You know when you get up at 4.30 in the morning and put cycling clothes straight on it’s going to be a big day. Day Three of the Haute Route has been oft mentioned as being The Big One, the longest stage of the week at 169kms, with three mountains in the way offering a knee-trembling 4000 metres of climbing via the Madeleine, Télégraphe and the Galibier, tough enough on it’s own, but even tougher when inflicted on legs that have already suffered two hard days riding.
The atmosphere at breakfast is so nervous you could put your hand out to touch it and it would come back sticky. Riders are fidgety not just about the severity of the climbs but also the harshness of the cut-off times which means that today there’s the real possibility of some being eliminated from the race, although they can still continue on the ride, but unclassified. It’s ironic that on the day when there’s the least time to enjoy it we are presented with the best breakfast of the week, a full on Continental spread with bread, croissants, pain au chocolat, fruit, yoghurt, cereals, cheese, boiled eggs, and platters of meat. People are cramming as much food in as they can and pounding double double espressos out of the bean-to-cup coffee machine.
The 6am roll-out is somewhat different today as the first bit of the day's ride is done by funicular railway to drop us down to the valley start in Bourg-St-Maurice as shepherding 300 cyclists down the Les Arcs descent in what is still essentially dark night would be too dangerous. The start line is muted but for the ripple of anxious chatter and with less than a minute to go a man snaps his pedal axle and leaves the peloton in a panic, which is not a good start to any day, especially not this one. Thirty seconds later another rider discovers his pedal has broken. The first 32kms down the valley are under secured convoy again and it’s hard not to overtake the motorbikes who are trying to keep the mass of cyclists at a steady speed, it’s a good way though to warm up reluctant legs whilst not getting them over-excited, and have longer chats to faces recognized from previous days.
The standard of riding in this event is uniformly high, whether it’s riding in the bunch, bike handling or just quality in general. This isn’t like an English sportive, which in comparison is a bit like dicking about in the park on your bikes with your middle-aged mates, some would say that it’s like that anyway, but the Haute Route demands a high level of skill and respect. Come here expecting to be king of the hill because you smashed the Runcorn Sportive 65 miler in a little over 4 hours makes you an Athletic God to your IT colleagues on the Monday morning and you can expect to get your arse served to you on a plate. With salad. It’s no accident that the rear of the field is mainly English speaking.
The neutral zone stops at the base of the Col De La Madeleine and riders enter their preferred race or survival pace for the next 26kms, the start is refreshingly in the shade as it’s shaping up to be another scorching day, and riders bunch into groups to make the climb easier and more sociable. A pleasantly flat section gives weary legs a rest just before the final push which sees me enter the yet unseen realms of the last two sprockets on the rear thanks to the compact chainset up front, I feel ashamed. Happy that those easier gears are there but deeply ashamed. It’s a big relief to get to the summit and one hill of the day’s three ticked off, the descent is fast and open, and long enough to make your arms hurt although watching a rider suddenly skip the back wheel out on a corner, thanks to over-heated grabby carbon rims, and go straight on into the shrubbery tempers spirits a bit.
Spat out the bottom there’s a long drag along the valley floor to the start of the Télégraphe and it’s into a boisterous headwind, I put in an effort to reach the safety of a bunch working together a few hundred metres down the road and am pleased to find Mike, my room-mate for the last few nights, in amongst them. We all work well together to cheat the wind until there’s that sudden sickening noise of flesh and metal on tarmac from behind. I pull out of line and slow to look and see a tangle of bikes on the floor, spilled water-bottles and a couple of dazed riders staggering to their feet.
Wheeling back I see one of them is Mike, it turns out he has touched wheels with another rider and gone down hard. He has road rash on his right leg, a hole in his shorts and a very bloody right arm, I skoosh it out with water from my bottle and a large gash winks back at me. Shit. That’s quite bad, bad enough to need 5 stitches later. We brush Mike down and ride together down the valley since everyone else has buggered off, one of the fleet of motorbikes that constantly yet unobtrusively shadows the ride comes alongside and asks if we’re ok and summons the race medic on another motorbike who appears soon afterwards to patch Mike up a bit on the hard shoulder. Unbeknown to us as about the same time on the same stretch of road Paul, the triathlete we bumped into on the first day, had a silly crash and threw himself over the Armco at the side of the road and tore a strip of skin from the front of his shin off. The day is claiming casualties already and we’re not even halfway through.
I ferry the wounded soldier to the bottom of the Télégraphe where he has to stop again to man-handle his crash-bent rear-mech hanger back into shape just so he can get into a hill-climbing gear and he insists I carry on at my own pace as he’s just going to plod on nursing his wounds. The Télégraphe is another wide road uninteresting climb, steady but without much feature, although the shade of the trees gives a respite that feels almost chilly compared to the heat of what is now the midday sun. But it is climbed conservatively with the following threat of the final hill very much in the back of the mind.
