazing experience, and one I'd urge any serious roadie to experience at least once, but would Christmas be the same if it were more than once a year? You can have too much of a good thing. Besides, I’m not sure my legs would ever forgive me.
Too Haute to handle?
Unquestionably, the Haute Route Dolomites Swiss Alps were a good thing. It was also, according to everyone I spoke to, the most challenging Haute Route since its 2011 inception, for a number of reasons that built up, one on top of the other.
It was the longest (954km) and highest (20,350m), but we knew that coming in. What we didn't expect was just how damn cold it would be. It was properly bracing for large parts. My arm and leg warmers were rarely off, neither were my winter gloves. And having left my shoe covers at home, I had torn-up plastic bags sandwiched between two pairs of socks for much of the week.
A rider on the chilly Furkapass early on stage 6. Temperatures were below zero at the summit
The race started on the 16 August at the beginning of the Italian national holidays, so organisers had been forced to negotiate an earlier than normal start time – between 6.30 and 7.00am – each day. By 8am we'd invariably climbed to over 2,000m (on stage 6 we were atop a foggy, icy cold Furkapass at 2,436m) before long descents left scores of riders nursing numb extremities and taking refuge in shops and cafes. On stage 5, the third and final group on the road was forced to descend the Julierpass (2,284m) in pouring rain and freezing fog. It was the start of the longest stage of the race (175km), forcing over 20 sodden, freezing and miserable riders to call time on their day.
It was also the most logistically challenging Haute Route yet for the organisers. The French Alps are tailor made for this race. Ski resorts large enough to accommodate its 400 riders pepper the region, so stages of typical Haute Route distance (between 120 and 170km) can be easily designed. Stages can end with a summit finish, with hotels often a short walk away from the finish line.
The Pyrenees race is similar, though rather than ski resorts stages tend to end in valley towns. Either way, there are enough beds to go around. For a variety of reasons – keeping stages to a reasonable length and a shortage of suitable stage finish towns for instance – the Dolomites race wasn't always able to offer this in 2014. After the opening stage in Cortina, for example, a number of riders had to get a shuttle bus some 70km up the valley to their hotel and back again to the start the next morning. They had to be on the return bus at 4am, which meant an indecent wake-up call that morning.
On stage 4, a shortage of available hotels in Bormio meant I was one of many shuttled high up to the Passo Dello Stelvio summit for the night and back down the next morning for the start of the time trial back up the mountain. Organisers did their best to divvy up the shuttles so that every rider had one at some point, so nobody got away scot-free.
Cheats never prosper
I've already mentioned the race coincided with the start of the Italian holidays, so the traffic on the road – stage 2 from Cortina to Merano in particularly – sometimes felt like riding in rush hour central London. Things improved when we crossed the border into Switzerland in time for stage 5 but those opening few stages were fraught.
OC Sport, the organisers, had a harder time recruiting marshals and volunteers for the race route in both Italy and Switzerland than they do in France and Spain and there were noticeably fewer on the roads. This didn't stop riders from racing hard down descents and through towns, though, weaving in and out of cars in a bid to save precious seconds. As well as the freezing descents, it's where I lost the bulk of my time this year. While I was one of the better climbers in the race, on these busy sections I held my hands up and conceded that I just wasn't prepared to risk like this for the sake of a higher GC place.
The organisers are looking at ways round this for next year. One is to reverse the order of races, starting with the Pyrenees in mid-August and ending in the Dolomites in the first week of September. It would not only avoid the busy Italian roads but also freshen up the routes by going the opposite way.
The morning climb of the Julierpass on stage 5 was stunning but coming back down the other side was hugely problematic
The Dolomites race also suffered for the fact that racing on the descents was prohibited by two of the three governing Swiss Cantons (districts) we passed through. So for stage 5 and 6, from St. Moritz to Crans-Montana, and the first part of stage 7 to Geneva, racing was limited to the climbs.
This actually worked in my favour, as a good climber who's reluctant to push it on the downhill, but it did water down somewhat the Haute Route concept of fully timed stages. It added a tactical element to the race, where riders normally racing hard in the front group would soft pedal between the timed sections before smashing themselves on what became mountain time trials.
That was fine, but not all the tactics were in the spirit of the Haute Route. One rider, let's call him Norberto Ribeiro Junio of the Brazilian Riders team passed me at the foot of one non-timed climb clinging on to the trailer of a tractor. The sight of him disappearing up the switchbacks at a rate of knots while I suffered like a dog irked me somewhat, so it was particularly satisfying to wind up beating him by eight minutes over the three timed sections. Cheats never prosper, Norberto, remember that.
One rider high up in the rankings also told me that the Strava files of one of his rivals made for very interesting reading, in that his speeds between the timed sections indicated he was taking the weight off in the passenger seat of a car. Shameful, just shameful.
The stuff bucket lists are made of
Despite the difficulties of the week, this Haute Route was still the Haute Route I remember from previous years. It didn't feel inferior in any way to the Alpine or Pyrenean events. If anything it made it more satisfying to finish. It still had the same superbly designed route (aside from a truly terrifying downhill tunnel on a highway on the road to Merano on stage 2), the same spectacular scenery and the same exemplary organisation.
I've ridden three Haute Routes now – 21 days of stage racing – and I've never once had to go to them with a problem. It runs like clockwork and that's a credit to the staff, of which there is one for every two and a half riders. They work round the clock each day to transport bags, arrange meals, sign the route and help your daily recovery. On the night of stage 6 in Crans-Montana, for example, we walked by race HQ after dinner on the way back to our hotel. It was 10pm but it was still all systems go. The Haute Route is as much a race for the staff as it is for the riders and nobody's thinking about taking their foot off the accelerator until the finish line.
If the Alps race has echoes of the Tour de France and the Pyrenees the Vuelta, the Dolomites Swiss Alps is the Giro d'Italia; harder, higher, more technically challenging and with worse weather. But like it always does, the week rushed by in a haze of speed and fatigue. Wake, eat, ride, massage, eat, sleep and repeat, seven days in a row. You’re always on the move.
It might have been tough, but there were few more stunning sights than from the narrow roads of the Gavia
It’s a wearing routine that sometimes makes it hard to appreciate the moment. This isn’t an event for tourists. It exhausts you, it hurts you, it tests your patience, it makes you cranky, it makes you want to scream and hit snooze when the alarm goes off, again, at 4am.
But there are also plenty of moments amid the pain that remind you what a special event this is; how sweet that glass of red wine tastes at dinner; of being able to recover, later on in the race, during the split seconds of a flat switchback, before burying yourself all over again; of crossing the finish line of the TT with nothing left in the tank; the serenity upon waking up having fallen asleep in massage; the talk with friends about the stage over dinner; when your head finally hits the pillow at the end of a tortuous day; glancing over your shoulder at the mountain pass behind and of riding, exhausted but ecstatic, in the triumphant end of race convoy at the completion your passage. It’s in these moments you consider, however briefly, ‘and why can’t I do this every day?’
That bucket list of yours – it’s time to make space at the top of it.
Entries to the Haute Route 2015 are now open. Until 15 September individual entry to each event is €1,200 and accommodation starts from €500. Visit www.hauteroute.org for more information.