Haute Route events are well known amongst the cycling community and are nothing to be scoffed at. It takes some serious training and dedication, particularly if you want to tackle the 7 day event. We had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Foster who recently raced (or rode) Haute Route Pyrenees with his brother David.
Above: Mike and David beginning a descent
MF: There are are a lot of options when it comes to cycling; racing a criterium or a one day race like a Gran Fondo, the local ‘Around the Bay’, or maybe you like doing long rides with friends and chalking up the miles. But then there are those times when you are watching a stage race on TV like Tour de France, the Giro or the Vuelta and you think Gee, I wonder how I would go racing day after day?
Well, my brother and I thought we would find out, so we signed up to do the 2019 Haute Route Pyrenees, a 720km / 18,320M 7 day stage race, starting and finishing in Pau, France.
SC: There are other well organised multistage races throughout the world, why choose Haute Route?
I am no stranger to Haute Route having completed the 2018 Rockies edition in preparation for the 2018 World Masters Championships which was held 6 weeks after the Haute Route Rockies in Varese Italy . I had good form then and managed to get 2nd in my age group so I was happy with that.
Above; Haute Route Rockies - Photo by Dejan Smaic
The Haute Route events are well established and almost always sold out, plus there are both 3 day and 7 day event options across Europe, North and South America, and Asia. The most well known are the Haute Route Pyrenees and Haute Route Alps.
The format is unique for amateur riders meaning the average joe like me can ride/race on closed roads. The same roads that the Tour just raced on, with Gendarmes on each roundabout. Motor bike riding officials standing with orange flags and whistles with their high pitched shrill, warning riders of upcoming road furniture.
The film Icarus where filmmaker Brian Fogel chronicled his doping in the attempt to win the 2015 Haute Route gives some good insight into the level of competition at Haute Route and also the format. Brian also provides good transcripts providing deeper insight into the difficulty of the race.
SC: Travelling to Europe takes some time in airports and planes and then there’s the time zone challenge. Given you were travelling to undertake a gruelling cycle event, did you give yourself a couple of days to acclimatise and adjust to the time zone?
We decided to fly into Europe via Barcelona and have a couple of days in beautiful Girona, famous for the number of Pro Cyclists who based themselves there such as Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie (and most of the US Postal team), as did David Millar, Marianne Vos, Dan Martin, Robert Gesink, Rory Sutherland, the list goes on...
Above; Streets of Girona, photo courtesy of Mike
The riding is unbelievable, with smooth well made roads, little to no traffic, and you have the choice of flat coastal roads or mountains. Top this off with a historic 1000 year old town with Roman, Moorish and Catalan influence and you get a hum dinger of a cycling paradise.
Above: David enjoying Girona
We did a little Google research, to find our first ride and found a 113km round trip heading towards the beaches of the famous Costa Brava. It is an easy 40k ride to the coast which involves a 6km, 5% climb followed by a technical descent down to the coast where there’s a multitude of little inlets filled with holiday makers enjoying the warm Mediterranean Sea. We rode along the Coast for 35km, before taking a left hand turn for a flat route back to Girona, it was a magic start to our trip.
Above: Hill top view of Costa Brava
Day 2 was a 60k loop of the foothills around Girona, once again on winding, traffic free roads. We waved at a couple of the Pro’s heading out the other way, and finished with a coffee at Rory Sutherland’s well known café “The Federal” in Girona. After Lunch we packed the car and headed to meet the rest of the crew at Pau to get ready for the race.
Above: David at The Federal Cafe, Girona.
Along the way, we stopped to visit a mate of mine from Sydney, Gary Harwood who along with his French partner, Martine had recently moved to the Pyrenees from Australia.
We had a great afternoon enjoying a frothy (that’s Australian slang for beer) and bite to eat while enjoying the views of the Tourmalet from the window of their 300 year old farmhouse.
Above: Punctures are universal, they happen everywhere, even on holiday...
SC: What did you do for accommodation, was it all organised through the event or did you sort your own out?
We were part of an organised group headed up by Will Levy and his very professional Two Wheel Tours Group. This was my 3rd time being looked after by Will and Two Wheel Tours and they are a well-run professional outfit offering first Class accommodation with meals, transfers, mechanic and massage/Physio so all you need to do is focus on riding and racing.
Above: Race Accomodation
SC: Haute Route is a gruelling event, did you have any expectations in terms of your own performance or was it really about having a good time and absorbing the atmosphere?
