Haute Route Alps 2013

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18.09.2013, looking back at the Haute Route

At the end of the Haute Route Alps 2013 my cyclocomputer recorded a staged distance of 866 Km (975 Km including daily transfers) and 18’200 m of climbing. While the number of kilometers was comparable to the one of the Viking Tour 2010 (8 stages), the positive altitude difference exceeded that of the latter by approximately 50%, making everything a little bit harder.

What I’ve liked of the Haute Route: the wonderful course, almost perfect from Geneva to Nice, with beautiful climbs and few traffic on the roads; the perfect organisation for each rider: everybody, from the maillot jaune to the lanterne rouge, was entitled of fully supplied refreshment points, secured intersections, warm meals at the end of the stage and post-race massages; the spartan and easy-going spirit in the basic accomodation; Andrew’s resolute effort to defend his lanterne rouge until the last finish line (he was only 4″ behind his rival before the last stage); the Col a Doctor team (nice fellows and best team name ever!); the wheather … and much much more!

What I didn’t liked of the Haute Route: the damn last 30 Kms of every stage (except those on the Cime de la Bonette, of course), simply too much for me; the Coup de Coeur on Stage 6, you can not say “Safety first!” then let a rider cycle over almost 140 Km and many dangerous descents with a disabled arm (all this IHMO, of course).

Matt and me on the Cime de la Bonette

Matt and me on the Cime de la Bonette

Final ranking: 346/449 in 34h26’33” (+ 12h19’21” from the maillot jaune; – 8h32’52” from the lanterne rouge).

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24.08.2013, Stage 7: Auron-Nice (137.0 Km1060m)

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I woke up this morning in great anticipation: just as everybody I was eager to arrive in Nice, but my first concern immediately after jumping out my sleeping bag was to go out and check the wheather. With my great surprise the sky was clear and the stars were still shining. I was relieved because at least we wouldn’t have to ride beneath the rain all day long: as most cyclists I can endure rain while on the road, but few things are more depressing than starting a tour when it is already pouring! At the end I was almost disappointed that the shortening of the stage would have deprived me of Col Saint-Martin as the eleventh B.I.G. to add to my collection during this Haute Route. The first 60 Km of the stage, a long descent along the Tinée Valley, were neutralized and expected to be uneventful. This was true except for a very close near-miss that I had with a couple of uprights placed to separate the opposite road lanes in a village; I’ve seen them only in the last second and I managed to take evasive action just in time to avoid collision: that really scared the hell out of me. After a two-hour ride we finally arrived a La Roquette-sur-Var, where the timed section of the stage began and the road started to climb toward the villages of Carros, Bouyon and the Col de Vence. On the first turns I once again met the Mossad, a frowning Israeli rider that I’ve seen over and over again during this week and who never answered my salute. As with several other riders, I’ve been constantly chasing him on uphill stretches only to be overtaken in the ensuing descents (times and times again). In order to stay with him I made the fatal mistake of trying to keep the pace of a group that was rolling too fast for me so that I the end of the climb, when Mao surprisingly overtook me, I didn’t have sufficient energies to stay with him: an “humiliation” was difficult to endure… 🙂 I tried to keep focused on the imminent conclusion of the stage and at the end I even managed to chase down the Mossad again, crossing together the last finish line on the Col de Vence and even exchanging some congratulations with him. Then there was only an exhilarating descent to Vance the the whole peloton regrouped before the final parade along the shoreline from Cagnes-sur-mer into the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. What an unbelievable feeling: being there and knowing to have achieved it all by yourself, form Geneva to Nice in one week only with the energies of your body and the will of your mind! It was finally time for the long-sought dip in the Mediterranean Sea singing a popular french song. The forecasted rain arrived right after I had finished with my little swim and wasn’t a big thing: even with the wheather we had a perfect week!

It's nice to be in Nice (all in one piece)!

It’s nice to be in Nice (all in one piece)!

Col de Vence: 1h53’41” (401/467).

