Stage 6 of the 2019 Haute Route Alps departed Briançon on Friday morning along the rushing Durance River, swollen from the previous night’s thunderstorms. The 104-kilometre stage would feature three substantial challenges: the small climb through Pallon, the major ascent of the Col de Vars, and the more moderate final climb to the finish at Pra Loup.
With a slightly downhill rollout from Briançon, riders had a chance to spin the early morning start out of their legs before being turned loose to race to the day’s first challenge, the short climb past Pallon. Knowing the descent would be untimed, the race for the summit was intense because time gains would be recorded even if riders regrouped before the start the Col de Vars.
The town of Guillestre is a crossroads for cyclists, well known as the departure town for riding the south side of the Col d’Izoard. Leaving town in the other direction, the Col de Vars rises from the valley, steeply at first, before mellowing in the middle and kicking up again for the final seven kilometres.
Cresting the Col de Vars, riders were rewarded for their efforts with a twisting and exhilarating descent for several kilometres, followed by more than 20 kilometres of gradually-descending valley roads where it was advantageous to ride with a group.
Simon Jones got into a group to his liking: “In the group on the way down it was really good. We made the bottom section very fast, and then before you know you it you were at the bottom of the next climb. Very good. I can’t wait for the finish in Nice, and it’s not long now. I was a bit worried, but now I am enthusiastic.”
Sometimes, things don’t work out as well as they did for Simon. “It went well on the Col de Vars but then I didn’t managed to stay within a group on the descent and in the rolling section afterwards,” said Olivier Perrin. “So I rode on my own against the wind before reaching the foot of Pra Loup.”
Walking to his massage appointment, he continued, “Every day I am tired, my legs are sore and I think I cannot do it again; but then I do, and I think the daily massage helps. This is my first time and the organisation is awesome, with the marshals, volunteers, and the massage team. We are a small group of 525 riders, and it’s like a big family.”
Perhaps no part of the peloton is more collaborative and supportive than the back of the pack. “The back of the field is the happiest place in the race. It’s where the most smiles are, I think,” said Lanterne Rouge Ben TK. “You see the fast riders at the front, and that’s impressive. There are people who are comfortable in the middle, and the riders really putting themselves through it are the ones in the back. Just the sheer grit to get through these and keep on making the time cut, it’s really something.”
Asked how he spends his days in the red cycling kit, Ben explained, “I ride hard for the first hour, and then start slipping back, sit in the feed stations a bit longer, and then hook up with the folks in the back about halfway through. You have to know the course, know where the feed stations are, and know where people are going to need some help. So today, that bit from the bottom of the Col de Vars descent through the valley to the bottom of the climb to Pra Loup, I wanted to be there to gather people up into a group, ride nice and steady, and get them to the feed station and on to the climb.”
With just one more day to come, the peloton can start to sense the final finish line in Nice just over the horizon. The end of a 7-Day Haute Route can be bittersweet. “I mostly race triathlons and traditional road races,” said Joe Emmerling. “I feel like people here are looking out for each other more. You don’t have this ‘me against you’ mentality, it’s more of an ‘us together’ mentality.”
Joe’s friend, Jeff Mahin, added, “The group of people I’ve been riding around, we didn’t know each other before, but we’re all buddies now. We go to dinner every night, follow each other on Strava. Cycling is really good because you make friends with people because you suffer together.”
Stage 7 of Haute Route Alps is certain to deliver a bit more suffering before the elation of reaching the seaside finish in Nice. Stage 7a takes riders over the giant climb of the Cime de la Bonnette, the highest summit of the event at 2802 metres above sea level. Following the untimed descent to Saint-Etienne de Tinée, riders will regroup and refuel, then start again as a complete peloton for Stage 7b, which takes rides over the Saint Martin climb before an up-and-down approach to the end of timing. From there it’s an 18-kilometer cruise to the seaside finish along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice to collect finisher medals and celebrate at the Closing Ceremony.