Just Keep Warm and Keep Pedaling: 300 Mile Winter Sub 48 Hour in Colorado

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Cameron Pass

I’m on my hands and knees looking intensely at my just-now broke bicycle, right outside of the main drag of Nederland, CO: elevation 8,228 feet. I’m only 20 miles away from home – 20 miles away from finishing a 300 mile ride. But, my chain has lodged itself between my largest rear cog, and the wheel’s drive side spokes.

And it won’t budge.

I had just finished eating the last of my food – an over-sized peanut butter cup, and checked that all my lights were functioning. I’m staring down Boulder Canyon in the middle of the night, and not greatly anticipating the idea of riding down it on fresh legs, much less on the overly beat-up ones I’ve got now. This road is dangerous enough in the best conditions – I usually opt for a different, quieter route home. But if I can’t somehow get my chain unstuck without either breaking the chain, or breaking some spokes, I’m not going anywhere. It’s getting a bit on the cold side of things, and I’ve already piled on all my warmer clothing.

My hands are covered in slick, dirty Tech Lite bike lube, as I try to unravel the riddle of the stuck chain. Pulling it like all Hell doesn’t work, nor does prying it out with a hex wrench. Through trail and error, under my head torch I find that if I enable the rear derailer’s clutch mechanism, that releases the tension on the chain, and the chain almost falls out on its own – just like that! It was the tension keeping everything stuck!

I rejigger my chain, mount myself on my  broken-railed saddle, point the bike in the downhill position, and start a slow, coast down the canyon, and back towards home. I’m hoping traffic isn’t as fierce as it usually is, and I can be seen well enough not to get hit. There’s not much room for error in some of the 8%+ downhill grades of this noodle-y road. Removing oneself from the pavement in an emergency means taking the plunge into a low running Boulder Creek, many feet below the road. Not attractive.

Colorado is in, it seems, a bit of a mild Winter. I’ve always had to somewhat stop cycling very long rides in the Winter, as the conditions just sort of do not lend themselves to riding outside of the most familiar areas: the shoulders of roads usually get filled with plowed snow; and  the road conditions are salty/sandy at best, or treacherously icy at their worst. Plus of course: you might ride right into a blizzard. Then there’s the problem of overnights: I just didn’t have the necessary Winter gear to keep alive as the sun becomes like a distant memory, and the temperatures plunge.

That was until I spied a beat up – but very cheap 0 degree sleeping bag at my neighborhood sports recyclery, that soon came into my possession. It weighs a ton, doesn’t really pack down to anything I’d call, “streamlined”, but since I can lash it, and the rest of my sleep system  underneath my handlebars, without it hitting the front wheel, we were good to go.

But, where to go? It would be easy enough to just go East, onto the plains (and fairer weather), where getting shut down between mountain passes where the usual unpredictable mountain weather could roll through at any time. But that would also be a bit on the boring side – I opted for the exact opposite: let’s go to the Winter Park area – a trip that would require crossing over two mountain passes just to get there, and another monster of a pass to get out. No real bailout points to speak of, except ride out whatever storm shuts me down by not riding my bike and maybe even riding the train home, instead!

I checked the weather for the weekend, and it seem to want to hold for the next few days, but my goodness, was it going to be windy!

So windy, (60+ mph winds!), I decided to put the two-day trip I was planning on hold – just for a day. I can’t cross a Continental Divide pass in the middle of Winter, in gale force winds, on a loaded-down bike, pleasantly.

On Saturday, 4:45 am, I started out North towards Loveland. The wind, although present, wasn’t particularly painful to endure, and I made alright time to the first interesting part of my ride, and a new piece of road for me: Buckhorn Road. Buckhorn features some punchy climbs, and a few smaller descents, until dropping you swiftly into the junction with Poudre Canyon Road. Take it east, and it takes you to Fort Collins; but West leads to our adventure: over Cameron Pass and into North Park. I’ve never been into that area to the west, so that’s where I decided to go.

