Monday, June 23, 2008

Cycling Colorado's Mtn Passes

After 10 years, I accomplished my goal on Friday, June 20 @ 7:30PM. I finally cycled all of this state's paved mountain passes. All 37 of them, plus the epic climbs of Mt. Evans and the Grand Mesa. Here's my story.

When I arrived in Boulder, CO, on the evening of August 3, 1997, I had already read about the 14ers- the mountain peaks over 14,000 feet, and I knew that I wanted to hike all 53 (or 54 depending on how you classify them). I climbed Long's Peak within the first 3 weeks of settling in, and then I did another 5 of them over the next couple of summers. After climbing Long's Peak for the 2nd time with my future wife, Katie, I realized this wasn't much fun and decided I needed a new goal.

I really didn't set the goal of riding all of the paved mountain passes in CO until about 2004 when I picked up the book Cycling Colorado's Mountain Passes by Kurt Magsamen. I had just had back surgery to repair a herniated disc, and that meant no running for a few months, but I had the go-ahead to bike as much as I wanted. As I looked through the list of mountain passes in Kurt's book, the bible of cycling CO's mountain passes- and he also includes Mt. Evans and the Grand Mesa since these two climbs are arguably harder than cycling many of the passes- I realized that I'd already ridden about 8 of them without even trying. I made it my goal to eventually "bag" all of them.

Again, I rode my first pass in the summer of 1998. (I rode all of the passes b/w Memorial Day and Labor Day, for the obvious reason that I had the best weather.) I hit the trio of Tennessee, Fremont, and Vail passes when I cycled in the Courage Classic that summer, a fundraising ride for the Children's Hospital. Then it was two-year gap before I rode Independence Pass in the summer of 2000; this was a minor accomplishment since 4 months earlier I was the victim of a nasty hit-and-run by a drunk driver after which I spent 3 weeks in the hospital and missed 6 weeks of work while mending all of my broken bones. Me and two buddies rode from Twin Lakes to Aspen, had lunch, and rode back. I remember we got caught in a cold downpour on the summit and took cover with a bunch of motorcycles until the rain let up.

I hit Squaw, Juniper, and Loveland Passes in 2001, 2002, and 2003 riding in those years' Triple Bypass rides. In 2002, I rode from the the gate at RMNP to the Alpine Visitor's Center and back. This was a pretty darned tough climb. Then it was in June 2005 that I actually started planning things out by climbing Cameron pass with a guy from the Boulder Triathlon Club. We rode over the summit for about 1/4 mile. I didn't really have a protocol when I rode these passes. For some I'd climb in both directions, some just up and down the other side, and many just cresting the summit before I'd descend again. I just wanted to be sure I rode some distance to the summit.

On a road trip in 2005, what I fondly remember as our mining town camping trip where we visited Durango, Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride, I rode Red Mountain Pass, Dallas Divide, and Wolf Creek Pass. Red Mountian Pass was one of the steepest (coming out of Ouray) but most beautiful passes, Dallas Divide was deceivingly difficult (ridden with Katie), and Wolf Creek was where I rode alongside a herd of deer and passed a couple of cyclists who were racing RAAM that year.

In 2005 I also rode the Grand Loop, a 200-mile one day ride where I again climbed to the high point of Trail Ridge Road, then Milner Pass, and Berthoud Pass. It took me 15 hours, 3 Red Bulls, 3 King-sized Snickers, and a gallon of Sustained Energy to get through that one. It was a busy summer b/c in August I volunteered for the Wild West Relay which ended in Steamboat. That allowed me to ride Rabbit Ears Pass, and then I rode Willow Creek Pass on the way to Idaho Springs for a wedding later that day. Willow Creek was beautiful, and I saw a moose grazing in the stream below me. I capped off the summer by riding La Veta Pass and Cucharas Pass the Saturday before Labor Day, drove back up to Lakewood and spent the night at a friend's, then got up the next day and rode Mt. Evans. (I also summited Mt. Evans twice more in the Mt. Evans RR.) Finally, I raced the Gore Pass RR (also raced Gore Pass in 2006) that year and ended my 2005 season by bagging 12 passes that year.

In 2006 I got Coal Bank and Molas Passes in the Ironhorse Classic, and just as important met my goal of breaking 3 hours in the race (2:51:56). A couple weeks later I rode Kenosha and Red Hill Passes on the way to Breckenridge; Hwy 285 is scary with all its traffic, even mid-week. Later on me, Mike O, and Ernie W rode Hoosier Pass on a gloriously sunny summer day. In July, I was able to plan another ride into a trip to a friend's wedding in CO Springs. I rode Ute and Wilkerson Passes; Ute Pass was like riding over Old Stage Rd with traffic lights- mucho traffic, very urban. But Wilkerson was just the opposite, no traffic and very scenic. In August, I did a solo camping trip and rode up Cottonwood Pass (saw lots of cyclists riding the pass that day) and then headed up Trout Creek Pass. Trout Creek is also on Hwy 285- little shoulder and lots of traffic. Finally, Labor Day weekend allowed me to bag Monarch Pass (surprisingly steep and cold temps in the 30's) and Poncha Pass. I was able to stay in a motel near Monarch Pass since the CO Invihash was going on that weekend. Another good summer- 11 passes ridden that year.

