This is my sixth Ride the Rockies. You would think that I would learn to train a bit better for it, but some lessons come hard. Ah well, because of the course configuration – a combination of hard-easy-hard-easy days – I am actually able to ride myself into shape in the seven days of the ride. So what exactly makes up those seven days? Come along and ride with me…
Day 0, June 16: Registration in Frisco. Not yet an official Ride the Rockies day, but still, when you arrive at registration to pick up your jersey and bike number and wrist band and luggage tags and route map, you are thrown into the spirit of the thing. First cycling seminar: Alison Dunlap, telling us all about hydration and nutrition and stuff you should already know for the ride. But it’s not really about lessons, it’s about immersion, and for that reason alone, it’s good to start the ride with a stand-up presentation from a recently retired pro cyclist.
Oh yeah, did I mention that I ran the Mount Evans Ascent this morning on my way to Frisco? Details, details.
This marks the first year of Ride the Rockies in which Mick and I actually don’t have to set up a tent for our first night. Instead, we stay with Mick’s friends Linda and Steve, in Dillon, just over Swan Mountain Road from the Summit County High School, which serves as tour HQ for today. Not only do we have an entire suite in the house to ourselves, but Steve and Linda cook up a wonderful dinner for us. Barbecue chicken and corn, salad, fresh bread, and some nice red wine. Yummmmm.
Day 1, June 17: Frisco to Steamboat Springs. 99 miles, 7 hours, 4700’ climbing.
This is the first year that I decide to forego keeping detailed statistics of the ride each day, and instead, I’ll rely on the route handbook for the elevation gain, and just estimate my time in the saddle each day. Wow. How liberating.
Today, Mick and I are up and on the road before our hosts are out of bed. We pass legions of riders coming across Swan Mountain Road as we backtrack to the high school to drop our gear and start our ride. Breakfast is a quick pancake feast at the school, and then a mad scramble to get on the road. The good news is that by arriving late for the weeklong parking, we actually get to park close-in – we’re in the paved lot, by the gear trucks, while everyone who arrived and parked yesterday is out in the dirt. Funny how things you fret over (will there be a parking space for us?) turn out so well.
And then we’re riding. It’s .2 miles - less than a quarter mile - to the stoplight out of the school lot, and then back onto Swan Mountain Road and straight up. I tell Mick to go up ahead, since I’m woefully out of shape for this climb, and we’ll reconnoiter up the road. Point-two miles into the ride, and I’m working hard. Crap. I start to think that maybe running up Mount Evans yesterday morning was a bad idea.
But at mile 2, the climb is over, and Mick is there waiting for me, and we’re freewheeling down the other side of this mini-pass. Better yet, the next 40 or so miles are a delight – slightly downhill with a tailwind and a nice shoulder, and we breeze along. If only I knew then that this was the last we would see of a tailwind for the entire week…. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We hit Kremmling, and stop at what I expect to be a lunch stop. But there are not many food vendors there, and the PB&J line is just too long, so we grab just a snack and then are on our way. But it’s painful from here on out. If you’re paying attention, that means almost 50 miles of pain.
This is a cruel ride, and I’ve only done it once before, on Ride the Rockies a few years back, in the opposite direction, so I’m not really prepped for what comes next. Out of Kremmling, we lose the shoulder. The road is a narrow, heavily traveled 2-lane stretch that rolls. But that’s deceptive, because it’s a net uphill pull, not to mention that we encounter a nasty, hot headwind. So while it looks like we go up and down, we’re actually climbing most of the time, and even when we head downhill, we have the headwind to contend with.
Plus, I’m bonking. Finally, we hit an aid station just before we tackle Rabbit Ears Pass, and it has a good selection of food vendors so I can refuel. I had started to wonder if the food vendors were not along for this year’s RTR. Thank God for the PB&J lady and the smoothie vendor. Restocked, we climb Rabbit Ears – slowly for me, but I get it done – and have a pretty wonderful descent into Steamboat Springs. The winds are still nasty, so what could have been a really fun, let-it-rip ride turns out to be much more controlled, but that’s still okay – it’s still fun.
In Steamboat, there is one last nasty bit for us – the finish of the day is uphill to the high school. That’s okay; we’ve been here before, so we’re prepared.
Another first for us this year is that in Steamboat, we stay with my friends Lynn and Jim. Lynnie and Jim retired a couple of years ago, and moved to Steamboat. They built a new house, but I haven’t been there yet – I’ve only read about it in Christmas newsletters. But they’ve invited us to stay the night, and what an incredible treat it is!
