Taking the High Road: The Haute Route – A Survivor’s Story

by Jim Cotton.

To ride just one Haute Route event is a daunting prospect for even the fittest of cyclists. A multi-stage sportive set across either the Pyrenees, Alps, Dolomites or, as of this year, The Rockies, the Haute Route is the closest that an amateur can get to experiencing the world of professional racing. With motorbike outriders, neutral support vehicles, time trial stages, masseurs, a fiercely contested General Classification and even a widely-feared time cut, those who take on the Haute Route – which includes weekend warriors, Olympians, and ex-pros – are taking a giant step further into the brutal travails of the pro rider.

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For some, however, one week-long Haute Route is not enough. The logistics of the operation means that it is possible to ride two, or even all three, of the European events consecutively. Taking on all three events – the epic ‘Triple Crown’ – takes you from the Basque coast of West France all the way over to Venice, via legendary climbs such as the Tourmalet, Galibier, Bonnette and Stelvio. Having ridden several Haute Routes myself, I can attest as to just how hard a single event is.

James Golding has made riding ‘Triple Crowns’ his specialism. Having now ridden nine Haute Routes, with six of them falling into two triple crowns, James has come to see the first leg of the three as merely the warm up; something that is almost incomprehensible to those riders who choose to take on just one of the seven day rides.

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James’ story is remarkable. A keen mountain biker and downhill racer in his youth, his passion was temporarily curtailed when he severely dislocated his shoulder at the age of 17, something that lead to him losing the love for bikes for a number of years. During a prolonged hiatus from riding whilst James’ thoughts turned to building a career in property, he was diagnosed with an 11.5cm tumour, which was lodged between his spine, bowel and kidney. Despite an extensive and aggressive course of chemotherapy, James’ health deteriorated to the point that a risky emergency surgery – which provided only a 5% chance of survival – had to be performed. Miraculously, he pulled through.

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His rehabilitation was slow but steady and progressive. As part of this process, he turned back to one of his first loves – cycling. At the age of 27, he took up riding again, now on the road rather than the dirt tracks of mountain bikers. During his long recovery, James’ tenacious character lead to him setting daily goals; moving a toe, lifting his head, walking to the local shops and, eventually, cycling 10 miles to visit a friend.

As soon as he was able, James committed his life to helping others and giving something back to those who had helped him, starting with a plan to ride across America to raise money for Macmillan. This initial adventure, however, was ended on the road, when James was hit by a truck near New Orleans, breaking ribs, losing skin, and ruining his elbow. Undeterred, James healed up and continued taking on challenges as part of his work for both Macmillan and Cancer Research UK, including an ‘unfinished business’ return to the States to ride from Los Angeles to Miami in 24 days. As he puts it, ‘When you’ve overcome the challenge of learning to walk again, you realise just what you can achieve.’

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Since then, James has become a father and husband, overcome a second bout of cancer, and further continued his fund-raising activities. Somewhere along the way, the Haute Route has come to feature prominently in James’ life as a vehicle for these tests of body and mind. James initially came across the event in its third year (2013), and rode the first ever ‘Iron’ Haute Route, racing in the Alps, and then the newly-launched Pyrenees event. At the time, James was training for the 7-day world record; a feat that would involve riding 1,748 miles in 7 days, and that he would unfortunately not complete. In training for this epic record attempt, the gruelling demands of a 14-day Haute Route seemed like perfect preparation. Since then, James has been an integral part of the Haute Route, as the events have slowly evolved and expanded, to the point where the field is larger, the logistics grander, and the choices of event ever-expanding.

Although the majority of the 500-600 strong field approach an Haute Route week as a race, with great pelotons surging through the valleys and attacks going off the bunch on the climbs, the sense of camaraderie which swiftly develops amongst the riders is incredible. Day by day, as the same wheels come to be followed, the same pedal strokes noticed, the same tattoos and tan lines spotted, friendships form. Though ostensibly you are competing with others, it is never taken too seriously; words of encouragement are uttered, food is shared on the road and tales of suffering are traded over coffees in the event villages.

