Haute Route Rockies 2018 | A Very Full Seven Days
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.