It’s not the deep whirr of bicycle tyres that echoes across this splendid valley in the French Pyrénées, but the melodic chime of cowbells; attached to the three-dozen or so sheep casually trotting across the race track, closing in on passing cyclists competing in the inaugural Haute Route Pyrénées cyclosportive. On the mountainside somewhere between Argelès-Gazost and Hautacam, I watch the riders emerge from a sharp bend, panting and grunting as they make their final push towards the Stage 5 finish line.
But the sheep aren’t the only live obstacles they must contend with; a few horses have also taken over the track, basking in the late summer sunshine and seemingly unfazed by the hundreds of cyclists pedalling past in a lycra blur. Meanwhile, a handful of local cycling fans has gathered on the side of the road, cheering on the riders in their race against the clock; the Hautacam time trial.
Sporadic cries of ‘go, go, go!’ and ‘allez!’ can be heard as the cyclists whizz past us at breakneck speed. For some, the pain and struggle is evident and an encouraging word or two perhaps offers small comfort. With an ascent of 1,635m over 15.8km, and an average gradient of 6.8%, Hautacam (regularly featured in the Tour de France), is no easy climb. But the view from the top for those lucky enough to get there no doubt makes it all worthwhile.
The sprint to Hautacam’s summit is one of seven timed stages that make up the Haute Route Pyrénées race – billed as one of the toughest endurance cycling events in the world. Riders tackle some of the highest and steepest cycling terrain, covering almost 800km and 20,000m of vertical ascent over seven days. Following in the footsteps, or rather the pedal turns, of some of cycling’s legends; competitors must take on 20 mythical mountain cols as they traverse the length of the Pyrénées, beginning in Spain and finishing in France. From Tourmalet (2,117m) and Aubisque (1,709m), to Port de Balès (1,755m) and Plan de Beret (1,904m), the rugged mountain landscapes of the Pyrénées have thrown down the gauntlet to the some 500 participants, among them 18 Australians.
After three years of a similar competition – the Haute Route Alps – its ‘twin sister’ the Haute Route Pyrénées is in its first year, both events aiming to provide amateur cyclists with the opportunity to experience riding like a pro. “Both races have the same philosophy – the highest and the toughest – but the landscapes are quite different and both have their challenges,” event organiser OC Sport’s Operations Director Matt Holden says. “In the Alps you know what you’re getting; it’s either up, down or flat. But in the Pyrénées it’s quite ‘lumpy’ and inconsistent. Irregular climbs are a challenge for cyclists as they can never get a real rhythm.”
Australian rider Grant Roe from Orange, NSW, competed in the Haute Route Alps in 2012 but says the two races can’t be compared. “The countryside, the roads and the climbs are all very different. The Pyrénées is similar to home in terms of grade variation, but not in terms of height. There are also a few hidden surprises in the Pyrénées so I wouldn’t underestimate it!” Teammate and Haute Route veteran Will Levy from Sydney, NSW, also says it’s difficult to stack the two up against each other. “They’re so different but they’re both amazing, the scenery is fantastic and it’s just something you don’t get in Australia.”
Despite an itinerary that ticks off two of Europe’s most beautiful coastal resorts; Spain’s Barcelona (course start) and France’s Biarritz (course finish), the Haute Route Pyrénées is no holiday. Kicking off the race was a relatively short stage covering 85km but no less than four cols between Solsona and La Seu d’Urgell. Stage 2 saw riders make three climbs – among them the first col of more than 2,000m (Port de la Bonaigua, 2,072m) – as they made their way to Plan de Beret. The notoriously difficult climb of Port de Balès was next on the list as riders completed Stage 3 (Vielha to Superbagnères).
But the jewel in the Haute Route Pyrénées crown is undoubtedly the fourth stage; a legendary route from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Argelès-Gazost, where the cyclists mount four cols, ascending more than 4,000m over 133km. One of them, the Col du Tourmalet, is the highest road in the central Pyrénées. “It was pretty tough, especially the last 10km. I was certainly glad to get to the top,” Roe says. Kathleen Swalling from Adelaide, SA one of only three Australian female riders competing, echoed those sentiments. “It was one of the toughest days but when you come up over the top it’s far out, wow!’”
“These are classic rides,” says first-time Haute Route rider Michael Young, from Perth, WA. “It is mythical; I’m seeing things that I’ve recognised for so long it’s fabulous.” Roe agrees. “These places are branded in cycling history. You see the names of the roads, think of the cyclists who have come through before and you can imagine what it’s like for the guys on the Tour,” he says. “It gives us an insight into what they experience and makes us appreciate what they do.”
