Wednesday 25 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 6: How to ruin a rest day

After four stages, the fourth one being a monster, it was definitely time for some recovery. This started on the evening after stage four with pizza, beer and ice cream, and the next morning even allowed a lie in. This was because stage 5 was as close to a rest day as the Haute Route got - a mountain time trial up a HC climb: Hautacam.

I'd like to show you the stage profile using the official graphic, but they seem to have disappeared from the Haute Route site - so instead you get to see the full glory of my Garmin trace.

It goes up.
That's about 16km long with around 1000m of ascent.

There are a couple of ways to treat this - if you are racing the event, or interested in how fast you can ride up a mountain, you can go what commonly known as "full gas". If you want to recover a little from the previous night's pizza, beer and ice cream you can go "economy gas". Guess which I did?

Economy gas was still hard work though - on the very odd occasion I overtook other riders and they spoke to me my response was a mixture of panting, whimpering and dribbling. Imagine an overheating St Bernard. That was me.

At the top I stayed to watch people come in who'd put far more effort into it - there was the odd vomit on the line, some mild collapsing but thankfully no need for medical attention. It was warm and sunny and the view was stunning.

Check out the disco slippers
It was even pretty good without my legs.

Eventually I ran out of excuses for sitting in the sun and had to ride back down the mountain with Darren, just as the leaders were coming up. We waved to the people we knew - for some reason they failed to wave back through their tears of pain - and were soon back at the event village. We ate, we did some light shopping and ambled back to the holiday camp. The original plan was to make use of their pool and waterslides but somehow even that seemed like too much trouble. Sun bathing and sleeping were just about all we could manage to do.

So, five days of riding in glorious sunshine... and two stages left.

What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 5: Control the force, you must.

(Cue ominous music)

Slightly scary voice: "Peyresourde, 939 metres of elevation gain"
Slightly scary voice: "Col d'Azet, 7.5km at an average of 8.2%"
Scary voice: "Col d'Aspin, nearly 800 metres of gain"
Very scary voice, the kind of voice that is normally threatening to kill you: "Tourmalet. The giant of the Pyrenees. 17km, 1277 metres of gain, summit at 2117 metres..."
Slightly scary voice: "Each by themselves a challenge. All in one day... suffering like you've never suffered."
Very very scary voice: "And we've run out of chocolate brioche for the feed stops"

Not your usual evening briefing. They do like a bit of drama on this event.

Honestly, how hard could it be? I've done Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde before, admittedly with a long lunch and an overnight stop breaking them up. I can ride slowly, for ages. All I need is control, pacing and eating.

Let's have a look at the route.

Five feed stops!
And the stage profile.

I like the little cyclist going up Tourmalet
Not much flat in that one is there? Due to safety reasons there were a couple of neutralised sections - the Col d'Azet descent (rough, narrow, sheep) and the Tourmalet descent (road washed away by terrible floods). This meant that we could have a bit of a rest at the top of the Azet (after crossing the timing mat) and the timed stage ended at 99km. Still, 4000m of climbing wasn't to be taken lightly.

My strategy for this stage was to ride it like a 12 hour mountain bike race - and I don't mean quitting after three-quarters of the time... Essentially, keep my heat rate down, don't get excited and don't chase people up hills. The trace from my Garmin surprised me when I uploaded it.

Red line is the heart rate, green line the elevation. You can see I stopped recording at the top of the Tourmalet, and you can see me taking it easy between the top of the Azet and the bottom of Aspin - the untimed section. What you might be able to make out is my heart rate didn't get above 140. That's mad. The average was 125. I'd like to say that I was riding within myself and felt fresh as a daisy at the end.


The reason that my heart rate didn't get above 140 was mainly because it really, really didn't want to. My legs didn't want to go faster, my whole body was washed out, eroded and telling me that the speed limiter had been set and nothing was going to break it. I ground my way up Aspin and Tourmalet, legs barely turning over. I even let a funnily dressed German overtake me in the last hundred metres.

