I realize that if I don’t write anything here, it looks like I’m not doing anything! Which is hardly the case – I’m just not doing anything overly exciting. To me. But, bikes get ridden, trails get run. I guess I’ll try to list my non-epic errands I do, to get ready for (mis)-adventure:
Photog by Ben @ mountainbikeradio.com
I signed up to do a 150 mile Gravel Grinder months ago (it seemed soooo important to sign up, early!), and it’s going down this Saturday. I’ll be riding my Surly Crosscheck as a Single Speed to the starting line of the race the night before, racing the race, and then riding home – which is excellent training for what I’ll be doing later this month. So I’m looking at a 200+ mile ride on Saturday, with a little prologue to a secret camping spot I hope to find.
I have no intentions of flat out winning this (as I, uh, never do), but I’d like to make a good showing and have some fun, as I myself have pigeonholed myself as Mr., “boy, those cyclocross races are just so short! I’m MUCH better at longer stuff!” and if I suck at longer stuff speed-wise, it’s just sort of official I’m slow, which is probably the case. But dude, I’m still looking at almost 300 miles in 2 days, so there’s that.
In reality, I could probably manage about 15-ish mph pace packing food and water and not much else. If I look at the previous results from 2012 and the easy math I’ve given myself (150 miles, divided by 15 miles an hour is… 10 hours!), puts me finishing in second place. Which, I think only goes to show how faulty my math is. First place was won last year by, you know: someone that actually competes in athletic trials and tribulations on a regular basis, so I don’t think my time would be any faster, rather my 15 mph guess is (characteristically) unrealistically high.
The first single speeder (fixed gear, no doubt – chapeau) finished last year in ~13 hours, or 11.5 mph. Aaron Weinsheimer, whom finished the 2012 Tour Divide a few hours before me (ahem destroyed my broke, single speed ass on the flats), finished the AntiEpic about the same time, too. Aaron’s on the roster for this Saturday again, so it may be a good person to pace with, and shoot the sheet, as I’m guessing I’ll see Aaron again at another Gravel Grinder later this spring at his hometown of Salida.
So that’s my guess – I’ll finish the course between 10 and 13 hours, probably more near 13 hours, after which I’ll pass out, attempt to find food, water, and make my way slowly home.
Waking up at 2:00am on the Sunday of the weekend St. Patrick’s Day festivities in a drinkin’ city seemed a strange way to begin a trip. I needed to go from the North side of Denver, through the South side, without incident. And then far beyond.
Plan: ride the bicycle from the back door to the Barr Trailhead ~90 miles away in Manitou Springs, CO and immediately begin the 13 miles hike up to the summit of Pikes Peak, for a winter ascent of a Colorado 14er, before it ain’t winter no more (mere days away). And of course carry all the gear that’s probably going to be needed. Which is really unrealistic, so just take what’s absolutely necessary. Which probably means, a different pair of shoes.
Then, take a few winks and ride back home, in perhaps a bit more scenic (read: more difficult, mountainous, less boring) route.
Out of the door by 3:00 am and traffic seems to be surprisingly tame. …not sure what I expected. (CHAOS!). I am tired. Sleep was a nice idea, but the alarm, sorry: alarms went off about the same time I finally dropped off to slumber land.
A ride through Denver without incidient, and onto Sedalia, to pick up CO 105, which should take me to Palmer Lake and from there, Monument, CO to pick up a bike path? Trail? Something – through the Airforce Academy and – wait. Can you actually do that? Aren’t there security checkpoints? Too late to check that out…. (details) And into Colorado Springs to pick up supplies (FOOD, large amounts of FOOD) and to the trailhead.
CO 105 turns into one of those picturesque lazy roads, filled with faux ranches that don’t ranch nothin’, and rolling hills, with a nice ever-changing front-row seat to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Well, it would, if I could see anything. The sun won’t make an appearance until past 7:00am, and by 7:00am, I’m at Monument – finally for the first time seeing the object of today’s energetic excursion: the summit of Pikes Peak, the summit itself glistening with a billion ice crystals, just peaking through the nearby foothills. Hmm, a little more snow than I had anticipated. I anticipated actually: none. I can see Pikes Peak from the house, and it looked more green than white. Damn atmospheric perspective…
It doesn’t take long for Pikes to once again become hidden behind (much) lesser peaks, and I pick up the Santa Fe Trail, and I roll closer to the range. It’s a dirt track, which will work. Work better than the Interstate, which is illegal, but not below me.
I switch off my lights and there’s runners milling about the trail. I pass a sign that says something about the air force academy, but I’m trying to make time, so ignore it. What could it possibly say?
The trail gets a little to exuberant in its changing of directions. I make the decision to exit, as I have no idea where I’m going (first time down here), and I see a road, and maybe that road takes me to the frontage road that parallels the interstate. It’s gonna be a long day, and “Conservation of energy” is the word of the day. Days.
