Words by Tom Owen | Photos by Haute Route / PhotoRunning

The Haute Route is the toughest, most epic amateur bike race anywhere in the world. Or rather, it’s a series of three week-long events, where participants spend seven days riding road bikes through one of Europe’s most spectacular mountain ranges; first up each year is the Pyrenees week, followed by the French Alps, with the Swiss Alps & Dolomites week rounding things out. Just one of these will probably be the toughest thing most amateur cyclists have done or will ever do, but there are some absolute nutbars who tackle the three weeks back-to-back.

This summer I tackled just two days of the Swiss Alps & Dolomites week – and it was the most testing two days I have ever spent on a bicycle. Starting out in Geneva, Switzerland, the full route would take riders all the way to Venice. I made it as far as the Italian border – more than enough for a first visit to the crazy world of Haute Route.

"The stats for one week…like cycling to the top of Everest twice, then climbing Box Hill 17 times…some absolute nutbars tackle three weeks back-to-back!"

Each day the riders tackle between 100-150kms, with a handful of mountain passes thrown in – so the total climbing is something around 3,000m. Per day. The stats for an entire week are, frankly, staggering. 1,000km of total riding, and more than 20,000m of vertical ascent. That’s like cycling to the top of Mount Everest. Twice. And then climbing Box Hill 17 times to round off the week.

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To make matters worse, the whole event is run as a race, with timed sections every day that add up to your total combined time. You can find out where you rank at the end of each day, even deep diving into where you placed at the various checkpoints. Instantly the peloton is full of rivals – you have to keep ahead of the guys beneath you, and try and steal a few places each day too.

"A guy is taking off his jacket while pedalling – just like the pros do on TV – except he lets one of the sleeves get tangled in his front wheel, causing the bike to stop dead and throwing him over the handlebars."

As early as the first few minutes heading out of Geneva there is a dramatic ending to one rider’s Haute Route experience. A guy is taking off his jacket while pedalling – just like the pros do on TV – except he lets one of the sleeves get tangled in his front wheel, causing the bike to stop dead and throwing him over the handlebars. He busts his collarbone and has to withdraw from the race – months of training and a significant entry fee, all vanished in one moment.

Another guy, the day before the race even begins, is desperately trying to find a replacement battery for his electronic gears – which on a Sunday in Geneva is an impossibility. He has travelled from Australia to take part and now his bike, worth multiple thousands of pounds, is unrideable.

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So what’s the appeal of all this suffering? Well it’s quite simply the closest a mere amateur will get to feeling like a professional cyclist. You ride every day on some of the most demanding terrain in the world, on roads used by the most famous bike races, and all of the logistics are sorted for you, so you just have to ride your bike each day. Exactly like a pro.

Every detail has been considered to create that pro experience. There are shuttles between one day’s finish line and your hotel near the start of the next day’s stage, and your bags are picked up each morning and carried to your next hotel for you while you ride.

"Every detail has been considered to create that pro experience."

There are massages at the end of each day, usually given in a nice warm room at the finish line – the perfect way to decompress after the day’s suffering, as well as a vital component in recovering before the next day’s exertions. It’s while lying on the massage table on the first day I start thinking: "I could get used to this sort of treatment".

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There’s also a hefty feed available after the day’s stage – full of all the stodgy carbs, muscle-building protein and veggies your body is crying out for to refuel its depleted reserves. Along the route of each stage there are plenty of feed stations too. And should you have a mechanical problem, there are team cars with expert mechanics ready to help, or even lend you a replacement bike.

And speaking of bikes, to tackle a challenge like this you need an extraordinary machine. No regular mass-produced factory frame and wheelset are going to cut it in an event where virtually all the participants are riding something shiny and made of carbon fibre. I shudder to think how my own bike (a 20-year-old, 10-kilo hunk of steel) would have been received on the start line. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find out because the kind people at ColourBolt – a bespoke bike builder with an emphasis on beautiful design – leant me one of their creations. The bike tipped the scales at 7.8kg, with disc brakes for unbeatable control on the descents, and some incredible aerodynamic wheels. It’s fair to say it got a lot of envious looks as it carried me effortlessly up the slopes.

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Having all these little things taken care of means there’s only one thing left to do – ride. And while that’s amazingly freeing, it also means you want to do the very best you can.

