It strikes me there have been three distinct eras since our cycling journey started nearly four years ago. The first was the distinctly amateur era. Richmond park was a slog. We rode side-by-side. We treated feed stations like tea breaks, stopping for a sit down and a natter. Next came the digital era. We started the blog and got social on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It added a whole new dimension to our riding. We discovered Strava, created the BCC and designed some Broleur 'merch' for a laugh.
I can remember back then looking at iconic rides like the Marmotte, the Maratona and L'Etape and thinking: not for me. Over a hundred miles: sure (given enough time). Over three and a half thousand metres of climbing in a day: never. But with each big ride ridden, the itch got stronger. Watching my bro conquer Ventoux and the pro's smash the climbs of the Tour, Vuelta and Giro, I began to question if it really was beyond me.
Then finally in April, with Liége-Bastogne-Liége behind us, the other brother tied up with new family commitments and no beacon on the horizon to aim for, I snapped one evening and impulsively signed up for the Compact version of the Haute Route Dolomites - the final two of the seven days. My heart started racing the moment the 'submit' button was clicked on the entry form. The performance era had begun.
Nothing motivates quite like the fear of failure. Where could I find those marginal gains? I started riding the 11 miles to and from work on the Brompton, experimenting with heart-rate training and even fasted rides to try to get my weight down (that one didn't last long). I woke earlier on a Sunday to squeeze an extra 10 or 20 kilometres in and embraced the exquisite pain of myofascial massage using a foam roller. But the biggest single change came with the purchase of a power meter. With expert guidance from Trolleur and some fantastically helpful articles on his Mountain Mutton blog, I discovered the world of FTP tests, normalised power, Watts per Kilo, under-overs and 2x20s and became very familiar with the sight of my sweat pooling on the rubber mat beneath the turbo trainer.
Being able to properly measure your performance gains is an addiction all to itself. Seeing the direct link between improved power stats and easier climbing is intoxicating. I'll never have the frame to be a grimpeur, but the jeans began to hang off my backside and a jawline reappeared beneath my stubble. With each kilo dropped and every second gained, the confidence grew. Still, the day inevitably came around when I realised that the race (and make no mistake, it is a race, not a ride) was just ten days away and this was as fit and ready as I was ever going to be.
The professional experience###
It's a safe bet that not many professional riders have to heave their own bike box into the back of the car and drive it to Gatwick the day before a grand depart. To their credit, Easyjet managed to get box and bike to Venice on time and in one piece. Wheeling it out through Departures, I met Ian, a chatty chap from Chatham and some fellow Compacteurs from Belgium, Italy and Sweden. We were shuttled on a minibus through the increasingly mountainous mountains of the South Tyrol. The conversation dried up as we stared out of the window at the ominous, cloud-shrouded peaks.
The Haute Route bills itself as the nearest an amateur can get to a pro experience. It was certainly a good first taste. The bike park at the Bolzano exhibition centre felt like a Formula One pit lane. Articulated lorry trailers, Mavic mechanics adjusting derailleurs, bass music pumping from big speakers, massage tables laid out in a hall like hospital gurneys awaiting the wounded, and bronzed French pit crew in red Tag-Hauer t-shirts, busying themselves with clipboards and two-way radios. The Haute Route stash was efficiently dispensed. Big bag, small bag, labels, bib number, timing chip, reflective safety vest and of course, the cherished Haute Route jersey. A maglia rosa for the Italian Dolomites.
The Compacteurs were summoned to a bilingual pre-briefing covering road safety, signage and the like. And then the vets shuffled in with their compression socks and sandals - shaved heads, hollowed cheeks, sunken eyes - to receive the day's awards and get the lowdown on the following day's route and weather. Big mountains and storms. Grandes montagnes et des orages.
Big race nerves###
I was billeted 5km away in an unloved hotel, grimly clinging on to its third star. Gear was thoughtfully divided between the big bag for the next hotel and the small bag for the finish line in Cortina d'Ampezzo. I ate a pizza, drank a beer and returned to meet my roomie, Jason, a genial American techpreneur recently relocated to Barcelona. We got along just fine. We both had titanium bikes and liked peanut Clif Bars. We agreed the balcony doors should be left open to let the cool mountain air in. Neither of us knew how many layers to wear the following day, or if leg warmers and long-fingered gloves would be neeeded.
