There are few things more appealing to me than a fresh challenge. For the past few years any time I’ve spent out on the pavement was still on my fat tires. There are definitely aspects I miss about pure road riding, the ability to cover large quantities of miles, having a big ring to keep the pedals turning and the speed building on the downhills, or that it takes less time to explore new areas further away from home. I didn’t think that I missed owning a road bike until I once again had one. I have zero doubt that I’m strong and good at bikes but when I stack up what I normally do on the mountain or cross bikes against what I might be doing on a road bike it can be an intimidating concept.
Haute Route is no slouch of an effort, the point is to see how hard you can push while making your way through some of the most iconic terrain an area has to offer. To some that means surviving the millage and climbing for the day, to others it means challenging the field on the timed sections and stretching your legs. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking forward to the most but the appeal definitely formulated around the grandiose effort of day after day of hard riding, the amount of food I could eat while doing it, and finally having the reason, time, and support to “bag” many of the Colorado mountain passes I’d driven over or marveled at exploring.
I acquired a slick new KHS flight 900, built it up, and took it for a spin up a local mountain. I almost cried I was so uncomfortable with the differences from the bike I had been riding, and I struggled astronomically with the gearing. I made an appointment and took the bike into Peak Cycles to visit long time fitter George Mullen, ordered some smaller gears, and had pretty much every piece on the bike moved the slightest millimeter. I sat on that trainer and wondered how I was going to get through seven days so conditioned to my mountain bike geometry but the magic happened and the next day the same bike was like an extension to my body.
I packed it all, shorts and summer clothes, winter clothes with boots and gloves, rain jackets and enough socks to be okay with not doing laundry in anything but a sink. I rolled up to Boulder which is comically close to home for starting off on an epic adventure and got one delightful chill after dinner spin in with a friend.
The uniqueness to these days was that it wasn’t a race from start to finish. Much like enduro we started together in a neutral bunch, rode along the course until the starting point of the first timed segment, kept the pace urgent until the corresponding segment finish line, and then continued on to two or three more timed segments for the day; each had their very own starts and finishes. In between we rested, stopped at the aid stations, regrouped to work together and trade pulls to move through the course faster, chatted, and enjoyed our surroundings. The event captured a bit of everything that encompasses bikes and racing: camaraderie and teamwork, competitiveness and challenge, adventure and journey. While the sense of urgency to get through the course to the finish line is present, it doesn't overwhelm you from taking in what's around you.
72 miles ~ 5,600 ft
I had a rough idea of what we were riding the first day and being vaguely familiar with the course kept it lower threat in my head. Day one began and ended in Boulder. We climbed up into the mountains, traversed north a bit and then descended back down and finished up with a big loop on the gravel flats east of town. The possibility of a flat had me and my teammate off the back of the group in the first timed climb. The dedicated Lantern Rouge (final rider) Christian Heule of Swiss Stop made sure we were okay before sprinting into the bushes to water a tree. Once we determined there was no actual flat we settled in for the hour-long climb.
As we progressed I focused on riding steady and strong to keep my partner on my wheel and reeling in each rider as they came into my sights. After about three fourths of the climb had passed I took a gander behind me to realize every rider I had caught up to and passed had latched on to our wheels and we were now towing about 40 riders up the hill! As the climb got steeper the group broke apart some until we reached the end of the timed section in Ward. We continued on to the top of the hill and the aid station, refueled with water and snacks and spun together over the rolling terrain on the top of the Peak to Peak Highway. Likely we could have made better time had we sat into and worked with a group on this timed section but we struck out on this segment as a pair. While my strengths work well on the climbs, I have to work hard and stay very focused to hold onto other folks’ wheels while riding flat sections and rollers, and this was no exception. It was great to finally point back down the hill but we were caught in the car traffic and escorted by a police cruiser so speeding wasn’t really in the cards. We were offered another chance to regroup at the bottom of the canyon in Lyons after reloading on food and water and left town with a group of 20 or so folks which offered a much more efficient ride through the last segment of flats. We worked with some strong ladies and a very entertaining group of Dutch guys who all averaged a few inches over 6’ and provided outstanding drafts. We finished the segment with a friendly sprint for the line and rolled into the final aid station of the day for cokes and more snacks. Riding back into town was low key and conversational and there was no better way to end the ride than an icy plunge in the Boulder creek! We wrapped up the day with lunch, showers, massage, sink chamois washing, naps, reorganizing, and packing for the morning, and finally dinner.
