Mountains to Climb: Learnings from "The Toughest Amateur Bike Race in The World", Part 1

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Mountains to Climb: Learnings from “The Toughest Amateur Bike Race in The World”, Part 1

Posted by: Phil Kelly
Category: Articles



Our Founder and Managing Director, Phil Kelly, has just returned from an incredible “holiday” (we’re not convinced you could call it that!) where he took part in 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:

Just over a week after returning from this event, I have tried to make sense of it so have spent some time reflecting and writing down my experiences. Hopefully you can take something from it, just like I have.

The first and most frequent question I got asked after entering the race was, “Why?”

As is often the case, the answer is not straightforward. Having battled COVID in 2021 and COVID and pneumonia in 2022, I knew that when I felt physically well again, I needed a personal goal to focus on to stretch me mentally and to create some positive fitness improvements.

After some research, I decided to enter the 7-day Haute Route Alps, described as the hardest amateur bike race in the world. It takes place in August in the French and Italian Alps, with over 400 entrants. It covers 755 km and over 20,000 metres of climbing over the mountains made famous by the Tour de France. We would summit 15 mountain passes during the week and would be faced with the usual unpredictable high mountain weather systems and strict cut-off times. A plan was a must!

Finding the time to juggle all of life’s challenges with a training programme that was fit for purpose was always going to be difficult. The ideal preparation would have been to go and live in the Alps for a few months and complete 20–30 hours of training per week, but this was unrealistic, although a lot of my fellow competitors did exactly that and, indeed, treated this event as their very own Tour De France. My goal had to be more reasonable than that, especially being a short, stocky, fast-twitch Welshman! I am not exactly designed to go uphill fast like some of the competitors, who weigh 30–40% less than me and are half my age!

My goal was quite simply to finish each day and, therefore, finish the race and not miss a cut-off time. This, I thought, was achievable, and with a consistent and free-flowing training programme since the spring and regular advice from cycling coaches and friends Jo Tindley and Dean Downing throughout the summer, my fitness improved. Over time, my confidence grew. I had this.

Then, two weeks out from the start date and after a busy week of travel with work, I woke up with a sore throat and headache. Covid had struck again. The last time I had COVID, it had hung around for a couple of months, taking up residence in my lungs and taking a month to clear with medication, so, as you can imagine, things were not looking good for me to even get to the start line, never mind complete the event!

After 48 hours of being laid up in bed, I started to feel a little better. I set about doing everything I could to regain strength. I was determined to get to that starting line. A few days later, I tested negative, and the sudden rushes and crashes of energy started to become less harsh. All eyes were now on getting to the starting line feeling as strong as possible. Riding the bike was out of the question; I couldn’t risk a physical setback, so I focused on equipment checks and ensuring I packed everything that would help me achieve my goal.

I made it to the start line in Megeve (just), and that is where the real adventure began! I had to contend with not knowing how my body would react to the altitude, the physical exertion, and, would you believe it, a heatwave of over 40 degrees!

Lesson 1: When you’re up against it, take a step back, break things down, and set to work in a logical order.

There were so many examples of this lesson throughout the week that it could easily be a standalone post. My aim when arriving in Megeve (less than 24 hours before the first stage) was to slowly get settled in, unpack, get my bike sorted, and go for a slow walk to assess my heart rate at altitude. What I didn’t expect was for my accommodation (booked by the event organisers) to be a mile away and uphill all the way, including a 20% incline. It was 42 degrees, I had four big bags of kit, and there were no shuttles or taxis available. Others were staying in hotels fifty metres from the event village, which led me to literally laugh out loud: “Of course I’m staying up there. I thought the challenge was starting tomorrow!”

It wasn’t the walk I was concerned about; it was the unnecessary waste of energy that, arguably, I didn’t have to spend. I trudged off, still laughing and looking like a drowned rat, as the heat beat down on me. My thoughts turned to what I could have done differently. Could I have come out a day or two earlier to get settled in? Could I have researched the allocated hotels better and pre-booked a taxi? Control the controllables and all that.

At this exact point, just as I started the steepest point of the walk (heart rate through the roof), a car slowly pulled up beside me. To be fair, I was taking up most of the lane as I was traversing to pick off the least steep route, so I deserved a “move over” from the driver. Instead, what I got was, “Want a lift?”

“Legend! Yes, I would bloody LOVE one! Thank you!”

It never ceases to amaze me that when you are faced with challenges in life, sometimes the solution can just appear in front of you. For this to happen, though, you must take action yourself – you must move to change the picture you currently see so that other options come into view. Life is not fair, and it isn’t perfect, and one of the most important questions you can ask yourself when faced with a challenge is “So, what am I going to do about it?”.

