Off-season and the Haute Route
The race season is a timespan which inspires hope, excitement, and a little fear in me. It's the highlight of the year: races are the solid goalposts over which to drape the structure of the season; the justification for all those hours of training, missed social events & family time, and selfish focus on performance. It has its highs and lows (2016 certainly had both for me) and though the start of my race season is sometimes hard to pinpoint (I tend to do a heap of training races in my base training in Perth) the end is usually a well-defined and major goal (the Powerman duathlon world championships, in 2016). When it’s over, it can leave one feeling a bit lost - tired and worn out, in need of a rest, but also missing the structure and focus of training and race goals.
On the other hand, I sometimes find that the freedom from training plans and focus at the end of the race season can feel like the end of exam term at school. The training activities that a few days ago were regimented and essential to success, overnight become a bit “pointless” in terms of training benefit - and certainly less urgent than all the administration, accounting, communication, and planning for next season that I should be doing at this time of year. And perversely, because I don’t have to train, it immediately becomes more fun - thanks to the contrary nature of my brain’s reward centres. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy structured training, and even those miserably painful sessions which I dread in advance are satisfying (especially afterwards). But once the race season is over, I pull on my trainers or hop on my bike with renewed enthusiasm - to ride or run with friends, or explore new roads, or gaze at the autumn colours, or just enjoy sport for the simple fun of it. I confess: I enjoy not having a “reason” to train. Why does there always have to be a reason? I enjoy returning to the pure pleasure of exercise without the pressure of performance, or the internal nagging of goals.
Lots of my friends are into sport, and it’s a delight to go out for social rides or runs and enjoy their company, without worrying about how to fit my training session into the outing. It’s also fun to spontaneously decide what exercise to that day (because there always has to be some exercise, otherwise I’m grouchy!), to train as much or as little as I feel like, and to be able to fit training around travel to visit friends and family - rather than the other way round. Off-season exercise antics have stretched as far as a kettle-bell class with my sister (I ached for a week afterwards), spinning classes with my brother (thank you, Bristol University sports department), cross-fit (ouch, simply ouch), step reps up and down hotel stairwells, running in circles round a snowy field near Newcastle cheering on at a cross-country race, and one-off payments to gyms and public pools of varying quality and cleanliness, all across the UK.
Freedom from the training plan also means no longer having to be sensible. In the race season, epic rides or runs are generally not a good idea because they require a longer period of recovery before one can train hard (ie threshold sessions). By epic, I mean the kind of crazy mountain adventures where I run out of food / water / get lost / spontaneously add on an extra pass, and end up spending dawn ‘til dusk on my bike, fuelled only by coffee, grapes, and chocolate. This is not sensible training according to most coaches, and I’ve realised over the years that they’re probably right. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. Those epic adventures were what got me hooked on cycling, many years ago, and the need to be sensible, and not generate too much fatigue for target training sessions, starts to irk by the end of the race season. I begin to feel like a mountain goat trapped on a treadmill.
Thus it was with joy and gladness in my heart (and several coffees plus a huge bowl of birchermuesli in my belly) that I rolled up to the start line of the Haute Route (day 3) on 7th September in St Moritz. It was still half dark, that pre-dawn pale darkness with the mountains beginning to gleam against the brightening sky. It was also surprisingly chilly. I had remembered to pack autumn gloves and a windproof jacket, but they were no match for the bitterly cold fog that hung over the lake that morning. In the scrum of riders and helpers thronging near the start arch, I wriggled my way to the front to greet Benjamin Chandelier (race director) and make sure I had a clear run for the first few kilometres downhill.
The Haute Route is a very special event to me. I first took part in the Alps edition of the race in 2012 after the London Olympics, and it rekindled my love of bike racing. The beautiful mountain stages, tough racing against amateurs, and camaraderie with fellow cyclists all made it a week I’ll never forget. As a sportif race, it’s in a different format (and with less pressure) than a professional bike race - but it’s harder (in terms of distance and ascent) than any women’s UCI race. In fact I believe it’s the hardest stage race an amateur cyclist can take on. I’ve been back almost every year since 2012 to try to take on at least part of one of the Haute Route races - there are now three separate weeks in Europe (Pyrenees, Alps, Dolomites) and next year they’re adding the Haute Route Rockies. If I could fit it into my season, I would love to attempt the “triple crown” of all three European Hautes Routes… but most race seasons, one week is already difficult enough to fit around other races. The Haute Route is wonderful training but it’s also pretty tiring - one needs recovery time afterwards to benefit. In 2016, because of Rio and Zofingen, I couldn’t make it to the Pyrenees or French Alps races. I would have loved to race the Haute Route Swiss-Italian Alps, but doing the whole week would have meant driving to Geneva late in the evening after the prize giving at Powerman Zofingen, for a 6am start the next day. And I could barely drive (let alone race a bike) from muscle soreness so that didn’t seem like a very sensible idea.
