Photography: Mike Chick / Manu Molle
Haute Route Dolomites
My name is Mike Chick, and I’m a photographer and a cyclist. I’ve been lucky enough to cover the Tour du Faso in West Africa, the Vuelta a Bolivia, and the Tour of Qinghai Lake in central China, amongst others. But this time I’m a rider and the event is the Haute Route Dolomites, billed as the toughest and highest sportive in the world along with its siblings, the Alpine and Pyrenean versions. When we set off from Venice to Geneva, 933km lay ahead of us, with 20,350m climbing over 17 cols and some of the big favourites from the Giro d’Italia like the Passo dello Stelvio, the Passo di Gavia, and the Passo Giau. A tall order indeed. I took part in the inaugural Haute Route which was run in the Alps from Geneva to Nice, three years ago, so I knew more or less what was coming. It’s tough and relentless and wears you down in ways you wouldn’t expect. Last time something happened which I really didn’t see coming, which was a crash on the marathon third stage. I clipped a wheel and went down hard, needing five stitches in my right arm and nursing road rash on my leg and backside. Not pleasant, but I made it to the end and collected my finisher’s medal. I even got a round of applause for my heroics.
That’s partly why I came back. Unfinished business, so to speak. The first experience was incredible, even if it was painful, and the joy of splashing around in the waves on the beach in Nice is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. So, this time the plan was to have a decent ride, no incidents, no dramas. A friend wrote to me before I left that the Dolomites looked the most difficult of this year’s Haute Routes. The altitude, he claimed, would be decisive. My first thought was lack of oxygen, but it’s easy to forget that at that height the weather and cold play a big part too. Eight times we would climb above 2000m, and, as it turned out, that was to be a key factor for the week. There is so much more to an event like this than just riding your bike. As I learned before, it has a knack of wearing you down and catching you by surprise, and this time proved no different. It wasn’t without incident and not everyone was going to make it.
From previous experience I knew the first couple of days can be the hardest, mainly because the body and mind need a while to adjust to what’s being thrown at them. So it was this time too. The ten kilometre long Passo Giau at 2236m proved a tough finale for many on day one and the descent gave a taste of the cold which was to pursue us later on. It was also the first chance to appreciate the scale of the race. In addition to the 350 or so riders, there were the ever-present safety motorbikes, 30 in total, the medics on hand in case of emergency, and the 170 strong army of staff, organising everything from hotels to baggage, transfers, food and briefings. A travelling circus that would accompany us every inch of the way. The second stage continued the theme and went high twice, over the Passo Falzarego at 2105m and the Passo Pordoi at 2239m, but at 140km the distance was manageable and a good opportunity to settle into a rhythm to see us through what lay ahead.
Day three, the Queen’s stage, was the first big test and it didn’t disappoint. 151Km with over 4000m of ascent, and most importantly, the legendary Passo di Gavia as the final climb. It was probably the toughest of the week. There’s something truly exhilarating about riding at your limit. You have no choice, you have to give it everything and just hope the gradient eases so you can get your breath back before you burst. I had stronger days, but the Passo di Gavia was the one I enjoyed the most. After the steep early ramps of 14% and more, it opened up into a wild and desolate landscape, our only company a few bemused looking cows and some mountain mist. Everyone has their own connection to cycling. For some it’s the physical challenge, for others the competition or speed. For me it’s these moments of escape, of finding that stillness up in the clouds.
That evening, with my legs feeling like granite, I sought solace in a massage. It proved to be the single most painful experience of the week. There were 30 masseuses on call every day and mine was Oriane, a very petite young French woman with a reassuring smile. It started well, and I began to relax, but at a certain point I had the feeling that she had exchanged her supple hands for a red hot poker which she was drilling into my flesh. I looked up to see her forcing all of her weight through her forearm into my thigh. It was hard to believe that someone so small could administer so much pain. But there was method to her madness and the next morning, miraculously, my legs were their former selves again.
The time trial up the mighty Passo dello Stelvio the next day, marked the highest point in the race at 2758m, and for many their personal zenith too. 21Km and 1558m of ascent, the longest single climb most of the peleton had ever made. It felt like it would never end. Bend after bend, up into the heavens. And it was cold too, my hands almost numb as I reached the summit. But the real fun was yet to come. The fifth day, from St. Moritz to Andermatt, was presented as the marathon stage and it lived up to its billing. Not quite as much climbing as stage three, but longer, at 177km, and an ominous weather report that forecast cold at the top of the first climb, the Julierpass at 2248m, with possible rain showers.
