Wednesday 5 September 2012

Haute Route: The final verdict

It's been about ten days since completing the event and I'm well into my recovery holiday - no cycling involved, but I seem to be eating as if I was still riding six hours a day. Let's see how well this hindsight thing works....

I entered the event as I needed a big challenge. In 2009 I was doing 12-hour solo mountain bike races, in 2010 we did Lands End to John O'Groats in 8 days (960 miles for those not familiar with it) and in 2011 I bimbled through the year. The Haute Route looked like the perfect antidote to bimbling, something that scared and excited me in equal measure. Well, let's put it at 95% scared, 5% excited. It certainly worked as a motivational tool as 6am pre-work winter bike rides were started by chanting "Haute Route, Haute Route" to get me out of bed. Maybe I should have recorded that as my phone alarm tone.

Training went as well as I could have expected. No injuries, no illness, no accidents. I was completely focussed on the one thing to the extent I stopped riding mountain bikes from February onwards. That's going to change in about 5 days time. The week in the Dolomites was perfect preparation, as much from a mental point of view as physical. Knowing that a climb like the Stelvio was harder than anything in the event gave me a lot of confidence. To anyone planning on riding the HR next year, get a trip to the mountains booked in preparation.

The event itself... well, what stands out?

  • The organisation and logistics. There were a few tiny, tiny glitches but quite frankly the organisers did an incredible job. Moving that many people, with all those bags, start and finish villages, motos, medical teams, masseurs, catering, food stops, road controls... the thought, planning and execution was brilliantly done. A public thank you to everyone involved.
  • It was far more fun at the time than I ever thought it would be. The early starts meant that I was finishing early/mid-afternoon (as part of the mid-pack obscurity group). This gave time to relax, recover, chat, wander and watch the Vuelta. I've done proper bike holidays that had less leisure time.
  • On the other hand, it's not a holiday. It's hard work. It's harder for those that are less fit. You need to either be very fit already or prepared to get into decent shape. I was no slouch as a rider, but I still put  in nine months of sacrifice in order to give myself the best possible chance of getting through it.
  • It does give you a taste of the pro-experience. Sometimes the hotels are crappy, sometimes the food is crappy. It will hurt, you will suffer. However, when you stop for a piss in the neutralised section and chase back on to the peloton through the event cars - including the Mavic service cars - you'll have a huge grin on your face.
  • The descents... oh, the descents. And the feeling when you're in a chain gang in the valley, all working together, moto leading the way, flying along, sweeping up other riders...
  • Unless you're in the top 20, you have to ride at your own pace for the week. Your training will determine your pace. You won't suddenly be able to "attack" a 20km climb. If you try, you will suffer badly.
  • At may points in the week you'll be in pain. My problem was hot feet. Hot, painful, agonising-at-every-pedal-stroke feet. Yet when you get to the stage finish the pain will be replaced with a glow of achievement. Another stage done.
When I started the event I was convinced I'd finish thinking "never again". The fact that I finished thinking "maybe, maybe again" is testament to how good the experience was.

There are some more points and discussions on the excellent Inner Ring blog - with comments from me, another rider and Mark from the organising team.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Haute Route: Eating like a stage-sportiver

One of the key parts of my training for the Haute Route involved food - both eating a lot of it and understanding what worked for me. I experimented with an all-sausage diet, only eating green things and even existing on pure smugness but in the end I fell back to the accepted wisdom of lots of carbs, some protein and a bit of fat. Oh, with some beer mixed in too.

The eating side of the event fell into three distinct categories - pre-bike, on-bike and post-bike.

Each day before riding it was important to get the fine balance between "not enough" and "too much" right. Clearly I failed most days but at least I had a plan. The biggest difficultly was the early starts, and the need to let breakfast digest before the racing began. I figured that liquid calories might be easily absorbed and would also help with hydration so in the absence of facilities for my favourite Frijj Chocolate Shakes I resorted to using recovery drink powder - in this case For Goodness Shakes powder sachets, banana flavour. This was consumed pretty much the moment I woke up. With an oaty cereal bar on top, that was breakfast one.

Breakfast two was hotel supplied. The main element of this was coffee. Coffee has certain effects on the digestive system and this was essential to minimise weight at the start of each stage. I'd add in a ham roll or two but nothing major - starting riding on a full stomach would be a bad move for me. Plenty of water though.

The one time we skipped the hotel breakfast (Risoul) we improvised coffee using a Clif coffee energy gel and hot water. It was surprisingly successful, although blisteringly sweet.

I'm a big fan of Torq energy products - drink, bars, gels and recovery. Nothing dodgy in them - no colours, sweeteners (why do some energy drinks contain sweeteners?) or artificial flavours. My stomach likes them, as do my taste buds (although certain substances in the recovery drink make it an acquired taste).

