Haute Route Alps 2021 - The full story

Peter Murdoch - Grand Tours Project Team

Sep / 9 / 2021

I am lucky enough to live in the Swiss Alps but looking at the route in preparation for the Haute Route, I have to admit it was daunting. I knew it would be a challenge and no matter how hard you train, it is going to be a tough week. We were all going to have to dig deep to complete it.

However, when you arrive at the race village in Megève the day before Stage 1, anticipation starts to build and your worries give way to excitement. During the pre-race briefing, the excellent team at Haute Route put you at ease and you learn that whilst it will be a long ride, it is achievable for all. The best thing about the Haute Route is that there is something for everyone. The front group is filled with ex-professionals and extremely dedicated amateurs who focus on this as their goal every year. This then spreads back through the peloton right to the back where the sole aim is to finish the stages in one piece and enjoy the scenery. This event is the closest an amateur can be to feeling like a professional racer, with every day having feed stations, on-road mechanical support, riding in a peloton and after race massages.

The Haute Route Alps this year was a 7 day adventure from the northern flank of the French Alps to the beautiful, historical city Nice. Every edition has 6 road stages and one mountain time trial and this year was no different:

Day 1: Megève - Megève 110km 3300m

Day 1 started bright and early, so you have to make sure that you have a good breakfast, and get ready for the day. We arrived at the start line and met with the team for a pre race brief, grabbed some energy bars, filled our water bottles and rolled to the start line. The first stage, like everyday, started with a neutralised flat section and before you know it, we had started our first climb of the week. The Col de Aravis (11.6km at 4.9%) is a beautiful way to start this epic challenge with stunning views down the valley. I cruised up here in a nice group and just kept my power down to a minimum, keeping in mind that there was a week of climbing. Some of my fellow racers didn’t get the memo and went after it on the first climb, suffering already by the time we conquered the first climb.

After the climb came the first descent, a short one which was swiftly followed by our second climb of the day, the Col de la Colombière (11.8km 5.7%). Clouds started forming above us which brought extra motivation to get to the finish before the rain came in. After stopping for a quick “comfort break” I spotted the Lanterne Rouge on the road. These riders work throughout the week with Haute Route as support for those at the back, who need a little extra motivation to meet the finish. I must say, at first I was a little surprised to see them, thinking I had been keeping a good pace, and surely I wasn’t that close to the back!? But after a quick chat, he assured me that I was at least two hours ahead of the last riders, and he hadn’t started his shift for the day just yet.

Climb number three was Col de Romme (6.3km 5.1%). This was a welcome rise as it isn’t too steep and you know at the top there is a neutralised section with a feed stop so we could take a well earned break before our long descent to the valley floor below the imposing Mont Blanc.

The start of the neutralised sections on the Haute Route bring about their own pressures. Though people still race to get across the line first, the neutralised sections allow people to make a steady and safe descent on some of the more sketchy sections. On this particular stretch it also allowed me to get into a small group for a long false flat to work together. After this section, we started the long final climb of the day, where we ascended through Megève to Côte 2000 (22.3km 4.1%). This climb was the first really long climb of the trip and I was amazed by the number of riders going hard and fast on the ascent. From living in Switzerland and experiencing epic climbs, I knew I had to pace myself. At the bottom, the ramps were savage and touched 16% in places, just to sting the legs. I let my group go, knowing that I would be the tortoise and catch them on the long uphill section. Lo and behold, as we left the tree line I started picking people up and dropping them. The importance of pacing myself was shining through here and I reeled in every person that I rode with on the flats. On the final 8km up to Côte 2000, I worked with three others and we rose quickly through the road lined with trees. We worked well as a group until the day started to bite and we dropped one of our members. The pace was ramping up and we flew up the final kilometres and our little team of 3 crossed the first finish line of the week together.

Stage Ranking: 241 - Overall Ranking: 241

Day 2: Megève - Tignes 109km 3450m

Waking up on day two, I was very happy with how I had recovered and I had very little fatigue from the previous day. A good sign of things to come, surely?

We were set for another big day, the cool morning gave way to an increasingly hot day of riding through the heart of the alps. We started with the same neutral section as day one but that quickly changed as we hit our first climb of the day, the Col de Saisies (13.8km 5%). This little known climb is a beautiful ride, rising up to views over Beaufort (just like the cheese) and one that should be tackled if you are ever in the area.