91 miles ~ 11,800 ft
Day two was arguably the one I was most excited for. In some manner we were leaving Boulder, climbing up the mountains and crossing the continental divide at Berthoud Pass’s 11,300 feet before descending back down to Winter Park. We started another neutral morning with a roaming police closure up Boulder Canyon until we hit the chip seal and dirt of the first timed segment up the Sugarloaf Road climb. I started out with a group but once the climb settled in (and the fact that I was really excited to find a portapotty) I built up my effort and went solo to work my way through all the riders I could see. While climbing on my own no one hung on to my wheel for too long and it was a peaceful effort to get to the top. Dismayed at the lack of fanfare (read: portapotty) at the end of the timing segment, I continued on solo until I found a nice mostly secluded recess in the foliage. We rolled on through Nederland with me in no-mans land between two groups after my rest stop but rather enjoying the solitude. Another regroup at the following aid station put me and my partner together again and we rolled through the beautiful views of the other end of Peak to Peak Highway before taking a gravel shortcut known as Apex Valley Road across the hill to save us the cruise through the busy streets of Central City.
The forecast for the day called for building thunderstorms and a chance of snow at the higher elevations and I was definitely feeling the nagging urge to keep the forward momentum going. As we dropped into the I-70 corridor and Idaho Springs the skies grew increasingly ominous and the few sporadic sprinkles gained momentum to become a full-fledged downpour. I took a few minutes to add some rain proof layers and continued on. In typical Colorado fashion the rain stopped a few times, got worse, got better, and became hail before pausing once again. I motored on once again keeping it steady and working in the folks riding in front of me. There were a few solid boomers of thunder but we were through the worst of it. A glance back confirmed that once again I was steadily growing my group of riders but I was still content to set the pace, as this time it was also laying the roll of keeping me out of the spray of road grime shooting off the tires. The rain and hail continued to be intermittent and as we finally reached the offshoot that takes us through the small town of Empire and up Berthoud there was one last aid station to refuel at before the big push up the climb.
I missed a group heading out on the low-grade climb that leads to the first switchbacks at the base of the pass and suffered solo through the headwinds for a solid hour with a group just out of reach ahead of me. There was definitely some self-reflection over the timing of that leg but as we turned the corner to the increased grades of the switchbacks, the group ahead broke apart and I once again was reeling riders in. As I made my way closer to the summit I could see squalls of snow pelting down with increasing frequency as gusts passed over the road. I was still wearing my rain jacket albeit unzipped with arm warmers on under and latex gloves over my usual full finger summer gloves. I watched the wind whip a mountain side of trees with a particularly heavy burst of snow in my direction and pulled against the retaining wall to zip up. The climb was otherwise steady and uneventful, most folks I passed at that point weren’t quite capable of communication so I smiled and said hi and continued climbing. I topped out at the wind-swept aid station leading into the final stretch of road and tried to use the support trucks as a wind block to throw on my leg warmers. I thought my plan was solid; zip on down the last bit of the pass before the cold set in to my already soaked kit and relish in having finally crossed a route I drive so often on my very own human powered two wheels.
