RSNG Took On The Long-Distance Challenge Of The Haute Route Norway To Find Out How The Pros Ride Multi-Day Stage Races

As a victorious Geraint Thomas travels back to Wales after winning the biggest cycling prize of them all, the Tour de France, RSGN journeys to Scandinavia to take part in the three gruelling stages of the Haute Route Norway with ex-TDF professional and Maserati ambassador David Millar – here’s what we learned about riding like a pro…

It’s A Different Mentality
Chilly air blows around my bare calves as the ship ploughs on through the rain, while the Northern sky sits heavy with cloud and menace. I’m on the transfer to the start of day two of the inaugural Haute Route Norway. This ‘hard route’ format provides over 190 miles of riding with a total of 5,500m (18,000ft) of vertical ascent, over which a select group of entrants experience the essence of what pro riders go through when tackling immense physical challenges, day after day.

But it’s not just the body that’s tested, says ex-pro David Millar, the only Brit to ever wear all three of the Tour de France’s leaders jerseys: the green sprinter’s, the polka dot climber’s and the yellow, overall leader’s. ‘In a multi-day event, the moment you finish there’s no relief – you start to think about the next day – that’s the pro mentality. The moment you cross the finish line, it’s tomorrow,’ he tells RSNG.

For this event I’m channeling the attacking mentality of Norwegian hero and current TDF pro Alexander Kristoff, mostly because I’m riding the same Canyon Aeroad CF SLX bike that he used to come second on home soil in the 2017 World Championships. It’s a thoroughbred racer, packed with €6,000 worth of race-winning carbon fibre tech (you can read the RSNG review below…)

You Have To Dig Deep
It’s true that I was happy to move onto tomorrow at the end of yesterday’s first stage, from Jørpeland to Tau, which was unrelenting, both in terms of the rain and the gradients, which were what the organisers were calling ‘rolling’. It’s the first time I’ve heard climbs with an average 9% gradient being called that, and at the end of the close to 100 mile ride alongside abyss-deep fjords and up punchy climbs through farmland, my Garmin Edge 1030’s elevation graph resembles a read out of my heart rate; a series of dizzying peaks and troughs.

‘Racing as a pro on those roads would be really hard, you’d be like: “Ah, this is brutal!”’

It rains so hard that I’m faced with a stark choice: take constant facefulls of road water blasting up from the wheel in front, or ride unprotected into the deluge. I remember Millar’s advice to conserve energy for the days to come, and opt for the latter. ‘You’ve always got to put the short term down and move the long term up, in your priorities,’ he says. In one of the long drags up the road that seem to sap my legs, metre by metre, I start to wonder if it’s just the weather that’s making this really difficult. It seems not: ‘Racing as a pro on those roads would be really hard, you’d be like: ‘Ah, this is brutal!”’ Millar admits.

‘I think days like this are harder than big mountain days, because it’s just unrelenting. On bike mountain days you go on, off, on – you can break it up and compartmentalise it quite easily. But this is ‘on’ all day.’ There is an upside though, which means I can focus on my own race rather than my position. ‘The good thing is that there are people everywhere – after the first 50km it’s like a car bomb has gone off, you don’t know where you are in the field!’

Switchbacks Can Hold No Fear
On the start line of stage two, I know that the toughest challenge is ahead of me. This is the fabled 10km climb up from Lysebotn with an average gradient of 8% and 20 hairpin bends that switch back and forth, scaling the sheer wall of the fjord like the Midgard Serpent, Thor’s arch enemy. Almost as soon as we start, we ride into a close, roughly hewn tunnel, so dimly lit so I can’t see the wheel in front. The road is already steep and it feels surreal to be surrounded by riders but with no one saying a word, just the occasional ragged breath breaking the silence.

We break out from the tunnel to the first switchback to see that the whole climb is shrouded in a dense mist. I’m getting the eerie sense of climbing unceasingly through the clouds, as I realise that the gradient isn’t going to ease off – I decide to put the power down through my stiff carbon wheels, and try to drive to the top, alternately getting out of the saddle and pushing on while sat down. Standing up isn’t any faster but it does switch some of the load to my back muscles. I’m soon passing other riders, which motivates me on.

