After Stage 3’s all out assault on Alpe d’Huez, I’m expecting to wake up with the deadest legs I’ve ever had. Following Stage 3, I got another massage and after a nice, balanced meal for lunch, I totally dominated a cheeseburger and fries. Hey, it’s protein and carbs, right?
As I roll out of bed, I’m pleasantly surprised to find that my legs are very fatigued but not totally dead. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t have any real nagging injuries to the legs at this point. I was worried a little bit about some pain in the IT band that I experienced during Stage 3, but I don’t feel any real discomfort in my knees, hips, elsewhere. I am carrying a bit of a wrist injury, that has gotten so bad that I can't squeeze a bottle, but I don't really even feel it while I'm riding. So I guess that's fine?
In the lead up to the race, my entire strategy was to survive through day three. Day four was going to be a day where I reassessed how I felt, and how I wanted to attack the final four stages. In my mind, Stages 4 – 7B would be where I was going to let it rip.
My legs don’t necessarily feel as though I could “let it rip” on today’s stage, but they also don’t feel nearly as terrible as I would have expected.
But I welcome the shift in perspective that has gone from “Conserve energy. Try to make it through” to “Let it loose. Ride hard every day”. That shift occurred on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez and I’m going to keep riding that wave for as long as I can.
I’m also trying to avoid the pitfall of thinking that today and tomorrow are “easier” days. Yes, they’re easier than yesterday, but they’re going to be hard. Everything will be hard at this point.
It’s really tempting to look at Stage 4’s profile, and to look at it as an opportunity to really take it easy. I mean, I could cruise on today’s stage, go moderately on tomorrow’s individual time trial, and I could come back fresh as a daisy for stages 6, 7A, and 7B. Maybe.
I’m not here for that though. Today, we’re riding as hard as the legs will allow.
Stage 4 is a 50-mile stage, featuring two major climbs. The climbs couldn’t be more different. Lautaret is another one of those super long climbs. In fact, it’s our longest climb of the entire race – coming in at 15.28 miles. Lautaret is nice and gradual though. With an average gradient at 4.2%, this should be a climb that I can hit in a heavier gear and rip through with my high cadence.
After Lautaret, we have a long descent, leading in to our final climb of the day – Granon. Granon is a freak. 7.1 miles and an average gradient at 9.2%. The last 5 miles of the climb are at a consistent 10%. That’s very steep for a decently long amount of time. It’s gonna hurt.
The stage starts with a punchy, short climb that’s unnamed. I had overlooked this little guy on the route map, and it actually ends up hurting a bit more than I would have hoped. It’s a small climb (3km or so), but when you’re not expecting it, and when you’re still trying to get the legs warmed up following the most insane of all smashfests, it’s enough to hurt. It makes me start to doubt if I’ll be able to go as hard as I want to today.
Screw all the doubts. I left them behind the morning of Stage 3. Just ride.
We have a beautiful, but very sketchy descent down the Col du Sarenne before we reach the slopes of Lautaret. The descent is sketchy enough that the race directors have made this an untimed section. I can see why.
It gives me an excuse to take my time, snap some photos, and really ease my way into the stage.
After about 30 minutes of descending, it’s time. Lautaret. 15+ miles. Let’s see what we’ve got, legs.
The first four kilometers of the Lautaret are incredibly gentle – like 2 and 3% gentle. I smash them in my big ring. For those that don’t know, the big ring is basically what you use in the flatlands. The small ring is what you use on climbs. I’m using my flatlands gearing in the French Alps. What a badass.
Or dumbass. I don’t know yet. I’m being super risky, but it feels good. I’m finding that taking risks like this have been buoying my confidence. So I’m going for it.
One of the guys that I met following Stage 3 happens to ride up beside me in the first few kilometers. He’s a beast. And he’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve met. Oh…and he happens to be tall as hell like me, so I get a great draft off of him. I hop on his wheel and we trade off work for the first 6 or 7 kilometers.
We’re working hard and we’re ripping by groups of cyclists. Occasionally, a cyclist will hop on our little mini-paintrain, but they only seem to last a couple minutes. Each one says something like “You guys are crushing it” as they fall off our wheels.
I don’t know that this level of effort is sustainable, but I’m going to hold it for just as long as I can. I proved to myself on Alpe d’Huez that I can hang in the pain cave for as long as needed. I’m going to test that capability again today.
The climb pitches up a little bit more after the 6km mark, but it’s still at a very gentle 5.5 – 6%. I’m in my small ring now, but I’m shifted down a couple gears heavier than I could be. As long as I can keep my cadence high, and as long as I feel like I’m light on the pedals, I’m going to stick and stay and make it pay.
