From June 13th through 19th I rode in the 25th anniversary edition of the Ride the Rockies bike tour. I had planned on doing either this ride or the Bicycle Tour of Colorado again, but since I made it past the lottery for Ride the Rockies I picked that one for a slightly different experience. I had briefly flirted with the idea of doing both rides back-to-back, but was talked out of that after realizing how difficult it would be to enjoy both weeks with such high fatigue levels.
One immediate difference between the Ride the Rockies and what I did last year was the route. Last year, I rode a loop, which made the logistics of travel a little bit easier. This year, it was a point-to-point ride from Grand Junction to Salida. Neither town is easy to get to, and while I had originally planned on driving, the logistics of getting both my bike and myself back to where my car would be parked would be annoying.
The ride organizers contracted a bus service that could be purchased from the various towns, but since for your bike to be transported you would have to disassemble and box it anyway, I decided to just save the time and effort and fly myself and ship my bike. I like driving, but the thought of driving through west Texas again just to get to Colorado is never fun.
This was the first time I had ever disassembled a bike and had it shipped. I first purchased one of the more popular hard-case luggage boxes for the bike but it didn’t fit my frame. I decided in the end to just use the cardboard box method and it worked out fine, although there’s a little bit of wear and tear on the bike from the experience.
Unlike 2009, I knew coming into 2010 that I was going to ride either Ride the Rockies or the Bicycle Tour of Colorado again. I put in significantly more time and effort into training prior to this year’s event compared to last year. Instead of just under 1,000 miles of cycling from January through June in 2009, I managed to put in 2,500. Instead of just riding with no real plan in mind, I used a professional coach this year to correctly manage my workout, recovery and nutrition efforts before the ride. And last, but not least, I purchased a new bike with better gearing and a lighter frame to improve climbing potential.
My coach also talked me into buying a power meter for the bike early on in the training season. I had read about the benefits of training with a power meter for years, but the high price, and the knowledge that I only race occasionally, had kept me from buying one. In the end I gave in, and it really did help make my training time more efficient and beneficial.
One of the biggest changes with my training plan, versus the previous years when I had no real plan, was both the frequency of training rides and the intervals within them. In most years, I would only ride on the weekend and maybe one ride in the middle of a week. This season, it was pretty consistently 5 times a week.
Interval training is how you improve your performance, strength and speed in any endurance sport, and cycling is no different. With the power meter, my coach was able to tell where my weaknesses were and tailor my training program based upon that data and the goal of my season (the tour!).
For me, that meant a lot of tempo intervals - slower cadence rides at moderate power levels that help build slow-twitch muscle strength. Since I tended to ride at high cadences, I found myself relatively weak at these lower cadences for any long duration rides. The tempo intervals paid off big-time here.
The other big focus was on climbing repeat intervals where I would ride just under my lactate threshold at a moderate cadence to simulate a long, steady hill climb. These proved pretty difficult for me. When I would ride in Austin, TX, the hills were both too short and too steep for me to stay in the proper power range. In the Houston area, well, there are no hills, so your best approach is to just use a very large gear and ride into the wind to sort-of simulate the effort it would take to do a long climb. Frankly, it’s not anywhere close to what a real climb is like. Regardless, these climbs did do a lot to improve sustained strength on the longer climbs I had coming up.
Day 1 - Colorado National Monument
Our first day was a short ride through the Colorado National Monument just outside Grand Junction. The monument is an amazing place to take in the canyons of the great southwest. I had never been to the monument before, so being able to see it for the first time on a bicycle was quite a joy.
We entered the monument from its south entrance and then stayed on Rim Rock Drive until leaving on the north side of the monument and returning to Mesa State College.
The steepness of the climb surprised me, since the elevation profile didn’t look bad at all from the ride book. Over 44 miles we climbed (and then descended) 4,200 ft. It took me just under 3.5 hours, including breaks and sight-seeing. Energy was 1,688 kJ & TSS was 184.
I left about an hour before most of the attendees did for this ride and it turned out to be a very good idea. When I got back to town there was a light rain storm, but up at the monument it was a heavy hail and lightning storm. There were lots of very wet and cold riders when the main group began to return to town.