A second consecutive pre-dawn start. No need for an alarm this time. Breakfast was served at the Sheraton, just a minute from the start line. It was functional fuelling. Eating but not really tasting. Heavy bread, cheese, ham and coffee from an automatic machine, more German erzatz than Italian espresso. I was preoccupied with silently sizing up the opposition. Older, wiser and wealthier than the average sportive, there was the odd lumpen lad, but the majority looked lean and well seasoned, one or two distinctly saddle sore.
We gathered beneath leaden skies with the night's chill still in the air. The fittest and fastest 75 from the previous day head out first, followed by the peloton. Like a rugby player superstitiously going through a pre-kick routine, I cleaned the lenses of my glasses, pulled my gilet down at the back, tightened the velcro on my shoes, adjusted my helmet strap and made sure the hems of my shorts were perfectly level. A tentative glance from side to side and then the cleats were clipping in and riders rolled over the first timing mat. This was it.
The initial 20km out through the industrial suburbs and along the banks of the Isarco river were neutralised, so there was no balls-out bolting off down the road. Outriders on motorbikes buzzed up and down the peloton. I settled into a steady pace and silently steeled myself for the first first category climb of the day, the Passo Gardena. 1600m of climbing over 32km, with the first 12km averaging over 7%. Not for the first time, I thought how much the other brother would have relished this.
The intermediate mat signalled the start of the timed section and then we were climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing. No chance of punching through this - it was just a case of turning the pedals, avoiding the urge to surge past other riders, and easing off the gas if I saw my power spiking.
We were well into the climb before the first messages of support from the family started coming through on the Garmin. It made all the difference. I knew the other brother would be glued to the LiveTrack, monitoring average speeds and sensing straightaway if I was hurting. Two hours of relentless climbing flew by. The intermittent texts and incredible vistas were enough of a distraction. This was exactly the mountain experience I'd been obsessing over all summer. Getting up and over this, the highest peak of the day, gave me confidence I would finish. A natural high in every sense.
At the summit I chugged three plastic cups of flat coke and wolfed down some brown bananas - a bit floury and gaggy, but far better fuel than the green, under-ripe ones you get at so many UK sportives. I'd heard the stops could be a bit of a feeding frenzy, but the field had thinned and it wasn't an issue. I did, however, allow myself an envious glance at the VIP (savoury) food proffered by the likes of Alpine Cols and Sports Tours International who dish up an icing on the cake Haute Route experience to those willing to shell out the extra Euros.
Thankfully, there were no signs of the storms forecast, but I pulled on some armwarmers and zipped up the gilet to ward off the wind on the descent. Although the switchbacks were smooth and there was very little traffic, I'm still not the most confident descender and so there was every opportunity to savour the moment. It was tear-jerkingly beautiful. There's no chance the views will ever be wiped from my memory, but I pressed record on the BroPro just in case.
It was a long downhill stretch to the second climb of the day, the Furcia. Smaller than the Passo Gardena, but still a testing gradient, with a volcanic looking profile. It was tough. Please take it as a given that when I say something was tough, I'm fully aware how much tougher it must have been for someone with five days of riding already in the legs. I was fresh by comparison, but still had to grit my teeth to get through the 12 kilometres to the summit.
A minor miscalculatoin
Down the other side and then a horribly long, draggy uphill effort. Throw in a dispiriting headwind and it was like riding into a glue trap. We'd been warned to try and get into a big group for this section, it just didn't happen for me - two was as many as I could muster. Thankfully they were strong and happy to play their part. Every three minutes I'd take my turn on the front and flog the legs to maintain the pace. Then as the gradient of the Col Sant'Angelo began to steepen, I just couldn't stay with them. The road felt harsh and exposed. The sun scorched my back. It was time to go our separate ways. I waved them on: "You go on guys". They didn't even look back. There's a sense of cameraderie unlike any other event I've experienced at the Haute Route, but no room for sentimentality. If you're not strong enough to stay with the pack, you're abandoned like a lame wolf. Darwinism in practice.