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There’s something about this mutual experience, forged in the heat of friendly but fierce competition, that leads to unusually strong friendships forming. In James’ words; ‘Your paycheque and background become irrelevant’. Affluence, kit and even fitness all become relative, as the strongest riders with the best bikes come to experience the same highs and lows as those tapping out each day just in front of the broom wagon. These shared emotions may not happen on the same day, or for the same reasons, but over the course of the week, everyone will fall into the same mental caves. Each will come to feel that crushing realisation they’ve under-fuelled and are verging on the bonk, just as each will soar on the elation of overcoming their own limits and fears. And fundamentally it’s this sharing that brings people so fully together on the Haute Route, no matter what their nationality, profession or ability.

Despite having ridden so many Haute Routes, this part of the adventure is not something that grows tiring. With each trip James has not only made new friendships, but had also added depth to existing ones. James’ mother, Sue, has not only been an integral part of the strong support network that helped him throughout his illnesses, but she also came out on the Haute Route in 2016 to follow her son’s progress across Europe. Driving a support vehicle over the mountain roads was a brave decision for Sue, something driven by the love of a mother for a son who she so nearly lost.

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2016 – 8 years after the first tumour was found – was James’ second Triple Crown. He was placing strongly and consistently in the opening weeks through the rural beauty of the Pyrenees and the vast peaks of the Alps. I bumped into him a number of times through these events, and his spirits were peaking and troughing as much as the climbs we were taking on. James’ resoluteness and huge determination continued to shine through nonetheless. For him, the Triple Crown is possibly more a mental than a physical challenge. Whilst your body slowly adapts to the load and the legs keep turning (albeit slower than before), the brain starts to shut down with fatigue, and even writing an email to loved ones becomes difficult.

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That’s not to say riding three back-toback Haute Routes is without its physical challenges; many good club riders would not even manage a single stage. James describes himself as having ‘a big engine’, and he also feels that he now benefits from higher quality and better structured training than in his earlier years. His plan to slowly get the engine revving in the Pyrenees – almost akin to a warm up – came good as that big V8 was thrumming stronger than ever as he approached the race conclusion in Venice. In his own words, when his engine ’gets going, it just keeps going’.

James’ life experiences have fortified him with massive mental strength, and meant that when riding in the notoriously foreboding Swiss Alps and Italian Dolomites – a final week of harsh gradients and unpredictable weather – James really came into his own. His will did not buckle, and the grit and determination of a true survivor shone through. Ironically, although James suffered with the torment of being away from his wife and young son during the long three weeks, he describes the hardest part of his most recent Triple Crown as being the last day, and not because of the terrain. During that final twenty-first stage there is a sudden realisation that the end is at hand. James say, “It dawns on you that it’s over and you’re not doing it again tomorrow… it’s a mixture of relief and sadness’.

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James will be back for more Haute Route in 2017, but he will ‘just’ take on the Pyrenees and Ventoux events this year, as he looks to aim for different, and even bigger goals on the bike. That is not to say that he has fallen out of love with the event. He knows that without having pushed through so many of these events, he would not be capable of even contemplating the huge feats he is now eagerly planning for in the coming years.

For James, for me, and I’m sure for all other Haute Route alumni, the one, two or three weeks on the road is a starting point to further challenges. The commitment, training and strength of spirit needed to undertake such an event sets you on the road of more fully understanding that there are very few limits to “what you can achieve” if you are determined to succeed. When you strip away the sheen of the Haute Route, with its massages, post-ride meals, and GC rankings, and look closer at the story behind each entrant reason for being there, and there reason for doing it again each morning, you see that these facade of professionalism is merely a mechanism for helping enable people achieve mental and physical accomplishments far beyond what they could ever comprehend before.

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Like all life’s battles, be they the daily grind of work, the up’s and downs of relationships, or life-changing events such as overcoming cancer, the Haute Route is a daunting prospect that involves full commitment of body and brain. It is however within everyone’s ability. It is a journey that will never be forgotten, and an experience that will reveal aspects of life – of your own and of those who share the road with you –  that you’d not realised before.


Links

The Haute Route  |  James Golding  |  Cancer Research UK

Massif Central Haute Route prints 

Image Credits: Image 1, 4, 5, 6, 8 – Haute Route ; Image 2 – Kalas Sportswear; Image 7 – Massif Central; Image 3 – James Golding

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