I chose to walk, and it worked out okay. It was not ideal, but it was okay, and sometimes that’s enough to move you forward towards where you want to be.

So, Having got to the start line it was time to go to work and see what this event had in store for me.

Lesson 2: The Power of Perspective is Unlimited

When you have past experiences to lean on, and friends, family or colleagues to provide some perspective, sometimes the tough times can become remarkably less tough. I can honestly say that at no point during the event did I think about quitting. The organisers would have had a good battle to get me to climb off my bike if I had fallen behind the time cut-off. There were, of course, tough times—hard climbs and unrelenting heat—but I didn’t feel like these would break me. My wife would say it’s because I’m stubborn, but it’s much more than that.

When I was faced with a particularly tough period, I found my thoughts wandering off to different people in my life who inspire me. I regularly thought of friends who are no longer with us who would have loved to be riding by my side. It was MY choice to be here, so I just needed to do my best and enjoy it, advice I regularly give to my clients.

In 2022, I had the great pleasure of spending a day with the legend that is David Smith MBE (go check him out!). His story is so inspiring, and his impact on me has been profound. We have stayed in touch, and I follow his journey as he fights every single day for a better quality of life. Dave is a phenomenal athlete. Last summer we went for a ride around the Chilterns for a corporate ride out with another sporting icon, Ed Clancy OBE. Dave rode with one functioning leg amongst many other injuries.

Not once did I hear Dave moan or complain; he was just delighted to be out riding his bike in a group and chatting to great people. He won’t know this, but he was there on my shoulder for the “tough times” of this event, and he helped me get through them with a huge amount of perspective. Even with the uphill walk to the hotel I mentioned above,  I heard Dave’s voice in my ear say, “At least you have the option to walk, mate!”.

What a legend! Thank you for all you do, Dave!

Working off the facts, my situation was quite simple: I was riding my bike along some of the most beautiful roads in the world. I had the sheer privilege of being part of an organised event that provided so much of what we needed to enjoy it to the maximum, and that I did!

Lesson 3: Work with what you’ve got.

Too often in life, we have a tinge of what I call “coulda, woulda, shoulda”. It creates the foundation for excuses. If only this were better. But we could have done this. What if we had this or that?

What if I had not been ill in the run-up? Well, I was, so now what?

On the start line of stage one, my resting heart rate was 135 bpm, so that tells you everything you need to know about how I was feeling and where I was physically post-COVID. No doubt COVID, altitude, travel, heat, stress, and excitement were all playing a part. My target heart rate for the day was 150–160 bpm, so I didn’t have much wiggle room, especially considering we had two mountains to clear that day. It wasn’t a great start.

I deliberately took myself to the back of the 400-strong peloton to try and ease my heart rate. I did a little breathing exercise, some gratitude work, mental reframing, and reassessed my plan. Data, whilst great and very important, can also be misleading. Of course my heart rate was up—it was supposed to be given the context—but I felt great. It was amazing to get to the start line—something that looked highly unlikely just two weeks before.

Then and there, I decided to go ‘old-school’ for the day and forget about the numbers my bike computer was showing me. Instead, I went back to the old faithful measurement: Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), which is a scale between 0 and 10 to describe how you’re feeling (with 10 being the hardest of efforts). On the line, I felt just a 1 or 2, so I quickly adjusted my goal to riding the day around 6 or 7 on this scale, where I should be working quite hard but still be able to hold a conversation.

Obviously, I still had an eye on what this meant for the cut-off times on top of each mountain. When we hit the bottom ramps of the very first 13km climb (a lovely 3km of 12%), I managed to quickly do some math on my average speed, distance to travel, and my ETA to each summit. Today was now a battle of survival to stay in the race. I had worked out I initially had a 15-minute advantage to play with. It’s not a lot given anything can happen like punctures, crashes, etc.

Fortunately, I made it in rather good time in the end! I’d settled into a sustainable rhythm and pace and just moved forward, ticking off kilometre after kilometre. I even managed to get my head up and enjoy the journey that day instead of getting bogged down in data and any perceived pressure. My goal of staying in the race by working with what I had and adjusting and adapting accordingly had been achieved.

On my return to the hotel, I looked at the data that had been recorded (which I had blissfully ignored until now!). and my average heart rate for the day was 172 bpm for 5 1/2 hours. This was far from ideal, certainly not the plan, and not a great start, as there were much, much harder days to come and I had expended a hell of a lot of energy.

However, sometimes it’s not about winning the race; it’s about staying in it.

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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