After riding several gran fondos this year, the Haute Route Dolomites was planned as the main course of the season. Years ago I had heard of this stage race held in the highest mountains of Europe. The 5-day event through the Italian Alps and Dolomites appealed to me the most given the beautiful surroundings with epic climbs like the Stelvio and the Gavia. This edition at the end of August, beginning of September also fits best in the family program. That it would be this beautiful I had not dared dreaming beforehand...
I knew the Haute Route from the Netflix documentary Icarus (must see!) but also from several gran fondo top riders who had ridden it before and were very enthusiastic. At the beginning of this year, I had never ridden a stage race with an overall classification. I have prepared myself together with my training partner Rutger for this by riding a 3-day race in Switzerland, the Engadin Radmaraton. That went very well (1st place in the Master category) but was in terms of elevation and distance a bit less than any Haute Route stage. As a Dutchman at sea level there is nothing else but to train a lot on the Tacx. I use the FulGaz app for this. I have been able to explore various Haute Route climbs (such as the Stelvio, the Gavia, Falzarego and also the final climb of the Tre Cime de Lavaredo) in 4k image quality.
The full-service concept of Haute Route did appeal to me. They take everything off your hands so you can focus on racing. The transport of luggage between the starting points, massages, food, briefings, mechanics and so on is taken care of. It is the closest thing to riding a week in a grand tour like the Tour or Giro, including the same hotels and routes. The start was in isolated Bormio at 1,225 meters, which is not easy to reach. It easily takes 12 hours because you have to cross a number of passes. Upon arrival, we report to the Haute Route village where all facilities come together. The registration goes smoothly and you can see that they can easily handle the approximately 360 participants. You will receive here, among other things, your race bag, travel bag and finish bag. There will also be a (mandatory) rider's briefing.
Photo: excitement at the start.
The alarm at 05h20 because the start is at 07.30 and you want to have eaten well. Breakfast in all the hotels is arranged for the participants from 05h30. That coffee tastes good here! We look around us in the breakfast room and we see some fast men, we think. That will be something today! Do I have to change my goal, top 10 overall and podium in the 40+ category?
Today we're going up the Stelvio twice after a neutralized start. The legs feel good and I can feel the tension. The plan was to stay in front from the start. The start goes well, the first kilometers I'm riding directly in front on the first kilometers of the Stelvio towards the Umbrailpass. The peloton thins out slowly the longer the climb takes. The wattage slowly increases towards 350 watts and I bite into the wheel of the person in front of me. When I've kept this up for about 20 minutes I look around and see that there is no one behind me anymore and only an Italian (Piero) and a Spaniard (Marco) are still in front of me. I know that the pace of the two gentlemen (very slim and small in stature, in their 20s and 30s, different category) is too high for the whole climb. So I let them walk slowly and start running my own pace.
All out on the Stelvio.
About 4 kilometers before the top of the Umbrail Pass (border with Switzerland), Alex, a twenty-something from New Zealand, is in my wheel. We alternate several times on a flatter part of the Stelvio. Towards the top of the Umbrail pass, where the timekeeping in the department is off, I accelerate to gain some time to hold on to the 3rd position. This works and I pick up half a minute in the official timekeeping.
After a crisp descent, the hotter climb of the Stelvio begins from Prato. This is the longest and toughest climb with the finish on top. What an epic beast this Stelvio is. 48 hairpins and there seems to be no end to it. I do get into my rhythm and eventually let go of Piero and Marco, who I could follow for a while after the neutralization. Alex is now in my wheel. My pace is almost his pace, although halfway up the Stelvio I run a little further on him. The last 8km everything burns, it's fresh but I'm hot. With 1km to go I give everything and fly over the finish line 3rd and 1st in my category, super!
Photo: full gas with Alex in the wheel.
The alarm clock is on 05h20 again. Transfer luggage is ready because we arrive in Trento after the race. I am nauseous at breakfast and have no appetite, this is not a good sign. Still managed to get something in with reluctance. At the start of the race it was off to the Gavia. The big peloton was quickly discharged and there remained a group of 4 men. This is the top 4 of yesterday with myself at that moment on p3. Pretty soon I decide to ride my own pace. I let the other 3 (Piero, Marco and Alex) go. I soon see Alex dropping in front of me from Piero and Marco but he is clearly fighting to take time on me, as he had 1 minute and 2 seconds behind me in the classification. In the last kilometer of the Gavia I just lost that lead and the battle for 3rd place is completely open. However, on the competitors in my category I catch again some minutes.
Photo: with 4 men on the Passo Gavia. Rick in last position.
