Triple Bypass 2006

Here’s a look back in time to one of my most memorable rides, the 2006 Triple Bypass. The day could be summed up as “fun and miserable.”

The Triple Bypass ride starts in Evergreen, CO, in the foothills west of Denver, and winds its way to Avon, CO, just west of Vail. The ride covers 120 miles and goes over three mountain passes, all above 10,000 ft. Due to the amount of climbing (over 10,000 ft elevation gain) and distance, it’s a challenging ride that many of my riding peers have never attempted. All I can say is too bad, for they are missing a treat!

Triple Bypass 2008

The Triple Bypass route, copied from the 2008 edition (not exactly the same as in 2006).

Dateline Evergreen, CO, July 8, 2006, O-Dark-Early:

I crawl out of bed at a motel in Golden, on the western side of Denver. Peering out the window, I see gray … well … stormy skies. That’s more the truth. It had rained heavily the night before, and by the looks of things, more rain appears likely. I’d say the chance is almost 100%.

But it’s not raining now. I employ my own personal want-to-ride-but-the-weather-is-threatening rule: No matter how bad it looks, if it isn’t actually raining like, right now, then I’ll at least start. With that in mind, I prepare for the long day, and have my wife drop me off at a high school parking lot in the town of Evergreen, the starting point.

I once lived in the Evergreen area before moving to the low altitudes of Arizona. It’s strange to be here again. A familiar high altitude breathing pattern reappears.

It’s not like I hadn’t prepared for the altitude. The week before, my wife and I had stayed in Dillon, half way along the Triple Bypass route, at 9,000 ft. The idea was to get as acclimated as possible, and I enjoyed taking “baby” rides around Dillon Lake with my wife during the course of the week. But on the very first outing, a small hill located next to the hotel gave us both a nasty wake up call as we tried to climb its slopes. So out of breath I was, my legs burning.

Triple Bypass my ass! What was I thinking?

But I had persisted in riding, one day even venturing half way up Vail Pass (the last pass of the Triple Bypass) just to test my legs. By then they didn’t feel so bad. Towards the end of the week we took my brother and sister-in-law — who stayed with us a few days — for a drive up Loveland Pass (second pass of the event.) From the top we could survey the road I’d be climbing in a day or so. I pointed out to them, to their shock and amazement, the switchbacks way down below. But I knew I was ready. I knew I could conquer those switchbacks.

“They’re never as bad as they look,” I had told them confidently, countering their dubious looks. Ha!

The Start – 6:00 am.

I am reminded of this confident proclamation as I cross the start line of the Triple Bypass — me and 3,500 other riders. The first few pedal strokes have me gasping for breath and doubting my sanity, even before I’m out of the parking lot.

Not to worry. I’ve climbed the first pass, Juniper Pass, a few times before, albeit with legs eleven years younger. Surely I’m a much stronger rider now. Surely I had trained enough for this day, climbing as many hills in the flat Phoenix valley as I could. And a year before, I had completed the week-long Ride the Rockies, which further instilled a bit of confidence today.

Noodling up Juniper Pass

Juniper Pass is a winding 14 miles of 4-6% grade. I pedal up the mountain with a steady effort, never pushing beyond my comfort zone. People pass right and left. Every now and then, I pass someone myself. Several that I pass apparently think I’ll never make it to the finish. As I’m huffing and puffing along, one guy looks over to me kind a funny and comments, “You know, the best way to do this ride is to noodle it up the passes.”

Yeah, yeah, so I’m huffing like a locomotive! That’s not unusual for me. I tell the guy I used to live in Colorado and have climbed two of the three passes before. “Just not in the same day,” I admit to him.

A middle-aged woman passes by a while later and hears my locomotive breath. “You shouldn’t be breathing so hard this early in the ride,” she remarks.

I tell her I’m fine. I think.

I’m humbled by the strong riders, male and female, powering up the climbs, zooming by and talking and yabbering without effort, not the least out of breath. Their athletic prowess is apparent. So what am I doing out here?

I had first climbed Juniper Pass back in the mid-90s, on a heavy mountain bike. It was slow going pushing that 36 lb frame up the hill. (We won’t mention the weight of Mr. Fat Boy sitting on said frame.) Today the climb seems tougher than I remember it being back then. I know, though, that one thing has changed. Whereas before I would get to the top and be completely wiped out, today I’m reasonably sure I’ll be able to keep going another 100 miles or so.

