Two weeks ago I ventured out to Asheville, a mountainous city in North Carolina, USA.
I wasn't there to visit the famous Biltmore Estate (although I did ride through it), hike through the Pisgah National Forest (rode through it as well), or indulge in a pint of craft beer at one of the many local breweries (did have one post ride though...).
Instead I was there to take part in the 2nd edition of Haute Route Asheville, a 3 day stage sportive covering 206.1 miles and climbing over 21k feet.
Now you may be asking yourself, "Why is a triathlete taking part in one of the most gruelling stage races in the US?!".
Simply put, it's a great boost in fitness leading into an IRONMAN. I was 10 weeks out from IRONMAN Lake Placid and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get a big weekend of cycling in the legs. It's pretty rare that I get to do long sustained climbs, and this event definitely provided that opportunity.
So, why should you do sportives to improve your bike performance?
Racing always tends to bring out the best performances in people, and often pushes you to new levels. You can occasionally get this on your local group rides, but when you pin a number on your back and put a timing chip on, it tends to up your performance to a new level.
The Haute Route events specifically draw a variety of rider abilities, and you can always find yourself surrounded with people to push the pace.
These events are typically aimed at having a LOT of climbing, which typically makes for challenging riding for most people. In my opinion, there is no better way to gain fitness and build strength on the bike, then by spending time in the mountains.
If you're unlucky like me and live in a flat area, then the Haute Route Events provide exactly what you are missing in your normal training, plenty of climbing!
Having a fully catered ride also makes for a nice touch. You just have to worry about getting yourself to the start line and everything else from there is taken care of for you. This event had everything from pro level mechanic support, fully stocked aid stations (including PH drinks!), post ride massages, post ride food and a bike wash station.
What did a typical day look like?
For Asheville, the days were very similar, with the last day being slightly different due to being an uphill time trial. For the first two days, race start was at 0700.
I rode with the front group both days, which had ~25 of us in it and our total ride time was a tad over 6 hours, with ~5:45 of ride time.
The stages had multiple timed segments in them and between the timed segments the riding was pretty relaxed with a lot of small talk within the group.
Once the timed segments started, it was game on and the small talk would diminish and be replaced by increased heart rate and heavy breathing.
Between most segments the group would stop for 5-10 mins at the aid stations to fill up on PH 500, PBJ, M&M's, gels, energy chews, etc. Then off we would go to start the next segment, usually a few K down the road from the aid station.
The finish area had PH 500, cold beer, and staff to assist in booking your massage. I would then head over to the host hotel to grab some food (or come back later after a run or swim, more on that in a bit), and then go wash the bike before heading to my room. It was well organized and pretty efficient post ride process.
How did I fit in swims and runs?
The great thing about staying at the Four Points (one of the host hotels, right across the street from the event HQ), was that it included entry to the YMCA which was right next door. The hotel also had a small gym, which included treadmills, as did the YMCA. It was really convenient to come back to the hotel and hop right onto the treadmill for a short run.
During these big weekends of riding I wouldn't recommend doing a ton of "extra" work, the rides are already quite taxing on the body and the main focus should be on recovery.
I am a big believer in active recovery and have seen the benefits of doing short runs and easy swims after big days on the bike to loosen up the body for a consecutive big day.
How did I prepare for the event?
I actually didn't change anything leading up to the event. I went into it with zero expectations, but had done a bit of research on previous years' results and was thinking I could possibly be in the Top 10.
Little did I know that a handful of pro cyclist would show up, and the Novo Nordisk (Team Type 1) Development Team would be there! Once I realized that, all expectations went out the window and I just focused on riding hard and having fun.
I had raced a 70.3 down in Florida the weekend prior, which wasn't the best "race prep", but by the day the race started I felt like I had recovered quite well and was ready to go.
I had only ridden ~5hrs+ 3 times so far this year, so I was a bit worried about the duration, but I had been pretty happy with where my cycling training was for this point in the season. If this would have been later in the year this would be a different case, but I really looked at this event as a way to kick off my prep for IRONMAN Lake Placid, so wasn't too concerned.
If I was a bit more focused on getting a better result at this event in years to come, I would definitely have increased the amount of longer rides I had under my belt going into it.
I would have probably emphasized a bit more on my 1-5 min power as well, although the riding wasn't super punchy, when the front guys lifted the pace I typically didn't have that high end power to respond with, but over time could claw my way back, and at other times I would just get shot out the back.
