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Haute Route Alps

So I have finally had time to fully recharge and gather my thoughts since getting home from France a little almost two weeks ago. What an absolutely epic experience and something I will never forget. Both for all the good memories and the I will try my best to give as much detail on the week without going off on an absolute novel length post. The week started off with a fairly jam packed day on Saturday the 24th of August for sign on. The race village was set up, we had to queue to present our mandatory equipment. Helmet, winter gloves, waterproof jacket, overshoes etc. I almost wasn't going to bring the stuff to the sign on and just have it in my luggage saying to myself, "sure they won't even ask" but I did witness people being turned away and told to come back when they could present ALL the equipment. I even saw one guy being told his helmet wasn't safe as it had a hairline crack on the foam inner around the front area. This wasn't just a case of showing the staff a bundle of gear piled in your arms, they went through it all in detail. It was then that it really hit me that this is no joke anymore and I need to get in the zone.

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What was provided to each rider taking part was on another level. You begin to see when you arrive at an event like this just exactly where all your money went. From little to large, your race book, top tube stickers for each stage, event ID, race numbers for your jersey and bike plate with timing chip. Moving into the next part of the queue was the official Kitbrix backpack with race number attached and then the official Haute Route branded 120l suitcase, again with individual race number attached and list of your own accommodation for the week ahead. To the next table we shuffle, this time it was event partners Mavic who provided a Mavic/ Haute Route branded race fit jersey, race fit gilet and then a pair of arm warmers. The final step was getting your madatory picture taken with the media partners which you can see here. Look at that for a tired cheesy grin. I haven't even started cycling yet. 

Just outside was the Haute Route 'Additional Services' which were any extras people opted for when they registered and paid. I had decided that I was going to get the additional Race Bag service when I registered so this was the designated pick up point. This was a small cooler style bag with a large shoulder strap, almost like a gear bag of sorts. This again was from KitBrix and also fully Haute Route branded and had my race number, name and country flag on it. This bag would be at pre designated feed stations each day and could carry any extra clothing and any personal food and drink you wanted for yourself. A massive bonus to me as a first timer for sure. Plus it looks cool as...

Stage 1 saw temperatures soaring to above 30 degrees which was a real baptism of fire. Not only were people trying to pace themselves and find a nice rhythm for the week on the opening tough stage but now they had to contend with potential overheating too. Not an easy ask when the opener was 97km long and 2,600m elevation. Day one for me was just about not getting too enthusiastic and sticking to a nice tempo to get round. I had to remind myself on a few occasions that this was not just a one day event and I had a whole week of this to get through. Approximately 494 riders started on stage 1 but as the week rolled on, those numbers rapidly fell.

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So for those unaware, the event is very much a serious race. You are reminded regularly by the staff and main organisers, whether that's at the briefings the night before each stage or even if you seem to be hanging around too long at a feed station. You are against the clock and they have no problem cutting people from the GC who miss the time cuts. Now, it is an amateur event at the end of the day so for those who do get scratched off the GC for missing time cuts aren't sent packing. Everyone, provided they are physically able are allowed continue the week but will not have an official time or ranking at the end. For some, this week was just about finishing and surviving and for the crazy few it was all about putting those vital seconds or minutes in on the guy closest to you. Personally I was in between the two. I wanted to get round and finish it and for any amateur this is a MASSIVE achievement in itself but I also wanted to put in my best performance possible and finish as strong as possible. When I look back at my year and building up to this, my training wasn't really at all suitable and to be honest I pretty much winged it. Although it would be hard to do any type of training that could prepare you for this unless you lived in the region and were familiar with the climbs themselves.

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Fast forward to stage 3, Tuesday and what I will always remember as the single most testing day of my life. 144km lay ahead and 4,700m elevation. I remember the night before almost having a full anxiety attack about it as my body was tired after the first two tough days and hadn't fully acclimatised yet. Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon and if that wasn't enough, the 21 switchback finisher that is the iconic Alpe D'Huez were all on the menu for the 'Queen Stage'. Another majorly hot day which didn't help but thankfully the marshals and staff along the route were on hand with large bottles of water and if your bidon didn't need a top up then the water was going over your head. It was like the kiss of life and for those moments it gave you such a great boost. I remember being on my own for a period while scaling the Col du Glandon and really questioning if I would be able to finish the stage and would I just pull over and wait for the Broom Wagon. Thankfully I stayed on two wheels and didn't quit. However, I was told while grinding up Alpe D'Huez that there was quite a few riders still way behind me but that I would be cutting it fine on the time cut. 5km to go and I knew I had to completely empty the tank. I couldn't think about what if I bonk and can't go tomorrow but just to finish today inside the cut off. A final push by one of the staff at a bend and then out of the saddle and full gas I went, or whatever gas I had left. I made the time cut and I remember being so exhausted physically and mentally that I couldn't even string a sentence together. I got on the phone to my girlfriend and actually broke down into tears.