In the past, my best efforts up this climb were 4-6 mph. This time I’m averaging 7.6 mph. I was expecting a bit higher speed, but then again, I haven’t been pushing it. I’m in it for the long haul.

Yes, that’s right. I’m “noodling up the pass.”

Five miles up the road I feel a few rain drops. Around a corner the sprinkles turn into drizzle. I stop to don my rain jacket, and notice the many riders passing by with no rain or cold weather gear at all — just short sleeve jerseys and regular bike shorts. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

In sunny weather, this climb is downright gorgeous: a winding road through deep forest, and an occasional view of the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide off to the northwest. But not today. A few miles from the top, the drizzle turns into all out heavy rain. You can’t see more than a few feet, for along with the rain, comes fog, and more fog. I sure hope the corners we’re going around don’t end in a drop-off. There’d be no way to know till it was too late.

The first official rest stop of the day sits at the top of Juniper Pass (11,100 ft). I roll in by 8:00 am, and spend most of the time standing underneath a tent, keeping out of the pouring rain as much as possible, eating a PB&J sandwich, and shivering a lot.

It’s muddy, wet, cold, and miserable. The same could be said of the riders around me. The same could be said for me.

Down, down, down, to Idaho Springs

After a brief rest I click in for the descent to Echo Lake, and Idaho Springs beyond. Echo Lake sits at 10,000 ft, near the base of the climb to Mt. Evans, (the highest paved road in the U.S. at 14,000 ft, but not on our route today.) I’m filled with a bit of trepidation, for I know from previous rides that the road down to Idaho Springs is steep and curvy. The cold, wet weather will not make it any easier.

Reaching Echo Lake, I find many cyclists have stopped and have gone inside the lodge to get warm and to craft makeshift rain gear out of garbage bags. I just shake my head at their foolishness for not being prepared for the alpine weather. I pass on by and keep rolling.

As the road falls away, my speed quickly increases. I find it difficult to slow down for the corners, my brakes not working so well. I should mention here that my brake pads have almost 10,000 miles on them. I have no idea why I didn’t think to replace them before this ride.

Preparedness indeed!

I try desperately to keep my speed below 20 mph, and even that seems too fast for these conditions. Sheets of water flow across the road, in waves. The descent is scary and not fun. In the almost freezing rain, I keep wondering when hypothermia will set in. A few switchbacks later I see and hear an ambulance come by, heading the other way uphill.

Oh, that’s reassuring!

My arms grow weary as I curve round the switchbacks at frightening speeds, my hands cold and cramping. I could use a break. But I’m not sure I can stop even if I want to, so halfway down I make it a point to actually try and do so. Fortunately, my brakes hold and I ease over to a wide spot on the side of the road. A guy passes by, wearing garbage bags around his chest, hands and feet. The bags balloon out in the wind, making him look like a poor caricature of Marshmallow Man. After resting a bit, I click in to follow Mr. Marshmallow Man down the descent.

Eventually the gradient eases and I’m able to risk speeding up to 24-27 mph, even though the road is a sloppy, wet mess. I try to stay away from others whenever possible, if for no other reason than the rooster tails spraying water off the backs of their bikes are certainly something to avoid. Not that being sprayed by these rooster tails would make much difference. I don’t see how I could be any wetter than I already am.

Coasting into Idaho Springs I encounter a large crowd of cyclists gathered near a corner gas station, chatting away, the prevailing topic being how nasty it was coming down the pass. After stopping I try to tell a bystander just how miserable it was, but my teeth are chattering so much I can barely talk.

The thought crosses my mind to bail at this point — but only briefly. No, no, there’s no way I’m going to give up so soon. After all the training I put in? After all the miles of uphill struggling on weekly training rides, getting routinely dropped by faster riders that I make it a point to ride with? Nah-gonna-happen. Besides, I figure the climb up Loveland Pass will warm my cold, miserable bones. And I at least want to climb Loveland Pass. It’s been a dream for many years, and here is my chance.

