Scaling Mountains, Shifting Gears: The Payoff
By Powell Brown
In August, I pedaled, coasted and sweated my way through the seven straight days of the Haute Route Alps, the most challenging amateur cycling race in the world. I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m here.
My brothers Barrett and Kellim and I signed up for this race as an initiative to raise awareness for brain health with our Brown & Brown teammates and larger community, and we spent more than nine months training. On a personal level, this was a way to challenge myself to embrace the uncomfortable and push my body and mind to new limits.
The race is over, and I’m still saying to myself, I can’t believe we did it. I’m lucky enough to have done something I love with my brothers, while raising money for a great cause. Now, we see our hard work and our community’s generosity has paid off. And that’s just awesome.
Of the just over 400 riders that started this year’s race, Barrett, Kellim and I were three of the 298 who finished with an official time. Here is a breakdown of our days on the road and some of the incredible memories that we made.
Life on the Haute Route Alps
We had three main goals for our ride:
- Don’t crash
- Don’t get hit
- Finish with an official time
Meeting these goals and grinding up the mountains came down to maintaining a solid routine. This started with sleep the night before and understanding what foods would give us the best fuel. On the road, breakfast was between 5-5:30 a.m. daily, and was typically a latte, eggs and toast with jam or Nutella (sometimes both). We started racing each day between 7:00-7:30 a.m.
Each day on the road was a fresh start. It was exciting, but each day usually started with some nerves and noodle-y legs for the first 30 to 45 minutes. My body wasn’t sore, but it was really tired. During tough bursts on the trail, I would count pedal strokes to focus my mind. My biggest concern was meeting the time cuts, but after the first few days, the anxiety eased.
No matter how much we prepared or how strictly we maintained our routine, each day brought amazing new views, challenges and surprises. Here they are.
Day 1: The Start (99 km/2400m)
More than 400 bikers set out from the rolling hills of Megève to complete the 50-mile journey through green forests and three big climbs on the first day. Our first and steepest hill, the Col de Romme, or “the Rome,” was featured on the eighth day of the Tour de France in 2021. This was the first of several climbs previously featured in the Tour de France. Then we took on a timed climb of Col de la Colombière before sweeping through some epic scenery. We then had one final climb for the day, Col des Aravis.
Day 2: The Hardest Day (152 km/3900m+)
This was the most challenging day because we were completely exposed to the sun. We started with another neutral start and a 12-mile steep ride down a canyon, where our traps and upper backs were tested as we controlled our speed. We then climbed the famous Col du Glandon, a tough climb with a little respite in the middle. We ended at the top of a mountain, where we handed off our bikes for maintenance, got massages and refueled our bodies. All I wanted to do after each ride was eat.
Day 3: Famous Switchbacks (83 km/2900m+)
Day 3 was a big day and included the iconic Alpe d’Huez and tackling it’s 21 iconic switchbacks.
Day 4: The Morning of Doubt (123 km/4000m+)
This day was one of my top two favorite days of the journey, but it started off with some doubt (which made it even more memorable in the end). I knew we would finish, but I was anxious about making both time cutoffs at the top of the first big climbs. I usually rode downhill between 25 and 30 mph, especially near cliffs because I have a fear of heights. But the three climbs of this stage — the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Télégraphe and Galibier — take your breath away and help you forget any worries. At the end of the timed section, there was a 13-mile downhill ride to our hotels that evening.
Day 5: The Time Trial (15 km/1200m+)
The time trial is one all-out uphill sprint, where we climbed 15 km up Col du Granon. While a difficult push, the day’s structure also allowed for a few hours of replenishment at the hotel, which was greatly needed at this point in the week.
Day 6: Stumbles (140 km/2900m+)
Day 6 was my other favorite day. We tackled Col d’Izoard and Col d’Agnel, and the route took us along the third-highest paved road in the Alps. At the top of the Col d’Agnel, we were on the border of France and Italy. Awesome.
From there, we had our only timed downhill section of the ride. Barrett and I joined a group of about 15 riders when we had 24 miles to go. We were flying at 30 to 35 mph on the flat sections, some of us rotating and others just drafting along.
My friend Joe was determined to win Stage 6. He was riding with a group between 34 to 42 mph, nearing the last 2.4 miles of the day, when he moved over for another rider and hit heavy gravel. His back tire went out, and Joe went down on his right side. True to form, Joe got back on his bike and finished the mileage. Joe’s resilience and determination made this a day I will never forget.
Day 7: Nice Finish (67 km/1400m+)
The final ride from Italy to Nice, France, was one I could do every day and be happy. We had two slight climbs, the Col de Brouis and the Col de Braus. I rode alongside Joe, who was riding with one leg because he couldn’t put any pressure on his right one. Barrett waited for us at the top of the last climb to take the final descent together, where my wife and family were waiting to celebrate.
Our goal when committing to the Haute Route Alps was to raise awareness and funds to support brain health. We are incredibly proud to have raised several million to directly support nonprofit organizations working in the areas of brain/mental health research, education, prevention and treatment in the United States and internationally.
Thank you to everyone who supported our journey through donations to Shifting Gears on Brain Health, fueling our 7-day ride with additional meaning and success.
We have appointed a Donor Advisory Committee that is committed to an ambitious timeline of approximately one year to distribute the funds raised, with the grant application process taking place between December 2023 and March 2024.
This experience meant so much to us. It not only gave us an opportunity to bring awareness to a cause we care so much about, but it showed me how much farther I could push my body on my bike.
The Haute Route Alps was a race against myself. It was a reminder that good stuff happens when you push yourself out of your comfort zone. It reinforced the positive impacts of exercise, good sleep and nutrition. And it showed how awesome it feels to have a community of passionate friends, family and teammates.
So, who’s up for the next race?