Yes, the title says 2005, not 2015. Was just thinking the other day it’s been ten years since I did the Ride the Rockies tour. It was my first major cycling event. I just discovered yesterday that the 2015 version of the Ride the Rockies follows many of the same roads we did in 2005, including starting from Grand Junction.
Here’s a recap of that time, which now seems so long ago.
Day 0: June 18, 2005. Grand Junction, CO.
My friend Marc and I rolled into Grand Junction the day before the tour. We had driven to Breckenridge (the last stop on the tour) from Denver, and parked his truck so we would have a way to return back to Grand Junction and pick up my Jeep at the end of the week.
Herein lies the only thing wrong with the Ride the Rockies Tour: having to arrange for transportation at both ends of the week. The main competitor to this tour, the Bicycle Tour of Colorado, starts and ends at the same city, which makes things a lot more convenient for everybody.
I’ve never done the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. I know plenty of people that have. It’s a lot harder tour, covering on average more miles and more climbing per day, but I think of the Ride the Rockies as being more family friendly, and a gentler introduction to touring mountains on a bike. If only it weren’t for the inconvenience of starting and ending in different cities.
We chose to use the “indoor camping” option on this tour — staying mostly at schools along the way, sleeping in gymnasiums. That meant not having to hassle with tents and what not, or paying high prices at motels. But the gymnasiums were often hot and noisy which led to many sleepless nights. And the gymnasium in Grand Junction was no exception. It was a very warm and they had large, noisy fans running most the night. At one point, I got up and moved my sleeping bag outdoors on the school house lawn where it was much cooler and quieter — until I felt rain drops, that is.
Day 1: June 19, 2005. Colorado National Monument, 45 miles.
Here I am with my riding companions for the week, I’m on the left, Dean from Montana in the center, and Marc from Colorado on the right. We’re at the entrance to the Colorado National Monument — a great place to ride a bike.
The morning was cool — just perfect for cycling. We were all excited to begin this journey. I had just purchased a road bike a month before, and it was 16 pounds lighter than my old mountain bike. I was a lot lighter back in those days as well. As a result, I zoomed along the route this day, feeling strong. I had plenty of time to stop and take pictures before the others caught up.
Day 2: June 20, 2005. Grand Junction to Delta, “Grand Mesa Day”
The second day was the most grueling of the tour. It was 91 miles long, and 20 of those miles were up the relentless climb to the top of Grand Mesa, just east of the Grand Junction area. After this momentous day, we pretended every morning when we woke up that the radio was playing Sonny & Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe” and the radio announcers would say:
“Rise and shine campers … It’s
Groundhog Grand Mesa Day!”
Yes, we had fears we’d get stuck in a “Grand Mesa Day” time loop. It was that memorable — and not one we wanted to repeat anytime soon. Still, one of my most cherished memories, though at the time I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case. I think this was the toughest climb I’ve ever done, even to this day. A lot of that was due to the heat. It reached 106 degrees.
The route headed east out of Grand Junction to the town of Palisades, before dumping us onto Interstate 70 for a few miles. Except for seeing glimpses of the mighty Colorado river, I don’t think anybody enjoyed riding I-70, but there was no other way to get us to where we were going — up Highway 65 to head south towards Grand Mesa, some 11,000 feet in elevation.
After following a winding river, the road eventually turned south and straight, and we began a gradual uphill. Looming ahead was the snow-capped plateau called Grand Mesa, one of the largest and highest mesas anywhere in the world.
We have our target in sight, the giant plateau of Grand Mesa. I took this shot right after getting a flat. And for some reason, having that flat took the wind out of me. I was feeling good beforehand, but after getting back on my bike, I just couldn’t muster the energy to catch the group just ahead. I would continue to struggle all the way up the climb.
By halfway up the climb, it was clear that climbing Grand Mesa was not going to be an easy feat. It was getting hot, and the road upward was relentless, with hardly any hint of downhill to relieve legs that were now getting fairly taxed. I had to stop several times to recuperate.
Yours truly about 2/3rds the way up. The route we just came up is way, way down below. Though smiling here, I was actually feeling hot, tired, and sunburned. I had to get off and walk my bike for a while up a 10% grade — something I never had to do before.
The heat and the climbing were getting intense. I would find out later than out of 2,500 or so riders, 500 sagged this day. Somewhere along here, a truck passed by with a bumper sticker that read:
“Yes, it’s my truck. And no, I won’t give you a ride to the top.”
It wasn’t more than a few miles before the conditions changed considerably. We saw our first snow! And the heat wasn’t near as intense — though the burning sun still was. We were getting up there in altitude — reaching 10,000 feet by this point.
Now, this is more like it! The temps were much cooler here, and the scenery grand. Unfortunately, I stepped in some bubble gum or something, and it clogged the cleats of my left shoe, making it difficult to click in. I mostly used my right leg to climb for a while, before finding a convenient place stop and dig out whatever was in my shoe.
