The seventh day of the Haute Route is rife with controversy. It’s a two-part stage with distinct start and finish lines for each stage. Two stages in one day, cutely named Stage 7A and Stage 7B. Rumors have been circulating throughout the week that one of the stages may be shortened or outright canceled. There’s apparently some concern with the length of time that the stages will take for the riders at the back of the pack.
There’s also a concern of severe weather. At the safety briefing the night before Stages 7A and 7B, the MC makes a comment about keeping us appraised of the weather conditions. This almost leads to an all-out mutiny. It starts innocently enough with a rider asking what it would take for the stage to be canceled (the answer was “really, really severe weather”), and it ends with riders yelling things like “We ride”, “You’re not canceling the stage”, etc.
Part of me is kind of embarrassed by the conduct. The other part of me is like “Well, at least someone said it”. There’s no damn way that, after training for a year, and after all that I’ve been through both in training and throughout the course of this week, that I’m not going to ride every last mile that I signed up for.
A couple of riders have mentioned to me that they hate the uncertainty of it all, and that it’s messing with their ability to prepare mentally. I’m riding every damn mile, no matter the decision from the race directors. So it really changes nothing with my mental preparation.
In fact, I don’t even check the weather report when I wake up on the morning of the final stage(s). I’ll pack my rain jacket, which I’ll want for the top of one of our climbs anyway. Outside of that, I’m not going to spend any time or energy psyching myself out about what could be.
I’m super fatigued at this point. My legs don’t necessarily feel any different than any of the other days, but I feel the energy drain at this point. Everything is just a little bit more difficult. After eating breakfast and packing my luggage up for one last time, I make my way to the start line. We start where we finished yesterday – at the top of the Pra Loup. Our hotel is about 400 meters down the hill. Yippee. Free climbing at 6:15 in the morning.
Because I’m so spent, I triple check that I’ve got everything I need as I start spinning up the climb. I’ve made it about halfway when I realize that I’ve left my water bottles in my room. That’s kind of a big deal. I turn around, retrieve the water bottles, and now have given the Haute Route 600 meters of free climbing.
Free climbing isn’t exactly something that you want to do on a day like today. Today’s two stages are a savage way to close out what’s already been a savage week.
Just under 125 miles on the day. Two major climbs – one in Stage 7A and one in Stage 7B. 12,300 feet of climbing on the day. We’ve had 0 days with more miles, and only 1 day with more climbing. Talk about going out with a bang.
I’m much more nervous for Stage 7A than I am for Stage 7B. Despite Stage 7A only being 44ish miles, it’s got an absolute bear of a climb. Cime de la Bonette. The highest paved road in all of Europe.
14.35 miles. 5,400 feet of elevation gain. Climbing to 8,900+ feet.
Guess who’s had problems with altitude this week? Guess who’s on low rest? Guess who’s smashed to pieces?
Guess who doesn’t care?
I’m going to light Bonette on fire the same way that I’ve lit all the other climbs of the last four days on fire.
Stage 7B is less daunting, despite being significantly longer. Coming in at just under 80 miles, and with many of those miles being net downhill on the way into Nice, I’m not overly concerned with Stage 7B. It’ll be tough, no doubt. But I’m not exactly scared of it. I should be fearful of the climb up Saint Martin – a 10.2 mile climb – but it looks to be very consistent and within my sweetspot (albeit on the upper end of that sweetspot).
It’s going to be a long day, but I’m going to soak it all in. Today is the cherry on top of what has been an incredible, once in a lifetime experience.
We’re out of the starters block at 6:30. It’s chilly…especially for a Floridian. And we’re only 15 minutes or so away from starting a climb that tops off at nearly 9,000 feet. Climbing heats the body up. Altitude and wind towards the top of the summit cools it down. Picking the right gear is going to be tricky. But I dress warm, knowing that I can always remove layers and pack them away in my jersey. I also want to be sure to have my rain jacket, given the concerns about the weather. Although, by the time that we start, the rumor is now that the weather looks much more favorable.