A lumbering bear is spotted on the way to Georgetown

The climb to Georgetown (halfway to Loveland Pass) has a fairly moderate grade, so the going isn’t too tough. I trade “leads” back and forth with the same middle-aged woman who had remarked earlier, “You shouldn’t be breathing so hard this early in the ride.” Her pedaling style is a sight to behold, as she lumbers up the hill in way too high a gear, her legs pumping like a big ol’ bear out on a morning romp.

I keep thinking I will surely drop Ms. Lumbering Bear soon and never see her again. But she stays right there, and on the last rise before the lake by Georgetown, she drops me like a wet rag. I see her ride off, the view of her getting smaller and smaller in the distance. My reaction to this ironic turn of events is to start wheezing, exercise-induced asthma settling in. So much for my judge of riding ability! And so much for my climbing prowess, as this little rise and Ms. Lumbering Bear have sure humbled me!

I reach the Georgetown rest stop at 10:20 am. Leslie’s there, (being my personal “sag” for the day), and she retrieves the Albuterol I had in the Jeep to help with exercised induced asthma. I notice I’m getting stomach cramps, but try to ignore that.

The grade steepens considerably past the rest stop and on the way to the Loveland Ski Basin. The route follows a bike path on the south side of I-70 for many miles. Cars and trucks speed nearby on the freeway, spraying wide swaths of water in their wake. I know we’ll have to ride on the freeway later on, and I can just envision how soaked we’re going to be.

I see traffic way up high, off to my right, heading northwest. Oh-oh! Look at how much climbing we have to do! And to think we aren’t even to the bottom of Loveland Pass yet!

Turns out what I’m seeing is the road up Berthoud Pass, which goes to the Winter Park Ski Area. In comparison to this dizzying sight, the freeway heading west, the way I’m going, looks relatively mild.

Whew!

The bike path eventually joins a highway, and I find myself riding with a small group of cyclists. Just before Bakerville, we climb a fairly steep hill, 8-11% grade, which goes for a mile or so, and then we swing around under the freeway, and are soon riding the freeway shoulder, heading west. Fortunately, the shoulder is wide at this point, at least as wide as a whole lane of traffic. Though noisy, with many semi-trucks blasting up the 6% grade, we are relatively safe, and the spray from the traffic never reaches us — or at least if it does, I’m too soaked to know the difference.

I trade positions with a couple of gals in the group, back and forth up the freeway. It’s a steady, five mile, noisy, rainy grind all the way to the Loveland Ski Basin, and the half mile stretch after pulling off the freeway is surprisingly steep.

Loveland Ski Basin – 12:45 pm

I reach Loveland Ski Basin just before one o’clock. So far, my average speed has been 7.6 mph up Juniper Pass, 20.4 mph down to Idaho Springs, 12.7 mph to Georgetown, and 8.5 mph to the bottom of Loveland. At no time have I been in the red zone, or even the yellow zone — except for the aforementioned humiliation by the Ms. Lumbering Bear.

Like the top of Juniper Pass, the Loveland Ski Basin is wet, cold, and muddy. Rain still falls, but not as heavily. Shivering as I eat a turkey sandwich, I eventually spot the Jeep, Leslie waving to me out the window. I head over and climb in, and she turns on the engine so I can set the heater to run full blast and try to warm up. It’s no use. After 15 minutes, I’m still shivering.

“You sure you want to keep going?” she asks.

I laugh as I pull on another full-length jersey, wondering too about my own sanity. I now have a full-sleeved base layer, two jerseys, rain jacket, and tights. I find a plastic bag to store in a jersey pocket. This will come in handy as a wind break later on when descending the pass — a trick I learned during the 2005 Ride the Rockies. I climb out of the truck into a light rain, rolling my bike through the muddy parking lot.

Remembering my almost brakeless descent down Juniper Pass, I decide to have a mechanic at the support tent check my brakes. It’s a good thing, for he takes one look and says, “Dude! You need to replace these pads pronto!” It takes a half hour wait in line to get them replaced. All the while, I’m standing there, stomping my feet, getting colder, my chances of finishing seemingly dwindling. The crowds have dwindled too, considerably.

Has everyone else gone on ahead, I wonder, leaving behind Mr. Weak and Slow? Too bad. I’m determined to finish this ride, no matter what. Well, at least as long as there is still daylight, and it’s not, like, snowing or something.