I made it 100 feet out of the aid station before I decided this was a stupid idea. I’m not well versed on backtracking or changing my mind once I’ve made a decision so while I wasn’t envying the other riders warm in the building at the top or opting for a shuttle down, I did decide that if I encountered one of our support vehicles I was going to call it. Of course, I didn’t see a single one of the dedicated ten or so car caravan the entire trip down. The first few minutes was spent channeling my inner calm and self-warming as my shivering was causing the bike to shimmy. The snow was getting heavier, visibility was poor, and I needed to not crash off the tiny shoulder or roll into the string of backed up cars that I didn’t need to look to know were stacked behind me. I thought for sure I was the only rider dumb enough to be trying my luck in the weather, every few seconds I was needing to wipe the cumulated snow off of the front of my glasses. My lack of watts meanwhile was dropping my core temperature and it was taking a lot of concentration to hold that white line and not shimmy myself into a shiver crash. I was too cold to maintain the maneuverability needed to keep an eye on traffic so I never looked, only one truck pulling a trailer was mad enough to let it be known to anyone who cared that he had an opinion on my presence with an extended hateful blast of the horn. Like that was going to change the current predicament. The corners seemed to go on forever, my fingers were numb and past painful, I spotted one of our moto riders sitting in the corner and his thumbs up renewed the feeling of pride that I could get through this, I was tough. The last switchback is a big full 180 and I was caught up in the disbelief that perhaps this indeed, was it? I had made it? A rider swung up onto my rear wheel to make his presence behind me known and a feeling of relief washed over me, we were in fact down and there had been someone with me the whole time watching my six and taking a share of the responsibility of traffic interference. A final burst of energy refreshed me and I got back on the pedals as the snow turned into rain, the rain turned into mist, and the mist turned into sunshine. I began to defrost as we made our way through the flats and we stopped to wait for the light at the entrance to Winter Park with a high fives and expressions of relief. Once again the drop in physical effort caught up to me and I broke down into shivers and shimmies before entering the finish chute. I was snagged and escorted into the parking garage where the rest of the motos were hiding next to our luggage and the tank of hot cider. I was borderline able to function and graciously shoved into an electric motorcycle jacket to regain some heat. They informed us that we were some of the last riders “allowed” to descend the pass with all the riders just behind me being wrapped in tin foil blankets and ushered into vehicles for the final few miles. A group even further behind were forced to wait under an overpass while the lightning risk diminished. I wanted an eventful day and we sure got it! Dry clothes and a puffy jacket had never felt so good.
94 miles ~ 6,400 ft
Day three took us from a chilly start in Winter Park onto back routes and through cool canyons to the half high plains half mountain town of Avon. This day was one of the lesser climbing routes with endless rolling hills and long stretches of gravel road. I figured out starting in the very front of the group kept me much more comfortable than sitting in the middle of the pack of varied experience riders to start the day but as we passed into the first timed segment I slid back to a more comfortable pace that would allow me to stay consistent throughout the 95-mile day. We fell into groups to work through the flats and as we ascended the second timed segment of the day on Trough road I once again found myself setting the pace for those around me while climbing just to get unceremoniously and abruptly dropped on the descents. Fighting a moment of disconcert over the extra time it would take me to cover the same amount of ground solo, I was left to savor the peacefulness of the solitude, the avoidance of the occasional semi, and much more opportunity to take in my surroundings before a new group appeared on the road behind me, worked me in and it was back to staring at wheels and minding the gaps.
Even then the paved conclusion to Trough Road was my favorite feature, paralleling the railroad tracks and the Colorado River in a narrow canyon until we passed through the tiny town of State Bridge and headed up the final hour long, 1,500 foot climb and timed segment of the day. There was a steady headwind facing us on the final climb and with the temps that day in the upper 80’s with no reprieve from the high elevation sunshine, all of us were feeling pretty worked. I put my head down and plowed forward dragging my less uphill inclined friends along. There was much elation when we crossed the final timing line of the day, our spirits were high despite the fatigue as we rolled down the final hills at a more relaxed pace and then took turns leading our way through the shallow grades to the conclusion of the days stage. Perhaps because we knew the following day was the designated “rest” day we took our time to enjoy the backdrop of the finish line and its surrounding lake, gather our things, grab some food and mosey on back to our spot for the night.
