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American flyers: Haute Route Rockies sportive review

In-depth
7 Feb 2018
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Words Stu Bowers Photography Peter Morning

The sun feels warm on my face as I sip coffee and gaze upon central Boulder. I’ve got nothing else to do except watch the people of this Colorado city as they go about their business, and I can’t help noticing how healthy everyone looks.

Tanned skin and sinewy limbs are everywhere, and not just because the Haute Route is in town.

Climbers, hikers, runners, skiers and cyclists flock to this paradise in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Boulder sits at 1,665m, and its altitude is what draws so many pro riders to this region. Although the Rockies might lack the mythical feel of the Alps or Pyrenees, Boulder has shaped its fair share of champions: Andy Hampsten, Davis Phinney and his son Taylor, Tyler Hamilton and Tejay van Garderen, to name a few.

I’m here living the pro dream. While I rest in the sun, my bike is being cleaned and lubed for me by a mechanic. I’ve been well fed and had a sports massage to help flush the strain of this morning’s opening 107km stage.

It feels strange to have nothing to do except eat, rest and ride, but that is how life is meant to be at the inaugural Mavic Haute Route Rockies.

High life

Since its launch in 2011 the Haute Route format has provided an opportunity for mere mortals to experience a taste of pro life.

You get police-enforced rolling road closures, Mavic race support (using the same fleet of yellow service motos as at the Tour de France), post-ride massages, nutrition, bike servicing, laundry and luggage transported between hotels.

All that’s missing is a directeur sportif yelling at you out of a car window to chase down a breakaway. How hard you ride is up to you.

I’ve met a team from Shropshire who are here to compete at the sharp end, and a guy from Surrey who’s already finished in the top 10 of some European Haute Route events.

My agenda is simple: to race a bit, but not so much that I can’t enjoy the grandeur of the Rockies.

Luckily, the event’s format is designed to accommodate those who want to race and those who just want to make it to the end of a week in the high mountains.

There are seven stages, the longest of which is 170km with over 3,000m of climbing. The only break in proceedings is Stage 4, which is a 17km mountain time-trial.

Portions of each stage are timed (using electronic chips) and only those sections count towards the stage results and general classification.

This allows competitors to ride in efficient and sociable groups most of the time, before attempting to rip each other’s legs off during the timed segments, should they wish to.

Sitting with my coffee at the end of Stage 1, I’m pleased with how things are going so far. The first timed section came early on the first climb, Sunshine Canyon, a beautiful 26km ascent, much of it on a dirt road.

As soon as we hit it I was unceremoniously ejected from the front group as it blew apart thanks to lots of fresh legs pushing the pace. But once the racing stopped I was able to rejoin the back of the string of riders as we passed through the little mining town of Gold Hill, which looked like it had been created by Disneyland for a Wild West ride.

At 107km, the opening stage was one of the shortest, and there is still over 700km to go with around 13,000m of climbing, so I drain the dregs of my coffee and head back to my hotel to prepare for day two.

Going big

The chief test of Stage 2 is the mighty Berthoud Pass, which comes right at the tail end of 138km. It’s a classic Colorado climb.

The mountain passes in this region are generally not as steep as in Europe, mainly to facilitate the passage of the huge 18-wheelers typical of US haulage companies.

It’s not uncommon for climbs here to be 30km or more, to keep gradients at a truck-friendly 4-6%.

Berthoud Pass is the second-highest peak we’ll summit this week, rising 1,200m in 43km to 3,446m above sea level. It’s sure to be a beast, especially as our muscles will be deprived of oxygen at such a height.

The talk among the riders, though, is of a more immediate danger.

Magnolia Drive is officially the steepest paved road in Colorado and comes almost immediately after the start. In 7km it averages 9.8%, which doesn’t sound overly gruelling, but there are sections where the road corkscrews above 16%.

During last night’s briefing we were told it’s such a brutal climb that many locals simply refuse to ride it.

When I get there I begin to understand their feelings. My legs struggle to grind the cranks around, the burning in my quads gets worse by the second and my shifter seems to have stopped working. Oh wait, the shifter’s working fine, I’m in bottom gear already. Curses.

Fortunately I have the sheer beauty of my surroundings to distract me. By the time the gradient eases and the road turns to dirt again I’ve all but forgotten my leg pain and am instead inspired by endless views of forest and sky.