All I could do was count down the kilometres until we finally rolled over the top and alongside the glassen waters of the Lago di Misurina, reflecting the grey teeth of Tre Cime di Lavaredo towering above. Now, where was that finish line? I checked the crossbar sticker we'd been given again. At the point I thought we'd completed the timed section. We had yet to even hit the last ramp of the day, Tre Croci. News about as welcome as a knee to the bollocks. It only made sense when we later learnt that our police escort had diverted the peloton early in the day, adding 5km to the route.
Irritation and exhaustion were quickly forgotten on the spectacular descent down into Cortina d'Ampezzo. There just aren't superlatives sufficiently super.
Once over the line, I did everything I could to maximise my recovery and minimise the onset of aching legs. I drank my chocolate protein shake, gobbled down the pasta and chicken on offer to replenish tired muscles then walked back to the nearby hotel to shower and change into wonderfully non-clingy clothes. I used my voucher for a session in the cryogenic chamber - a revelation, took advantage of the free sports massage on offer, pulled on some compression socks, then just basked in the afterglow of bone-weary self-satisfaction.
Jason had rallied some more Compacteurs: Matt,
Joey Jody and Colin, and booked a table at a restaurant in glamorous Cortina. Their speciality was home made pasta, all the better for being matched with a fine Amarone. Jody discovered the difficulties of ordering off menu: no sir, it just isn't possible to have a side of pasta with your veal fillet. Jason shared his dreams of visiting the salt mines of Europe, while Colin added a year to his age as each course was dispatched. One of the joys of multi-stage cycling events is that you can fully immerse yourself in cycling talk and nobody thinks you're a droning bore. As the day's results appeared online, with riders ranked by team and age, we compared our placings. I was content to be sat in the middle.
Back to the hotel for a late evening roll of the thighs with a foam roller, which was then passed next door. I fell asleep/passed out as Jody's howls of agony echoed around the valley of Cortina.
Another pre-dawn start. More carb-loading. According to the veterans it's the routine over the seven days that's the killer.
No long neutralised start this time round. Just a short ride out of the town and we were on to the North face of the legendary Passo Giau - scene of some brutal snow-covered stages of the Giro in the past. I'd watched with added interest earlier in the summer as it featured in the queen stage of this year's race. Two eight kilometre sections, maxing out at 14% with some flat respite in between. The first part hard, the second part harder. It was certainly hard to say which was the more beautiful. Weaving through pine forests before emerging to see the exposed road winding up interminably ahead.
Within a few kilometres you find your level. It was surprising how many of the numbers, bikes and backsides around me I recognised from the previous day. Having placed 14th of the 31 taking on the Compact, I made an extra effort to overtake the other Compacteurs - their white bib numbers marking them out as the nearly-men of the Peloton. It was a testing climb, but you could just about keep up the odd minute of conversation when the opportunity arose. Everyone I came across was happy to give an update on the state of their legs and lungs - even the triple crown riders who'd earned the right to silence.
At the top I permitted myself a stop to snap off a few photos. Even here, at one of the most beautiful places in the world, one that I may well never return to, I felt the uncontrollable urge to push on. The thought of someone rolling past and stealing easy minutes from me was unbearable. Ridiculous for a rank amateur nearing his mid-forties, but that's how the Haute Route sucks you in.
Down from the summit of the Giau on the Codalonga side are 34 hairpins. Amazing view to the left, epic view to the right, stunning view to the left and so on and so forth. Surely only the famed Stelvio in the Dolomites could compare with this for drama and spectacle. It must be one very slow countdown on the way up. Going down, the numbers were checked off in very quick succession.