The road turns out to be the main entrance to the academy and I pass the checkpoint entrance going the wrong way, and then straight into an exit onto the Interstate and well, that won’t work. I backtrack a bit, but don’t want to deal with going through the gate, or backtracking too much, or checking… I dunno: a map, or talking to the guard – whatever it is, I gotta do.
I spot a random two track that goes south – my direction, so I take it. For a few miles. It dead ends into a barbed wire fence and a sound barrier between the interstate and a random neighborhood, on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. I retrace just a few and hop the fence, directly into someone’s back yard, which is a no-no – especially here, where people are apt to be a little more gun-lovin’ The fence has a sign I read once over the fence. “No tresspassing, airforce property, penalty of-“, blah blah blah. I gotta get out of this yard and back on a road, before a neighborhood dog sounds the alarm.
And I do.
Grab some grub at an Albertsons. Horrible selection, what was I thinking going to an Albertsons?! I pass some more familiar grocery stores – three, in fact, on the way to Manitou Springs, which is just up the road. It’s now 10:00 am. The trailhead is buzzing with people – trail runners, mostly in their trail running groups talking trail running things, with their garish, trail running outfits on. This sport seems to be in its “Loud and ugly” fashion phase, I don’t know what to think about it. It’s such a simple activity (put on shoes, run – preferably not on pavment), and Minimal is the Mantra, but there’s a million ways to Personalize the Experience(tm).
And so then I put on my own trail runners (a modest pair of Montrails), some running tights, a pair of running shorts, a long undewear top, and a light, wool hat – all black: as I just look goofy overly accessorizing. I look goofy by default, so its hard for me to pull off anything too loud looking. There’s trail runners around me that are workin’ it. I admit. All kinds.
I change out of the bike gear outside and behind of the bathroom area, as the queue of people requiring it is an always evolving mass that doesn’t quite reach a critical level. It’s like being in France at a grocery store. For already being up for 7 hours – most of it in the sensory deprivation state of pitch black and below freezing, it’s just too much information to take. Funnily Colorado Springs – a fairly major metropolitan center…. for the Front Range of Colorado is spitting distance and trail heads do tend to be a little whacky close to population.
I begin to go up the trail.
The trail starts out as a never-ending set of switchbacks for miles. I’ve hiked 14ers that have far less total mileage than these switchbacks to the top. It’s completely mobbed with trail runners. And all of them are going down. Like racing down. Bounding down. Young ones, old ones, portly and svelte. I either missed the time where it’s allowed to run up this trail, or there’s a secret trail everyone else is taking up that must be many times more important to run up, that you would never, ever run down. My entire time to the summit, I’ll pass three other people going up, and no one that goes all the way to the top. This is madness, to me.
The Barr trail, once up the switchbacks (pray), is what you may call, “casual”. “Why didn’t I bring the bike?”, was the question I kept asking myself. I stripped off my top and became the Shirtless Man, for all the trail runners. A few hours from the start of the hike, and I’m at Barr Cabin, mile #6.5 ish. I start drinking my energy replenishment drink (a 20 oz Coke) and mill about the outside of the cabin. I peek in for a touch, and try to make small talk to the two cabin-watchers and a guest. I am not quite at 100%, but not completely gone, as I at least know I’m not making much sense, every time I talk. “I better just keep going…” I think to myself. So I say, “so long!”, and they reply back with, “Have fun trail running back down”, and I don’t turn around to correct them, as I’m still planning on going up. Not many people today decide to keep going up.
From the cabin to the A frame shelter at treeline, I pass one guy (of the three). He’s complaining about lack of fitness, so he’s stopping at treeline. “Bah”, I think. Mental fatigue has already set in. I know I’ll be hallucinating, soon.
The wind is picking up. It begins even to lightly snow. Off and on – you know, how Colorado normally is above 7,000 feet, most of the time. The trail though, is largely lost through drifts caused by the winds. The summit is obvious enough and I’m dumb enough to just start going straight up, instead of taking the second stretch of endless switchbacks. The snow is in poor condition: just these windpacked areas, with a thin top coat of newly-fallen powder, a thick, almost icy crust and then corn crap underneath. It’s classic, “you’re going to start an avalanche” conditio
ns, but there’s some many boulders, that I tell myself that’s not going to happen. Which… is how people die. (BAH!) And the snow isn’t all that deep. It’s actually pitifully scarce. This winter was bad for precip. and this summer is going to be a rerun of The Shit is on Fire, show, unless it starts dumping down and that show gets canceled.
500 feet from the summit and the days activities are starting to take a little hold of me. I am well over hour #14 of almost constant moving, knowing full well that the summit is close but isn’t that close, and afterwards, I still have to get down. Then it really starts to snow.
I get to the top of my own route and summit. “Cripes, what am I wearing?”, I think to myself. I have running tights and rain pants on, trail runners, and my top is two polypro undershirts, and a rain coat. And a hat. Not even gloves: little underglove things . It’s winter, I’m over 14,000 feet and it’s snowing.
