Haute Route Compact Breakdown

[content_box type=”with-header” title=”StartConfident Summary” text_color=”dark” color=”default” animation=”fade-in”]
  • Your training for a multi-day mountainous event must include every possibility — not just watts, power, and distance
  • Regardless of whatever food, water, or mechanical services are promised, be prepared to be self-sufficient
  • Do your homework beforehand to maximize post-stage recovery. This is an absolute MUST.
  • Create alliances and partnerships with other riders so that navigation to basic services between stages can be shared
[/content_box] [dropcap style=”default”]The first day [/dropcap]of the Haute Route Dolomites for 2015 was billed as one of the most difficult of the seven day event. In fact, the race website the next morning, when photographs and videos were published was headlined, “We threw you in at the deep end.” 176 kilometers, 5 serious climbs, and a forecast for heat later in the day made the necessity of careful pacing crucial.

Somehow, that made me feel very satisfied, even though I was only signed up for the two day Haute Route Compact. I wanted it to be difficult. I wanted to say that I had properly trained for nine months, and finished strong. I had trained for extended climbs, and for distance.

I’d mostly get what I asked for.

I would be setting off in Geneva with not only fellow Compact riders, but also those who were gunning for Venice, 7 days later. God bless ’em.

Riders prepare on the shore of Lake Geneva for the start. There was an air of serious, mindful excitement.

When it was all said and done, three days in (the first day was a ceremonial out and back up the south shore of Lake Geneva) I could say with a certain amount of conviction that my training was quite adequate. However, there were certain other factors that I had not planned or prepared for that would prove to be more valuable than any coach I could have enlisted.

I hope this story will provide some key insights to make your first mountainous multi-day a success.

Four climbs and relentless heat

The first day included no less than five significant climbs rated from category three through category one.

Now, I’ve watched the grand tours on TV and YouTube just like you. But I had no direct experience pedaling up a category such and such climb, in any country, much less Europe. All I knew was that, as the numbers get smaller, the pain increases, all the way up to “HC,” or “hors categorie.” (“Over category,” a delightfully civil French way of saying, “too damned hard to classify.”)

After my various dress rehearsals climbing Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, and after subscribing to Best Bike Split and uploading the Garmin course routes for both days, I had very specific power goals to maintain during the climbs. Essentially, I was going to try to stay within power zone’s 3.2 and 3.8 whenever possible while climbing. During the descents, I would try to stay mindful about body position and high revolution spinning to relax the body.

Spoiler alert: As long as the temperature was manageable and the water plentiful, all was excellent.

Rolling out of Geneva

Ever notice that the distance markers never, ever match up with what your Garmin tells you? It can play dreadful mind games when you’re deep into a stage.

After a short but extremely pleasant motorcade escort out of Geneva through early morning sun and through idyllic dairy farms, the first climb kicked up quickly. The first three climbs were relatively short, no more than 8 km (or roughly 5 miles,) and rated between category three and two. However, the first climb was an average of 6.6%. I emphasize “average.” There were some sections that hit over 11% and these were at the bottom and at the top, right when you weren’t ready, and right when you wanted it to be over.

And this was climb number one.

To my delight, I climbed the first three climbs, the Col de Cou, Col de Terramont, and Col du Grand Taillet very evenly and felt great. I was passing riders consistently throughout all three climbs while staying within myself. It is important to note, that when you are over 8%, no matter how under-geared you may think you are (if you remember from my bike video, I was running a compact crank and a maximum 32 tooth rear cog on my cassette) your power is most likely going to be at or over threshold during those grades if you’re maintaining a 75+ cadence. I distinctly remember one British rider, about my age, who was heaving and hyperventilating as we neared the top of the Col de Cou. Although I was extremely mindful of the need to maintain consistent pace, I remember getting out of the saddle, shifting into the big ring, and passing him. There was something about listening to that level of suffering that was starting to get to me.

After the Grand Taillet came the climb I was most concerned about: the Pas de Morgins. (Pronounced, “PAH duh mor ZHAH.”) Although it’s grade was only an average of 3%, it was twice as long as the previous climbs at 15km (or 9.3 miles). The last climb of the day was rated at a category one, but it came after a long descent of the Pas de Morgins, and wouldn’t properly start until after 45 km of false flat. I figured that I would have plenty of time to recover to take on that last big climb.

