‘No, sir, we cannot put a smaller chain-ring or a bigger cassette on your bike. You already have the lowest ratio possible. Welcome to the Rockies.’
Brian, University Bicycles, Boulder, Colorado. Two days before the start of Haute Route Rockies 2017.
I was in Colorado for the first American edition of the Haute Route, seven days, 815 km and 16,000 vertical metres, all at altitude. One of the toughest multi-day events for amateurs in the world. And Brian’s statement did little to ease my nerves.
When I have entered big events such as this in the past I have worked pretty hard on my training during the lead up period. This time, unfortunately, I had to turn up to the starting line seriously under prepared. For reasons no one has been able to adequately explain, I decided in my mid 50’s to enrol in a fairly demanding post-graduate course. I was now at the pointy end, with big exams shortly before and shortly after the trip. At the beginning of the year I had to make a choice – commit my after-work time to study or commit to training. Training lost. I cancelled my scheduled trip to Victoria for the 3 Peaks. In the 26 weeks leading up to the event I managed only ten trips to the hills. Only a handful of those were more than 100 km. No early morning intervals. No back to back long, hard rides. No coach scheduling / monitoring / pushing me. My daily commute plus sporadic sessions on the Watt bike was all I could find time for. My strength and endurance plummeted. It was going to be a long week.
Day 1, Boulder – Boulder: 107 km, 1,900 m vertical
107 km, 1,900 m vertical – not much different to an SPR Sunday long hills ride. Except North Boulder Park, the Coode St jetty equivalent, was over a mile above sea-level and we kicked off with a HC climb that contained a significant stretch of dirt road.
Boulder is at the base of the Front Range, the ‘foothills’ that guard the eastern aspect of the Continental Divide. Our first day was flat for about 500 m, then it went straight up. Sunshine Canyon had a few steep pitches and included about 15 km of slippery gravel. I took it gently (well, as gently as one can on a climb with a HC classification). The gradient eased at Gold Hill, a fascinating old ‘wild west’ town (we had stopped there for coffee on a recce ride a few days before). Undulating gravel followed for 20 km before we were rewarded with a spectacular descent back to the plains on a beautiful, wide state road, super smooth surface with sweeping curves and very little traffic (marshals were on most corners and we had police escorts but the roads were always open). A bit of a slog along gently undulating territory got us back to Boulder. Day 1 – survived.
Day 2: Boulder to Winter Park: 138 km, 3,500 m vertical
‘I’ve lived in Boulder for 28 years and I’ve ridden up Magnolia Drive once’.
Connie Carpenter-Phinney, Olympic Road Race Gold Medallist, 4 World Championship titles, 12 US National titles, US Bicycling Hall of Fame & US Olympic Hall of Fame member. Pre-stage briefing, Boulder, June 2017.
I was about to venture into territory that even the legendary Connie Carpenter-Phinney had never been in: climbing Magnolia Drive for the 2nd time. My first attempt, two days prior to the start, led me to the bike shop that generated the quote with which this story started. I got to the top on that occasion, but only just. To be fair, it is a brutal climb and I was jet lagged and unused to the altitude. It is the steepest paved road in Colorado, kicking off with a vicious 14% for the 1st km and averaging 10% for 7 km. Some of the early switchbacks nudge 18 – 20%. When Olympic champions who live 10 km away choose not to train on it, you know it isn’t gunna be fun. On my earlier foray Niall Henry kindly stopped to wait for me three times as I battled painfully up the pitches. I don’t think I have ever seen Niall struggle on the bike as much as he did that day – only his superb bike handling skills kept him vertical as he tried desperately to ride at my barely discernible pace without falling off.
Fortunately Magnolia seemed a bit easier 2nd time round (NB easier, not easy). I managed to survive the steep pitches and got to the top feeling relatively OK. We rolled across some compacted gravel roads for a while before another section on the state highway that traverses the Front Range, wide shoulder, not too much traffic so lots of fun. Another dirt climb followed with the big one of the day, Berthoud Pass, saved till last. Topping out at 3,446 metres, this was the first of four ascents above 3,000 metres for the week. Like stage 1, I took it very steady, passed by lots of riders on the Berthoud climb but just happy to get to the finish at Winter Park in one piece.
Day 3: Winter Park to Avon: 153 km, 2,000 m vertical
‘I’m never going to do another Haute Route’.
Jim Flynn, Toulouse, France August 2015.
