Sunday, October 4, 2015

Haute Route Dolomites 2015...the first days

On Sunday, August 31 at sunrise, I rolled out of Geneva in a peloton of just over 400 riders, commencing what would be a true roller coaster ride. Seven days and some 900km later, I rolled into Venice, completing an adventure that traversed the Swiss Alps and Dolomites, What transpired in between was a test of resilience, grit and fortitude that I could hardly have imagined when we rolled out of Stage 1.

This post is long (the first of two), and full of details and photos that are probably most interesting to only me, intended to preserve my memory of an extremely challenging and introspective week on two wheels.  The "fun" aspect of the race is starting to bubble to the surface, here and there, perhaps as the immediate pain subsides, and despite the fact that the immediately gratifying moments seemed at times to be in short supply during this week.  As with all events of epic proportions (and I do not use the term epic really does belong here), I expect that the not-immediately-apparent fun will seep out more in the days, months and years following.  Remember when...?

Hot hot heat...Stage 1 - Geneva to Crans-Montana 

From the get-go, the organizers made it clear this was no cruiser ride.  Stage 1 was 176km, the first 20k of which was neutral, followed by three peaks of climbing, a 60k neutral section through the beautiful green slopes of the Valais, and a final climb into Crans-Montana.  On paper, this "seems" reasonable enough.  Add heat, incredible scenery, relatively rested legs...shake it up a little with some over-enthusiastic ignorance...add a little more heat, and you have a hellishly hard day on a bike.  I did, however, learn a lot about the modus operandi of the Haute Route that would serve me well in the following days.

The first three climbs were in quick succession, and after stopping for a brief "nature break", I fell back into a small peloton 10-12 riders who were happy to work together as a group ( is amazing how many riders do not realize that working together is actually better!)  Although these initial climbs were comparative foothills to the behemoths we would face later in the week, I naively underestimated them.  The first two were "third class" climbs and the third a "second class".  This would be the first big lesson of the week:  6% may not be steep in isolation, but it deserves respect when you compound it climb after climb.  I was pretty shelled by the time I hit the top of the first timing mat of the day...and the best (worst?) was yet to come.  

In my mind, I was 3/4 done the ride...and yet I had over 80k to go.  For *most* people, 60k is a decently long ride, not an interlude between two races. The 60k of neutral between the timed climbs is what I learned to be pure Haute Route evil.  The race itself was perhaps half of your day, but you still had to cover a substantial time and distance in the saddle to get from point A to point B.  So while my race time shows 3-something hours...ride time was actually 7-something hours.

The further unanticipated factor on day 1 was the heat.  Hot, brutal, desert heat.  As we rode through the vineyards in the Rhone Valley, the landscape made it pretty obvious that the heat should have come as no surprise.  By noon, it easily in the thirties, and we found ourselves dipping our heads into the water fountains in the little villages as we passed through the Valais. Anything to cool down.

When we reached the based of the final climb, the temperature was hitting 40 degrees.  At the final aid station, I was not entirely appreciative of the gruff reminders from Geoff and Rich to eat and drink like crazy ("eat like it is your job!!!"), but nevertheless dutifully listened and stocked up my bike with more water and gel than I had reasonably expected to consume.  I had completely underestimated my nutritional needs and had already consumed my pre-packed 6 hours worth of "treats", thus forced to dig into the nasty race-supplied gels.  I would only make this mistake and eucalyptus-flavored gel is simply AWFUL, akin to slurping on rancid toothpaste.  Who thought that was a good flavour?

I would love to say how scenic and lovely the climb into Crans-Montana was, but I really don't remember much except that it really hurt.  Twenty-one fully exposed kilometres, close to 1,000m of elevation gain.  Along with newfound respect for over-anticipating nutritional needs, came an understanding not to trust the elevation charts provided to us.  "Average" 4.6% grade does truly mean average, so when partway through the climb the road starts descending, comes the horrible realization that the average must now be equalized upwards.  What number makes -5% average to 4.6%?  Something bad, very, very bad indeed.  The "equalizing" 10-12% grade at the top was brutal, sheer brutal on some very shell-shocked legs.  Diesel-engine-survival mode, which unknowingly would become my default for the rest of the week, kicked in...turn the pedals, forward forward, don't think about the pain, turn the pedals.  
The look on my face as I finish the day tells the tale:  what the hell just happened?  And I have 6 more days?
I realize that none of this sounds like an endorsement for the ride so far, but to be honest, my system was just shocked after Stage 1.  It was one of the hardest, hottest days I have ever endured.  I was more wrecked than I have been after some Ironman races.  To say I was "enthused" about what lay ahead would be lying...I was terrified of what was to come.  We weren't even really in the Alps yet!