The road I found perfect for bicycle touring: a small, two-lane highway, dotted with trail heads and campsites. In Winter – and perhaps because of the sign saying the pass itself was closed (!), it was almost desolate. The climb to Cameron Pass is gradual, and beyond long: over 40 miles to 10,275’+!  Away I slowly ground up the road, feeling all the extra ballast my winter sleep system is adding to my bike frame.  My setup is already causing problems: the seat post doesn’t want to stay tightened, and the saddle is moving out of its position. I have to stop, and tighten things down every 20 miles or so. I fear something is going to break.

The route itself started showing its teeth about 9 miles from the pass, as it began to snow – my biggest fear of the ride, right at a rock formation called, Sleeping Elephant. I stopped to put on warmer clothes at a closed up lodge, and thankfully, it turned out to be just a small passing squall, as the snow passed by just as I was through changing. The snow passed, but the winds did not relent, and soon they became my riding partner for the rest of the ride to the pass.

A few miles later they would only strengthen, blowing me sometimes to a standstill, as I tried inching up farther and farther up the pass. Vortexes of blown snow would rush out of the trees and pummel me. Parts of the road were covered in a thin layer of snow and ice, making things a bit spicy. As Colorado is oft ta do, the clouds parted right near the summit of the pass, and I was give a beautiful view of the surrounding Wilderness areas that, before this very week, I had no idea existed: Cache La Poudre, Comanche Peak, Neota, and Rawah Wilderness Areas are all accessible from the road leading to this pass. Incredible.

Finally, I did reach the summit of the pass. To my surprise though, I hadn’t yet crossed the Continental Divide – I was sure this was it. Something to do later tonight, I guessed. I did come across a party of snowshoers that quickly offered me a beer, although I declined stating I still had to get down, without incident. They offered instead to take my photo, which I appreciate.

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Not dawdling for long but noting I had just hit 100 miles for the day at the top of the pass, I launched into hopefully a quick if very cold descent into North Park. Cold as it was, it was not fastidious; the wind turned into a direct headwind on the other side of the pass, and I found myself in the unfortunate position of having to pedal going downhill just to keep the bike upright. Sweet mercy. I paused briefly at a forest service/state park to munch on food and get a bit warmed up before hitting the prairie of North Park proper, 10 miles, but less than 1500 feet below. I had become the high plain drifter.

From North Park, my objective was to get to Granby, then Winter Park, and then finish up the ride. I’ve never ridden to Winter Park, so that was to be a fun experience in itself. But before that, I wanted to check out the town of Walden, CO.

In my formative years, Walden was quite the inspirational book to me, as I grew up not far from Walden Pond, in the very colonial town of Wethersfield, CT. Thoreau’s setting could easily have been imagined to me to be just a few blocks away at most. I’m not sure of the relationship between the book and the town in CO  (actually Walden is named after a postmaster), but Walden, CO is also a stop on the TransAmerica Trail – one of the first long-distance bike routes in America – first known as the Bikecentennial Trail, as it was first ridden en-mas in 1976.) I’ve ridden bits and pieces of this route, as it shares a bit of itself with the GDMBR, and since reams of it are in Colorado anyways, it’s useful when I need to get around the state anyways. I even used it for part of my Tour 14er route. I wanted to see more of the route, and even more important, I wanted to eat.

I endulged in a quick-enough dinner at the River Rock Cafe, which was simply bumping for such a small out-of-the-way town, and made my escape back onto the road. Now the sun had set, the temp. had plummeted to below freezing, and all I had to looking forward to was crossing the actual Continental Divide at Willow Creek Pass – 9,659′ , after I got through 35 more miles of riding.

