ALPS 2017: A VERY TOUGH COURSE, MULTIPLE INNOVATIONS
Discovering the details of the Haute Route each year is like Christmas: much excitement and anticipation, perhaps a little trepidation too! There’s no disappointment for 2017. The organisers have done a great job of innovating while reinforcing the DNA of the Haute Route Alps, which is now clearly positioned as the flagship event. At 894km and 22,200m of climbing, it is the toughest of the three European events and merits a serious preparation.
After two years of cycling up the Tinée valley and over the col de la Bonette, in 2017 the race takes a more westerly route and follows the river Var all the way to its source at the col de la Cayolle. This is a magnificent ride through the best of the Maritime Alps, finishing with the ascent of Pra-Loup.
Stage Two will be tough, including the col de Vars, d’Izoard and the Granon for a summit finish. We then return to Alpe d’Huez, climbing it three different ways: first via the col de Sarenne, then via Villard Reculaz and finally via the 21 bends during the time-trial on Stage 4. You would be well-advised to ride this well within yourself, because Stage 5 is a real brute: 182km and 4500m from Alpe d‘Huez to Megève over the cols du Glandon, de la Madeleine and des Saisies, this last col being climbed by its hardest route.
Stage 6, from Megève to Morzine, and Stage 7, from Morzine to Geneva bring more welcome innovations. Instead of following the route of the 2016 Etape du Tour to Morzine we will climb first the col de l’Epine before the Colombière and the redoubtable col de Joux Plane, and during the last day we will tackle four relatively short but tough climbs, beginning with the col de l’Encrenaz and the col de la Ramaz. The rallying point is once again the lovely lakeside village of Yvoire – a great place to relax with a beer and a good meal before the ceremonial ride into Geneva.
STAGE ONE MONDAY 21ST AUGUST
NICE – PRA-LOUP 172.5KM | 3,700m ∗∗∗∗
We’d like to call this a 4-1/2 star day: not quite a 5 star, but definitely a very tough one. Wave goodbye to the sea and enjoy the first few kilometres of flat: almost the last you will see until the final stretch along the shores of Lake Geneva in 7 days time. But there are a few mountains to climb first…
It will take a while to get out of Nice, especially as the first 30km up the river valley to Saint Martin du Var will be neutralised. The race gets started here, as we attack the first few switchbacks and climb up above the river to Gilette and on to Ascros (1,160m), 30km away and 1100m higher up. The road is typically Provençale, climbing steadily though a dry, rocky landscape with little shade from the scattered trees and scrub. The professionals came down this road on Stage 6 of Paris-Nice in March 2016; this is where Andrew Talansky fell and had to abandon.
There is a remarkable 12th century castle in Ascros, take a look before starting the descent. After 17km of descent, we are back to the banks of the river Var, now some 400m above sea-level. We follow it for the next 60km, almost to the summit of the col de la Cayolle (2,326m). This is a lovely climb, sadly little used by the Tour de France since Robic and Gaul were first over in the 1950’s, and a first for the Haute Route.
The serious climbing starts in Entraunes, from where you will have 14.5km to climb at an average of almost 8%. The road is spectacular, criss-crossing the narrow valley, diving in and out of short tunnels. Be prepared to suffer and make sure you drink enough, especially if it is hot!
Enjoy an exhilarating, sinuous descent for 20km until Uvernet-Fours and the final climb to the finish in Pra-Loup (1,592m). These last 6km would normally be easy, but after 165km and 3300m they are likely to be anything but… This is where Eddie Merckx wore the yellow jersey for the 96th and final time, losing almost 2’ to Bernard Thévenet, the new leader. The slope averages “only” 6.5% but varies between 5% and 8%. Save some energy so you can finish better than Eddie, described as a “wreck” by the Tour director!
STAGE TWO TUESDAY 22ND AUGUST
PRA-LOUP – COL DU GRANON 127KM | 3,700m ∗∗∗∗∗
If you thought Stage 1 was hard, wait for Stage 2. The day starts easily enough with the short, neutralised descent from Pra-Loup. You’ll soon know if you recovered well, however, because the leaders will certainly set a good pace up the valley from Barcelonnette to Saint Paul sur Ubaye and the foot of the col de Vars (2,109m).
This is a tough one. The climb is pretty irregular but easy enough for the first 6-7km, before getting a lot steeper for the last 5km. It’s important to get in a rhythm wherever possible, especially in the early part, and conserve energy for the final 5km. Bear in mind it is the first (and shortest) of three major climbs today…
There is a wonderful, fast descent off the back down to Guillestre, where we turn right and start climbing again, direction the legendary Col d’Izoard (2,360m). There are 1,460m to climb over 30km, the first half being a long energy-sapping false flat. The last 10km average 8%. Just to make things easier the road is straight and seems never-ending. The toughest part of the climb is a ramp of 12% in the village of Brunissard, part of a long straight. The road then winds up for another 4km through a pine forest, the slope varying between 9% and 11%, before a 500m descent opens up the amazing panorama of the ‘Casse déserte’, a lunar landscape of broken rocks and scree just before the summit. This is where all the classic pictures of the col d’Izoard are taken: it is worth the trip for this alone. Read more about the col d’Izoard in our Iconic Climbs series.