With brakes fixed, I’m on my way. The climb up Loveland Pass is 4 miles of steady 6% grade, with some steeper pitches here and there. But it doesn’t seem so bad. For some reason, probably psychological, I find it easier to climb switchbacks than straight up a road, probably because I know how hard it’s going to be, because, well, it looks bad. On a straight road, you can’t always tell you are climbing, so you think you are just being pathetic.

Spirits soar on Loveland Pass

Two miles from the top, the rain stops and the sun peeks through the clouds. With the brightening day my spirits soar. Such beautiful scenery. And such a long way up, almost to 12,000 ft. I can scarcely believe I’m doing this climb — a dream I’ve had for many years. But here I am, pedaling a steady 5-6 mph. I reach the top in no time at all, it seems, arriving at 2:15 pm.

After a short rest, I pull out the plastic sack I had been carrying, and stuff it underneath my jersey to block the wind down the chilly descent. No sooner am I underway, the rain comes again. Even so, the way down is not as scary as Juniper Pass was.

For you see, I have brakes that actually work!

My feeling of relief only lasts momentarily. Halfway down the pass the wind turns colder and it starts sleeting. I find myself in a quandary: I don’t want to brake, for fear the rear wheel will slip out from underneath me, but I also don’t want any more speed. I stay in an uneasy compromise between these two states, but it’s not long before I’m past the sharpest, steepest curves. Now the higher speeds aren’t such a problem. I don’t test this theory, though. I keep my speed in check, sitting up as much as possible into the wind, rather than using my brakes.

Before this ride, I had worried about semi-truck traffic on Loveland Pass, but it proves to not be a problem. I think maybe two semi’s had passed by on the way up, and they gave a wide berth. On the way down, I encounter no trucks at all. Somebody comments later that maybe this was because we were going faster than they could on these slopes.

I glide into the ski resort of Keystone, averaging 27-30 mph, feeling exhilarated. But the ascent up Swan Mountain quickly snuffs that out. In no time at all my thrilling 27-30 mph speeds drop like a rock. Being just a pimple on the elevation profile, Swan Mountain is not considered a major climb, but the last mile is as steep as anything seen previously. There, I’m back to steady, plodding, 6 mph pedaling.

Summit County High School – 3:15 pm

The top eventually comes and I coast down to the Summit County High School in Frisco, having averaged 17-18 mph from the top of Loveland Pass. I grab some food and eventually make contact with Leslie. The plan is for her to drive ahead and check into our hotel in Avon (the finish line just west of Vail). She would then come back to meet me at the top of Vail Pass — in case I wanted to bail.

Me, bail? Fat chance of that! I knew at this point I would most likely finish. Heck, I knew from the moment I made it to the top of Loveland Pass. That was really the only unknown part of this adventure.

Zooming up Ten Mile Canyon

I cruise into Frisco and then up the bike path along the old Ten Mile Canyon railroad grade. My legs have not yet tired. I zoom up Ten Mile Canyon with ease, at one point doing 20 mph, amazing myself and apparently annoying a few others who admonish me to slow down.

By 4:15 pm I’ve reached the Copper Mountain Ski Resort. Past this resort, the bike path continues up the final climb of the day: Vail Pass. It’s here my legs finally start to feel the miles, with hints of cramping coming by way of little twinges in my quads. And I feel a bonk coming on. Not good! Never good! I stop to pull out and slurp down some energy gel, resting near a bridge spanning a babbling brook.

The sun comes out, warming my soul. That’s pretty much the end of the rain for the day, as it would turn out. The earlier rains had made the fresh mountain air even fresher, if that’s possible. Crystal clear water rushes down the brook between deep, green banks of grass — green I’m not used to, coming as I do from dusty, brown Arizona. Every direction I look has gorgeous scenery.

Ah, the mountains! My favorite place to be!

I’m too tired to fully appreciate it, though. I still have this last climb to contend with. I click in and continue on lethargically, energy waning. Right before a steep switch back, I have to stop for another breather. Along come the two gals I had traded leads with up to Loveland Ski Basin. They pass by, waving and encouraging me on, saying, “The top is just around the corner.” I take off after them.

