Seasoned cyclist and Veloforte Ambasador, Jim Cotton, is no stranger to tough rides through mountain passes. Here, in a series of blog-posts, we follow him through the year as he trains for the infamous Haute Route Iron challenge; a stage event comprising two weeks of tough competition in the high Pyrenees and French Alps, taking place in late August 2018.
From the grinding wet of early-season UK training to the intensity of high-summer Alpine climbing we learn how it feels to build his competitive form, and eventually the race itself.
Keeping it simple.
Time rolled round faster than I realised. The Haute Route Stelvio was here, and a trip to Bormio, a small town nestled amongst huge peaks in the heart of the Italian Alps, had arrived.
The Haute Route Stelvio is a new three-day event to the Haute Route series, centred around the mighty Stelvio Pass – the so called ‘King Of Climbs’ - its peak an inspiring and intimidating 2,757m.
Having never ridden in the Italian Alps, and with Bormio being such an iconic cycling destination due to its proximity to not only the Stelvio, but other ‘bucket list’ climbs such as the Gavia Pass and the Mortirolo, I entered the event both to experience something new, and to build form for the high summer.
I’m not one for exaggeration, but Bormio is close to being a cyclist’s paradise.
Forget Alpe D’Huez, Mallorca and Nice; look to Bormio instead. The roads are immaculate, the presence of cars is sparse, the climbs are stunning, and well, the coffee. Need I say any more about Italian coffee? Belissima.
Simply delicious foods
Along with cycling and coffee, the other reason I went to Italy was for the food.
Like a typical cyclist, the only things I frequently contemplate are riding my bike, and fuelling my body. For me, Italian food has always been the king of cuisines. Simple, beautiful, honest ingredients, prepared lovingly and with care, with the minimum of adulteration and process.
Bormio’s bounties epitomised this.
The locally-produced milk was a thick, rich and delicious, a celebration of nature. The tomatoes were an explosion of vibrant, sweet, full flavour, and the bread from the bakeries was fresh, light and dangerously moreish. On the night prior to the final stage of the Haute Route, I ate the best pizza I’ve ever had, though it was simple and cheap, it was easily the most enjoyable meal I’ve had in recent memory.
You can’t get much more Italian than Veloforte bars either; these nutritional powerhouses are based on an ancient Italian recipe, full of unprocessed, natural ingredients, blended together with simple and authentic methods.
Having a stash in my pockets felt totally right.
Having fuelled my training and racing for over a year with these chunks of joy, I knew that I was going into the Haute Route Stelvio with a tried and tested fuelling formula; one that my stomach could process, and that my legs thrived on. Over the months, I’d successfully trained my stomach to work with the nuts, fruits and simple sugars, my nutrition strategy was effective as it could be in fuelling my legs.
Having confidence in my nutrition, and having mastered how much was required and when, gave me one less thing to worry about in advance of a three-day race that would take me through 225km of Italian mountain passes, racking up a quad shaking 8,600m of ascent.
I entered the race unsure of my climbing legs. For one reason or another, I felt that my training over the season had lacked a focus on long, sustained efforts. Those battles of mind over body as you ride just under your threshold for periods exceeding an hour, whilst responding to accelerations or splits in the group around you. I knew I had the endurance, and could last the five to six-hour days that lay ahead, but would I do so fast enough?
I knew a lot of the race would be won in the mind.
Competing on climbs over 20km long can be mind-boggling if approached with the wrong mindset. Rather than allowing the enormity of the mountain before me to become intimidating or overwhelming, I broke it down into bitesize chunks; the race became a procession of kilometres, a series of switchbacks. I forgot worries about not having trained on intervals of x minutes or xx kilometres, and focussed on the present.
Time and time again, I found myself climbing in the first or second group on the road, clinging on by the fingernails.
Just as the ascent of the Stelvio from Prato is infamous for its 48 bends, the race became a procession of small hurdles to be overcome.
By focussing on holding the wheels until that next landmark, that next hairpin, it became manageable. With each new landmark that I had to reach, I found myself surviving. The days became almost a disengagement of my brain from my body. I revelled in the magnificence of mountain passes as bewilderingly long, and amazingly manufactured as that of the Stelvio and its multitude of switchbacks. I also seemed not to think.
Eat, drink, pedal. I didn’t need to contemplate my fuelling strategy, as it was one I had by rote, and knowing when to eat was as automatic a function as when to use my brakes or when to change gear.
Veloforte became almost a comfort blanket to me, a trusted ally.
When the heavens opened with cold sleety rain as we reached the summit of the Umbrail Pass on Day One, and we descended from 2,500m to the valley floor, I could feel the energy being sapped from my cold body.
In past races, becoming overly-cold had marked the end of my competitivity.
But understanding my energy levels, knowing how Veloforte would fortify my reserves and how quickly it would do it, meant that I was able to manage myself.
This time, the bars were not just a saviour on a physiological level, but also, to some extent, psychologically.
The rich, moist, homely flavours provided comfort as we raced through the sodden switchbacks on that freezing descent; the flavours were reviving in the way that a home cooked meal from your childhood returns you to a mental place of safety and comfort.
On both of the first two stages, long days through the mountains with summit finishes atop the Stelvio and Gavia respectively, I was sufficiently fuelled to be able to remain strong all the way to the high altitude finish lines.
With the knowledge that the Veloforte in my pocket would never fail me, the task became easier. As others were flagging due to depleted energy levels and fatigued muscles, I seemed to remain strong, with the simple, natural fuels feeding my body in a way that it had adapted to use so efficiently.
Formula for success.
So, the event became one characterised by the simple, humble approach.
Just as the cuisine of Italy, and the Veloforte bars on which I fuelled myself, is based on simple, straightforward ingredients, in the face of the mighty Stelvio, a climb that could present so many complexities, I kept things basic. One hairpin at a time, one kilometre at a time all I had to do was hold the wheel. Keep eating, stay focused, pedal.
Though I’m no podium-worrier, I finished the race in 28th of 300, a ride far above my expectations back in March when I was at an emotional and physical low.
I feel like I learnt a lot in the Italian mountains. Now to put it into practice as the season reaches the high summer.
The high road of the Haute Route Iron – the goal event - is only eight weeks away.