The vast majority of riders who hold their breath, close their eyes, and register for Haute Route, are like me: just hoping to survive and return home with some semblance of dignity still intact. There are others, though, who you may see from time to time in the front pen at the start line (then never again) that have different objectives. I’ve reached out to two of these to see if they can give the rest of us any insight into how the pointy end lives and trains.
The first is a regular reader and sometime commenter on this blog – ‘Rich Vélo’, otherwise known and Richard Scales. Richard is American (living in France) and of my ‘vintage’, making his cycling achievements that much more amazing, I think (the ‘vintage’ part, not the ‘American’ one).
I know Rich from this blog and have ridden a few of the same events as him, even starting La Marmotte Pyrenees together in 2017 (then meeting up again as I started the final climb while he was flying down it). He’ll be riding HR Pyrenees this year, too.
Next up is Jim Cotton, an English blogger and a guy making his way in the cycling industry, like yours truly. Jim writes for / contributes to Cycling Weekly, VeloNews and other cycling publications. He is also an Haute Route Ambassador who can get you a discount on 2019 HR events. Contact him via his blog, Instagram or Twitter.
I met Jim in HR Alps 2015, usually 10 km or so from the finish line, when I was blowing up and he was just getting warm. That year we more or less finished in the same ‘region’ on the Leaderboard. Someone got serious since then.
Questions are coming slowly, so try and enjoy this first installment of my ‘interview’ with these two riders. It might be a while before I figure out what to ask them next.
VC: How many (and which) HR’s have you ridden? Can you give us a brief idea of your ‘palmarès’, both in HR and other events?
RS: I actually rode the inaugural event in 2011 in the Alps. At the time, they had a duo category which was an accumulation of both riders’ time (different from today’s duo which takes the time of the slowest rider each day). That year, my friend Jean and I won the duo category, with him finishing 4th overall and me 6th.
The following year I rode it again, but in the solo category. Again, I finished 6th overall, but 5th overall male – that year I finished directly behind the amazing Emma Pooley, who to this day remains a friend of mine.
My third HR was again in the Alps in 2014. I ended up 7th overall in this one – an interesting side note on this one – I met a certain Bryan Fogel that year, who later produced the movie Icarus. The original idea of the movie was to see if Bryan could improve on his 14th place overall with doping, and still passing all the antidoping tests (thus proving you could improve your performance and still not get caught). Needless to say the movie ends up taking a very different tact when he uncovers all the Russian doping scandals (and ends up finishing worse on the overall in HR 2015, despite all of his doping).
In 2017, I got an offer for a reduced price dossard to HR Alps on Friday evening before the Sunday start and basically rode it “off the couch” with no specific training. I REALLY suffered on that one, and will never do that again…
Last year I road the HR Pyrenees for the first time. I had good legs but a couple of extra kilos and finished 13th.
JC: I’ve nearly ridden more HR’s than I can remember to be honest! I started with Alps in 2015, then the Iron (Pyrenees and Alps back to back) in 2016, 2017 and 2018. I’ve also done the 3-day Ventoux twice, Stelvio, and Alpe D’Huez. This year it’s Alpe D’Huez, Pyrenees and Ventoux.
My best year was 2017, where I placed third overall in the iron, and got a top-25 in Pyrenees on the way. I also came top 20 in Ventoux that year.
My other ‘thing’ is the Marmotte, which I’ve developed a dirty fascination with – it’s so hard you’ve got to keep going back for more. In 2018 I came 120th of about 7,500 entrants, I think.
VC: What attracted you to HR in the beginning and what keeps you coming back now?
RS: I remember surfing the web in 2010 and seeing this amazing idea of a cyclo sportif with multiple stages, each one offering tons of climbing, my favorite part of cycling. I remember thinking it would be just like doing your own Tour de France, something an amateur is not normally ever able to experience. The first event had its minor organizational problems, but overall it was incredibly well organised. Additionally, the ability to get a massage after each stage really helped me recover each day and made the full 7 days enjoyable on the bike. Without a doubt, I ranked it as my #1 cycling experience when it was all over. To this day I still keep in touch with friends I met at that first event. What keeps me coming back is seeing old friends and meeting new ones, as well as the challenge of getting back into shape and doing the best I can. That keeps me motivated to train, and each year I try to set objectives.
JC: I first did the Alps as I’d started to develop my fascination with mountains after a few trips to the Pyrenees. Like most people, Alps attracted me first as I wanted to check out some of those bucket list climbs we all hear so much about. I actually saw HR as a good value option for getting a lot of riding into one trip. The problem with travelling from the UK to Europe for a one-day Gran Fondo is that once you’ve sunk money into your flights and accommodation etc, you only really get one ride out of it. But doing a HR, obviously the entry fee is a lot higher, but you get more value per day I think, as you’re only paying for one set of flights etc, but getting 7 Gran Fondos, if that makes sense.
I keep going back for the same reason I keep going to Marmotte – to see how deep I can go, and how hard I can push myself. I think my year would be empty and lacking focus without it. I race a bit in the UK, and you can do the one-day European events, but it’s great to have that huge challenge in summer to keep the focus.
I also am hooked on the whole experience. I love the sense of journey, and most importantly, the people you meet. I’ve made some long-lasting friends from Haute Route, and I’ve got great memories of the specific moment I rode with them; two of my good friends were met when we paced each other the full way up the Tourmalet, another good friend was made when I gave him a gel in a paceline as we were racing into a stage finish on that same Pyrenees event. Friends you make on the bike are friends for life I find.
VC: It’s not a cheap event. What do you gain from riding HR that ‘money can’t buy’?
RS: It is true that it’s not cheap. This means that unfortunately, not everyone is really able to participate – that is the down side of the event for me. The upside is that it is hard to get the level of challenge and pushing yourself to your limit in other one day races/cyclos. To me, there is just something about pushing yourself hard in a stage, then relaxing afterward with everyone telling their “war stories” of the day, then repeating that for 7 days. If you’ve never done one, I think when you complete your first one, you’ll feel like it’s one of your most proud moments on the bike.
JC: That value is both material and emotional I think. So you get all the awesome logistics provided by the organisers – the massage, the meals, the feed stations, the perfectly signed routes and courses that change and constantly innovate. The whole process is pretty seamless, and you don’t need to worry much about anything other than the state of your legs and the size of the mountains.
But as mentioned above, the most value is from the friendship and camaraderie. You end up riding with similar people every day, and that shared experience and the highs and lows it brings about really bonds you.
End of Part One. More coming once you give me some good questions to ask…