To do an event like the Haute Route, you do need to do a fair bit of training. The hardest days are the first day, when the body get “shocked” by the toughness and competitiveness of the stage, and day two, when you wake, stiff and sore as a result of day one’s racing and you have to front up and do it all again.
However, my brother (David) was coming to France with me to do his first ever stage race. Despite riding for over 25 years and managing to do more than 20,000km per year on the bike, David had never done a 7 day stage race so this would feel a lot different for him than me.
SC: Can you tell our audience a bit about the atmosphere of race village and the race itself.
It’s always a nervous time when you roll up to the start line on day 1, you start questioning yourself; have I done enough training, did I eat enough Breakfast (at some ungodly early hour), am I dressed correctly – so I’m not too warm/cold, do I know the course profile, then before you know it you clip in and you’re off riding, with music blaring and commentary in 3-4 different languages.
Above: Stage 1 - Ben Arnott of Singapore - Photo courtesy of Haute Route
Mavic are the Haute Route main sponsor and they have their famous yellow support cars with Bikes on the roof – the same that are used in the tour, to help an unlucky rider who has a mechanical. It’s a concoction of noise, colour, whirring wheels and yells from other riders from 38 different countries as the race goes through the first 10k’s in neutral formation to safely get out of town.
Above; Mavic Support vehicle
The format of the Haute Route is also unique, the stages have sections where you race, and then sections where the race is neutralised due to dangerous descents or busy townships that need traversing. This gives you a chance to stop, take on food or clothing or wait for a friend without losing too much time. You can ride the untimed part of the course together and then go at your own pace when the timed section starts, all of the timed sections contribute to your overall race time.
Above: Mikes '2nd ride' in case he has a mechanical
Having timed sections gives you a chance to see friends during the stage who may be faster or slower than you, not just see them at the start and the finish. There are 10 year age categories, solo, teams of two.
Each stage inevitably finished on the top of some famous, but brutal climbs. The bulk of the field (yours truly included), don’t really race up the climbs, rather you just suffer up them to the finish.
Above: David approaching another mountain top finish
Then after a drink at the top and 10 minutes to recover or wait for a friend, most days had a 20k downhill that you could bomb down back to the hotel for a massage and a snooze. The event organisers provide a full cooked lunch that we all tucked into each day with great enthusiasm!!
Above: the on-course 'cooked lunch', sure to be nutritious despite the way it looks.
After an afternoon of recovery, rest and an early dinner we had a briefing about the next days stage, including any logistics and then it was early to bed!
For the next seven days it was ride, recover, refuel and repeat. You lose perspective of whats happening in the outside world and this is a glimpse of what it must be like to be a Pro Cyclist.
You're either preparing to ride, riding, or recovering from a ride, there is no time for anything else, it's an insular and totally encapsulating existence. When you call home to go through the minute detail of the whole 140k and 3300m of climbing, it’s fairly good odds that you get an uninterested response from the other calling party…..
They aren’t part of your world for that week of the Haute Route, you may as well be on another planet!
Above: Start of another day in the saddle
SC: I hear you there, last thing the 'better half' wants to hear when you're away racing is the course profile or how the legs are... So you're a couple of days into it, how were things going at this point in the race?
Before you know it, the harshness of day 1 and 2 are gone and you do the last couple of stages quite easily, it is amazing how the body adapts. By day three we were well in the groove, you tend to ride with the same people each day as the race has a tendency for all riding levels to even out which is a great opportunity to meet other competitors.
These events are truly international, I have made some new ‘cycling friends’ from this trip. Everyone is very friendly and it’s a great way to listen to someone from Canada or Norway tell you about their local ride, which is a refreshing change compared to us Aussies with Melbourne's Beach Road or Sydney's Northern Beaches.
At the end of the race, there are medal presentations and tee shirts given out as a momento of a great week of riding and racing. It doesn’t matter if you are first or last, everyone who finishes is a winner in some form.
Above: Mike (front) and David (Seated) winding down after an Epic event.
SC: Thanks a lot Mike, I'm definitely motivated, maybe a North America race in 2020... So what's next for you and David?
David and I have penciled in the 2021 Haute Route Alps as our next event. I know from experience that it takes 2 years for the mind to expel the thoughts of pain and suffering and replaces them with “yeah, we should do another….that was fun”
As a cyclist, I would recommend putting Haute Route on your bucket list. I’ve done a lot of different events and formats with Bike Racing and have cycled all around the world and have to say that Haute Route is up there with the best.
Till next time….. Mike
SC: Thank you for the insights Mike, we wish you all the best on your next ride and remember to keep it rubber side down...
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