I talked with some Grand Junction locals during the afternoon who said the monument was a weekly ride ritual for them. That would not get old.
Day 2 - Grand Junction to Delta via Grand Mesa
Day 2 was the hardest day of the tour on paper, and proved to be on the road, too. Oddly enough, during last year’s Bicycle Tour of Colorado, we also rode up Grand Mesa but that year we started from the south side of the mountain, whereas this year we started on the north side. I’ve heard locals say that riding from the south side is more difficult.
Now, ultimately, this is just one tough mountain to climb. From either side you’re looking at 6,000 ft of climbing over 20 solid miles. If you’re a flat-lander like me, you have the additional disadvantage of not yet having any acclimation to altitude to contend with.
Unlike my 2009 climb up Grand Mesa, 2010 was quite a bit easier. The training and gearing paid off, and we had cooler, cloudier weather to contend with. That weather actually turned out to be a disadvantage on the descent, where a rainstorm kicked up and I rode over 10 miles at high speed with heavy rain and sleet - ouch!
At the summit of the climb, the logistical skills of the Ride the Rockies crew really shined. There were plenty of supplies and food vendors ready for us, and no shortage of food and drinks. They even had a motor coach idling a the top with its heaters on, so riders could go inside and warm up nicely - it was about 38 degrees F at the top when I arrived.
Overall the ride took me a whopping 8 hours and 20 minutes, with just under 7 hours of actual riding time to cover 94 miles. I did 3,578 kJ and my TSS was 350.9 with right at 8,000 ft of total climbing. That’s a big ride!
Day 3 - Delta to Ouray
Day 3 was assumed to be a nice easy day for us to recover. At only 67 miles and with a nice gentle slope up to the town of Ouray, it didn’t look like a rough ride. We were in for a surprise, though, as the route we took from Delta to bypass the main highway to Montrose was some of the roughest roads I’ve ever ridden on. It was incredibly jarring and annoying, especially after being rather worn-out from day 2.
Luckily, the scenery made up for the road quality. While not very dramatic, the farms and ranches along the route were gorgeous and as we got closer to Ouray, we began to see the San Juan Mountains in the distance - our destination for day 4.
Day’s 3 ride took 6 hours 34 minutes, with just under 5 hours of actual riding time to cover 67 miles. I did 2,375 kJ of work and my TSS was 208 with just 4,000 ft of total climbing.
Arriving into Ouray was a real treat in itself. I had never been to this tiny mountain town, and it was amazing how gorgeous it really was. The local businesses did a bang up job hosting and it was a great place to have lots of beer and food.
Day 4 - Ouray to Durango via Red Mountain Pass, Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass
I expected day 4 to be everyone’s favorite of the entire tour, and I was not disappointed. The day began with a climb up to Red Mountain Pass immediately upon leaving the town of Ouray - no warm-up here! Literally before we made it six blocks and to the end of town we were climbing on a steep grade.
The ride up Red Mountain Pass was, simply put, stunning. The road is narrow, winding, and steep. Halfway up the climb to Red Mountain Pass was the first aid station of the day. So far in the tour I hadn’t been stopping this early, but today I was tired enough after the initial climb to take an early break and have a big breakfast.
The break was worth it, as the rest of the climb to the summit of Red Mountain Pass was a tough, but incredibly gorgeous, climb. After the summit was a fast, winding descent into the town of Silverton.
After Silverton, the second big climb of the day started immediately - the climb up to Molas Pass. This was my favorite climb of the entire tour as the scenery of this part of the San Juan Mountains is hard to beat.
Molas Pass was a good spot for a rest, with a short climb to Coal Bank Pass to follow. The climb up Coal Bank pass continued to be incredibly scenic and afterwards everyone knew the climbs were done for the day and all we had was a 35 mile descent into Durango.
As soon as I started the descent off Coal Bank Pass I had my first safety incident of the tour. At about 40 mph a female elk darted out in front of me from the side of the road. I braked hard - too hard and the rear wheel locked up and started to skid. Luckily I let go of the brake immediately and my bike corrected. Even though I was only yards away from hitting the elk, she moved across fast enough that I could have avoided her even if I hadn’t braked. That said, the adrenaline rush from that little experience stuck with me for a while and I took the rest of the descent into the Purgatory area a little bit easier than I would have otherwise.
