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“You are only a place or two ahead of me,” quipped a rider behind me in a slow, deep and heavy Dutch accent. Curiously, I turned to be met by a grin. I immediately realised that he was talking to me. It was shortly before the start of stage two of the Haute Route Alps, a mountainous seven-day bike race from Nice on the French Riviera to Megève.
I had started the 800 km event that included 21,300-plus metres of elevation intent on treating it as an opportunity to just enjoy riding in a new environment, and to find out first-hand what Haute Route is all about for the recently released film, The Other French Race – Haute Route Alps, filmed and produced by Anthony Gordon of Nothin But Shorts International. I certainly did not initially approach it as a race, as I set off from Nice under the close-up focus of Gordon and his camera lens, or that of fellow Australian Nathan Roderick who was shooting still photography of the event for organisers.
I knew the spectacular but tough mountainous terrain ahead of me. I had been through it so many times … albeit in the comfort of a media car at the Tour de France and other races I have covered such as the Criterium du Dauphiné. I viewed the Haute Route Alps as an opportunity to reattach with my love of riding after the disappointment of my ‘DNF’ (did not finish) in the 4,900km Race Across America (RAAM) in June.
Hence, I initially laughed off the remarks of the smiling Dutchman, an orthopaedic doctor from Rotterdam named Manfred Vischjager. However, looking back I acknowledge that deep down and no sooner had Manfred muttered his words, my approach to the event changed. For that night, following that second stage, 140 km from Cuneo in Italy to Serre Chevalier -Briançon in France, there I was at the dinner table, checking the general classification to see where I was placed on general classification – 244th from 351 riders still in the race. More importantly, I looked to see how close Manfred was behind me – 245th and at 27 seconds to me!
After taking Manfred’s bait hook, line and sinker, the next five days became ‘our’ race with the race, with a third rider of similar age, shape and condition, Claude Autry from Mauritius joining in. For every day and kilometre of every climb, descent and valley plane, we fought for our best places on general classification in a peloton of as many shapes, sizes, backgrounds and objectives as nationalities, cultures and languages. From the 302 finishers in a starting field that numbered 460, the final order was: Manfred in 221st place, me in 222nd at 48 seconds and Claude in 225th.
One of many humbling facts is that we finished more than a staggering 12 hours behind 24 year-old-old Italian winners Luca Vergallito, who is one of cycling’s leading amateurs and whose palmares include wins in the 2015 Italian junior championship, the 2021 La Granfondo Fausto Coppi in Italy and the 2022 Gran Fondo New York City 100-mile world championship in May. In Haute Route Alps, Vergallito led overall from start to finish six minutes ahead of second-placed Frenchman Loïc Ruffaut. Meanwhile, the first woman to finish was Janine Meyer of Germany in 21st place overall.
‘Our’ race, was still intense … well, it was for those involved! And it came down to the 99km seventh and last stage out and back from Megève in which we threw all we had left into it. Manfred, with his dogged determination to not relent when riding uphill or down; Claude with his lightning-fast descending ability, and me, with relative strength on the hills.
Aside from determining our own podium, our contest even helped to move us all up six places on the official overall classification. But as Manfred, Claude and myself fought on towards our finish in Megève, I realised that Haute Route Alps was more than a bike race and a test of physical and mental strength. Haute Route Alps was also an adventure.
Just one on a menu of events run throughout the year by the Haute Route organisation, acquired by the Ironman Group in August 2021, Haute Route Alps was a first (for me) and a rare opportunity (for everyone) to experience riding in the atmosphere and conditions somewhat akin to the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. Arriving for the start of each day’s stage – from stage one in Nice to stage seven in Megève – it was easy to let the mind escape and imagine being in a grand tour with the sight of official vehicles parked in formation ahead of the start line. It felt the same as each stage got underway with a rolling road closure controlled by race marshals on motor bikes in a flotilla of official vehicles that included organisation, media and medical cars, a broom wagon for riders outside the daily time limits, and through crowds of locals or holidaymakers cheering as riders passed.
Adding to the semblance of a grand tour atmosphere, Haute Route events that are also run in other regions like the Dolomites of Italy and Pyrénees bordering south-west France and northern Spain, provide many other in-race services. They include Mavic mechanical support vehicles, fully equipped feed zones at selected mountain tops, and post stage meals and massages and the daily return of each riders’ day pack; and the delivery of main luggage bag to their hotel.
Haute Route events are also a ride ‘back in time.’ The mountains ridden are steeped in cycling history, of fabled battles between the stars of their time, and the struggles of so many to win a stage or finish the race inside the time limit.
