During the week of June 21st I participated in the 2009 Bicycle Tour of Colorado. This was my first true bicycle tour, having previously only ridden in two-day events. We rode in a loop around the Gunnison National Forest in central Colorado and put in approximately 500 miles in 6 days of riding. The tour was brutal, difficult, treacherous and totally awesome.
I had not planned on doing this bicycle tour at the beginning of the year, it was always just in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do someday. I did spend my spring training for the April MS 150 ride between Houston and Austin, and between that training and rides since, managed to put in about 800 miles of riding before I decided to sign up for the tour.
After signing up, I began to ride more in the Austin area to get more time on hills. The Austin area has amazing hills to climb, and although they can be quite steep, none are very long. Would it be enough training to tackle the big mountains in Colorado?
One area of concern for me was the gearing situation on my bike and the ability to carry enough gear. My road bike has a standard double crankset with 53/39 gearing, and an 12-25 10-speed cassette. I was advised by a few folks in Austin that changing out the cassette to an 12-27 gearing would make climbing the hills a lot easier, so I went ahead and did that. I was still concerned about having a standard double crankset instead of a compact double, which would have given me 50/34 gearing choices.
Carrying enough gear was also a concern, as the tour organizers make a big point that you carry rain gear with you always. I normally ride with very little equipment, nor do I need much here in Texas. But a touring ride in the mountains is a different matter altogether, and I was pondering taking my touring bike so I could make use of its rear rack for extra carrying capacity. It also has a compact crankset which would give me more gearing choices for the steep climbs.
In the end, I decided to buy a small Camelback Lobo backpack so I could carry my rain gear in it, along with extra water and supplies. I had not used one before, and didn’t like the idea, but it actually fit comfortably and did not seem to impact my aerodynamics at all while wearing it.
We left Glenwood Springs on the Rio Grande Trail before getting on Colorado 82, heading south towards Aspen. At Carbondale, we turned onto Colorado 133 to follow the West Elk Loop up and over McClure Pass with a summit at 8,755 ft. While not a very high pass, the approach road is at a 8% grade for 3 miles, so it was a great first day introduction to serious hill climbing in Colorado.
I found during this climb that the gearing setup on my bike was not optimal for the Colorado mountains. It was neigh impossible to spin at a fast cadence when climbing this steeply, so instead I would up falling back to pushing hard up the hill. The end result was a climb of only about 5 to 6 MPH and a lot more wear & tear on my knees. I spent a lot of the rest of the trip taking ibuprofen and icing my left knee to keep swelling down.
Once we reached the top, it was time for a snack before we descended and focused on getting to the town of Hotchkiss. The descent road was wonderfully smooth with plenty of sight distance, so there was no problem reaching a good speed; I hit 44 MPH on this stretch.
After the steep part of the descent, Colorado 133 meanders past Paonia State Park which has a wonderful lake along the road for some great scenery. From here we continued on past several small towns before ending up in Hotchkiss for the evening.
The ride took me 5 hours, 25 minutes with 78.6 miles covered and 3,620 ft ascent. Thanks to a fast, long descent, my average speed on the day was 15.8 MPH. Afterward, I was naturally tired but felt good and enjoyed the great ride.
Day 2 – Hotchkiss to Grand Junction
We left Hotchkiss on Monday morning on what promised to be the most difficult ride of the tour. Not only did we have over 90 miles to cover, we had the long climb over Grand Mesa.
We climbed about 1,000 ft just to get from Hotchskiss to the first aid station and the real start of the climb. From there, we had 20 miles of steep, circuitous climbing on a relatively hot day. This was a difficult climb for me and took much, much longer than I expected.
Once on top, we found that the aid station was running out of food and just about to shutdown for the day, even though there were still a few hundred riders coming up the mountain. Luckily, a family took advantage of the captive audience and was selling snacks; I was quite happy to spend the $2 on a nice bagel loaded with cream cheese.
After leaving the summit of the climb, we meandered a bit past some of the beautiful lakes on top of the mesa. Then it was time for the descent. The descent road was wonderful: smooth, not too curvy, and very long. I reached a top speed of 51 MPH on this stretch.