Around the 8km mark, my friend says something along the lines of “You’re a machine. And you’re going to be alone here in a second”. I think he’s gassing me up a little, because he’s strong as hell. But sure enough, within a minute or two of him saying that I’ve ridden a way from him. About a kilometer later, I look back as we round a bend and I’ve put a significant amount of distance between the two of us.
I am climbing like a machine.
Or a wild banshee. Or a young, dumb kid who’s about to eat a massive helping of humble pie.
I don’t know which one of these it is yet. It’s the great mystery of cycling – or at least it is when you don’t ride with a heartrate monitor or a power meter.
Unlike previous stages where ticking off the kilometer to go markers felt like they were taking forever, I find myself totally surprised by how quickly they’re going by. I’m shocked when we pass the 12km to go marker. Wow. I’ve ridden more than half of this thing already.
The back half of the Lautaret is a little steeper than the first half, but it’s still within the gradients that I would call my sweet spot. This is my type of climb.
By the time we hit the 10km to go marker, I figure that I’ve passed over 125 cyclists. I’m on fire right now.
7km to go. Things are getting difficult. The lactic acid is creeping in. The fatigue of climbing for over an hour is setting in. And the climb is beginning to open up. We’re exposed to a brutal, consistent headwind.
Most cyclists have grouped into packs to break through the wind. I come up on a pack of about 30 cyclists. I tuck in at the back of the pack and I take shelter from the wind. After about 10 pedal strokes though, I’m realizing that I can’t ride at the cadence that I want to and ride with this group. I have to make a decision. Stay in my rhythm, but fight the headwind on my own and work harder as a result. Or stay with the group, but risk losing my rhythm and risk having to climb in a way that I’m less comfortable with.
I untuck myself from the shelter of the group and head on up the road on my own. The other cyclists in the group are looking at my like I’m a wild man. I am a wild man.
I’m getting my ass kicked by the wind, but I’m still putting distance between myself and the group. And I’m still in my rhythm. I made the right decision.
Three kilometers later, I’m presented with nearly the same scenario. And I make the same decision. Even though I’m more fatigued and more in fear of the headwind.
I’ve passed the 5km to go marker, and I know that I can hammer it home for the rest of the climb. I know that my level of effort at the beginning of the climb was very, very aggressive, but I’m happy that I went for it. This is the best that I’ve ridden all week.
Major confidence boost. Strongest climb on the longest climb. Not bad for a Florida flatlander.
With 2km to go, I’m sick of the wind. I’m ready to get off this climb for that reason alone. I’m hurting, but I don’t feel like I’ve dipped too far into the power reserves. That’s the beauty of a nice, gradual climb.
We hit the summit and I stop for a quick bite to eat and to throw on my jacket. I’ve worked up quite the sweat and we’re about to descend for 15 miles. It’s going to get chilly.
The descent is actually even more gradual than the climb was. Perfect. My kind of descent too!
I’m thrilled by the idea of not getting passed by all the same cyclists that I passed on the way up the climb - which I now estimate to be 200 cyclists.
The descent is wide open and devoid of any switchbacks or otherwise technical turns. It’s great. I’m actually able to pedal on the descent, and I estimate that I’m traveling comfortably at 40 mph.
The only thing that I’m not loving is that there’s a decent bit of traffic on the road. Cars stacking up behind cyclists becomes a concern, and I actually have to pass a few cars on the left side of the road.
A few kilometers further down the descent, a large van passes me. It does so very respectfully – leaving plenty of room between me and the van. But somehow the wind coming off the mountain, plus the draft coming from behind the van, catches my wheels just wrong. I start to get the speed wobbles – a dangerous, rocking back and forth of the bike. It’s been known to throw cyclists off bikes at high rates of speed. Luckily, I know how to deal with speed wobbles. Knee to stem, and touch the rear brake ever so gently. Unluckily, I’m so whacked from the climb that I grab for my front brake initially – the worst possible thing you could do. After quickly releasing the front brake, I remember what I need to do, and I bring the bike back under control.
Here’s where I probably should have curled up into a ball. I already had a major accident on a descent. I’m already skiddish about descending. I’ve just had a scary moment.
I resume pedaling and pick up the speed again. I’m committed to taking this descent aggressively but intelligently.
Well…mostly intelligently. Another van has stacked up behind a couple cyclists that are ahead of me now. The oncoming traffic is heavy enough that I’m not going to pass this van on the left side of the road. There’s about 3 feet of space for me to make a pass on the right side of the road.