Remember my spoiler?

Heading up the Pas de Morgins I felt invigorated and inspired by the scenery. Looking up to my left, high on a sheer wall, I recall seeing two large stallions, their fence coming right up to the edge. The sound of cattle and goats, their bells ringing in the cool air was like a postcard. I did all of that climb alone, passing riders consistently. Whenever I saw one ahead of me, they’d seem to be struggling a bit. I looked down, noticed my power around 3.5 or so, and simply stayed the course. Before long, I was at the top of the climb, passing into France. Rolling over the timing mat, that section of the day’s timed route was over. I enjoyed myself at the feed station, taking pictures and filling up my bottles.

I never, ever felt more accomplished as a cyclist than when I snapped this pic, atop the Pas de Morgins. I felt fresh despite the climbs, and proud to be in this event.

I was racing in a European sportive. I felt good. It was beautiful all around. Here’s to the first real descent…

Ignoring good advice

Before I got my motorcycle license, I took part in a educational experience that was one of the best experiences of my life: the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Course. During that incredible weekend, one of the instructors warned and encouraged, “When you’re on the bike, no matter how good of a day you’re having, never allow yourself to get cocky.”

When you are in dangerous surroundings, being overconfident means you let down your guard. Nothing good can come of that, as I was about to find out.

The descent would be 20 km of pure, uninterrupted joy. The temperature, the quality of the pavement, the little Swiss villages I would cycle through at speed, the beauty of the chalets — it was amazing. I knew, by the number of riders I saw at the last feed station at the top of the pass that I was in a very, very good position. Easily in the front half of the peloton and perhaps the top third. After stopping to take a picture of a breathtaking series of mountain passes in the distance, I checked the excellent tube sticker they gave all of us. That’s when I realized the challenge ahead of me: I would not see another opportunity for filling up my water bottles for 65 kilometers, or a little over 40 miles. And the heat was just beginning to start.

“40 miles, two large water bottles, one with my diluted energy drink… I’m running over a false flat. I should be OK.”

Famous last words.

That was wishful thinking, and I knew it.

The long descent after the Pas de Morgins summit was beautiful, well-paved, inspiring. The heat had not yet begun…

[callout]StartConfident Coaching Tip: Aim to consistently sip enough water to complete at least one full waterbottle per hour, even 1 1/2 in the heat. Make sure your bottle contains SODIUM if you’re riding in hot conditions. More spoiler — mine didn’t… [/callout]

Around 10 km in to the false flat, I was picked up by a large and growing paceline. I was told cheerily by a Aussie that “there are tons of us, Sam, (our first names were on our race numbers, pinned to our backs) and we are all agreeing to one minute pulls.” Of course, I hopped on

The false flat absolutely flew by. Whenever we would pick up a rider ahead of us, languishing in the headwind, they would float groggily to the back of the line, appreciative of the energy saving draft.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the environment was becoming more desert-like. Vineyards grew endlessly on the sheer cliff of the mountain to our left — which extended for miles. To our right, the plain also stretched out for miles. All of it was exposed and baking in the summer sun.

Nearing the end of that long stretch, I realized I was down to my last mouthful of clear water. I still had a good amount of energy drink, but to drink that alone would quickly induce nausea. My plan for long rides has long been to have one bottle reserved for clear water, the other bottle designated as a “food bottle.” That bottle has 50 to 60 g of carbs per hour for as long as I intend to be out on the bike. That makes it highly concentrated. As I sip on that bottle, I will then top it off as I get to successive food stations.

This strategy depends on my other bottle being clear and fresh.

Entering the foothills of the final climb, the category one, 21 1/2 km Crans-Montana, panic started to creep into my mind. Our paceline had dissolved as the road began to roll. I wasn’t the only one who was low or out of clear water. And the refreshment station was nowhere in sight.

In retrospect, I realize that my Haute Route began to fall apart before this point. I had already gone too far without having enough balance between my carbohydrate drink and clear water. At the time, although I did not realize it, heat exhaustion had already begun to take hold. Later, when I did reach the refreshment station at kilometer 155, I would notice other rider’s shorts and jerseys caked with white. Sure signs of dehydration.
After rolling away from that station, another rider commented on how strewn with salt mine was, too.