But with the focus being on 70.3 and IM racing, I just rolled into the event with triathlon training and gave it what I had.
Is Haute Route worth the money?
Quite a few people have asked me if it was "worth it". Full disclosure, we (Precision Hydration) are the Official Hydration Sponsor of Haute Route, and with that I was able to do the ride free of charge. Over the weekend of riding I was trying to justify to myself how I could recommend to someone to spend $750-$850 to do this event.
I thought about the amount of time I spent on the courses ~12.5hrs and then thought about what people are paying to do an IRONMAN, taking anywhere from 8 - 17hrs. They range from $700-$800, so I really believe you are getting your money's worth. The events are well organized, well run (the best cycling event I have done) and offered a really tough course.
I would probably have a harder time justifying it if I had mountains right out my back door, but then again you aren't going to have hundreds of competitive cyclists with you, and pushing you to a new level. For some, $850 may seem quite pricey, but I think it is actually very reasonable given the experience I had.
Event Specific Recap
I wrote a diary and recorded some video if you're interested in learning more about Haute Route Asheville, or riding in North Carolina generally...
I knew this was going to be the hardest day, it was the longest day (103 miles) and had the most climbing (10,908ft). On top of that everyone was coming into the ride with fresh legs.
I had a pretty solid day, other than getting a flat in the ~20min dirt/gravel section. This cost me ~4 mins, which didn't actually mater in the overall standings by the end of the event.
After the flat was repaired I rode pretty hard, until almost coming off the bike around a corner so decided to take the rest of the descent a bit slower and finally caught the group at the next aid station.
The following section I figured I had nothing to lose so ended up solo off the front and was hoping to get out of sight out of mind as the section was quite flat, I stayed away till about 2k left and got caught and eventually out the back on the final 1k of the climb, silly triathlete ;)
Overall it was an amazing day on the bike with plenty of hard riding and great conversation...
Place: 19th // +19:58
— Precision Hydration (@thesweatexperts) May 18, 2019
Woke up in the morning with the legs feeling pretty good.
The timed sections were only ~1h50m today compared to yesterdays ~3h45m, so due to the shorter sections I knew it was going to hopefully be slightly easier. We spent the first ~20k neutralized as we took in the sights of the Biltmore Estate, it was actually a great way to start the day.
The significant climb of the day was CrabTree Hill, due to hitting 20% in some sections. Overall it was quite short, but super steep and that was probably the most painful section of the day, if not weekend.
The time sections ended on a fairly flat section that had a small kicker at the end, and I lost a bit more time on this section. Once again, another great day on the bike, with plenty of sunshine and tan lines!
Place: 20th // +3:41
GC: 20th // +23:26
Who had to “paperboy” up Crabtree Hill @Haute_Route Asheville today?!?!? It’s 1.7 miles, averaging 11% and hitting 20% in some spots.— Precision Hydration (@thesweatexperts) May 18, 2019
As you can hear @BW_Tri was in the hurt box & barely made it up the climb.....😳@HauteRoute_NA @muc_off @teamnovonordisk @TT1foundation pic.twitter.com/aUMogZ47MU
The day that I was looking most forward to, a 5 mile individual time trial with 1,100ft of elevation gain!
It played quite well into my strengths as it had minimal super steep sections. I had done a 20min FTP test ~4 weeks prior, indoors on the trainer so had a rough idea of what I should be aiming for.
I went out super hard as the early section was quite steep and then throttled back from there. I was 12 seconds down on the guy that started behind me so I had plenty of motivation to ride hard.
I ended up riding just over 20mins at 352 avg power (354NP) which is ~4.7W/kg, putting me 10th on the day.
For 2 solid days of riding in the legs previously I was really happy with this as it was slightly higher than where I was 4 weeks ago, a really good indicator that my cycling fitness is on the rise.
Place: 10th // + 1:47
GC: 18th (5th in Age Cat) // +25:13
Miss out on @HauteRoute_NA Asheville today? Here’s a short video of Day 3 climbing up Town Mountain. You can check it out on @BW_Tri ‘s @Strava as well: https://t.co/EePfdZOQth@Haute_Route @Mavic @muc_off pic.twitter.com/3rXm8myzQq
— Precision Hydration (@thesweatexperts) May 19, 2019