athleteReg CEO Ross Krause headed South to ride bikes, talk cycling, and experience a world class multi-day cycling event for himself.
In May of this year, I had the opportunity to attend and ride in the inaugural Haute Route in Asheville, North Carolina. The three-day event took place in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and drew riders from 32 states and eight countries ranging in age from early teens to 65 years.
My aim was to immerse myself in the experience (ride bikes and talk bikes!), enjoy some late spring riding after a drawn-out New England winter, and take special note of how this event could inform and inspire our customers.
ABOUT HAUTE ROUTE
Haute Route is home to the world’s most prestigious multi-day events for amateur riders and aims to deliver an unparalleled professional experience both on and off the bike. The seven and three-day event formats have timed and ranked stages, providing a competitive space for cyclists to challenge themselves, experience what it’s like to go big, and see what they can accomplish when they step outside of their comfort zone.
The focus of Haute Route is on unparalleled safety, security, comfort, and premium services over the course of the event.
Last year, Haute Route launched their first event in North America with the Mavic Haute Route Rockies. In 2018, they will host a total of four multi-day road cycling events in the US, including San Francisco; Asheville; Cedar City, Utah; and another year of the Mavic Haute Route Rockies from Boulder to Colorado Springs.
The event and the riding were amazing, which I’ve cataloged below. But before I get into the day-to-day details, I’d love to share some of the lessons learned by one of the event directors themselves. Haute Route North America Chairman Alain Lambert sat down to provide some insight into how their event and organization run so well, how they got to where they are today, and what they’ve learned along the way.
I hope this Q&A provides inspiration for your next event, or even your next adventure as an athlete.
LESSON #1: PROVIDE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUR ATHLETES TO DEFINE THEIR OWN CHALLENGE
RK: I saw and interacted with an amazing diversity of riders at Haute Route, from young professional cyclists, to seasoned veterans, students, and international riders wishing to see and experience a different country and style of riding. How does Haute Route succeed in providing an experience that suits such a diverse set of riders?
AL: The Haute Route is about riders achieving what they perceive as a personal challenge. They get to decide what their challenge is—to win the event, to beat their friends on a particular portion of the course, or to just finish.
We cater to all and our unique level of service doesn’t discriminate between the first and last rider—everyone gets treated like they are a pro. That is what binds it all together.
LESSON #2: DISCOVER WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOUR CUSTOMER
RK: How are you communicating the Haute Route story to market it and what is one piece of advice you would have for others trying to build their brand of events?
AL: We spend a lot of time communicating directly with our customers and understanding their cycling dreams. We deliver cycling experiences that appeal to a wide variety of riders, from middle-aged men to retired women and ex-pros.
Event organizers need to create their own identity, find what truly appeals to their customers, and continue to innovate.
Who would have thought a few years ago that a post-ride meal cooked by celebrity chefs or a rolling feed zone would become so popular? Organizers need to understand their riders’ DNA and stay at the forefront of industry trends.
LESSON #3: FIND PERSONAL WAYS TO BUILD YOUR PARTICIPANT BASE AND REPUTATION
RK: How do you market to such a diverse group of riders? Often, the groups you’ve mentioned can’t be reached through the same methods.
We market to cyclists in three different ways—social media, public relations, and what we call grassroots marketing. Included in grassroots marketing is our Vibrant Ambassador Program (which includes 50 riders from North America and 25 from Europe), attendance at bike expos and trade shows, group rides, and direct marketing to bike clubs, teams, and shops.
RK: Do you aim to get riders that have not considered participating in a competitive or multi-day event? If so, how do you reach them and tell a story that gets them on board?
AL: This is my favorite subject. How do we reach riders and tell them a story that gets them to participate? The story part is the easier part of the equation.
We spend a lot of time speaking with our riders, and we have an excellent understanding of their desires. Reaching them is the tougher part.
Because Haute Route is more than an event where people ride their bikes, we need to get a close and personal interaction with riders. That is why we are investing a lot in grassroots marketing. I remember giving a presentation to one of the largest cycling clubs in Southern California. Two of their riders rode our San Francisco event in April. After the event, they came to me and told me that they would recommend Haute Route to their thousand members. I heard something similar after Haute Route Asheville.
LESSON #4: MAKE SURE YOUR TEAM KNOWS THE GOAL AND KNOWS THE SPORT
RK: I was blown away by the number of support staff and the professional treatment we received. Has this been the goal and mode of operating for Haute Route since day one?
It is absolutely our goal from the beginning—rider’s first.
Most of the staff in the US either come from the cycling business or are avid cyclists with a solid background in business. They all deeply care about delivering the best possible experience.