2007 was a low-key year on the bike since we had our first child, but I was still able to get away for 2 long weekends and ride. I rode Hardscrabble Pass (brrr! cold at the top) and then around July 4 did McClure Pass and the Grand Mesa. I camped out in the parking lot of the Redstone fire house before McClure, and the Grand Mesa didn't happen until around Noon so it was blazingly hot with very little shade for most of the climb.

I entered 2008 determined to finish my goal; I had 6 passes to go. On the way back from the Tour of the Gila, I climbed both La Manga and Cumbres Passes, both in southern CO. After racing 4 hard days at the Gila, I had no legs left and even though the passes were not that steep or long, they were tough. Plus it was still pretty cold at 10,000 in early May. My original plan was to ride the infamous CO Death Ride over the summer solstice, a 225-mile ride in southern CO that would've allowed me to get Lizard Head Pass along the way. However, I thought twice about this and realized that without any support, that might be a pretty big bite to chew. Instead I decided to ride the 4 remaining passes. I left last Thursday after my Rotary meeting, and found a very nice secluded campsite along Hwy 114, my staging area for North Pass the next morning. I rode 34 miles to/from North Pass, and if that was an appetizer, Slumgullion and Spring Creek Passes were a very filling dinner. After climbing 2000 feet, driving for 2 hours, and then tackling one of the steepest passes in the state in the heat of the day . . . was just plain foolish. However, I fell in love with Lake City. After another 34 miles of steeps, I grabbed a quick sandwich and a Red Bull and headed off to Telluride and Lizard Head Pass. It was the weekend of the bluegrass festival, so there were cars and hippies everywhere. A total 180 degrees from when Katie and I drove over Lizard Head Pass three years ago. Although nearing the solstice, it was getting pretty shadowy in the dusky light at 7:15PM, and along with the traffic and my tired legs, I decided to just get it over with. Instead of the planned 8-mile climb, I pulled off onto a wide gravel shoulder and rode literally a mile to the summit. There were at least a dozen cars and people wandering about at the summit, people in the area for the bluegrass festival. So it was 7:45PM and I was 2 1/2 hours from my campsite where I left my tent the night before. A friend of ours who was attending the bluegrass festival left me the key to her condo in Ridgeway; I also knew people I could crash with in Ouray if I wanted. But knowing I'd have to get my tent at some point- assuming it was still there- I decided to drive back to the campsite. It was pitch black when I arrived back to the tent at 10:30PM, and there was no one around for miles except the occasional car that drove by on the highway. It was all I could do not to think of all the boogymen out there in the cold dark night!

So, my final thoughts for those of you who want to ride all these passes. It only takes time and desire. In fact, of the 39 climbs, I rode 31 of them all in the last three years. Sure, it took some careful planning and an understanding wife :-) My favorites: Independence, Wolf Creek, Willow Creek, Red Mountain, and Slumgullion Passes. The most scenic passes: Willow Creek, Hoosier, Wilkerson, and McClure Passes. The toughest climbs: Mt. Evans, Berthoud, Trail Ridge, and Slumgullion. Slumgullion had an average grade of over 7% for nearly 7.5 miles, and many times the slope was over 9% with a max of 11.5%.

Now I need a mountain bike. So, how many unpaved mountain passes are there in CO?


Anonymous said...

Crazy! You almost made that seem fun!

Anonymous said...

kAnd I thought only us old guys were nutty. Way to go!


Anonymous said...

I hate to rain on the parade here but there are more paved passes in Colorado. If you count Mnt Evans and Grand Mesa there are 46.

listed here:

Marty said...

Nice work, Jason! That leaves you with some good memories, for sure. But now it's definitely time to leave the cars behind and get on the mountain bike. I suggest you start with Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass -- gorgeous singletrack full of aspend groves and blissful silence. Need a riding buddy??

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your saga very much! Ralph

jasonod said...

To anonymous who doesn't want to rain on my parade. Don't worry, you aren't:

1) I DID include Mt. Evans and the Grand Mesa
2) All of the rides listed on that RMCC page are NOT mountain passes; at any rate, I have STILL ridden all but 2 or 3 of those climbs listed on that RMCC site
3) I am going by Kurt Magsamen's criteria for paved mountain passes
4) When the RMCC publishes a guide to climbing what they consider all of CO's paved mountain passes, they can talk to me

jasonod said...

Not to take away the work Mr. Prendergast did for his site, but to respond again back to the anonymous poster:

1) In the 10 years I've been riding Flagstaff Road, I've never once heard it called "SuperFlagstaff"
2) The RMCC site does not include the climbs of Super James and Pinewood Rez, so their list does not encompass even all of the northern Front Range climbs

MarkyV said...

That's awesome dude!!!

I am just trying to explore this state period... let alone do it on a bike!!!