I've ridden some cool cycling events. I've done Jeremiah Bishop's four-mountain, 11,000-foot climbing Alpine Loop Gran Fondo; once after just four months of training, another time four months after having a heart attack. I did the Wintergreen climb five times in a row (which is right up there on the list of the dumbest things I've ever decided to do.) On a dare, I rode the 200-mile round trip from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Elkins, West Virginia, and back. (Ditto.)
Apart from making me somewhat foolish, things like that also made me a moderately
serious amateur cyclist.
But the thought of entering a three-day Haute Route event, much less a seven-day Haute Route -- especially the Alps or Dolomites events -- gives me the shivers. Why?
Haute Route is a global series of competitive multi-day cycling events for amateur riders, all of which involve tons of climbing. Ever wanted to try iconic climbs like Alpe d'Huez? Or Col du Tourmalet? Or Mont Ventoux? Or ride the Rockies for seven days, or three days in the hills near San Francisco? Now you can -- with full mechanical assistance, feed stations, massages, meals, and daily stage timing. And you can enter multiple events if you choose, thanks to the new Infinity Pass, a one-time annual fee that lets you enter any/ every Haute Route event in the world.
To find out more about Haute Route, I talked with co-founder and CEO Remi Duchemin. (And tentatively decided to ride the three-day event held in Asheville, North Carolina, next May. Eek.)
In retrospect, creating a multi-day cycling series for amateurs is a great idea... but at the time, no one was doing it.
I used to work for ASO, and was working on the Tour de France at the time. When I thought of starting a business, I didn't want to be involved in professional cycling -- I wanted to do something with elite amateur cycling.
I love cycling. I love being on my bike. I saw how the market was and is still moving: People who used to play golf and tennis now are cyclists. Cycling is the new golf.
I saw the market moving that way, and at the time (2010), the multi-day amateur cycling event concept didn't exist. There were plenty of single-day Gran Fondos, but no amateur version of a stage race like the Tour de France.
That was the origin of the Haute Route concept, a multi-day cycling event for the new population of cyclists: Decision makers, people with high expectations of themselves and of service... and people for whom the social aspect of cycling is absolutely key.
It's interesting you say that. I know a number of extremely successful people who view going for a ride the way some used to see playing golf together: A way to get to know each other, take the temperature of the other person... and even make deals.
From the very beginning, I also wanted the Haute Route courses to be in the mountains. I'm a big fan of mountains, I love riding my bike in the mountains... and of course the most iconic places are the Tour de France climbs.
That's why the 2011 Haute Route event, the first one we held, ran from Geneva to Nice.
Clearly we were on to something: In 2012, we sold out the event in eight hours.
Why do you think the second year sold out so quickly?
One, the first edition was not a disaster in terms of delivery. (Laughs.) That created a good social-media buzz. We had no money and no marketing, so the interest clearly came from good word-of-mouth and good buzz on social media.
That response gave us the confidence to extend the concept. In 2013, we ran a seven-day event in the Pyrenees: Timing, ranking... a proper race for amateur cyclists. In 2014, we added a seven-day event in the Italian Dolomites. Then, with support from Mavic, our original sponsor, we co-created the Mavic Haute Route in the U.S.
And in 2017 we established three-day events: Fridays are a full mountain stage, Saturdays another mountain stage, and then on Sundays we do individual time trials on a climb.
Were you worried that holding three-day events would take interest away from the seven-day events?
The opposite has been true. We started holding three-day events because people asked for them. Completing a three-day event involves less training. Plus they're more schedule-friendly, especially for people with families.
In total, we now have ten three-day events and three seven-day events.
Let's dig deeper into expansion. You have a small team; how did you pull that off, especially with the logistics involved in holding events all around the world?
My company, OC Sports, is also active in running, triathlons, and off-trail running. In the beginning we also did everything involved with Haute Route. Then, in 2016, I decided we were either too big or too small -- so we decided to continue to grow.
Growth meant bringing on investors. We've done three capital raises and now we have three investors who fully believe in the Haute Route concept.
Finding investors is one thing. Finding the right investors can be extremely difficult.
I took a very pragmatic approach. I only wanted individual investors -- no private funds. I wanted people who were already a fan of endurance sports and cycling -- that way I wouldn't have to explain the market and help them understand why we needed to acquire certain events. I wanted them to be willing to be active, to open doors, to activate their networks.
And I wanted their investment in our company to represent less than 1 percent of their wealth.
You just defined a really narrow group.
Trust me, I know. (Laughs.) But it was the right thing to do.
I wanted people who thought long-term rather than short term and who were wealthy enough to not burden our small organization with a lot of reporting complexity. And I got very lucky and found three great investors. We even rode a Haute Route together and finished the event with a board meeting.
It's easy to discuss business when the people you're in business with actually enjoy the business.
You continue to expand. What is in the future for Haute Route?
We have 13 events under the Haute Route name. In the past twelve months we acquired the Gran Fondo National Series, nine single-day events in the U.S., and we need to consolidate those brands inside our brand.
We want those Gran Fondos to be a stepping-stone of sorts to three-day, and then to seven-day Haute Route events.
We also need to continue to find the right people and the right staff: Everything depends on our ability to deliver exceptional events for our customers. Then we need to identify new trends and be early rather than late: Like any business, to be agile, flexible, creative... to try to be ahead of changes in the market and not behind.
In a way, a Haute Route event is like a blend of cycling tourism and competitive cycling, both of which are definitely on the upswing.
That's borne out by the nature of our participants. For a European event like Haute Route Alps, the original event, we have participants from 57 different countries. Only half are Europeans; we get riders from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, China... it's been like that since year one.
The competition aspect adds a major dimension. You always want to improve, even just in terms of your own performance. And the events are quite fun because people come in groups: Friends, colleagues, spouses, partners... less than 5 percent of our riders come alone.
Cycling is a solitary sport, but it's also something people love to share -- especially the off-the-bike aspects. Post-race meals, mechanical assistance, medical assistance, talking about each day's ride... all those interactions create bonds between riders.
That's why we cap the number of riders at 500. If we had more entrants we would lose the personal relationship we can build with each client. We want to be able to speak to everyone, to meet everyone, to know each of them.
Say you come to Asheville next year. We don't want you to be a bib number. We want you to be Jeff. We're big enough to be cool... but not so big that you get lost.
And we plan to keep it that way.