Staying Upright Is Everything
Closer to the top, the mist cloud starts to thin, revealing otherworldly greens and greys in the landscape. I can see more of the road now, but the effort is biting into my thighs, so I stop thinking about the summit and pick out corners ahead, focussing all of my effort on reaching each of those…

When it comes, the summit is a revelation. The tops of the fjords, those massive, ice-carved rifts in solid rock is a place owned by the elements. The road winds between slabs of rock, broken by tenuous grasses and moss, clinging to life on what looks like the field of an ancient battle, fought by hurling boulders through the sky. Riding through it, past impossibly clean pools of blue water, I feel simultaneously awed and uplifted, but I can sense that being in the teeth of a storm up here could be final.

As the road swoops and curves along and down, my bike comes to life, urging me to take the racing line and turn up the speed – fortunately the disc brakes are amazing in the wet, as I discover when I push a little too hard on the approach to a bridge and almost end up tipping over the edge into the freezing, boulder-strewn steam below. (I later find out that another rider came off here and broke a collarbone – no wonder the organisers neutralised times through this section.)

Food Is Your Friend
As well as the energy bars in my pocket, and drink in my bottles, I’m taking advantage of every feeding station on the route, the menus packed with snacks, fruit, energy drink and a mobile coffee van pumping out 80s pop. I stick to a routine of stuffing my face with bananas and chugging coca cola. This is pro-approved advice: ’Stop and feed!’ urges Millar. ‘A crucial error is skipping food and drink. In the short term you think you have made the right decision, but in actual fact you’ve just made a tragic mistake.’

Mavic Is Your Guardian Angel
The Haute Route Norway has some touches that pros are well used to. There are at least two Mavic vehicles on the road with us at all times. You will have seen their iconic yellow livery coming to the aid of riders on Le Tour, swapping out punctured wheels and even handing over replacement bikes. I discover just how useful they are when I puncture coming off the top of the climb. All the riders here are supposed to be self-sufficient and I have a spare inner tube, but valuable minutes are saved when a Mavic van pulls up as my numb, greasy fingers are struggling with a very snugly fitting tyre. ‘It gives it the essence of a pro race,’ says Millar.

‘You’ve got to treat it as an expedition – you know you’re going to make it, but it’s going to take time’

You Need Faith In Your Training
Losing time with the puncture has left me out of touch with the closest riders and I’m soon doing a solo effort. This ride is starting to feel like a real adventure, and for Millar, that holds the secret to getting through it. ‘You’ve sometimes got to treat it as an expedition. You know you’re going to make it, but it’s just going to take a bit of time.’ He points out that so long as you have ridden the distance before and have done the training, then you already know that you can do it.

‘As long as you have got that in your head then you’re fine. Don’t get focussed on time or average speed because every course is different – all I worry about is the distance, so that you can make it to the finish. These things are adventures, that’s how you should treat it.’ So, I dig deep and manage to see out the rest of the stage, with its numerous punchy climbs, all alone, and even manage to time trial the last 10km on my drop handlebars for a fast finish.

It’s All About Making It
My biggest fear after registering for my first multi-day endurance fest was that my legs would be so shot on day two that I would never make day three. This goes double when despite being completely knackered after the first day, I have a rubbish night’s sleep. This is where it pays to keep a cool head. ‘In theory, if you have trained well enough for a one-day event then you are fit enough to do a multi-day one,’ Millar tells me. ‘The big difference with a multi-day is that the effort of one first day has to anticipate the next day so you can’t be collapsing on the finish line and be put in an ambulance on a drip!’

He also says it’s coming to sleep badly. ‘People doing a multi-day event for the first time might be surprised that they don’t sleep as well. When you have put your body through that much stress it actually goes into a bit of shock and your endorphins are all over the place, your heart rate is a lot higher resting so you can have a terrible night’s sleep – it’s normal. But one night of bad sleep isn’t going to affect you the next day, so don’t stress out.’ I apply this advice, as well as eating enough salmon and rice to feed a small army, in anticipation of tomorrow’s final time trial – it’s all about the recovery!

