The Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra) is an understandable and obvious target for derision. He is usually spotted in skin-tight Team Sky clobber, perched on the £10,000 push-bike equivalent of a Formula One car and congregating in the Surrey lanes or at Cotswold coffee shops, occasionally sporting both shaved legs and a sizeable paunch.
As midlife crises go, however, cycling has a lot to commend it, and as I hurtled along Oman’s sandblasted Ad Dakhiliyah roads as part of a “chain gang” of complete strangers, I started to think that most people could benefit from a taste of this.
We were theoretically competing, yet we had elected to join forces by taking turns at the front, pushing hard into the wind while we sheltered those in our slipstream, and to trust each other implicitly as we rode a few inches apart, and a few feet from passing traffic.
Since 2010, Haute Route events have offered amateurs the chance to taste “professional-level” road cycling experiences — with everything from evening massages to roving mechanics in support vehicles, medical teams, motorcycle-borne photographers, live timing and feed stations. The first Haute Route rides were billed as “the highest and toughest cyclosportives in the world” and were held on the classic cols of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia. Such has been their popularity that the organisation is branching out, with events in the US, China and, for the first time last month, Oman.
Previous stages have finished with stunning climbs such as Mont Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez or the Stelvio. Oman’s Jebel Akhdar (the “Green Mountain”) — the centrepiece climb of the event’s first stage — might not have quite the same pedigree, but it is probably the Middle East’s toughest road-biking test. From the base of the mountain, it is a climb of 13.73km to the summit, with an elevation gain of 1,411 metres.
The former F1 driver Jenson Button — fairly handy on two wheels as well as four, and the outright winner of the 2017 Santa Rosa Ironman 70.3 triathlon — called it the “toughest climb” he’d ever ridden as we all compared horror stories over the hotel buffet that afternoon.
Unlike the original Haute Route rides, which were point-to-point journeys with stops in a different place each night, the Oman event is based at a single hotel at Nizwa, from where participants head out on different courses on each of the three riding days.
The second started early, with hotel staff looking bemused as thin cyclists with peculiar tan lines juggled plates heaped with pancakes and French toast. The ride out to the marginally less arduous climb of the 2,000-metre-high Jebel Hatt took us through the spectacular medieval ruins of Old Tanuf. I wondered if the pre-Islamic mud huts and crumbling towers had ever witnessed anything as incongruous as this speeding, panting, sweating congregation of legs, Lycra, carbon fibre and heart-rate monitors.
Unlike the bleak and rocky slopes of Jebel Akhdar, the second day’s 148km route rewarded us with glorious views as we climbed past date palms and wandering goats. As someone more used to adventures in polar settings, I had been concerned about the desert heat, but the weather was near-perfect for cycling — with an ambient temperature hovering in the mid-20s and a mild breeze that came as a blissful relief as I struggled up the steeper sections.
The third and final day was a mere 9.4km, organised as a time trial where cyclists set off at 30-second intervals and raced the clock — theoretically flat-out, and almost entirely uphill — to the finish line. Some 29 minutes after I was shoved off the start ramp, I freewheeled to a halt, slumped over my handlebars, popped a sticky date into my mouth and reflected on this extraordinary human-powered, three-day tour of the Al Hajar mountains.
Charging round with gritted teeth at close to one’s anaerobic threshold is in many ways an absurd way to explore a country, but taking on a physical challenge in a new and exotic setting felt deeply rewarding. On day one I hated bike riding; by day three I had fallen in love with it afresh. I finished in the last quarter of the field, 108 places behind Button, and a full three hours behind the winner, Guillaume Bourgeois — but still, there was a commonality about the experience. At the airport the next day, the participants (from 27 countries) all seemed to share the same hard-won smile — and stiff-legged walk.
Ben Saunders was a guest of the event: see hauteroute.org. Entry to the three-day event costs $875, including mechanical support and motorcycle escorts. Accommodation at the Golden Tulip Nizwa costs from $230, based on two sharing. The event will run again in 2020, although dates have yet to be announced
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