I don’t dilly dally long at the top. Tried to take a photo, but every time I stop for more than 30 seconds, anything wet (shoes, gloves, hat, etc) freezes, so I just bail at properly documenting the ascent, to the chagrin of my future-self, as I type this out. From the summit though, I know where the trail ends, so I can hopefully follow the true trail downwards and not get lost.
This plan works for about 30 meters and the trail has been erased. The wind and snow pick up and I realize that visibility is starting to lessen to now less than 30 meters. Sometimes class 1 hikes near cities can get a little fun. I modify the plan I use to summit (go straight UP) and start simply to go straight DOWN and do that thing that happens when you don’t know where to really go: cliffed out. Cliffs to the left, to the right and directly below. The wind lulls and I’m treated to the beautiful rock cliff formations of pink Pikes Peak granite. I skirt gingerly over the rock bands and bound down where I think slipping on the snowy parts won’t take my too many several hundred feet down, in a slightly over my comfort level speed. Of all the times to not bring an ice axe. I’m literally in a text-book example for saving yourself by self-arrest. I’m keeping that damn thing in my commuting bag. Just, everywhere from now on.
The cliffbands chill out. Finding myself on more alpine than cliff face, I breath a sigh of relieve, but two new problems present themselves. First, no trail and I, uh, I’m not quite sure what drainage to go down – there’s TWO choices and if I pick the wrong choice, I’ll end up in the wrong county (albeit with much hilarity to whomever picks me up, hitching), and also, I’ve got a half hour of daylight left to make the right decision. Dark is going to equal much lower temperatures and, well, that’ll be some good times, right there. “What am I doing?” I incredulously think to myself. “Well, exactly what I wanted to do!”, I audibly answer to myself.
And it’s true. No one does a century bike ride, only to hike up a 14,000 foot peak thinking, “Hey, you know what, this should be 100% without incident!” And I go to the task of finding the right drainage down with aplomb. There’s two strategies: find the trail and follow the trail, or find the A Frame shelter that’s at treeline and go towards it, as the trail also skirts the shelter. And there’s only two real ways to go: North or South. South looks like a general avalanche path, but north has a strange ridge I have to go up, and over to gain the other side of the drainage. Why anyone would put a shelter at the bottom of an avalanche path is beyond me, so I start climbing to the small gain. Small trees are starting to make an appearance in my path, and they trap snow and the postholing ensues. I turn around to see if I can spot any sort of remnant of trail. From the high vantage point though, I see clearly the A frame shelter, close to where I started out making my way to the South, well to the North. Or at least I think I do. I’ve been thinking I’ve been seeing the A frame shelter all over the place, but I’ve been hallucinating boulders to be buildings. I’m not tired enough to be scared of my own mental failings, but it’s almost playfully fun to watch my visual cortex short out.
The A frame proves to be very real, and I find the trail at treeline and from here, it’s three hours of slogging back. It feels like eternity. I pass no one. The last endless array of switchbacks come into focus and I contemplate running down them, like all the fresher people 8 hours ago. I try, but I’m also at hour 16 or so of Constant Movement and nothing in my body quite wants to give it a jolly go down. Especially in the dark, so I relegate myself to simply walking it.
Colorado Springs comes into view, with all its glimmery lights and then houses and structures of Manitou Springs, but nothing seems to get bigger – it just stay the same tiny, model-like size, even as I’m quickly losing altitude.
Everything in my vision is turning into something else. Rocks become injured animals in my path. Tree branches are elk antlers. Snow and ice patterns on top of the rocks become horrific, spider-like alien creatures. I’m waiting for figures in the shadows to come out, try to jump me, rob me, and then kill me. Aspen Tree groves become impenetrable wooden fortresses that have instantly sprung up out of nothing. It’s all entirely incredible.
And it finally ends, as the trail finds its beginnings.
And luckily, I also find my bike, locked up to a somewhat hidden utility box of some sort, in fine shape. Of any 14er trailhead, I get the least good vibe on this one – CO Springs is just too close and kids here are too bored. I wagered that St. Patricks Day festivities would help keep these people inside, hungover, sleeping, and eating pizza. It’s now 10:00pm and I make the decision that sleeping about 8 hours is what I now need to do.
Consuming far too little calories for what I need to be in the black on that front, I sort gear and fix up the sleep kit and pass out, fairly illegally, at the back end of a little picnic area, next to the public bathroom and the trailhead. I need to get up early enough to escape being found out by the local police authorities, who are inevitably going to be making a round to check up on suspicious activity in the trailhead parking lot (lots of car break ins), but not so early that when I get up, there’s no where in my path to get some food.
I opt for six am and get up, highly refreshed. The police do come by at around 6:45, but don’t even notice, as I’m about to roll out. I keep forgetting that sometimes when one isn’t in a car, one is invisible. I don’t fit the description of a car thief, or a ramble-rouser free camping anyways. Things I’m wearing match – and I don’t smell of booze. I start on up the road towards Woodland Park.