10 miles ~ 2,000 ft
Day four’s earmarked “rest day” was a friendly jaunt up a nearby mountain with just under 2k feet of elevation gain in 10 miles. Conversations varied from “I’m going to soft pedal the whole thing” to “oh my god this is going to hurt, the road grades are ridiculous.” In truth it had been years since I myself stood on a TT start platform, had someone steady me on the bike, and blasted off into the unknown. I had seen a few friends compete in TT’s the past years and had never once had I felt envious of them on those occasions. I had a few butterflies fluttering around as I rolled up, I did a brief spin to warm up with the solidly thought out plan of “go super easy at the start.” Despite quite literally having no idea where or what I was heading up, just that it was indeed up, the plan payed off and once the road pitched towards the mountain tops I settled into a comfortable steady pace. Any planning on my effort I otherwise had the idea to rely on was thrown out the window with starting my Garmin in excess of 2 miles and unknown time before I was up in the start platform. I was confident from the last few days that climbing was my strong suit and that I could perhaps derive some gratification from unleashing my superpower when drafting wasn’t playing an integral role. I was in the top ten of the 30 women starting so I set my sights on catching the twenty or so girls in front as they came into view. There was a pleasantly surprising descent six miles in that made for pinning some fun winding corners but the adrenalin that produced resulted in the most excruciating five second of the hour twenty ride as I unintentionally stood up and threw down for the transition back to the remaining climb. I reached the finish line with a last ditch dig for watts and sprint that comically raised my heart rate no more than three beats per minute in the 20 second all-out effort. Fatigue is real a few days in even if you are choosing to ignore it.
Our group of ladies who were offered the chance to ride first in the cooler calmer morning as opposed to being mixed in with the men in the overall General Classification of the event relished our time at the top of the hill and the concept of having the entire rest of the day to do as we pleased. While I had the idea of staring at the computer and being productive with my usual day to day tidings, my brain was more interested in finding food and starting into the back of my closed eyelids. While I donned a bikini and joined some other friends at the beach for a quick soaking and some social time instead, it was still a relieving and welcome feeling to be toning down the fervor for the day.
94 miles ~ 7,500 ft
Day five dawned as a typical Colorado blue bird morning and promised to be challenging in its own right with all but the first hour of the day above 9k feet of elevation. We were to leave Avon and ascend Tennessee Pass before heading to the town of Leadville, circling Turquoise lake, and ascending back over Freemont Pass until we dropped down to Copper resort and the I-70 corridor. A bike path would take us along the interstate and through the tree shrouded Officers Gulch, around the Tenmile Mountain Range, and up the valley to Breckenridge. I stared out in the front of the group as I was growing accustomed to doing and as we rolled out of town I, like many of my fellow spandex clad coffee drinkers was hoping to find a nice secluded bush to relive myself before the neutral paced ride passed the start of the first timed segment. While the less convenient equipment I have been provided with tends to result in more tree watering modesty and less pure road side acts of indecency, the sense of urgency to not loose the group can usually result in more of the later. I was close to as guilty as the majority of the of the later reprimanded riders, I did find a side road as opposed to the main route of travel but still I was merely on the shoulder and the police escorts were - in general - livid at our meeting that evening.
Feeling much better and a few figurative kilos lighter I was delighted to have maintained awareness of the entirety of the group as it passed by. When I successfully had all the zipps zipped and the pedals once again turning, I used the relief to make my way past as many riders as I could. In hindsight this may not have been the best plan at the start of a near hundred mile day was but I was elated from my 3rdplace TT the day before and ready to rejoin my usual company of riders. As some familiar butts came into view I settled into my on-the-front truckin’-up-the-mountain pace and once again happily led an increasingly large bunch of riders up the hill. This time I was rewarded with a few mentions of gratitude and was still feeling pretty good as we rolled into the mountain top aid station. After refueling I rolled out in a group of familiar faces but perhaps a caloric deficit on the day with merely some toast for breakfast, a bit too much on that first timed segment, or just the overall stress facing a large amount of riding on rolling to relatively flat terrain. Whatever the cause I began to tire quickly. I hung on for a while but as we rounded turquoise lake the constant fluctuations in the terrain and the consequent variations in the pace were enough for me to let the group go. I was solo for a bit, comforted by the gorgeous views overlooking the lake. Once caught by a reliable friend and a super strong wheel we traded pulls up and down the rollers, me on the front for the ups and she on the front for the downs.
I had to hone my concentration as the downs become more frequent but stole a few glances off to the crystal waters as we caught up to some others and crossed over the damn to head into Leadville. Much to my dismay the terrain after Leadville was once again flat and fast and my hanging on for dear life didn’t take me very far. I ended up behind my usual company of riders with a number of folks well-meaning but less experienced. My frustrations continued to rise as I motioned for riders to take the front pull into the headwind and no one would comply. The breaking point came when the end of the final timed segment came into sight and the riders behind me sprinted past with zero gratitude or any offer of reprieve from their wheels. As I rolled through the final aid station of the day I didn’t bother to stop and continued on the bike path to dwell on happier thoughts like how incredibly scenic the location was. I did determine I could have eaten better to keep my mood up or focused on working harder earlier in the day to stay surrounded by those who were pleasant to ride with. I value and prioritize comradery and up to this point felt the overall spirit of Haute Route was made beautiful by how much working together and helping each other out I had experienced.