The missing water bottle

Days before, when I was gathering all of my kit for the event, I debated on whether to bring a third water bottle. I chose against it, reasoning that this event was mature, and that stations would surely be reasonably placed throughout the route. With hindsight, of course, it is easy to say that I should have brought that bottle and kept it in my already overstuffed jersey pockets. However, the race organization had done such a good job of communicating other aspects of the event, that I took it for granted that ample water supplies would be a given.

I was wrong. But even at this point, I had no idea just how wrong I was. Things were about to get worse.

Meanwhile, back at the end of the long false flat, the remnants of the paceline I was in noticed a few riders pulling over to the left side of the road. A large potable water fountain had been spotted; one with a large six-foot by 2 foot basin, and maybe 2 feet deep. I wasn’t the only rider to plunge my hands, gloves, sweat cap, and face into the deliciously cold, fresh water. It was a surreal experience for me to see riders from all over the world gathering around this simple but essential refreshment. One rider approached after a group of us were deliriously soaking wet, asking, “Is that OK to drink?” The leader of the Mexican team I had been riding with simply said, “Who cares? It’s cold.”

This was the roadside fountain that came about 20k too late... We were all fried, and thankful to see it.

This was the roadside fountain that came about 20k too late… We were all fried, and thankful to see it. Oh…and the bizarre blobby thing in the foreground? That’s the plastic bag I carried my camera in. I was too delirious to realize it was blocking the picture.

We topped off our water bottles and essentially bathed before getting back on the road. I remember practically singing because I felt so good, being rejuvenated by that entire scene and the cold water. The fact that I was practically punch-drunk giddy should have been a warning sign.

But the damage had already been done, and my first category one climb loomed ahead of me.

Heat exhaustion is sneaky and insidious. The brain realizes the danger you’re in and starts shutting systems down. My cold water bath was simply masking the inevitable.

Bone dry

My goal was to make it to the next official refreshment stop at kilometer 155, the base of the final climb. At that point, the timed portion of the first day’s stage would resume. Essentially, it would be a race to the top.

When I did arrive at that station, along with a significant number of other baked and punchy riders, we were told to our disbelief that the station had no more water. I took matters into my own hands, entering behind the counter and furiously rummaging around, and actually found a couple of bottles amidst some discarded shrink wrap.

This is where I will state my first of two complaints against the administration and organization of the event. Overall, the race organizers did a very good job at putting together what has to be understood as a monumental task. They organized dozens of hotels and motels, synthesized multiple languages, orchestrated complicated logistics to bring together a truly amazing event. However, when it comes down to stations running out of water, spaced perhaps too far apart, and relying exclusively on prepackaged plastic liter bottles, rather than, for example, a running supply or potable water trucks, I find this to be irresponsible. Unlike a professional race event, we didnt have team cars or domestiques parsing out water.

I learned later that there were a number of riders that were taken off the road in ambulances.

During the post race briefing that night, race organizers expressed their “disappointment” that riders were using bottles of water to “take showers” at the stations. But who could blame them? With no other water supplies and the heat being as intense as it was, you couldn’t very well cool yourself off by rubbing an energy bar on your forehead.

Sodium depletion and a digestive system that was reduced to a trickle insured that the last 21 1/2 km would become the most difficult kilometers I have ever spent on a bike in my life. Averaging between 6 and 7% for that distance and in the 90+ degree heat, plus at altitude, I became delirious, nauseous, and experienced full on cramps in both legs. Standing out of the saddle was out of the question. I stayed seated and simply struggled to find and maintain a rhythm.