Riding an unknown road at night is a bit freaky – my only consolidation is that this is a well-trodden bike route and the locals are used to weird riders. But perhaps not in the Winter time. I had no odd situations come up, but I noticed on my ride that it was a full moon. Cloudy though, so the moon would hide and make itself known, changing the amount of ambient light quite drastically. I turned around perhaps a dozen times thinking a car was approaching, only to realize it was the moon yet again poking out of a hole in the clouds that looked like a menacing ghoul’s face.

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Not of the least bit of this was helped by listening to a Godspeed, You! Black Emperor record as loudly as I could bear. Funnily, since the road was so straight, and lacked much elevation gain until I was inside the mountains fully, an approaching car could be seen and heard minutes before it even got to me. Surreal. I stopped at a tiny post office in the even tinier townsite of Rand to warm up. I made a mess as my water bottle spilled. Sorry, Rand.

Somewhere before hitting the top of the pass, my saddle broke: cracked a rail, which is pretty bad news. I could expect a lopsided saddle for the 175 miles at best, and perhaps a saddle broken into two at the worst. Perhaps there was a bike shop open tomorrow? The frugal part of me wanted to do the ride without having to buy such necessities though, so my real plan was to just tough that part out.

I summited the Divide with relief. This was my goal for the day, and I was almost at 175 miles for the entire day. Time to sleep, as camping options out of town were to grow slim. I noted on my topo where the last bit of National Forest service access was and gunned ‘er down towards this destination. Surprisingly, my hoped-for spot was perfect:  found a dry area under trees, well off the highway, next to a road that was closed for logging. since it was Sunday, they wouldn’t even be doing that when I was waking up anyways. I prepared my bivvy and hoped my untested system, well: worked.

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I woke up 6 hours later, feeling as if I had returned to the womb. Yeah, it worked out alright. I marveled at how comfortable I was in my sleep, and hey: gave myself another hour to sleep in before packing it up, and riding the 12 miles more to Granby.

Grandby is another out-of-the-way-place, and pretty easy to miss in the Winter time. In the summer, you pass through it to get to the Western terminus of Rocky Mountain National Park, but in the Winter? Maybe there’s really cheap lodging for the ski areas down road – not sure! I stopped into a cafe I had been to on a different adventure, and stuffed my face yet again.

My bike was acting up in a new, and exciting way: it didn’t like to shift all that much, both front and rear derailers didn’t offer much in response to my shifting. I figured the cables were probably dirty or frozen to their housing, which turned out to be pretty much on the spot. I did my best to clean things up on the side of the road, and poured lube in some places to get things going and act like some sort of de-icing agent. It’s gonna suck if I can’t easily shift gears on the pass outta here.

The ride to Fraser and Winter Park was nice enough. Some busy highway riding yeah, but also a nice bike route for around 7 miles. Stopped for a latte made with half and half for some fuel to get up the pass at Winter Park and launched into it. Berthoud Pass – never summited it.  What a monster. From the Winter Park side, it’s a touch more than 11 miles to the summit. The other side, it’s almost 25 miles to Idaho Springs.

Though riding up Berthoud truly sucked. My fear of tight riding next to cars because of snow piled up at the side of the road came to fruition, along with drivers not accustomed, perhaps, of such extreme conditions – after all, this is a vacation spot. I did my best to keep as far over to the right as possible, which meant riding in dirty sand and slop most of the time. Stress levels were running high for me. I topped out, ate a candy bar, and neglected to shoot a photo at the top. Time to go down – I was hoping things wouldn’t be so messy.

Thankfully, they weren’t. The wind had subsided quite a bit, so most of that 25 miles to the Springs was miles I had banked up, and now it was payout time. I couldn’t believe how huge this pass was. To me, it seems that Winter Park is almost as far away as Summit County is by car. I reality it’s < 30 miles as the crow flies due west from Boulder. Problem is, the crow flies over an enormous mountain range, so that’s out.

Once at the Springs, I stripped down, had lunch, and readied myself for the last leg. It was a little later than I would have liked, but no bother, I guess. I utilized the gravel route that I mapped out a few weeks before  (just in reverse) to avoid Central City and Blackhawk – I had enough time in heavily trafficked areas for the day, and looked forward to quieter times on dirt.

