Emma Pooley on Racing in the Rockies, Gravel Phobias and Coffee Cravings

Emma Pooley shares her experiences of racing a seven stage event through the Colorado Rockies

A holiday for us may involve some sun, some fun, and cycling in awe of the new landscapes which unfold around us. So when the former Olympic cyclist, Emma Pooley, decided to enter Haute Route’s Mavic Rockies event last month, we couldn’t wait to see how she’d get on during this mammoth event.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Haute Route series, let us enlighten and maybe even inspire you…

Organised by OC Sport, Haute Route is a series of events to challenge and inspire the amateur cyclist who is passionate about performance and the thrill of riding their bikes. With events dotted throughout the annual calendar and across the globe, there is plenty of rides to choose from that will surely get your blood flowing and legs pedalling.

Last month, Haute Route hosted an epic seven-day road cycling event in the heart of the Colorado mountains which saw over 300 cyclists attempt to complete over 500 miles of undulating course mixed with high-altitudes and soaring temperatures. Amongst the rabble of hopeful pedallers was Emma Pooley who’s no stranger to some hard hilly grafting.

Returning from her adventure into the mountains, we caught up with a well rested Emma…

What first attracted you to enter the Haute Route Mavic Rockies?

I’ve already done a few of the Haute Route Alps events and I really love them – they are genuinely fun and friendly, yet also a tough physical challenge, and I get a lot of the fitness benefits that are only possible from multi-stage racing. I guess it was the chance to race an Haute Route in a very different location that attracted me, and the Rockies certainly didn’t disappoint!

Haute Route is famed for being a challenging event for riders of all abilities, how did you find the event over all?

Definitely a challenge. I was trying to “race” at the front by keeping up with the fastest guys which were obviously tough for me, especially as I had done zero acclimatisation for the altitude… and at the other end of the field, the riders who are only just making the time cut also faced a huge challenge in simply being out on their bikes for so long every day.

I think anyone who tackles an Haute Route event deserves to feel genuinely proud of themselves for stepping up to such a daunting task – and the sense of achievement at finishing is quite wonderful, for everyone!

The Haute Route Rockies also had a distinctly American feel to it – super friendly, and I felt like I got a little taste of Coloradan culture. There were many local riders and also the Mavic riders Tim Johnson and Janel Holcomb were great ambassadors for the event and their country.

When you won the fifth stage overall, how did it feel and did you set out to win?

That was quite satisfying! I didn’t set out before the stage with the intention of winning but in bike races, you learn to look out for opportunities.

Stage 5 had less gravel and more climbing so I knew it would suit me better and I felt good that morning but maybe that was because I had finally found semi-decent coffee!

With so much climbing on the Haute Route, did you make any “first times” or “fastest times” for yourself?

Well, having never been to Colorado before every ride was a first for me! Although, I did scout out Sunshine Canyon and Magnolia Drive on the 2 days before the race. I certainly picked up a few Strava QOMs and while that is very nice, it doesn’t mean I really have the fastest time on any climb – there are many cyclists who don’t use Strava or who keep their times hidden!

What was the most difficult thing about riding Haute Route?

At the Mavic Rockies: lack of coffee! This was far and away my main problem. At the European Haute Routes there is usually a coffee van selling real coffee pre-stage, but sadly not in the Rockies. They should certainly arrange that next year because American hotel breakfast coffee is terrible. It shouldn’t even be called coffee!

The gravel was challenging for me at times because I’m a bit of a scaredy-cat and I don’t like the feeling of sliding at all. Uphill and flat dirt roads were fine, but downhill I lost a lot of time. Still, I think it was good for me and by the end of the week, I did mostly quite enjoy the gravel.

Helped by the fact that I was riding really awesome lightweight wheels from GS Astuto with tubular IRC tyres – perfectly suited for rough roads and meant I could run a low tyre pressure for a smoother ride and better grip. I’m really lucky my wheel sponsor sent me those and told me what pressure to run because on clinchers at 8bar I would have been totally lost!

Which stage was the hardest and why?