The house is – as I expected – beautiful, with views to die for. Lynn and Jim are cat people, too, and I finally get to meet their umpteen kitties (I could tell you how many, but then Jim would have to kill me). My friends cook us a delightful dinner – barbecued chicken, wild rice, salad, a mixed veggie stir fry, and plenty of red wine – and we eat out on their deck, watching the sky over Steamboat turn a really fantastic pink.
Lynnie and Jim are early risers, so they are up with us in the morning, and Lynnie cooks us up a fantastic breakfast (cheese omelets, whole grain English muffins, juice, coffee) before Jimmie drives us back to the high school. The only bad thing about our stay in Steamboat is that it’s way, way too short.
Day 2: Steamboat Springs to Craig. 44 miles, 2 hrs 45 min riding, 700’ climbing.
Today should be an easy ride – less than half of yesterday’s total miles, with a net elevation drop. But one thing gets in the way: headwind.
Do you see a theme here? Have you read about North Dakota, or about South Dakota? Headwinds have become the story of my life.
So once again, I draft off Mick for the entire day. It should be easy, it should be fun, but it isn’t. It’s a hard ride again, all 44 miles. And I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet – but another theme for the week is developing – it’s hotter than heck. Oh boy.
And one last treat for the day: an uphill finish. In fact, a particularly nasty couple of in-town blocks getting to the school.
It’s also a return to reality for Mick and me. After two fabulous days staying with friends who have given us exceptional accommodation, we’re camping today. Mick finds us a spot in some shade, and then he rides off to get us some more sunscreen – it’s brutal out here! – while I head off for massage.
Later, we head over to the community dinner in the park. The pasta stand has just sold out, so we get to have barbecued chicken for dinner!
Day 3: Craig to Rifle. 89 miles, 6 hours riding, 4400’ climbing
It’s a brutal day. That’s all there is to it.
The first part of the ride is nice, since we’re on the road early, realizing the miles we have to cover today. We ride along the Colorado River – close to its source – and it’s lovely.
But then, as the day wears on, it gets hard. There are two major climbs today, and although neither is all that steep, both go on and on. And guess what? We get a head wind, all the freakin’ day long, and it only gets worse as the day wears on, which gets really fun when the temps turn hotter than Hades. To round out the trifecta of fun stuff on this day’s ride, we’re on a two-lane road most of the day with heavy truck traffic. There is lots of mining and drilling activity in this part of the state, and it seems like all of the trucks who service those activities go by us on the road today.
The best moment of my day comes at the penultimate aid station of today’s route. We’ve taken shelter in one of the few shaded spots at this stop, but Mick and I have had to separate so that both of us can get some shade. Have I mentioned that the sun is brutal? Anyway, in between us are two middle-aged men, riding together, taking part in a private conversation, and I can’t help but evesdropping. The conversation goes something like this:
First guy: Well, it’s hard to say what will happen with Jane and Dick. She seems really unhappy, so maybe this is for the best.
Second guy: Yeah, you never know what goes on in another relationship.
First guy: For me, I can’t imagine life without Mary. It’s going on 27 years, and it just keeps getting better every year.
Second guy: Exactly. It’s only been 17 years for me and Alice, but I feel the same way.
First guy: I look forward to seeing her every day when I come home from work.
Second guy: I can’t imagine growing old with anyone else.
….and so it goes. I wonder if these guys’ wives know how the husbands feel? I feel like I’m listening in on the most intimate, romantic conversation of all time, and I only hope that the men are truly as tender with their wives as they seem to be based on this conversation. I feel almost ready to cry with the emotion of it.
And then the guys leave the shelter of the small building we’re sitting behind, and a woman next to me starts bitching about the heat, and the traffic, and the food, and everything that is wrong with Ride the Rockies in general and today’s ride specifically. Kinda spoils the moment. I think Mick recognizes how wrong this is, and comes over from around the corner, and we get up to ride into the furnace that is Rifle.
For dinner tonight, there comes a time when we’d gladly take another helping of barbecued chicken. Only problem is: the community dinner in the park runs out of food early, and there are hardly any restaurants in Rifle, so we end up taking the shuttle over to Glenwood. We have a delightful non-BBQ chicken dinner at the Hotel Denver. This might have been the conclusion to a beautiful evening, if not for the fact that the shuttle does not come back for us – as promised – and we have a very scary hour or two thinking that we’re stranded in Glenwood. I’ll spare you the details, but in the end, it all turns out fine: we get back to Rifle (albeit very late), throw our sleeping bags out on the lawn in front of the school, and finally get some shut-eye. It’s been a very, very long day.
Day 4, Rifle to Glenwood Springs. 36 miles, about 2 hrs 45 min; 2200’ climbing.
We ride – mostly – the backroads from Rifle to Glenwood. Even though this means we’re on rough asphalt roads for much of the day, with steep little ups and downs, it’s a huge relief after the busy highway riding of the last several days. I tell Mick to ride ahead early in the day, and it’s nice to just go at my own pace for awhile.