[callout]StartConfident Coaching Tip: I planned for hills, and did hill repeats a go-go, and climbed North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell 8 times. My FTP and ability to endure 6+ hours of hard riding wasn’t in question. But I didn’t train for extended heat. What will the weather be like for your big event? Better asked, what might it be like? Will you be able to handle the demands of your event in cold temps? Hot temps? Rain?[/callout] I did finally roll across the finish line, and immediately made my way to the info point to book my post race massage. And here is where I lodge my second complaint against an otherwise well run event; although I finished 90 minutes prior to the cut off time, I was told that there were no available slots left for massages. Additionally, there were no provisions made to shuffle already exhausted athletes to their various hotels. You either had to hoof it, or bike it, after retrieving your backpack. My assigned hotel was 2.5 kms from the finish, and as this was a significant Swiss ski resport — predominantly uphill. To their credit, the organization did truck your large 90 liter duffel bag, which they supplied, to your hotel. Directions to where the post race briefing, post race meal, or to your hotel were sketchy at best, especially when you have just completed 176 miles over significant Swiss mountain passes. On more than one occasion, I wondered how many Training Stress Points I was racking up by merely dragging my hefty luggage about. As a result, recovery became a point of anxiety. Forgo massage, get to your hotel, gulp down recovery fluids, shower, find the briefing location, get to that location, eat, pay attention and take notes, now get back to your room, organize kit for the morning, and hopefully, get enough sleep for another day of very serious climbing.

And no, your mom — or personal soigneur — isn’t here to help you.

Despite it all, I still love my saddle

The start of the second day was a comedy of errors for me. My exhausted but rehydrated body slept well in a comfortable room, and I awoke with plenty of time for a traditional European breakfast. I enjoyed a few slices of mild cheese, some thinly sliced ham, some orange juice, a couple of shots of espresso, and some melon. I think I also had a croissant or two. However, walking down to breakfast and having a seat at the breakfast table would reveal that which would ultimately bring my second day to a premature end: saddle chafing.

I have ridden the bike consistently ever since 1985. I have logged thousands of hours and miles and have never experienced a saddlesore. The pain that I was now experiencing was not a saddlesore, but it would effectively end my event. Remember the white, caked salt I mentioned, previously? My cycling bibs were riddled with it. In order to conserve my own water, I did not douse myself as I usually would. As a result, my body did overheat and did begin to excrete massive amounts of sodium, which, among other things, led to my dual leg cramps. Despite my usual, liberal application of chamois cream, my glutes and hamstrings were now not sweating, instead they were dry and sliding against my Lycra. The result was a red, cracked, and deeply irritated area of skin that covered my saddle area.

With no small amount of discomfort, I straddled my bike and attempted to follow the directions to the start line as best I could. Suffice it to say, I got lost in the ski resort town of Crans-Montana. The official start went off in three waves. I was originally scheduled to be in wave number one, but since I was not the only rider to also lose their way to the start line, no one asked any questions when I started with the second wave.

The Haute Route organizers told us to pack spare brake pads. They weren’t kidding.

Next time, I’ll ensure I roll out of my hotel (keep in mind there were several hotels putting up riders in this ski resort, not just one) with other riders in a group. Someone will have been there before, entered the coordinates in a Garmin, or have a more innate inner compass than yours truly.

No Furka for you

Rolling out of the resort town, the road immediately pitched steeply down for 15 long, winding kilometers. All of this was neutralized, as it was way too narrow and twisty to race.

After the descent, there was roughly 10 km of climbing that preceded over 30 km of table flat riding en route to two of Switzerland’s most emblematic climbs, the Furkapass and Oberalpass. Although not categorized, this climb averaged between 6 and 8%. The peloton took it very gingerly, and as I went from rider to rider, having conversation about yesterday’s challenges, my heart broke to realize that my legs felt great; my rear end, however, could barely light upon the saddle. No position on the saddle, from being “on the rivet,” to sliding back to where the saddle had the most padding could afford any measure of comfort.

My hope was to make it to the beginning of the timed section at approximately kilometer 57. This would be the beginning of the Furkapass climb.

Of the entire event, I wanted to complete this legendary pass more badly than anything else. However, despite the perfect temperature, and my rested legs, there was no way that a climb that averaged over 7% for over 16 km with some sections kicking up over 12% could be done exclusively standing up. Just prior to that first feed station, no longer able to negotiate a truce between raw skin and saddle, I pulled over and signaled for a moto. Within short order, I was in the broom wagon.

The ultimate irony: fresh legs in a broom wagon.

