Couples take romantic getaways to rekindle the romance. What if you could do the same with your bike?
Let’s face it; sometimes riding at home just isn’t as sexy as riding new roads. Every now and then it’s important to treat your cycling self to a trip. As a kid, the ultimate vacation started with D-I-S and ended with N-E-Y. As an adult, it looks less like standing in line to get your picture taken with a mouse and more like clipping in alongside world class athletes.
While The Little Nell is no Magic Kingdom, it is Aspen’s only Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five-Diamond hotel. In a town famous for its celebrity fans, it’s the place to see and be seen. But it’s not just for après-skiers dripping in diamonds and furs. In fact, a sea of Giro helmets and custom cycling kits is what you’ll find in September when Christian Vande Velde and his crew checks in.
For the past four years, the retired American pro has partnered with the Aspen landmark hotel to host Clip-In with Christian. Imagine the excitement of 10 Christmases (or equally exciting holidays) crammed into four gorgeous fall days, and you have this “camp.” Instead of tents, campers crash in 600-sq.-foot luxury suites complete with gas log fireplaces, deep soaking tubs and heated marble flooring. Swap that marshmallow toasting lesson for a “Red Wines of France” class taught by Carlton McCoy, The Little Nell’s master sommelier. And instead of competing against the camp across the lake, you’re conquering Independence Pass with the support of your peloton.
“Our group is kept to no more than 25 riders so you get to spend time with the pros and meet your fellow riders,” says Simon Chen, Managing Director at The Little Nell. “Over the years, our riders have all become friends and travel around the country to ride with each other.” Riding with fellow cycling enthusiasts is one thing, but riding with former pros whose lean frames graced the posters in your bedroom is sort of akin to singing karaoke with Beyoncé.
Because of the high pro-to-rider ratio, Clip-In with Christian offers riders plenty of facetime with Christian and his famous friends like Craig Lewis, Ryder Hesjedal and George Hincapie. Imagine Christian teaching you how to draft—pointing at his back tire and insisting you get right up on it. In your head, you’re thinking, “I can’t afford to hit this guy.” But in hindsight, you’re thinking, “I can’t believe I was almost touching tires with an Olympian.”
These pros may have the street cred (and the road rash scars to prove it) but don’t expect any pretense or attitude. Mr. Rogers couldn’t have asked for better neighbors. Picture this: you’re cycling along Aspen’s tour de fall foliage when you realize you need to shed a layer. Who should appear but Craig Lewis—a seven-year veteran of the professional-cycling circuit—offering to carry your outer layer for the rest of the 40-mile ride to Ruedi Reservoir? If you need Ryder Hesjedal, another former pro who helped host the 2017 camp, simply shout “MacGyver!” The Canadian cyclist and 2012 winner of the Giro d’Italia has the uncanny ability to fix mechanical failures on the fly.
Not that the camp bikes need much fixing. Every year, The Little Nell brings in a best-in-class sponsor to provide riders with the BMW equivalent of road bikes. This year, it was SCOTT who brought in a virgin fleet of 2018 Addict SL and Endurance Road Bikes. The only downside of riding a $10,000 bike for a few days is having to go back to yours. (Although, The Little Nell offers to pack it and ship it to you if you want to buy your borrowed wheels.)
At $5,750 for a single rider and $3,250 for a riding spouse, Clip-in With Christian isn’t cheap. It’s far from the package vacation screaming soggy buffets, sleepless nights and mic-ed-up tour guides shepherding you from tourist trap to tourist trap with the wave of a flag. Instead, it’s a five-star investment in your riding game and your relaxation game. Think about it. If there’s ever a time when you deserve the filet mignons of all foods at every meal, wines so exclusive even the sommelier gets nervous opening them and a bubble bath before turndown service (complete with dark chocolate sea salt truffles), it’s after spending 50 miles and 4,000 ft. of climbing in the saddle.
Regardless of riding ability, the climax of camp is the highly-anticipated ascent up Independence Pass. After a day or two of warming up on something relatively flat—such as the Rio Grande cycling path along Colorado’s Roaring Fork River—riders pile on layers—courtesy of the daily cycling kits provided by Hincapie Sportswear—and carb up for the climb topping out at 12,095’. Although difficult, the ride isn’t unbearable. It’s scenic—winding past Kevin Costner’s 165-acre creek-front ranch and through a tunnel of towering aspens that end in a rock bowl surrounded by summits. Throughout, the pros crack jokes and provide entertainment (it’s not unheard of to see Christian and Craig Lewis climbing on a three-speed old tandem). No cyclist is ever left behind and most importantly, no rider goes hungry.
An Escalade loaded with Skratch Labs goodies (and blankets, hand warmers and spare layers) is always nearby. The Little Nell also hires a local professional photographer to capture each day’s ride. So, instead of remembering their vacation through selfies, or worse, pulling over to set up the timer and attempt full body shots, riders leave camp with dozens of action photos of them taken from a moving Jeep, a hovering drone or even the photographer laying on the pavement to get a unique wheels-up perspective.
Not that you need photos to remember Clip-in with Christian. It’s kind of like living in a movie trailer. You remember the one-liners (i.e. “Car back” and “Moose!”), the turning points (summiting the pass and becoming an electronic shifter convert) and especially the close-ups with the main characters. They may be former pros, but Christian and his comrades will start to feel like family if you don’t watch out.
In fact, at the farewell dinner for the 2017 camp, Christian got up during dinner and made a phone call. The recipient? A woman who’d attended the 2016 Clip-In with Christian camp but couldn’t make it with her husband in 2017 because she was training to compete at UCI’s Masters World Championships in Los Angeles. Christian put her husband’s phone on speaker, wished her good luck, and the entire room—about two courses into a five-course dinner—raised their glasses for the missing rider.
It’s that kind of attention and encouragement that keeps riders returning to camp, year after year. Around 10 states were represented this year and Chen says at least 80 percent of riders are at least three-time Clip-In with Christian alumni. It’s also worth noting that 50 percent of attendees are female, and all rider levels are welcome—it’s the only non-competitive luxury cycling camp in the country according to Chen. Unless you’re competing with yourself.
“Cheri beat her time up Independence Pass by one hour from last year,” noted Christian before going on to brag about Laura, a rider from Atlanta who he personally emailed to encourage her to come to camp with her husband. She was on the fence about attending because she’d only ever taken spin classes and didn’t feel ready for real road biking.
Days after camp ended, Christian was still beaming. “Laura rode up Independence Pass with FLAT PEDALS!”
In other words, Laura went from first date status on her bike to things are getting pretty serious.