The following day was uneventful as I was tired and it was just about survival. Roll on Thursday and the so called 'Rest Day'. I had the advantage today of being able to have a slight lie on in bed as my start time for the TT stage wasn't until 09:30am. Surprisingly I felt quite fresh getting up for breakfast and getting ready to roll down to the race village. Dropped my backpack off with the staff and queued up in what was essentially a cattle pen and waited for my name to be called for the start ramp. Not that I was chasing first place or anything but for the TT I had decided to go as aero as possible. The Spin11 skinsuit, aero socks and gloves were out. At least I might look the part while sitting on the I still don't know how or where it came from but I found my groove and powered up the Col D'Izoard. Everything just flowed and I felt really strong on the bike. When I had gotten to the summit I remember one guy told my, "you passed by me earlier and went up that climb like a scalded cat". I couldn't have been happier and whether it was me having a good day or a lot of riders treating it as a complete rest day but I managed for the stage to finish a whopping 54 places stronger than the day before.  

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Still beaming from the day before, I was feeling super strong for what stage 6 had to offer. Today was, in comparison to the earlier part of the week quite reasonable with 104km and 2,300m elevation. Thankfully, it was also very consistent gradient for the stage and nothing that ramped up to scary figures. After my great day on the bike yesterday I decided I would check the rankings and see, not only how much time the closest rider ahead of me had but also the closest Irish riders time ahead of me. That was my goal for the remainder of the event. I had to catch these guys. Another very very strong day on the bike which showed that my fitness was there and for stage races and events gave me an insight to my capabilities and how I managed to get stronger as the week progressed.


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Day seven, the final day of the Haute Route Alps. Today's stage was actually split in two. Stage 7A and Stage 7B. The first being 68km long and 1,600m elevation. This stage consisted of a 30km climb to the highest Col in Europe, the Col du Bonnette which sits at a breathtaking 2,802m. At the briefing the night before, we had been given a heads up that within the last kilometre or so that we may find the air extremely thin and breathing could become difficult. Slightly nervous hearing this and a little alarming considering in my early teens my lungs collapsed more than three times but again, where the strength came from I may never know but I cruised up there well within my comfort zone. The last several hundred metres alone got to anywhere between 12 and 16 percent gradient so another thing to feel delighted about. A 26km decent which was absolutely freezing got us down to the finish of the first part of the day and well deserved feed stop. After a very quick break we were on our way again with stage 7B. This was to be the final effort with 125km and 2,100m elevation. 

That gave the overall for the day 193km and 3,700m of elevation but I think once people had made it this far they knew nothing was going to stop them now. Admittedly I did overhear one guy get a bit carried away and had started singing 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' and was maybe not so politely told by several riders around to shut up as it wasn't helping. The official timing finished well before Nice giving the riders a nice 18km neutralised decent down into the beautiful city and onto the Promenade to the Finish Line. I remember seeing the 5km to finish sign at the side of the road and said to myself, "This is it, it's over...give it everything" It was a very slight gradient of between 3 and 6 percent so I just got down on the drops and went for it. I remember coming around a slight bend and could see the timing mat a couple of hundred metres ahead. The staff, marshals and other riders were all standing around and shouting support I just remember the relief crossing the line. 

So I'm rolling down the mountain now, the climbing is done. There are no more mountains on the horizon, I can make out the coast and almost smell the sea air. 760km and over 20 thousand metres of elevation in seven days. Eye watering stuff. All I could think about for most of the day but especially now with the final kilometres counting down was seeing my girlfriend at the finish waiting for me. I remember thinking about some other guys who said they had taken this event on solo and were going to roll into Nice with nobody there. I couldn't imagine how difficult that might be as I wanted to share this with someone. Myself and two other guys rolled onto the Promenade and made our way down the cycle path with the official Finish Line and race village in sight. A little competitiveness was still looming so naturally had to just be in front of the other two and go no hands across the line. Who wouldn' I didn't even wait for the medal and just threw my arms around my girlfriend and said "I did it"

It was the most difficult week of my life. When I look back now I realise that the body is far more capable then we give it credit for and the mind is what wants to crack long before your muscles will actually give up. I pushed myself so far mentally that week that it was difficult to get all this into words so I'm hoping i've done okay and not forgot anything important. To finish I have to say thank you to some people because without them, both in the build up to the event and during it I may not have finished. My boss, for giving out to me on the days I didn't cycle to work and get training but also for the great encouragement and help. My own family, I won't name individuals but they were all great. My girlfriend for putting up with me but also being super proud of me and never doubting that I would complete it. Jigsaw for their continued support and encouragement and catch up calls and mails during the week as well. So as some of my friends have already asked..."What's next Gary?"

Who knows...