Earlier this year Katy rode the Haute Route – Pyrenees. Traditionally a downhill rider it was going to be a big leap for her to start pedalling uphill. How did she do? Read on.
I’ve not actually done much road biking, generally preferring the thrills of the downhill mountain bike, however, there is such a buzz about the sport right now , when I received the offer of a place on the Haute Route “one of ‘the highest and toughest cyclosportives in the world’ I couldn’t resist having a go…
Cyclosportives, especially in the UK are becoming increasingly popular, the Haute Route enables amateur riders to have a go at riding like a pro on a multiday event. The two Haute Routes (Alps and Pyrenees) both cover over 750km and traverse the greatest cycling terrain in the world – with the Alps version traversing the entire length of the French Alps, over 866km distance, with 21,000m of vertical ascent.
I picked the Pyrenees event (www.hauteroutepyrenees.org) as it’s the inaugural version of the race and joined the cyclists from stage 4 of 7 of their journey across the Catalonia-Basque Coast, meeting the Pelaton at Argelès-Gazost. So, from the 5th of September I was going to attempt the following stages:
Stage 5: Argeles-Gazost to Hautacam (Individual Time Trial)
Stage 6: Argelès-Gazost – Pau, Road Line Stage
Stage 7: Pau/Arette - Anglet Basque Coast (France)
I’ll admit, I was feeling pretty nervous, as during my last “big” road cycling event- a Ramsgate to London bike ride with a team of cyclists from the Tirol, I was pushed up most of the climbs!
Argeles-Gazost to Hautacam (Individual Time Trial)
16 km to cover, including 13 km against the clock
1145 meters of elevation gain / no descent timed.
1635m altitude at the top
Average gradient : 6.8 %
Maximum gradient : 11.5%
My nerves had been building for a few days, as I had not really done as much road biking as I’d intended to in the build up to the event - longer trail runs being the priority, so I was glad to join the Haute Route Pyrenees at Stage 5, missing the marathon Stage 4 -a 4 col, 4000m+ epic.
I met the 400 odd riders, who had started 4 days ago in Barcelona, in the spa town of Argelès-Gazost, after I had a very relaxing massage in L’institut du Jardin des Bains in the town.
Argeles-Gazost is strategically located at the foot of the Aubisque and the Tourmalet – 2 of the most legendary Tour de France climbs – and I was about to take on the famous Tour de France climb to the ski resort of Hautacam, - a 16 km climb with 1100m ascent.
The night before I picked up my very sexy looking bike courtesy of Look, and it was a joy to actually have a bike that fitted me- ( I’m 5 ft tall).
I was issued a huge bag and a rucksack so for the next few days I can pack all my belongings into it and have it taken on to the next rest point for the night, and my kit for a shower and change of clothes which will be ready for me at the finishing line.
However, today was “just” the time trial so we had another night in the pretty town of Argeles-Gazost.
My start time for the Hautacam was 9:30, more nerves building as thighs of steel were on display everywhere; so I just put my head down and got going. The Hautacam was the climb that set Lance Armstrong up for his victory in the 2000 Tour de France, until being disqualified for doping. I made the most of the road that descends towards Lourdes to spin my legs for a bit, before turning into the hill and heading upwards. The road up is irregular and unpredictable, with some sections reaching up to 12% incline – I noticed the climb getting particularly stiff after 5.5 miles then again towards the last 3km.
Right from the start people were overtaking me–with cyclists setting off every 30 odd seconds. The day wasn’t too hot either, with most of the route in the shade, but the steepness really did get to me and I had to stand and pedal for many sections. I did get a burst of energy when 11 time Everest summiteer, Kenton Cool, bounded past me shouting ‘come on come on’….. and pegged it as best as I could to the finish! I was pretty elated- the good thing about a time trial is you don’t know how far back you are- as it goes I did it in 1 hour 34- so wasn’t quite last! (The winners completing it in 45-50 minutes odd!)
