Classic cols, pro-level support and banter with the Black Widows: riding the Haute Route in the magical Pyrenees
Fancy taking on the Haute Route next year? Here's how our own Haute Route Pyrenees debutant got on earlier this year
With some of the highest, steepest and most notorious cols in world cycling packed into their routes, alongside pro-level support both on the road and off it, the Haute Route Series is on the must-ride lists for many cyclists.
Next year’s routes for the Haute Route Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites have all been announced, and entries are open, but what is it like to actually ride them?
With the promise of following the wheel tracks of the pro riders on the breath-taking and iconic cols of the Tour de France, I headed off to the Pyrenees for my first taste of the Haute Route experience.
Classic cols and iconic routes
The routes chosen for the week-long Haute Route events are carefully compiled to blend fabulous cycling, spectacular views and a tour through the history of the world’s biggest and most celebrated cycling race: the Tour de France.
It’s an experience of a lifetime which people travel from all over the world to share, and for me started with testing the legs on the lesser-known expanse of the Col d’Ahusquy before following in the wheel tracks of Chris Froome on La Pierre-Saint-Martin, the mountain on which the Team Sky man obliterated his rivals to claim the yellow jersey on Bastille Day at the 2015 Tour de France. Just one day into the Haute Route and already I couldn’t help but feel rather privileged to share this moment.
My first Haute Route, this was also my first time in the Pyrenees and the region lends itself perfectly to the event. There is definitely something wilder and yet more intimate with this mountain range than any other I have climbed.
Unlike the Alpine range with its notoriously long but steady gradients, here the climbs are shorter and full of character. But you can only enjoy them for a short time – between the neutralised sections scattered throughout the course, the self-titled “toughest amateur sportive in the world” is, after all, a race.
On day two, we finished on Spandelles, a climb which typifies the Pyrenean character I discovered – hidden in the treeline, speckled with cracks in the road and no wider than six foot in places. I found myself racing to the top, chased by the lanterne rouge and I was one of the last to make it over the timing mat on that occasion as not all of those who followed made the time cut.
But that’s the beauty of the Haute Route, no matter your level; the incredible feeling of accomplishment is another reason that so many want to ride it. You may not be riding at the speed of the pros – certainly not from my position at the back – but you are covering the same distance and altitude. For those doing the Triple Crown – the Haute Route Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites, back to back – it may be argued you are covering more.
Race of truth
It’s not just bunch races up climbs that have come to define the Haute Route – a mountain time trial is also included. For us, and new for 2016, that meant the Col de Couraduque – ‘the emerald of the Pyrenees’.
Awaiting your allocated spot to roll off the start ramp before setting your time on the climb, the time trial has a real pro feel about it.
As ever, led by sportive guru, Alpine adventurer and Col Collector Mike Cotty, who knows most of the climbs like the back of his hand, we were given a briefing the evening before to help with our plan of attack.
Living the pro lifestyle
Simplifying logistics is another example of the attention to detail put in by organisers, who promise pro-level support on and off the bike. Off the bike, from the moment we arrived everything was taken care of; from hotels to baggage transfers, the Haute Route have it covered.
When we did change hotels, the teams transferred our large Scicon kit bags (provided with entry) for us, while a smaller Scicon bag, loaded with any post-ride necessities – so protein shakes, change of clothes and so on – are loaded onto a truck and were awaiting us at the race village at the finish. On arrival we were also offered a massage and a hot meal, often made up of local dishes to sample.
Naively, as this was my first Haute Route event, I didn’t quite realise what a difference this would make, but with no need to pack our bags or relocate we were delighted to spend a second night in Pau.
Steeped in Tour de France history, and third on the list of places the Tour has most frequently visited, there are numerous pillars located on Pau’s central green as a nod to the famous race. One to mark each year the Tour de France has taken place, the pillars give details of the winner and any notable highlights the year represented. Amidst these bright yellow pillars are two that are black in colour as a sign of respect to the years the World Wars prevented the Tour de France taking place.
In addition to the warm welcome we received here, now, more than ever, I realised how close we were to the pro event, and were being treated as such.
On the bike, meanwhile, I can’t fault the level of support. That extends to rolling support crew, Mavic cars, media teams and medical assistance, well versed in dealing with professionals let alone amateurs.
OK, so I might not have had one of the Mavic team members leaning out of his window changing parts on my bike as I rode up the Tourmalet, but this event is as close as you will get to the pro experience. From the offset, Duncan and co at Mavic were brilliant.
