BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado (VN) — Eight hours after starting the Haute Route Rockies’s punishing sixth stage — a mountainous 110-mile circuit around this Colorado ski town — John Clark slumped over his bicycle at the finish line and smiled. Clark’s strong finish erased bitter memories from his painful experience at the Colorado race the previous summer. In 2017, Clark was gifted a Haute Route entry from an injured riding buddy, and he showed up in Denver with just several weeks of training in his legs.
“I suffered every day. I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Clark said. “I had never heard of [Haute Route].”
Clark’s unfamiliarity with the Haute Route marks the cornerstone of a major financial deal within the country’s mass-participant bicycle racing scene. On Thursday, Haute Route announced its acquisition of the Gran Fondo National Series, the country’s largest collection of long distance road races for amateur riders. The deal includes Jens Voigt’s The Jensie Gran Fondo of Marin event in Northern California, the Malibu GRANFONDO, the Tour of Georgia Gran Fondo, and Colorado’s Golden Gran Fondo, among other events.
The deal gives Haute Route ownership of gran fondo events in California, Maryland, Colorado, North Carolina, New Jersey, Georgia, and Texas, to match its multi-day Haute Route races in California, Colorado, Utah, and North Carolina. Financial details of the two acquisitions was not available.
Micah Rice, Haute Route’s North American head of operations, said the deal is aimed at boosting participation at Haute Route’s three- and seven-day races in North America. The brand will market its longer events to gran fondo participants, with the seven-day Haute Route stage races being billed as the ultimate challenge for amateur riders.
“We’re trying to create a pipeline of participants,” Rice said. “Some of the [Grand Fondo National Series] events have 30- and 40-mile loops. We want riders to then graduate to the longer courses and then someday to the multi-day races.”
Owned by French company OC Sport, Haute Route has operated in Europe for nearly a decade with multi-day amateur stage races in the Alps, Dolomites, and Pyrenees, among other popular riding destinations. The races are for amateur riders only, and send participants over challenging terrain often used by professional races.
The company launched its North American business in 2017 with three events, including the seven-day race in Colorado. The inaugural Colorado event attracted more than 400 participants. For 2018, however, registration numbers plummeted to a little more than 200 riders.
Rice attributed the drop to, among other factors, confusion within the marketplace. Amateur riders like John Clark are simply unfamiliar with the Haute Route racing format, Rice said.
“There’s still a disconnect with the North American audience of what a Haute Route event is,” Rice said. “Is it a bike race? Is it a fun ride? What am I paying for?”
Entry fees for the races can surpass $2,000, and include massage and post-race meals.
Haute Route will promote its multi-day races at the nine gran fondo events, Rice said, in an effort to overcome the brand’s unfamiliarity amongst cyclists. Each race will retain its name and place within the Gran Fondo series for 2019. Series founder Reuben Kline will continue to operate the gran fondo events alongside staff from Haute Route, Rice said.
Rice said Haute Route hopes to become the dominant player in North America’s gran fondo marketplace. The combined participation of the Gran Fondo National Series events is well over 1,000, and the Jensie Gran Fondo Marin itself attracts more than 1,000 riders annually.
The long-distance races surged in popularity a decade ago, and events like Levi’s King’s Ridge Gran Fondo and the Gran Fondo New York still attract more than 5,000 participants.
“We want to own the Gran Fondo space,” Rice said. “There’s something to be said about criteriums, but we think road cycling is headed toward longer events that deliver an experience.”
The company’s ambitions could put it on a collision course with the sport’s other major players in the mass-participant cycling space. The World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman triathlon events, now owns a global series of mass-participant mountain bike races and Velothon road events. Gran Fondo New York is now a global series with 20 races across the globe.
The series hopes to hit 40 total events within five years, said co-founder Ulrich Fluhme.
Fluhme said he welcomes Haute Route’s expansion into North America’s cycling scene. So long as the events are well organized and safe, Fluhme said, the brand could grow the total number of participants for other gran fondo events.
“There’s space for them and for us,” Fluhme said. “The only thing I don’t want is bad events. If people try a bad event, chances are they won’t do another one.”