A game changing chain gang
While the big long stretch after the Furcia had been mostly uphill, following the Giau we were gifted a gorgeous roll down a gentle incline to San Boldo for the hilltop finish. A group began to form, including some strong guys who'd passed me the day before and stayed well past me. This time I was determined to hang on. No easy task as the paceline stretched like an elastic band on the bends and my substandard cornering technique left me stranded. When the road straightened out it took an almighty, thigh-burning effort to get back on to the back. Once there, I clung on for dear life.
I've ridden in big groups before, but in a loose, unspoken collaboration of sorts. This was different. The alphas barked orders and any of the twenty riders transgressing - peeling off in the wrong direction or pushing the pace too hard - was whipped back into line. The next forty kilometres were covered in just over an hour. And it didn't even feel like we were working.
The chain gang lasted all the way to the foot of Passo San Boldo, a draggy climb with just enough of a gradient to thin the group out.Some steamed on, others dropped back, spent. Bidons were symbolically emptied for the effort. A final heave and then that was it. Done. Nobody I really knew to share the victory. No high fives or fist bumps. I just stopped the Garmin, slumped over the handlebars, gathered my breath and texted home. I felt a bit like the substitute brought on in the last minutes of extra time in an epic cup final. While others sank to the ground, cramping and blinking back the tears - I still had a bit left in the tank.
From San Boldo the road drops through a succession of turns, each corner bored through the mountain like a wormhole in a peach . It's an easy 25km to Congeliano, where medals were hung around necks and we had the chance to grab lunch in the town. Matt,
Joey Jody, Jason and Colin made the rendezvous and we toasted our success with a cold beer and a simple plate of pasta. It was just past midday, the skies a clear blue, the sun was getting hotter and we still had another 55km to the absolute proper final finish in Venice.
I don't know quite what I was expecting with the 'procession'. Trumpets? Elephants? Baton twirling majorettes? It was a bit of a hot, flat anticlimax. With motorbikes fore and aft, the pace was still unrelenting and I focused on keeping up a conversation with Matt, wittering on about everything and anything we could think of to keep minds off the road. The speed picked up more as we approached the line at the Parco San Giuliano. It seemed everyone felt duty-bound to finish with a sprint, even though the clocks had long stopped.
The bike was disassembled in a daze. While most full timers were ferried to the hotel for ceremonial drinks and awards, I'd chosen to spend some special time with my special soigneur in Venice. I didn't feel I'd fully earned my spurs, and besides, I needed a hug. My Haute Route experience was over. It was an honour and a privilege not many will get to endure. And all I've thought about since, is doing it all over again.
The other brother###
"What are you doing?" asked the missus as the light from my phone illuminated the bedroom from beneath the covers.
I thought I was being sly. "Nothing! Go back to sleep!" I snarled back, as if I'd just been caught out watching hardcore porn. The clock read 6.30am as I first checked on my brother's progress in the Haute Route, courtesy of his Garmin link. Good, he's on the first mountain climb, the Passo Gardena. The texts then began in earnest.
What to say? Cycling's such an individual sport in many ways. Only you can turn the pedals; only you can truly know how knackered you are on a climb; only you and your fellow riders know the pain. I was on the outside looking in. An imposter. I felt like a conscientious objector trying to empathise with a war veteran. "You weren't there, man!"
So I settled for the tried and trusted: "Keep it going!" "Nearly there!" "You can do it!" Hardly the stuff that's going to make a book of cycling's greatest quotes, but at least there were exclamation marks aplenty.
Still, they were delivered at regular intervals and I imagined my brother choking back the tears, slogging his way up the Giau on the second day as he checked his phone to be inspired by my latest exhortation.
Did my texts have any effect? I still don't know for sure. Whereas I'm the wear-his-heart-on-his-sleeve brother who wells up at crossing the finishing line together, my sibling is made of sterner stuff. Here's the one text I received while he was in the midst of two days of competition:
Top of Furcia. Absolutely brutal. Share update pls
Not exactly the emotional, heart-rending text I was craving. And as for blubbering phone calls after the finish? Zero. But I finally got my wish a few days later when the following text appeared on my phone:
I've got an overwhelming urge to bore someone to tears about my ride. Nobody understands!
Awww, I knew there was a cuddly-wuddly teddy bear in there somewhere.