On the descent from Grand Mesa. I played the Good Samaritan twice along here. First, a damsel in distress had her chain caught rather tightly around her bike frame and inner chain ring, and it took me ten minutes or so to work it loose. Then, later, I gave another rider one of my spare tubes, hoping I wouldn’t need it the rest of the day.
Descending Grand Mesa was my first real taste of high speed downhill cycling — at least on a road bike. I hadn’t ever experienced the “wobbles” before — the scary resonance that can sometimes build up in a bike’s frame, making you think you are going to lose control and crash. These wobbles sometimes occur at speeds over 30 mph, depending on weight, the wind, the phase of the moon (just kidding). I didn’t know it at the time, but it helps to relax your hands and not hold the handlebars so tightly. Holding a tight grip just aggravates the problem. The other remedy is to pull your knees in to hug the top tube of your bike frame. It’s quite effective.
After reaching the bottom, the next 20 miles or so featured a fast, flat ride to the destination for the day — Delta, CO. I had lost my riding companions somewhere on the climbs of Grand Mesa, so I was riding solo. It was hot on the flats — as in 106 degrees hot. Now, being from Phoenix, that should not be any big deal. But back in Phoenix, we don’t have long, 20 mile climbs at high altitude to tax our bodies before slamming us with heat.
I put my hands in the drops and hammered along, sometimes doing 26 mph or more, even though by all rights, my legs should have been dead tired. Well, that would come later. Also, what would come later was that I was getting quite saddle sore, which definitely was a harbinger of things to come.
Hard to believe this is from the same day as the last few pictures, but here’s Grand Mesa, as viewed from the south, on the way to the town of Delta. Edit: I now realize this was taken the next day, as we left Delta for Montrose.
I reached Delta in the late afternoon, hot and tired. I retrieved my sleeping bag and gear and looked for a place to lay down for the night — except the main sleeping areas were already full — a lot of people had sagged this day, and they apparently got here way before me. I spent a frustrating 30 minutes or more looking for any little spot in the hallways for my sleeping bag. I was thirsty, hot, sore, hungry, and getting grumpier by the minute. I couldn’t believe the organizers didn’t have the foresight to make sure there were plenty of accommodations for indoor camping. I was ready to quit this tour, so frustrated I was. But, I eventually did find a place, albeit in a building that was seemingly out in the hinterlands. Only saving grace was there was also room for my two friends, who came in some time after me.
An eventual nice shower and a later hot meal boosted my spirits considerably, and any nonsense of “quitting” quickly subsided. I did notice, though, that it was hard to sit down. I wondered how getting back on the bike the next morning was going to feel …
Day 3: June 21, 2005. Delta to Montrose, 34 miles
This was a sort of rest day, where the riding was easy and the miles short. We took the back roads off the main highway, and were even treated to a rare sight — well, rare for cycling anyway, the birth of a new foal:
Though my legs were tired from the day before, they felt strong enough. I felt so good towards the end that I rocked the last few miles. My journal entries from the day read:
“Saddle sore, right side. Rode hard at the very end — dumb idea!”
Day 4: June 22, 2005. Montrose to Gunnison, 65 miles.
One of my favorite days of the route, though I can’t pinpoint as to exactly why. Just a combination of things, I guess. We were well into the routine of early morning rising, and cycling a good part of the day. Ordinary life seemed far away.
Things I remember the most:
- Them telling us to start early because it often got very head-windy on Cimarron Pass (the main pass of the day.
- Not being able to sit in the saddle due to soreness. I rode standing up for the first 5-10 miles.
- Feeling good, though, on the climb up the first pass.
- Being robbed of any fast downhill on the other side, due to construction that left the road in a state of oily, tarry, gravely sub-surface. Very dicey descent. Still have tar on the underside of my bike from that day.
- Many cyclists having flats due to the road construction. I helped not one, but two damsels in distress with flat tires, and got not even so much as a thank you.
- Climbing the second pass of the day with confidence and strong legs. I was really enjoying this whole mountain-climbing gambit.
- Having a crazy truck driver threaten cyclists and having the state patrol called to track him down.
- Zooming along Blue Mesa Lake, hands in the drops, hammering hard in a pace-line all the way to Gunnison.
- Revisiting these roads a year later with my wife, going the other direction, and being amazed at just how much downhill there seemed to be going from Gunnison to Montrose. It didn’t seem possible to do it on a bike going the other way. Yet I did it.
Day 5: June 23, 2005, Gunnison to Salida, 66 miles.
This was the second toughest day of the tour, as we did the major climb of Monarch Pass. I was even more saddle sore than the day before, but that didn’t stop me from riding a brisk pace for the first 33 miles, including a lot of pace-line riding. My legs were feeling awesome.