Each day I took 2 made-up bottles of energy drink, 1-2 spare canisters of drink powder, 3-4 bars and 2-3 gels - including caffeine gels. I had some Clif bars to for a little variety - no matter how tasty a bar is, after you've eaten four a day for a week you start to lose the desire for more.

I also went through 2-4 bottles of water and the odd handful of something from the official feed stops. They provided a reasonable range of food - dried apricots, cake and salty crackers were my picks, along with a glass of Coke or two.

Eating on the bike was definitely forced and constant - I wasn't waiting until I was hungry. Again, there was a fine line between under and over eating that I managed to ride successfully... ish.

Once the ride was over I unleashed my special skill - speed eating. Firstly, Torq chocolate-mint recovery drink. Then on to the supplied lunch. These consisted of some kind of salady starter (think rice/couscous salad rather than greens), a main and a dessert.

The mains were either meat/fish with potatoes and veg, or a meaty pasta - tagliatelle with meatballs, lasagne. They varied from adequate to downright tasty - the lasagne at Alpe d'Huez I'd have happily paid for. My judgement may have been slightly clouded by seven hours of riding in 35C heat though.

Desserts were flans/pies/tarts/cakes, or a yoghurt. Who'd pick a yoghurt in these circumstances? Oh, David did.

Then back to the hotel for more water, maybe another energy bar or Haribo to tide things over until the biggest challenge of the week - the evening meal.

I think I need another section.

The Evening "Meal"
If you're a restaurant owner in a ski resort that's playing host to 600 hungry cyclists and maybe 150 crew do you:

a) Get a couple of extra staff in and ensure you've got supplies to cover full tables for the evening?
b) Create a set menu that gives the cyclists an easy option and you an easy way of serving?
c) Pretend there's nothing special happening, give most of the staff the night off and yet still allow people to sit down and order?

Alpe d'Huez, Risoul and Auron, j'accuse. Megeve and Courchevel, you're off the hook.

In Alpe d'Huez we sat in a hot, stiffling room for an hour before the manageress let us order - and only because we asked what would be easy for them. Salads. So while we waited for the salads we went two doors down and ordered pizza takeaway for our mains.

In Risoul, they couldn't cope with the half full restaurant ordering basic meals. It's not as if we'd asked for goat on toast or anything - some pasta, a couple of steaks. And this was a place decorated with signed cycling jerseys and photographs that revelled in the fact that pro-teams had eaten there. No wonder teams have their own chefs now.

In Auron... oh, Pierre et Marie. I really don't like naming and shaming the very worst service I've ever had in a place that claimed to provide food for money as a business, but in this case I'll make an exception.

We'd booked the table for 7pm, and we'd ordered by 7:30. Our concerns were first aroused when the man taking the orders (Pierre?) kept zoning out and staring into the middle distance, halfway through someone telling him their order. This wasn't a language thing either as we had a couple of fluent French speakers with us. He was simply spaced out.

Time passed. There were shuttle buses to catch for one of our party, and we were all going to be up at 5am. After repeated demands for some bread to keep us going, and questions about where our food had got to, the starters appeared at 9:30. By this time we'd sent out search parties looking for a kebab shop but to no avail. The starters (salads!) were wolfed down and half of our table left to get some sleep - eating late is never a good thing if you want to sleep and rise early.

As we approached 10pm we made further, slightly more vigorous enquiries as to our steaks and pizzas - made more vigorous by us spotting they were closing down the kitchen. We gesticulated, we questioned, we pleaded... and it turned out they'd not bothered to cook the rest of our order.

A flurry of activity, and at 10:15 we had our simple, basic, quick to make meals. Of course, half the people who wanted them had left and the rest of us had lost the will to eat but hey, good job Pierre et Marie! They then tried to charge us for everything which we negotiated down by the simple tactic of just paying for what we'd eaten - no way were we paying for meals when the customers had left an hour before, tired and starving.

Auron continued its crazy approach to mass catering at the hotel breakfast. I know, I've got 60 people here who want to eat quickly and get out... I reckon taking table-by-table, individual hot drink orders is the way forward...

Some other points to note
The food and drink at the post-race party was excellent.One table did steal several half empty bottles of wine though as the place emptied out and the caterers were packing up. Shocking.

The food at the pre-race pasta party in Geneva was barely edible. Congealed, cooling pasta. Apple tart was better.

As the week goes on, more and more alcohol gets consumed each evening. Day 1 - nothing. Day 3 - a glass of wine or two. Day 5 - wine, beers...

Ice cream is good. Again, more gets consumed as the week goes on. The final day I had a total of 5 big scoops, David had seven.

I finished the 780km bike ride weighing pretty much what I started. I think that counts as successful eating.

Well done me.