I was caught by the group of Team Type 1 Riders as I rounded the north edge of the Tenmile mountain range to head back south to Breckenridge. They had an inkling of my mood from my passing the feed zone and proceeded to heckle me until I could barely remember what I had been upset about. Those guys are quality.
113 miles ~ 10,500 ft
Day six somehow became known as the Queen Stage, as far as I am aware no other stage had earned itself a title. On the longest day of the event we were to cover 113 miles, over 10k feet of climbing, and six mountain passes. The morning was the chilliest it had been all week with the sun warming the start line to the low 40’s. We made our way over Swan pass in the usual early-day neutral bunch and cruised through the town of Dillon to head towards Keystone Resort and up Loveland pass, the first of four timed segments of the day. After a stern and heavily emphasized reprimand on public urination the evening before the group was once again grumbling from front to back about needing to relive themselves before heading up the climb. A few folks dodged into side roads while one guy attempted to relive himself while in the moving pack right in front of me. I rewarded him with a loud and intense commentary on how I felt about that particular situation. It appeared as though he then suffered stage fright -hopefully in part from my pointed and choice words - and he tucked things away to deal with the time penalty he received from the moto next to us later in the evening. It is amazing how decency goes out the window when urgency is involved, I did manage to duck into some trees before crossing the timing mat, right along side a handful of guys. We were more focused on keeping half an eye on the moto stalking us to take our numbers down for later time penalties than the non-partitioned unisex tree restroom we had found.
I rejoined the ride but at a more casual pace from my chase back on the day before. I figured that most of the riders were past, there was just one or two stragglers I could see back the direction we had come. When I reached the top of Loveland pass I heard a yell that they were holding a truck for us to have a clear run at the descent so without much of a rest I grabbed a few calories from the aid station and hastened back on. Not being the most daring descender I found myself alone marveling once again how this quiet bike path adjacent to a major interstate such of !-70 is so absolutely gorgeous. I found my usual crew of compatible riders and joined them under the Georgetown train bridge before heading up the slog of a climb that was Guanella Pass. The rad Colorado girls I’d been around most of the week stayed together through most of the climb as we made our way to the top.
The descent out of this one was rolling and full of fast flats and I once again found myself off the back in no mans land. My momentary worry of how much ground was left to cover was quickly abolished as I was once again swept up by the Dutch guys and dragged along the last bits of rolling flats on their wheels. Kenosha Pass to Fairplay went by in a blur of traffic, bunch riding, 40 mile per hour crosswind gusts, and minding the white line. The moto cop with us was none too pleased that the wind kept us drifting into the traffic on a busy highway and I let out an actual verbal whoop of delight when we turned off that high stress stretch. We were only facing one final climb on the day but already I was cracked from the heat and the focus of working in a group. One of the Dutch guys found me as the road pitched steeper and babysat my fried brain until the top. Those guys pulled the most amazing appearance acts every day, I would always figure that they were in front of me because I hadn’t spotted them yet and then one or all four of them would sweep past and block the wind for me right when I was needing it most. We finished up together that day, their humor and steadfast company a welcome relief on the tail end of such a challenging day.
57 miles ~ 6,900 ft
The final dawn had us jubilant in a zombie sort of way. We stumbled through breakfast, kitting up, and luggage shuffling. Today’s journey involved a shuttle to the start at Woodland Park and we were advised to chamois up before getting on the 2 hour bus ride. Lol. Our table made a few bets over breakfast of what percentage would comply, at this point in the week one moment in bike shorts off the bike was two moments more than needed. The drive was scenic, backtracking over Hoosier Pass and our final climb from the previous day just as the sun came out from behind the mountains. We rolled in with plenty of time to change and prepare and before we knew it we were being escorted out of town and headed towards the distant peaks.