The Real Race Is Against Yourself
Today I’m going to dive into what known as the ‘purest’ kind of bike race – the individual time trial. It’s just you VS the clock, no teams, no stops, no excuses. The course is some 18km from Stavanger to Ullandhaug. During the evening briefing beforehand, the race director told us gleefully that he has found a series of super-steep, 20% climbs for us to tackle. It would be a challenge on a normal day but this is day three… ‘Anticipate feeling a bit shit to begin with,’ advises RSNG’s personal coach, David Millar. ‘It’s going to hurt, you’re going to be tired and the sensations are going to be terrible, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to do a terrible time trial.’

He scribbles me a rough graph on my notebook to show that there’s a performance line that you should maintain for the distance, but this is hard to judge, because when you are pumped with adrenaline at the start, hard feels easy, then as you tire hard feels impossible. ‘In the first half turn a smaller gear and don’t push it too hard – you let it come to you. In the second half it has already come to you so you’ll be pushing whatever happens. That’s what time trialing is – pace management.’

The start of the time trial is drenched in rare sunshine and the atmosphere is buzzing. As I sit on my bike at the start ramp – with race officials holding my saddle so I can clip in as they count down – my heart is already racing. I set off fast, soon overtaking the rider who set off 20 seconds before me. Then it hits me that I’ve already fallen into the adrenaline trap, so I pin my effort back. I use the aero credentials of my Canyon Aeroad to help me reduce my frontal area and crouch down, staying on my drops for all of the flats and descents, down the suburban streets.

I’m not a climber but I know I have the power to muscle my way up this parkour’s steep climbs. Even so the first one comes as a surprise, jacking up on a narrow path, carpeted with slippery leaves. My tyres bite as I attack it, powering up the gradient while crossing my fingers that the effort won’t turn the burn in my thighs into a forest fire.

I get away with it and keep the pressure on to the 10km to go marker. I know the course finishes on a 20% climb so I try to hold something back. ‘Some people will be stronger on the flat and some on the hills. So, you need to find your weak points and go harder there. On your strong points you should take your foot off the gas,’ says Millar.

Another savage climb cranks the road up ahead of me and I dig in. I’m passing other riders as the air rips in and out of my lungs but I can tell I’m balancing on the knife edge of powering on and stopping cold. By the time I turn the final climb into the corner I’m almost cooked – I know it’s all or nothing so I get out of the saddle and haul on the handlebars with the last of my reserves. I cross the line running on empty and literally can’t lift my head to have my finisher’s medal strung around it. It’s been the hardest 18km and 40 minutes of my life, but at least I can say I left it all on the road…

WHAT NEXT? For a pro-level challenge it helps to have a super-fast ride; read RSNG’s One-Minute Bike Review:

THE RIDE: Canyon Aeroad CF SLX Disc 9.0 D12

TEST NOTES: You might think that any carbon frame kitted out with Dura-Ace Di2 groupset (including electronic gear shifters, and disc brakes) and air-slicing, class leading Mavic Comte Pro Carbon SL wheels would shift, and you’d be half right. But there’s something else about this Aeroad: as soon as you saddle up and start rolling, a combination of surefootedness in the 980g frame, and a genuinely impressive rate of acceleration practically demands that you start nailing it down the road. It’s no slouch climbing either, in part due to the impeccable power return – I never felt like any of my effort was bleeding out before it hit the road.

During the Haute Route Norway, conditions were power-shower wet but the disc brakes gave an edge to my confidence when riding in a group and on fast descents (although we did have to get the hydraulics beld by Mavic’s mechanics.) Some ‘aero’ bikes seem fine in a straight line but the tech in this frame, fork, integrated seatpost and handlebars combo slashes your frontal area, without compromising on maneuverability – if anything, it seems to boost it. In the end the best test of a bike is simple: does the smile on your face after a ride match the premium £6,349 ($8075) price tag? In this case, it’s a yes.

RSNG VERDICT: If you’re the kind of rider who likes to get in amongst it and cause havoc, then the responsiveness and flat out speed of the Aeroad makes it the weapon of choice.
5/5

David Millar is an ambassador for Maserati GB, the title sponsor of the Maserati Haute Route Norway, who produce the Levante the Maserati of SUVs

Check out the rest of the Haute Route’s long-distance challenge menu, including their epic 7-day events, and the brand new Haute Route Oman..

Thanks to Rapha – visit their website for next-gen cycling apparel

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