By this point, I had already found my place in the pecking order of the peloton, and whilst others were using this information to strategize for the remainder of the day, I used this time in the peloton to get chatting to some of my fellow riders on the first climb of the day.

After cresting the Col de Saises we had a fast descent and then came to the bottom of my favourite climb of the whole week, the Cormet de Roselend (19.8km 6%). This unbelievable climb starts off with regular ramps of 7-8% as it winds up through the forest. But the real treat is 12km into this beautiful climb, and Lac de Roselend appears. This lake with the surrounding views is one of the most stunning places I have ever been to and I have seen many beautiful places. Lac de Roselend is a must see place and the ride up is a bucket list climb. Even though we were racing, I had to stop to appreciate and enjoy the view. We then rode 2-3km around the lake and started the final part of this climb, a beautiful 5.8km, with the lake always in view until the final couple of kilometres. On the final rise to the summit, I rode with a fellow Brit until the final couple of kilometres when I decided to ride at my own pace. The great thing about this epic climb is the feed station at the top with local cheeses to sample. After a well earned rest at the top, we enjoyed a long descent before the final long climb of the day. The ascending road became infamous after the 2019 Tour de France when a freak storm shut down the road. This ascent is a LONG one (26.5km 4.7%) the first 12 km has some punchy sections but has some nice respites. The middle section is a gentle rise up the main road until we turn off, hoping for enough energy in the tank for the final assault on Tignes.

This route has a nasty surprise with the leg burning ascent of the barrage; this part of the climb regularly averaged over 8% and when we crested the top we still had some way to go to reach our finish line. Feeling strong, I caught some of my fellow riders and we worked together until the start of the dam. Tactically I pushed hard in the last kilometres and managed to hold onto the power to the finish, pushing all the way to the finish line. I immediately forgot the pain and suffering and enjoyed a late lunch with views of the magical lake and ski resort, and enjoy a well earned ‘A bloc’ beer.

Stage Ranking: 200 - Overall Ranking: 218

Day 3: Tignes - Alpe d’Huez 182km 4700m

WOW, what an epic day. My favourite stage for the whole week started off very cold indeed. Starting at 6.30am, everyone was shivering on the start line, wearing as many layers as possible for a day that started at 6 degrees celsius, and didn’t rise too much above that. Leaving the famous ski resort of Tignes, we started with some rolling terrain which was very welcome to get the blood flowing.

I knew this was going to be a tough day in the saddle when I saw an organisation motorbike come past me with oxygen canisters on the back. With that daunting thought in mind, we started the day off with a real bang - the Col de l’Iseran (15.5km 5.9%). As many may know, this is the highest paved road in Europe at a lung busting 2770m. This climb was certainly not one to go deep on with such a long day on the cards; it is truly a worthy opponent for any of our heros on two wheels.

I climbed with an inspiring man of twice my age, who had completed the Haute Route previously in 2018. We rode the climb at a beautiful pace, chatting all the way, up until the last kilometre when he slowed a bit to save his legs. At the top, the Haute Route decided to neutralise the descent, as temperatures had dropped down to a chilly 4 degrees at the top! It was a welcome opportunity to put on our warm clothes before the descent down this huge valley surrounded by the giant French Alps. At the bottom of the descent proper, the timing started again with a 50km false flat descent where you really want to be part of a group to save energy for the rest of the day. I got into a great group and we worked hard until, through one of the towns we got separated by traffic. I was stuck behind the car and there was no hope to catch my fellow flat riders. Half the group were with me and we picked up more and more people on the way and created a strong group for the next climb of the day.

With my now smaller group, I started the amazing double ascent of Col du Télégraphe (12km 7%) and the Col du Galibier (17.6km 6.8%). Many people class this as one single climb with a small descent in the middle, which I would agree with. However the contrast in the climbs is stark, the Télégraphe is predominately in the trees with glimpses of the huge valley we just descended into, but once you hit the Galibier, the trees stop and you start climbing higher and higher. As you near the top of the climb you feel like you’re riding on a different planet and the gradient of the road really starts to bite with the final 2km averaging a leg breaking 9%. I rode the Télégraphe just as I had with other climbs, pacing myself and in doing so, was able to pass other riders struggling after they had already given their all.