Finding my breath...Stage 2 - Crans-Montana to Andermatt 

The organizers split the start of Stage 2 into three waves, separated by finish position for the day before.  With my finish at 132, I was to start in the final wave.  Unfortunately, this would prove to be my undoing as I was quickly dropped after the 60k neutral start by a group of over-eager hyenas racing up the intermediate climb to the base of the Furkapass.  We had been pre-warned not to overcook ourselves on this section of intermediate climbs and false flats leading into two first class climbs for the day, so I sat back and puttered along by myself.

In contrast to the day before, I was pretty cognizant that I was now riding at the back of the race, and even had the company of the Lanterne Rouge during the first timed section!  There is little more motivating than being at the back of the pack, and I found my groove as I started spinning up the base of the climb.  Bear in mind that we had tootled a "mere" 80k along the valley before reaching the first "real" climb of the day (wearing the legs down), and while I knew that the summit of the Furkapass would be a challenge, the first real look at the indomitable climb took my breath away.

If you could fashion a mountain climb, it would look like this.  Stunningly cinematic - sheer rock, switchback after switchback, exposed rock staring down, threatening to swallow me whole.

What struck me most about Furkapass was not the stunning visual beauty, however, but the deafening peacefulness.  I could hear my breath with every push of the pedals, occasionally a car passing or another rider, but then just my breath.  Vacant sounds of cowbells resounding through the valley, like distant crowds cheering a race I was never in.  Breathing harder as the switchbacks grew shorter, steeper, more frenzied.  More breath, sharp gasps, as I looked above me and saw tiers of riders atop many tiers of them...up up up.

Sixteen unrelenting kilometres of breath.  The 5k to go sign passed, and it grew steeper, unrelenting.  1k to go.  The wind started, the fog, the cold.  Breathless cold.  

At the top of the climb (and the finish of the first timed section), I grabbed every bit of spare clothing I had for the descent.  I ate the best stolen breakfast croissant of my life.  The wind was howling, and my frozen fingers could barely control my bike as I navigated the hairpin turns down.  The steep grades and tight corners that made for such challenging climbing also proved brutal in the reverse.  The road on the descent was barely wide enough for two cars, let alone a row of cyclists navigating the steep pitch.  The Swiss also apparently feel it is unnecessary to have guard rails or any sort of crash protection, so needless to say, the descent was terrifying.  The term "white-knuckled" got downright personal with me.

Being seriously serious about the harrowing descent of the Furkapass. 
I managed to thaw a little upon reaching the ski village of Andermatt, with the organizer's having devilishly planned a route that teased us with an out and back climb up the Oberalpass.  Oh how tempting it was to simply stay, especially when realizing that the 144k posted route did not include the descent back to a warm shower.  Bonus kilometres?  At least they were downhill!  Surprisingly, I managed to find my legs on this second climb of the day, finally warm for the first time all day, passing quite a few riders from my place at the back and even had a little left for a finishing sprint.

The little engine that could.
Unfortunately, the day did not end with the descent into Andermatt as we had a long coach bus ride to St. Moritz to tag onto the next section of the route.  In order to get the route from Geneva to Venice in one week while traversing the storied climbs in the Alps and Dolomites, this was a necessary evil, and unfortunately made for an irritating end to a very long day.  What was waiting for us in St. Moritz, however, was almost worth the bus ride...a lovely family run hotel with the most wonderful, strange, amazing German / Swiss / Italian bistro.  Impossibly inexplicable culinary genius to tired riders?  Yes!  Heaven only to me?  Probably!

Soggy doggy...Stage 3 - St. Moritz time trial

Stage 3 was as furiously miserably rainy as Stage 1 was hot.  The weather pattern had shifted, and mother nature had a very different day in store for us for our time trial up the Bernina Pass.  In a word:  heinous.

This stage began our foray into not only the Dolomites, but into winter.  At 2,330m, the top of the pass was forecast to be 5 degrees, with relentless driving rain ensuring that my entire body was soaked through by the time I reached the summit.  No sooner than I had exited the first roundabout heading out of St. Moritz, than a garbage truck passed me with a large wave of water that engulfed every inch of me.  My clear jacket clung to me, and I would have probably laughed had I not been too busy swearing to myself at the time.

The rain is still funny at this point.  
One would have thought that the smart thing, when utterly drenched and teeth chattering with cold, would not be to ride one's bike up a mountain pass.  And yet, sensibility tossed aside, my brain had already fixed my legs into doing just that.  Shut up and keep moving.
Could be a smile, could be a grimace.  I will never tell.
As I crossed the timing mat and started winding up the mountain, the game changed.  The audacity of the task at hand became really clear to me.  The Haute Route is big, it is bold, it is hard.  It is supposed to be!  And, if it were not already hard enough to get up each day and climb relentlessly, the weather was making the task even more brutal.  I wanted to cry, I wanted to quit...and what I did was fight back.    