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23.08.2013, Stage 6: Pra Loup-Auron (138.8 Km3350 m)

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Penultimate day of the Haute Route: most of the road is now behind us. I like to think that, at least metaphorically, it will be all downhill. For sure, since Barcelonette lies at about 1100 meters over sea level, it will be on average all downhill! 🙂 The good news is that some of today’s descents are rated as dangerous by the organizers  and thus they won’t be timed, a fact that I hope will allow me to advance some positions in the stage ranking with respect a normal stage. The first climb of the day is Col de la Cayolle, that start relatively flat through the Gorges du Bachelard, further up the road becomes more steep but the scenery remains impressive. The descent is not timed until Entraunes, so I can take it really easy and stop for a couple of pictures. In Guillaumes, on the timed section (but before affronting the next climb) I even stop in a bar for an espresso. Col of Valberg is undoubtedly tougher, but is one of those climb I really like with a constant gradient just below double-digit percentages. Here I overtake Christian Haettich (#200), an amputee cyclist that will ride both the Alps and the Pyrenees: I’ve crossed him several times along the road during this Haute Route and what he is achieving fills me with awe and reverence. The descent  from the Valberg and the climb to the Col de la Couillole are not particularly remarkable, but the (not timed) descent from the latter trough the red rock gorges of the Vionène is essentially spectacular! The actual pain begins in  St. Sauveur when we have to climb the Tinée Valley toward Auron. Once again the last 30 Km are a long deadly mix of heat, sluggish climbing road and headwind. On the evening I reward my efforts with a gargantuan T-bone steak and few glasses of good wine with usual company of my british fellow and Mao. After that is time to have some rest. The wheather forcasts for tomorrow are not good, with possible rain and thunderstorms, but the good news is that the organizers have decided to head directly fo Nice skipping one climb and shortening the last stage by about 30 kilometers.

The village of Roubion, on the descent from the Col de la Couillole

The village of Roubion, on the descent from the Col de la Couillole

Total time: 5h20’53” (323/462). Col de la Cayolle: 1h34’20” (319/485); Col de Valberg: 59’55” (273/479); Col de la Couillole: 23’53” (324/482); Ascent to Auron: 1h39’59” (310/478).

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22.08.2013, Stage 5: Jausiers-Cime de la Bonette (24.3 Km1530 m)

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I’ve been looking forward to this stage for several reasons. First of all it was a relatively short one, which means not only less time on the saddle but also that today there would have been more time for recovery.  None the less at the end of the day between transfer to and from the start, the actual climb and the descent from the Cime de la Bonette the total distance covered would anyway sum up to almost 75 Km . Secondly, it was an all-climb stage where I would have been able to compare my level to the rest of the bunch without having to worry about my abominable downhill skills. And finally of course because Cime de la Bonette, reaching 2802 m above sea level, is the highest paved through route in the Alps and another of those mythical cols that make you dream about cycling them just by hearing their names. Being an individual time trial the riders started this morning at 20-seconds intervals in reverse order with respect to the individual overall ranking. For me this meant a start time around 10 a.m., which resulted in perfect cycling conditions: not to hot for the ascent, not too cold for the descent. From the previous days experiences I assumed to be a stronger climber than the cyclists around me in the overall ranking since I was well aware that I’ve been constantly loosing positions on flat and downhill stretches. Thus, the goals of the day were clear: a stage ranking around the 260th position and the attempt not to get passed by any rider during the ascent. Apart from a Thai rider in the first 500-meters flat immediately after the start I was successful in this task, even if an older rider (John Ginley, #624) chased me relentlessly for most part of the climb, stalking me from a distance of a hundred merers or so throughout the whole ascent. The time trial developed just perfectly, from the beginning I tried to keep a good pace without letting by heart rate exceed 150 bpm, I was constantly targeting riders that started before me and I was able to ovetake them one after the other. So I decided to skip  the first refreshment point and to stop for just a few moments at the second one. I even slightly raised my pace toward the end of the climb: I felt very well, but I never had the feeling I was overdoing. Coming up to the flat just before the col I was rewarded by a beautiful view on the Cime de la Bonette. There I tried to keep my speed high and to prepare for the last few hundred meters, where the slope definitely raised in the double-digit zone. At the end the clock stopped after about 1h48′ of spectacular climbing into a lot of happy faces waiting on the top. I took some time to enjoy the moment, take some pictures and discuss with the other riders before carefully cycling back to Jausiers with Mao. On the descent I came across the top riders and I discovered that there were much more Swiss participants to Haute Route than I had imagined: they were just well ahead of me in the general ranking and therefore I had never seen them previously… Well, after all I’m here to enjoy so back in Barcelonette after the usual lunch-shower-massage ritual I even allowed myself the luxury of an afternoon nap. What a great day!