At the top, relief and photos.

Beat the giant silver man
Oh, and chocolate brioche. They'd managed to source some more.

All that remained was 33km to Argeles-Gazost. The Tourmalet descent was astonishing, in that when I rode up it a couple of years previously there was a road and villages along the way. Huge amounts of it was gone, to be replaced with vast gorges where the flooding river had ripped out everything man-made. We rolled along gently, open mouthed at the destruction. It was incredible that the road was open - a huge amount of work must have been done very quickly to make it passable and there was still an enormous amount to do.

Finally, we reached the town. There was some initial confusion as the official finish was in a different location to the food and massages, and our holiday camp accommodation was a short ride away too. It was great when we got there though, as every pair of people had their own little wooden cabin, with a sun deck too.

Only one thing for it. Washing!

Friday 20 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 4: Cold, hot, hurty.

Stage 4 brought a few new challenges.

  • In the morning, it would be cold, cold, cold.
  • In the day, it would be hot, hot, hot.
  • During the stage, we would ride through Luchon twice - which is where our overnight stay was
There was also the usual challenge, this time 120km with 3300m (ish) of climbing. Col de Portillon, Port de Bales and Superbagneres.

You can see from the map that we passed through Luchon after Col de Portillon, before looping round to climb Port de Bales, back to Luchon and up to the finish at Superbag (as it swiftly became known).

Tempting to hide in Luchon

See that downhill bit at the start?
We had a 7:30am stage start, so assembled from 7am. It was mildly chilly as we stood around, although some had arm-warmers, jackets, thicker gloves. I had a light gilet. There was a 14km downhill before the first climb which was controlled and untimed - so pretty much freewheeling for half an hour. There is a simple sum to do here.

(Cold (9C) - windchill (30kph) + effort (0, freewheeling) + extra clothing (light gilet)) x 30 minutes.

The answer? I couldn't feel my hands, feet or face and my teeth were chattering like this.

We were almost thankful for the first climb to begin. Happily it was one of the best of the trip - I'd done it from the other direction a couple of years ago and I remembered it was tight, twisty and not too tough. The descent was a real rush, and I managed to overtake a fair number of people, with an older Frenchman hanging on my back wheel. When we got to the valley he even gave my descending skills a "Tres bon!" and a thumbs up. Either that or he liked my bottom.
That was during the first pass through Luchon. I hooked up with Darren, Kirsty and a few others and we had a good group working through the valley until the start of Port de Bales. I can't say I enjoyed PdB, but at least it was pretty - lush woodland, rocky outcrops, stunningly quiet roads only interrupted by the curses of cyclists wishing they'd fitted that 12-32 cassette on the back.

Or was that just me?

I can't remember the descent, I do remember coming back through Luchon again (and deciding that I should really have hidden in a cafe for two hours)

And then the climb to Superbag. By now the temperature was in the 30's and no-one was looking chirpy. The climb was a real drag - it went on and on and on with no noticeable let up in steepness. I remember a feed stop, the American/Finnish couple on Orbeas (go team Orca!) and then the final few kilometres where the trees fell back and you could see the top and it wasn't getting any nearer... Oh, that last km, still at 10% or so... and then the ramp to the finish line, seeing Phill taking a picture and Darren leaning against the railing.

Relax. That. Was. Tough.

We took our time at the top. Nic arrived, and she had the presence of mind to suggest some photos on the way back down (yes, another ride down to a town at the end of a stage).

Which is why I have this fantastic picture.

The bike must be very, very light

Luchon was another great place (note - can these towns be moved to the Haute Route Alps?). We'd had some tips from the locals and somehow ended up in the bistro they recommended. After a hard day, with another hard one to follow, we had to be very careful what we ate and drank.

Meat sticks and beer people, meat sticks and beer.