We turn onto the wide, rolling road of the Peak To Peak Highway and make our way southwest before Berthoud Pass looms large. Only the last 20km of the climb is timed, so the temperament of our group on its lower slopes remains sociable.

Even when the timing mat arrives, there’s no sudden injection of pace – no one wants to go into the red at this altitude. Instead the group stretches out very gradually as the gradient increases, and by the time we hit the first of several switchbacks I find myself sat on the back of three riders. 

My lungs wheeze in the thin air, but I doggedly hold the wheel in front and focus on keeping my composure. Mercifully, the rider setting the tempo for our small group is pedalling a beautifully metronomic rhythm, which helps me stay in touch with the group all the way to the summit.

Once over the top we’re faced with a wonderful descent all the way to our overnight stop at Winter Park. It’s untimed so there’s no need to take any risks, but even so I’m still buzzing a long while after the day is done.

Every day’s a school day

Day three goes by in a blur of dust, with some of the longest continual dirt road sectors of the week, not just climbing but with some fairly hairy descending too.

Day four, by contrast, requires some tactical consideration. For the 17km individual mountain time-trial I can’t decide whether to go all-out for a quick time or take it steady and use it as a recovery day.

As I roll off the start ramp in Avon I opt to take it easy, but after a few kilometres I realise I’m catching the rider in front, which spurs me to push hard on the second half of the climb. Despite expending more energy than I had planned, at least I did so on a day with more time off the saddle than on.

By day five I’m still in good spirits. We’re now over halfway and I’m getting the hang of the Haute Route’s daily flow. I’ve learned from the simple mistakes of previous days, such as overdoing the coffee at breakfast or the mango slices at feed stations, forgetting to apply chamois cream or charge my Garmin, or not packing flip-flops into my finish-line bag for after the stage.

I also feel more invigorated by the mountain air than drained by it, profiting perhaps from the hours I spent training in the hypoxic chamber in London’s Altitude Centre. What’s more, as the days have passed I’ve been steadily progressing up the standings.

Stage 5 is dubbed the queen stage by the organisers. We’re in for 164km with over 2,700m of ascent including a visit to the summit of Independence Pass at 3,687m.

The day begins with 44km of climbing, first over Battle Mountain at 2,792m and then up the Tennessee Pass to 3,177m. We ride through Leadville at 3,100m, the highest city in the US and famous for its iconic 100-mile mountainbike race, once won by Lance Armstrong.

As we pass Twin Lakes the road tilts upwards gradually and we realise we are on the start of the climb to Independence Pass.

The Strava KOM on Independence Pass is 52min 30sec, set during the US Pro Challenge in 2012, so I know I’m in for a long slog.

Even at the bottom we’re at an altitude of 2,770m, higher than any pass at the Tour de France, and there’s still nearly a kilometre of vertical ascent to come.

For most of its length I work with a group of five riders, each helping and cajoling the others so that we remain together until the final few hundred metres.

At that point all friendships are forgotten and everyone makes a dash to be first to the summit. I too gain a little burst of energy, knowing that once over this hill we’ve broken the back of the whole event.

At the top I drink in the 360° views of the Rockies’ snowy peaks and mountain lakes, with a perspective I’d more expect to see peering out the window of an aeroplane rather than sat on my bike.

I am about to leave when I am ushered to a medical tent by one of the organisers. It seems that at this altitude the lack of oxygen can make you feel disorientated, like being drunk, and so the event team imposes a quick mental agility test – three quick-fire questions – to make sure we’re capable of making the descent safely.

Thankfully I pass the test and can set about plummeting from this treeless tundra back into the pine forest and onwards towards the final ramp leading up to that night’s hotel at Snowmass Village.

The end is nigh

Stage 6 to Crested Butte would be considered tough if it were a single-day sportive in its own right. It’s 170km long with more than 3,000m of climbing, but my legs feel good today and I’m riding confidently near the front of a strong group during the first part of the course.

Around 40km in, a dirt descent suddenly turns rocky and a number of riders are halted by punctures and flying bottles. I make it through unscathed, but now those of us remaining are faced with a dilemma.

The timed sector approaching is huge – nearly 100km – a third of which is the ascent of the McClure Pass.

A bigger group equals more bodies to share the work. So should we wait?