Cime de la Bonette

Cime de la Bonette

Total time: 1h48’22” (272/464). Scratch 1: 38’09” (324/484); Scratch 2: 36’19” (270/483); Scratch 3: 33’54” (245/483).

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21.08.2013, Stage 4: Serre Chevalier-Pra Loup (123.6 Km2780 m)

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Col’d’Izoard and Col de Vars are some of those names that are able to send shivers down the spine of a cyclist just by merely pronounce them. As many other fellow riders that never rode over these legendary cols I woke up this morning in thrilling anticipation of the road that lies ahead. The whole night a song about Fausto Coppi climbing the Izoard kept going through my head: this one, along to several other cycling-related tunes that I had put together several years ago, were also my soundtrack during today’s climb of these two mythical cols. As my friend Mao (#198) explained to me on the start line earlier this morning this may well be considered musical doping, but I really do not care since it is not traceable by any test performed by the WADA! Climbing from the side of Briançon the Col d’Izoard does not live up to my expectations, maybe because the gradient is not forbidding or because of the well-paved wide road, which for sure does not remind the pictures of earlier times. Only the sight of barren rubble slopes with protruding pinnacles of weathered rock at very top starts to confer to the place an eerie and fascinating appearence. On the other side, the descent through the Casse Déserte is spectacular. Here I stop to take some pictures by the monument commemorating Luison Bobet and Fausto Coppi. This side of the col is certainly more spectacular and so is the ensuying passage through the narrow Combe du Queyras that leads to Guillestre at the foot of the Col de Vars. The latter climb reveals itself as another very long ascent on a very wide road and the mounting temperatures do surely do not help to make the task easier: in my today’s perception the Vars was the hardest col climbed so far, despite the relatively modest incline. Again the other side appears to be much more scenic than one we just have climbed. For a moment I think to fill a complaint to organizers for making us climb the most unspectacular side of two mythical cols, but I immediately realize that if we are meant to go from Geneva to Nice we sure can’t ascend them from the southern side… At the end of the descent there is still a long faux-plat to ride down to Barcelonette: there I’m able to join a bunch of British riders to team up with, but my poor skills as rouleur mean that I have to spend a lot of energies to stay with the group. On the final ascent to Pra Loup I’m quite done and the afternoon heat certainly doesn’t help, so that the last kilometers are as usual very painful. After crossing the finish line I go through the daily ritual: book a massage, take a shower, have a good pint of regeneration drink, go to the massage and finally get some food. The post-race meal is quite standard at the Haute Route with pasta, cous-cous, some choice of meat or fish and a dessert: not really… Haute Cuisine, but nourishing. After the briefing we move down to our accomodation in Barcelonette, a school dormitory which is very confortable in comparison to what we had on the previous days. Moreover, we will stay here two nights, so tomorrow we won’t have to go through the whole annoying routine of packing-unpacking again. For the first time during this week I have enough energies and time to enjoy the evening out, so I join Mao (#198), Andrew (#428, who is fighting for the Lanterne Rouge jersey), Phil (#163) and the Col a Doctor team for a dinner downtown. Tomorrow stage is the time trial to the Cime de la Bonette and I have the distinct feeling that it could definetely be MY DAY on the Haute Route: but will tonight’s pint of beer, the two (or three?) glasses of wine and the final genepy be beneficial or detrimental?