It turns out the descent into Durango wasn’t as easy as we had been expecting. We had a strong headwind to contend with and the increased heat of the afternoon as we exited the high mountains. I screwed up and wore a long sleeved jersey on the day, which was great until the last 20 miles. At that point, not only could I not remove my sleeves to keep cool, I also found my sunscreen had given up and I lost my spare tube somewhere during my descent. Luckily one of the riding medics loaned me some of her sunscreen so I covered up a bit, but regardless I was still rather toasty.
The last few miles in Durango proper were a bit of a surprise, at least if you haven’t ridden in the area before. Rather than being straight down into town, there was a very steep short climb to go up from the valley where Durango proper is to reach the top of the mesa were Fort Lewis College is. As minor as that climb was, by that time of day I was spent and was just looking forward to getting off the bike, finding some food and taking a cold shower.
The best part of being in Durango was that I knew some of the good restaurants in town and found one of my favorite sushi restaurants. What a treat after a long, hot day in the beautiful San Juans.
Day 4’s ride took me just under 9 hours elapsed time with 7 hours on the bike itself to cover just 75 miles. I did 3,068 kJ of work and had a TSS of 294 with 7,818 ft of elevation gain.
Day 5 - Durango to Pagosa Springs
But not for me! I decided to take a tactical rest day on day 5, despite the promise of an easy day. The route was a long 87 miles, but with only 2 short climbs. In retrospect I probably would have been fine to ride it, but I wanted to be fully rested for day 6.
I took one of the motor coaches to the next town and had the entire day for R&R in Pagosa Springs. The hot springs there were a great treat and the warm waters made my muscles feel better, even though it probably was not the best thing for recovery. Nor was all the beer probably the best idea either, but it hit the spot regardless.
Disaster almost struck today as my helmet was not attached to my bike when I went to go check on my bike before getting ready for bed. I foolishly had my helmet attached to the bike when I handed it off to the luggage truck folks before boarding the motor coach for my ride into town. And since I checked too late in the day, all of the local vendors that might have sold helmets were closed already, as was the information tent with the lost & found.
The next morning I was assuming I would likely have to take the bus again since I didn’t have a helmet, but one of the folks working the luggage trucks in the morning was kind enough to loan me his helmet for the day. Random kindness from strangers saved my bacon!
Day 6 - Pagosa Springs to Alamosa via Wolf Creek Pass
Day 6 started with a climb up Wolf Creek Pass on US160 - one of my favorite passes to drive over in a car, especially if you take the side road off the pass onto the mountain top once you reach the summit of the pass. The true climb was only 8 miles total, but we had a 16 mile warm-up climb that slowly took us up the 700 ft or so before the true climb begin. Since aid station 1 was right at the base of the climb, it was a perfect spot to take a rest and grab a nice breakfast.
Wolf Creek pass is a gorgeous climb and a moderately difficult 6.5% grade the whole way up. Halfway up there was a bit of a distraction as a tractor-trailer had rolled itself in a tight corner and almost plowed off the side of the pass. That slowed us down a bit as the road went down to one-lane and we had to intermix with road traffic a bit more than we otherwise would be.
The summit of Wolf Creek Pass is a bit anti-climatic as its rather flat and wide with no dramatic views. The side-road going up to the top of the mountain is gravel, so a no-go on a road bike. So, after a quick resupply, it was time for the very long descent off the pass and into Alamosa.
The descent off Wolf Creek Pass proved to be one of the more dangerous ones of the whole tour as there were several crashes reported later on in the press. I almost did myself in by swatting at a bee that landed on my knee rather than keeping both hands on my handlebars - moving your arms quickly at 45 mph is not the best way to keep your bike stable. Luckily I corrected myself just in time before entering one of the larger tunnels that you go through on the descent.
US160 turns from a northeasterly direction to a southeasterly direction between the towns of South Fork and Del Norte. For us, that meant exposing ourselves to a pretty rough crosswind about the same time the valley opened up for the trip into Alamosa. The ride from Del Norte into Alamosa was the toughest, or at least most uncomfortable, part of my entire tour as my body could just not get comfortable on the bike and my riding form wasn’t good as a result. Crosswinds take even more out of you than headwinds as they can be rather dangerous when gusty and make it harder to hold a steady tempo pace.