Maybe because it’s such a short day, we keep running into people we know on today’s ride. There’s a community of people on this ride that we see every year, and some of them I never see at any other time. There’s Chanda from Boulder, and there’s Jill from Aspen, and Bill from Aspen, and then today we also meet up with Barb and Leishia, Ariel’s friends whom I met last year on Ride the Rockies. To be honest, at the start of the day (or rather, at the end of the day yesterday), I was not having that much fun on this ride. Something about today’s ride – maybe all these friends along the route – changes all of that. It’s good to be on Ride the Rockies again.
It helps to have plenty of time in Glenwood to get grounded again. Because the ride is short, we have time to set up the tent, have some lunch, shower without rushing, get another massage, and have a nice dinner. Maybe the best thing of all today is that – while waiting for our seat at the restaurant for dinner – we head over to a book store where I can get a copy of Janet Evanovich’s latest book. It’s always good to have laugh-out-loud material to read on Ride the Rockies.
After dinner, we go in search of ice cream. We walk a couple of blocks, and I’m almost certain that I’ve seen an ice cream shop here before – it must be nearby. I decide to ask the first “locals” I see for help. We’re stopped at a stoplight, and a couple is crossing the street, walking towards us, and he’s carrying a cup that looks like it once contained a strawberry shake. I size them up, and figure them to be locals. In Glenwood, I expect the locals to be either blue-collar red-necks or else hippies. Rather shallow expectations, I know, but there you have it. This couple falls into the hippy category. She has longish blond hair, and is wearing a sundress, big sunglasses, and the weirdest bedroom-slipper type shoes with big pompoms. It’s the shoes that catch my attention and make me certain that they are locals. He’s just a regular joe – baseball cap, t-shirt, baggy shorts, sunglasses, and salt-and-pepper curls hanging out from under the baseball cap.
They reach our corner, and turn to walk the same direction that we’re headed. I open my mouth to ask about ice cream at exactly the same moment the pompom-shoe woman turns to say something to Mr. Ballcap. And as soon as she speaks, I recognize them: Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. I’m so stunned that my question doesn’t make it out of my throat. Instead, we follow these “locals” up the block, and by the time that I figure out that it’s okay to ask “where did you get the ice cream”, we’re in front of the shop. Goldie and Kurt keep walking up the block, holding hands, and sharing a quick smooch. Just like any other local couple. Nobody at all recognizes them.
Day 5, Glenwood Springs to Aspen. 43 miles, 3 hours riding, 2800’ climbing.
The day gets off to a rough start: Mick goes to claim our bikes from security, and finds that I’ve blown a tire. He changes the tire for me, but by the time I’ve found a replacement tube, we’re late. I’m not a happy camper because the food situation this morning isn’t to my liking: no pancakes or other good, hot carb-loading food. We start riding on empty stomachs. I am not a happy cyclist when I have to ride on an empty stomach. I’m already thinking that the day is going to blow, largely because this is a route that I already know well, so it’s just not that exotic, and now the food situation has me even more surly than normal.
But we make it to Carbondale in pretty good time, and instead of going to the aid station, Mick takes us off-route, to a diner he knows. My mood starts to brighten. I get coffee, and life is looking up. French toast and hash browns – real, cooked-to-order, hot breakfast – and I’m getting pretty darn happy. We get to use actual indoor plumbing, complete with flush toilets, rather than the port-a-johns, and it seems like life is pretty good. Then the waitress takes my water bottle and fills it with the diner’s crushed ice, and I’m in heaven. How could I ever have thought that this day would be anything but good?
Mick gets us back on track, and then I discover another delight: there is a brand new stretch of bike path here, and it’s so new that I didn’t even know it exists. The bike path takes us off the heavily traveled highway 82, and then even further off the sparsely traveled back roads, until we’re on the other side of the Roaring Fork River. Over here, it’s nothing but wildflowers and trees and the river babbling alongside. Even when we eventually meet up with the old part of the bike path, the RTR route takes us on a slightly different trajectory than we take when we ride this stretch on our own. By the time we reach Aspen, I’m very, very happy. It’s not exactly like riding into town for the first time, but it’s definitely riding into town with fresh eyes.
The rest of the day is odd. Mick heads off to do what the mayor of the town does when RTR arrives. Today’s camping is at the Aspen High School, which happens to be just a hop skip and jump away from Mick’s sister’s house. We take advantage of the proximity, and camp out in Molly and Don’s spare room. It’s a rare delight to have a shower all to myself in the early afternoon. We know that, because of the altitude here, it will be a cold night outside, so we take special comfort in our inside lodgings.
