Colorado has some awesome high-mountain road climbs. For as long as I’ve been in Colorado the canonical high-mountain climb has been Mt. Evans. There is a race up it every year and it’s a huge climb at 28 miles and 7000 vertical feet. Loveland Pass is another brutal climb if you start it in Idaho Springs, but still not the vertical gain of Evans. Plus, if you do Evans, you can hike 200 more vertical feet to the summit and get a 14er. A number of years ago Guanella Pass got paved and it is now an absolutely gorgeous (and difficult) climb. The other iconic 14er in Colorado with a road up it is Pikes Peak. But wasn’t an option for bikers until recently. It was a dirt road and bikes weren’t even allowed. The whole road got paved in 2011 but even then it wasn’t open to bikers until the Colorado Bikers Alliance (or something like that) got the road opened to cycling, though each cyclist has to pay $15 to ride it. I think the city of Colorado Springs owns the road so no federal parks pass gets you in.
|Starting out from Manitou Springs - the only time it wasn't too windy to take photos|
Pikes Peak is now the biggest climb in Colorado. If you start from Manitou Springs, at the roundabout, the climb is nearly 8000 feet - about 1000 feet bigger than Mt. Evans - and it even finishes higher since you can bike directly to the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak, but have to stop, as I mentioned above, 200 feet or so lower than the summit on Evans. And the road up Pikes is shorter…which makes it quite a bit steeper than Evans. Both climbs are brutal in high winds, but the road surface on Pikes, being a lot newer, is way better. It doesn’t make a huge difference going up, but while Pikes Peak is a dream to come down, Evans is hell, as it is so bumpy.
Anyway, when I asked Buzz for Ultimate Direction schwag for the Rattlesnake Ramble he told me, “I have new policy. I don’t give out gear unless you do an adventure with me. Since he has been hobbled a bit recovering from a hamstring tear, this meant biking. This was a huge win for me because there few activities where I can keep up with Buzz, but biking is one of them. Bill Briggs suggested Pikes Peak since none of us had done it and Buzz drove us down there early Saturday morning. We debated whether to skip the unpleasant riding along highway 24 but, in the end, decided we needed to do the Full Monty and started at the roundabout in Manitou Springs. Buzz and I just had biking shells and leggings, but Bill carried a small pack with extra clothes for the descent. This turned out to be a great idea.
We were riding by 6:45 a.m. and Buzz set a pretty fast pace from the start, faster than I would have gone, but I didn’t want to lag early. I hadn’t done but one real ride all year - a 70-miler at the Be Strong charity ride a month ago and I think Buzz doubted my ability to either make the top or keep up. I’d done hard climbs off the couch before, but by myself. Keeping up with these two endurance athletes would be a chore, but I figured I could drop off on the upper half and just try not to be too much of an anchor. Buzz pulled over after a mile and then I pulled a mile and then Bill did and that was it for highway 24. Not too bad.
We rode another steep mile and then came to the gate for the Pikes Peak Highway and there was a queue of cars. The road doesn’t open until 7:30 a.m. and we had to stand around waiting for almost 20 minutes. Also, it cost $15 per cyclist to go up this road. More than we expected, but still a pretty cheap adventure. Once through the gate we were all surprised at how steep and sustained the road was. I was riding a compact crank with a 26 in back and had to stand what seemed like half the climb. Buzz had a 28 and it allowed him to spin a bit more. I move on ahead not by choice but by necessity - not low enough gear to sit down. It was windy already, even though we were still well below tree line. It was going to get a lot worse.
There is a shop and outhouses at the some reservoir about 10 or miles up the climb. Bill and I stopped here, mainly because Buzz said he was going to stop here. But then he rode right past us. Bill dug out some food and I went to the bathroom and then we gave chase. A mile up the road we Buzz at a porto-potty and he said, “Keep going, I’ll catch up.” And he did. When Bill and I stopped at the next “aid station” - a gift shop/coffee shop about 8 miles from the summit. It wasn’t yet open so we sat by the ranger station in the middle of the road. We were leaning up against it, hoping to get out of the wind, but to no avail. At least we were in the sun. My feet were already frozen and I pulled off my socks and warmed them with my hands. When the store opened we went inside and soaked up the glorious warmth. Bill said, “We better not stay in here very long.” And we didn’t because we spotted Buzz riding up the road. We scurried outside and called to him and, once again, he didn’t pause but rode on by. Bill ran to fill his water bottle and in a few minutes we were chasing Buzz.