From the start of the first day I realise that it’s going to be as much about surviving as it is about putting in a good performance. Any hopes of placing in the top 100 evaporate after the first timed section – I had heard rumours about how serious some people take the Haute Route, but the sheer gap in quality is devastating. Some of the guys towards the front may as well be professionals. As soon as the timing begins they disappear, kicking up several gears and seeming to evaporate into the fine drizzling rain ahead. That’ll be the last we humble mortals (and journalists) will see of that lot until the following day.

"From the start of the first day I realise that it’s going to be as much about surviving as it is about putting in a good performance."

As the kilometres begin to tick over I focus on eating as much as possible, keeping the body fuelled and the legs moving, rather than pushing too hard too soon. On the early climbs I feel like I’m overtaking a good number of people, it’s a big boost to my morale.

After a whizzy descent from Pas de Morgins – littered with hairpins, hitting top speeds of 64km/h (40mph) – it is a long, slow, mainly flat transition to the foot of the day’s final climb, the fearsome Crans Montana. This flat part is not timed, so I take it easy. There’s also a final feed stop before the climb gets going, so I cram my pockets with energy gels and get ready to steal some time from the guys around me. I don’t usually like gels, preferring ‘real’ food, but this situation demands something with more punch. I have one and pretty soon I am flying up the slopes, dropping people all over the show. It feels incredible to cross the line.

Day one, done! Stiff legs and a tired mind, but feeling good about what is to come (and quietly relieved to be only doing the two days!)

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Waking on the second day was tough. There’s that wonderful moment where you aren’t quite sure where you are, or what is going on – but then you realise, it’s 6am, you have to haul yourself out of bed, eat breakfast, then drag your body over another two immense climbs.

After cramming as much food into my face as possible, I head slowly to the start line. The day begins, mercifully, with a descent, and then a very long flat ride along some valleys. Most of the day is spent chugging through the flat Ks, before we come clattering into the mighty Nufenenpass – 1,100m of vertical climbing, followed immediately by a descent and the mighty, mighty Passo San Gottardo. The latter is infamous among cyclists for its cobbled sections – which serve to make climbing its slopes all the more difficult.

"By the end of the climb I am so relieved to hit the summit that I hang around for ages shovelling bananas and cake and cookies down my throat."

On the Nufenenpass the sun is shining full-blast, it’s hot and I end up drinking all my water before I’m halfway up. A rookie error. I also run out of food. By the end of the climb I am so relieved to hit the summit that I hang around for ages shovelling bananas and cake and cookies down my throat. When I do eventually get going I freeze on the way back down – easily exceeding 65km/h on some parts of the descent.

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Then it’s the San Gottardo, which winds and snakes its way up to 2,109m above sea level, through 38 switchbacks, at an average gradient of 8 per cent. After a torrid day, I am amazed to find myself feeling stronger again on the day’s final climb. Perhaps it’s because I know I’m going home, but I start to attack the mountain with energy. I catch up to a guy who overtook me earlier and pass him. Then a few minutes later he passes me. We get locked into a game of leapfrog, that goes on for almost all of the 72 minutes it takes to reach the top. Digging deep with the finish in sight, I make one big final effort to distance my new ‘rival’. Sprinting away up the final cobbles, the feeling of euphoria as I cross the line is immense. Another massage, then I quickly disassemble the bike – ready to fly back to the UK.

"I catch up to a guy who overtook me earlier and pass him. Then a few minutes later he passes me. We get locked into a game of leapfrog…"

I have some time to wait at the airport in Milan. It’s fair to say it’s not the best-equipped airport in the world, with not much on offer to pass the time apart from a Burger King. I order a super-size meal and connect to the wifi, poring over the results from the day. I have beaten a journalist from The Telegraph, mini fist-pump. I find the number of the guy I was chasing up the Gottardo. He is sitting 118th, while I am 122nd. My sprint to the line obviously wasn’t enough to gap him.

I finish my burger and fries and realise it hasn’t touched the sides. I go buy a second super-size meal and demolish it too. So much for living the ‘pro’ life.

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Tom Owen was a guest of the Haute Route and entries for the 2017 series, including the Haute Route Pyrenees, Alps, Dolomites and Colorado Rockies are now open.

Visit hauteroute.org

He completed the ride on a ColourBolt Maximum Black road bike, colourbolt.com

To read the rest of the December 'Excess Issue' head here 

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