Taking the high road at Haute Route Asheville
Editor’s note: This May, VeloNews managing editor Chris Case rode Haute Route Asheville, a three-stage gran fondo in Asheville, North Carolina. The event is one of 13 Haute Route events held around the world, from Europe to the U.S., Oman to Mexico. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Haute Route.
When I was younger, I never thought about being a professional cyclist. After seven years of writing, reporting, and editing at VeloNews, I take every opportunity to partake in events that make me feel like I’m a professional cyclist.
In my experience, Haute Route events are at, or near, the pinnacle—for every pedal stroke on every stage—at offering the pro experience, both on and off the bike. Do you want to ride big stages with the level of support typically reserved for WorldTour riders? Haute Route does that. Want to compete against some of the strongest amateur riders you’re ever likely to face? Haute Route always attracts a fast, skilled, and determined field. Want to be pampered off the bike with hot meals, massages, and (better than) pro accommodations? Haute Route has it.
Much like a pro, I arrived to Haute Route Asheville fresh off jetting around the world (first it was the Isle of Skye, in northern Scotland, for a family vacation; then I quickly transitioned to gravel racer for Wild Horse Gravel on Colorado’s Western Slope).
Settled in to my hotel in downtown Asheville, all I needed to do was switch to roadie mode, pin on race numbers and attach timing chips, dial in a bike, adjust to the new climate and wrap my tattered brain around a new time zone, and prepare for three hard days of full-gas racing. I had my hands full.
If you’ve read about my experiences in events like Wild Horse and Land Run, in which I arrive in less-than-fit condition, you know that I have a proclivity for racing from the gun, rather than wisely pacing my efforts. Alas, I’m not a complete dolt. Maybe it was severe jet lag, or maybe somewhere I gained some sense. Regardless of the reason, I went into stage 1 of Haute Route Asheville telling myself that I would greatly benefit from taking things easy the first day, then reassessing after the day was done. Most importantly, I actually stuck to the plan.
We rolled from downtown Asheville at a leisurely pace; this was a timed-segment event. There was no need to step on the gas from kilometer zero; in fact, when the first segment did begin up Elk Mountain, five miles into the stage, I still didn’t punch the gas. Rather, I gently pressed on the accelerator, easing my way to a pace I knew was sustainable, then focused on keeping my ego from bursting onto the silky smooth tarmac as rider after rider streamed by.
While I was certainly tempted to engage with the furious pace up front, I took a longer view. No, this wasn’t the Giro d’Italia, but for someone in my state, having been on the road for so long, three monster days of riding (stage 1: 103 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain; stage 2: 98 miles and 9,000 feet of gain; stage 3: a 5.5-mile uphill time trial) were going to bludgeon my physiology like three weeks at a grand tour.
Luckily, while Haute Route is run like a pro event and the racing can be fierce, because of the timed-segment format (in the U.S. at least), it isn’t full-gas all day. One’s cumulative time within the timed segments defines their placing, so there are many other miles where the pace is moderate.
And then there are the feed stations. Pros only wish they had it this good. From bars to blocks, fresh fruit to peanut butter and jelly, the spread was immense. The biggest issue I had at these stops was to abstain from eating the cookies… okay, maybe one won’t hurt.
The feed zones are also places to regroup for the next mellow section. So, while the top riders can crush as crush can on the timed segments, not far down the road there is inevitably an aid station. Slower riders roll in, take a bit less time to gather themselves, and then a large group reforms on the road.
We cruised through the humid hollows and rain-dappled countryside of the Pisgah National Forest. The roads got narrower; the roads got steeper. Then the road lost its asphalt. Ah, dirt. This was something I knew. I made it through the first timed segments feeling okay, and now I was on terrain I ride all the time in Colorado. (For those unfamiliar or intimidated by dirt, there was nothing to fear. This was a short, four-mile climb, and allowed us to make an incredible loop.) So, I upped my effort accordingly on the packed, moist dirt of Cane River Gap. Would I pay? Probably. Did I care at this moment? Can’t say that I did.
I latched onto the wheel of Andres, a rider from Colombia. Because Haute Route events attract such international fields, you can distract yourself by counting the number of participants who’ve traveled across the world to descend on a place like Asheville. Every rider’s bib number has their home nation’s flag, so you know the long (or short) journey that they’ve made to race.
No words were exchanged, nor did they need to be, as Andres and I united in our efforts to pull back riders who went out too fast. Gauging your effort throughout a stage that includes easy moments in between punishingly hard timed segments takes a change of mentality. Despite the fact that each segment is often only a climb (though sometimes they are much longer and include a climb-descent-climb combination), they accumulate. In combination with the overall length of the day and the accumulation of so many vertical feet, pacing is a challenge. You can’t just smash everything. But you can probably smash a little bit more than you would in a point-to-point, traditional race, knowing that there’ll be moments to recover.
We crested the climb, and immediately began to descend what were some of the tighter, smoother, and dicier hairpin corners we’d experience over the course of three days. This was gorgeous cycling terrain.
After regrouping once again we charged through another timed segment, until we reached a feed zone just before the day’s final, monstrous timed segment, which climbed and rolled along the lush Blue Ridge Parkway for almost 54 kilometers.
We snacked, we shoved our pockets full of treats, and we slowly coalesced just far enough from the timing mat to gather ourselves before the big push. And then we all collectively made the call to roll.
