Ever since my first ever cycling trip to one of the European high mountain ranges back in 2010, my favourite cycling adventures have always been mountainous.
Apart from being good at climbing, I love the extra challenge of cycling consistently uphill for an hour or more, the beautiful scenery and of course the fun descending afterwards. Since 2010, I have done a small selection of Gran Fondo races in mountainous terrain, enjoying the experience and impressing fellow riders with my results and riding style.
Taking on the challenge of not just doing a Haute Route, but going out and competing for the win, has been on the cards for a couple of years. It wasn’t initially going to be 2016, but when I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse, it became the big goal of the season. Targets were set, plans made with my coach, and the preparation began.
For many Haute-Routers, simply completing all 7 days within the time limit is the challenge, and while I was there, I took great pleasure in sharing their personal battles, and often daily elation of having ‘ticked off’ another hard as nails stage without seeing the wrong end of the Broom Wagon. It was immensely refreshing for me to see and appreciate another side of cycling after too many years of hardcore focused racing for results.
Yet, I make no qualms about saying that the challenge for me was about more than just finishing. It was about getting the best possible finish I could in the Women’s General Classification, and finding out whether I could compete with Europe’s best Gran Fondo racers in terrain that is home to them and quite alien to us Brits.
In the end, I think my Haute Route story has been enhanced by a significant setback in training when I broke my collarbone in the middle of May in a road race. If preparations had gone like clockwork and I had gone to the Pyrenees knowing I was in great form, I would have learnt a lot less about myself and appreciated others a lot less.
So, what exactly is the Haute Route all about? Well, it is essentially a 7-stage cycle sportive / Gran Fondo, taking place each year in the 3 big European mountain ranges of the Pyrenees, Alps and Dolomites. For enthusiastic sportive riders who have maybe participated in the ‘big three’ sportives (Marmotte, Etape du Tour and Maratona dles Dolomites) it is often the next big goal. The races are much smaller than any of the big three with only 400-500 riders, so day after day you will find yourself seeing the same faces on the road. Well, I say faces, but what I actually mean is backs of heads, bums, calfs or wheels, depending on your own level of energy at that particular moment.
This is what I loved most about the whole experience, and made new friends from all over the world who I’m certain I will remain in contact with over the years. Everyone has their own story about why they are there and what they have been through to make the start line. For sure, there were still riders who were focused on themselves and achieving their own goals, but these people were in the minority. My favourite person of the week was a lovely gentleman from Belgium named Martin. Every day he would come past me 2 or 3 times, and every time he would be immensely positive about seeing me again. “Ah, it is the lovely Karen”; “you’re here already”; “come on Karen, looking strong”. In return, I could reward other riders with the same treatment, showing encouragement and enthusiasm for their effort.
Almost every day was a summit finish, and on 2 of the stages, these were dead end roads (one to the ski resort of Pla d’Adet and one to the reservoir at Cap de Long). The only way down was to descend the same way we had climbed. As faster riders descended, there was usually a cheery “Allez Allez” shouted out in encouragement. Talking to my Sticky Bottle team-mates and room-mate for the week, most of whom were fighting against time limits every day, that encouragement was the highlight of their days when they were really fighting fatigue and dehydration (it was 30+ degrees most days) simply to finish.
My final story of camaraderie is from the final day, where the route took in one last climb before a 100km run in on rolling roads to a village 20km outside Toulouse. Being in a group that functioned was absolutely essential for this section, and it was absolutely worth making a short effort to get into one.
Having descended like a demon to find one, there it was in the distance, like a beacon calling out to me. One big push for 3 minutes and I was there, and of course they were the familiar faces that I had been seeing all week. Now, there were probably at least 5 native languages in this 40-strong group, so communication could have been a challenge. Yet cycling is a universal language, and with 3 Brits (including me) shouting and gesturing, we soon enough had the whole group rolling through and off, with very few people shirking turns, simply understanding what needed to be done to get us all to the finish in good shape.
About 7km from the finish, the emotion of it all took over, and by the time I crossed the final timing mat I was a blubbering idiot! At least half the riders in our group made the effort to come up, give me a hug and offer praise and thanks for the way I had ridden and organised the group. That meant more in the end than my finishing position on GC.
Reflecting back 2 weeks later, some very simple messages are still strong in my mind.
- Never forget that you are amazing.
- There will always be other people out there who recognise how amazing you are. Focus on them, and forget the ones who don’t.
- If you find other people amazing or inspiring, tell them.
- Remember ‘amazing’ doesn’t necessarily equate to the strongest / fastest / best. Make the effort to get to know everyone around you and you will discover ‘amazing’ where you don’t expect to!
About the Author: Hi, I’m Karen (Poole) and I’m super-excited that Cycling Torque have invited me to be one of their guest bloggers! As a friend recently said in his blog, I am a ‘self-proclaimed gob-shite’ from Yorkshire. I’ve classed cycling as my first sport since 2011 (after ‘retiring’ from international orienteering when I decided I was too old!), although I have very early memories of me riding a bike around the leafy lanes of the Cartmel peninsula in Cumbria, so have probably always had cycling in my blood. I might be a competitive cyclist, but nothing beats the sheer joy of a long hilly ride in the beautiful landscape that is Great Britain, exploring new roads and meeting new people with a common interest. I hope you enjoy reading my ‘Ramblings on Two Wheels’. If you want to know more you can follow me on @karenpoole44 (Twitter), @Hambletonhobbit (Instagram) or find me on Facebook.