Thursday 19 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 3: Into the swing

After the first, shortened stage, stage two was more in the classic mold. Get up early, wolf down some breakfast, get kitted up, get on the bike, ride for 5-6 hours, recover, sleep, repeat.

The route for stage two went something like this.

Wiggly 120km line
And the uppy-downy view went like this.

Up, down, flat, up, down, up.
As usual, the first climb was cycled with a little more zip than was sensible. We were riding with Kirsty, who was representing A Quick Release, the most excellent mountain bike holiday, coaching, guiding and racing company. Darren and I know Kate and Ian who run AQR, and Darren had been told to look out for Kirsty (and Matt) at the event. It didn't take long as I spotted them at the start of the second stage in their very obvious team kit. It turned out that Darren and Kirsty rode at pretty much the same pace for the whole week, and I was just about able to keep up when I was feeling sprightly.

My main memory of the climb was Darren attempting to injure me again - after his success in the velodrome and at the UK 12 hour championships he thought he'd try for a hat trick. This time his approach was to drop a bottle in front of me, get Kirsty to run it over and ping it into my path...

Ha! Missed me. Clearly that plan was too complex to succeed and it resulted in Darren having to ride back down the mountain for a hundred metres before he could retrieve the escaping bottle.

The second climb was, quite frankly, a bitch. Steep, mildly desolate and with a vicious headwind. I did all I could to try and reign Darren's excitement in, telling him that he had to conserve energy for the week. My energy, obviously, because I needed someone to ride in front of me in the wind.

I told him to go ahead for the last climb to Plan de Beret, and sucked down a caffeine gel myself. The energy conservation must have work because I actually felt (whisper it...) quite good. I even overtook a couple of people, something that never happened on a final climb last year.

As it was a mountain top finish, and as it was the Pyrenees, that meant just one thing - a ride back down the mountain to the nearest town, in this case Vielha. It was close to 30km more riding but as it was pretty much downhill it actually served as a decent warm down.

Vielha was a lovely little town, and we were in a hotel right in the centre. Once again we struck lucky with a restaurant, finding a three course menu with wine for only 12 Euros. This was after a post-stage recovery session involving beer, churros, hot chocolate, ice cream and watching the Vuelta.

We were getting the hang of this Haute Route thing. Roll on stage 3.

Sunday 15 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 2: Today, we ride

After the shuffling of bikes and bags the previous day, it was a relief to have a simple schedule. Get up, get breakfast, get the day bag packed with post-ride gear, get most bike kit on, put bike shoes/gloves/helmet/glasses/GPS in the day bag, put on something for the bus ride, pack the main bag, take it down to reception, check-in with the bus monitors, get on the bus.


Oh no, not today. Although the race officially started in Barcelona, it actually started in Solsona. This was a good hour and a half bus ride away, and it meant that the normal routine of leave hotel, get on bike and ride was a little disrupted. We'd planned ahead for the bus journey, packing extra drink and snacks to eat on the way, but we'd failed to take account of Jon's excitement - he spent most of the trip bouncing up and down in his seat, desperate for a wee. We should have brought an empty bottle.

At Solsona we disembarked, collected our bikes (which had come by truck), suited up and then did what everyone does before a big race. Found a place for some cool pictures.

Rule 80:
Rested, excited and slightly nervous, the tension built. Greg LeMond was led to the front of the start lane - he was riding the first stage - the music got louder, the start hooter went off.... and we crept forward at about 2 kph. Start, stop, clip, unclip. We did a ceremonial lap of the town, exiting through a tiny medieval gate, and we were properly off.

It was a short stage to start things off - and by cunningly stealing pictures from the official Haute Route site I can show you. 

Click for biggerer

The first three climbs were really one moderate one, with three little peaks on the way. On a stage race it's important to pace yourself for the week so obviously we rode far harder than we should have, feeling great, legs all zingy. When you haven't really done much for a week it's almost impossible to not take advantage of that fresh feeling.

