Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015 - Staring down the devil

There are so many fitting descriptors for my Haute Route experience. 

Fearsome.  Challenging.  Breathtaking.  Traumatic.  Staggering. 

Only days removed from ride, I am exhilarated, but also completely shattered.  It is not an experience I will be able to forget anytime soon, but it may take weeks, months, or maybe even years to fully appreciate the enormity of it. 


Several friends had ridden Haute Route events in previous years (the Pyrenees and Alps events) and in the fall had started discussing doing Swiss Alps-Dolomites 2015.  I was told exactly how hard these rides were, but doing Norseman last year left me with a taste for more adventurous, unique races, and this definitely seemed to fit the bill.  A cycling-only adventure also intrigued me, and the opportunity to share the experience with a group of friends made it even more attractive.  At best, a challenging ride with friends…at worst, there would be familiar faces to commiserate with.   

The organizers bill their events as the “highest and toughest” cyclosportives in the world – each ride being an amateur, 7 day stage race featuring a relentless mountain route.  The Dolomite edition further has a reputation for its brutality.  This is no leisurely countryside bike tour, and is definitely not a ride for the faint of heart.    

Winding the 900 kilometer route through the high mountain passes between Geneva and Venice was an unprecedented challenge for me.  To date, my endurance adventures have all been focused on single day events, granted not easy ones, but certainly nothing like the Haute Route.  I do not particularly excel at long, successive days, never mind the treacherously long days that the route promised.  The ride terrified me, but that terror appealed and intrigued in a way that only endurance / adventure junkies could possibly relate to. 

Based on several recommendations, I chose to travel with one of the organization’s travel partners to help navigate the impossible logistics of the week.  Race briefings, early starts, shuttles, routes changes, bike storage, luggage transport, long days, quickly sourcing quality food and recovery…it was all pretty overwhelming.  It seemed to me that negotiating rural areas of foreign countries was challenging enough, never mind when you are completely shattered after riding for 7 hours.   In retrospect, this was one of the best planning decisions I made and vastly improved the quality of my experience.  

Matt and Simon from Magic Places (a Victoria-based cycling experience powerhouse) expertly shepherded us through all the crazy logistics of the week and, quite honestly, saved the entire ride for me several times over.  I cannot say enough about their knowledge and assistance.  

The ride…abridged

It is practically impossible to relay the collection of feelings and experiences of the last week in a short blog post.  I also realize that not everyone is interested in hearing the fine details of my suffering.  As such, I have written the abridged version here and am slowly working on a separate longer version (the latter for my own memory more than anything else).

My trusty Garmin tells me that over 7 days, I amassed 30 hours of riding. 900 kilometres.  20 cols. 16,000 meters of elevation gain.  Yes, meters.

That’s a lot of sweat, a lot of grit and a lot of chamois cream.

The backdrop for this descent into cycling purgatory was stunning.  We rolled through bucolic countryside, winding our way to the end point in Venice via storied mountain villages – Andermatt, St. Moritz, Bormeo. Cortina. 

As expected, the landscape was also as treacherous as it was visually appealing. There was just no easy here.  Long days, long climbs, crazy descents, repeat. Each day featured several forbidding climbs, including some of the most emblematic and striking mountain passes in the Swiss Alps and Dolomites - Furkapass, the Gavia, Passo Giau, Sella, Pordoi, San Boldo.  These passes are as visually fierce as they are to climb - sharp, craggy ridges rising like devilish forms above you.  You are constantly reminded just how tiny you are in this universe as you inch your way up these goliaths. 

The forbidding and breathtaking Gavia
Tranquil beauty....and the top of the Gavia

Despite having raced in Europe before and (somewhat ignorantly) believing that I had some comprehension and requisite experience to manage what I would face, I was completely blown away by how difficult the week was.  Demanding terrain, talented competitors, temperamental weather.  The Dolomites have earned their reputation and command respect. 

The cycle of pain and reward is always present in endurance events, and you come to expect it.  Here, it was amplified, not only by the sheer audacity of the task at hand, but also by the progression of fatigue over the accumulation of miles and the treacherous weather.  There were many moments where I was so cold, so challenged, so physically tapped that I felt like I could not go on any further, wishing to be swallowed by the gigantic teeth of the rock face rising above me, only to be reassured by an exhilarating descent through the dazzling emerald valleys that would follow.     

The week was an indescribable roller coaster ride, a true battle with my mind, my body and the elements.  Unlike shorter distance races, which command attention for a specific period of time, this event demands patience and acceptance.  I learned to go into each day one moment at a time.  Start.  Warm up.  Climb.  Eat.  Drink.  Keep going.  Above all else, keep going.  The sheer distance between the start and the finish demanded a repetition of exhilaration, pain, fear, desperation and resilience.  The mind will take the body along with it, and make no mistake, simply finishing is victory alone.

In an event like this, the focal point of your existence becomes very narrow. I constantly reminded myself to take in the scenery, to appreciate the extraordinary surroundings - in fact, this was the mental battle I faced for all thirty hours.  It was easy to get distracted by my own mind, focusing internally on the brutality of the moment, my physical suffering, the cold, the pain...the typical "everything is wrong but nothing is wrong" cycle.  I stubbornly refused to get drawn into this cycle, instead focusing outwardly and appreciating the sheer of the climbs and the elements.  What an incredible privilege to feel such pain and to witness such beauty at the same time.   


Writing the post-script before fully finishing my introspective may be premature.  I expect I will come to appreciate different parts of this journey as time passes, and my feelings towards it will undoubtedly change as the imminent pain is forgotten.  I arrived in Geneva with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation, and I left Venice exhausted but with an incredible sense of achievement. 

Whether completing the Haute Route is a remarkable accomplishment is all a matter of perspective.  I do not mean to downplay it - it certainly ranks amongst the most difficult, soul searching, shattering experiences of my life…and yet, you return to real life and it becomes difficult to assimilate into the realm of "normal".  The experience is almost incomprehensible to a layperson, the gravity of it so hard to comprehend without fully being immersed in the struggle.  

What did you do for your summer holiday?  I rode my bike from Geneva to Venice through some of the most staggeringly difficult and beautiful terrain in the world.  My heart just swells.     

But my head is firmly in check.  This matters to no one but me, and my finish pales in comparison to the accomplishments of many endurance athletes.  I cannot even fathom being one of the “iron” riders (who completed two weeks) or the “triple crown” riders (who completed all three events) who faced multiples of the adversity and distance.  My finish also pales in comparison to the very extraordinary Christian Haettich, who has now completed the triple crown multiple times...with one arm and one leg.

Will I go back one day?  I have no doubt I would never want to return as a mere tourist, for there would be no reward without the effort.  The brilliance of the mountaintop hot chocolate shared with friends after climbing 2000m over a mountain pass in sleet, rain and fog cannot be replicated without getting back on a bike and going through it all again.  Post-ride pasta has never tasted so good.  A hot shower has never felt so incredibly luxurious.  

I am certainly not ready to get back on my bike just yet...the experience is still months from being recalled as "fun".  However, when I watch the video and relive the event, there is an instinctive, visceral reaction.  Maybe.