Climbing to the Col d'Izoard

Climbing to the Col d’Izoard

Total time: 5h50’10” (376/464). Col d’Izoard: 1h25’57” (309/489); Col de Vars: 1h31’13” (324/482); Ascent to Pra Loup: 36’20” (339/482).

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20.08.2013, Stage 3: Val’Isère-Serre Chevalier (169.7 Km3240 m)

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Marathon stage today, on the menu an early-morning ascent of the highest pass in the Alps (Col de l’Iseran, 2770 m), a side trip to Italy after having mastered the Col de Mont Cenis (2083 m), which included a long slow uphill crawl of the Susa Valley to Bardonecchia before attacking the Col de l’Echelle and a final plunge back to France for the last kilometers to Serre Chevalier. It was a day of extremes beginning with the temperature that ranged from a low of 3 °C on the Iseran to more than 30 °C in Susa.  The longest stage of the Haute Route was unmerciful in exposing my (relative) strengths and my (absolute) weaknesses: after the first uphill-only stretch to the top of the Col de l’Iseran I found myself in a quite satisfactory 264th position, but at the end of the long descent to the foot of the Col de Mont Cenis I had lost 90 (ninety!) positions and I was in 354th place. After having made up again some positions on the latter climb I start the descent to Susa. The scenery around the lake of Mont Cenis is gorgeous and the fast descent on the italian side is enjoyable even for a miserable downhiller as I am: unexpectedly for italian standards the road surface is almost perfect. After having survived the transit through Susa the most feared stretch of today stage kicks in. I was fearing about 30 Km of faux-plat, but fortunately the first half them were a genuine climb, so I hadn’t too much problems in finding the right pace. Here I meet Rich (#411) from South Africa, who is riding one of the Mavic spare bikes with slippers and I learn that his bike has been stolen alongside with a dozen of other in the hotel in Val d’Isère. A bigger group forms in the last flat stretch before Bardonecchia and I try just to stay in cover, yet these kilometers seems really interminable. After the feeding station the roads climbs again, this time toward the spectacular Col de l’Echelle: on its top there are literally hordes of day trippers with their cars. I’m not sure if I should envy or commiserate them, but I’m rather incline to the latter feeling. Once back to France most of the effort appears to be done, being basically all downhill to Briançon. Yet, also today the very last part of the stage reveals itself treacherous with a sizeable headwind on the final imperceptibly climbing kilometers. Anyway, also day 3 is now behind and I expect tomorrow stage to be somewhat easier before the “rest day” of Thursday, when the time trial on the Cime de la Bonette is due.

Ascent to the Col de l'Echelle

Ascent to the Col de l’Echelle

Total time: 7h42’12” (349/462). Col de l’Iseran: 1h13’07” (264/478); Col du Mont Cenis: 48’39” (258/467); Col de l’Echelle: 56’13” (346/468).

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19.08.2013, Stage 2: Megève-Val’Isère (115.6 Km3100 m)

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The most important data that I could evince from yesterday’s stage was the fact that, despite the last twenty painful kilometers, I was able to beat the broom wagon by almost two hours. This fact allows me to go to the start of stage 2 much more relaxed than I was yesterday. The peloton moves together out of Megève for a dozen of neutralized kilometers before the official start is given on the first ramps of the Col de Saisies. The ascent is regular and never too steep, which allow me to reach the top at 1650m altitude without wasting too much energy. After a quite long and technical descent to Beaufort the 20-Km ascent to the Cormet de Roselend kicks off almost immediately. I’m a little bit worried by the length of this climb, but I’m almost immediately able to find the right pace on the first part of the ascent, which winds up in pine forests and has some spectacular glimpses on the valley below. After the feeding station the road flattens out for an imposing circumnvention of the Lac de Roselend that is prelude to the final steeper 6 Km. The descent leads to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, where we find ourselves jammed in some dense traffic. Luckily, we have to endure this situation just for few kilometers, before being detoured to a secondary road that ends at the bottom of the climb to Val d’Isère. The first part of the ascent takes place on the main road and is quite dull, but after the deviation through the village of Les Brévières the last few kilometers to the timing line disclose themselves as quite hard but spectacular, with the dam of the Lac du Chevril constantly indicating the height to be attained to reach today’s goal. This time I have everything with me to take a shower direcly at the finish line. Tonight’s accomodation is few kilometers away in Tignes and I find myself to share the room with the whole Col a doctor team, three seemingly rude, but highly likeable British pals. Maybe because of the altitude I’m not be able to get much sleep and I find myself to spend the night engaging some chemical warfare with Peter…