The Bonette is daunting, especially given the struggles I’ve had with altitude headaches and even moderate cramping on Stage 2. But I’ve heard that it’s perhaps one of the most beautiful climbs around. Some of my fear is assuaged by the excitement to see what its slopes have in store. Plus, I think a healthy fear of such a brutal climb is probably wise.
Not only is the Bonette long, it’s relatively steep given its length. And the worst comes at the top, where gradients will exceed 12% for much of the final 2 kilometers. On the whole, the climb comes in at a 6.9% average gradient. At least it’s a very consistent climb though.
I know that if I can make it up the Bonette that I can handle anything that we’re going to get presented with today. So I’ve once again resolved that I’m going to go full-out on the climb. I’ll recover on the descent and I’ll recover on the 45ish minute break in between Stage 7A and Stage 7B.
I also know that I can’t go quite as hard as I went on the final climb of the day yesterday. I can’t red-line like I did practically from the start of that climb. Given how long this climb is, how steep it is, and how high it is, I probably need to go at about 90% of what I went on the individual time trial up Izoard, or at 90% of the final climb yesterday. Patience and prudence must be part of the strategy.
We’re practically right on to the start of the Bonette without any chance to warm the legs up. At this point, I’ve had so much practice this week with bringing the legs back from the dead, that it feels mostly easy to find the rhythm and to settle in.
That’s a nice confidence boost. To feel like I’m riding well from the second I hit the climb. Nice.
Also bolstering my confidence is that, like other stages, when I’m riding in my rhythm, I’m passing and not being passed. After about 15 minutes of climbing, I’ve probably passed 50 to 75 cyclists.
Out of the corner of my left eye, I see a train of 4 or 5 cyclists coming up to pass me. Woah. I’m hammering. These guys are super hammering.
It’s a team of Mexican cyclists. Most of them live in Mexico City – at 7,300+ feet in elevation. These jokers can climb.
My first inclination is to let them go by. Patience and prudence.
But as was the case with my roommate going up Pra Loup, I start to wonder to myself “What are these guys doing that I couldn’t be doing”. I hop on their wheels.
They’re putting it down. I don’t know if this is sustainable, but I’m going for it. I’m going to hang on their wheels for as long as possible.
After five minutes or so of hanging with them, I’m really questioning the prudence of this decision. But I’m reminding myself that I’ve thrown caution to the wind since Day 3 and it’s worked out for me. One more day of it.
As I’m having this conversation with myself, a Canadian rider hops on our 6-person train. It’s a battle of the gringos. Who can hang on to the Mexican pain train the longest?
After 6 miles of climbing, and with 8.3 to go, we lose the other token gringo of the group.
Everyone is feeling the effort. Everyone except the conductor of the pain train seemingly. Two members of the team look like they’re starting to crack. They start standing more frequently than they need to. They lose some of the consistency in their pedal stroke. Sure signs of cracking.
I’m on the edge but I’m still in my rhythm.
It happens so quickly too. The two that are now at their limit had looked so strong for so long. They were smoking it for 45+ minutes. And they went from smoking it to smashed in the blink of an eye. It’s a scary reminder to not go too far outside my limits. But knowing exactly what my limits are is a very inexact science.
They only hold on for another kilometer or so. They’ve cracked completely. The conductor plows ahead. Now with only 4 of us in tow.
We push on for another 15 minutes, surging past cyclists with each kilometer. A few brave souls try to hop on the pain train, but every one falls off within 50 meters or so.
It’s the train straight to hell.
But the scenery on the way to hell is magnificent. Bonette is living up to its reputation.
We’re now approaching the two-thirds mark of the climb. We’ve been climbing for just over an hour. It’s steep. It’s fast. And it hurts like hell.
I’m sitting in fourth position. The conductor and the guy on his wheel look unstoppable. The guy in third position is looking a little more questionable. I wonder if there was a guy on my wheel what his analysis of me would be. I certainly feel very questionable, but I think that I look closer to unstoppable. Hide the fatigue.
