Those of you in the business world are familiar that the month of August is a vacation here in Europe. The 15th of August is the icing on August’s cake as it’s a bank holiday across the continent. Rest assured that my understanding is a bit foggy, but from what I gather it’s basically “We’re halfway through August, let’s party.”
Which would explain why the cities in which we start and finish, plus the villages through which we race here at Haute Route Pyrenees are ghost towns. Moreover, today being August 15, there’s literally no one out and about or lining the roads as we snake up and down the spectacularly craggy Pyrenees. That is, right up until we started summiting the lengthy and legendary Tourmalet where, like an oasis, thousands of people were hiking, biking, photographing, and auctioning sheep at the base of the Tourmalet. Yes, auctioning sheep. Allow me to explain.
Please let me come clean with you for a minute. As I alluded to in the first post, I have a penchant for riding my bike. Often I like to pedal fast, especially when I have a number pinned on my back. That said, even though there are former pros and the most hard-charging of all hard-charging individuals here in France, there aren’t any of my former ProTour colleagues here*. As a result, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I do feel the tiniest bit odd “racing” the Haute Route.
I continue to ride, admittedly, a lot. I continue to love riding and that’s one of the reasons I decided to retire at a relatively young age. That is, I’ve seen countless professional cyclists be forced to end their career at roughly the same time because of sickness or injury or simply not earning a subsequent year’s contract, whereupon their bike lays dormant in the garage for years on end before even considering seeing the light of day. I wanted to hang it up while still enjoying the sport that I love and has given me so much.
That said, I’ve long since given up intervals and any semblance of formal training. I ride because I love to ride, I ride easy when I want to ride easy, I ride hard when I want to ride hard. I have long weeks and short weeks, I ride when I want to ride, and take time off when I want to take time off, and I let the bigger picture of life dictate my riding schedule.
So fast-forward to just three days ago as I found myself at the start of Haute Route Pyrenees with 350 incredibly pumped up cyclists from around the globe. There are overall prizes, there are daily awards, there are no shortage of timed sections, ergo bragging rights galore, and as a result it’s most certainly a stage race. Please friends, let there be no confusion: everyone comes here to race.
Therefore while I milk an iota of residual fitness from back in those days when I was a professional, I no longer train; I ride my bike. (I also eat way more, look at a scale way less, and basically make up for lost time at the dinner table. Translation: my straight-to-weight ratio is no longer ProTour). For that reason, I’m entirely serious when I say that my win on stage one was chiefly thanks to that marginal fitness plus an iota of luck, and a win on stage two was entirely through making it over the Aubisque and Marie-Blanque by the skin of my teeth and the descending prowess gleaned through a decade of being paid to ride a bike fast, both uphill and down. However, here in the heart of the Pyrenees on stage three, I was amid the lead group of six riders, perhaps eight kilometers from the top, I was breathing as though I were atop Everest, I was angrily ruing the small mountain of steak tartare from two night’s prior, washed down with a beer or three, and it was right as I reached the sheep auction that I thought… no thank you.
I consciously let the wheel in front of me go and I was immediately happier than I had been all day. I meandered up taking photos and videos as I climbed. I talked to dozens of other cyclists, those on the Haute Route and those just doing the climb, And I hung out at the top with friends before descending to the finish.
It is August 15. And I’m on vacation, after all.
*Two time US national champ and my friend Matthew Busche took home the overall win at Haute Route Rockies earlier this summer, which is the only result I’ve ever known about in any Haute Route. Now having experienced Haute Route, I know unequivocally, that’s an enormous achievement. Hat’s off to Matthew.