“You’re tired by stage three, f***** by stage five and you stay f***** for the rest of the race.”
The words of Fränk Schleck, speaking to Cycling Plus after he’d joined us for an especially savage stage of the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, referred to the Tour de France but he could so easily have been talking about the Haute Route. To be fair to him Schleck looked remarkably fresh, still in possession of a physique that belied the fact he’d been nine months retired, and the 16th position he’d cruised to on the stage hadn’t taken an awful lot out of him. Then again, he’s finished on more Tour de France podiums than the rest of us put together.
For us mere mortals, however, the Haute Route sportive series, which have typically involved seven consecutive stages over the toughest mountain terrain in Europe, are defined by those words of Schleck. If anything, as merely mortals, it’s even more severe.
Those who’ve been put off by the mammoth physical undertaking that a Haute Route represents might take a fancy to the series’ newest offering. July’s Haute Route Alpe d’Huez was the first of their new ‘Classic’ events, which has since also included October’s event on and around Mont Ventoux, and many more in 2018, aiming to package the full Haute Route experience into a more agreeable three, rather than abominable seven, day event. Arguably the biggest attraction of the Classic events, for those who’ve toiled valiantly through the daily slog of transfers in the week-long, point-to-point events, is that you stay in the same hotel each night. That means more time in bed, less frantic mornings and more chilled evenings.
With four fewer stages it would be easy to underestimate this Alpe d’Huez event, but you’d do that at your peril. This is still the Haute Route – the high road – and the challenge remains considerable: the first Alpe d’Huez event saw 248km over three stages, with 8,700m of uphill on the likes of the Croix de Fer (both sides), Les Deux Alpes and three sides of Alpe d’Huez. And it was the most famous side, from Bourg d’Oisans known so well from the Tour de France, that proceedings got under way on the first evening, with a 16km time trial up the mountain. Well, it did for the majority of the race’s 128 riders, who headed down the starting ramp and up the 21 hairpins and 13.8km of the Tour’s most famous stretch of tarmac. I, on the other hand, had to make do with the memories of the last time I rode this climb in a TT, in the 2012 Haute Route Alps. On the ride down to the start the tube in my front wheel burst dramatically and its replacement tore in the changeover. By the time the Mavic mechanics had seen to me, following an inglorious hour spent on hairpin 5, which I’ll forever know to be Andy Hampsten’s hairpin (the winners on this mountain each get one named in their honour), race officials informed me it was pointless heading down to Bourg d’Oisans because, by the time I got there, the start ramp would have been packed away. So, I was out of the race classification before I’d got in it, with a DNS to my name on the results sheet. Though with Schleck appearing next to me on this inglorious roll call, I was at least in good company.
Stage 2’s route and profile was fearsome: a neutral zone off Alpe d’Huez (down the Villard-Reculaz side), up the Col de la Croix de Fer from Vaujany – the side they rode in the Tour de France last year – down the Col du Glandon and eventually to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, back up the other side of the Croix de Fer, back down it where we began in Vaujany, and finishing on the climb back to where we started in Alpe d’Huez. 152km, all in all, with close to 5,000 vertical metres.
I’m not sure anybody likes the Croix de Fer, maybe apart from Alberto Contador, who danced up it at the Tour last summer for the fastest time ever in competition. 22km from one side, 30km from the other, it slow tortures with irregular gradients and a couple of lengthy descents that kill whatever rhythm you’ve developed. It certainly didn’t favour me, again off the back after another lengthy mechanical delay in the neutral zone.
The second time up, from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, became a total slog in 30+ degree temperatures, and claimed the chunk of the 30 riders who’d succumbed before the finish. Lack of food and water was the main issue; the Haute Route is normally really good with their feed zones, stationing them at the summit of each climb. And it’s what they did here. It’s just that the Croix de Fer is so damn long, we were going 50km before being fed and watered – far too long on a day like this. One poor Belgian chap I passed was pleading for water 20km shy of the summit. It was hard to tell him I was running dry too and couldn’t help. Thank heavens, then, for my last minute decision to pack 30 euros in the morning, and the two Cokes and a Calippo I was able to quaff in the two restaurants in the village of Saint-Sorlin, 7km short of the summit.
It was in the second of these where, sitting with my feet up relishing an ice cold bottle of Coke, Adrian, the Lanterne Rouge, came ambling by. The Lanterne Rouge, the last rider in the Tour de France, has been appropriated by the Haute Route. Here they are one of the strongest riders in the event, riding at the back with the slowest riders and acting as a sort of friendly, encouraging broom wagon. They’ll give you a push, a tow, a bottle, a laugh, a distraction – anything to keep you moving forward within the time limit. The sight of the Lanterne Rouge is, truly, a double-edged sword: an unwavering ally who’ll push you along, yet at the same time the knowledge you’re the last soul on the road. So, as Adrian passed, I jumped out of my seat in my most energetic action of the day and tried to tame the last few kilometres of the Croix de Fer.
I gapped him on the descent back down – he must have waited at the summit and tended to the scores of abandoning riders – but he’d caught me soon into the climb back to Alpe d’Huez. And it wasn’t just him. The broom wagon, the end of course car, the front of course car – long since surplus to requirements for the leaders, by now showered and changed at the finished – were all trailing me in my battle to make it to the finish before the time cut, which would have seen me unceremoniously stripped of my bib and left to my own devices. I think they could see I was still climbing well, though, and allowed me to carry on to the top. Which I did. Eventually.
The finish brought the usual Haute Route paraphernalia that gets you ready for tomorrow: massage was had, dinner taken and safety briefing attended, but the 80km stage 3 ride to nearby ski resort Les Deux Alpes and back again via the gnarliest side of Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Sarenne, would pass me by, as we had a plane to catch home.
The two stages were enough to get the gist that you don’t lose much on the three-day Haute Route compared to its seven-day brethren. If anything you gain. Lucidity, for one – it was a relief to stay in the same hotel each evening rather than be at the mercy of the travelling circus of the big one.
Photos: Laurent Salino
Grade: Hard. Two tough days in the high mountains follow a stinging time trial up Alpe d’Huez
Alpe d’Huez is accessible from Geneva, Lyon and Turin in the summer months. While Lyon is closer, Geneva is often the cheaper and more accessible option from the UK and is a 210km, three hour drive to the ski resort once you get there.
WHEN TO RIDE
The 2018 Haute Route Alpe d’Huez will return on 13th-15th July. Cost of entry is 645 Euros (for the first 100 entries), which doesn’t include flights or accommodation.
WHERE TO STAY
Haute Route accommodation varies on the package you choose to buy. We stayed in the 4* Hotel le Pic Blanc.
Cycling Plus Features Editor and tireless domestique John has been putting in a shift for the magazine for seven years. Despite having been a ‘proper’ road cyclist for the last decade, he still can’t work out what his main motivation for punishing all-day rides is. A freewheeling attitude towards cake is the popular theory, however.