First you embraced cycling and all the good that comes with it. Then, as a means of challenging yourself, you entered (and hopefully finished) a non-competitive century ride or two. It’s a fairly standard progression through this great two-wheeled sport.
But then what? Where do your point your Pinarello if you’re looking for a greater challenge? You could plunk down for a USA Cycling racing license and immerse yourself in the local racing scene. But in most places in the U.S. that means 60-minute office park criteriums or suburban circuit races, which I’d argue just aren’t that fun unless you really, really like competing.
But there are some good alternatives that don’t involve going round and round in small circles. The North American gravel race/ride scene is exploding, with events such as the Land Run 100, Dirty Kanza, Belgian Waffle Ride, and Almanzo 100 attracting hundreds of riders.
But suppose you’re not into this whole dirt road riding thing and/or are not interested in going flat out for 3-4-5 hours. What then? One possible answer struck me about a quarter of the way up Colorado’s fabled Pikes Peak climb during the final day of this year’s Mavic Haute Route Rockies. It’s events such as this (or at least its format) that are next.
First you need to understand the Haute Route concept, which is a series of semi-competitive multi-day gran fondos (3-day and 7-day events) that are held in iconic road cycling destinations such as the Rockies, Alps, Pyrenees, and Dolomites. I use the phrase semi-competitive because while nearly every Haute Route day is challenging with significant amounts of climbing (haute route roughly translates to high road), only portions of each stage are timed. This allows entrants to test themselves and see how they stack up against peers and other riders, but not spend hours upon hours in the proverbial hurt locker. Go fast for a little while, and then stop, let your pals catch up, and spin for a while until the next timed section.
It’s essentially the enduro of road biking with the timing format reversed. For the uninitiated, enduro is an exceedingly popular mountain bike racing format where riders are timed on specific downhill segments, but not during transfer sections, which often involve extended climbing. Both formats essentially mimic how most of us ride most of the time. You head out on a group road ride with friends, enjoy casual conversation on the flats, and then slug it out on the climb before regrouping and spinning to the next climb or heading to the nearest coffee shop.
“It also allows our events to take you places other events simply can’t,” explained Micah Rice, head of Haute Route operations in North America, which this year includes the 7-day Colorado event plus 3-day events in Utah, North Carolina, and the San Francisco Bay Area. “If we were racing start to finish you’d need to shut down roads and spend a ton of money on police. But we avoid that by having our timed sections in places where it’s safe to have people racing, and then shut it down as we move through more populated areas.”
That’s exactly how the Pikes Peak stage worked. It started in Woodland Park, about 10 miles away from the actual road to the famed 14,115-foot summit. The Haute Route peloton rolled out together in a fairly compact group, and it wasn’t until turning onto a seldom used access road that racing actually began. That first timed section (about 5 miles long and mostly uphill) ended just before merging onto the Pikes Peak road, giving riders one last chance to top off water bottles and calorie stores at an aid station before turning on the gas again for the long haul to the top of the wind-scarred mountain along Colorado’s Front Range.
The summit served as the end of the second and last timed segment of the day, with the remainder of the route into Colorado Springs neutralized to keep the safety and fun factors high. This model was replicated the previous six days, creating an event that is challenging and competitive, but also pretty chill much of the time. Again, it’s how most of us ride most of the time.
The other big Haute Route hook is rider support, which is modeled after what you would expect if you were actually racing in a professional level stage race. Mavic provides mechanical assistance before, during, and after every stage. Pro race announcer Dave Towle is on the mic. Timing is tracked via computerized chips and detailed results are distributed at the end of each day. Smartly located aid stations are stocked with the kind of food elite athletes use to sustain during competition. There’s even post-ride massage to aid in recovery. It’s a truly pro-level experience.
Of course all those services don’t come without a cost. Entry into an Haute Route event can run well into the thousands of dollars depending on whether you do a 3-day or 7-day event and the lodging plan you choose. And that’s not including travel costs, which add up quick if say you’re heading over to Italy to take on the Stelvio. Not surprisingly operations boss Rice acknowledges that many of the Haute Route entrants are part of the “Tuscany wine tour crowd” and are simply looking for a new challenge. And it’s certainly challenging. You can make a compelling argument that by covering 550 miles with approximately 60,000 feet of climbing, the weeklong Haute Route Rockies is the hardest organized amateur bike race/ride in North America.
And that’s exactly why the concept is so compelling. Assuming you can get the time off and have the disposable income to take a semi-competitive cycling vacation (which I grant is assuming a lot), an event such as the Haute Route Rockies is definitely worth putting on your bucket list. And even if it’s not in the cards, I’m willing to bet we’ll see more “enduro style” road events popping up across North America, giving us all more options to test the competitive fire without getting burned.