For near on a decade The Haute Route has provided epic high mountain bike racing for amateur cyclists to “feel like a pro” in multi-day events across some of Europe’s glory cols along with Brazil, Mexico and Oman.
As one Haute Route regular, 48-year-old UK-based Kiwi and HR stage winner and GC podium finisher Gretchen Miller tells The Draft: “It is tough and competitive, but there are different levels and because a lot of people go back year after year you feel like it’s a family. It’s all about the people. Having full rider support in spectacular mountains is awesome as well. The massages. Getting cheered riding through mountain villages. It’s the highlight of my cycling year.”
Except this year of course. The Coronavirus pandemic has made sure of that as it has to events of all stripes all over the world. Haute Route owner OC Sport was forced to cancel the bulk of its 2020 races – only two shorter 3-day events remain; Mt Ventoux in the southern French Alps on October 2-4 and Mexico on October 16-18.
Guillaume Martin, Haute Route marketing and communication chief, told us while the moving feast of travel and quarantine restrictions between nations will have an impact, registrations for the two events were strong.
Martin said the organisation (for which I should say by way of disclosure I am doing some unpaid ambassador work in the Berlin area) has worked long and hard to put in place a range of measures to maximise rider sanitation and safety in October’s France and Mexico races.
“Obviously we didn’t expect COVID-19 to have this impact and force the cancellation of the majority of events this season,” Martin said. “We have had to adapt and we decided Ventoux and Mexico could go ahead but we are monitoring the situation every day. With most races and sportifs cancelled we gave the green light to these events for those people that want to be back in. But we are not denying the COVID challenges. We are taking it very seriously and rider safety is number one priority.”
COVID measures at the upcoming races include:
- Participants must sign a declaration of health which mandates following government COVID-related health measures
- Daily rider briefings taking place outdoors not indoors
- Temperature check at sign-in
- Masks and hand sanitation mandatory in race start/finish village and public areas as per local laws
- Segmented start – 50 riders per group
A full rota of events returns in 2021 with the 600-rider marquee, 7-day event in the French Alps next summer already sold out while other events in the Pyrenees, Dolomites, Brazil, Mexico, Oman, Mt Ventoux and Crans-Montana remain open. Plus a virtual Zwift event.
So, while the pandemic means certainty is a luxury of the past, the show is going on and Martin said event cancellation had been simplified for those who signed up next year as a response to that.
“Flexibility is key,” Martin said. “We get that. Nobody has to feel locked into events.”
The Haute Route experience: Don’t fear the broom wagon
What’s it like riding an Haute Route event? As Gretchen Miller said, it’s tough as hell, but so much fun. 20,000 metres of climbing over about 20 famous cols and around 800km in seven days as is the case for the French Alps iteration is tough no matter your innate ‘mountain goat-edness’ or level of preparation.
Even ex-pros like Greg LeMond remarked on that, noting the Tour de France might spend three consecutive days in the mountains, never seven or even five. It lived up to its billing as the ‘toughest amateur bike race in the world’, the 3-time Tour de France vainqueur observed when he rode it a few years back.
That said, the fact each stage’s broom wagon time limit is quite generous means a broader spectrum of riders can make the cut. Decidedly ungoatish, I’ve completed three Haute Routes, the last of which came after an injury-hit preparation of around 200km/week on the flat roads around Berlin. I felt the bristles of the broom wagon on my bib backside on a couple of days but got my medal in Geneva. Another cool thing the Haute Route does is employ a Lanterne Rouge rider who is there to motivate (and humour) those dicing with the day’s chrono cut off.
Even in the unlikely event you have to hop in the wagon on a particular stage, fear not, you can continue in the race.
‘I love cycling. I love cycling in big mountains and I love racing’
At the pointy end of the peloton is Dr Markus Rienth, another Haute Route regular, ex-ironman and 600km/week mountain road monster. The Swiss-based German wine researcher has placed top-20 – close to the Tag Heuer watch and other prizes on offer for the top finishers – but he said even in the front bunch the vibes are almost always good. Maybe it’s all that mountain beauty…
“I love cycling. I love cycling in big mountains and I love racing,” the 37-year-old Sudvelo and Team Forchheim – Airstreeem rider said. “That’s why I love the Haute Route. You race hard but it’s still friendly. It’s like a little family – you get a week away from your everyday routines with people who share the same passion. That’s pretty cool.”
Miller, a financial consultant who rides with Rapha Cycling Club in London and typically knocks out 300-400km/week recommends using a tour operator, in her case AlpCycles. While Haute Route riders have their hotels organised, bags transported, receive breakfast and lunch, free massages, free bike services, Miller reckons tour operators can take the ‘pro experience’ to the next level.
“They just take care of you. Hotels close to the finish, your day bags looked after, personalised on-course feeding, riding in a team, knowledge of all the cols, pacing – it’s fine doing it on your own or in the small teams people go in but tour operators are the way to go for me.”
Miller also said the gender politics that can afflict some pelotons and riding communities was non-existent at the Haute Route where 15% of riders are women, a percentage that is increasing.
“I can’t wait for next year, I’m aiming for Brazil.”
Find out more about Haute Route events here.