Brakes? Screw it. I hit my line at about 35 mph and thread the needle in between the van and the edge of the road. I actually have to duck to clear the vans side mirror. Nervy. And ill-advised. I’ll never do something like that again. But today, today is about crushing this stage from start to finish.
We descend through a village that is actually busier than one would be comfortable with while going at a high rate of speed. No close calls. No issues.
The descent is over and it’s now time for the Granon.
After what was a really long day in the saddle yesterday, it feels bizarre to be turning onto the final climb of the day after less than three hours of riding.
I try to wake the legs up again – a task that is significantly easier after having pedaled a good bit on the descent off of Lautaret. The legs feel pretty good at this point.
But Granon is not the type of climb that I’m particularly well-suited for.
The first four kilometers are at a gradient that I can spin through with my high cadence. I do just that, and I feel pretty good after about 20 minutes on the slopes of the Granon. Hmm. Maybe this is a climb that suits me.
Hell, even if it isn’t, I just need to throw everything that I’ve got at it for an hour or so.
In the opening kilometers of the climb, I’m riding by cyclists one by one. Nice. This is going to be my climb. I’m going to make it that way.
At the 5km mark, the climb pitches up to above 10%, where it’s going to stay for the next 6.5 kilometers. Ouch. I keep the cadence high even though I’m not quite as light on the pedals as I previously was.
It feels a lot like Alpe d’Huez in that regard. Where I’m not killing the climb with cadence, but I am hitting the climb hard with a combo of a pretty high cadence and some decent power. It’s a painful way to ride a climb.
I feel like I’m going to blow up big time, but I worry only about riding as hard as I possibly can. If I blow up, I blow up. I’ll figure it out from there.
At the 6km mark, I go by an Aussie. Friendly guy. He says “Jason, I love the way you climb. No muss, no fuss. No massive accelerations. No breaks. Steady and powerful”. He also says that he’s going to hop on my wheel and hang with me until the end of the climb.
At this point, and given where I am in my pain cave, I’m not much in the mood for company. But let’s see what he’s got. At worst, it may break up the climb a little bit. But I don’t expect that he’s going to hang on my wheel the whole climb. In fact, I could use the confidence boost of dropping him at some point.
He sticks with me for another kilometer or two. Longer than I expected actually. We don’t say much, but we do trade a few comments. I’m usually sociable on rides, but I’m so on the edge that I need every bit of focus to perfectly walk the tight rope between mind overpowering the body and body overpowering the mind.
With 5km to go, my cadence has started to slow. Granon is a freak.
So consistently steep. Nothing flat. Nothing less than 10%. Not even 10 feet.
I’m desperately in need of 5-10 seconds of flat, but Granon ain’t giving it to me. It’s a bastard of a climb. My only solution is to alternate between standing and sitting once again. Stand and power through. Sit and try to conquer with cadence.
With 4km to go, the climb has revealed the roads above us. Similar to the Glandon yesterday, those roads look steep and unrelenting. It’s going to take a massive effort to get up this climb.
I take in a gel and hope for a quick burst of energy – real or imagined.
We’re hitting switchback after switchback. Seeing where we’ve come from and where we have yet to go. It’s very taxing mentally, but I’m still pushing hard as hell.
How cool would it be to crush Stage 4? I mean how’s that for responding to getting smacked in the mouth? Spirits low after Stage 2. Borderline impossibly hard Stage 3. All of it. And here I am with an opportunity to smash Stage 4. Just 4km to go.
I hit the 3km to go mark and I’m really struggling with the gradient. This is a steep climb. But everyone around me is struggling with the gradient. I’m still picking up places every couple of minutes, so even though I’m struggling, I know that I’m still riding well.
Each kilometer feels like it’s taking an eternity. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the Lautaret climb that felt like it flew by.
By the time I’ve reached the 2km to go mark, I’m at the point where I’m questioning how much harder I want to work. I’ve seen the road ahead. This is going to be tough. And I’ve already worked really hard.
How much harder do I want to work?
Shut the hell up and pedal.
Stop making this more difficult than it already is. Grind it out to the finish line. Get food. Get a massage. Get some rest.
That’s exactly what I do. I grind out the last 8ish minutes of the climb and get right on my rest and recovery program.
Today was a hard day.
In my pre-race preparation, I’ve identified Stage 5 as a prime opportunity to get some rest. It’s an individual time trial up the Col d’Izoard. This next statement is going to qualify just how crazy the Haute Route is. Today is only a 12-mile climb. And that’s considered a quasi-rest day.