And at Woodland Park, there’s The Hungry Bear – a teddy-bear themed breakfast joint, that’s also biker friendly, incidentally. Like, Motorcycle Enthusiast, friendly. In my travails, I’ve noticed that such establishments also don’t mind catering smelly bicyclists and the people are usually nice, as well. The only weird looks I’ll get are from the motorcycle enthusiasts themselves – however real or weekend-warrior they are. And usually it’s the form of transportation I’ve picked, rather than my odor or savage looks. I guess once you take on a motor, you never go back. I digress.
I order $10 of food and barely am able to finish it. Target hit. I’m off, up HW 67 to some sort of connector, up near Pine, CO, that I’ll figure out later. I’m not sure how it works out – but it’s a goal for the day to uh, figure it out.
HW 67 is a picturesque and lazy scenic ride – I think it may be the best road in the Front Range to take a loaded bike on. Mountains you never knew existed poke out of the canyon’s various phantasmagorical rock formations and then are hidden again once you turn a corner and the canyon’s steep walls block the view. Fisherpeople playing hookey are dressed in their fisherpeople uniforms gettin
g shit for bites. There’s uphills and downhills and burn areas. Ice, and snow on top of the ice sit on top of the shallow river. You cross the Colorado Trail: singletrack that beacons you to Durango – about 500 miles away. The road turns to dirt and and the only vehicles that pass are 4wd. It gets a little coountry, as most permanent structures are in disrepair and everything else is a propped up RV or something.
I take a hard right and the key to my escape of this drainage area (and into the one to the north) and I’m climbing out of the canyon and over whatever it is I need to climb out of, to get onto, “Pleasant Park Road” (nice name, huh?) and home. The houses get massive again, as the income level dramatic rises to meet the road.
The final grunt up makes today’s elevation gain over 6,000 feet, which is a tidy sum, for weary legs – and a little bit of surprise. I’m not one for exact planning. The wind today has been blustery and coming from the wrong direction (towards me), which doesn’t make the climbing any easier, or funner. But, you get what you get and I’m happy to be outside.
Rocketing down Pleasant Park to High Grade wasn’t as fun as I had hope, and I get this strange feeling that I’m not very high in elevation as I thought I’d be. Usually, when making a trip UP this hill, I feel quite lofty, once making it to the top. The perspective thing, again. A few more downhill turns, and I’m back on the plains, back on the bike path and closing the loop of my ride just yesterday. All that’s left is to go from the Southern ‘burbs of Denver, to the Northern ‘burbs and to home.
Hitting the wall is a funny thing to do on the easiest part of the track, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Pedaling is slow and the landscape around is hyper familiar and nothing seems very eventful. I get acquainted with traffic and instantly hate it, with the burning fury of a thousands suns. Everyone in a motor vehicle seems overly aggressive. It’s close to rush hour. Cycling is such a more civilized mode of transportation. Cars here just seem far larger than utility would find it reasonable and my mind begins it’s usual loop of, “happy I live a car free lifestyle” and general prejudice for motorized travel. It’s not exactly useful, or productive to think this way, but when tired, the mind does what it does. I’m just happy the hallucinations are over. I spend my time waiting for lights to change, announcing the names of the SUV’s I’m stopped in back of, in an overly dramatic voice: “Chevy TaaaaaawHOOOOO!”, “GMC YoooKON DINAWWWWWLEEE!”
My thoughts turn to food, as I have a caloric deficit to work on – part of why I’ve hit this wall. I make it home alright, and start my food intake – after a shower, with half a pie. Less the 48 hours from when I embark, I’m back home to overly familar settings, a little sad I guess, that I couldn’t play outside just a little bit longer. Spring will come soon, and then summer, and this little trip will seem to be just like a warmup for some quite longer adventures, I’m sure.
Hikin’ down and hallucinating, lost, snow and wind
Gettin’ home. Climbing! Wind!
Part 1 of an 8,000 word essay by Bryan Schatz (with illustrations by Matthew Burton) on my riding/art/tom-foolery leading up to and through the Tour Divide can be found in the latest issue of Switchback Magazine #10:
Pitch black and frozen in the snow- choked Rockies north of the border, and all Justin Simoni could think of was making it to the cabin.
He’d felt the frigid air trying to penetrate his clothes, watched puffs of his labored breathing illuminate and disappear in the night sky; he’d seen the Grizzly tracks stomped into the snow.
As always, I want to thank the people involved, especially Bryan Schatz for his interest, curiosity, and in getting in touch with me for the sit down interviews, as well as taking on the Herculean effort of shifting through the hours of recordings we conjured up.
I also cannot (will never be able to) thank enough all the people who have helped me on my wanderings, races and (mis)adventures, for without their help, I’d never be able to take on these crazy zen-like experiments on the bike, on foot, or in my head.
