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Haute Route Qingcheng, China

By Alan Grant Dujiangyan 02 November 2019

Despite the weather not fully cooperating, the inaugural Haute Route Qingcheng that concluded last Sunday in the mountains of Sichuan province was a big success, vindicating the decision of the Haute Route organisation to bring their prestigious brand of stage racing to China.

Other countries had been considered for the first Haute Route in East Asia, but the opportunity to help develop the vast, largely untapped market for top-end cycling events in China was too big of a lure to ignore. With that decision made, the Swiss-based outfit that has transformed the amateur road racing sector since it debuted the Haute Route Alps in 2011 then had to find an ideal location, and from a large list of potential locations they settled on the city of Dujiangyan to host the October 25-27 event. It proved to be a good choice.

For one, Dujiangyan has mountains aplenty, the key geographical element for any Haute Route event. The city sits at the foot of an endless range of peaks and valleys that lead up to the mighty Qinhai-Tibet plateau. Within that range is a very special mountain that gave the three-day race its name: Mount Qingcheng, a peak revered within the ancient religion of Taoism. Its densely wooded slopes host a rich cultural kaleidoscope, from temples, palaces, pagodas, caves and other places of worship, to a diverse collection of unique flora and fauna, perhaps most famously the bamboo forests and the giant pandas who live among them.

Dujiangyan was also an ideal location in terms of logistics as it is less than an hour’s drive from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Chengdu is one of China’s biggest cities and its international airport is an aviation hub offering direct flights to/from most of Asia’s major population centres, as well as numerous daily links to Beijing and Shanghai; ideal to shuttle in the overseas riders who registered for the event.

While many of the 200+ competitors who gathered in Dujiangyan had come from afar (21 countries were represented), the lion’s share of the field were Chinese, which is exactly what the Haute Route people had been hoping for when they made the decision to come to China. It seemed like most of the foreign visitors were old Haute Route hands, but for the majority of the local riders this was their first exposure to the brand.

Haute Route began in 2011 as just a single event, the now classic seven-day trip down the spine of Alps from Geneva in Switzerland to Nice on the French Riveria. It then expanded into a series that centred around such iconic cycling destinations as the Pyrenees, the Italian Dolomites, l’Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux and the Rocky Mountains of the United States. Knowing that riders were flying from all over the world to these events, the organisers then decided to cast their net much wider and this year saw Haute Route races in Oman, Mexico and now China. Next year the expansion continues with the inaugural Haute Route Brazil as one of 11 destinations on the 2020 calendar, and readers from Southeast Asia will be glad to know that plans for an event in that region are in the works.

​Translating from French as “high road”, the Haute Route series delivers events that give amateur cyclists a glimpse of what it might be like to ride the mountain stages of the Tour de France and other pro races. Long, arduous days in the saddle are guaranteed in any Haute Route event, but so are stunning landscapes, superbly executed logistics, good accommodation, nutritious and tasty post-stage meals, professional level mechanical support, feed zones, a live timing system, daily post-race massages and much more. And while Haute Route Qingcheng might have been the latest baby in the series, it offered something than none of its elder siblings had ever done before … completely closed roads.

The scope of this was extraordinary.

Most amateur cycling events around the world secure varying levels of support from local authorities and police to try and keep their participants safe, but it’s almost unheard of to have closed roads. Instead volunteer marshalls and police outriders will try to shield the riders into a lane or two, but rarely are restrictions imposed on vehicular traffic coming in the other direction. For races that include a lot of climbing and descending, e.g. all Haute Route events, this can make going downhill precarious at times as the temptation to take the apex line and drift over the central divider is ever-present.

For Haute Route Qingcheng, the authorities in Dujiangyan and the other districts the race travelled through had got behind the event 100 percent and every major junction was blocked off and guarded by police or army officers. But even more impressive was the army of ordinary people, at least one of whom stood at every little road or lane that led onto the race routes. No cars, tractors, farm animals or errant pedestrians were going to spoil the show (although a few dogs did wander into the line of fire). The organisers estimated there were around 900 of these red-vested volunteers manning the routes on Stages 1 and 2, and it seemed as if every one of them had a smile and a shout of encouragement as the racers roared by, more often than not in the pouring rain. The marshalls weren’t the only ones lending vocal support, as what must have been the entire populations of each village and hamlet on the routes were standing roadside chanting “jaiyou, jaiyou” (go go!)

The Racing
Like all the “compact races” in the series, Haute Route Qingcheng comprised of three stages; two mass-start road races and an individual time trial. The total accumulative elevation gain for the three days was around 5,000m, with the highest point of the race the Stage 3 finish at 1,435 metres. By Haute Route standards neither of those numbers was exceptional but it still promised to be a challenging three days. Stage 1 covered 82km with 1,600m of climbing, Stage 2 was a proper queen stage at 132km and 2,400m of elevation gain, while the Stage 3 mountain individual time trial climbed over 700m in just over 13km, making it a fitting test on which to finish the race.

More than a year of preparations had gone into making sure the race was a success, including a test event in 2018 which saw a small group of riders tackle some of the roads that have made it into the final routes. That ground work paid off as the participants were provided with a set of superb racing parcoursand an unforgettable cultural experience. The scenery on all three stages was breathtaking, even when the clouds and rain were hiding the full majesty of the mountain vistas. That Haute Route Qingcheng would feature picturesque peaks and valleys was a given, but a network of raging rivers provided an unexpected visual and aural spectacle. The very best of Chinese hospitality on the course and in the city of Dujiangyan, and a first-class host hotel in the shape of the Minjiang Xinhao added to the event’s lustre … but there was nothing the Haute Route people could do about the weather.

