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Equipment choices for the Haute Route

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It is possible to ride the Haute Route on almost any bike. We have even seen people do it on single-speeds, on bikes that would be better off in a museum, and on bikes that are designed for time-trials on the flat. Unless you are a masochist or you enjoy people looking at you strangely, don’t do it!

The Haute Route is not the place to test new gear. Ideally, you should ride the exact same bike that you will bring to the Haute Route throughout the last 3-6 months of your training. At the very least, make sure you ride 1,000km and climb 10,000m with it, to iron out the bugs. Better still, bring it to a training camp with Alpine Cols!

Frame

The best choice of frame is one that fits you properly, is designed for the mountains, is comfortable long distance and is as light as your budget allows.

Remember, you will be in the saddle for 5 to 7 hours a day. Nothing will slow you down more than riding a bike that is uncomfortable, or worse, doesn’t fit. You can get away with this on a one-day event but certainly not over 7 days. If you have never done so, now is the time to go get a professional bike fit.

The current fashion for extremely rigid, highly aerodynamic builds has little relevance for the Haute Route. Above all, don’t bring a bike designed primarily for short, high-speed circuit races, no matter how much you love it!

The Alpine Cols coaches will be riding on Scott Addicts, the climber’s bike in the Scott range. These same bikes are being used by IAM Cycling and Orica Green-Edge in 2016. They are a great choice for the mountains.

Gears

There are three considerations here:

  • Electronic or mechanical?
  • How many gears?
  • Which ratios?

Electronic gears are now sufficiently reliable that we no longer advise against them. The fact remains, however, that problems with electronic gears tend to be more serious and harder to fix than with mechanical ones, and it may be hard to find the spare parts. You also have to pay a weight penalty. Your choice!

As for the number of gears, if you are still riding a 10-speed bike this might be the perfect excuse to get a new one. Having an 11-speed cassette not only gives you the extra gear but also gives you a better chance of compatibility with Mavic should you need to change a wheel during a stage.

Ratios are another matter altogether. If you have any doubts, pack the easier ratios. The great majority of riders use a compact chain-ring, usually 50-34, sometimes 52-36, and a cassette with anything up to 32 teeth on the biggest cog.

Don’t be ashamed to come with a 34*32 combination. After the 4th or 5th day you may be extremely happy to have it, especially on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Stage 6, Dolomites).

Wheels

It is extremely tempting to bring a pair of ultra-light carbon wheels. Do not bring deep section wheels: they have too much inertia for climbing and are dangerous in a side wind. Shallow section wheels (40mm or less) are good under two conditions: (1) if they are top quality and (2) if you have already used them extensively in the mountains.

Before you decide to bring carbon wheels, ask yourself if you are comfortable descending at speeds approaching 90km/hr. If the answer is no you will necessarily be braking a great deal, with potentially lethal consequences. There were no less than 10 front tyre blowouts during the first 3 days of the Haute Route Pyrenees 2015, all caused by excessive braking on carbon rims with clinchers. Nearly all these wheels went straight in the trash…

Blowouts are much less likely on tubulars due to the design of the wheel-tyre interface. Tubulars, however, are not necessarily the best choice for the Haute Route (more below).

The problem of carbon wheels is exacerbated in the wet, where braking on carbon is notoriously difficult. The pros do it safely because they are experts, and they ride 30-40,000km per year in all conditions.

Most Haute Route riders avoid riding in the rain and have nothing like the experience of the pros. Don’t do it! Get the best aluminium wheels you can afford and be safe…

Tyres

We are often asked about tyres, and especially about the choice between tubulars and clinchers. Our advice is to use clinchers. The Haute Route is a 7-day stage race, and you do not have professional support to make quick wheel changes. Puncturing with tubulars can therefore very quickly result in losing an hour or more (we know, it has happened). On the other hand, if you practice you can fix a puncture on clinchers in 5 minutes. Don’t rely on Mavic: they will certainly help but could easily be miles away when the incident happens.

Tubeless tyres are reaching the stage of development where they may make sense, but make sure you train on them and get comfortable with them for several months beforehand. You will still need to carry an inner tube with you in case you suffer a deep cut in the tyre in mid-stage.

Finally, in terms of tyre choice you want to make the best trade-off possible between puncture resistance, rolling resistance and weight. If you are still riding on narrow section tyres, consider moving to 25mm, which generally give better performance and can be run at lower pressures. Bear in mind that you are likely to lose more from a puncture than you will gain from reducing the weight of your tyres by a few grammes…

Brakes

It seems inevitable that disc brakes are coming to road bikes. Strictly speaking they are still forbidden in sportives by the UCI, although this has certainly not stopped a very small minority of riders using them during previous editions of the Haute Route.

We have two opinions at Alpine Cols: some feel it is time to make the leap, while the majority prefer to wait another year or so.

  • A key advantage of disc brakes is that braking should be better, especially if you have carbon wheels and especially in the wet.
  • Disadvantages include the extra weight and the fact that Mavic probably won’t be able to change your wheel.

Whichever brakes you have, make sure they are in good condition and that you have a set of spare brake pads with you!

Power meter or heart rate monitor

These are not strictly part of the bike – especially the heart rate monitor – but are nevertheless worth a mention. The advantage of a power meter (and to a lesser extent a heart rate monitor, which is considerably less accurate) is that you can measure your effort in real time, and thus keep it at a sustainable level for the entire 7 stages.

We have seen innumerable riders start out too hard and fast and then really suffer by the third day. Only a power meter gives you the unbiased facts: it might feel good, but you are pushing too hard! Highly recommended.

Spares

You are unlikely to forget basic spares and tools such as inner tubes, tyres, tyre levers, a pump or CO2 canisters and a multi-tool.

You may not have thought about a spare derailleur hanger. This is a small adapter between the derailleur and the frame, deliberately designed as a weak point so that it breaks first in case of an accident, thus avoiding expensive damage either to the derailleur or to the frame. The problem is they are highly specific and it is very unlikely that either Mavic or the local bike shop will have the exact part for your bike. You could therefore find your Haute Route to be over for want of a €5 spare part. You have been warned!

As a final thought, it might be worth sticking an Ass-saver (or equivalent) in your bag. These are the small plastic mudguards that clip on to your saddle rails and can make life a tad more comfortable on wet roads.

About Alpine Cols

Alpine Cols was the official coaching partner to the Haute Route for 4 seasons, 2014-2017. Between them, our coaches have ridden well over 25 Haute Routes, as well as countless other mountain sportives. We organise training camps in April, June and July, and we offer long-term coaching to help you prepare for this unique challenge.

Contact us for more information!

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Davo Ruthven-Stuart
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Davo Ruthven-Stuart

Cheers guys,
Very helpful.
Looking forward to catching up in a few weeks,
Best wishes
Davo