The passes we tackled read like a brutal week at the Tour de France: Col de la Lombarde (20.6km long at a 7% average gradient to 2,350m altitude), Col d’Izoard (14.2km at 7% to 2,360m), Col d’Agnello (20.6km at 7% to 2,744m) , Coldu Lauteret (26.7km at 3.1% to 2,058m), Col de Sarenne (13.2km at 7.1% to 1,999m), Col du Glandon (25.2km at 4.5% to 1,924m), Col de la Madeleine (19.1km at 8% to 2,000m), Col de la Loze (10.1km at 8.6% to 2,305m) and Cormet de Roselend (19.2km at 6.1% to1,968m).
Looking at the menu of mountains each morning over breakfast, or on route stickers provided to position on one’s bike, made for some interesting mental re-assessment. Initially, the route left me wondering if I would have the legs to get over and down them; or if I had the right gearing.
However, as each climb passed under our wheels, the process of breaking the stage down mountain-by-mountain helped to ease any anxiety. There was no way of dressing it up, the climbs are huge, long and in places very steep. It quickly became clear that pending their respective length, maximum and average gradient and altitude at the summit, each mountain would take 90 minutes to two hours to climb; while descending them would take approximately an hour.
Albeit, taking the time to appreciate the panoramic views at various points helped to take my mind off the struggle, to relax and breathe efficiently, which in turn helped me to find a tempo that suited me best and ultimately able to tackle each climb within my capability. It allowed me to really enjoy the experience, the beauty of cycling and the terrain we were in.
I left France for home realising that it had given me much more than what I had thought I would get from it upon signing up.
Upon further reflection after returning home to Sydney, I realised how much Haute Route Alps had also helped to broaden my understanding of the calibre of athlete of professional men and women road cyclists – or elite amateurs – who race in these mountains. Their physical and mental strength and bike skills have astounded me since the 1987 Tour de France, the first of 31 Tours I have covered as a journalist. But not until now hadn’t I understood how hard cycling in those mountains is for any rider let alone a professional or elite amateur who is in full race mode and at their threshold power output, or how technically challenging and demanding in mind and body descending them is too.
Haute Route Alps may not be three weeks long as is a Tour, but the experience also provided me and others who raced it a sense of what it might be like, albeit without the crowds and hype. And while I am far way down the pecking order for cycling capability, riding Haute Route Alps certainly improved my understanding and awareness as an observer of cycling races of their specific challenges. The experience has better equipped me to assess how a rider may ride or race on those mountains, from their gear choices to tempos and tactical options, while keeping in mind that they will be racing with far superior power and speed and for much greater distance.
Saying that, getting to ride alongside so many in a peloton of such varying abilities showcased the strength of spirit of those who ride a bike for the pure love of it, from the sport’s benefit for mental and physical health to the pure rush felt from the sensation of speed beneath one’s wheels and the wind in their hair.
Haute Route Alps also led to some things even more significant than helping to take my cycling up another level. There were the body and mind management lessons learned from taking on such a full menu of climbing, and how those lessons could parlay and assist in a stressful situation off the bike – whether it be at home, work or in a social circle.
Haute Route Alps also led to the creation of new friendships with fellow riders from around the world, friendships forged by a shared suffering and encouragement throughout the week. It amazed me to see so many nationalities and hear so many languages with riders from all over Britain and Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia and New Zealand.
Would I go to Haute Route again? Most definitely; as I would to any of the Haute Route events, from their three-day events to week-long events like Haute Route Alps. Would I change anything? Absolutely, while I was fortunate that the strength and condition from my RAAM preparation carried over to assist me in the Alps, I would have profited from a spell of more specific training in the mountains. And while I managed the climbs well with my semi-compact 12-speed group set – especially when riding on the 36×34 – I could have done with one more gear when the steepest of gradients reached up to 20 per cent.
If I were to return to participate in Haute Route Alps, would I resist the temptation to race and just ride through it? I might say ‘no’ now, but most probably I would ‘race’ in my own way come the time. The event is very much an adventure, but it also ignited the embers of a competitive flame that lies within. Either way, the fact is that there is no real easy way to ride Haute Route Alps. If there were, it would not be the challenge it is. Chances are, there will also be a Manfred out there somewhere in such a large and mixed peloton. If so, all the better I’ll be for it, as will anyone who entertains the challenge it throws up: on the bike and off it.
*’The Other French Race – Haute Route Alps’by Anthony Gordon of Nothin But Shorts International is available on: