By Rebecca Richardson
The final push to the summit of Croix De Fer, nice and overcast. Stage 1 - 10.30am
Stage 1 - Thunder and lightning
On Croix De Fer I made all of the time in the last third of the climb, my power and heart rate graph show a rise in effort. I made almost all of the time gap to Hannah Saitch, third placed woman, on this final 8.86 km of the 23km climb. This correlates with the Strava leaderboards, I am higher up the leaderboard the higher up the climb. The course was shortened, so we turned around at the top rather than continue over to the next valley.
Allemont to Pas de la Confession, it started to rain and thunder. On the last climb of the day, I felt energized by the rain and cool weather, and my average power from the base of the climb was higher. I felt good on this climb, the length of riding uphill in a seated position is relentless though and nothing in Wales can match or simulate this constant riding position. The climb was two climbs really, the final section being Huez - Alpe D’Huez. On the pacing graph again, my power rose. I passed Hannah on the climb, and she then gave me something to race for. She attacked me on a short descent, but I managed to hold her wheel and on the final climb surged around her and put some more precious seconds between us.
At the end of stage one, cold and wet, but happy, I lay in 2nd position, NOMAN team in 1st, and overall, I was 20th of 226 finishers. Hannah lay only 4 minutes behind in 3rd position. Generally, my power over duration was 10% lower than in UK conditions. Altitude playing a part.
The final 17 minutes of the Croix De Fer. The average power was 226 W, while the altitude corrected power was 246 W. A difference of ~9%, meaning performance was in-line with sea-level bests.
A cold and wet finish on Alpe D’Huez - Stage 1- midday
Stage 2 - Death by Col De Sarenne
Team NOMAN Campaign - at the start line to Stage 2 - 8.30am
The next day was blue skies and sunshine. With only 68km of riding but 2880m of climbing. The stage started from the bottom of the valley to Alpe D’Huez from the town of Le Bourg D’Osians. The first timed section started immediately after a short 700m roll out and we would ascend the first five hairpins of Alpe D’Huez before turning right and down a narrow road that took us to the top of the beautiful “balcony'' climb.
My objective was to pace the climbs again, but try to retain and hopefully extend the time gap to third-placed woman, Hannah Saitch. I was anxious about getting stuck behind 226 riders trying to navigate a single-lane road, so opted to get as near the front on the first five hairpins. This resulted in an initial higher effort averaging 250w for 10 minutes.
My next objective was to get as much gap on the first timed climb along this narrow road to give me breathing space to ‘slip’ back on the long-timed descent. Although my descending has improved, it is still one area I could lose a lot of time on. After these two goals had been completed my plan was to relax back into a pacing schedule as per the day before. Generally, the plan worked, until I blew up on the last climb of the day.
On the descent, I lost time compared to general Strava leaderboards and Illi (the first woman) proved this point by descending over one minute faster than me across the 7.72km. However, I am very happy that I managed to descend safely. It was a steep descent with lots of broken road sections and damp corners under the trees. I also managed to hold off the main group of 200 riders behind me, it was an anxious descent!
Liam Holohan was instrumental in pacing the NOMAN team up climbs, his pace was relentless but gave me a wheel to focus on.
The next climb started on a steep back lane with a series of switchbacks to then join the main climb to another ski resort “Les Duex Alps”. I felt good initially, but at the junction to Les Duex Alps the heat of the day started to affect me, and power started dropping whilst my heart rate remained high at just sub-threshold.
A short break at the top of Les Deux Alps, an untimed descent and then the final main climb of the day and the highest at 2000m, Le Col De Sarenne. The climb started badly and continued to worsen, I struggled in the rising heat and altitude. The poor road surface and exposure to the sun sapped my energy. As I neared the top, I felt like stopping, an ongoing back pain issue surfaced as the relentless seated climbing position and tiring body started to tell. My power dropped whilst my heart rate sat at a solid sub-threshold. I was suffering and lost a lot of time on Col De Sarenne. The temperature rose to 30 degrees in the top section of this exposed climb. At a break in the timed sections I got off the bike and lay on the floor in child's pose to stretch my back out, it was agony!
Tired and hot having just crossed the finish line to stage 2 - 12.30pm
At the end of Stage 2, Hannah Saitch in 3rd managed to close the gap to me by 2minutes, which I can attribute to Col De Sarenne and the main descents. It shows how easily things can go from good to bad in Haute Route. Compared to other Strava segments I had ridden, I estimate I lost about 8 minutes on Col De Sarenne. My average power was lower and declined throughout the climb. It couldn’t have been a more contrasting day from Stage 1. Altitude, heat, and a bad back. Interestingly, my average power on the climbs was generally higher than stage 1, suggesting that I could have backed off a little on the first two climbs. The table below shows how I generally fared, with sub-par performance on the descent and last climb of the day.
30 degrees celsius on Col De Sarenne cracked me!
Stage 3 - Alpe D’Huez Hill Climb
A hill climb; this I know! All be it on a grander scale and with two days of fatigue in the legs. As today was about racing the clock, Liam and I could put a much firmer plan in place to tackle the stage. We’d done a lot of work for this specific effort and I knew starting out conservatively would be key. The previous women's Haute Route record was 59 minutes, and my benchmark was a sub-60min time.
To add to the suspense, Hannah Saitch set off 40 seconds before me, we both lay in the top 30 overall positions of 226 riders. I had a carrot, but would I catch her!
It took me a long time before I finally saw Hannah. It then took me until the very top of the climb to reach Hannah and then have some fun and sprint to the line, letting out the final bit of energy inside my legs. I certainly had faded during the event, only 47 seconds between myself and Hannah on the Alpe D’Huez climb.
Relief at finishing stage 3 and retaining 2nd place - Alpe D’Huez climb - 11am ish
I had been feeling nauseous for stages 2 and 3 and the day after I contracted a nasty tooth infection. Could this have played a part? I suspect it was more to do with the heat, I had ridden well on the first day when it was cooler, but I have always suffered in any heat about 18 degrees. I spent 3 months working in Malawi in 2010, I was seriously ill with heat exhaustion so much, so I was treated for Malaria, my symptoms are so alike. Despite our best efforts to acclimate in Wales, I’ve never been able to tolerate heat well.
Happily, I finished 2nd overall, Illi Gardner in 1st a whole hour ahead of me, and Hannah Saitch in 3rd only 3.5min behind. All women on the podium hailed from Wales. All women on the podium had beaten the previous Haute Route record up Alpe D’Huez, my time was 57 minutes. Illi Gardner set a new women's record for Haute Route up the climb at 49minutes. Whilst our power outputs were similar, I literally couldn’t contend with Illi’s very slight 49kg body weight (according to Strava and Zwift). Chapeau to all the women and men who completed the famously hard Haute Route Alps.
Team NOMAN Campaign - mixed team winners
NOMAN team picked up the mixed team prize, and the spirit of the event was very laid back, inclusive, positive and something I would love the opportunity to do again. Having the chance to ride it with the NOMAN Campaign team, and then some friendly competition with Hannah made the event all in all great and I was happy with my performance. The setting in the Alps was just unreal and in my head I am still there, looking out at the high mountain peaks.
The one and only sprint to the line - Stage 3 Alpe D’Huez