The thrilling descent from the Izoard is long and fast, bringing us to Briançon. The ride through this busy town will probably be neutralised, like in 2016. Take the opportunity to recover: the final climb of the day is a brute. It was last used by the Haute Route for the time trial in 2015, and it was on these slopes that Greg Lemond sealed his supremacy over Bernard Hinault in his final Tour.
The climb to the col du Granon (2,413m) rises over 1200m in 16.7km, at an average of 7.2%. Unfortunately there are long stretches at 10-11%, making it one of the hardest climbs in the Alps. The road surface is poor and being fully exposed to the sun it could be very hot. It would be easy to lose a great deal of time here if you do not manage your energy and especially your hydration and nutrition well throughout the day. There’s maybe no shame in cracking on the same climb as the Badger, but it would be a pity.
STAGE THREE WEDNESDAY 23RD AUGUST
SERRE CHEVALIER – ALPE D’HUEZ 112KM | 3,200m ∗∗∗∗
Without taking a completely different route to the west, or going though Italy to the east, there’s no escaping the col du Lautaret (2,057m). It is a long and tedious drag up the main road from Serre Chevalier to the col, often against a head wind. Last year we turned right on the Lautaret to continue up the Galibier; this year we will flip over the top and ride hard and fast down through the extreme ski capital of La Grave almost to Bourg d’Oisans and the foot of Alpe d’Huez.
I say almost because Jeff the Race Director has a nice little surprise up his sleeve: the climb to the col de Sarenne (1,999m) which brings us into Alpe d’Huez by the back road, so to speak. This has several advantages: there’s no traffic, it preserves the main road for the next day, and it preserves the Haute Route’s reputation… Yes, this is another hard, hard climb. From the dam it is 12.8km at an average of 7.5%. This average includes 3km of almost-flat or descent, so you can guess what the rest is like. The first kilometre is the steepest: 11% average until Mizoën, but in reality 13% on the ramps, easing off in the bends… With tired legs the climb seems interminable, although the scenery is magnificent.
Over the top there’s a short descent to Alpe d’Huez and the arrival village, at which you can cast a longing glance, because the stage is far from over yet. Jeff’s well-developed sense of humour has led him to design a route that takes us all the way back down to the bottom, looping round and coming back up through Villard-Reculaz, for another 1100m of climbing. The road will be familiar to anyone who rode the epic Courchevel to Alpe d’Huez stage in the pouring rain in 2014. Under better conditions it is a lovely climb, much easier than the 21 bends, and with fantastic views across the valley. It joins the main road at bend 6 for the final 5km, for which you’ll need all the energy and motivation you can muster.
STAGE FOUR THURSDAY 24TH AUGUST
BOURG D’OISANS – ALPE D‘HUEZ 15.5KM | 1,100m ∗∗∗
Who hasn’t yet done the climb to Alpe d’Huez? It seems to be on the must-do list of every half-serious cyclist. It is a tough climb, on the main road, often very hot, frankly more to be endured than enjoyed. Essential, nevertheless.
While some brave souls will ignore what is to come on Stage 5 and throw everything into getting a good time, most sensible riders will take the time-trial at a steady endurance pace, conserving energy for the remaining three days. Come back another time to set your personal record.
STAGE FIVE FRIDAY 25TH AUGUST
ALPE D’HUEZ – MEGÈVE 182KM | 4,500m ∗∗∗∗∗
After two nights at Alpe d’Huez it is time to move on. In which case there’s no point in moving down the road, let’s go all the way to Megève! Stage 5 is the Queen stage of this year’s Haute Route, and by a considerable margin. There are three massive climbs on a stage that could easily be the toughest day on the Tour de France. Pray for good weather…
The day begins with the descent to Bourg d’Oisans, which will certainly be neutralised. We then head due north, successively crossing the col du Glandon (1,924m) and the col de la Madeleine (1,993m) – no transition between the two – before looping round via Albertville to tackle the col des Saisies (1,660m) via Bisanne, not coincidentally the hardest route to the Saisies as well as being the one taken by the Tour in 2016.
Let’s take them in order. The climb to the col du Glandon (1,924m) is long and tough, with a surprise steep descent in the middle, just after the small village of Rivier d’Allemond. Measured from the Verney dam, the climb is 1,152m over 24km. The average is meaningless because the climb is highly irregular. Be prepared for long sections at 8%-10% and some shorter, steeper sections at up to 13%.