It wasn’t long before I realized this day was catching up to me. I could push hard, stay with the lead group, perhaps suck their wheels for a little bit, but I knew I risked regretting it. I chose, instead, to simply ease off the pace on Dicks Gap, find a rhythm up and over Bullhead Gap, take in the gorgeous views, and wrap my head around riding along one of the smoothest roads I’d ever ridden, with only forests as far as the eye could see for company.
Surprisingly, I eventually started to reel in riders. I could hear one rider’s drivetrain from hundreds of meters away. That’s too bad because otherwise I might have sat on his wheel. But there was no way I could put up with that racket in such a peaceful place. I gave a little extra push as I whizzed past.
Eventually the climbing was done. Thank god for the supertuck. I sat on the top tube as much as humanly possible. I wove through luscious corners with a stiff breeze in my face and a tear welling in my wind-streaked eyes. Despite the fact that this was a timed segment, my effort was far less than pro level. I needed to take this in. I ripped past the “5KM until end of segment” sign with a grin the size of Mount Mitchell.
After rolling across the “finish line” in downtown Asheville, I had a few final tasks: grab a beer; sign up for my massage slot; and feast on lunch. So pro.
Often when people conjure images of professional cycling, they envision a colorful peloton streaming past an opulent French chateau with its steeply pitched roofs and sculptural ornamentation. Well, without fail, Haute Route Asheville has that, too.
Stage 2 began with a neutralized roll-out through the sprawling Biltmore Estate, home to the majestic Biltmore House, a Châteauesque-style mansion and the largest privately owned home in the United States. The striking facade of this fantastical structure took the collective breath of the riders. Good thing we rode at a strolling pace as we wound through the densely forested estate grounds.
Just as the Tour de France often starts in front of historic buildings, we had our bit. Likewise, the parade soon ended, and the racing began. In Asheville, that meant more big climbs. The appetizer was Newfound Gap, followed soon after by the nasty Crabtree Gap—short, hot, and steep. I was licking my lips.
While the overall leaders—professional cyclocross racer Kerry Werner among them, as well as members of the Novo Nordisk pro team—played cat-and-mouse to make sure they entered the timed segment together, I sped off with a Colorado compatriot to try and pull a fast one on all of them. Maybe my endurance wasn’t in tip-top shape, but I still had the punch and fire to get up a precipitous pitch, so long as it only lasted 10 minutes.
I quickly dropped my compatriot. The pitch steepened. For a moment I thought I was on the Mortirolo, as the road inclined ever steeper. It was short-lived. A quick look back and I saw the leaders trundling along. A quick look ahead and I caught a glimpse of the finish flags, high above. Only two more minutes of agony, I mumbled to myself.
And then one minute, and then thirty seconds, and then… Kerry Werner and Hamish Beadle of Novo Nordisk were beside me. And then they were in front of me. Drat. Well, I came close.
After another solid up-down-up timed segment, we came to the final timed section of stage 2. There had been chatter that it was flat, rather technical, and maybe a bit sketchy in the corners due to the road surface.
I believe I caught whispers of “hell yeah” echoing through the hollows. Once we slid into the timed segment, we were off, diving into blind corners, jockeying for position to be near the front of this reduced group. We didn’t necessarily know where we were headed next, but we knew we were headed there fast. An attack from John Murphy of Rally Cycling stirred this swarm of bees. The pace rose again, in and out of corners we ducked, merging and bobbing like a gulp of swirling swallows.
I gasped as we crossed the line, having successively stayed with the fastest among us. Then, as any masters racer with a young daughter should, I let out a sigh of relief that no one was run over, no one ran off the road, no one slid out and lost half their skin, and in particular, I survived.
More beer, more massage time—including a woman kneeling on my back and smashing me into compressed bliss—more mass quantities of food. Stage 2 was complete.
The three-day Haute Route events have a tradition of finishing with a time trial stage. After the first two road stages, a time trial is often enough to really turn the hurt screws on most of the participants. In the case of Asheville, the top three riders were all tied on time, so the time trial would serve as the critical decider.
In my case, I wasn’t expecting too much. I’d had my fun, I’d met new friends on the road, I’d soaked in some of the fine restaurants and chocolate shops that Asheville had to offer. The time trial would serve as a final reminder of the unblemished road surfaces in these parts, the canopy of trees that cloaked innumerable roads, and, of course, the pain of the race against the clock.
I set out with a photographer snapping my photo in the start gate. So pro. Not far up the road, another photographer snapped away roadside. Seconds later, he buzzed past on his motor scooter, pulled over just up the road, and snapped some more. Celebrity status.
Since I had no more than 15 minutes left to empty the tank, with each shutter click my confidence (read: ego) grew, and I pushed a bit harder. Leave it to a camera to motivate me, if only to look like I was trying my hardest.
Encouraged by the cheers of fellow competitors who had already completed the stage and were now heading down Town Mountain, I grappled with every gear-inch, churned fatigued legs, and thought about all that I’d ridden in the past three days. They say it’s about the journey, not the destination, and Haute Route events embody that fact. You could also say it’s not entirely about the competition. Competing is, after all, not the point. Rather, it’s about the experience, it’s about being connected to the group, to the rolling community, to the terrain, and to the place.