From the top I worked with a couple of people on the flat/descent from the Galibier and then the climbing started again. The first part of the descent took us to the Col du Lautaret which we would visit again in a couple of days. We hung a right and continued down the descent through some small quaint French villages including the small but famous ski resort La Grave. It is a stunning and fun descent to take. Towards the bottom of the descent we turned off and onto the little known Col de Sarenne (13.2km 7.1%) which starts with a brutal ramp at 11% average for the first kilometre! The key here was to have consumed enough sustenance to get you through this final 13km. There are a few gentle kilometres but for the last 7.5km, the average is over 7% the whole way, with some parts averaging over 9%. I loved this brutal climb and I decided to push hard for the last 7.5km of this epic climb and I was rewarded with finishing strong and improving my ranking. The hardest Queen Stage that Haute Route has ever put on and I had survived. Epic and one that everyone should try to complete.

Stage Ranking: 176 - Overall: 195

Day 4: Alpe D’huez Time Trial 15.5km 1150m

The race of truth, what an amazing place for many people to take on their first experience of a time trial ever (myself included) up the iconic Alpe D’huez. The order is in reverse with the slower members of the peloton going off first, with short gaps between each rider. The experience is unforgettable. I stood in a proper start gate, just like I have watched countless times in the pro tours. The climb starts off with a steep ramp at the bottom and then settles into an average of 8% for the vast majority of the climb. For me, this day was about consolidating my position and enjoying the climb as much as possible. I had a game plan and I stuck to my numbers and, although I got caught and dropped at the beginning, my plan paid off later in the climb. It was also my first energy gel day of the trip and I have to say it helped me dig deep in the final few kilometres. I am disappointed that I misjudged the final kilometre and I lost some time when I had saved the energy to push through, but it was still an enjoyable day on this epic climb. After the day was done, even though it is a short stage, recovery is so important so I took some time out to take in the beautiful surroundings, the monument to all the victors and cheer on my fellow riders.

Stage Ranking: 176 - Overall Ranking: 193

Day 5: Alpe D’huez - Col du Granon 86km 3000m

Day 5 for many was a welcome relief, having ‘only’ two climbs to conquer. After another long, cold descent from Alpe d’Huez we started rolling along the flat to the foot of our first climb of the day. As we hit the bottom of the Col du Lautaret (24.6km 4.2%) the racing started and the pace picked up rapidly. On this long climb, it was important to get some good wheels to follow, because although climbing, there is the chance to get some drafting on this gradual climb. I was in a great group at the start and we encouraged everyone to work together, but some people had different ideas, deciding instead to keep surging and then slowing down so I left them to their games as they went up the road. Here I took the opportunity to look up to the right at the huge glacier and the peak of La Meije.

After I reached the top, it was vital to grab some food before the long, fast and stunning descent because at the bottom we had the Col du Granon (11.4km 9.1%). From my experience on this climb, it was one of, if not the hardest single climb of the week - a true unrelenting beast of a climb. As we were approaching lunchtime, the heat was steadily rising and the road rose at a consistently tough percentage all the way up. Snaking our way up the narrow road, with its uneven surface and irregular gradients. I was on a roll and my tactics were working a treat. I got chatting to a local who told me about the climb (he wasn’t racing) and he pulled a little gap on me after a while which gave me the perfect wheel to keep close to. I kept him five metres ahead of me the whole time. People were really starting to suffer now, especially in the heat but I loved this climb and the pure suffering that came with it. Two kilometres from the top, I caught up to my new local friend and rode past him, pushing on to finish the stage, knowing there were only two days left so I could give a little bit extra.

Crossing the fifth finish line of the week, I was greeted with another spectacular view, dotted with old ruins, gravel roads snaking up the mountains, huge glaciers and forests all around. It is an awe inspiring and truly epic finish to the stage.

Stage Ranking: 154 - Overall Ranking: 189

Day 6: Serre Chevalier - Auron 140km 3650m

Day 6 started off cold yet again, and had potential to turn into the hardest day of the whole week. A neutral section to begin turned into easy rolling terrain before our first big climb of the day, the Col de Vars (19km 7.9%). This climb is amazing, it starts off with easy gradients and some nasty ramps after a couple of kilometres. It then settles into a nice steady gradient and rises again to over 2000m. As we start our descent there is a small abandoned village, and it is worth taking the time to stop and have a look around.