We get to a section where the road kicks up a little steeper. Any little uptick in tempo or in steepness is hard to respond to given how much work we’ve already put in. The guy in third position [in our pain train] can’t respond. He’s cracked. He falls out of line and I push forward to get onto the wheel of the number two guy.
The gringo is hanging tough.
The conductor and his assistant quickly realize that they’ve lost another teammate. There’s a brief slowing of the pace. Hallelujah. They back off ever so slightly to see if their teammate may rebound. Catch another wind and rejoin the pain train. I look back. It ain’t happening. He’s smashed. It’s written all over his face.
The pace slows once again as the conductor and his assistant start yelling back to their dropped teammate. I have no idea what they’re saying, and the pace has now dropped below the rhythm that I’ve established. The rhythm that I’m in is very, very aggressive and I don’t want to risk falling out of that rhythm.
I go out and around them and continue blazing a trail up the Bonette. Vive el gringo.
With 4 miles to go, the road is littered with cyclists that are just totally blasted. With each pass, I feel more and more determined to make it to the top without cracking. Keep pushing. This is the worst climb we have left. Own it.
With 3 miles to go, the road pitches up a little bit higher. We’re going to be at an 8.5% gradient for the next couple of kilometers. This is where I really start feeling it.
I’ve got to put more power through the pedals to keep the same cadence – or to stay in the same rhythm. We’re now at 7,500 feet or so. My breathing has been labored from the start of the climb, but it now feels shallower. The cool air stings my lungs, and I never quite feel like I’m getting enough oxygen in. Elevation, we meet again my friend.
But at this point, it’s all kind of lumped into the category of “general suffering”. Be the strongest when things are hardest.
I make it through the steeper section, and we now have a little bit of respite. We’re still going up, but it’s at a much more gradual rate. This is the calm before the storm. Awaiting us at the 2km to go marker is a brutally steep section that doesn’t dip below 10% gradient.
I love it. Throw it all at us on the last day. Give it all to me. Let’s go.
When we hit the 2km to go marker, I’m not totally loving it though. These are the dreaded steep sections that I don’t particularly perform well on. And it’s at altitude. I’m having flashbacks to day two.
But I’m not losing places. In fact, I’m still picking up distance on fellow cyclists with each pedal stroke. It’s just not nearly as rapidly as I was on some of the more sane sections of the climb.
It doesn’t matter. At this point, it’s a battle of the mind versus the body. Or the body versus the mind. I don’t even know anymore. I just know that this climb is hard as hell, but I’m determined to be just a little bit harder.
1km to go. The climb has now pitched up to nearly 15% gradient. The terrain has turned to a quasi moon-scape, with both lush and craggy mountains all around. It’s a 360 degree mountain panorama. Utterly incredible.
I’m really smashed, but I’m almost at the summit. I push and I push and I push until I don’t feel like there’s much left, and mercifully, the summit reveals itself. Only 200 meters to go.
I hit the top of the climb. I’m beat, but I’m supremely proud of the fact that I rode one of the two or three hardest climbs in the race so well. I just hope that I can recover enough to ride the remaining 95 or so miles really well.
Luckily, the next 16 miles are all downhill. Unluckily, for the guy who doesn’t like descending, the next 16 miles are all downhill. At least it’s an untimed descent, and at least it offers other-worldly views.
After snapping a few photos from the top, and after zipping up my jacket, I head off on the descent. I touch my brakes for the first time and they make a ton of noise. Uh oh. I thought long and hard about replacing the brake pads before Stage 6, and I’m wondering now if I’ve worn out the pads to the point that I’m going to have a terrifying descent. I try to calm my nerves, but this is scary.
We round a bend and the brakes perform just fine, even despite the noise. I strategically hop off the bike at routine intervals. I don’t want the brakes overheating and I want photos of what is proving to be an amazingly beautiful descent.
By the time we’ve hit the midpoint of the descent, I’m really not even thinking about my brakes anymore.