As the participants began to gather at the Minjiang Xinhao on the day before the race began, they were, like this writer, wondering where the mountains were. It was cold, it rained the entire day and the dark clouds from which the precipitation fell also kept the nearby peaks shrouded in a foreboding cloak. Unfortunately, the short-term forecast was for more of the same.

​Still, people had travelled to the race from afar, both internally from all over China and from those 20 other countries, and so there was no real choice but to suck it up. At least the advances in wet- and cold-weather cycling gear in recent times meant that some protection from the elements was readily available … if, that is, people remembered to bring their knee- and arm-warmers, rain jackets, full-fingered gloves, overshoes, etc, with them. Some poor souls didn’t, or the fact they were riding unprotected from the elements meant they were just super hard.

Stage 1
While the hills were still hidden from view when the riders gathered in front of the hotel at 7am on race day, the heavy rain of the day before had been replaced by something more akin to drizzle. But it was still fairly miserable as the peloton made its way to the Southbridge area of Dujiangyan where a pro-level stage-start infrastructure had been set up. A short, neutralised section led to the first climb at the 3km mark and from there the racing was on. A group numbering about a dozen riders got away on this punchy 1.5km climb and it was from this bunch that the stage honours were contested.

Like in all Haute Route races, though, the majority of the riders aren’t there to win, they’re there to challenge themselves on what they know will be exceptional routes. This relatively short stage had it all; short punchy climbs, longer uphill slogs, more than a few eerie tunnels, magnificent bridges spanning the roaring rivers, and a mix of fast, straight and twisty, technical descents. The feed zone at the 57km was a highlight too. Situated at the centre of the ancient town of Shuimo, riding bikes through its narrow, cobbled alleyways was like stepping back in time. The best of Stage 1 was to come immediately after leaving Shuimo, though, with the section known as the Balcony Road. This was a climb that twisted its way up narrow, tree-lined roads and through a series of small villages and had a picture-postcard stunning view of the valley, river and mountains to the right, even if the image was still partly shrouded in clouds. Aside from a few short downhills, the climb was about 7km in length and was followed by another sweeping descent before a short run into the finish in Yingxiu village, where miraculously the rain had stopped.

Stage 2

The Saturday morning saw the queen stage and a fittingly grand opening ceremony at the Southbridge square start area had been organised. The local authorities had even put on an additional event so that some 500 Dujiangyan cyclists of all stripes and sizes could take advantage of the closed roads in their city on a shortened version of the Haute Route race. Unfortunately, the rain was much heavier than the drizzle of the previous day and with the first 40km basically flat, the riders struggled to warm up. But the first of the hills, a 4km climb, did that job well enough and also split up the field again. A short but tricky descent followed and then it was onto the main course of the day, an 8km-long climb to the Xiange-Hongkou Pass, the high point of the stage at 1,268m. The route of the climb meandered up a tiny road half hidden by foliage and included a few super steep ramps where getting out of the saddle wasn’t an option due to the slippery conditions under tread. A feed zone just over the summit was a place to rest, refuel and recover, and then it was a long, fast 20km descent, which while no doubt was a relief and a thrill for all after the punishing climb, was also a bone-chilling affair. Another 20km of flat followed before a final set of five hills brought the riders to within 10km of the finish. A right-hand corner with 200m to go revealed a downhill roll to the finish under the impressive Qingcheng Mountain Gateway. The conditions really had been miserable throughout the day, so kudos to all the riders who finished the 132km course.

Stage 3
It was announced at the Stage 3 briefing on the Saturday night that the Sunday morning ITT course had been cut from the advertised 24km length to just over 13km. What was chopped was 11km of flat, urban roads leading to the main climb up the Puhong Road Pass, which was unaffected. No big loss to a race that is built around the “high roads”. Those 13km rose at an average grade of 5 percent, which classified it as a Cat 1 climb, and topped out at 1,435m, the high point of the entire race. Like most mountain ascents, hidden within that relatively tame 5 percent were shallower sections, false flats and steep ramps. And as is the case with all time trials, the course was as tough as the individual riders made it.

The weather finally played nice and while it was still a chilly morning for the competitors as they waited for their turn to climb onto the famous Haute Route time trial ramp, the rain had finally stopped. The much clearer skies, with even the odd touch of blue peeking through, allowed Dujiangyan to show off the full splendour of the mountains that had been mostly hidden for the previous few days. Despite the short, sharp dose of pain the riders had just gone through, a festive vibe hung in the air at the top of the climb, with the cyclists happy to be have completed what was a challenging but rewarding cycling experience.

And so, the inaugural Haute Route Qingcheng was over bar the closing ceremony and one last Sichuan feast back at the Minjiang Xinhao. Despite the weather, the event was a success and a second edition is already on the 2020 Haute Route Calendar, although there is a rumour it might move from the published October 16-18 dates. And with the promise of further events to come in China and the wider region, it looks like Haute Route is in Asia for the long haul. Chapeau mesdames et messieurs

*The three GPX files have been combined for the three stages. The statistics underneath the map are not accurate.

Total distance: 259.53 km
Max elevation: 1433 m
Total climbing: 4201 m
Total time: 01:14:54
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