After a quick spin on the Luge at the top of Hautacam - a great way to get your mind in gear for the downhill about to come - I bombed it back down to town and headed for a carb fuelled lunch provided in a hall by the Haute route team and booked in for a massage.
I opted for an early night that night as at the 6pm briefing I realised what was ahead:
Baring in mind I’ve not really ridden more than 40km without being pushed up the hills, I was a little worried…..
Argelès-Gazost – Pau, Road Line Stage
101km overall, 60km timed, 2337m of ascent, 2696m of descent, Col de Bordères (1156m), Col du Soulor (1474m), Col d’Aubisque (1709m)
I really wasn’t sure how today was going to go, I just wanted to complete the stage within the cut off time, and to not be last. Actually, I was pretty sure I could complete the 101km –just very slowly. We head off at 8am, me dropping to the back of the peloton as we left the town and reached the first climb. I decided there was no point trying to keep up so was happy to let the others pass me. Soon I was on my own, apart from one other, Victor- who was in his 70’s and was trying to keep up with me, but I gradually managed to lose him as the climbs went on. Apparently Victor is a bit of a star of the race- having been last for all of the sections, but it never really mattering to him- as he just wanted to complete what he could- and with the help of “ the red lantern” – a rider who hovered with the stragglers, encouraging them to keep going- he’d made several of the cut off points and was happy.
Today’s penultimate stage was a change of tempo, terrain, and weather, as the Haute Route left the high mountains of Central Pyrenees and dropped down to the rolling hills of the Pyrenees Atlantiques, towards the city of Pau. For the first time this week, the peaks were shrouded in cloud and mist, creating an almost ‘eerie’ atmosphere and hiding some of the legendary views.
The route consisted of three climbs, with some of the steepest terrain of the week right from the outset. The cloud however did help with the heat management on the super steep initial two climbs: the Col de Bordères and the Col du Soulor. I welcomed the food stations at the top of each climb, wafting down as much cake and cheese as I could- but being conscious that I didn’t want to get beaten by the clock.
The descent from the Col d’Aubisque was interesting- I just couldn’t get my cleats clipped in – having not brought my usual mountain biking cleats to be fitted on the bike, so I had to use a pair I wasn’t used to….. However, I really did enjoy the seemingly endless sweeping descents- the kind you just don’t get in the UK. It was the final 50km that was the real killer for me as the Haute Route left the high mountains of the Pyrenees, to a style reminiscent of cycling in Surrey!- with narrow, undulating lanes, up, down, through little villages- and just when you think all the uphill is over- another short but painful climb popped up around a corner- “ oh go away” I cried, as another emerged- at this point I’d lost track of timing as I thought I had another 25km to go, but actually all the signs said 5km – theoretically, I had done it well within the cut off time- but I just want sure….
Reaching the final timed section was a joy as my saddle was really beginning to hurt now- there were only a few people milling around waiting for stragglers like myself – before cleaning up the food station and heading to Pau. I hoped they hadn’t got bored waiting for me! So- overall- I did the timed section in about 4 and a half hours, the winners completing it in around 2 and a half! My friend advised me to get a bigger cassette which offered me more gears to drop down into on the hill – still, I think the best thing to have are strong legs and a good power to weight ratio. Anything else is just excuses.
Here is a video of the days cycling- can you spot me?
The weather was looking very ominous with thunderstorms predicted, so after a slight change to the route to avoid bad weather conditions on the Col du Soudet - the peloton left town in convoy- unfortunately, I thought I’d just drop to the back again- but was scooped up by the support van- thinking I would be dropped off at the start of the timed section- sadly this wasn’t to be- but to be honest- the weather really was unpleasant- and by the time I realised I’d missed the start, I wasn’t psyched anymore. The other riders climbed the Col d’Ahusquy, but its downhill was neutralised for safety, then went through the remaining 50km to the timed finish in Cambo-les-Bains. From here after a break , they rode in convoy to Anglet with its impressive surf beaches and the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. That night in nearby Biarritz was the final closing ceremony, where we were treated to videos from the week, awards and finally a chance to let your hair down after 7 days hard riding.