After sleeping at altitude in the resort of Les 2 Alpes, riders rode back into the valley to cross the first timing mat of the fourth stage of the Haute Route Alps and took on three ascents finishing at over 2,000 metres above sea level: Lautaret (2,058m), Izoard (2,360m) and Saint-Véran (2,030m), the highest commune in Europe.
On the start line this morning, Paula Borner from South Africa was looking forward to starting her fourth day of racing: “I feel good. Yesterday my legs were tired but I had a good sleep and I’m quite excited. In South Africa, we’re used to training at altitude so I think the elevation is fun. I studied the climbs last night so hopefully I’ll be alright. My goal for today is just to finish and enjoy the scenery. The scenery to me has been the most beautiful part of this entire trip.”
With the stage beginning in the opposite direction to yesterday, riders reached the Chambon dam and had the chance to look at the beautiful lake before starting the ascent up to Lautaret. At a 4.1% average over 25km, the ascent of the Lautaret is long and rolling and was a good warm-up for the riders.
Passing through La Grave in the ascent, riders could enjoy an impressive view on the snow-capped peaks of La Meije before riding down to the Serre Chevalier Valley. After a timing stop to cross Briançon, riders then headed to one of the most iconic cols in cycling, Izoard.
The ascent of Izoard from Briançon is considered the easiest ascent compared to the South side. Riders first climbed gently through the Cerveyrette gorges to reach the lovely town of Cervières. From the village, they paced themselves to climb the next 7km through the forest where the gradient does not drop below 8%. From the Napoléon refuge, they gave a final push to reach the summit at 2,360 metres above sea level.
At the feed station atop Izoard, Benoît Culiez from France said: “I love Izoard. I’ve always done the Haute Route Alps in the opposite direction from Nice to Geneva so it’s new for me. This side looked a little easier compared to the ascent from Arvieux.”
Riding his first Haute Route event this week, Krzysztof Szuder from Poland took time to reflect on his journey: “All these climbs are new to me. This is my first time in France on a bike. The Haute Route is a race but not only a race. You have to enjoy the beautiful weather, it’s perfect so we’re lucky. I also enjoyed the views. Every day is a bit different but it’s always beautiful. You suffer at the front but I always take a couple of minutes to look around and chat to the other guys.”
With a timing stop at the summit, riders took the time to refuel before heading down via the Casse Déserte. Crossing this lunar landscape, many riders, including the leaders, stopped to take photos in this mythical place. After a stage of mostly uphill and downhill, participants faced the third and last ascent of the day to arrive in the heart of Saint-Véran, the highest commune in Europe, at 2,040 meters above sea level.
Located in the Parc Naturel Régional du Queyras, Saint-Véran hosted today the peloton of the Haute Route Alps for the first time. After crossing the finish line, a few meters from the second highest observatory of Europe, Didier Stoeckli from Switzerland was glad to have spent a very beautiful day on the bike: “A sunny stage, wonderful. I had good legs so it was only pleasure today! My favourite ascent was the mythical Col d’Izoard, by its easier side. It is always a pleasure to pass by the Casse Déserte, and it is magnificent. Here in Saint-Véran, the last kilometre was steep but the village is really superb. It is very nice to ride through the charming village.”
He added: “For this week, it is all about having fun, and it was the case today. To prepare for tomorrow’s time trial, I will go to the cryotherapy. I have already done a few time trials, and I know the ascent as we climbed it last year on the Haute Route, it is a beautiful ascent.”
Unbeaten until today, Maria Camila Gianella from Brazil conceded the stage victory to Kacey O’Driscoll from Ireland but is getting closer to the title of winner of the Haute Route Alps 2018 that will be awarded in Nice in three days. In the Men’s category, Jean-Lou Paiani from France won his first stage but the Italian Carlo Fino keeps his first place in the general classification. In the Duo category, teams Brao Caffè - Unterthurner and McPherson remain unbeaten.
After a good meal and a well-deserved massage, participants took a bus to go to Risoul to attend the traditional safety briefing and enjoy a good night’s sleep to prepare for the individual time trial between Risoul and Guillestre tomorrow.