Locals enjoy perks of inaugural Haute Route cycling event through Colorado

Cyclists make their way up Owl Creek Road on Wednesday as they approach the finish of the fifth stage of the Mavic Haute Route Rockies 2017 ride, which took them from Avon to Snowmass Village.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times |

At least for this week, Aspen’s Greg Strokes has been able to live like cycling royalty.

Support vehicles follow him on the road. As soon as he concludes his ride for the day, he hands over his bike to get washed, then goes to get a quick massage. All of his gear is transported from one stage to the other, leaving him time to relax and refuel.

“It’s a turnkey experience. It’s amazing,” Strokes said. “For a guy like me, an amateur, this is the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing a pro tour. It’s seven days of racing and the support is unreal. It’s ridiculous.”

It’s this pro-level support that makes the Mavic Haute Route Rockies 2017 ride so different. Making its North American debut, the seven-day, seven-stage tour through Colorado is done in “gran fondo” fashion, a combination of time trials and casual, go at your own pace riding.

Aspen played its part Wednesday, when an estimated 400 riders passed through town for the fifth stage, which took them from Avon to Snowmass Village via Independence Pass.

“Just based on cyclists’ reactions and expressions on their face, I’d say it’s a great success,” race director Chandler Smith said Wednesday near the stage’s finish at Base Village in Snowmass. “Colorado is pretty saturated with a lot of bicycle events. But what really makes this one unique is that it’s set up as a multiple-stage gran fondo. There is really nothing quite like it. It really focuses on the treatment of athletes both on and off the bike to where they feel like a pro.”

What’s in a name?

Organized by OC Sport, the Haute Route events — “haute” meaning “high” in French — are extremely popular in Europe. Most of the rides take place in its mountains, whether that is the Alps, Dolomites or Pyrenees. This week’s ride through Colorado is the first time Haute Route has made it to this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Considering its European origins, it shouldn’t be surprising that roughly 65 percent of the registered 500 riders for this week’s tour through Colorado come from outside the United States.

“It’s got an incredible international flavor to it,” Smith said. “Just to hear all the different languages being spoken and seeing all the different country flags on the rider bibs is pretty cool.”

King and Queen

The 507-mile tour began in Boulder, with stage 2 taking cyclists over Berthoud Pass to Winter Park. From there it was off to Avon, which included stage 4’s 10.5-mile individual time trial on Tuesday.

“There haven’t been any real layup days. They’ve all been hard days,” said Aspen’s Michael Tierney, one of Strokes’ three teammates riding under the Basalt Bike and Ski banner. “If I did it again, I’d like to participate in one of the ones overseas, just to see new places. Although I’ve definitely ridden roads in Colorado I didn’t even know existed. It’s been pretty amazing.”

Wednesday’s stage from Avon to Snowmass Village was considered the “Queen” stage; the first of back-to-back 100-mile routes over intimidating mountain passes. The stage included three separate time trials, including a race to the top of Independence Pass.

The “King” stage takes place Thursday, a 106-mile trek with 9,843 feet of climbing from Snowmass to Crested Butte. Unlike traditional road cycling events, the Mavic Haute Route Rockies ride features plenty of gravel and dirt roads to navigate.

“(Thursday’s) stage is going to be an eye-opener for everybody,” Tierney said. “It’s going to be a hard day.”

The tour concludes Friday with a 43.5-mile circuit that starts and finishes at the Garden of the Gods outside Colorado Springs.

Home Sweet Home?

With a large contingent of international riders, most are treating the seven-day tour of Colorado as a vacation. It’s a little different for the Basalt Bike and Ski team, which includes Carbondale’s Scott Leonard and Basalt’s Joel Mischke, who founded the well-known chain of stores in the Roaring Fork Valley.

For Tierney, the fifth stage had its moments. While he was tempted to turn right onto Cemetery Lane in Aspen and go home, he trudged on to the finish at Snowmass after managing the brutal ascent and descent of Independence Pass on Wednesday.

With an early start again Thursday, he opted to stay at his in-law’s condo in Snowmass instead of make the trek back to Aspen.

“We are cooking dinner in the condo and relaxing here, then we are off tomorrow,” Tierney said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s nice to see family. My son was at the finish line with my wife. It’s nice.”

While relaxing and living the royal life is a desire for Strokes as well this week, it’s also been difficult to get away from his real life. Strokes is the sports marketing manager of skiing for Oakley and has often had to spend much of his down time this week getting as much done as possible.

“Seven days is hard on your body and it’s hard for your family or friends or work, too,” Strokes said. “It’s a long time to be away. I’m trying to juggle work as well. I get done with the race and I’ll plug into the computer. … For a lot of people it’s a full vacation, but I can’t really check out too much.”

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