Day 6, Aspen to Leadville. 61 miles, 5+ hours riding, 5700’ climbing.
It’s another odd day on this RTR. It seems that this year is full of them.
Mick has a meeting later in the day, so a staff person is picking him up in Leadville early in the afternoon. Because he needs to get there quickly, we take off separately. I have a weird, lonely pancake breakfast at the high school, and then ride out of town on my own.
Today’s ride goes over Independence Pass. While I’ve driven this road a gazillion times, and ridden partway up it multiple times, I’ve never ridden the entire pass. It’s a cool road, but it is narrow and two-lane for most of its length, so it’s fairly scary to ride (to me, at least; there are tons of people who train up this hill on a regular basis). I’ve been looking forward to the ride because there will be traffic control. And while it’s kind of weird to start out without Mick, the reality is on a climb like this, we would soon separate so each of us could ride at his/her own pace.
The climb to the top of Independence Pass begins right outside of town, and goes on for twenty miles. While stretches can seem relentless, the road does offer a number of stretches of flat or even slightly downhill for recovery. There are aid stations along the way; I start to stop at the first one, but it’s so crowded that I just turn back onto the road and keep going. Today I’m in a mood to just get to the top; no dilly-dallying.
The ride is more delightful than I had dreamed. It helps immensely to have the traffic control on the road; as it is, there are so many cyclists on the road that it’s a bit crowded. But what amazes me is how much I love the ride down. On the downhill side of the pass, there are just a few tight switchbacks in the first mile or so heading downhill, and then the road turns into one of those lovely long sweeping descents. As much as I was looking forward to the climb, I was anticipating this descent, and it does not disappoint.
The Independence Pass experience ends with an aid station in the tiny town of Twin Lakes, where I run into Barb and Leishia again. I grab some quick calories, and then I’m back on my bike. We’ve done the rest of this ride many times before – the deceptively tough climb into Leadville – and I just want to get it behind me. Inevitably, I end up getting rained on as I ride into town. This is my third RTR overnight in Leadville, and the third time that it’s rained on me while riding into town.
I’ve covered a lot of ground today, and yet it’s relatively early when I get to Leadville. In fact, I end up running into Mick at the high school in Leadville; he shows me to the spot where he’s set up the tent, and then he’s off to his meeting. At over 10,000’ of elevation, Leadville is our highest overnight of the week, and as always, it’s cold here. I climb into the tent and warm up in my sleeping bag while reading, waiting for a squall to pass. When the sun comes back out, everything in the tent becomes toasty warm.
Barb and Leishia have offered to take me under their wings for dinner later in Leadville, but I’m kind of enjoying my solo day, just going at my own pace. It’s mid-afternoon when I’m showered and cleaned up, and also starving. So I head into town and have a combination lunch/dinner at the town’s brew-pub. I’m devouring my book, and am happy to be alone, reading.
Day 7, Leadville to Frisco. 32 miles, 2 hours riding, 1500’ climbing.
In all of my years on RTR, I have ridden every single route mile, including every “optional” side trip. I’ve taken particular pride in this, especially since I was so under-prepared in my first year that I seriously doubted my ability to get through the week. No skipped side trips. No shortcuts. No cheating.
But today….well, today is different. Mick got back to the tent after dark last night, and this morning we take our sweet time getting up and going. It’s very cold outside – there is, in fact, serious frost on the tent. I’m in no hurry to get out into the freezing temps! When we finally crawl out of our sleeping bags, we hurry up into the school. We wait in a long line for a so-so breakfast, but the advantage is that when we come back outside, the sun is up, warming and drying the frost. Maybe because we’re a little out of practice from all of our days inside this week, but it seems to take us extraordinarily long time to pack up our stuff. By the time our bags are safely on the trucks and we are ready to roll, we are, once again, among the last to leave the campsite.
The route today starts out with a loop around Turquoise Lake. I’ve not ridden around the lake, but Mick knows the road, and we are warned: it’s rough, cracked asphalt, a roller-coaster. I study the map and inwardly groan. Mick takes a different approach. He just says, “we’re not doing that”. And so we don’t. Our first skipped miles.
We take the shorter route on the bike path that snakes around town, and in just minutes, we’ve rejoined the day’s route, only about 20 miles short. My attitude is cavalier. The rest of this day will be a repeat of a ride that I like – we’ve done this stretch of road, over Fremont Pass, on the final day of RTR at least two other times, so it’s very familiar. The climb is a nice one, not too challenging, but tough enough to get your attention, and the descent is the kind I like, a mostly straight road with nice long sightlines. When we get to Copper Mountain, we turn onto the bike path through 10 Mile Canyon, still going downhill, and we coast all the way to the finish line at Frisco. Another Ride the Rockies under the belt.