After a freezing cold and neutralized descent of the Gavia, a group of 15 frontrunners converged in Ponte di Legno. During the climb of Passo Tonale, this group stays together; the climb quite gradual and attacking is not an option. The weather is getting warmer as we head towards Passo Predaia and we ride through a beautiful valley with apple orchards, it's really beautiful here. At the start of the climb they accelerate immediately and the top 3 is gone. I ride at my own pace. I come in as 4th in the general classification and have strengthened my 1st position in the category by about 8 minutes. Quietly we ride the last 50km and group to the hotel in Trento. It's about 30 degrees Celsius there and wonderfully warm compared to Bormio, which is a bit fresher. Tomorrow the time trial on the Monte Bondone, so given my position in the general classification that means sleeping in!
Photo: the Gavia, just epic....
Sleeping in until 8am was what I needed! The time trial from the starting block at the bottom of Monte Bondone (+/- 18km at 7.7%) is organized so that every 20 seconds a rider starts and the top 5 riders every 2 minutes. My strategy was simple: run for over an hour at maximum and start thickly above my FTP. I feel strong and have to hold back somewhat. I keep up the pace. I finish 4th overall and 1st in my category and pedal for an hour at over 5 watts per kilo, a personal record!
The top 4 of the general classification is now reasonably certain. I lost time on Alex (p3) who rode a very strong time trial and the number 1 and 2 were themselves 5 minutes faster and rode one of the fastest times ever ridden on the Bondone. The level is high.
Photo: the Monte Bondone, the setting of the time trial.
Today we'll ride from Trento to Cortina. A stage with about 3500 meters of elevation, climbing all day with (amongst others) the Passo San Pellegrino (of that famous water) and Passo Falzarego. At breakfast I feel a lot better. The day of the time trial felt like a rest day. Let's see how the legs are today! After a long quiet start it's clear; the top of the classification doesn't feel like attacking. Also the number 1 and 2 don't want to ride on the front for a second when someone does try to attack.
Photo: the complete field has been torn apart.
The rest of the leading group then also doesn't ride so this offers opportunities! About 30km from the finish Alex (3) smells his chance and attacks and I follow as the only one. The two of us ride head over head over the first 10 reasonably flat kilometers and then start the 20 km long Falzarego with the finish on top. The race direction tells us that we have a gap of more than 5 minutes on the chasers with number 1 and 2. This motivates me! We keep on riding although I notice that on the steep parts Alex is better than me. We ride together until the finish and we cross the finish line as 1 and 2, what a great day! For Alex and me it wasn't enough time to move up in the classification, but it was a nice experience.
Photo: it doesn't get much prettier.
When the alarm goes off, I feel a kind of euphoria: the finish is in sight and it has gone splendidly. Only 4 passos left today, including the dreaded Tre Cime de Lavaredo. At the first climb of the Falzarego (other side than yesterday) the peloton remains calm and only in the last 3 kilometers it falls apart. The timed descent is fast, even so fast that I later grab a KOM on Strava. The number 2 in the classification makes a slip but fortunately remains unharmed and can continue his way. I ride in third position towards the climb of the Passo Giau. On this climb I finally finish as 4th, I like it but I didn't want to blow myself up thinking about what's going to happen next.
Photo: with a big group through the valley.
On the Cimabanche it stays together for a long time before the number 3 breaks away. He knows the two leaders don't want to ride the flat sections. This works and together with his teammate he gains time towards the final climb. I hesitated to catch up but my legs felt tired and the distance in the general classification was too big. My 4th place overall and 1st in my category pretty much safe today. The climb with finish atop the Tre Cime de Lavaredo is a special one. You start with only moderate gradients only to have to deal with an average 12% gradient for the last 3km with peaks in the 18% range. I had prepared for this and was able to keep my pace. What a great feeling to see that finish line crawling closer between the iconic rocks. Yes, in as 4th overall and 1st in the category!
Photo: victory in my age group!
In the evening, there's a closing ceremony and dinner at the Haute Route village. Get that Prosecco flowing! The local caterer from Cortina d'Ampezzo had been given a good budget for the most beautiful meals and everyone goes all out. You can eat and drink again without considering what it will do to tomorrow's performance, quite a nice feeling after months of training. The extensive Haute Route organization team with riders, race directors, masseurs, etc. also joins in and the room is filled with about 500 people. Riders look back on epic experiences and it is super cozy. All winners are honored and a beautiful summary movie is also shown.
As category winner you win a nice package of local specialties; saves shopping for gifts for home! I look back on the best and toughest cycling week ever, what a cool experience!