Thankfully, Stage 5 starts and finishes in the same location. And I start at 10:30 as compared to the 7:00 and 7:30 start times from past stages. It all adds up to extra rest time. I didn’t realize just how much time would be required to manage the luggage each morning. When the race starts and finishes in a different location each day, you essentially have to unpack and re-pack your suitcase every single day. It’s a time suck and it’s an aggravation.
Especially when you’re having to get that all sorted out before a 7:30 start time. Breakfast, getting all your clothing situated, getting your bike prepped, getting food and bottles ready, getting luggage re-packed, and then getting down to the start line all takes time. Like significant chunks of time. So not having to deal with my luggage today, and not having to set off on the stage until 10:30 is a big deal.
The extra rest doesn’t necessarily translate to extra fresh legs though. The fatigue has really set in, but I trust that once I get the legs warmed up that I’ll start feeling good again.
I head down to the start line a little earlier than usual. I’ve never done an individual time trial, so I want to get a feel for how this thing works. An individual time trial is a pure race against the clock. Each rider starts individually (as compared to a mass/group start). No drafting. No working with a team. Just each man or woman racing on their own against the clock.
Riders start in 30-second intervals. If you’re having a good day, you’ve got plenty of carrots in front of you. If you’re having a bad day, you’re going to be a carrot.
At 10:15 I need to check in and report to the starters corral. It’s just a little pen where about 20 anxious cyclists are awaiting their name being called. I really want to use this time to dial in, and to focus on the task at hand. So I intentionally avoid making eye contact, and I try to strategically place myself away from the chatty cyclists.
My name gets called and I move into a queue. I can see a starters stage, a ramp, and a countdown clock. This is official. This is how the pros do it.
I head onto the starters stage and I block out the urge to get carried away with just how freaking legit this is. Focus on what’s important.
10 second countdown.
And I’m off. Down the start ramp, cameras flashing, Col d’Izoard awaiting.
We have about a tenth of a mile of flat land and then it’s straight onto the slopes of the Col d’Izoard. No chance to warm the legs up. It’s straight down to business.
The excitement has got the best of me and I feel myself pushing right from the start. It takes less than a minute for my breathing to become labored. I mutter to myself “Aggressive but sustainable”.
I’ll come back to this mantra several times throughout the climb. Aggressive but sustainable.
At the one-minute check, I have a good chuckle. Aggressive – yes. No doubt. Sustainable – ehhhhh.
Within the first three quarters of a mile, I’ve already passed two cyclists. A nice confidence boost, but largely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Today is me versus the clock. Me versus me.
Col d’Izoard is another one of those iconic climbs in the world of cycling. I feel the allure of the climb. I want to test myself on these slopes. I want to come away from this day knowing that I threw everything I had at the Izoard. It’s cycling in its purest form.
Izoard starts rather gently and kicks up the last half of the climb. The gentle section comes in the form of nearly 10km at an average of 4%ish. The remaining 10km is much steeper, at about 7.5%. But it’s consistent. Sweetspot.
The generally accepted rule of thumb is that you never want to gas yourself out too early in a climb. But I’ve also read up a little bit on this climb. Many cyclists have come away from this climb feeling as though they didn’t push hard enough on the “easier” section at the bottom. I’m not going to make that mistake. If I’m going to make a mistake today, it’s going too hard. I’m not erring on the side of caution. I’m trusting myself implicitly.
Aggressive but sustainable-ish.
After 15/20 minutes of climbing, we hit a downhill section that lasts for about half a mile. I switch over to my big ring and I put the hammer down. We twist and turn around the mountain, and I do my best to keep my speed up through the bends. The road pitches back up, and I start to struggle.
Going from little ring (climbing gearing) to big ring (flatland gearing) requires a change in cadence and a change in power. I’m going from a little lower cadence and higher power (big ring) to lower power, higher cadence. I’m going from my climbing rhythm, to my flatland rhythm, and back to my climbing rhythm again. Hopefully.
I can’t seem to find the climbing rhythm. My legs and my breathing are confused. I quickly get out of the saddle and stand, as a way of trying to bridge the gap between going from power to cadence so quickly. I’m really nervous that the legs, which opened up nicely, are just going to slam shut.
But after a minute or so, I find the rhythm again. My all out assault on Col d’Izoard continues.
I tell myself that I’m not going to concern myself with whether or not I get passed by anyone today. However, after 25 minutes of chasing carrots, I’m curious to see if I’m anyone’s carrot. I look back discretely, and I don’t see anyone for at least a quarter of a mile. That gives me a chance to look back more obviously. I still don’t see anyone. None of the carrots that I passed. None of the cyclists that I fear are using me as a carrot.
