Away from the Vuelta and USA Pro Cycling Challenge there’s an event in France called La Haute Route, literally “the High Road”. It’s not a pro race, it’s part holiday tour, part cyclosport and goes across the French Alps. And it’s this that gives us interesting glimpse of the future because it combines several aspects of sport, business, tourism and more into a seemingly winning formula.
The genesis goes back to 1982 when the first big cyclosport ride was held in the Alps. The Marmotte was a 168km loop over several cols including the Galibier and a finish on Alpe d’Huez. Before this there were other rides but often run under the rules of cyclotourisme where the aim was to be independent and resilient, taking your own food supplies and placing a premium on navigation. The new events featured signed routes, food was provided and large pelotons formed as riders treated the ride like a race, only over distances and roads normally reserved for the likes of the Tour de France.
Fast forward 20 years and Europe had many of these cyclo events, with many in France and Italy. But they were all one day events until the Transalp appeared in 2002. This was a ride from Germany to Italy, crossing many mountains and offering participants the chance to experience some of the stresses, strains and surprises of a stage race. The mountain bike world had several equivalent rides in the US, South America, Australia, South Africa and Europe but road cycling seemed slow to adopt this.
Go to today and the Haute Route is there with the Transalp, now in its tenth year. The Haute Route is particularly interesting as a case study. It is run by Frenchman Jean-Francois Alcan, the man who launched the Etape du Tour cyclosportive series in France that let amateurs ride the closed roads of a Tour de France stage in the mountains, taking a cyclosportive and adding the ASO touch to give a feel of the Tour de France. Just this summer the company behind the Haute Route, the oddly-named OC Thirdpole merged with Patrice Clerc & Associates, the business of former ASO and Tour de France boss Patrice Clerc.
In summary it offers seven stages as it heads from north to south across the Alps:
- It’s a tour: there’s a scenic route across many famous climbs used by the Tour de France. The event is able to appropriate the legendary status of these climbs as an attraction to bring in riders from around the world.
- It’s sport: the stages are timed, there is an overall classification and riders are not expected to stop for lunch along the way. In fact British cyclist Emma Pooley is riding because the stage race aspect is useful training for her ahead of the world championships in September
- It’s a business: Entries cost €1,200 and that is before a rider has paid for overnight accommodation or any other expenses. The total cost for participants is going to be high but places are sold out fast suggesting the price could be raised.
In short it is a competitive holiday camp. Whilst many might pay thousands of dollars or Euros for a sandy beach or a ski lodge, an event like this is offering the Alps and the chance to
What makes this futuristic? The sport is growing in popularity around the world. Recent editions of the Tour de France have seen many roadside fans waving flags from Norway, Slovakia, Australia and Britain. Now instead of standing by the road – still a memorable experience – keen fans get to try the roads for themselves. The event has sold out and there are plans for a Pyreneean version in 2013 as well as another Alpine version.
Note I’m not trying to give the Haute Route any extra publicity here. Instead I think this is a such a booming area of the sport, if these guys are selling places with ease then there must be room for others to offer something similar. And fill their boots with Euros. There are many tour companies, often run former pro riders, offering cycle touring holidays but I’m not sure if they sell out their vacations within eight hours.
Such is the success I can’t help wonder if pro teams shouldn’t consider closer tie-ins with travel. They can make money on merchandise like selling team jerseys although the economics of this are complicated, the clothing supplier usually pays for the right to supply the team and then takes the revenue. Instead a team could offer travel experiences with its pro riders, putting the team bus and camper vans to use in between pro races. Quite whether a squad wants to do this when many staff want a rest is unknown but I think that people would pay a premium for this, to travel on a team bus or get a massage from a team soigneur so it could be a useful revenue generator. You can charge a premium to experience “pro” life on the road in cheap French motels.
Women’s teams might be folding, even some of the World Tour teams are hunting for sponsors despite guaranteed Tour de France exposure. Yet some areas of cycle travel are booming. The closer this is linked to pro cycling and the big roads of France, the faster places sell out and the bigger the premium.
I wonder if teams can make the crossover here to exploit this? Or perhaps race organisers, for example ASO already does this with the Tour de France but there must be scope for multi-day events with the higher margins given accommodation, logistics and more can be billed. If not then tourism companies, sports event businesses and others are going to be rushing into the space.
- EDIT: having suggested teams do this I’m now getting memories of the old Cervélo Test Team offering something similar. Proof that if you think of an idea someone has usually done it already.