Mountains to Climb: Learnings from "The Toughest Amateur Bike Race in The World", Part 2

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Mountains to Climb: Learnings from “The Toughest Amateur Bike Race in The World”, Part 2

Posted by: Phil Kelly
Category: Articles

Our Founder and Managing Director, Phil Kelly, recently undertook the challenge of a lifetime, attempting the toughest amateur bike race in the world, ‘The 7-Day Haute Route Alps’.

Phil has documented his experience via Linked In, sharing his learning from competing on some of the biggest climbs in cycling and what it took to get him to the finish line.

In my last post, which you can find here, I tried to provide some context around this race and the situation I put myself in. I believe the lessons are easily translatable to all walks of life and I hope you can gain something from these lessons too.

Lesson 4: Do what YOU need to do to get to where YOU want to be.

I sometimes describe myself as a “happy helper”. If I can help in any situation, then I will certainly do so. Because of this, I had to mentally prepare myself for any situation during the race where I’d be “invited” to help others. I had decided that unless it was a physical injury to someone, I would have to crack on, as there were lots of support vehicles dotted throughout the race to help with punctures or to pick up the back markers who were struggling with the required cut-off times. I put this decision down to self-protection and self-care, putting my needs and wants first.

This decision really paid dividends on stage 3, when the heat was really beating down and bouncing off the road. My bike computer was reading 51 degrees at one point. This stage had the additional cruel element of passing by our hotels after two big mountain climbs before the final descent towards the last climb of the day, and yep, back to our hotels. The invitation to an early shower and swim in the pool was extremely enticing, but having committed to complete the whole route, off I went on the descent. Strangely, I only saw a couple of fellow racers over the next hour as we dropped down and then crossed the valley floor to the foot of the last climb, the mighty Alpe d’Huez. This is a climb that is 14km long, averages 8%, and has a vertical ascent of over 1100 meters. Tough on any day and a proper heart breaker.

The climb itself did not concern me. We had already climbed more difficult climbs during the week, well that was the story I was telling myself. I was more worried about the accumulative fatigue in the legs and, of course, the heat. I went alone to the foot of the climb, trying to find my rhythm while controlling my heart rate and effort. Suddenly, a memory popped into my head. On day 2, I was cycling next to an American lady who was chatting to a fellow competitor, and her words re-visited me: “Whatever you have to do to get to the top is just perfect!”. Of course, she was right, and this thought set me up beautifully for the next hour or so as I slowly trudged up the sweltering, mythical, switchback-laden side of a mountain, all alone.

It was not long before I passed some competitors who were really struggling in the heat. One guy had reverted to walking, another was scrambling for some shade on the side of the road, and another was sitting in a stream with his shoes and socks off. While I was very jealous of his cool bath, I was not tempted. I just wanted to get this mountain done. I had mentally broken the road down into 3km sections and agreed with myself that if I needed a micro-break to deal with the heat, I would take it then or at the next most suitable stop. Then, 2 kilometres into the climb, I spotted a water spring on the side of the road. I decided not to stop because I had a “plan”.

As soon as I made that decision, I regretted it. Without any further thought, I let my gut instinct take over, and I turned around and went to the spring. It was nestled in the shade of some large trees, so it was a fantastic opportunity to soak myself in cold water, take onboard fluids, and refill my bottles. As I sat there, two riders went past, literally having the same conversation about the spring that I had just had with myself. They decided to push on as it was “too early” for a stop. 20 minutes later, I passed them on the climb as they were absolutely baking in the heat, out of water, with no opportunities to replenish. The spring, as it turned out, was the first and last opportunity to take onboard fresh water for the duration of the climb. That single decision ensured I got to the top with a little time to spare and therefore stayed in the race because I had done what I needed to do to get to where I needed to be.

Lesson 5: Know your personal values and do your best to live by them.

The last and final stage was my favourite, not because we were almost done or that we had already completed the hardest stages of the race, but because I could start to relax, be myself, and think more of others on the bike. The time cut-offs on the climbs were more than achievable, so I felt more relaxed on the start line, so much so that I dropped right to the back at the start line as I wanted to take it all in.

On the first climb of the day, I managed to cycle with an American cyclist who had unfortunately crashed the day before and was clearly battered and bruised. I stayed with him for ten minutes or so and chatted with him to take his mind off his obvious pain. After giving him a little pep talk (always working!), I left him to it and started to move forwards. This climb led to the most beautiful descent into the foothills of the Italian Alps before starting the last climb of the whole race and a return to France. On this 12km climb of the event, I found myself cycling alongside Robert. He was the oldest competitor in the race, who was in his late 70s. Having abandoned a few stages, he was fatigued but determined to finish this last climb. You could see his willpower all over his face. On a flat section, he came past me as if to goad me into a race. He was super strong, and with 8 kilometres off the climb to go, I found myself glad I didn’t take the bait because just a couple of metres later, he slowed down and ended up right back next to me. I jumped in front of him and started to pace him up the climb at a sustainable pace. I could hear his breathing, so I knew if I was going too fast and to adjust my speed accordingly. With 3km to go, I heard him shout, “Go, Phil, Go!” as he wanted me to leave him in order to catch the group up the road and reduce my personal overall recorded time before we summited. I simply turned to him and shook my head. “Robert” I said, “we started this climb together; we’ll finish it together”. Just a few minutes later, we crested the very last climb of the race, and knowing that we had now completed the hard work, we stopped and had a hug in mutual respect and thanks.

What was left after the climb was a 40-kilometre descent into Nice to the finish line and the celebrations. Having joined a group of capable descenders including two legends, Matt and Andy from Cornwall, I managed to rattle through the last part of the race very comfortably, crossing the line at the Nice, receiving our medals, and collecting a beer. About 20 minutes later, I heard a huge cheer behind me. Curious, I walked over to the crowd to see what was going on. Through the gaps, I could see someone being hugged by about 10 people. They were promptly covered in a champagne shower, and as they wiped the champagne from their eyes and revealed their face, I realised it was Robert, finishing the race with the hero’s welcome he deserved! A proper food-for-the-soul moment and a fantastic way to finish for me on a personal level.


For the data people out here, the event in numbers:

  • 7 Days: Megeve -to Nice
  • Distance: 755KMs
  • Climbing: 20100+ Metres (or 2.5x Everest as somebody said last week…)
  • Hours: 40+ Hours
  • On-Bike Calories: 21000
  • On Bike Fluid Intake: Circa 70 Litres
  • Max Temp: 51 degrees
  • Mountains Climbed: 15
  • TSS: 2100

Overall, 25% of the entrants abandoned at least one stage of the race. This was no surprise considering we were competing in a region that was exercising extreme heat protocols for all workers, but huge kudos to those that got back on their bike the next day to try again.

For me, I had completed the race and achieved my goal. I did so by using some of the skills I use to coach my clients but also with the help and support of my family, friends and fellow competitors.

Is it the hardest amateur bike race in the world? It could well be, especially with the heat this year. It’s certainly works well for their marketing. If you compare it to other major cycling endurance events like the Race Across America, for which I was a support crew member in 2010 for a team of four from the RAF, they are completely different beasts (and certainly need very different budgets to access!). There is no doubt that the Haute Route Alps is very tough, and it makes you ask yourself many self-reflective and personal questions throughout the week. It was just the challenge—mentally and physically—that I was looking for.

Now, what’s next?

Author: Phil Kelly
An award-winning business owner and TED presenter, Phil lives and breaths performance. Having designed and delivered successful training packages across various industries worldwide, he now spends most of his time within business development and consulting. Phil Kelly
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