As we moved south throughout the week, the weather had gotten hotter and hotter, so I took the opportunity that morning with our Grand Tours Project van to dispose of my extra morning layers before continuing with the rest of this epic stage. As we reached the bottom of the descent we started on the Col de la Bonette (22.2km 6.6%) which goes to 2715m but if you continue up the scenic route you can go all the way to 2802m. Certainly one to return to, to complete another day. This is yet another unbelievable climb that winds its way up into a Mars-like landscape. On this long climb it was so important to keep eating, drinking and pacing myself. My fellow riders who had been way ahead of me in previous days were now starting to suffer, I was still feeling surprisingly good and I used this energy to continue with my day.

After a beautiful technical descent we hit our final climb of the day which on paper looked like it would be an easy ride, but in reality was anything but, especially with all of the kilometres in our legs from the previous days. The final ramp to Auron (7.1km 6.2%) had a stiff head wind and the heat was stifling on this final rise. This climb certainly tricked a lot of the members of the peloton into a false sense of security with people wanting to get into groups but very quickly these groups blew apart on the steep ramps into the wind. It was truly a sting in the tail of this amazing day as we closed in on the end of this epic adventure through the French Alps.

Stage Ranking: 167 - Overall Ranking: 182

Day 7 Auron - Nice 148km 3200m

All downhill to the coast right? Today was the day I decided to empty it out and go for broke, and luckily for us the organisers had planned a stunning final day with some beautiful climbs to tackle all the way to Nice. First up, we had the last long steep climb, Col de la Couillole (16.1km 7.2%) . This climb caught me by surprise by the severity of it. The day started off cold but as soon as we started climbing the heat rose, so I took the opportunity to remove any excess clothing that I wouldn't need for the rest of the day. I saw our Grand Tours Project vehicle halfway up this climb so I discarded my clothing BUT then realised all my food was in it…. Uh-oh! Luckily, I had devoured a lot of food in the first hour or so and there was a feedstation at the top. So I pushed on without hitting the red zone and reached the top ok and grabbed some bars and water. This would lose me some time but liquids and sustenance were more important.

The first descent of the day took me down the Gorge du Cians. I’m not sure what words I can use to describe this gorge, it’s red rock that has a road carved through it - add this to the bucket list. I cannot wait to find the time to go back and climb this road to be able to enjoy the scenery even more. After this stunning descent we arrived at the bottom of the Col St Raphaël (8.2km 5.7%). I got into a very fast group and for the first time in my life I felt the benefit of drafting going uphill! The week was starting to tell on my legs but I pushed on and stayed with this group until the last 500m. I lost contact on a switchback and didn't want to blow completely so I let them go. Over the crest I flew down to the next feed station, grabbed some food and joined another group exiting the stop. This started some FULL GAS racing along the flats. The group consisted of 10 of us and it ended up with a rider from France and I working hard to pull this group along. We hit a climb and pushed hard and blew those not working out the back. The rest of us pushed on together catching another group who joined in our efforts to fly up the final climb. It was the most exhilarating bit of racing I have ever done and made me wish I had started bike racing from a younger age.

Stage Ranking: 104 - Overall Ranking: 163

This amazing adventure took us 800km and 22,000m of climbing over 7 stages. It was over in a flash but the memories will last for a lifetime. I learnt a lot about my body and how to pace myself and when to go full gas in a multi day event. When (not if!) I go next time, I aim to break the top 100 on a stage and be in the top 125 overall. The ever changing goals that we set ourselves is what makes us human and cyclists. The experience and knowledge gained from this trip will make you want to push yourself harder than you ever thought you could. It's addictive and if you are like me, you’ll want to return in the years to come to keep trying to beat the previous ranking and experience the thrill of amateur racing.

The organisation of the Haute Route and the extras that we here at Grand Tours Project can provide, make this trip one for the bucket list. No matter who you are, if you are racing at the front or just surviving everyday, then our selection of trips with the Haute Route are the ones for you. For me, going in at the deep end of the Haute Route Alps was an unforgettable experience and one that I look forward to supporting you all in the future. I can only encourage everyone who enjoys riding their bikes to set themselves the challenge of completing this 7 day epic.