It proved to be the most dramatic day of the week. I have learned from a couple of horror moments in the past when I set off completely underdressed, that it is wise to be on the safe side. Leg and arm warmers don’t take up much space, but they can be a life saver if it’s cold. The combination of sweat from the climb, heavy rain and the near freezing cold on the descent meant that a lot of riders were shaking uncontrollably by the time they reached the first flat section. Mercifully there was a large cafe at this point and as I approached I noticed a lot of bikes outside. Do you stop or carry on? For me, the answer was simple. I had to dry out my shoes which were so full of water it felt like I’d been on a trip to the seaside and been caught by a freak wave. The scenes inside were like something out of a surrealist movie. Forty or more cyclists with deranged grins on their faces ordered hot chocolate as if it was some sort of miracle cure. I shamelessly ransacked the toilets in search of paper to dry out my sodden shoes. Some had the idea to put plastic bags over themselves as improvised rain capes or shoe covers. Amazingly the cafe staff obliged, and started to hand out bin liners from the kitchen. But I bet they had never sold so many hot chocolates before. Paper menus were stuffed into helmets and down jerseys in a desperate attempt to keep in the warmth. We were all in survival mode. Back outside the cold bit again and it was a cruel fifteen minutes or so before we could warm up and get through the worst of the weather. Nevertheless, twenty-eight riders either chose or were forced to abandon that day. There were even cases of hypothermia.
You learn a lot about yourself on rides like this, and I now know I would make a terrible spy. If I was caught all they would have to do is keep me up a couple of hours beyond bedtime and I would tell them everything. That was the hardest part, lack of sleep, and it started to show as the week wore on. My new pair of go-faster socks (which sadly didn’t make me go any faster) had “early to bed” written on them and I wish I had taken the advice. I can handle the hills and the weather but, boy, do I need my sleep. Every morning we had to get up at 5.30 am or earlier. Some riders even told me they were setting the alarm for 4am because their hotel was far from the start. You can do that a couple of times, but not every day. I started to crave sleep, not beer or steak, but sleep. Anything for a lie-in.
And then there were the details. You might think that a week like this is all about riding your bike, and of course, in large part, it is. But the number of things you have to prepare and organise, and then reorganise, seems never ending. First there is making sure you are where you are supposed to be, that you attend the briefings and hand over your bags at the right place at the right time. Then there is your personal stuff; packing and unpacking each day in your new hotel; making sure you have washed your kit and that it is dry; selecting your food for the day; checking you haven’t forgotten anything. What time is breakfast? How far to the start? Getting on the bike is actually a relief. At least you can just ride, even if it is up a wall like the Stelvio.
In an attempt to distract myself from the daily routine I looked around for interesting bikes. It’s hard not to. One in particular stood out. It was ridden by Mike Gluckman, a 31 year-old from London. At first glance it looked just like a normal carbon race machine, but on closer inspection I realised that it had just one gear. Yes, a single speed. Last year he rode the double of Alps and Pyrenees with normal gearing and decided to make this year’s Dolomites a special project. He worked with coaches to devise a training plan involving everything from nutrition, to the optimal gear choice, to intensive interval sessions to simulate the cadence and power required to get up the steepest climbs. Despite some grim moments when his legs started to cramp, he managed an impressive 60th place overall.
But as achievements go, look no further than Christian Haettich from France, who has ridden all the previous Haute Routes back to the first one I attended in 2011. Last year he completed the double of the Alps and Pyrenees, and this time he was attempting the Triple Crown of all three back to back. Incredibly he has done it all with only one leg and one arm. When I saw him at the first race in 2011 I thought he was ex military. He had the look of a French Foreign Legionary about him, weathered and a little intense, but he explained that he had been hit by a car as a teenager and lost both limbs as a result of the accident. Some years later he saw a similarly disabled rider on television and knew that he had to take up cycling. This year, at the final briefing, as thanks were given and conclusions made, Christian was awarded a special badge by the motorbike safety riders as a mark of their respect. He received the biggest ovation of the night.
So, as the final day arrived, the peloton rolled towards Geneva, the serious work behind us. Having enjoyed the sixth stage with its sunny weather and less intense profile the day before, we could savour the final kilometres which lay ahead. By chance I found myself at the feed station on top of the last climb with Nuno Coelho Luz, from Portugal, another rider attempting the Triple Crown. One lunchtime earlier in the week I had sat and watched him eat eight vanilla puddings, and that was before he had his main meal. Something to do with the best combination of protein and sugar apparently, but an acquired taste, for sure. We agreed to ride the final 48km of the race together. “I’m going to go very slow” he said, which suited me, but “slow” can mean different things to different people. After a while I noticed a distinct change of tempo. “We have to take advantage of the smooth asphalt”, he called as he started to turn on the turbo chargers. A rough translation of this is probably “now it’s time to ride”, and ride we did. The last 30km flew by and we shared a hug on the finish line, a fitting end to an exhilarating week. All that remained was to grab some food by the lake before the 20km procession into Geneva which was due a while later. I resisted the temptation to order vanilla pudding and went for good old-fashioned steak, fries and beer instead. Absurdly, by the time we left two hours later I was hungry again.
At the closing party later that evening we all tucked into yet more food, and finally enjoyed a few glasses of wine without worrying about what was coming the next day. The sense of relief was tangible all round. Prizes were awarded, applause given, toasts raised. Then came the farewells to those we’ll probably never see again, and those we very likely will. Comrades of the road. As I thanked and said goodbye to Pilar, who had helped organise the trip for me, she said “come back and do the Triple next year!” and I gave out a nervous laugh. Despite the initial horror of the idea, a part of me was actually starting to warm to it.