The final day

Henry Stewart
03/09/2016

The final day of the Haute Route arrives. We are in a delightful chalet with a view of the peak of Mont Blanc out of our window. Weirdly again I couldn’t sleep and got all of four hours before the 4.45 wake up call. Yes, that’s right – before five o clock. Today should be easier if only because we are coming down from ski resort to Geneva.

But there is still 2,500 metres of climbing, including col de Aravis, Col de Colombière, Col de Terramont and Col de Cou. As we climb the Colombière I am told “where our wheels are now, just three weeks ago were those of the Tour.” It was the stage excitingly won by the Columbian rider Jarlinson Pantano, out-sprinting Polands’ Rafal Majka at the finish line.

As we start the ascent of Aravis, I am feeling strong. I overtake a few riders and find myself going past Jason, whose wheel I couldn’t hang on to yesterday. I am back in my favourite gear and actually going up a couple of kph faster. Perhaps my legs “have arrived”, as others say here. I begin to wonder if I can make it to the top 350 on today’s timings.

With 4 km to go I spot our Unitarian vicar. “Nathan, how about some philosophical discussion to get us to the top?”. “Henry, I need to breathe” is the response. Are cyclists divided between those who like to talk their way up a mountain and those who don’t?

I arrive at the top 12 minutes ahead of cut-off and consider going straight past the feed station, as others are. But I remind myself to hydrate. I still haven’t really got the hang of drinking enough on the bike, so my solution is to drink the best part of a litre of water at every feed station. I know the advice is regular sips but this seems to work for me and, as the stations are at the top of the cols, my stomach settles on the way down.

The descent is fabulous as 10 of us head down through the trees at 30 to 35 mph, braking for the frequent bends. At the start of the week I would have been terrified by this pace but not now. I expect those at the front are going a fair bit faster.

In the valley I find myself on the wheels of Anton and Jeffrey, two French riders who talk non stop while effortlessly heading up the valley at 20mph. On a roundabout my pedal scratches the tarmac and for one scary moment I think I’m coming off. “Stay safe, dude” I say to myself, remembering the words of Shane, one of the other riders. I eventually drop off and am rather disturbed to see a local French farmer head past me on an old crock of a bicycle – until I notice the electric battery on the back.

I am alone. Well, a bit of mountain solitude is okay, I guess. I climb along the edge of a 500 ft precipice, a stunning rocky gorge. I am getting hooted a bit by passing cars but no way am I going near that edge, with just a half-metre wall.

Just as I am feeling I am slipping, along comes Francisco, my Brazilian friend from yesterday. We chat our way to the top, this is definitely my way to climb. There is now just one col to go, and it is only 174 metres of ascent, not even three Muswell Hills (my local 70m climb in North London). Touch wood, we have done the Haute Route.

It is over soon and we are heading down at speed. At the bottom, with a few km left to go, Francisco gestures to me to get on his wheel. When I do he heads off at an amazing speed, getting us to the finish (a slight descent, but not much) again at around 30mph.

We have completed the “highest and toughest cycling sportive in the world”. The timed section is over. We have cycled 500 miles, climbed 21 Tour de France cols and ascended 22,000 metres. And I feel great. My legs definitely arrived today. I’d almost like to continue tomorrow! What seemed totally crazy when we signed up 10 months ago, indeed when I was sat by the roadside on Sunday afternoon: somehow I’ve done it.

I am surprised to find I arrived 1 hour 50 minutes ahead of cut-off and am listed at no 341 out of 413, my best performance of the week.

We head off for lunch and ice cream in the charming walled village of Yvoire and then the whole group of four hundred riders head in one single convoy on the 25 km along the lake to Geneva, crossing into Switzerland as we go.

Wow. Just wow.