The final day of the Haute Route begins with a freewheel down the hill from Auron to the official start in St-Etienne-de-Tinée, and the beginning of an odd day. Of the riding total of 140 kms only about half will be timed, the first 32kms and last 23kms are neutralized, and there’s an odd 15km in there where we’re unmarshalled on public roads, it sounds confusing and bitty, it is.
We roll from the start in a peloton split into three groups for ease of on the road policing and cruise down the valley at a sedate pace, covering the brakes all the way, and for the first time in the week I’m actually cold, not going fast enough, pedaling even, to raise the blood and in the constant early-morning shadow of the hills that surround us it’s a job to keep warm and slipping into the sunshine for brief moments is the only thing that stops the shivering. Pretty as it is there’s not much time to look around as the peloton is pretty raggedy, it’s the final miles and people aren’t paying too much attention, the speed is slow enough for people to get fed up and sprint ahead of the controlling motorbikes, or peel off to stop for a piss by the side of the road before catching up again, so when we finally hit the climb of the Col Saint Martin and are let free from the neutralized part of the ride it’s a big sigh of relief as the mess strings out and we can pedal up into the warming sunshine.
At a measly 1500 metres high and a meandering 17km long this one hill of the day hardly registers after what we’ve climbed this last week although it’s not all plain sailing and last-day jollies for everyone, there’s a 4 second difference between two of the leading Pairs teams, after all that we’ve been through, a scant 4 seconds on the last day and racing down to the line. Excellent. The ascent of the Saint Martin is tapped off steady and chatting and you can feel we’re in a different place, the warmth has a depth to it, clinging sticky and luxurious on the lungs as opposed to the thin and weak oxygen soup of the mountains, and the place smells of green and life and not rocks and nothingness. Grabbing some snacks at the feed-station at the top seems hardly necessary and more out of habit and there seems to be plenty of time to enjoy the descent, not bothered about the time, last downhill of the trip, sunshine all the way to the sea, tralala, smiling like a halfwit as I thumb gently through the mental images of the week, both wonderful, reminding myself to look up and having my breath taken away again by the Galibier, and distressing, looking back and seeing that mess of flesh and metal in the crash. I’m woken up from my day-dreaming when I see a flash of red jerseys up ahead and put a spurt on to catch up so we can work together down the last bit of this headwind valley, yes, another headwind down the valley. It’s a couple of guys in London RC jerseys that I’ve exchanged brief banter with on the road over the last few days, we nod a hello of recognition and form a small working pack together.
One of the London riders is J.J., he’s a big lad and as soon as he gets on the front it’s a real struggle to keep up downhill, he weighs a good 20kgs more than me so has a large momentum benefit, he is also quite few inches taller with big levers for legs, essentially he’s built like a brick-shithouse with a massive diesel engine inside I and I have to pedal like an apoplectic hamster just to hold his wheel. So it’s no surprise that after a steady session of J.J. pounding on the front and me clinging on behind it doesn’t take long for him and I to find ourselves fighting the wind alone. As it’s the last day there’s no need to hold anything back and we’re on the rivet together, whenever the road levels off a bit I take a pull on the front and as soon as it steepens down again J.J. glides past and I hide behind his large wall.
In one of my brief stints on the front, blowing out my arse, I look briefly up and the road is full of car, an oncoming small white French hatchback is attempting to overtake an oncoming small blue French hatchback and there’s nowhere for us to go, to the right is a rock wall that we’re hugging already and the gap between the cars is taken up by their wing-mirrors, I keep pedaling, if I’m going to die I’m going to die as fast as I can. At the last second the overtaking car nips into a gap that isn’t there and we survive the moment with a small girly squeal of fear and delight. Here we are, both trusting the wheel of someone we’ve hardly know, even if that could lead to sudden death, we’d said hello when passing on the road and last night was the first time we’d actually had a reasonable chat together and now here we are inches apart, at the limit of our efforts together and it’s bloody glorious. We hit the valley floor at speed and keep on pushing to hold onto it, not daring to dip below 40kph into the wind, slingshotting round roundabouts raising a thankful right-hand at the marshals as we go, hoping we look impressive to the sprinkling of riders we pass. We ease up with only a couple of kms to go to the finish, if I’d have know I’d have kept on powering to the end, and we shake hands as we cross the line, left hand to right, do that sweaty manly hug thing and laugh with exertion and a forever friendship moulded from the experience. It’s only later as we’re cruising up the hill to the second finish that we get to talk properly and find out who each other is. This. Is. The. Haute. Route.