And then the climb to Monarch pass started. Legs, not so awesome:
At the bottom of the Monarch Pass climb. It was cool and a bit rainy earlier, and I still had my jacket on at this point, as some here did as well. But that was quickly dispatched not far around the corner from where this shot was taken. The temps — and the grades — were heating up.
My fastest (and scariest) descent ever
The descent down Monarch Pass was something else. There were heavy crosswinds, and lots of semi’s passing by. I reached 55 miles per hour, something I don’t plan on ever doing again. I know lots of cyclists who brag about going 60 miles per hour or more on their bikes, but seriously, it’s just not a good idea. There are too many things that can go wrong — and it only has to be a simple thing: a bump in the road, a gust of wind, a rabbit, a crazy other cyclist passing too close, and you’re toast.
That being said, this was an exhilarating descent. By the time I reached the “flats” (it’s actually downhill all the way to Salida), I was having the time of my life, and averaged, yes averaged, 29.5 miles per hour from the top of Monarch to the streets of Salida, some 22 miles away.
We had good time while in Salida. The town sits along the Arkansas river, and makes a pleasant place to visit.
Though the town was pleasant to visit, I can’t say the same for sleeping that night. For some reason, they left the lights on in the gymnasium all through the night. Even though I had eyeshades, they brought little relief. They were hot to wear, and didn’t block all of the light. So I got little sleep.
Still, when morning came I was somehow raring to go. It looked like a beautiful day was in store.
In case you were wondering where all the bikes go, at each stop they have a guarded, fenced in area to leave your bikes. And yes, they could easily get rained on (and did.)
Day 6: June 24, 2005, Salida to Leadville, 60 miles
Though I don’t remember it this way, my journal entry for the journey from Salida to Leadville reads as follows:
“Very saddle sore, but able to ride in the drops to help alleviate it. Rode in the drops most of the way. Something clicked after the 1st hill, and I then had my best day of the ride — able to power up the hills with an efficient backstroke.”
The scenery along this route is quite spectacular, as we passed by numerous 14’ers. The only thing marring the way was having to ride through ten miles of fresh chip-seal somewhere north of Buena Vista (aptly named). Yes, the chip seal sucked.
Don’t know why we all stopped here. A coed nature break? Or perhaps just the fabulous scenery. I believe this may be the backside of Mt Elbert in the background, the highest peak in the Rockies at 14,440 feet. Or maybe it’s Mt. Massive. I don’t know.
Day 7: June 24, 2005. Leadville to Breckenridge, 42 miles. The last day
Leadville sits at 10,000 feet. And even though we had been climbed to that altitude several times during the trip, we hadn’t slept at that altitude (most of the way we slept at say, 6,000 feet, maybe 9,000 feet (?) in Gunnison). So I woke up at 3 am with a splitting headache and nausea. Felt terrible the rest of the night and into the morning. But being the photographer I am, I got up as early as possible to catch the sunrise.
It was a glorious morning too, as storm clouds from the night before still lingered in the area.
Splitting headache or no, we headed out for the last serious climb of the week, up Fremont Pass, on the way to the famous ski resorts of Copper Mountain and Breckenridge. I felt like crap up the pass, and was very sore in the saddle. Still, I was sad that this would be the last day in the mountains. I wasn’t ready for it to be over. If I could spend the rest of my days just riding around in the mountains, that would be fine by me. My heart and soul belong here.
And here is Moi. I wonder, and you probably do too, who is the camera man? The same people that somehow manage to film the ascents on Mt Everest, of course! Actually, we staged these last moments. By this time, we had climbed 26,400 feet during the course of the week.
On the trip down the famed Ten Mile Canyon, between Copper Mountain and Frisco, I was not having the best of times. Sure it was downhill and the scenery glorious, but I was suffering in the saddle. I was glad when Breckenridge came into view — and then sad that it did! For it meant the end of the trip.
My journal entry for the last day reads:
“Looking back, I rode hard every day except Day 3. Legs never failed and never got cramps either. I was well-conditioned for the trip. But didn’t feel fulfilled at the end, just saddle sore and tired.”
That feeling of lack of fulfillment wouldn’t last of course.
It dawned on me that this long post is kinda like the proverbial “Slide show of uncle’s trip to Europe.” Boring for everybody except those involved. But I’m sure those of you that have participated in events like this will concur, these adventures are some of the best of your life.
Sitting here, I’m wondering why I never went back to do tours like the Ride the Rockies. Sure, I’ve gone to Colorado and ridden the one-day Triple Bypass ride multiple times, and have gone to other more challenging feats such as completing numerous double centuries in California. But somehow, the memories of those events didn’t leave as much of an impression on me. They didn’t reach as far into my soul. It could be that by having less of challenge each day, but more days of it, left more time for the memories to form.
Maybe it’s time to switch gears and enjoy the fewer-miles-per-day events like the Ride the Rockies again.