Indeed, racing like a pro calls for stringent training programs. Many riders hired personal trainers and specialist cycling coaches in the lead-up to the event; Roe is one of them. “I strongly recommend it to build good aerobic capacity. I’m 60 to 70 per cent fitter than last year
, this year I’m feeling very comfortable. The work I put in during training equals the comfort I feel now. That’s the difference between struggling and feeling good.” However not all the cyclists are in good form by the time Stage 5 rolls around; after the monster day that was Stage 4, many are treating the Hautacam time trial as a rest day of sorts.
The starting line of this stage is the charming spa resort town of Argelès-Gazost in France’s Midi-Pyrénées region, nestled in a valley flanked by majestic mountains, which, after a rainy French summer, are lush and green. Tiny villages dot the fertile landscapes as far as the eye can see. And for some riders the most challenging thing has been staying on the road when faced with such beautiful vistas. “I’ve always made sure to look up at the scenery but I almost ran off the road yesterday,” Young laughs. “I’m looking up at Tourmalet and thinking ‘that’s really cool’ and suddenly I’m in the gravel! So staying focused is really critical.”
The fastest rider reaches the top of Hautacam in a mere 44 minutes. One by one they cross the finish line, before taking advantage of a half day off; we are after all nearing the end of the race, with only two days left to go. The sixth stage to Pau will take riders through little-known villages of the Pyrénées, as they scale three cols. The final stage, from Arette to Anglet Côte Basque, is a killer –
177km and two cols totalling over 3,000m of ascent. But before they can mentally prepare themselves for the home stretch, there’s talk of ‘fifth day fatigue’ setting in.
Fatigue that is surely being felt by the Iron Challenge competitors, a group of 40 seriously fit cyclists who are racing in both the Alps and Pyrénées events, back-to-back. Riding some 1,600km and more than 40,000m total elevation gain, it’s the equivalent of riding from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest and back five times. Of the riders doubling the fun, only three Australians have stepped up to the challenge.
One of them is Stacie Hall from Canberra, ACT. “I couldn’t decide which event to do and I was going to fly 22 hours to get here so I thought, ‘Why not do both?’ Having the chance to do so was just too good an opportunity to pass up. And I was confident I could do it, that I had it in me.” As the only Australian female rider and one of only three women taking part in the Iron Challenge, she added, “It’s good to show that women can go out there and do it as good as the men. And the other women are fabulous, I take my hat off to both of them.”
To prepare for the hard slog of competing in both events, Hall threw herself into a demanding training routine. “Lots of miles and lots of climbing,” she says. “I did stupid amounts of hill repetitions. I live very close to the base of Mt Ainslie, which has an average gradient of eight per cent and is one of the highest peaks in Canberra. I also once did 24 reps of Red Hill in a day for a bet, and after 16 or 17 I lost count!”
The Pyrénées race is “brutal” compared to the Haute Route Alps, Hall says, who also notices a difference between the riders. “They are a lot more focused in the Pyrénées, they take the race more seriously – that or they’re suffering more,” she chuckles. “It’s been very special to climb all these iconic peaks,” she continues, “I know that I’ll probably never get to do them again in my lifetime.”
Others though will have the chance to ride them again, with the return of both the Haute Route Alps and Pyrénées races in 2014, along with a brand new addition to the line-up; the Haute Route Dolomites. Cycling through an array of UNESCO World Heritage sites along the Swiss-Italian border, and with climbs that are steeper and longer than in the French Alps, the Haute Route Dolomites will no doubt provide a whole new set of challenges. Several riders have not only expressed interest in the new race, but also in attempting to snare the triple crown in three back-to-back events.
While most riders agree that the marathon was the most difficult aspect of the race, for everyone, it was the atmosphere and camaraderie that helped them make it to the end of each stage. “You see the same faces from previous tours, I know them all by name and they know me by name, it’s like a family,” Iron Challenge rider Levy says. For Swalling, like many others, the Haute Route was the start of some amazing friendships. “You’re all going through the same fears and challenges, so we support each other and come out the other side together.”
The Haute Route Pyrénées in numbers:
2 countries crossed – Spain and France
7 timed stages over seven consecutive days
9 riders maximum per team
18 Australian riders
20 legendary cycling climbs
35 different nationalities participating
40 Iron Challenge riders (competing in back-to-back Alps and Pyrénées races)
500 cyclists competing
800 kilometres to cycle
2,115 metres, the highest col – Tourmalet
20,000 metres of cumulative altitude gain in one week
More information at www.hauteroute.org