Below are notes taken during a short tour of the Colorado Rocky Mountains in June 2023. Photos aren't included, but in the section header of each stage (day) I link the corresponding the corresponding activity from my Strava where a selection of photos can be viewed if you have an account and follow me. You may also be interested to see the entire route on Google Maps and the named mountian passes I traversed (including Lizard Head done in the preceding days)
The pretext for the trip was a research conference I attended at the Telluride Science & Innovation Center in Telluride on the very Western edge of Colorado. I travelled with my bike and once the conference ended descended onto the Western Slope of Colorado…
The local time and location were those recorded by my GPS bike computer (Lezyne Mega XL) at the start of each ride.
Prologue: Descent to Montrose Activity
08:39 on Wednesday, 14 June 2023 Mountain Village, USA
Final morning of conference cleared due to start of Bluegrass festival. Found a colleague also going to Montrose who was happy to take my bike box. Win on multiple fronts - saved on the shuttle fair and didn't have to disassemble and reassemble bike!
One hill (Dallas Divide), rest downwards with breeze making the heat pleasant. How ambitious tomorrow? One mountain climb? Two? All in?
Shout-out to Airbnb host Mike for cooking me eggs on arrival and being cool with a bike box for a few days.
Moving Time 3hr 10min, Distance 108km, Ascent 668m
Stage 1: Montrose to Salida via Crawford Activity
05:04 on Friday, 16 June 2023 Salida, USA
Submission for KCC Epic Ride of The Year award.
I've run out of time tonight for full notes but know this: Monarch pass [3448m] was brutal!
Hopefully pictures give you some idea of how incredible the sights and scenes were today.
Currently held up in Salida's finest. Tomorrow shorter so hopefully more time to decompress at the end.
Edit: Adding a few more notes now I'm back in Montrose. I had two possible routes plotted for today: direct to Salida over Monarch Pass, or the same but with a dog's leg to Crawford that added about 90kms. A few days in Telluride had given some confidence regarding the altitude, and legs were day-1 freshness, so I decided on the extra. Definitely worth it for the road through the Curecanti National Recreational Area and views of the canyons along Gunnison river. The Rockies were here, and wow were they impressive.
Down to Blue Mesa dam (Half-life 3 confirmed?) and now lush and green was replaced by dry and dusty. East along a slightly rising highway pass the lakes of the Recreational Area. A noisy hot road complete with traffic, but I was still revelling in the novelty of the setting still. A visitor centre in the middle of this 'desert' that I'd marked on the map was a godsend for fresh water. I'd only previously stopped at the general store in Crawford knowing the next one wouldn't be for a long while (a sign there said next gas stop in 80miles; that was probably about right). Water stops are always a consideration in the heat: you can carry enough food for hundreds of kilometres, but burn though all your water in a few hours if it's scorching. Just regular hot today, and besides I'd found the visitor centre.
Time to tackle Monarch Pass. As you can see from my original notes above, this was tough. 250km into the ride I possibly paid the price for being a bit eager earlier on having had a nice tailwind along the previous section, and I struggled to keep moving at times on the right hand edge of the double lane road up the mountain. I couldn't get into my easiest gear. Not sure if I'd done something when assembling the bike after the flight, but it wouldn't be accessible for the rest of the trip despite attempts to fiddle with cable tensions - including part way up the climb here!
A potential point of interest on Google maps about halfway up was a water spring. Not much to look at it turned out, just a pipe rammed into the rock face with water trickling out. No need to stop and loose rhythm for that. The lack of air at this height, or perhaps it's dryness, was making my lungs hurt slightly with ragged breaths. That didn't bode well for what was to come later this trip I thought. Gladly the altitude never seemed to affect me in the same way again after today. Despite this discomfort and a soreness in my right knee I managed to reach the top and then only a rapid descent to Salida and a rather rustic hostel.
I'd made my day 1, quite an epic, and whilst taking stock at the hostel met a chap doing his own version of the Tour Divide (a long distance MTB event through the Rockies). Always good to meet others on their own adventures to compare notes, even if I didn't quite have time to compile mine!
Moving Time 11hr 20min, Distance 302km, Ascent 3724m
Stage 2: Salida to Minturn via Breckenridge Activity
05:04 on Friday, 16 June 2023 Salida, USA
Out to do the Recpath from Beckenridge through Frisco up Copper Mountain.