The compromise was to ride a single stage of that week’s Haute Route: from St Moritz to the top of the Stelvio. That gave me 1.5 days at home to repack and rest from Zofingen, and try to force my unhappy legs into a truce that would at least allow them to bend at the knee enough to turn the pedals. Nonetheless, on the Wednesday morning I was still going down stairs on my backside and having to lower myself with a handrail to sit down. So soon after Zofingen, I wouldn’t be competitive in the Haute Route, and anyway as I was jumping in for just 1 day I wasn’t part of the stage race. I was just happy to be part of the event and enjoy the company, camaraderie, and the stunning beauty of that day’s route.
At 8am I rolled off bright and early with the first group on the road, at a more relaxed pace than the later groups (with riders ranked higher on GC) would be travelling at. We chatted and I was humbled to meet some truly tough riders on their third week of the triple crown Haute Route. We exchanged sympathy about the freezing fog: the few kilometres down the Engadin valley went from chilly to bitterly cold, as we dropped down through the icy mist to Pontresina. I don’t cope well with cold hands: the pain makes me whimper miserably. I was very much looking forward to warming up on the Berninapass, and to the sun piercing the fog. Still, even while bemoaning the cold I appreciated the pale clearness and fading stars of the sky, the vast space of the valley between peaks, and the bright highlights of snow already on some of the mountain flanks. The shadows were still long in the dawn as we approached the top of the Berninapass at 2330m, crisp and calm, atop its frozen lakes. We didn’t linger long, the short descent was over in just a few minutes, to the left turn and Italian border towards the Forcola di Livigno. By now we were in the sun and warming up, and faster riders from later start waves were beginning to come past us. I rode alongside a guy with type 1 diabetes and chatted about the challenges of fuelling for a week’s hard cycling in the mountains. I’m constantly impressed by the toughness and variety of motivation of the Haute Route participants: there are so many quiet brave heroes, totally normal people taking on a huge physical challenge and tackling it with happy enthusiasm.
A brief stop at the Forcola di Livigno at the feed station, then the fast windy descent into Livigno itself and the short but punchy climb to the Eira pass, and the Foscagno straight after. As faster riders came past me I tried to follow a small group who were clearly racing each other. It felt great to stretch my sore legs and breathe deeply. At the Foscagno feed station, while chatting to some Italian riders about the last time I’d raced over that pass (in the 2010 Giro!) I spotted the “lead GC group” coming in - they’d set off last from St Moritz - and recognised a few old riding colleagues from previous Hautes Routes. I hung onto the back of their group for the long fast descent towards Bormio, the air heating steadily as we dropped down over 1000m. We passed through villages with tempting cafes, into the lush meadows in the base of the valley. A sharp left turn off the main valley road indicated the start of the longest climb of the stage: the Stelvio, with 1448m of climb over 21km. I bid goodbye to the other riders in the fast group, as they upped the pace and I couldn’t. My legs were protesting. I settled down to enjoy the spectacular climb at a steady pace, which was already going to be enough of a challenge. The first 10km were oppressively hot, but then the steepest switchback section of the climb brought welcome relief from a cool breeze. It was a glorious day to be riding up an iconic pass, and I revelled in it without worrying about pace or power. It is a heck of a long climb though, and I had plenty of time to think about how much my legs were hurting. Chatting to other Haute Route riders helped to distract from that though, and I even tried to race the last few km as a speedy chap came past and I hopped on his wheel. Reaching the top was satisfying and the precipitous view over the other side into Austria never fails to make my stomach turn with vertigo.
Cappuccino in one of the cafes perched on the pass was delicious. So was the second cappuccino. I lingered a while and would have loved to stay longer, to see the riders I’d set off finish, but the long ride home was beckoning. I descended slowly back down into the heat of the valley - the Stelvio descent always makes me a little nervous because one can see so far down, and the long straight sections between sections of switchbacks encourage frighteningly high speeds. Once in the valley and slowly (painfully!) pedalling back up the Foscagno towards Livigno, I realised this was going to be the biggest challenge of the day. The Foscagno is a long, long climb from the Bormio side. I was definitely tired, and probably hadn’t eaten enough - but stopping for food would have made setting off again in the heat pretty rough. So I just rode very, very slowly. It was a good exercise in patience. The top - finally - was cool in the thin air, and the top of the Eira felt even better. I had big plans for coffee and cantucci in Livigno before tackling the Forcola and Bernina…
I failed to find cantucci but coffee and chocolate did the trick. By this stage I didn’t mind where the calories came from, as long as they somehow got me back to St Moritz. The headwind up Forcola (as expected) made me curse, but the top of the Bernina is always spectacular and it was wonderful to see it in both the first and last light of the day. The long descent, a few kilometres back up the Engadin valley to St Moritz (ouch - who put that little climb there?)… and a lap of the town, to round it up to 200km and 5000m of climbing. That felt like a very satisfying day out.
Postscript: 3 days later, on 10th of September, I (rather optimistically) started at the Arosa Trailrun in the 21km race. We ran straight up the Weisshorn in stunning clear sunshine: another glorious day. Then I tried to run downhill in the second half of the race, and my legs went on strike! I could run up, but I had to walk down… definitely something I need to practise for future trail races.
(Thanks to Haute Route for the photos)