Everyone has one thing in mind: ‘How do I enhance the experience of the Haute Route riders?’
*Behind the scenes of Haute Route Asheville: 61 staff, 41 police officers, 70 volunteers, 21 cars, 12 motos, and 6 box trucks
LESSON #5: PROVIDE A COMPLETE EXPERIENCE THAT MAKES YOUR PARTICIPANTS WANT TO RETURN.
RK: Do you see riders returning because of this level of professionalism, for the routes, the camaraderie, all of it? What’s the most commonly-cited element?
AL: Haute Route has very high repeat business. Our best salespeople are people who have completed an Haute Route. The most cited reasons for returning are those you mention—the camaraderie, the toughness, the beauty of the parkours, and the high level of services they receive.
RK: Clearly there is a long history of cycling in the European locations. Without that same length and depth of history, how do you choose events and locations in North America that stand out as bucket list rides and destinations?
AL: While the US doesn’t have as long a history of cycling, we find that riders in North America are motivated by the same things as Europeans. They love climbing, the competitive aspect of cycling, the difficulty of completing an event, and getting the feeling they are ‘pros for a day’, or in the case of Haute Route, for three or seven days. We may not have a Mont Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez in North America, but there are plenty of opportunities to replicate the experience without having the most well-known climbs in the world.
Just think about Stage 2 of Haute Route San Francisco, where riders got to ride across a closed west pathway of the Golden Gate Bridge, climb Mount Tam, ride by the beach, and finish on the top of Hawk Hill overlooking the Bay, the bridge, and San Francisco in the background.
From an experiential standpoint, this was a true Haute Route day!
RK: At one point you said something to the effect of: “This is not a Gran Fondo. This is Haute Route.” That clicked with me. What does it mean to you?
AL: A Haute Route is a high-end cycling event that has all the hallmarks of a pro event. It’s timed and ranked [and includes] full mechanical and medical support, massage, well-stocked feed stations, awesome signage, riders’ briefings, detailed maps and elevations statistics, superior quality videos and pictures, great food before and after the event, and much more.
Alongside all of this, we add the experiential aspect—something truly unique to Haute Route.
As an example, in San Francisco, for the time-trial, we took our riders to Angel Island by private ferry. The island, which was never used before for a cycling event, opens to the public at 10:30 am, so our riders had the island for themselves, time-trialing on a closed road with 360-degree views of the Bay of San Francisco. In Asheville we permitted over 50 kilometers of the Blue Ridge Parkway—another first in cycling.
THE HAUTE ROUTE ASHEVILLE EXPERIENCE
With Haute Route events, over the course of three (or seven) days, riders tackle unique and challenging courses. Each day’s stage had a series of timed segments, so you can compete within the event or decide to hold back.
As fellow participant Patrick McConnell pointed out:
“With the timed segments, it’s like having a race inside a race, so there’s strategy, but you get to get caught up on what you need to and focus and organize yourself. Where you might get dropped in a real race, you can pick up with other people. That makes it a lot more fun.”
A draw for any event is the amazing location. In choosing Asheville, Haute Route did their homework. The city is home to some incredible roads, with climbs, descents, and views that are hard to match. It’s also a happening but accessible city, and the event allowed time for exploring.
The opening stage of Haute Route Asheville circumnavigated Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain in the United States east of the Mississippi River. The 103-mile loop featured nearly 11,000 feet of climbing. Rain showers and fog helped make this long stage epic and memorable. Highlights included a long stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway and numerous twisty and challenging climbs and descents. Well-stocked aid stations and hot food after the finish were also a welcome sight!
Stage 2 of Haute Route Asheville featured five sustained climbs and an endless succession of short, punchy hills over the course of 84 miles. Crabtree Mountain stood out as a memorable one: The steepest portion of the climb is only 1.4 miles long, but averages 11% and has pitches over 15%.
The third and final day followed a time trial format with each rider tackling Town Mountain, a classic Asheville climb local pros and amateurs have tested themselves on for decades. Thick fog during the 5.6-mile hill climb made each bend in the road a mystery and added to the variety of weather we encountered. A test of fitness and focus against the clock was a perfect cap to finish off the previous long days.
Above and beyond everything else I experienced during Haute Route Asheville, what really stood out to me was the level of production and support. I know it’s not easy for all events to replicate this level of support, but something in Haute Route’s approach and attention to detail makes a lot of sense. When you focus on safety and the strength and education of the team of people behind you, it’s not only great for that event, but also for your long-term reputation and ability to retain riders year after year.
The Haute Route has a good thing going and stands as an excellent example for race directors seeking a multi-day format, or riders searching for their next big challenge.
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