After the descent, Colorado 65 meanders down and into the town of Mesa. From here, we followed the road into a small canyon carved out by Plateau Creek. The scenery here was incredible, but unfortunately came with the price of a harsh, hot and steady headwind the entire distance. Coming out of this canyon we emerge into De Beque Canyon, where Plateau Creek joins the Colorado River. Unfortunately this also meant we had to get onto Interstate 70 for 4 miles. Riding on the shoulder of an Interstate Highway sucks about as much as you would imagine, if not more.
After leaving I-70 we only had 10 or so more miles before arriving into Grand Junction. This ride was without a doubt the hardest physical activity I have done in my life. I was utterly exhausted and depleted after such a brutal ride. I spent 8 hours, 35 minutes on the bike with 94 miles covered and a whopping 6,600 ft total ascent on the day. My average speed was a dismal 12.4 MPH.
I had a terrible headache once I reached town and was clearly dehydrated, despite drinking and eating everything in sight for the entire day. I decided that evening to not ride on day 3 and just SAG out, but my plans for that were somewhat thwarted the next day.
Day 3 – Grand Junction to Montrose
Our third day was considered an easy travel day, with a relatively flat and short ride ~60 mile ride from Grand Junction to Montrose. For those feeling up to it, there was an optional ~40-mile loop through the Colorado National Monument. I really wanted to ride through the monument but after day 2 I was too exhausted to try.
I decide to take the SAG truck to the finish as soon as I could, but it was difficult to actually find one. I wound up biking to aid station 3 and only skipping the last 15 miles or so of the ride. I felt absolutely terrible the entire time I was on the bike this day, so the short distance and extra rest time was something I needed.
Day 4 – Montrose to Crested Butte
I felt refreshed after a short day 3 and ready to tackle the long ride to Crested Butte. We climbed over two short mountains today, Cerro Summit and Blue Mesa Summit. There was a strong headwind coming out of Montrose that made the first 20 miles of the day rather difficult until reaching Cerro Summit. After that point, the rest of the day was calm, warm and quite a pleasant ride.
The scenery on the climb up Blue Mesa was amazing. The valleys surrounding the summit were gentle rolling hills covered with lush grasses and grazing animals. The vibrant colors were amazing to look at, and unfortunately the camera doesn’t quite capture the beauty.
After descending from Blue Mesa Summit we descending past Black Canyon National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area. The lakes making up the recreation area were mirror smooth and amazing to look at, and made for a fun ride through the canyons.
After leaving the canyons we reached the town of Gunnison and turned off Colorado 50 onto Colorado 135 to start our climb to the town of Crested Butte. It wasn’t a steep climb, but the long day began to take its toll on me and it took quite a while to finish up this last section. The last 15 miles into town it began to cloud over and get much cooler as we approached the higher altitudes of the area.
Today I spent 8 hours 15 minutes on the bike over 90.7 miles with 6,120 ft total ascent. My average speed was a slow 12.4 MPH with a max of 39.3 MPH.
Day 5 – Crested Butte
This day was a rest day for us, and we had the day free to explore the town of Crested Butte. The Fat Tire Bike Week was underway while we there, and many folks took the chance to rent a mountain bike and explore the great trails of the area. I fully took advantage of the day off and did absolutely nothing, save walk around the town a bit and catch up on laundry and eating.
Crested Butte seemed fairly typical of a small Colorado mountain town. There were just a few shops, mostly either gifts, restaurants, or adventure shops. The town of Mt. Crested Butte just up the hill is home to the ski resort of the area, whereas the main town seems to be more of the mountain biking mecca.
The day off really made a difference to my mood and physical well-being. The few hours extra sleep seemed to do wonders for my overall stamina and I was ready to tackle the next couple of days to finish out the tour.
Day 6 – Crested Butte to Buena Vista
Day 6 promised to be one of the best days of the tour. We were climbing over Cottonwood Pass, the highest pass of our trip at 12,126 ft elevation. But first, we had to get out of rested Butte and travel through Taylor Canyon. This part of the ride was amazing. The 15 or so miles leaving Crested Butte made for a fast downhill sprint to the small town of Almont, where we turned off Colorado 135 and onto CR 742 that followed the Taylor River into the canyon.