My sole previous Haute Route experience was in the Pyrenees in 2015. I treated that event like a race. I finished relatively high up in the GC for an old fella, but it hurt a lot. Looking back at the story of that ride, there is a consistent theme of pain & suffering : ‘my legs screamed’, ‘exhausted, I crossed the finish line’, ‘suffering severely’, ‘slumped on my bike’, ‘couldn’t move’, ‘work, work, work, thrashing myself’ are just some of the phrases included in my blog ( https://southperthrouleurs.com.au/2015/08/29/haute-route-pyrenees-2015/ ). It was an amazing week but I was determined not to put myself through that again. Once was enough for me.
There is, however, another way of tackling the event. We travelled that year with a group from Manly who essentially treated the week as a club ride (albeit, a pretty solid one!)– lots of regroups, steady pace, chatting away en-route. They enjoyed themselves.
Maybe I could enjoy a Haute Route too??
My lack of training actually turned out to be a godsend. I was reasonably confident that I had the baseline fitness to get me to the finish line before the sweep wagon and that became my main priority. There were a few unknowns, namely the effects of the altitude and my lack of ‘bum on saddle’ time, so I deliberately started out very gently with the aim of easing myself back into form. I slipped back into my old cycle touring mode, where I would ride for hours and hours working about as hard as I would now on a recovery ride. I didn’t care how long it took me to get to the top of the hills. And it felt really good! It was actually quite liberating for me. After six years of dedicated training, power-based interval sets, time-trial torture sessions, smashing myself in a race to chase down a break, I settled back and enjoyed myself. The result was sensational. I stopped at the drinks stations instead of pushing through. I chatted to fellow riders from all over the globe. I loved breathing the fresh, mountain air. I marvelled at the scenery. I tapped up the climbs and luxuriated in the long, sweeping descents. I still did some work, especially towards the end of the week, but unlike in the Pyrenees, I always kept a comfortable distance away from the red zone.
It was a week in which I was constantly reminded why I love riding my bike so much.
Stage 3 was a bit like a transition day, quite long (153 km) but with no massive climbs. Three climbs, two of them on beautiful, quiet backroads, a fast descent and then a short climb to Avon, another day completed.
Stage 4: Avon to Avon: 17 km, 650 m vertical
‘Time-trials aren’t for people who like pain, they’re for people who love pain.’
Gilbo. A few years ago, when he used to do TT’s.
The traditional time trial stage on Day 4 of the Haute Route can be approached in two ways – either a torture session aka Gilbo style or as a rest day. I chose the latter. It was a relief to only have a short 17 km ride to tackle, especially as we had two massive days to follow. I slipped back in the rankings. Who cares?
Stage 5: Avon to Snowmass: 164 km, 2,700 m vertical
‘I haven’t been this high since I was at university’.
Safest to attribute this to ‘anonymous’. Independence Pass, Colorado, June 2017.
Billed as the queen stage, Stage 5, 164 km long with 2,700 m vertical, including three serious climbs, was always going to be a challenge.
I have been privileged enough to have ridden up Alpe d’Huez (1,860 m) , Mont Ventoux (1,912 m), Col du Tourmalet (2,115 m), Col du Galibier (2,656 m) and Col Agnel (2,744 m). Today, however, I was venturing into unknown territory, climbing Tennessee Pass (3,177 m) then the mighty Independence Pass, at 3,687m, the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the USA. Some form was starting to creep back into my legs and I felt strong enough on the Tennessee climb to drag a few people up the hill behind me. Independence Pass was long (27 km) but gentle, with most stretches between 2 and 4 % (with a bit of a kick near the end). I had no thoughts of attempting to challenge Strava records at these heights so slowly but steadily tapped my way up and felt pretty comfortable at the top. I certainly noticed the effects of the altitude, in particular my heart rate seemed to be about 10 -15 bpm lower for a given perceived effort compared to what it would have been at sea level. It was a bit difficult, however, for me to quantify what effect the hypoxia had on my performance because I deliberately kept to a tempo that I knew I could sustain. Talking to those who were pushing themselves, though, it appears that power outputs were down by anywhere between 50 and 100 watts above 3,000 m. Each increment in altitude seems to get exponentially harder. How people can climb mountains like Everest at > 8,000 m without supplementary oxygen is beyond my comprehension.
Stage 6: Snowmass to Crested Butte: 170 km, 3,000 m vertical
‘I agree, darling, you really do need another bike’.