Day 6 took me a total of 7 hours 17 minutes with 6 hours 18 minutes on the bike to cover 92 miles. I did 2,909 kJ of work and my TSS was 270 with 5,000 ft of total elevation gain.
Day 7 - Alamosa to Pagosa Springs
The final day of the tour turned out to be one of the most fun, thanks largely to Mother Nature cooperating with favorable wind conditions. We road north from Alamosa up to the San Luis Valley to Pocha Pass before descending into Salida.
What is amazing about this route is just how incredibly flat the road is. For the first 40 miles we gained 30 ft - yes, 30. With a tailwind, this meant nice, fast speeds of over 20 mph even while soft pedaling, and over 25 mph with a little bit of effort.
Once the valley began to narrow and we began to ascend towards Pocha Pass, we added only 1,600 ft of elevation gain over the next 20 miles. The climb up Poncha Pass from the south is amazing in that you don’t really feel like you are going up a mountain pass at all. Once you begin your descent, however, it is a totally different story.
The descent off Poncha Pass into Salida was a nice, steep grade to keep the speeds up. I hit my top speed of any of the descents during the tour right at 50 mph, or 80 kph.
Day 7 took me 5 hours 27 minutes total time, with 4 hours 22 minutes on the bike. I did 2,171 kJ of work with a TSS of 178 and 1,753 ft of total elevation gain over 85 miles.
Once in Salida, it was time to disassemble and box up my bike, find a cold shower and hot food, and then wait for the bus that returned me to Denver for my plane ride home the next morning.
On the tour: The Ride the Rockies organizers are very professional and the overall smoothness of the tour reflects it. Everything wasn’t perfect, but it was very well done. My only real complaint would be the over-reliance on third-party vendors at aid stations. That meant no key supplies like sunscreen, etc. at most of the aid stations. For the most part, this is a non-issue, until you’re That Guy that forgot to bring some that day and forgot to make a quick stop at a connivence store along the route to get one. Don’t be That Guy!
I do also wish the ride had organized ways to drop off some of your extra clothing at aid stations and have it returned to you at the next nightly camp. The Bicycle Tour of Colorado folks did this in 2009 and for some of the big mountain pass days it made perfect sense - you would need a lot of warm clothing for the first half of the day, but the second half you were hot and needed to get rid of some of that bulk.
On the route: It was awesome. They certainly made it difficult, and I thought they should have thrown in a rest day in the middle. But in hindsight, it was so easy to take your own rest day, and the majority of people did ride all 7 days, so clearly while the route was hard, it was not too hard. From having done two tours in Colorado now, somewhere between 450 and 550 miles does seem like the right amount for a week-long tour.
On the equipment: My new bike was awesome. The frame was lighter and more comfortable than my previous bike, and the compact gearing with the 11-28 cassette made climbing the big, steep hills a lot easier for a flatlander like me. I could have done the ride with standard gearing and an 11-25 cassette, but my knees would not be thanking me now.
And the power meter? For something that you totally don’t need, it’s totally worth having. But then I’m a data junkie so my perspective might be a bit skewed.
I also avoided carrying extra equipment with me this year - no camelback backpack for holding extra clothes, etc. - everything went into my jersey pockets. I just made sure I bought jerseys with big enough pockets and it worked out just fine. I even managed to carry my rain gear almost the entire tour except on days with no chance of rain.
On coaching: Totally worth the price. Yes, you can self-coach, and yes, once you know what coaching is all about, it’s more likely that you could self-coach and be effective. But the information and insight I gained, along with the planning of my training season to match my priorities, was easily worth the price. If I had tried to do this myself again, I would have not ridden as much total volume, nor would I have utilized the build-up and recovery cycles effectively and would have not been in peak condition for the tour.
Ride Your Bike
If you haven’t done a long bike tour yet, especially somewhere in the mountains, put it on your list. If you like to ride, there is something really special about being out on the bike for a solid week of riding. The event itself will be amazing, and if you properly train for it that effort will be life-changing all on its own.
All of the pictures I took on the ride are on my flickr page here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/26521676@N00/sets/72157624320722734/show/