Hot Topics

Experiencing the Haute Route Alps

Shawn VanGassen handles the ups and downs of Haute Route Alps
Shawn VanGassen handles the ups and downs of Haute Route Alps
photos courtesy of Shawn VanGassen and Kimberly Tom

About a year ago, my girlfriend, Kim, and I stumbled across a documentary about the Haute Route, deemed the hardest cyclosportive event in the world. Pretty much after that, it was a preparation for something we knew we had to do. The race we decided to take on was the Alps route - nearly 73,000 feet of ascent over 550 miles and 7 days, covering France’s most iconic climbs between Nice and Geneva, Switzerland.

In prep for this, I decided to relax on racing and focus on harder, longer events. There are two aspects to this old school mentality that I have: 1) nothing prepares you better for a race than being scared you’re not prepared, and 2) spacing out longer events creates a good platform for yo-yoing your fitness multiple times. For me, I can focus on a target with local great events like the Belgian Waffle Ride, Filthy 50, Dirty Devil, and the San Diego Grand Fondo, all of which I did to create a solid base in preparation for what I knew would be something just as hard or harder. This year was a little unique as the RAAM Challenge Series was something to add to that list - over 200 miles and nearly 19,000 feet of ascent in mountains I know very well. By completing this list, along with multiple 100+ and 150 mile rides, I knew I’d be prepared, or simply, at a minimum, I’d understand the pain.


"Nothing prepares you better for a race than being scared you’re not prepared."



The day had come. after all the travel, lack of sleep, stress and frustration due to all of the above. The bikes were built and we were riding them in France. Before the race, we had a few days to ride and sort out the odds and ends. The first day was a short ride from Nice to Monaco where we rode the Formula 1 circuit – bucket list for sure.

On the second day, we planned a bigger ride with climbing to warm up to the idea of climbing all day for the week still to come. We headed to the Madone – you know, the one your Trek bike is named after – famous for pre-Tour de France fitness testing done by the pros, and we put ourselves to the test. It was a medium-long climb with great views and a fun descent. Looking back, it was one of the easier climbs that we would do.

Arriving in Nice with bike boxes in tow Shawn and Kim pinned up for Haute Route Alps
Arriving in Nice and preparing for day 1

The day before the race was all about getting registration and race details squared away: packet pick-up, bike case drop-off, etc. (In case you’re wondering, the Haute Route organization looks after all the details from start to finish. So, during the race we only had to ride, eat, sleep and repeat.) We didn’t have a chance to ride on that Sunday before the race started, however, if you can, make sure you always ride the day before an epic event. I’ve found over the years that your legs are better for it and you stay fresh.



Game On!

Day 1: Nice - Pra Loup

» 172km, 3700m ascent. Major climbs: Ascros, Cayelle, Pra Loup

As Kim and I lined up, it was fun, exciting, nervous, but for us, and I think like others, also relief that we made it to the start. The better part of me thought I should just do what I could do at my own pace. Well that lasted all of the neutral roll out! Within 3 kilometers, yes, 3 kilometers, I was put in my place and quickly understood where I belonged. Prior to the event, you really have no idea where you belong in the peloton. Using experience and knowing how I’d ridden prior, I was more than happy to just feel out day 1 after my early scolding.

The route each day had an average of three large climbs with anything from hilly to flat terrain connecting them. (All the climbs are timed with timing chips over mats and the majority of the downhills were not timed.) By the last climb, I had regained my legs - it took until nearly mile 100 of about 117 total miles for the day, but I found them.

Here is where my prior training had paid off. Being old school, I don’t use all the modern training techniques such as FTP and TSS, but thanks to my teammate Josh and all of our debilitating long rides, I’d have the legs to get me up the final climb each day due to my endurance. Day 1 done!