I can't remember much of the ride - there was some work in a group in the valley, Darren and I kept together for the whole time - but the descents were fun. Rough broken tarmac, steep sections, hairpins. It was like mountain biking on a road bike and we even managed to overtake a few people. I was definitely ahead of the curve on the downy bits, and probably behind the curve on the uppy bits.

At the finish I slipped back into routine - recovery drink, riders' meal, stretch, find the others, chat. We rode to our hotel, showered, relaxed. Dinner was at the hotel - we'd avoided the mistakes of last year and pre-booked - and we even managed to entice a few other people to join our little group. Dinner is always more fun with more people.

Oh, one other change from last year - we were on the recovery beer from day one. Marginal gains, it's all about the marginal gains.

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 1: Logistics, logistics, logistics

Travelling with bicycles can be a wonderful thing. When they are in bags, have to get to an airport, on a plane, to a hotel, to another hotel and onto a truck it's less wonderful.

Logistics Part 1 - Get everything onto the right plane
The Haute Route Pyrenees started in Barcelona. We started in Newbury, England. Thankfully our flight wasn't too early so I was picked up by Darren and Becky at 6.45am. Part one of our logistics relied on two full bike bags, two big luggage bags, two small rucksacks and three people all fitting into one Audi A6 estate. Astonishingly we pulled this trick off with relative ease and we were soon on the road. Check-in went well, the other members of our party all turned up and we even managed to meet a few more HR riders in the departure lounge.

Part 1: Tick.

Logistics Part 2 - Get everything to the first night hotel
Arriving at strange airports, in strange countries, with six people, six bikes, six big luggage bags and six small rucksacks could have been hell. No taxis, chaotic buses, language issues, stampeding rhinos. None of these happened as we'd actually planned ahead, and booked two giant taxi vans to take us into town. We picked up our bags/bikes/rucksacks, sauntered into arrivals to be met by our drivers. They organised us, stuffed all the bags in one van and all the people in the other and whisked us to the delightful Husa Illa.

We did fill reception though.

And we noticed that we could have cut down on our luggage lugging by using the hotel bikes.

Plenty of room for snacks
The rooms were even big enough for bike assembly.

Darren inflates his frame
Part 2: Tick

Logistics Part 3 - Get empty bags, assembled bikes and people across town with the minimum of taxis

The next day we had more of a challenge. We were the other side of town to the event registration and village - about 7km. We had a few things to do.

  • Get the assembled, working bikes into the bike part of the event village, where they'd be safety checked before being trucked to the start of the first stage.
  • Get empty bike bags to the event village, where they'd be taken away to be returned at the end of the race.
  • Get empty luggage to the event village, stuffed into the bike bags.
  • Get us to the event village.
  • Register for the event and pick up kit, official luggage, day bags, freebies
  • Attend the pre-race briefing and paella party
  • Get back to our hotel with official luggage, day bags and freebies, and pack our stuff into the official luggage.
The movement of us, bikes and empty luggage to the event village was like a version of the chicken/fox/farmer problem. We wanted to use as few taxis as possible and we didn't want to have to arrange any big vans. After some thinking we came up with a plan.
  • Send Darren and I, riding our bikes, to the event village.
  • Get Phill and Jon to book a single taxi, and load all the empty bags onto it... with no people.
  • Give the taxi driver clear instructions as to the destination, and make sure he isn't paid until he gets there.
  • Phill and Jon then ride their bikes to the event village.
  • Darren and I meet the taxi driver and unload the bags, before paying him.
Genius huh? It worked like a charm, with everything ending up at the right location and only one taxi needed!

Bike bags and empty luggage were handed in.

Bikes were checked and racked for loading onto the Norbert Dentressangle truck.

Orbea waits with Cervelos
And after registration we went for the first of several carb-loading beers.

Drink of athletes
Logistics Part 3: Tick.

The whole process was exhausting. At least we could spend the next day relaxing, riding bikes up mountains for a few hours.