Once reaching the Taylor Park Dam and climbing over it, we were presented with what was probably the most gorgeous view of the entire tour: the mountains reflecting off the Taylor Park Reservoir.
After resting at our second aid station of the day, it was time to begin the climb over Cottonwood Pass. This part of the ride promised to a fun one, if for no other reason than the road on this side of Cottonwood Pass was a 13 mile stretch of packed dirt. Everyone who hadn’t done it before was concerned that skinny road bike tires weren’t going to be the best choice but the experienced locals said not to worry about it. In fact, they were quite right as this road was much more enjoyable to ride on than the chip & seal asphalt we were greeted with most of the rest of the day.
Like all mountain pass roads, Cottonwood Pass was steep, but not quite as steep as I had expected. With my rest day and the smooth packed dirt, I made decent time up the pass. Mother nature had a sense of humor, however, and I was given a nice rainstorm to ride through as soon as I began the climb. I went ahead and put on all of my rain gear in case, and it turned out to be a good plan. As we climbed the mountain the storm took a turn for the worse and soon the weather was amazingly bad. As we neared the top of the pass we fully ascended into the clouds. At this point I couldn’t see very far in front of me from the heavy rain and the cloud cover, at a time when the switchbacks of the pass were steep and dangerous.
At this point the rain finally soaked through my shoe covers and through my gloves. With that and the temperature dropping into the 40s I finally began to get a bit cold. Luckily I had 5 layers of clothing on my core so overall I was quite comfortable. I had decided not to descend down the other side unless I could dry out, but the tour folks had their own ideas. As soon as I reached the top I was asked to put down my bike and climb into one of the luggage trucks with 50 or so other rides so they could bring us down the mountain. They were shutting down the aid station on top of the pass with the intent no one would ride down during the storm. I talked to a few folks who had begun the climb down right as the rainstorm started and they had a terrible ride down the mountain into town.
This was one of those days that can only be described as epic, despite the tendency for cyclists to overuse the term. It was truly an amazingly fun experience climbing up Cottonwood Pass in a storm like that. I think I had more fun doing that climb than anything else in the trip. But then, I was well clothed. I passed several people wearing only their summer clothes plus arm warmers and there was quite a bit of whimpering and some crying as they got wetter and colder.
By the time we arrived in Buena Vista the storm had moved on, but our camping area had received quite a bit of rain itself. Luckily the Shuttleguy folks were on it and made sure our luggage was covered before anything got too wet.
Today I spent 5 hours 39 minutes on the bike over 54.9 miles with 4,540 ft ascent. With no descent to pick it up, my average was only 11.4 MPH.
Day 7 – Buena Vista to Glenwood Springs
Our final day was also our longest, with over 100 miles on tap including a climb over Independence Pass. We had a quick 20 mile ride out of Buena Vista before aid station 1 and the start of the climb. The weather promised to stay clear until the afternoon so many rides left even earlier than they normally do. I made it out of camp at 0600 instead of my normal 0700 for that very reason. At aid station 1 I was somewhat surprised to see large numbers of rides queuing up for the SAG wagon to skip the ride up the pass.
The scenery along the road up to Independence Pass was amazing. The foliage was lush and vibrant and we were constantly surrounded by tall mountains on every side. As we neared the top of the pass, we ascending passed the tree line and into banks of leftover snow. The scenery would have been similar on Cottonwood Pass, if not for the torrential downpour.
The climb up Independence Pass was quite steep and difficult. The final mile especially was steep but knowing we were almost over the last climb of the tour made many of us pick up the tempo to make it to the top as fast as possible – okay in my case that meant a whopping 8 MPH instead of the 5 MPH I had been doing.
The top of Independence Pass is alpine tundra which is always amazing to see, especially this far south in the hemisphere. The weather stayed clear the entire climb, and finally started to warm, so we had plenty of time to queue up for pictures in front of the sign at the top of the pass. Afterward, it was time for our rapid descent into the town of Aspen.