Ascent to the Cormet de Roselend

Ascent to the Cormet de Roselend

Total time: 5h34’05” (381/470). Col de Saisies: 57’18” (366/490); Cormet de Roselend: 1h34’34” (335/490); Ascent to Val d’Isère: 1h30’37” (351/489).

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18.08.2013, Stage 1: Geneva-Megève, (157.0 Km3115 m)

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Early wake-up call this morning. Breakfast is served at the Jardin Anglais starting from 5 a.m.  After slipping out of bed I try to rehearse mentally all the steps need to get fit on my bike: first the daily contact lenses then the zinc-oxide baby cream for the butt and finally the suntan cream for the exposed parts of the body. Finger contaminations resulting from any modification to this order are prone to cause irritations and pain to the eyes or other delicate areas… After packing my bag and the backpack that is supposed be carried directly to the finish line I head off downtown. They way down to the shores of Lake Geneva is definitely less excruciating without having to carry my bulky luggage and with my bike under my butt.
After breakfast I take some time to enjoy the sunrise, the is time to line up on the starting line. The first guy to whom I speak there is Mungo, a middle-aged guy coming from Edinburgh. I quickly consider if telling him that I do not know his hometown, but that I’ve just finished a Sci-Fi book in which Edinburgh is the starting place of a global catastrophe that first destroys the city the basically swallows up the whole world, but then I surrender the idea. Start is given at 7 a.m. and peloton silently streams along the Lake toward the French border. The first 25 Km or so are neutralized and no fight is apparent to move toward the head of the bunch. The first surprise of the day for me is to realize how relatively big  is Canton Geneva: I always believed that it was basically limited to the city, but here we cycle for several kilometers in the countryside before crossing the border and find ourselves in France, where after few kilometers starts the official timed section. In Taninges we finally turn left for the Col de l’Encrenaz, climb 1 out of 20 of this Haute Route! The ascent is relatively soft and steady, yet the peloton starts to become inexorably stretched. I try to find my pace without paying too much attention on the other riders: I surely do not want to overdo already on the very first ascent. I end to ride up behind a couple of Spanish guys, Santiago & Domingo, who are talking to each other like machine-guns on two opposite trenches. I spare my breath and follow them until the top, where the first feeding station is situated. After a quick stop to gobble some food and take a picture for my first B.I.G. achievement of the week I start the descent. Despite the warm and reiterated recommandations of the organizers I see the first rider that crashed on a downhill section already after few under meters on the descent. The paramedics are already taking care of him, so I carefully continue my descent to Morzine, straight into the Col de Joux Plane. I find myself to like this climb, which is steeper than the previous one but goes on quite regularly: I overtake several riders and stop just little before the timing line for the usual self-picture with the signpost indicating the summit. On the descent I’m overtaken by several riders and… the ambulance: another rider appears to be crashed further down the road. If it continues this way, the medical team will be very busy this week. In Samoens starts a relatively long and flat stretch back to Taninges: in the beginning I’m alone but I soon team up with a German rider and we make up or way to the next climb without too much effort. I expected the next climb to be just little more that a bump, but when we arrived at what appeared to be the start of the descent we were diverted to a smaller road that continued for some kilometers up to the feeding station of Araches. There I met Richard,  whose bycicle I had noticed the previous day in Geneva. We talk a bit about our respective bamboo bikes, then I set of for a beautiful descent to Balme and a long straight line (with tailwind!) to Sallanches, where the final ascent to Megève finally starts. On this stretch there is a beautiful view on the Mont Blanc, but unfortunately it’s starting to get really hot and the climb do not really seem to reflect the profile shown us yesterday by the organizers. Instead of a relatively smooth, steady ascent the seven kilometers uo to Combloux are a sucession of steep climbs, short flats and potential-energy wasting descents. Even the “Last 10 Km” sign comes unexpectedly late and that is quite a moral setback. Only the last leg is really a constant climb, with the road even flattening at the entrance of Megève. There, I can finally find the right pace before crossing the line: day one survived! If it weren’t for last 20 Km I’d say that today stage was not overly hard. I get my lunch, book the massage and move to the accomodation, but only to find out that the bags are not in yet. I have therefore to wait for a while before I can take my shower. Lesson learned: I’ll put some spare clothes and a towel in my backpack tomorrow!