At some point during the time trial, I just made a choice. That choice was to stay matter what, no matter how audacious this was, just stay in.   It was no longer a race, but survival, and whatever it took to survive the ride, I was in for.  While this certainly sounds melodramatic in retrospect, I can assure you that in 7 degrees and driving rain, after two long days and 14 hours in the saddle, with four more long days staring you down, it is not.  As soon as quitting becomes an option, as soon as you allow that to happen, it becomes easy to do so.  I was not making that an option.  I was in.

When I reached the top, I was soaked through and cold.  Following Matt's instructions, I changed into warm clothes and put my bike into the van instead of doing the (optional) descent.  For me to make it through the next four days meant making smart choices, like choosing not to descend into driving rain and dangerous conditions.  Climbing into cold is so very different than descending into it, and as we drove down the hill and picked up another half-dozen hypothermic riders, it became pretty apparent that unless the weather changed that there would be safety concerns about upcoming aspects of the ride.  When the organizers made the decision that evening to abort the Stelvio climb the next day due to weather concerns, I fully understood that it was a necessity.  Disappointing? Yes.  However, ultimately this was the right decision as we approached several days of unexpected winter.

Still smiling!  The summit of the Bernina Pass
Ironically, the sun came out in the afternoon and treated us to a simply lovely afternoon to enjoy St. Moritz and warm up for what would be a cold few days to follow.

The fleeting St. Moritz sunshine
Resilience...Stage 4 - St. Moritz to Bormeo

Despite my efforts to stay as warm and rested as possible, I woke on Day 4 to a head cold and sore throat.  The furious weather and hard efforts of the previous three days had caught up to me, and I was firmly on the suffer bus.  Feeling lethargic, stuffed up and more than a little miserable, I was thankful for small miracles that the horrific rain had departed.  Moody, cold sky faced us, but at least it was dry.

Safety concerns in mind, the organizers required all of us to wear the very awesome, race-provided yellow vests and equip our bikes with lights.  Memories of Norseman flooded back as I pinned on my ill-fitted vest to prevent it from flapping in the wind.

With the brutal Stelvio (disappointingly) out of the picture, Stage 4 was now essentially an extended time trial that did not play well to my strengths.  Four second class climbs and corresponding descents, nothing too brutal, but a lot of punchy climbing and fast descending, favouring strong power riders.  Not the ideal for a little diesel like me, even on the best of days, and particularly not the ideal for an under-the-weather diesel.

It would be simply perfect if life were chock full of nothing but "hell, yes", but it is learning how to shake yourself out of "hell no" that drives character more.  Stage 4 was about resilience, about continuing in the wake of a whole lot of "hell no", about springing back even as I knew I was losing time to the front of the field, about riding my own ride and listening to what my body was capable on the day.

What riding a little slower gets you is an ability to process your surroundings.  Admittedly, there are many races that I have done where the surroundings passed without notice because I was so focused on maintaining a hard effort.  On Stage 4, my slower speed afforded me the ability to truly soak in the incredible surroundings.  Again, a game changer.  Not only was I in, but I was soaking it in, and if you have traversed the Dolomites on your bike without stopping to soak it in, you are truly missing out.


Careening down roads designed like ski hills, the descents were short but exhilarating, hypnotically addictive, inducing complete amnesia concerning the last climb, and so absolutely worth facing what was coming next.  It is no wonder the Italians are so fond of their race cars and race bikes - these roads simply beg to be traversed.  Fast.  The Dolomites stretched invitingly ahead of us, jagged grey teeth towering over a carpet of emerald green.

I was not fast, but I rode smart and within what my body felt it could afford on the day.  I preserved what strength and health I had for the next day, and I finished descending Passo Foscano with a smile on my face.  The 20-something kilometre descent into the charming village of Bormeo was nothing short of dazzling - this is truly road bike heaven if there were one.

In light of the aborted climb of the Stelvio, Matt and Simon graciously offered to take us to the summit to check out what we had missed.  The highest paved pass in Italy (and second highest in Europe), the Stelvio features 48 hairpin turns, masochistically numbered at each corner, as though taunting you of the sheer brutality of this climb.  Although we played car tourist on this can be assured that I will return to conquer this one.    

Afraid of heights?  Hope not!

Happy to be warm and not climbing.
Our home for the evening, another lovely family run inn, was so warm and charming that I hated to leave.  Continuing to feel under the weather, I gave up on conventional race prep and attempted to charm my cold with a couple of glasses of Nebbiolo.  With cold weather forecasted for the next day's ascent of the Gavia, it certainly couldn't hurt.  Besides, I slept like a baby.  :)

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