But to make matters more complicated, the descent is cold. My hands are starting to go numb. After descending for 20+ minutes, everything in my body aches. When descending, the position on the bike requires a lot of hand strength, and can really put the upper back and neck muscles to the test. After 6 days of long descents, and with no real way to simulate such long descents, I’m really feeling the pain.
After 45 minutes or so, the descent has ended and the finish line for Stage 7A is in sight. Stage 7B is set to start in 45 minutes. I grab some food and find a sunny spot to try to thaw out. Cyclists are buzzing all around, and I’m just kind of lounging in the sun. It’s a nice way to relax after what was a savage climb.
Stage 7B actually begins with a long, gradual descent. Because it’s a mass start, everyone is bunched up. A massive group forms and I make sure to get in it. It’s probably 150 to 200 riders. This is dodgy. We’re riding 3 and 4 wide. Handlebar to handlebar. Wheel to wheel. The slightest touch of the brakes or wobble could have catastrophic results.
It’s hard to not let the mind wander in those moments. The thought that keeps scrolling through my head is: how terrible would it be to crash out on the final stage?
We’re riding fast too. Averaging nearly 36 miles per hour. Hitting the turns hard. It’s fun and terrifying all at the same time.
I try to position myself near riders that I’ve spent some time with throughout the week. I also study some of the nearby riders. Who looks the most comfortable on their bike? That’s who I want to be around.
No matter how safe I try to make this descent, it’s an inherently unsafe situation. 200ish fatigued riders, racing aggressively, at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour, on roads that most of us have never been on before. If that sounds insane…well…it is.
After about 50-minutes, the super group hasn’t dissolved but there also haven’t been any incidents. We’re now at the base of the Saint Martin climb. 10.2 miles of climbing at a 6.2% average gradient.
This is another climb that’s right in my wheelhouse. Now, I wish that I could give you a detailed re-telling of the Saint Martin climb, but I can’t. I recall riding it really hard and riding it really well. Outside of that, I don’t remember much.
I was kind of in a trance throughout Stage 7B. The only real thoughts throughout the majority of the stage were pertaining to what needs to be done to finish this thing out the way I want to. I felt like I owed it to myself to commit every last ounce of energy – mental and physical – to Stage 7B.
I know that I picked up a ton of places on the Saint Martin climb, and I know that I felt comfortable enough on the descent to not lose a lot of places. I took the descent aggressively, but never once felt like I was out of control. After everything that I’ve been through, riding the last descent as well as I did may be one of my proudest accomplishments of the entire race.
Towards the bottom of the descent, I’ve latched on with a group of 15 or so cyclists. The descent is more gradual at this point, but we’re absolutely ripping it. Leaning into the turns. Pedaling on the straightaways. No fear, only focus. Man, this is how cycling is supposed to be.
I hang with them for 30 minutes or so. We’re riding very well together. I plan on sticking with them until the finish line – which is now only 25 miles away.
A thunderous boom echoes throughout the valley. And the skies open up. It happens just that fast.
Torrential rain. Thunder. This is hairy.
I’ve ridden through rain a ton in training, so I kind of shrug it off and pat myself on the back for all those wet rides that I suffered through. But this is approaching a different level. The rain is coming down so hard that it’s almost blinding. And it’s cold rain. Oh ya, and we’re still kind of going down hill and around some bends at this point.
This is crazy.
And then it starts hailing. Small hail for only a minute or two.
Crap. This thing is going to get canceled.
At this point, I’d be ok with that. Not because I’m fatigued, but because I’m legitimately concerned about my safety and the safety of everyone out on the course. I have virtually no control of my braking at this point. I grab the brakes and seemingly nothing happens for 15 seconds or so. I’ve got to squeeze the brakes all the way, and hope that they catch at some point.
Low visibility, limited ability to control the bike, roads I’ve never been on before. It’s a dreadful combination.
I see some riders pull over. It’s probably the smart move. But I trust myself enough in the rain that I keep plugging on.