Vail Pass – 5:15 pm

The 10,500 ft summit of Vail Pass soon comes into view. Average speed from Copper Mountain: a lowly 8.1 mph. My stomach doesn’t feel so hot, with lots of cramping. A trip to the restroom does not relieve matters. Perhaps my body is rebelling from 11 hours of continuous exercise.

Ya think?

To Vail, and Beyond!

I eventually run into Leslie and tell her that, despite the cramps, I’m ready to rock the finish. Soon I’m clicking in and rolling down the mountain. The bike path down the other side of Vail Pass makes for a tricky descent, the cracked pavement narrow and twisty. Potholes can some seemingly out of nowhere if you’re not paying attention. Adding to this, every bump has me saying “Hello” to my distressed digestive system. No point in making that any worse.

I keep my speed below 18 mph. Riders zoom by going 25 mph, maybe more. Crazy. Just crazy. That’s what I think anyway.

Eventually, the bike path joins a highway that parallels I-70, and I speed up to 24-27 mph, the conditions being much safer now. By the outskirts of Vail, my legs have recovered from all the climbing, and I lower my hands to the drops and put the hammer down, pedaling in a sort of time-trial mode. I know it’s not much further to the finish. I have the energy, so what the hey.

I pass a lot of riders, including several in a pace line that seem amazed to see me zooming by. I overhear them saying, “I can’t believe he is racing!”

Me? Racing! Ha ha ha! If only they knew that Mr. Weak and Slow has just passed them. And I’m not really racing. No, I just want to get the ride over with, before my mind realizes what my body has just accomplished — like the coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, who floats in the air after running off a cliff, only falling when he realizes his situation.

Definition of a Race

I latch on to a group of riders going my pace, and we trade pulls for many miles. Pure cycling heaven. As we reach Avon, a couple other riders join in, and then the race is on. I don’t know what starts it, but the next thing I know, we are sprinting to the last corner.

It’s been said that the definition of a race is two cyclists out for a ride. Happens every time. Something in our competitive natures, it seems. But sprinting after 120 miles in the mountains?

The Finish – 6:30 pm

I round the corner and coast into the finish. Leslie’s waiting there to cheer my accomplishment. I did it! I really, really did it!

I averaged 21.6 mph from the top of Vail Pass. Overall for the day, 11-12 mph. Time elapsed was 9 hrs 45 minutes in the saddle, and 12 1/2 hrs clock time.

My legs feel fine, my stomach not, the cramps coming in waves. Leslie goes to get the Jeep (which was parked some ways a way), while I guard a coveted parking spot near the food venue. I stand there waiting for 10, 15, 20 minutes — who knows, getting colder, crampier, and grumpier by the minute. But I’m not all that tired, considering what I had just accomplished.

It seems to take forever for Leslie to return. She tells me it was because they weren’t letting cars into the parking lot, even though clearly, there were plenty of cars getting through somehow. The “sanctioned” parking is a long ways away by shuttle, and it wasn’t clear you could take your bike on the shuttle, though we found out later you could do just that. Wish someone would have told us.

There are few people left at the finish. Most of the food is gone. I grab what I can, taking it take back to the motel to eat at my leisure.

Amazement Comes Later

That night, it’s hard to sleep, even though I’m completely exhausted. I burn with the residual heat of the ride, body aching, face flushed. The day replays over and over in my mind — a successful day at that.

The following week, I find out to my amazement that an estimated 2,000 of the 3,500 Triple Bypass riders had bailed and never made it to the finish. This had been the worst weather in the 18 year history of the Triple Bypass. Due to the nasty weather, many dropped out at the top of Juniper Pass, others in Idaho Springs. Less than half dared the ride up Loveland Pass. No wonder I saw so few riders at the Loveland Ski Basin. And little ol’ me, Mr. Weak and Slow, was one of the hardy souls who made it. Unbelievable.

I felt very proud to have finished. Now, I’m no athlete, or at least I never thought I was. In high school, I was small and weak, always picked last for any sports team. For me to have finished such an challenging event (120 miles, 10,310 feet of climbing) is a testimony to the power of the mind, and what can be accomplished with some dedicated training.

It had been an epic day in the saddle, one I would cherish for the rest of my life. I was ready to do it again the next year! (Er, maybe with better weather, … please cycling gods?)


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