Monday, 29 August 2016

Haute Day 3: On top of the world

For a real sense of the day, and especially the scenery, check out the Haute Route video. And you can see me in the video (at the end) from yesterday.

Day 3 of the Haute Route could be a little easier than the previous ones. There are just two peaks, though they are Tour de France classics: the 2,360 metre high Col d’isourd and the 2,645 metres Gallibier.

The Galibier was first used in 1911 and on the 100th anniversary in 2011 was won by Andy Schleck after an incredible 60 km break away. A fellow cyclist here reckons it was the most exciting Tour de France stage ever, almost enabling Schleck to take the title from Cadal Evans [in the last year when British riders weren't favourites to win]. The Col d’Isuard was last climbed in 2014 when the Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez won it.

After two days of blistering sunshine, we are told to prepare for storms. They expect rain from 11am, temperatures of 10 degree and possible ice on the descent from the first peak. The key is to get to the Isourd by 10.30 to have a safe and non-slippery descent.

I am wearing or carrying my thermal overshoes, winter jacket, gilet, waterproof top and full waterproof gloves. I feel a bit overloaded but very well prepared.

Friends back home have asked if its painful. Now it may be for those riding at the front. Somebody on the next massage table to mine today commented “it hurts every day, just in a different part of the body”. I’m not in pain, just battling the exhaustion.

The key is the search for the perfect gear. For me every ascent has a gear that is just right. When you get there, you know it. You feel in tune with the rhythm of the mountain and just able to go on and on.

The aspect that makes the Haute Route difficult is the cut off times. For me and those around me, they are tight. You know when you are in danger when the “Lantern Rouge”, a cyclist in a red top bringing up the rear, comes in sight. If you don’t make the cut-off time you are out for that day. Today it is 7 hour 10 minutes for 74.3 miles and 13,610 ft of climbing.

The Haute Route organisers has made sure every rider has their name, flag and team name on their back. It makes it so easy to start a conversation with total strangers and I love it. My cycling mate Alan and me reckon that climbing ascents is so much easier if you talk all the way up.

Oddly not everybody feels the same. As we near the top, reactions include “I’m in the zone” or even “I’m meditating” or "Sorry, I can't ride and breath and speak". But I while away the first hour with a discussion with Sophie, who helped her company win best workplace in the UK and now runs to encourage women (and men) to become more active.

Atop L'Isourd with james
But it is hot. And, like most around me, I am regretting my winter top. Drink more water, I keep reminding myself. I don’t want to dehydrate again. After a 2 hour, 27 mins climb we get to the top of L’Isoard. There is no sign of rain, so there is a glorious descent through stunning alpine scenery.

As we come out of Briancon, we start a long 25k drag up to Lautaret. The advice was to become part of a group but it is me and James on our own. Then a beautifully attired group in blue and yellow, sporting the ‘HC Cycling’ tag come by. “Allez, Henry” one shouts, reading the name on my back. 

They are not even part of the Haute Route, but a group of Romanians on their own 7 day cycling tour.
We jump on and join their group, discussing Romanian cycling peaks, Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson (there is a connection between these). For 10 km we are swept along in their slipsteam, taking us out of danger on time. Thank you, Romania. And thank you again for cycling comraderie. We reach Lautaret with 15 minutes to spare.

Only 5 miles from here
“Is that almost the top?”, I ask pointing up to where the road turns a corner a fair bit up. “Er, no, not quite. Its up there,” comments the guy on the feed station, pointing to a far and distant peak. “But its only five miles.”

I look down and see the Lantern Rouge coming up the valley behind, leading a group of four. It Is time to set off. I find myself with John, my saviour from yesterday. It is again an 8km ascent and we decide to go up again together. “But not like yesterday. That wiped me out.”

We came up that way
We have an hour and discuss everything from Australian Prime Ministers to whether Corbyn is the best leader for the British Labour Party (we don't agree on this). As we ascend steadily upwards and look round at the peaks and alpine valleys, he comments “this is the weirdest place I’ve ever had a political discussion.” But it takes us to 1km from the top, before that final effort.

What could be better than a steady cycle up a Tour de France classic col, stunning scenery on all sides while discussing the state of the world? 

We did it. We made it up the two classic peaks still with 10 minutes to spare. I feel elated, and on top
of the world – in more senses than one. To finish, there is only a 16 km descent to Valloire. I am exhausted but feel good, the first day I didn’t feel in danger of ending up in the "bus".

As we ascended I longed for the promised rain. Instead it was sunny, 23 degrees and I was still in my winter cycling jacket. But it does prove rather useful on the cold, cold descent in the shade from Galibier.

Tomorrow is the “rest day”, just one climb – back up to the top of Galibier, a 1,300 metre ascent in a time trial. But no cut-off so I am safe until Thursday, the toughest day of the week.

See also: Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7Reflections
The monument tot he founder of the Tour, below Galibier

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