Cross racing season ended for me around December with the State Championships, where I managed to do fairly OK, as I did for most of the races I entered. 45 minutes of racing is certainly not my sweet spot. I felt like a marathon runner, doing a 100 meter dash, which is somewhat close to reality. Some hilarious photos of “Bearded Man, in a Skinsuit” though, like this one:
Although, my teammate walks away with the best, “in a skinsuit, racing cyclocross photo”, as well as winning the Big Air competition,
Cyclocross was tons of fun, but pricey and it’s gotta be said: them Boulderites sure take their racin’ seriously. Lots of things, learned though. I opted not to travel to Nationals, although I “won” transportation to it – I sorta felt like I’d just embarrass myself – there’s some fast people I don’t want to fall onto.
Since the beginning of the New Year, I’ve been working on some new outdoor regiments, adding some hill walking, trail running and bouldering to my usual mix of, “Ride all over the place”. Been fun to re-re-revisit climbing and great to get back into the mountains. The problem is now, how to fit everything in, without going crazy. There’s reasons I’ve started trail running and hill walking. And climbing – they have to do with future summer projects, which I’m not quite yet ready to announce. Lots of days of doubling or even tripling up “practices”.
So, for example, run up and down a mountain, and then visit the rock gym (riding there, of course). Or, cycle to something, run up and down it, hit the rock gym. Or, ride the 20 miles with a heavy pack to the meetup spot – and oh: top out the hill 2,500 foot hill climb right before, grab a ride to the trailhead, walk up and down something, ride the 20 miles home, with a slightly lighter pack – You get the idea. Pretty killer for endurance, and hell if I want to be on a trainer at all this winter.
My running is getting better, fast, as I hoped it would. My cardiovascular system should be, how do you say, “well developed”, and only my muscles need somewhat of a re-tune for the specific types of forces they’re needed. I’ve never been a super strong runner, and I doubt I ever will. A half marathon is still scarier than taking on a 100 mile trail run. Not saying I’ll ever do either, in any “official” race. Blech.
Climbing is also getting better, fast, but I’m assuming I’ll hit some sort of plateau. I was a pretty ridiculous rock-jock half a lifetime and 35lbs lighter ago, so it’s been a rediscovering of old ways of understanding problems, which is in of itself an interesting experience. But again, my interest is to simply become an adequate dude on the moderate route, rather than be something to excel towards – no multi-pitch big walls in my dreams. But there’s a reason I’m going to the gym, and it’s under wraps. For now.
Some photos of some hill climbs:
Solo on Greys/Torreys – cold day. Drove to the trail head. Shameful.
Group trip up Mt. Yale, having since shaved for the New Year:
The next thing on the calendar looks to be a 150 mile gravel grinder in early April, so Feb/March may see my attempt to put in some long rides. I’d like to win something like that ride, although it’s a little unclear to me how fast I can go for 150 miles. It was a surprise to see how fast I could go for 50 miles. I know a 150 mile distance is well within my abilities, it’s just still a retune for me to do it fast, rather than be in the mindset that I need to do it fairly quickly, but still have legs to do the same thing the next day (and the next, and the next). Funny thing, this endurance thing.
I’ve lived in Colorado for almost 14 years straight; and Denver for most of those years. I could move anywhere, but for over a decade, I’ve been here. What keeps me around?
Happy to be able to help Randal Bellows III with this photo shoot, doing something I simply love to do: riding around on my bicycle, in the city.
Denver finally hosted its own CX race, in my old neighborhood, even – I’ve lived on both 36th/Marion and 35/Brighton.
I got to the scene late – even though my race was at 1:20pm or something (1: I can’t count, and 2: I sleep in), and found myself sprinting to the start line still in my jeans, with pockets filled with loose change, my phone and my keys, as well as a fixed-geared bike. Well, whatever – I rolled with it (just didn’t, you know, COAST). The below video does a pretty nice job expressing the atmosphere of racing in the industrial side of town, next to the train depot. It also does a nice job making me look as if I’m competent at racing – you’ll spot me with the blue/white/red jacket, black Surly Cross Check (fixed) – mostly running, and the big beard, poking out of my grey helmet.
Thanks for everyone that put the race together, and thanks to Icebreaker for sponsoring our team’s table, which was set up at a hairpin turn, perfect for good faith-heckling and beer handouts – as well as the unofficial single speed skidding competition (it is an urban race, after all), which garnered me the new nickname, “Si-MONEY“
A dude named, Shane decided to map out, and put on a 50-odd mile, Ultra Cross race one Sunday, when the regular cyclocross races were far away in Fort Collins and more expensive than usual (they’re always pretty expensive). His was free. So I, with most of the rest of the Happy Coffee team, decided to participate.
Well, it just so happens, I managed to win the damn thing. On a single speed Surly Crosscheck. FEEL MY LEGS!
