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by Monika Sattler
October 6, 2017
Photography by Haute Route and Monika Sattler
WOMEN'S CYCLING BROUGHT TO YOU BY ORBEA
Always looking for the next big challenge, I knew I’d struck gold when I heard about the Haute Route Triple Crown; three stage races, each seven days long. Combined they would cover 2,650 kilometres through the Pyrenees, French Alps and Dolomites. It would include a staggering 62,500 metres of climbing, all in a span of four weeks.
Every stage was tough. Most days had over 3,000m of climbing. Most days covered more than 120 kilometres. Most days involved over six hours in the saddle, no matter whether it was 40°C in the shade or 5°C in rain.
This meant it would be not only a physical challenge but required mental toughness. I’d need the stamina to be able to wake up early every morning and look forward to riding throughout most of the day – no matter what the body, weather or mind said. In short, it was exactly the type of adventure I was looking for.
It also didn’t hurt that it was set in the most stunning regions of Europe. The three Haute Route stage races led the participants over the most iconic climbs of the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France offering those spectacular views one usually only sees on TV.
Each and every stage had something special to offer. Whether it was climbing the Tourmalet, time trialling up Alpe d’Huez or meeting the sunrise on top of Passo Fedaia. The three weeks of riding delivered 21 reasons to love cycling. This video put together by the organisers gives you an insight into just how spectacular the terrain we covered was.
But it definitely wasn’t a walk in the park. I want to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes of racing so many tough stages in a row; the incredible feelings of joy and accomplishment but also the raw emotions of exhaustion, doubt and sadness. Most of the time, all those feelings in one day.
It’s the type of roller coaster it is hard to convey with words alone, so I put together a “raw and real” video diary, where I am sharing my experience of what it means to go through the ups and downs of so many days of racing. It is fascinating how energy levels, mind set and physical appearance change in a matter of days, and even hours.
In the first of the three stage races we tackled the Pyrenees and 910 kilometres with 19,300 metres of ascent. With relentless climbs like the Col du Tourmalet, Aubisque and the Peyresourde it was clear this was not going to be any easy introduction.
The Pyrenees are steep and wild, covered in forest with narrow roads heading up the mountains and little traffic. This was a cycling paradise…well most of the time! There was no energy left for admiration of the scenery on the first two dark days. I was absolutely shattered from the steepness of the climbs. I was under prepared, both physically and mentally after making the final decision to take on the challenge of the three stage races in a row at the last minute.
I didn’t have the right gearing to make it more manageable, either on my bike or in my mindset. Those first couple of days were like a smack in the face. Now, that I had seen what I would be facing for another 19 days I couldn’t help asking myself: Have I bitten off more than I can chew?
Not the beginning I was hoping for: Pyrenees stage 1, 174km and 3,450m of ascent
But when you hit the bottom, there is only one way to go and that’s up. By day three I was standing on top of the Tourmalet and I had this feeling of determination. It was a long, relentless climb but now I looked beyond the pain in my legs. I looked around and there was so much to see – right from the wildflowers on the side of the road to the craggy jagged mountains stretching to the horizon.
At the Haute Route Pyrenees, I learned that preparation – mentally, physically and equipment-wise – is absolutely key. Smaller gearing, strength training and being ready for seven hard days is crucial to not only survive, but also enjoy, such a difficult stage race.
There was only one rest day between Haute Route Pyrenees and the Alps which was used for the transfer from Toulouse to Nice. In numbers, Haute Route Alps had less distance but more climbing than the Pyrenees. The 896 kilometres had over 22,200 metres of ascent, including Col de Glandon, Col de Madeleine, Alpe d’Huez, Granon and Izoard. The steep, wild climbs in the Pyrenees were exchanged for the majestic, long ascents that carry a longstanding cycling history.
This stage race included the entire spectrum of emotions for me – from my highest moment of crossing the finish line with two newly made friends on day three to the lowest point on day five, as you will see in the video below. This stage race laid out the struggles, but also the beauty of cycling. There is nothing quite like the strong bonding and camaraderie a shared adventure can deliver.
I also learned the hard way how much suffering a tough day on the bike can entail, when it comes on top of so many other tough days on the bike. The heat combined with the demand of the stages drained my energy.
My toughest day of the entire Haute Route Triple Crown: Alps stage 5, 182km and 4,500m of ascent
Due to a prior commitment to participate in a Shimano media camp, I missed the last two stages. But those two days were not much of a break, because now I was riding in Austria instead. To top it off after the media camp, I spent all day on my feet at Eurobike.
In contrast to the last one-day break between the stage races, there were five days between Haute Route Alps and Haute Route Dolomites (and seven for me with the media camp). Good thing, because I was a wreck, not so much physically but mentally.
Some of the Haute Route Triple Crown racers (21 men, 1 female) were concerned that they would lose their mojo for the last stage race. But I definitely needed the break because there was something else that especially required mental stamina for the Haute Route Dolomites; the unpredictable weather. The Dolomites were steeper than the French Alps so I was happy that I still had my 32-tooth gearing.
We were facing 852 kilometres with over 21,000 metres of climbing. I went into this last stage race with mixed feelings. Had I recovered enough from the last one?
The real test was day one. The worries about the weather were justified. It was raining cats and dogs for the entire day. The event organisers changed the course to avoid climbing up to the high elevation which actually made it longer, not shorter. My renewed mental energy was sapped right away, as the video below shows.
Oh what a difference the weather can make: Dolomites stage 1, 170km and 2,000m of ascent
By day three we had cast aside the stormy weather, so now it was just back to battling our way through the remaining kilometres and climbs.
In the end I made it through. No, I couldn’t claim the Triple Crown, or the full distance, given the couple of stages I missed due to prior commitments but I’m glad I didn’t let those plans stop me from taking on the other 19 days of the adventure.
To me this was life in a nutshell. It wasn’t about the medal or the title. It was about having a goal, taking the good things and blocking out all the things that can stand in your way. It was about knowing myself, listening to how I felt physically and mentally and pushing through in the way that was best for me.
This was not just another race or ride; it was a life-changing experience that tested me on multiple mental and physical levels. Now the really big challenge is how to find the next adventure. Not sure what’ll top this!