Start at the Jardin Anglais

Start at the Jardin Anglais

Total time: 6h17’10” (345/472). Col de l’Entrenaz: 51’13” (423/489); Col de Joux Plane: 59’21” (321/483); Ascent to Megève: 26’50” (402/496).

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17.08.2013, up to Geneva

I’ve arrived in Geneva with the train after connecting in Zürich. The compartment was cramped with bikes, but only the (rather unfriendly) guy sitting in front of me seemed obviously to be an Haute Route participant, carrying a race bike and the same kind of bulky luggage as I did. I’ve packed everything in few soft-shell bags and put them together in my TranZbag where they constantly moved around making their transport an uneasy task. Therefore I looked forward to receive the official (two-wheeled) Haute Route bag at the race village, even if I could not understand why we weren’t allowed to take our own rigid suitcases as during the Viking Tour. In Geneva I went straight to the Jardin Anglais only to realize that this was barely meant to be the start of Stage 1 the ensuing morning, but that the actual race village was situated at the Pâquis. So I had to walk back over the Pont de Mont-Blanc: not a really huge distance, but quite an effort indeed pushing the bike with one hand and carrying my bulky gears dancing inside the TranZbag in the other. At the end I arrived at the race village quite exhausted! After picking up my bib number (248), the LeMarq cycling kit and some other goodies included in the race package, I’ve crammed everything in the official Haute Route bag and decided that the remaining time was not sufficient to drop everything at the accommodation that was foreseen for that evening (a fallout shelter). Thus I decided to wait for the official briefing to begin and tried to relax by scrutinizing the other participants. Everybody seemed to be utterly determined and very well geared for the upcoming race so that I started to become somehow frightened that the upcoming week would not be just a very tough one, but a matter of bare survival! At the briefing I met Silvan, a Swiss guy that I had contacted through the Haute Route website and with whom we decided to form a team called Euro Brats. I talked with him and other cyclists about the race and found out with relief that managing to get through until Nice within the cutoff time was the aim of several of them. Nevertheless, I could not help myself to notice that I was one of the very few with unshaved legs…
When the briefing was over I started to move toward the accomodation, only to find out that the distances on the map were deceivingly short and that the boardwalks in Geneva are in a orrible shape. Despite following the GPS on my smartphone I must have walked for about 90 minutes prior to reach the fallout shelter that I was supposed to call home tonight and when I got there I was again exhausted. I had just the time to ready myself and the bike for tomorrow then I went to bed, but adrenaline and excitement prevented me to fall asleep right away.

Race village in Geneva

Race village in Geneva

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15.08.2013, gearing up for the Haute Route

Just few days to go, I’ve made a checklist but the bag is not packed yet. Nevertheless I’ve already prepared the Holy Tritnity of Ointments that is supposed to keep me fit during the journey.

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BEFORE ————————————– DURING —————————————— AFTER

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