A brief stop for a refill of water at the top and it’s an all too quick descent to Valloire before the 19km challenge of the 2645 metre high Galibier and 2km up the road the last feed-station before the day’s final destiny. The lumpy climb that slowly creeps up the valley wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for today’s blunt headwind which makes a struggle into a proper soul draining effort. The road is pretty enough through green fields but the mountain is slowly muscling onto the landscape, creeping in from all corners to eventually force any form of beauty out and replace it with brutality. Rocks that even in the bright sunshine have an oppressive gothic appearance crush a small rider’s will purely by their presence, it’s a totally alien and unforgiving landscape.
After fighting up the valley into the incessant wind the road turns right over the bridge at Plan Lachat and right again to start up the other side of the valley and it’s almost a relief to be winching up the mountain proper and into the teeth of the climb just to be out that bloody wind. But it doesn’t make the strain any easier.
I look down at my ‘Cancer Sucks’ socks put on special for the day and carry on a little further.
Somehow the phrase “I could possibly be fading…” loops round and round in my head, lyrics from a Mazzy Star song, I do my best to banish them. Concentrate on breathing, nice round pedal strokes, relax the shoulders, settle into the climb, you’ve done this sort of thing before, stand up to stretch the legs a bit, you can winch that rider in ahead of you.
At the third hairpin there is a sudden cry in my ear from all my cycling friends, shouting as one “Man The Fuck Up”. For a short while I find it hard to breath. Get back into a rhythm, steady, there’s a ways to go yet. After clinging to rock-faces for a while the landscape opens out and the road wiggles into an amphitheatre of jagged dark harsh mountains, there really is nowhere to hide up here. I look down at my “Cancer Sucks” socks and carry on.
I look up fearful at the mountain and look down loving on my borrowed Cannondale, and we have that moment in a relationship where we each hold each others gaze for that second longer than is necessary, and we both know that something beautiful between us is happening and there’s a frissance of understanding.
The air is crisp and thin here now, it’s getting noticeably harder to breath in any useful oxygen, the unmoving rock looks on impassionate. I look down at my ‘Cancer Sucks’ socks slowly revolving and carry on a little further.
At the 5km To Go marker I know it’s almost all over. Anyone can ride 5km, it’s easy. My grandmother can ride that far, and she’s dead. I look at my speedo and do a quick calculation, 5km on this hill is half an hour. I look down at my ‘Cancer Sucks’ socks, swallow, and carry on. A couple of kms from the top I see a familiar face from pasta-party chats stopped by the side of the road, it’s Dennis, and he’s been riding on an iffy cleat with missing bolts for most of the day meaning one of his shoes has significantly more float than the manufacturer intended. This is one of those days when everyone will have their own story to tell. I ride with him for a while for moral support and with under a thousand metres to go to the summit, just as a spatter of drizzle splashes the hot tarmac to release that wonderful smell, he puts on a spirited burst to the top to show he’s not to be been beaten.
The top of the Galibier is a desolate unwelcoming place to have the finish of the timed stage, just a bend in the road as it turns from ascent to descent and a scruffy gravel car-park. With a strong wind and rain threatening to bruise the day it’s not worth hanging about to admire the belittling view, the descent is barren and unprotected by any physical barriers to the sides which gives it a certain psychological danger, especially to a weary body. It’s a long long headwind stretch down the valley to the finish at Serre Chevalier and I’m mostly alone, in the drops, flooded with emotions. Elation at completing this massive stage and getting over the three impressive lumps mostly unscathed, but having being witness to a small amount of carnage. I am in genuine shock and awe at the wonder and the size of the place, and nakedly aware of the insignificance of the rider where their suffering no matter how great means absolutely nothing to the mountain. I barrel down the col, legs somehow powerful again into the wind and I am simultaneously laughing and crying at it all. I try hard to rank the day’s riding in my Top Ten list and find it impossible to find a place for it just yet, I need to reflect, but the Galibier has gone straight in at #1 on my Favourite Climb chart. Hard, beautiful, powerful, humbling.
I have calmed down enough by the finish to not get all emotional in public where Haute Routers are collapsed all over the place and sat in the fountain to cool off. A combination of waiting for Mike, (winner of the Jens Voigt Award For Hardness for the day) to roll in so his wounds can be properly seen to by the medics, and his bike expertly hit with Mavic hammers, and the hotel being 5km away back up the hill means time runs out and supper is spent in claggy cycling kit and it’s about 9.30 in the evening before it can be peeled off with a tacky sigh, a good 17 hours of chamois time. That’s a big day.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.