by Gregor Brown
While following the Tour de France as a journalist, my mind would sometimes wonder. I’d dream of zipping up and down the famous cols, flanked by police motorbikes and with the sound of applause filling the air. As if I was Brad Wiggins or Cadel Evans, as if I had mechanics and soigneurs at my call, and as if I could draw the screams of waiting roadside fans.
The Haute Route had my answer. The organisers offered fully supported ride through the French Alps, 21,000 metres up 19 climbs, in seven days. I’d have a peloton, too. After 300 rode last year in the inaugural edition, nearly 600 took part in the second edition last week.
“It’s my dream come true,” Emma Pooley told me on top of the Alpe d’Huez where we just finished the third and arguably the toughest day, climbing nearly 4700 metres. “It’s a seven-day fun race through the mountains. This is my only chance to race on routes like this because women’s races don’t have this.”
Pooley, a World TT champion and Olympic medallist, won the women’s classification. Former mountain biking champion, Frenchman Peter Pouly took out every stage and men’s overall. I hovered around mid-pack and competed in my own race. Out of 600 riders – 33 different nationalities and around 50 women – there were plenty of others going my speed.
The Haute Route started in Genève and entered France immediately with the Col de Romme climb. We covered some of the famous and some of the lesser-known cols: from Alpe d’Huez, Courchevel and Colombière, Bonette, to Vars, Risoul and Couillole. Going up them, just like in the Tour, residents stood roadside to cheer. They’d applaud and say “Bon courage” or “bravo.” Going down, some of the same Gendarmerie who motor along in the Tour cleared our path.
Riding the cols gave me a better sense of the suffering the Tour riders’ feel. The pain Robert Millar must gone through to cross the Bonette first or what Pierre Rolland went through on the Alpe d’Huez last year. In comparison, I scaled the Alpe in 1 hour and 8 minutes. Peter Pouly rode in 42 minutes and 20 seconds.
The week also gave me a chance to recon for my next Tour de France: I recorded quality hotels and key roads, such as the back road off the Alpe, in my notebook. I didn’t have to do much else, because as with the professionals, we were looked after.
The Haute Route provided food, massages, mechanics and just about everything else, with prices varying for the basic or premium hotel packages. Two Wheel Tours had me along and made the “toughest and highest sportive” a plush ride.
Will Levy and his assistant Joe Piazza shuttled us around, making sure the hotels fed us well and that our heads rested in five-star hotels. Levy takes applicants from worldwide, but mostly hosts Australians. In our nine-man team, we had a Kiwi, a Russian and a Brit as well. The Russian brought his own masseur, Vladimir, who would take time to tend to the rest of our team. Comparisons to pro life became even more complete stretched on Vladimir’s table, as did waking up early and facing another big mountain day.