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.