The descent from the Glandon to La Chambre is long, steep – especially the first 3km – and dangerous. This is now the fifth day and you may be both tired and over-confident: take it easy!
At the bottom we begin the climb to the col de la Madeleine (1,993m) immediately, from the hardest side. You are about to find out why it spoken of in hushed tones… It is only 19km to the summit, but these 19km are relentless, averaging 8% all the way.
The road down from the Madeleine is another long, fast and dangerous descent. (Remember, when you prepare the Haute Route, there is as much descending as there is climbing. Learn the right technique to be safe, and practice practice!)
From the bottom of the Madeleine there are 20km of false flat descent to Albertville, and then another 12km or so of not-so-false flat climbing up the Durance valley to the start of the last biggie of the day, the climb to the col des Saisies (1,660m) via Bisanne. Mercifully better shaded than the alternatives, this climb could still be very hot in the early afternoon. Be prepared: it is long and steep. 16.5km and over 1000m to climb, including 4km where the slope never drops below 10%. The road actually goes 70m higher than the col; there’s a welcome 2.5km descent before the final 900m up through the village of Les Saisies.
It’s not over yet: there are still 24km to go before the finish, and it’s not all downhill! Keep something in reserve for the final drag up to Megève.
STAGE SIX SATURDAY 26TH AUGUST
MEGÈVE – MORZINE 145KM | 3,400m ∗∗∗∗
We are now in the heart of Alpine Cols training camp territory. At first sight Stage 6 might look like a re-run of the 2016 Etape du Tour, but there are some significant differences. The stage begins by returning back down the road to Flumet, but instead of turning right to climb the col des Aravis, we will go straight on to the Balcons d’Arly and the descent to Ugine. This is a great road for cycling, climbing quite steeply at first and then following the contours high above the Arly valley before the sweeping descent. A few kilometres of flat, probably on the cycle path, will bring us to Marlens and the col de l’Epine (947m). This will seem easy after the previous days, it is only 7km at 7%…
There are several ups and downs through Serraval, Thônes and Saint-Jean de Sixt before we get to Le Grand Bornand and the second climb of the day, the col de la Colombière (1,613m), thankfully from the easier side (photo). There are 713m to climb over 12.5km, in two parts, with a level section in the middle. The gradients are never excessive, apart from the final kilometre, which is at 9%. The summit scenery is magnificent, with impressive rocky cliffs where it is sometimes possible to see wild mountain ibex.
The descent from the Colombière is very fast and very dangerous, especially near the top. It will probably be neutralised.
At the bottom we’ll cross the busy valley floor and climb the anecdotal Côte de Châtillon (741m), before a short descent and a long false flat to Samoëns.
Be ready for the final climb. It is not for nothing that the professionals consider the col de Joux Plane (1,691m) to be the toughest climb in the northern Alps. Thankfully shorter than the Madeleine, it is equally unrelenting, but steeper. The average gradient is almost 9%, and varies hardly at all. Beware the sting in the tail (or should I say cramps in the thighs)… after crossing the col de Joux Plane there’s a short descent round the lake, and just when you think it is all over you are hit with the final climb to the col de Ranfolly (1,655m).
The descent to Morzine is fast and technical.
STAGE SEVEN SUNDAY 27TH AUGUST
MORZINE – GENEVA 140KM | 2,600m ∗∗∗
The final day, but certainly not an easy one. Two significant climbs and a bunch of minor ones to drain your legs of the last vestiges of energy left after 6 hard days cycling.
The work begins soon after leaving Morzine with the climb to the col de l’Encrenaz (1,432m). Only 6km to climb, but 502m, meaning the average gradient is quite high at 8.4%. The first and last kilometres are at almost 11%. It’s a quiet, attractive road winding up through alpine pastures and then a forest.
A short descent brings us to a junction part way up to the col de la Ramaz (1,559m), from the south. This is the side the Tour de France descended in 2016. Expect several more long, steep pitches as the road zigs and zags sharply up the side of the mountain, in dark forest. The slope here is between 10% and 11%.If you can still appreciate such things, there’s a wonderful view from the summit.
The col du Feu (1,120m) is short but steep: 3km at 9.5%. A short descent leads to the final col (if not quite the final climb) of the Haute Route Alps 2017: the col des Moises (1,121m). Smaller than many others, there are still 8.5km to climb at 6.5%. Down the other side and it’s another 25km of road race up hill and down dale, round corners and through little villages until timing stops in Massongy.
We’ll then ride on to the lovely lakeside village of Yvoire to enjoy a well-earned beer and a bite to eat before the ceremonial parade into Geneva.
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