I’m glad we choose to wait. Once we reform, the group rides well together and we help each other on the long ascent. However, over time the group begins to fracture, and eventually I find myself with only one rider for company.

In a stroke of good fortune it turns out to be the same metronomically paced rider from day two. I needed him then and I really need him now. My bottles are dry and I know I’m close to blowing up.

I try and cross-reference my Garmin display with what’s written on the route profile sticker on my top tube, but a semi-delirious state isn’t helping my mental arithmetic. In the nick of time the timing mat appears and mercifully a feed station immediately after. I’m saved.

And just like that, as has happened so often this week, it’s all smiles and fun again. Such is the way of the Haute Route. 

Last blast

By Stage 7 the fight has gone out of me. I make a decision just to enjoy this final day. My overall position is pretty much cemented, and with no big cols and only one short timed sector I decide to just hide in the wheels.

Crossing the finish line feels like something of an anticlimax. Maybe it’s the thought of the flight home tomorrow. Maybe the magnitude of what we’ve achieved hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe I’m just more exhausted than I realise.

But I’m in no way disenchanted. At times the Haute Route pushed me to my limits but it has been the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had on a bicycle. Tonight’s beer will be the sweetest yet.

 

The details


What Mavic Haute Route Rockies
Where Colorado, USA
Next event 23rd-29th June 2018
Distance Changes each year. 2017 event totalled 800km+ and 15,000m+ ascent:
Stage 1, Boulder-Boulder, 107km, 1,900m+ ascent
Stage 2, Boulder-Winter Park, 138km, 3,500m+ ascent
Stage 3, Winter Park-Avon, 153km, 2,000m+ ascent
Stage 4, Avon-Avon (individual mountain TT), 17km, 650m+ ascent
Stage 5, Avon-Snowmass Village, 164km, 2,700m+ ascent
Stage 6, Snowmass Village-Crested Butte, 170km, 3,000m+ ascent
Stage 7, Colorado Springs-Colorado Springs, 70km, 1,400m+ ascent
Cost Entry from $2,195, various accommodation packages also available
Contact  hauteroute.org


The rider’s ride

Trek Émonda SLR 8 Disc | £6,000 | trekbikes.com

There are very few bikes as well suited to this event as the 2018 Trek Émonda SLR 8 Disc. With a claimed frame weight of 690g and an all-in weight of just 6.65kg, it wasn’t going to be the bike holding me back over the 15,000m-plus of ascent.

Despite the frame’s stiffness, the Colorado dirt roads showed the bike to be capable of dissipating road vibrations, with additional cushioning provided by its 28mm tyres. I was never left feeling battered, even after 20km stretches of unpaved road, and the Émonda repeatedly impressed me on descents thanks to its stability and assured handling.

Shimano’s Dura-Ace disc brakes were the icing on the cake, adding top-drawer components to a truly classy ride.

 

Be prepared

Three things to help you through seven days in the Rockies 

Castelli Idro lightweight jacket | £260 | saddleback.co.uk

The featherweight (130g) Idro jacket is 100% waterproof thanks to the latest GoreTex Active fabric, but crucially packs down incredibly small, fitting into a jersey pocket with room to spare.

 

Velo Forte nutrition bars | £6.99 for three | veloforte.cc

These nutrient-rich bars, made from only natural ingredients, come in bite-sized chunks, packing a high energy dose in a compact parcel. Perfect for when pocket space is limited.

 


Altitude preparation | The Altitude Centre | altitudecentre.com

With much of the route above 2,500m, dealing with the lack of oxygen is a big factor in this event. Acclimatise beforehand by training in a hypoxic chamber, or sleeping in an altitude tent, with help from the Altitude Centre, London.

 

Do it yourself

Travel

Cyclist flew with British Airways direct from London Heathrow to Denver, Colorado. Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and United also offer direct flights for this route. Flights cost from around £950 return.

Boulder is about 40km from Denver airport and this route is well served by local buses, which cost just $9 and take around one hour to reach Boulder.

 

Thanks

Our sincere thanks go to Chris Lyman and Neil Shirley of the Lyman Agency, as well as Haute Route Events’ PR and media manager Elodie Mens, who coordinated much of this trip for us Stateside.

Thanks also to Wiesia Kuczaj of Fusion Media in the UK for her groundwork and support.