SportsPro staff writer Adam Nelson goes behind the scenes at the Haute Route, dubbed 'the highest and toughest cyclosportive in the world'.
The view from the peak of the Col d'Aubisque, a mountain pass in the middle of the Parc National de Pyrenees, is astonishing. To the south, France's imperceptible border with Spain, with a view deep into the Basque Country. To the north, the French region of Gascony, most famous for its vineyards and dairies. On a clear day the vista stretches for hundreds of miles.
It is somewhat easier for me to appreciate this view than for the riders in the Haute Route who pedal past. They arrive exhausted after a 16.6km climb, briefly pausing to rehydrate at the water station postponed here, knowing they are only roughly halfway through the day's total 159km journey. Meanwhile, the bike I arrived on in somewhat more relaxed fashion, conveniently, had an engine.
The biggest complaint I heard from those tackling the Haute Route in the few days I was there is that, after such exertion, there isn't much energy left to enjoy the scenery. By all accounts, the Haute Route manages to live up to its billing as the highest and toughest cyclosportive in the world: Kenton Cool, for instance, a man best known for having conquered Mount Everest on eleven separate occasions, tweeted after completing one stage of 2012's Haute Route Alps that “climbing Everest was easy compared to today’s stage … hardest thing ever.”
On the first day of this year's Haute Route Pyrenees, at the opening parade in the Atlantic coast commune of Anglet, there's a palpable excitement in the air, to the extent that it's impossible to distinguish the hardened veterans of the Haute Route from those attempting the ride for the first time. Enthusiasm pervades and everyone seems in high spirits, primed for the challenge ahead. By the dinner of the first evening, that divide is patently obvious. The ones who have never done it before are the ones continually questioning what they've let themselves in for.
These are, unmistakably, 'cyclists' in the most hardcore sense of the word. Given the scale of the challenge involved, it'd be almost impossible to tackle this as anything except a full-blown enthusiast, but the levels of passion for the sport still take me slightly aback. The race village buzzes with discussions of cassettes and cranksets, participants debate their preparations, tune-up their cycles, and greet familiar faces, either from past Haute Routes or other sportives on the European circuit. It is impossible in such circumstances for a sense of camaraderie not to develop, as participants help each other through the endeavour with an 'all in this together' spirit. Among this community, a few stand out. A cast of characters develop their own kind of micro-fame, celebrities for a week.
Fergus ‘Fergie’ Grant, the Haute Route’s irrepressible Lanterne Rouge, for example, who is charged with following the tail-end of the peloton, ensuring no man or woman gets left behind, encouraging the stragglers and, in the worst case scenario, coming to the aid of anyone unable to finish. Fergie’s bad jokes, offered in both French and English to struggling participants by way of support, have become legend on the Haute Route. As I pass him ten minutes into the second day of cycling, he jokes that he's already had enough. Some eight hours later, he crosses the finish line with the final riders; in just over 12 hours' time, he'll be up again to do the same the next day.
In an era in which a new sportive or mass participation event seems to spring up every other week, the Haute Route has risen to the challenge of establishing itself and finding a marketable USP.
Or Christian Haettich, the French cyclist who lost most of his left leg and part of his left arm in a road accident as a teenager and turned to cycling later in life. Haettich's bike is custom built to support him in a comfortable riding position, one that he is forced to adopt for as long as it takes him to complete the race. Haettich's trick, he claims, is his lack of fear when going downhill, making up as much time as he can on the descents. True to his word, the next time I see him it is passing a cluster of riders who are opting for safety first, hitting the brakes while Haettich lets gravity do its work.
Haettich is, remarkably, among the fabled few competing in all three acts of this year's Haute Route - the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites. Riding the entire 'Triple Crown' - a two-and-a-half thousand kilometre journey across 20 of cycling's most iconic cols in under three weeks - is an incredible feat of sporting endurance, arguably unparalleled in the world of mass participation. Other events require extreme levels of physical commitment, but few ask competitors to push their bodies to the limits over 20 days and three countries. Whispers and rumours of other hardy souls attempting the challenge pass around the Haute Route group, but, Haettich aside, I cannot find anyone else claiming to be brave or mad enough to take it on.
In an era in which a new sportive or mass participation event seems to spring up every other week, the Haute Route has risen to the challenge of establishing itself and finding a marketable USP. Its weeks-long, rider-focused structure helps to set it apart; the likes of Grant and Haettich give it an injection of personality and character, promoting the sense of community. As I leave, one of the organisers who has served as my guide asks if they can expect me to come back next year, bike in tow. Providing it has an engine on it, I'll be there.