Here’s going up the 18% grade of Lick Skillet where I also somehow won the King of the Mountain:
Shane’s take on putting on the Boulder Ultra Cross
- Boulder Ultra Cross on Mountain Bike Radio (I call in, to yammer about a few things)
Levi’s ride report
It was a nice scrimmage, and I was happy to put in a good showing after getting my ass handed to me, each and every weekend on each and every cyclocross race. Winning a 50 minute race against Cat 1/semi-pros hiding in the Single Speed category with the rest of us one-gear riff-raffs just ain’t going to ever happen, but when the miles get longer and the terrain gets more varied, I certainly have the right experience to push against.
I also did my homework; pre-riding the course a few days before, and resting up, for a few days afterwards. It was luck that I didn’t experience a mechanical and it was just pure adrenaline when it came to how I was able to somehow get up Lick Skillet’s 18% grade with a 2:1 gear ratio. If Shane puts this on another race next year, I’ll sure try to defend the “title”.
I won a record, and a Mexican Coca-Cola in a koozie!
Route + Elevation Profile (clockwise) – View on Strava
The idea was certainly simple enough:
The road that travels up to the summit of Colorado Springs’ resident 14er, Pikes Peak (neé heey-otoyoo) @ 14,115 feet would be open to bicycle travel for the first time for an extended period: the entire month of September on an exploratory basis. In the recent past, the road has only been open for one day, for a bicycle race up to the top.
This road needed to be ridden to, from Denver and summited, before the end of September came; before the road was again closed to such noble of transportation options.
But of course, that wouldn’t be enough. Riding to Pikes Peak and back is something I’ve done before – twice in fact – once to Barr trailhead in Manitou Springs, and then hiking the Barr Trail to summit, and then back to Denver; once to try to ride unsuccessfully ride around the mountain. It would be most adventurous to link it up with another road that goes to the summit of yet another 14er: Mt Evans @ 14,265 feet. Start in Denver, ride to Pikes Peak, ride to Mt. Evans, ride back to Denver. Had anyone tried this, before?
I couldn’t confirm that anyone had. If the road to one isn’t open in a flexible schedule for travel by bike, it makes things difficult. To have it open for 30 days, in September – where the weather in the high parts of the state starts to turn a bit nasty, why would anyone want to? I smelled a chance for some disaster-style riding.
The gear would be simple, no-frills, light weight, dependable.
The bike: Surly Crosscheck, which I’ve been using for racing the cyclocross season, somewhat non-seriously. I just can’t take racing all that seriously.
But, it’s a frame I’ve ridden through 9 countries in less years. No fancy drivetrain. Just two rings up front, a 38t and a 34t and a flip flop hub dingle-cog-duo out in back – one side with a freewheel; 19t/17t courtesy of White Industries and the other side, fixed: 17t/21t, courtesy of Surly. Any simpler, and I’d be going single-speed. Want to change gears? Time to flip the bike upside-down, take out a wrench, loosen things up, move over the chain, tighten everything up, and flip ‘er back over. Surely that’ll get me up two of the highest paved roads in the state. The country.
The sleep system: my modified Tour Divide setup. A 20 degree down bag to replace whatever random 45 degree bag I packed. Bivvy sac, instead of a tent. Bringing along the footprint of my tent, to use as a tarp, if the weather should turn wet.
Niceties: Jet Boil stove, latched to the right leg of my fork, care of Salsa’s Anything Cage. A few warmer clothes for some colder nights.
And maybe, if there’s something else in the way, I’ll bring along my trail running shoes. To invite a little more spontaneity.
I decided to invite Elliot along – he’s been traveling around Europe for the past 3 months climbing the famous passes in the Alps. I told him the idea, the travel philosophy (light and fast, but no so fast as to not take photos) and to see if he’d like to come. He did. On the very last week we could try before the road was closed again to bikes, we started out.
To make things easy, we could have taken lighter-weight road bikes, riding on more direct roads up, and down these mountains, while staying in motels at night. But, such a path would be busy with motor vehicle traffic, not so easy on the eyes and for lack of a better word: boring; We’d be often repeating the same route in reverse to get from Pikes, back to the Denver area, and then repeat the route up and down Mt. Evans. Not for this trip. We’d sleep wherever there was enough cover to do so without being found. We’d take quieter, more interesting routes.
Highlands neighborhood, Denver, Tuesday September 25th at ~ 4:30pm. We met up, talked some nervous energy out and starting our ride towards Waterton Canyon, and the start of the Colorado Trail: a singletrack route that can take you all the way to Durango, if you’d like to. Set up camp a few miles from the beginning at, “Lenny’s Rest Bench”, to give ourselves a good position for the next day, where we’d try to ride all the way to the tollbooth of the Pikes Peak Highway. Camping at the Bench is a simple affair – one of the closest places from Denver you can free camp. The glow of the city is still very much visible from the end of the canyon. A nice prologue to what could be a very difficult ride. A few miles on road, a few on an isolated bike path and a few miles in the dark and mist on single track.