After being unable to locate the cause of a small mechanical on day one, Duncan would not settle until he had found and fixed it, taking my bike and riding it himself to solve it (wait, do I get disqualified for admitting that – “keep going Duncan, the summit’s at least 5km away!”).
In a matter of meters all was fixed and I was back on my way. The mechanical support is not all the Mavic team offered – encouragement and plenty of banter to get you through the tough points is in abundance.
Pleasantly surprising, the camaraderie throughout the peloton also stands above any other event I have participated in. Unlike most single day events where elbows are out as riders take no mercy in jostling their way to the front despite a considerable lack of prize money at stake, the Haute Route manages to evoke emotion like no other. It is here that life-long memories and indeed life-long friendships are formed.
There is no better example than the Black Widows cycling team, a seriously good team that don’t take themselves too seriously and have raced at least one Haute Route event per year since the Haute Route began.
Turning up in a renovated van, stacked with good humour and coffee for all, their equally infamous pink and black moped was not only a welcome sight to those struggling against the pounding heat and relentless climbs but was fast adopted by the official Haute Route support team and covered in official Tour de France support stickers by the end of the week.
No matter your position – it’s you against yourself and there is nothing quite like the raw emotion felt on the mountains, pushing yourself above and beyond your limits, sometimes for the first time, to bring you closer to the people you share those moments with.
Where those at the sharp end of the peloton might be jetting off with the finish line in their sight, arguably it is at the back, among those who are digging deep and pulling out all the stops to go above and beyond what they think is possible, and simply make the cut off each day, where the real race takes place. The banter is better here too!
My own experience of the support provided throughout the event also extended to the Doc Ever team (the Haute Route’s medical support), as I spent much of the week nursing a previous injury.
From rallying the troops to cheer me over the timing mat, to handing me meds from the motorbike as I tackled the Tourmalet, this truly is pro-level support. Not only did they set the bar for future events but they set it pretty high.
Indeed, on day five my injury got the better of me, and having spent some time with the masseur, he suggested I see the osteopath (yep, they’ve got one of those too). Just one hour later, having treated the areas that most needed attention, I was comparatively pain free, taped up, and ready to face the remaining stages.
The magic of the Pyrenees
It was stage five which, for me, best summed up the magic of the Pyrenees. Tough but undoubtedly, the most beautiful; having already tackled the Tourmalet the previous day, stage five ramped the difficulty level another notch again.
The Col d’Horquette-Ancizan, Col d’Aspin and Col d’Azet served as appertifs for the final 19km climb up the Cap de Long. A breath-taking ascent, with an unforgettable backdrop, the Haute Route was the first event to ever take place on the climb – not even the Tour de France has been allowed to include the protected National Park.
Whether looking out over the expanse from the summit or winding through the narrow lanes from one col to another, the views spanning the beautiful mountain ranges of the Pyrenees are spectacular and I was fast realising that with every pass I climb I referred to it as my favourite.
The Col de Peyresourde, the following day, sits at the top of this list however. At 15.3km long and maximum gradients hitting nearly ten per cent, the climb doesn’t sound too bad on paper and given the views and associated sense of freedom it has to offer, it wasn’t.
The heat on the other hand was a different story but the Haute Route team were right on form here and, stood at the roadside with bottles of water, they made every attempt to cool us down.
Once at the top, I was happy to be greeted with a feed station packed full of refreshing and sweet oranges before setting off on the last few kilometres to the ski resort of Peyragudes where we would stay before final stage.
All that remained thereafter was the final stage in Toulouse, and the immense pride and satisfaction that comes with finishing the stunningly brilliant, and brilliantly tough Haute Route Pyrenees. As Haute Route Ambassador James Golding perfectly surmises, ‘the only thing you will regret about the HR is not doing it’.
This year’s Haute Route Pyrenees (Anglet to Toulouse) takes place from August 13 to 19, followed by the Haute Route Alps (Nice to Geneva) from August 21 to August 27 and for the first time ever, the Haute Route Dolomites goes from Innsbruck to Venice from September 2 to September 8.
Sat either side of the European tour, there’s the inaugural Haute Route Rockies (June 24 to June 30) and the shorter but just as tough Haute Route Ventoux (October 6 to October 8). So what are you waiting for? I can’t recommend it highly enough, and now having completed one European Haute Route, I am definitely considering doing all three.
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