The end of the timed stage is on an insalubrious access road to an industrial estate next to a discarded lorry trailer. A bunch of riders are hanging around in the meagre shade of the trailer and a couple of Haute Route helpers are handing out random bottles of Evian, there is a rather oppressive and depressive air of “Is This It?” and it’s not how I pictured 700kms over the Alps ending really. But it’s not the end as we are directed to the real finish which is up the gentle hill to Vence, so we twiddle up the road chatting happily and we all stop when we crest the hill and the Mediterranean suddenly unfolds on the left. The last few kilometres into the town are psychologically hard, the body has crossed a finish line and just wants to stop, but we’re directed annoyingly circumspect around Vence to the central square where there’s a massive bike park and a second finish line to cross. A reassuringly chunky medal is hung around our necks and we receive our finisher’s jersey, which looks a little too much like a goalkeepers jumper. Hmmm, continental sports casual.
There’s a bit of time to kill before all the riders are in and we can regroup for the final stretch into Nice and prone lycra bodies are hiding in the shade of the tree bordered square and filling the surrounding cafes and bars for little food and drink congratulations. At a certain time the peloton reforms and is led by secured convoy into Nice, the final 23kms of road has been shut for our exclusive use, including one carriageway of the whole Nice seafront, this is a big deal then, a wonderful grand finale for the Haute Route. In reality it’s a slow tedious procession constantly on the brakes, traffic coming the other way honks its horns playfully at the parade of cyclists which is nice and fun but it’s hardly a swooping celebration of a week’s hard effort along the Nice promenade. But we turn left and all of a sudden we’re right alongside the impossibly blue Mediterranean, the road is lined with palm-trees and with a division of motorbikes up front the seafront is ours. The peloton grins in unison.
We are directed onto the Promenade des Anglais and the Haute Route is suddenly all over. There’s a brief pause for finish-line hugs and kisses and some run across the pebble beach and jump into the sea in full cycling kit for the final baptism of the Haute Route, then it’s back up to the prom to retrieve luggage and bike-bags from the melee and pack bikes for transport home. It’s not ideal stuffing bikes into cases on the pavement, in fact it’s needlessly stressful. It’s scorching hot, we’re wearing smelly and wet cycling gear, we’re a little bit tired, sweating onto pipe-lagging, bubble-wrap and allen-keys, getting in the way of the Niçoise just out for a wander along the prom and wanting to get to the beach.
The comedown from the Haute Route is swift, sudden and depressing.
I miss the official prize-giving as having a beer and some food with friends found on the road over the week seems more important, relevant even, but we make it up to the castle gardens for the finishing dinner and closing cocktails, where the view of Nice at sunset is another one that would be pretty romantic if there was anyone pretty enough to hold hands with. Wandering along the seafront towards a last goodbye drink before boarding the coach back to Geneva we notice that the departure area is a little bit frantic, the coaches and trailers are already being loaded with bikes and the drivers are having issues with those not in bags or boxes. Tempers are fraying and there’s an air of suppressed panic as things are eventually sorted, watching a set of Lightweight wheels, that’s Lightweight, not just lightweight, being shoehorned into the boot-space of a coach protected only by a duvet cover is not something I want to witness again. But then who buys a bike with Lightweight wheels and doesn’t spend money looking after it?
The hot and man-smelly overnight coach back to Geneva is no way to relax or try to grab some sleep or end such an amazing week on the bike, and snacks pillaged from motorway services not the most perfect celebratory meal either, and being dumped the next morning in the car-park close to where the start of the Haute Route was a week ago is awkward for those passengers who were expecting to be delivered to the airport. It takes a small amount of flapping, a bit of organizing, some pleading with the coach driver and a bit of a whip-round for some thank-you Euros to get him to drive on to the airport, where I run to make my flight with under five minutes to go.
And that, sadly, is it. An oddly acrimonious ending to an incredible time, like all the best relationships, but I think we can still be friends.