I am racing down the smooth ribbon of tarmac that unfurls enticingly from the summit of the Col de Peyresourde in the French Pyrenees, when my GPS bike computer flashes up a speed I normally see only on the dashboard of a car: 80kph. As I arrow down the mountain, balancing on tyres just 23mm wide, pine trees and jagged peaks slide past in a blur. To my surprise, other cyclists dart past me at even faster speeds like a squadron of fighter jets, but I have already reached my own personal sweet spot between exhilaration and fear. On one dashing straight I enjoy the privilege of watching a touring motorbike rider pull over to the side of the road and wave me past. This is a first.
It is the fourth day of the Haute Route Pyrenees, an endorphin-drenched, seven-day cycling stage race across the mountainous heart of Europe that has acquired an esoteric allure among the amateur cycling cognoscenti on account of its seductive blend of speed, competition and extreme endeavour. The annual race offers a select coterie of 500 riders, drawn from as far afield as South Africa, Hong Kong and Brazil, an unrivalled opportunity to sample the thrill of racing like a professional cyclist in the Tour de France. Although the course is refreshed each year (for me, a 752km transcontinental dash from the Mediterranean shores of Barcelona to the Atlantic coast of Biarritz; later this year, a meandering 910km French quest from Anglet to Toulouse), the challenge is always momentous, serving up some 20,000m of vertical ascent in a week, comparable to cycling from sea level to the summit of Mount Everest – twice.
However, the reason we’re all glancing at our speedometers is because this race devilishly fuses stamina with speed and strict daily cut-off times. If you don’t make it to the stage finish in time, you can still complete the course, but you will suffer the ignominy of being hacked from the official rankings. Each rider is timed and ranked every day, igniting an extra spark of rivalry between participants – serious or playful, depending on your fitness and competitive instincts. To keep the peloton rolling at speed and to maximise safety, a team of 35 motorbike outriders cruises ahead, mirroring the glamorous entourage of professional races, and an army of 500 stewards marshals junctions so riders can race unimpeded on their week-long odyssey.
The sight of timing gates and electronic clocks adds a perpetual sense of urgency. My visit to the feed station on the Col de Peyresourde is more reminiscent of a Formula One pit stop than a relaxing break. Some volunteers fill up my water bottles to help save time, while I stuff bananas into my pockets so that I can eat on the move. Within 45 seconds I’m dashing downhill again. When I suffer a puncture before the final climb of the day on the Col du Tourmalet, a legendary peak that has featured in the Tour de France since 1910, I have to ride at lung-busting speed in scalding 34ºC heat to make it home. The rush of relief and accomplishment is irresistible. “The Haute Route is an awesome event that allows riders to experience a pro-like multi‑stage race, which very few people get the chance to do,” says America’s triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. Every rider unlocks a new level of performance, according to Australian Mike Young, the CEO and managing director of Vimy Resources and a three-time finisher. “With the format you get into the zone of being in a real race and I think this makes you perform at your highest possible potential. I’ve never felt more fatigued yet exhilarated at the end of a day’s racing as I do with the Haute Route.”
The race launched with an Alpine edition in 2011, but there are now annual versions in the Pyrenees, Dolomites and, starting this summer, the Rockies. “The Pyrenees have mythical climbs that you always see in Tour de France stages, but they are more difficult than the Alps and the downhills are faster because the slopes are steeper – often 10-15 per cent gradients – with long straight lines,” says 2016 winner Cédrick Dubois, a police motorbike officer from France. Andrea Nicosia, an Italian cycling guide who won the 2014 edition, agrees: “The Pyrenees are not as high as the Alps or Rockies, but that means the overall pace is faster.”
Every day offers unique challenges in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of landscapes. My journey takes me from the sun-baked fields of the Catalan countryside, via the snow-capped peaks of Superbagnères ski resort and the eerie, mist-enveloped slopes of the Col d’Aubisque, to the silvery waters of the Atlantic. The peloton itself is a colourful carnival of futuristic bikes, beeping heart-rate gadgets, playful camaraderie and gallows humour.
Given the unfathomable distances involved, stamina is the primary physical requirement. Over the course of the week my leg muscles slowly solidify into whirling lumps of timber. On the fourth day I pedal relentlessly for six and a half hours. On the sun-lashed slopes of the Tourmalet, it is hard to tell whether the moisture on riders’ faces is from sweat or tears. But after every uphill slog comes a dizzying descent – and this is where many riders make up valuable time. In bad weather the organisers sensibly neutralise the timing on descents, but otherwise it is down to each rider to define their own comfort zone. “The downhills were extraordinary and very fast,” says Young. “I loved them, and in the three rides I’ve done, only two guys went past me. I tipped over 100kph a couple of times.”
Intelligent tactics are just as important. In the valleys riders often team up in large echelons to counter wind resistance, aping the group dynamics of professional races by taking it in turns at the front to crank up the collective speed. On day two, a 129km blast from the Catalan town of La Seu d’Urgell to the peak of Plan de Beret, I find myself riding alone on a broiling plateau near the village of Escaló when a rampaging peloton sweeps me up (“Hop onto the freight train,” bellows one rider with a grin) and drags me up to speed. It turns a lonely 20kph trudge into an intoxicating 40kph dash.
The Haute Route is a premium event at the apex of a growing trend for multi-day races. For cyclists who have completed one-day challenges like L’Etape du Tour in France and the Gran Fondo races of Italy, this is next in the search for prestige. “When you compare the Haute Route to a Gran Fondo, it is like doing a long Gran Fondo single-day race but for seven days in a row,” explains Nicosia.
Similar epic events include the gruelling 6,900km Trans Am Bike Race across America and the 3,800km Transcontinental Race across Europe, but unlike these self-supported challenges the Haute Route comes with exclusive privileges. Riders’ luggage is transported to their next hotel each day. Feed stations dot the routes. Hot meals and masseurs await you at every finish line. And photographers and camera crews record the daily drama for posterity. There is also a range of bolt-on services available. Sign up for the Directeur Sportif package and you will enjoy daily coaching advice and mid-race supply drops. The Super-domestique option gets you your own personal support rider to protect you from headwinds (a luxury known to help riders climb 20-30 places).
One exciting stage of each Haute Route event is in the format of a time trial. On this day, instead of racing as a group over a long distance, riders battle individually against the clock on a short, fast course. My time trial comes on day five with a 16km-long, 1,088m-high blast to the Hautacam ski resort. Near the start ramp I notice many riders have switched to aerodynamic carbon wheels and ditched their saddle bags to help optimise their speed. The organisers fiendishly unleash riders at 20-second intervals in order of their current ranking so you can’t help but ride within eyesight of your closest rivals. Driven on by an unexpected desire to slay my nemeses, including a friend from a British cycling magazine, I secure my highest finish of the week after an hour of leg-shredding ascent.
When finally I reach the Atlantic coast, after a stunning 40kph group dash through the rolling green hills of the Basque countryside on the final day, I have completed a total of 27 hours, 22 minutes and 54 seconds of cycling. The fastest riders conquered the course in 19 hours, with the final ranked competitors taking almost 35 hours. Whether it is harder to face the jolting pain of a high-pace ride at the front, or the torturous fatigue of long days in the saddle at the back, I’m not sure. But the thrill of racing – not just riding – is incomparable. “Really we all live the same experience at the front and the back,” insists Nicosia. “We all share the same fear in the morning. We all feel the same excitement at the finish. And we all hit our maximum all week.”