The highlight of today was roughly 70km of the Summit County Recreational bike path a.k.a 'Recpath' starting from around Beckenridge and winding up to the top of Copper Mountain and Vail Pass.Before then there were two passes to get done: Trout Creek and Houssier, the later being considerably longer. Nothing on how Monarch treated me yesterday though, even if technically higher at 3518m. That being said today was definitely the day after a big ride. Took a long while to get going, and then slowly. It was cool and the first 5 hours was a battle for the sun to overcome the clouds, requiring several stops to change layers.
Beautiful scenes early on, if not as dramatic as yesterday. The roads and motorists were pretty bad though. First, ruts and bulges rattled me around for what felt like hours on end, had to stand out of the saddle for minutes at a time to try and save my rear end from the worst. Second, I don't think drivers know what cyclists are out on the highways, you get the feeling it's just not the done thing. If a fast moving lorry is coming downhill behind you they will just run you off the road, warning honk if you're lucky.
Anyway, there were plenty of good bits in the first half, descent from Hoosier was brilliant fun, I'll have to see if I got any GoPro footage later. Before then saw another tourer (Full kit, Tailfin...) going the other way and came across South Park City (Fairplay).
Finally reaching the Recpath, it did not disappoint. Started off typical city bike path with lumpy surface and interruptions every 50m to cross a road. But soon away from all that and things kept improving. Sun was out too and ascending Copper Mountain was enjoyable, especially after catching a local Nikolaj near the top to chat away the last few km. Had to wait quite a while for road works soon after (on the bike path!), but it didn't matter. Well ahead of schedule: I made it to the hostel for the earliest check-in time pretty much after a shop for groceries a few km up the road.
Moving Time 8hr 52min, Distance 202km, Ascent 2368m
Stage 3: Minturn to Parachute via Independence Pass Activity
05:06 on Saturday, 17 June 2023 Minturn, USA
To the absolute limits.
TLDR: Wintry conditions up Independence Pass [3687m] made for an exceptional challenging day, and likely the most incredible I've ever had (on or off the bike).
Full notes: The original plan for today was 160km downhill direct to Parachute - where a hotel had been booked. But at some point in the last few weeks I'd decided to add an ambitious alternative that took in the famous Independence Pass. Same 160km, but 110km uphill first.
Still hadn't decided which to do last night. Success on stage 1 & 2 gave confidence, but the weather was not looking favourable. Crawford was set to be around freezing early morning, and that was only the base of the Independence Pass climb. Come the morning a degree or two warmer had been traded for what was described as 'wintry showers' (in mid-June, I know).
Surely I didn't dare. Surely I would regret it. Well you can see my decision.
Setting out I made good progress over the first two 'warm up' climbs, I was really pleased and full of energy - more than on day 1 somehow. A friendly toot from the lads doing a marathon trail race from Crawford I had met leaving the hostel a short while earlier was all the encouragement I wanted (I'd specifically requested a toot if they passed me). It wasn't so cold at Minturn and the sun was touching the distance mountains (first photo).
Things would soon get difficult coming off the second climb. It continued to get colder as I headed towards Crawford. Throughout this ride I had to periodically do windmills and other dance moves with my arms to keep blood flow to my hands. Somehow I never lost sensation in them, although for the first 5 or so hours it was always threatening. Feet were a lost cause though, despite the plastic bags freshly cut from bin bags that morning 😅.
Somewhere along the bit to Crawford it got tough enough for what I would call survival mode to kick in: fighting for survival, nothing else matters but to make it to the next point. It's amazing what you can hold together like that, but it's not a card I'd ever suggest intentionally playing and may leave you shaken after. Also leaving me shaking (other than the cold) was the worst road of the trip so far. Congratulations. See the first GoPro clip and tell me you don't agree. And that's with cutting edge image stabilization!
Survival meant reaching the base of the climb where I'd marked a 'general store' on my route. It started raining about 10 minutes before but I made it. No they didn't have any warm gloves or hats I could buy in desperation (more of a souvenir shop then anything), but they did have a coffee machine with a hot water dispenser I was allowed to use. I stomped around for 10 minutes engulfing Reese's PB cups I found and resolved to get on the bike. They didn't stop me.