We were all wearing shells at this point and I had all my clothes on…with still nearly 8 miles of climbing to go. Was I worried about freezing on the descent? Yes.
The riding up to here had been very tough: steep and very windy, but now it got really ridiculous. Our speed on the steep sections, into the wind, was maybe 4 mph. It was demoralizing. When I caught Buzz he said, “I underestimated this climb. You never ride the ‘average grade’. 10% grade into a 30 mph wind. I’m at my limit and just grinding it out.” I felt the same way and inched on by because I didn’t have a lower gear. Bill had a similar gearing issue and also moved by Buzz. We’d remain in that order and strung out all the way to the summit. Each one of us suffering at our limit and quickly getting colder and colder. Near the top one of my fingers was completely wooden and I was worried about damage. I stopped and put both hands down the front of my bibs to warm them on my belly. I was a pitiful sight, bent over at the waist, hands down my pants, shivering. I got some feeling back but it was obvious things wouldn’t get much better until I got to shelter. I got back on my back.
On one of the steepest sections near the top I was headed directly into the wind and just barely moving. Ahead the road went the same direction for too long, but there was a turn up ahead and I knew I just needed to get to the turn. I wouldn’t be out of the wind and I wouldn’t have a tailwind, but any change of direction was going to be a big boost. That was the way for most of this climb. It got to be where you just loved a strong crosswind, only because it wasn’t a headwind. When I got to the summit I was frozen. I leaned my bike against the summit gift shop/snack shop, went inside, and plopped down in the nearest booth. I took off my gloves and shoes, put my head on the table and braced myself for the soon-to-be-arriving screaming barfies. I was shaking so badly that my leg, braced against the table shook the entire table.
In less than ten minutes Bill arrived and in another ten Buzz. My hands and feet a quite sensitive to the cold and I wondered if the other two would just be wasted from the effort and not greatly affected by the cold. The first thing both said was, “I’m freezing.” Bill went to get us a couple of hot cocoas and a couple of donuts, though both donuts were for me. Bill started talking almost immediately about taking the train down or jumping in one of the vans they use to ferry downhill riders to the summit. He probably was more concerned about me, but both Buzz and I were convinced we’d be okay, once we warmed up. We knew there was a warm shop 8 miles down and we’d stop there to warm up. After thirty minutes of warming, we started down.
In just a couple of miles we spotted a big group of riders who had no doubt paid good money to be driven to the top of Pikes Peak so that they could ride down, stopping to get into the van. I heard one women say, “I can’t feel my hands.” I knew that pain. On the way up I tried to ball up my hands to keep them warm, but then I couldn’t grip my handlebars and I was in grave danger of being blow over by the wind. I couldn’t ball up them. Just a bit further down the winds eased slightly and we got most sun. We caught up to a long line of cars and fell in line, not wanting to be weaving around cars in such strong winds. By the time we got down to the store my hands were very cold again, but nothing else was cold. Buzz and I went into the shop to warm up a bit but Bill was there just a minute later. We took 5 minutes though to let my hands warm up.
The rest of the descent went smooth and fast, though the winds remained strong. Down in the trees again, things were better of course. The run down highway 24 was stressful, but we could maintain a speed of nearly 40 mph and it was over quick. We cruised back to the car, arriving 5h57m after we left. I hit the at 4m02m, including the 20 minute wait at the gate and all stops. It was a rough four hours. At the summit Buzz called the hardest ride of his life, after 25 miles. This is a guy who had ridden the 100-mile White Rim Trail in day, unsupported many times. Lots of Type-2 fun on this ride. Some Type-1, but lots and lots of Type-2.