Stage 6 was a real challenge for me physically. It started with some really rough dirt roads in the neutral section and many people punctured. I was probably about the 100th puncture that the angels from Mavic neutral support had to help and I was waiting for ages. Once I got going again I overtook the men’s GC leader, Matthew Busche, who had was on puncture number three and I waited for him because it seemed unfair to leave him all alone to chase down the fastest guys.

Matt and I teamed up with three other puncture victims and set out to ride the 100km timed section as fast as possible. I was pulling my turns over my threshold and at that altitude, it was killing me! With a 37km gravel climb to go, the thought was literally sickening at this point! At this point, I didn’t honestly see how I could finish the climb because I felt so rough, and that was definitely the lowest point of the week for me. I felt sick, I could hardly turn the pedals, and at that point I hated cycling!

Luckily the camaraderie of the Haute Route saved me. Everyone there is so encouraging and there’s a genuine feeling mutual support. However, it did take me about 3 hours post-race to be able to force some food down – definitely a day when I should have had a chocolate milk handy for recovery!

Would you do it again?

Yes! I love the Haute Route events and the people I’ve met there. Even when the sport is not my main occupation, I plan on cycling and running and swimming my whole life, and the Haute Route will always be fantastic (though also challenging) holiday. I certainly hope to return to the Haute Route Rockies – and practise gravel riding beforehand.

If I can find the time between tri races in August, I would love to do the Haute Route Alps too. Perhaps a little less competitively as I’ll probably be a bit tired from Embrunma, but maybe that would give me the chance to ride with different people every day. It’s the people of the Haute Route that really make it so enjoyable.

Now that you’re home and have had a chance to reflect, what was the highlight of the whole event?

There were so many highlights, I don’t know which to choose! The mountain vistas were generally stunning… I think Independence Pass and the fantastic descent into Aspen would rank high up… and Magnolia Drive which was just my sort of climb!

Jumping into the cool lake in Avon after a very hot stage 3 and my morning run in Crested Butte where I saw some beautiful wildflowers and hundreds of chipmunks. The night before the TT, getting a little tipsy on cider with my brilliant roommate (even though we knew we shouldn’t really) and laughing over all our mishaps…

Do you have any more epic cycling challenges in the pipeline?

Haute Route Alpe d’Huez, hopefully also The Alps. The Alpe d’Huez triathlon and Embrunman both include fairly epic bike courses! And in October I’ll be returning to the Taiwan KOM Challenge which is the single hardest climb I’ve ever done. I recommend it!

Do you have any advice for women who may consider entering an event like this?

Don’t be put off by thinking it’s a macho event. It’s really not. I was going to say that “the male cyclists are really welcoming to women” but that sounds condescending – in fact, everyone is friendly to everyone on the bike! Honestly, no one cares about gender so long as one rides safely, does one’s turn when required, and doesn’t wear stinky kit (but that is rarely a female problem on the bike, I’ve observed!).

I think women are generally more respectful (even fearful) of the physical challenge of an event like Haute Route, whereas some guys gamble a bit and are prepared to turn up under-prepared. That means that the women I’ve met at Haute Route races almost always out-perform their expectations because they’ve prepared sensibly. You’ll get more enjoyment from a race like this if you train properly – but that doesn’t mean you have to do a crazy volume of cycling.

The final piece of advice: bike fit. Find a bike and saddle that fit you. If not, a 7-day stage race will be pretty painful. It sounds obvious, but I see so many women riding frames that are simply too big. Just because a bike is painted pink and called “women’s specific” doesn’t mean it fits you!

Yes, you can probably get used to riding an ill-fitting bike, but in the long term, it’s not good for you. The right fit does not mean it has to be crazy expensive – for example, my bike sponsor Bond makes custom frames at a very reasonable price – there is a choice out there beyond the mainstream off-the-peg brands. Don’t be afraid to be demanding and get a bike that fits you rather than just the one that happens to convenient for the salesperson. In the long term, a bike that fits is better for your health and better for your enjoyment of cycling.


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