Robyn Fary, Applecross, April 2017
OK, I made that one up.
Unlike the European Haute Routes, part of the Rockies brief was to include at least 20% of unsealed roads for us to play on. I had ridden dirt once on my Dogma (from Observatory down Lockwood Road to Mundaring Weir Road) and found it decidedly unnerving. New Bike Time, I reckoned. Hello Roubaix: endurance geometry, 28 mm tyres, disc brakes, even suspension in the head-set, it fitted the bill perfectly for this event. The gears were more than adequate for everything but Magnolia (and I don’t think there is any combination of gearing that would make that climb comfortable). The price I paid was an extra kilo to carry up the hills but it was well worth it, especially on some of the more technically challenging sections of course. I ended up actually looking forward to the dirt sections and enjoyed them more than a lot of the bitumen.
Stage 6 was the ‘dirtiest’ day, with about 80 km of dirt riding in the 170 km stage. Kebler Pass, the 4th and final of our 3,000 m passes, was unsealed. It was one of the most beautiful of all the climbs, with carpets of wildflowers, forests of aspen, spruce and pine trees and amazing views of the surrounding mountains. The highlight of the day, however, was the sighting of a bear and her cub on the lower reaches of McClure Pass. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Crystal River, she watched serenely as we pedalled past. Perhaps we were too skinny a bunch to entice her down for a meal?? I was grateful she stayed where she was. I am confident that, if she had approached, I would have easily smashed my five minute power record, regardless of the altitude and the lack of training.
Stage 7: Colorado Springs to Colorado Springs: 70 km, 1,400 m vertical
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine into trees.”
John Muir, Scottish – American naturalist
The Rockies are stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. Our ride took in only a small portion of them, but I saw enough of them to make me want to come back. The accompanying pictures will, I think, be more effective than words in describing the country we rode through.
We were blessed by extraordinary weather – the worst we had to put up with was a bit of a chill on a couple of mornings that quickly dissipated as the sun rose. We were warned to be prepared for everything (the ski slopes at Winter Park were still open two weeks before we arrived) but arm warmers and a gilet were more than enough for the week. We were truly spoilt.
Unfortunately delays in a bus transfer (the only one of the week) meant our last stage was truncated: a ceremonial parade through the Garden of the Gods and Old Colorado Springs, a seven km timed stage with a small climb then a roll back to the finish to collect our medals.
I hadn’t planned to ride the following day but Niall & I couldn’t resist the temptation to ride the beautiful loop on Gold Camp Road that the organisers had planned to take us on the day before. It was a fabulous way to finish a very memorable week on the bike.
I would highly recommend a Haute Route experience. It is challenging, but the cut off times are very generous and I think almost all club members, with the right training, could complete the ride. The organisation was very efficient, with bike boxes collected on D1 and delivered to your final hotel on D7, luggage transported daily to the next hotel, a back pack available at the finish line which could be used to have clothes / shoes to change into, plenty of food at the rest stops, safe roads, en-route mechanical support. Most importantly, there was a wonderful atmosphere, with plenty of camaraderie amongst the riders. Even Emma Pooley, who not only won the women’s race but beat all comers on Stage 5 (first female to lodge the fastest time of the day after almost 100 Haute Route stages) tweeted ‘what a fun and friendly environment’ it was to race in.
There were some fabulous videos produced by the media team each day. This one sums up the week quite well. (Incidentally yours truly features briefly @ 1.30 in the video on a rough track where I trailed the motor bike for a few minutes).
A particular highlight of the Rockies ride was the frequency and duration of the un-timed sections, on some days more than 50% of the stage. This gave even the hard-core racers (and there were a few ex Olympians and national champions at the pointy end) the opportunity to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery.
Stage 8: Denver, Colorado to Perth WA: 16,255 km, 10,900 m vertical
‘Of course, go off cycling overseas again with your mates, I’ll be fine at home’.
Robyn Fary, Applecross, April 2017
OK, maybe this one isn’t true either…
I would like to acknowledge and thank Robyn for her kindness and graciousness in yet again supporting me in my cycling indulgences. Our original plans included her travelling to the States towards the end of the ride so we could have some time in the mountains together but these plans were shelved because of my need to return to study for my remaining exam.
Hoping to make it up to her with a trip early next year.
She is even muttering about going somewhere without my bicycle.
I didn’t realise such destinations existed….