Kim was not far behind and soon we would feel sorry for ourselves together – sad but true! (The Haute Route provides a truly “pro” experience: volunteers manned at every, yes, every intersection and roundabout on the route so you never get off your bike except when nature calls or you stop at an aid station; race village including mechanic services from Mavic, daily post ride meal and massage; race briefing each evening; along the course is a constant procession of race vehicles including safety motos, Mavic cars, Lantern Rouge riders in red kits, and the broom wagon, which I thankfully never saw.)

Day 2: Pra Loup - Col de Granon
Day 3: Serre Chevalier - Alpe d’Huez

» 128.2km, 3700m ascent. Major climbs: Vars, Izoard, Granon
» 110.7km, 3200m ascent. Major climbs: Lautaret, Sarenne, Alpe d’Huez

After getting the hang of this on one long day, I realized days 2, 3, 4 would be completely ridden within my limits. For me, the strategy was a heart rate of 160-170 bpm, which gives me about 20 beats to spare and 30 beats extra if I were to blow sky high. Days 2 and 3 were medium distance, under 140 km, and the day 3 finish was in Alpe d’Huez.

Day 4: Bourg d’Oisans - Alpe d’Huez

» 15.4km, 1135m ascent. Major climbs: Alp d'Huez time trial

Day 4 was a time trial up the famous 21 switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez. I rode the TT steady but solid. What does that look like? Well, I rode just about half as fast as Marco Pantani.

Day 5: Alpe d’Huez – Megeve

» 184km, 4600m ascent. Major climbs: Glandon, Madeleine, Saisies

Day 5 was the queen stage and I was hoping all of the tricks – riding easy, eating good, resting – and experience of 28 years would pay off. I was going to need it for three of the biggest climbs of the week and the longest day. Another aspect to look for is eating. You need to eat and be fueled each day. You also need adequate time prior to starting to digest and, well, have a normal morning, if you know what I mean. In prior days, I found I was eating too much too close to the start. For four days that worked ok, but for day 5 I wanted to start a little light, so cold pizza was it. I can eat anything in the morning, so I was able to digest and be light for the start.



I ended up having a great day, staying near the front and finishing top 60. The finish line was the actual finish line for that day of the Tour de L’Avenir, pretty cool!



Day 6: Megeve - Morzine

» 145km, 3400m ascent, major climbs: Epine, Columbiere, Joux Plane

Day 6 the tank was empty and best to look forward to day 7, the final short, punchy stage from Morzine to Geneva.

Day 7: Morzine – Geneva

» 140km, 2600m ascent, major climbs: Encrenaz, Ramaz, Feu, Cou

For me, this was my greatest chance to ride my best – not have my best result, but put my abilities together, as the descents were timed and I could take advantage of one of my strengths. The day consisted of five climbs of about 7km each that were not that steep. I made it to the finish, got some Strava trophies, and was more than glad to be done!

Shawn's Bike Stats: Masi Evo carbon frame, 36-30 gearing (next time 34-30!!!), alloy clinchers

Shawn's Haute Route Stats: 28 hours 35 minutes 59 seconds, 79th place overall in a field of 300+, 27th place in the 40-49 age category.

I highly recommend giving this race a shot. For the love of the sport, to honor the sport, and all the tradition you realize that your tires are riding over makes it all worthwhile! Kim would add: for the beautiful scenery (she enjoyed herself and stopped to take pictures) and to eat all the croissants and pain au chocolat you want as you burn all those calories – well, that’s not a bad motivation either!


Gran Fondo Success: 8 Tips to enjoy and finish the ride
Remember, a Gran Fondo is not necessarily a race – it is generally a mass participation ride over a long distance where the aim is often to simply finish or finish within a certain time... READ MORE


Adventure Riding: How-to ride in exotic countries
Adventure Riding: How-to ride in exotic countries
There is no better way to see exotic countries then from the seat of your bike. BikeRoar gives you some inside tips on how you can properly plan for the trip of your life... READ MORE



Got a question?

ASK (and ANSWER) in our NEW Rider's Forum!

Check It Out 
Now comparing:
    Clear all