I kind of laugh to myself about the general insanity of the situation. This is miserable? But would I have it any other way? Throw it all at me, Haute Route.
The truth of the matter though is that the storm takes a lot of wind out of my sails. I’ve endured and I’ve suffered. All week. My gas tank is on E. Physically, I still have some strength left in the legs, but I’ve gone under on fuel. I planned on stopping at the second to last feed station, but the blinding rain led to me riding right past it without even realizing it.
I have no idea how many miles we have left to go at this point. And I’ve made the mistake of convincing myself that there’s only a few more miles to go. There aren’t, and I’m going to have to suffer for thirty more minutes until I hit the final feed stop. From there, it's another 30 minutes to the finish line.
When I see the 5km to the feed station sign, I almost cry. I’m shocked. I thought it was 30 seconds or so away. It’s 10 more minutes. For the first time in the race, I’m ready to wave the white flag. I’m fighting back, but the fight is just to survive at this point.
Finally, the feed station comes into sight. It’s only 11 miles from the feed station to the finish line.
I gave up caffeine after my accident, but I need a boost. I start pounding Coke and shoving in crackers and bars. Each time that I start to head back to my bike, I say “Ah one more cup of Coke”. I must have put down five cups before I finally make my way back over to my bike.
I start pedaling and within 5 minutes I’m shocked at how much energy I now have. I realize just how much of my willingness to wave the white flag was tied to a lack of fuel. I was way below on my fuel and my mind and body were quitting on me as a result.
The final 11 miles are untimed. I don’t want to ride these miles leisurely because I really do want to push all the way to the finish line. And, even though I would ride faster in a group, I want to ride the last miles solo. I want this time to myself.
In the final 11 miles, I find myself constantly shaking my head back and forth. The head shake is usually proceeded by a “I can’t believe it” thought. I can’t.
I can’t believe that I’m going to finish this race. I can’t believe that I’ve ridden this well after being left for dead on Stage 2. I can’t believe that I’m even at this race. I can’t believe that I’ve made it through every descent.
I can’t believe that my soon-to-be-fiancee is waiting for me at the finish line. I can’t believe I’m in freaking France right now, riding the same roads that have cracked even the pro cyclists. I can’t believe that all the training paid off.
I can’t believe just how amazing this experience has been.
Most of all, I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I am. I’ve just ridden arguably the hardest amateur bike race in the world, and in doing so, I’ve crossed a bucket list item off, and have raised nearly $6,500 for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I shake my head because I can’t believe how lucky I am.
I’m lucky because my entire journey was a journey of “we” and not “me”. It’s incredible to reflect on all the “we” moments that allowed for me to complete this race. I think about how remarkably lucky I am to have a support system that allows me to pursue my passions – my passions on the bike and in the community.
I think of how remarkable the love and patience is from my parents and my partner – I mean they had to put my socks on for me, and watch me struggle to learn to walk again. For weeks and weeks. How lucky am I that they were with me for every step of the way? Not only that, but how lucky am I that they still supported me in the pursuit of a dream of mine? Think about that for a second. I’ve had a bike accident in the mountains. An accident that was so severe that I was entirely dependent on them. And I tell them that I’m still going to take my bike to some of the most extreme mountains in the world, and ride one of the toughest races around. They didn’t just allow me to do so, they encouraged me in every way possible – mental, emotional, and even physical (thanks for the massages, Yas!).
I think about all the people that invested in my cause and in my story. People that gave up their hard-earned cash to support the cause that I’m passionate about. That’s powerful. I had dozens and dozens and dozens of people that donated the money they worked so hard for. I think about the people that invested their emotional capital. Whether it was friends, family, or acquaintances; whether it was post-accident, mid-training, or mid-race. I received so, so much support. I could not have done it without the support.
I made new friends, new training partners, new memories, and gained new perspective. While pursuing a passion of mine. How lucky am I?!?