Problems started happening though. As I became more tired, and I was finally succumbed to exhaustion, I became more irate and easy/simple things became harder to deal with: the sun in my eyes, the ever changing temps, getting lost. Finally, my chain started sucking into my back wheel, causing me to jump off my bike, lest I damage my wheel or chain. Oh, the humanity. This was happening because of my sloppy gear changing. I would shift to my big ring, and to my largest cog at the same – I don’t know what I was thinking – or was I thinking? Or just relying on instinct. This would cause the chain to be under a considerable amount of tension, running it right off my cassette and into my wheel.  Not good! I had to stop more than a few times to fix this problem, each time it seemed I managed to pit it in worse and worse.

I finally exited the gravel route, and was back on pavement. What to do now.  I opted for an easy-ish plan to take the highway all the way to Ned., then take Boulder Canyon down. Any other descent route would be longer, or give more ascending time, and I was coming to a close of what I could manage, as now my asthma was kicking in, slowly slowing me down, down, down.

A few miles on the highway, I stopped at a gas station to gobble down a Coke and about 5 candy bars. I failed to eat since Idaho Springs – 4 hours ago? Some guy filling up told me I hit 45 mph on the highway – seemed upbeat about it, and confirmed he could see me alright. I realized I hadn’t changed into anything warm yet, so I hung out inside the gas station for a bit to get the core temp to a reasonable level, and psyched myself up for the last leg of this little ride.

With a few rollers, I got to Nederland without incident, and once again fixed the chain to be on the parts of the bike its supposed to be on, and not on the parts its not, cleared my head, and pointed my beat up bike down, down down.

Thankfully, traffic was minimal, and I got into a pretty easy rhythm of taking most of the lane up, unless there was a car approaching me, or coming from behind; whereas I just pulled over and made no spontaneous or hard to interpret actions, until the cars passed me. It was a beautiful, full Moon night, and I could easily make out the familiar climbing crags that I’ve visited before. I didn’t plan the ride this way, but full moons sure do help.

There was one final 2 block long hill on 9th Street and Mapleton Avenue I was not looking forward to topping. Ever so tired, with lungs closed up tight, I hit this little col at about half the speed one usually walks it on the sidewalk. But even this last hill was topped off, and it was just a few more blocks before I could park this beast on the side of my house, stumble inside, make myself a drink, and float to bed.

6 Responses to “Just Keep Warm and Keep Pedaling: 300 Mile Winter Sub 48 Hour in Colorado”

  1. Uber Franz

    Thanks for the inspiring write-up! Bummer that lack of a $4 plastic spoke protector could cause such aggravation. I think I’m going to order one up to install for my upcoming trip on the CO Trail. Cheers!

  2. William OGara

    Hey Justin, I have been wondering what width and brand/make of tires do you run? I’ve been using Schwalbe marathon green guards and Mondials for gravel, dirt and a little singletrack. The green guards at 700×35 have been amazing in everything they have been put through, but I haven’t put either of my marathons through snow or mixed conditions like the ones described in your 300 miler. Obviously studded tires would be overkill in most situations?

    • On this ride, these were just Marathons – probably 32mm? I just used them, because it’s what I had. Generally, I ere on the side of a wider tire than a thinner one, especially since I’m a larger guy (compared to other cyclists) and carrying a load most of the times. A wider tire is just going to be more nicer to your rim/wheel and being able to run them with a lower pressure is great if you transition from road to gravel.

      Studded tires work great! But at least out here, it’s usually overkill, most of the time. I used to have a studded front tire ready to go, so if conditions were particularly nasty, I could through that on, and feel a lot safer. Riding them all the time isn’t a good idea, as the tips will wear out fairly quickly.

      I’ve moved up my road bike setup now to 28mm gatorskins. They roll great.