The next morning, we took the Colorado Trail to the end of Segment 1 and in reality: the furthest I’ve ever gone on the Colorado Trail, even though I’ve toyed with the idea of seeing the trail to its end. Another time. The trail is in great shape, but our bikes aren’t really the best rigs for the route. Loaded down with gear and with skinny, cyclocross tires, rather than a mountain bike with suspension, the going was at times challenging.
A little before lunch time, we were done with segment 1 of the Colorado Trail, and bid it farewell, taking a series of connector roads (Platte River Road -> W Pine Creek Road -> HWY 67) to the start of Rampart Range Road, a dirt road route that takes you all the way to Woodland Park and a few miles to the tollbooth of the Pikes Peak Road. At this time of year, and in the middle of the work week, it’s a fairly lonely road, with only moto bike enthusiasts riding about the local trails. Woodland Park was only 60 or so miles away, but the sun starts to dip down early this time of the year and the weather was threatening while we made our way in cloudy conditions, with scattered rain clouds we oft bumped into. It also started to be obvious that I was going much faster than Elliot. I waited up every time I lost sight of Elliot. Didn’t mind, but I could sense Elliot’s frustration.
Made it to the end of Rampart Range Road, as the sun finally went away, and the rain started in earnest. Eating dinner at what seemed to be the only restaurant open, we warmed ourselves, having dessert after dinner and, talked about camping options. Deciding to camp as close to the toll both as possible, we took on Highway 24 at night in the rain and made ourselves towards the toll both and, well, past it, making camp on top of a small rise right next to the toll both. Hoping it wasn’t going to rain on us.
The next morning, we backtracked to the toll both, ditching gear nearby to save some weight and made breakfast nearby, waiting for the road to officially open. The tollboth operator offered us coffee and we all chatted. The road seemed to only be open to ~12,000 feet, which was somewhat of downer, as our first and main of two objectives might not even happen. Talking to Elliot, he was good to keep going, no matter how high we would get, so we paid our $10 and headed up.
It’s a beautiful road, albeit steep. Steeper than most paved mountain routes you encounter in Colorado’s mountains. My lowest, and really only gear while riding up was 34:21. Well, I guess it had to work for the next 19 miles…
About halfway up, Elliot told me it was time for me to go on ahead. The weather was obviously turning and he thought he was holding me up, going a bit slower than I, although I told him it was no big deal. But he was pretty insistent and he had a point: if the road wasn’t closed to the top yet, it was going to be, pretty soon. So we made our farewells, and I wished him luck. Pedaling my little gear to the top.
The weather got bad at the last batch of switchbacks, but I didn’t encounter any road closures (as if that would stop me). Just keep going, damn the weather, or the steep switchbacks, or however I was going to get down. And before I knew it, I was on top,
Pikes Peak has the slightly odd feature – for a 14,000+ foot mountain, of a gift shop/restaurant on the summit, and I took full advantage of their overpriced food and warm booths. As the weather got worse outside, I ate my share of cafeteria food, waiting for a break in the clouds to hurtle myself downwards. It kept snowing, as I finished my coffee. A park ranger stationed on top kept me abreast with the weather, telling me that a small system was leaving, but an even larger system was quickly advancing. The road was now closed to everyone after ~12,000 feet, I must have just made it through.
Deciding to take my chances, in any break in between that would appear, I decided it was time to leave. The conditions were not very attractive to riding bikes down steep roads: the precipitation and cold would render rim brakes… not so useful. I changed my gearing to the highest, fixed gear I had and made my way down by carving off speed and skidding off the rest, just like being downtown, but I was definitely not downtown of anywhere. A slightly awkward affair, but no one else was on the road, it was fun, enough.
Back near the toll both in one piece, I grabbed my cached gear, and Elliot left a note, saying he was going to bed up near Manitou Springs, to try again, later in the week. Made my way back to Woodland Park to wolf down dinner and figure out the route to the next destination: Guanella Pass. I could have gone from Woodland Park to Evergreen and from there, up to Squaw Pass, which would deliver me right to the start of the Mt Evans Highway and 13 or so miles to the top of Mt. Evans, but that’d be too easy, now, wouldn’t it? Why not ride over Guanella Pass, and go around Mt. Evans from the West, continuing clockwise in a great spiral tour around the entire Evans massif, before reaching the top?
The weather cleared as I started on HW67. Perhaps six cars passed me, as I made myself to Deckers. A small tailwind, clear skies, a slight downhill route and an almost full moon accompanied me. Bidding farewell to the pavement, and turning onto Wigwam Creek Rd and back onto dirt. Bedded down for the night under one of the few remaining trees in a enormous burn area from the Hayman Fire.
The Castle, Lost Creek Wilderness
Woke up, rode for a few hours, before realizing I had made a wrong turn the night before, after ending up at a trailhead giving access to the Lost Creek Wilderness. A wonderful place to get lost. Incredible scenery, roads, terrain. Took notes from the small map of the area at the trail head, Wrote down the campsites I needed to pass, and which ones to avoid. Made it to Bailey/HWY 285 on the Colorado Trail Wilderness detour route (more Colorado Trail Race reconnoitering) alright. Ate another huge lunch and onto HW 285: busy, no shoulder and miserable. To be avoided on bike, at all costs.