I think about my journey throughout this week and how it can perfectly encapsulate life at times. Bad things are going to happen. Adversity is going to happen. My race, and my journey was not defined by the adversity. My race was defined by my response to the adversity. By my belief that we are stronger than any adversity that we’ll face. By my belief that adversity only makes us stronger, and makes us better equipped to handle our next bout with adversity.
I think about the fact that no matter the obstacles that we face, life is too short to lay down. It’s too short to not appreciate the special people in your lives. It’s too short to not chase dreams, and to not appreciate the journey to those dreams. It’s too short to limit ourselves. Especially since most of the limitations are artificial – many times self-imposed.
It's too short to do anything other than to relentlessly pursue your passions.
THE PRE-MARRIAGE STAGE
Ok, let's be honest. This is what you all came here for, right?
Once I hit the finish line, I find Yasmin, and we have maybe the best hug ever. I'm so happy to see her, and I'm so appreciative of her support. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else in the world.
And so, I pull out a sweaty ring, that I had been hiding in my bike shorts the entire race.
I had actually planned on proposing the evening of the race But by the time that I retrieve my luggage and my bike bag, and haul them across town to the transit station, it's starting to get late. And by the time we figure out that we can't take the bus to our Air BnB in Eze, it's even later.
I had planned on proposing at the botanical garden that overlooks Eze. You'll see why...
I figure that if we go there at 7:00, right before it closes, that we may get to see the sun setting, and that we may be mostly alone.
We don't even make it to our Air BnB until 7:00. Ok, plan B. From doing a little research, I know that the Nietzsche Trail is within walking distance of our Air BnB. And I know that hiking the trail can provide some incredible views of the Mediterranean. Instead of proposing at the botanical garden, we enjoy a nice dinner on Saturday night, and we agree to wake up early and try to catch a sunrise on the Nietzsche Trail.
We both wake up before the alarm goes off on Sunday morning and we head out on our adventure. I grab what Yasmin thinks is a box of Cliff Bars and stuff them and a water bottle in a backpack. Off we go.
It's dark when we start and we're navigating by flashlight on our iPhones. What a fun little adventure. As we hike higher and higher the various stages of the morning light reveal the sea and the surrounding mountains. It's beautiful.
I discretely scope out places with the best views as we hike to the top. I find a good option towards the 1/3 point of the hike and bookmark this spot.
After about an hour, we've reached the top of the climb. The view is great, but not nearly as great as the spot that I had bookmarked earlier.
I sit down for a few minutes. I'm kind of stalling. Trying to decide if this is the spot. Oh and my legs are kind of gassed out, so they don't mind the rest. It just doesn't feel right here. This isn't the spot.
We start the hike back down. The sun is now peaking around a mountain and the vibrant blues of the Mediterranean Sea are intensifying with each passing minute.
This is more like it. The timing is right.
We reach the location that I had made a mental note of earlier. I set up one of our phones as a camera and explain that I just want to get a few photos. I set the camera on video and rush back over to Yasmin, with the ring concealed in my shorts. (I fished it out of the backpack and moved it to my shorts while Yasmin was ahead of me on the hike.)
The rest of the proposal is going to remain private, but it was perfect, and I'm thrilled that I now get to call Yasmin my partner for life.
We spend the rest of the day exploring Eze and the surrounding villages, even venturing over to the Italian border.
After one of the most amazing days imaginable, we're scheduled to fly out on Monday. Hurricane Dorian has other plans. For Yasmin's flights at least. Somehow, my flight into Tallahassee is fine. Her flight into anywhere in Florida isn't going to happen for another 10 days.
Following some airport stress and some logistical gymnastics, we find flights out of Paris that will work for both of us on Tuesday. We rent a car and head off on another adventure - a cross-country trip from Nice to Paris.
By the time it's all said and done, we won't end up getting a flight out of Paris until Thursday. I think we made the most of our time in Paris...
Two weeks after it began, the most amazing, most life-changing experience must conclude. We're headed back to Florida...engaged. Like I said in the final paragraphs of the recap of Stage 7B, I'm so, so lucky.
What an amazing life.
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.