Unfortunately, Colorado 82 heading towards Aspen is in horrible condition. The road is full of potholes and bumps, making for a dangerous descent. The tour folks did a good job with warning markers on the road, but instead of what promised to be a good 50+ MPH descent, I had to limit it to no more than 40 MPH. At one point on the road we reached a section called The Narrows, where two lanes became one, and road traffic on both sides queues up slowly. This is certainly not the idea scenario for a fast descent off a mountain.
For some odd reason, the tour put aid station 3 15 miles from aid station 2 on the descent, which was effectively useless. I used it to get out of my warm clothes, but we had 40 miles left before reaching Glenwood Springs and there were no aid stations lined up for us on that stretch. That said, the entire remaining route was downhill and made for some fairly fast average speeds, even though we were fighting a headwind the entire way.
On this final day I spent 7 hours 58 minutes on the bike over 101.9 miles with 4,900 ft total ascent. My average speed was 14.1 MPH with a maximum of 40.7 MPH.
On gearing: while changing the rear cassette to an 12-27 was a great idea, having a standard double crankset was not such a great idea. I paid attention to riders as we went past each other to see what gearing they had on their bikes. Very few riders had a standard crankset and, of the ones I talked to, they were all Colorado locals. Almost everyone had either a triple or compact double crankset. In 2009, Shimano released a new Dura-Ace line with a 50/34 compact double crankset and an 11-28 10-speed cassette, which would be a wonderful choice for touring bikes. I know what my next component set will be.
On equipment: the Camelback backpack was a great choice, although I would still prefer not to have to carry one. The extra water capacity came in handy since the tour does not really have as many aid stations as they needed on the routes. I could have gotten by with shoving all of my gear into my jersey or jacket pockets, but I find that to be very uncomfortable as it puts odd pressure points in your clothing. I’m also rather cold-natured, so I needed a bit more layering than most people riding it seemed.
On altitude: I was surprised, but the altitude was not much of an issue for me. Yes, I had diminished performance capacity, but I wasn’t trying to race up the mountains so it didn’t impact me much. The gearing made it difficult to spin, so perhaps with better acclimation I could have used more aerobic capacity to push harder in the climbs, but I suspect this was more a muscle issue than an aerobic one.
On the tour: the tour itself was great fun, but overall I’d give it a B- for organization. Anything like this is a difficult logistical challenge, but the organizers made some clear mistakes. Some rides needed more aid stations, or at least aid stations in different locations. The choice of food service vendors was rather poor, and no one seemed really happy with the food availability. Even though I prepaid for all 3 meals a day, I wound up eating in town towards the end of the tour just to escape the poor quality food. And finally, there were some pretty major errors in the presented maps to us that caused a lot of people grief. Those kinds of mistakes happen, but they can be costly to the unprepared…
I heard many of the locals say that the Ride the Rockies ride was a much better organized, and fun ride than this tour. They have a lottery to get into the ride, so that’s probably a sign in itself. That ride is better funded and is more appealing to more casual riders. One big benefit is they have aid stations more frequently and the word is they are much better stocked. Many of the riders I met had just finished that ride a few days before starting this tour, quite a feat.
One thing I was surprised about was the number of people who seemed unclear on the concept that something like a week long bicycle tour is an adventure, rather than a pampered vacation. You need to have the right attitude for something like this: things will go wrong, mistakes will be made, amenities will be missing. It sucks when anything happens, but it inevitably will. There were way too many people whining about the smallest things, or things that clearly they needed to be prepared for. If you do something like this, and especially if you are camping, you need to be prepared and bring some extra food, toilet paper, etc.
And finally, one big thing to keep in mind on these kinds of rides is not to let the douchbags ruin your fun. In every walk of life there are people that are either intentionally douchbags or just occasionally make mistakes and turn into one for a while. This tour was no exception. Don’t let these people get to you or they will ruin your fun and your vacation; they are far and few between but they are there. You are the one that chooses how to react to their behavior, so choose wisely and you will have a much better time.
All of the pictures from my ride are available on my Flickr site here.