Sweet. Nice confidence boost.
I’m now halfway through the climb. I’m all the way in the pain cave. My assault on the Izoard has been unrelenting. I don’t know if I’m walking the tight rope between aggressive and sustainable, but I’m damn sure aggressive.
And I’ve now got the steeper section of the climb awaiting. I’ve been climbing for a little over 30 minutes, and I likely have 40 more minutes to go. I don’t allow myself to think about how much longer I have to go, because I feel like it would break my spirit. Being so deep in the pain cave, with no real sign of relief anytime soon would not be helpful. So I don’t allow myself to think more than a kilometer or two ahead. Keep ticking off the kilometers. Each one brings me closer to the summit.
The camera crew again pulls up beside me. I swear they only pull up beside me when I’m gasping for oxygen, tongue out, making a complete mess of myself on the bike. I jokingly gesture to them that I’m spent. I give the universal cycling sign for no mas. But I know that I’ve got at least another kilometer of fight in me. I hope that after that kilometer, I’ll find another kilometer of fight, and so on.
I’m absolutely ripping up this mountain. I’m passing cyclist after cyclist. I’m so locked in though that most times I don’t even realize that I’m making a pass. Complete tunnel vision. Me and the road.
I do occasionally break free from the tunnel vision to enjoy the sights. I remind myself that nothing is more important than that. In between labored breaths, screaming quads, and sweat pouring out of my helmet, I find moments to appreciate the sheer beauty of our surroundings. This is a dream come true.
The last 5km of this climb may turn out to be a nightmare though. I’ve been climbing at full effort for nearly 50 minutes now. After four days of really freaking hard cycling. I’m very fatigued at this point, but I know that I can push through the pain. My muscles are burning. My lungs and even my core are stinging from sucking in oxygen. My head is fuzzy.
Be your best when things are the worst.
I’ve got this thing figured out. The next 5 kilometers are going to be no different than the last 2 or 3 kilometers that I’ve ridden. Based on these kilometers, I know what gear I can sit in, I know what my cadence should be, and I know just how hard I can push. As with Stage 4, it simply becomes a question of how hard am I willing to work for it?
Answer: really hard.
With 3km to go, I haven’t slowed down at all. I don’t know that I’ve sped up, but I know that I haven’t slowed down. I continue to rip by fellow cyclists, but I have no idea how many at this point. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that I haven’t yet been a carrot. I’m on fire right now.
The views at this point are absolutely stunning. It’s almost as if mountains from all over the globe have been picked up and placed right in front of me. Some slopes are sandy. Some are craggy. Some are lush and green. Simply amazing.
I’m determined to smash this climb all the way to the summit. My energy is waning significantly, but as I cruise past the 2km to go marker, I know that I now only need to hold on for 5 or 6 more minutes.
The road now looks like a photo taken from a cycling magazine, or calendar, or something. It snakes its way up the mountain majestically. Switchbacks serve as perches for the cyclists that have already completed the stage to cheer on their fellow competitors. We hear their shouts carrying through the mountain, even with them being 500 feet or so above us. You can see cyclists gradually snaking their way around the bends, with a beautiful Alpine landscape as their background.
It’s so incredibly cool.
The coolness of it all just gets me even more fired up. Empty the tank.
Before I know it, I’m on the same perches with the same cyclists I heard a few minutes ago cheering me on. “It’s right around the bend”. “Full gas”. “Keep going”.
You got it.
I’ve passed the 1km to go marker. I can hear the announcers voice, and I suspect that I’ll be able to see the finishing line very soon. I am gassed.
But I’m not heaving, and I’m not seeing stars yet. That must mean I’ve got something left. I pick up the pace one last time, shifting heavier to get every last bit of power out of the legs.
The summit comes into sight and I maintain the last little surge that I’ve got left. I hit the line, and as I did in Stage 2, I collapse onto my handlebars. Chest puffing in and out rapidly. Head buzzing. Waiting for the return of feeling like a normal, human being as I exit my pain cave.
As I’m bent over my bike, gasping for air, I feel the satisfaction that comes with completely emptying the tank. If you took a snapshot of how I look after Stage 2, and how I look right now, they’d probably look identical. Collapsed on the bike. Gassed. Chest puffing up and down.
What’s different is that I’m beyond proud of my effort, and supremely confident that I’m going to destroy the last three stages of the Haute Route. The same couldn’t be said after Stage 2.
Now, this is fun. I can’t wait for Day 6.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.