Onto Guanella Pass. Aspen leaves were exploding and the traffic of photographers trying to save the event followed. A wonderful ride; starts as a gravel road, become a nearly paved part to the top and trailhead to Squaretop Mountain (elevation: 13,794 feet) and Mt. Bierstadt (elevation: 14,065 feet). I was starting to feel the effort of this trip and was excited to reach the top of the pass, as clouds and inevitably precipitation came creeping up from the valleys, to the top of the pass. Tonight was to be a honest to goodness full moon, and it seemed worth it to gamble with staying on top, wait out whatever weather was approaching, and see if the clouds would lift, to gain the summit of Bierstadt in the middle of the night.
It didn’t look likely. Clouds enveloped me and rain – then hail began to fall. Being above treeline, there wasn’t much in terms of shelter. I tied one side of my tarp to the actual trail head sign for Squaretop Mountain, and the other side to my bicycle frame and made camp right there. I didn’t expect much traffic in and out. Made my dinner and my tea; set the alarm for ’round midnight and gave myself an early bed-down, as soon as the sun also gave it up for the day.
To my surprise, the midnight sky was clear enough, as the moon was bright enough to make getting up unavoidable with a proper shelter. I half expected groups of people to take on a midnight hike up the mountain, but as far as I knew, I had the mountain to myself, taking my own route up, no headlight on, and not saying a word. Summitted without fanfare, and then walked back down and went back to sleep, until sun up.
Rocketed back down the north side of Guanella Pass and into Georgetown (trying not to freeze my hands off, or slip on the early-morning patches of ice), having breakfast at my favorite spot, Mountainbuzz Café and Pizzeria. They have never once reacted to my sorry, smelly, wind-burnt and/or rain-soaked state, any time I’ve collapsed into their restaurant to warm myself in front of their ovens and change out of my drenched clothing in their bathrooms. After breakfast and a costume change, I asked for a packed lunch and headed – well, not east towards Mt. Evans, but west, towards the Grays Peak Trailhead.
To me at least, it seemed silly to be so close to Grays and Torreys (elevation: 14,278 ft and 14,275 ft, respectively) and not take the quick ride up from the winter trailhead, to the summer trailhead and bag them, while I’m in the area. Make it three ascents for the day. My wonderful loneliness on Bierstadt, was harshly contrasted by the crowds on Grays/Torreys. I didn’t want to do much, except hike the mountains, eat some lunch and get down to Idaho Springs for dinner, so I set myself a brisk pace and had a little walkabout up these peaks.
Thankfully, the frontage road from the trailhead, back to Idaho Springs and the start of the last leg of the trip – the final track of tremendous elevation gain and loss itself started with a gentle downhill of a few thousand feet. Ate dinner at a diner and got some supplies – batteries, candy, food for the morning, at a gas station and made my way – slowly, up the Mt. Evans Highway. My goal was to reach Echo Lake by the end of the night, and ride the last 13 miles up Mt. Evans in the morning. Slow going on exhausted legs. Every two miles – then every mile, I would stop at the mile marker itself to rest, stretch and breathe. The road is less than 5% grade, it’s just that I’d been on so many grades like this in the past week and with my lack of gears and the weight of all my equipment – well, no reason to make excuses, I was just getting tired.
Made camp at the (closed) campsite right by the Mt. Evans tollbooth. The road itself was also officially closed, but no one’s gonna stop someone on a bicycle. At around mile #5, I was greeted by three men in their 20’s walking down; no backpacks, no water, no equipment – nothing. I couldn’t explain it. Passed one man on a mountain bike wearing some sweats and got passed by a road cyclist that’s much more serious than I was. Other than that, the mountain was all mine. From the summit parking lot, I carried the bike to the actual summit of the mountain, and took in a few views of Greys, Torreys, and Bierstadt.
Summit of Mt. Evans; Bierstadt to viewer’s left, Grays/Torreys to viewers right, far in the distance
The only thing now was to take the momentous 10,000+ feet of elevation loss back to my starting point in the Highlands, and call it good. Amazingly, in less than a week, I was able to ride to, and gain the summit of all the Front Range 14ers, save Longs Peak, which would need a bit more thought, this time of season.
The question I then posed to myself: could you ride to, and then summit all the 54-odd Colorado 14ers in a single go, in a self-supported manner? It seemed likely you could, but I currently cannot find anyone that has. And if you could, could I?
We’re packing up the short bus as we speak for the West Coast! Denver! I’ll see you in a few weeks. West Coast, I’ll see you tomorrow!
The list of people I have to thank to make my two Tour Divide’s possible is longer than one can imagine, so here I thank everyone out there for your help, encouragement, support, and most importantly: patience. This wasn’t something I could have done myself. I appreciate every last one of you – you’re all the one’s that inspire me.