210 kms of total riding in, my Haute Route Compact was over. I couldn’t blame it on my legs. Ultimately, it was a lack of water and training for arid temperatures the day before that did me in. My dry, cracked derrière burned in the big Mercedes van as we made our way towards Andermatt.

Despite plummeting temperatures, increasing altitude, and eventually a steady rain near the top, we did not pick up very many riders who would ultimately throw in the towel. The Furkapass, despite its length and grade is rather even. Being in the broom wagon, we saw the slowest riders who would finish, nonetheless. They simply got into a rhythm, and kept clicking off the kilometers.

I knew that my legs and my training and my conditioning had prepared me for this, in terms of muscular development, cardiovascular development, and overall form. One thing, however, was abundantly clear: I had not trained to endure in heat. I could only blame the race organizers so much as i took in the mesmerizing views.

It was upsetting and even embarrassing that my reason for abandoning was because I couldn’t sit on my saddle. I consoled myself with, “at least you weren’t one of the several who had to take treatment in an ambulance.”

That zipper up the mountain isn’t the Furkapass, but the Grimselpass, as seen from the Furkapass approach road.

As I waited for the support vehicle, I had a delightful conversation with one of the many skilled moto operators supporting the event. Turns out, that he is part of the French gendarmerie who provides support for the Tour de France. We talked in detail about various brands and types of European motorcycles. He invited me to return to France and take part in an extended motorcycle tour of the Pyrenees that he planned to host. Handing me his iPhone, he asked for me to enter my email information. A couple of days later, while writing this recap, I would receive a warm email from him. When I clicked on his VCF card, I was impressed to learn that he is also part of the French presidential escort.

You just never know who you’ll meet when you’re out there riding your bike.

No regrets. Much appreciation. Great respect.Lessons hard-learned.

I trained for as long as it takes to birth a baby, and in the end, I was taken down by not spending enough time doing long miles in the heat. That’s an option I had, but didn’t take. I mistakenly equated Switzerland and mountains with only cool temps, and often chose to complete my interval sessions on a turbo trainer in a comparatively cool basement. (Interestingly, the succeeding days for the Venice-bound riders would see freezing temperatures, and snowfall would cancel their attempt on the mythical Stelvio in Italy.)

So training lesson number one for me as a road racer in the Midwestern United States, despite the lack of mountains where I race is this: learn to ride over threshold over distance in the heat. Hydration and cooling strategies are paramount, as is seeking shelter from the wind in the draft of others.

Ironically, the training area I worried about most is where I did best; power and muscular endurance. I did multiple training rides that amassed as many vertical feet of climbing, and for as many hours as I’d spend during my first Haute Route day. Additionally, my basement-bound trainer sessions enabled me to keep a good cadence on my bike against the gravity of 8+% grades. The scenery truly, genuinely filled me with awe, both for the nature I was in, and for the engineering exploits of those who had built roads and homes there; that acted like an energy shot of its own.

Rain was just about to start as these riders were midway up the Furkapass. The ascent was relentless, averaging 7% and kicking up to 12% at the top.

Will I attempt another event like this? Competitively, I don’t think so, but likely as a multi-day tour situation where recovery between days isnt as hectic. I enjoy road races and time trials in the sub-four hour time frame, and I think this experience helped me to crystallize that. I think if I am to do another multi-day competitive event, it will have to be within that four-hour per day window, regardless of terrain or temperature.

For those who completed the full seven days into Venice, you have my absolute respect. You’ve endured length, height, heat, cold, wind, fatigue, pain, and also beauty, joy, and that sense of intimacy with your environment that only events like this can bring.

I now turn my attentions to a brief period of no-training, of bike maintenance, of securing my USA Cycling Level 2 certification, and of setting race goals for my second Cat 4 season. Oh: and I’m going to have my sweat tested to see just how much sodium and other minerals I’ll need to bolster my pre-event and during event diet with.

Hang in there with me; I’ll keep sharing my observations, successes, and setbacks in the hopes that you’ll be able to benefit.

[icon_box icon=”hb-moon-bike” icon_position=”left” align=”left”] Question: Tell us about a setback you’ve experienced that actually launched you to a new achievement. [/icon_box]

We’ll see you out on the road.

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Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.

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