Rain became snow as I ascended but I was surprised at how easy the lower slopes were, what looked like a 28km climb of paper was more like 8km when you got to the switchbacks. I was dead focused on the goal and enjoying it in a sense, only glancing at time on my head unit occasionally to keep eating and drinking. No need to worry about distance remaining. I made sure to grin at all passing motorists and had a funny encounter with lads stopped by the side of the road and dressed for a different holiday it seemed 🤣 (video).
Finally the top came. In some sense that was it, The Tour Was Over We'd Survived (blink-182 anyone?). But we know that is dangerous thinking, I still had a century left after all. I didn't hang around for long at the top (video/photo) as there was no shelter and I was only going to get cold quickly.
The descent was as difficult as I expected. Not able to work much plus wind-chill was not good. Legs started to seize up, even my core temperature was dropping. I needed to get off this damn mountain. Then something amazing happened. I saw the sun. Only a glance at first, but it gave encouragement and moreover with every minute I was losing elevation and gaining ambient temperature. Reaching Aspen I know I'd done it. Blimey, just. Went to the nearest cafe for a large hot chocolate. Had a comical moment when I took the lid off one of my bidons to refill - I was a bit too eager and the lid spun across the other side of the road and down the nearest drain. Well I guess I was travelling with 2 rather than 3 bottles from now on!
The next 2 hours saw a rapid transition from Winter through Spring to Summer, complete with summer storms. I kept all the layers on at first, my thermoregulation was still kaput I think while my body recoiled from what it has just been through, but eventually I stabilised and realised it was now rather hot.
The rest of the ride felt like it took a long time, due to my fatigue, but I never lost mind sight of my destination. I arrived in Parachute just after 4:30pm covered head to toe in grit and grime.
Stage 1 was an epic, yesterday a special ride. But today? I'll never forget today.
Moving Time 10hr 28min, Distance 279km, Ascent 2690m
Stage 4: Parachute to Montrose and the end Activity
05:11 on Sunday, 18 June 2023 Parachute, USA
Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.
Just one hill separated me from Montrose where I'd set off three days ago. So far on this trip I'd successfully chosen the longest or most ambitious option of the routes I'd prepared. After yesterday's exploits I did check to see if there was a flatter way back but no, there really was only one road to Montrose (for cyclists at least). Once more over the Rockies then!
Topping out at around around 3,300m it doesn't reach quite reach the eddy heights of Monarch or Independence Pass, but the climb starts from far lower. Strava has it as 34km with 1,708m gain and certainly my biggest climb ever. That's pretty cool. And before you ask, my time was 2 hours 54 minutes and 39 seconds. Including a water stop I should add!
Much nicer weather setting out from Parachute, down old highways and towards Mesa. Cool and beautiful as the rising sun clipped the rocky outcrops. No cars here, but some cattle. A tense moment when a calf decided to run up the road ahead of me, then the mother started chasing me. Don't panic, but maybe pedal a bit faster.
Switched my head unit on to just show time and the map (fun to see the hairpins), and settled into the climb. Smile! It improves your face value. The temperature was rising, but so was I, so the heat wouldn't be troublesome until the other side. Looking back down the mountain periodically I could see the road where I'd been 15-20 minutes earlier, hundreds of metres below. Awesome stuff. Then the views of Western Colorado. I'd seen more dramatic and imposing scenery over the last few days, but the scale of the expanse below was unrivalled, not done justice by the camera.
There was a false summit, Mesa Lakes I think, before the final part started. Around here I was joined by a local from Grand Junction just out to run up the climb and back. Gave me a spurt of energy as we chatted to the top.
The descent was straightforward - no technical parts on the Southern side - and afforded more views. The temperature continued to rise. Quite bizarre how a day and a single ride can take you from near freezing to almost 30 degrees. Only a short stretch back along the basin to Montrose though, nothing to worry about... *clunk* my rear saddle bag unloads its contents on the only busy highway I had to take today. Fortunately it spilled onto the shoulder, and I think I managed to pick up anything without causing a scene. Must have not done it up properly after stopping to re-apply suncream just before.
I'd finally joined the roads I'd left Montrose on. This time I could actually see the airport. Roaring headwind too, always good to finish with one of those. What an incredible four days. Thanks Colorado!