Altogether, the Copper Triangle Alpine Classic gains a total of 6560′ over a little less than 80 miles, while staying above 8000 feet in elevation for all but six of them.
Long alpine climbs make the world shrink into a box roughly 8 feet wide, and 12 feet long. You dare not look up, otherwise the scope of what you’ve gotten yourself into might dawn on you…and you’d reconsider. We come to our senses for a few minutes at the top, and then back into the box: because long, fast alpine descents require complete focus. Anything less than this makes 46 mph on an inch of rubber a requiem for road rash, garment destruction and other unhappy results. We practiced this three times with ascents of Fremont Pass , Tennessee Pass , and Vail Pass .
As I mounted my bike at 6:30 am, I kissed my wife – and she gave me her usual crooked [and rather fetching] smile – as if to say, THERE HE GOES AGAIN. Ingrained in the mindset of endurance athletes is the curious compulsion to find new and longer ways to place ourselves in situations where we must suffer. We just keep going because we can’t quit.
My early start was calculated to avoid electrical storms and inexperienced cyclists who might do something stupid. As I worked my way through the pack, I barked at a rider who was all over the road, DUDE, HOLD YOUR LINE! After a rather sleepless night of anticipation I was in no mood to be taken out by Gumby on a comfort bike. The line thinned out as we worked our way up Fremont Pass, and as I felt pretty good at the summit, I rolled past the first rest stop and fell in with the faster riders to enjoy the 17 mile plunge to the next valley.
Vail Pass from the bike path
After arriving in Leadville, we turned north and picked up a tailwind toward Tennessee Pass, a moderate climb with gentle grades, followed by a 22 mile rollercoaster ride to Minturn and then Vail. I was blessed to travel in a disciplined pack of riders [no Gumbies here] that communicated their intentions clearly and loudly through the fast straightaways and curvy switchbacks. As we turned onto the Vail frontage road I happened to notice two indisputable facts: I had climbed 3600 feet, and, I still had 3000 feet of climbing over the next 18 miles. Normally I try to avoid looking at elevation gain until the end, but couldn’t help myself. Vail Pass rose above us in the distance. I felt tired.
The bike path that leads over Vail Pass and down to Copper Mountain Ski Area is a gorgeous ribbon of pavement that alternately follows Interstate 70 and then winds through woods and meadows. The steepest section was the site of the individual time trial three years ago at the US Pro Cycling Challenge. Preserved for posterity and hilarity on the road surface are the words: SHUT UP LEGS. I could hear a wave of laughter ahead of me as riders passed this iconic three word statement of truth. As I grunted past – having already died a thousand deaths – I laughed until I was nearly out of breath. With two miles to go I emerged from my 8 foot by 12 foot box and began to look a the alpine vistas surrounding me. I passed a woman I had chatted with briefly lower down, and she yelled, GREAT JOB!
That did it.
Three big sobs popped out of me as I coasted into the summit parking lot…and I didn’t care who saw it. In our world of endurance cycling emotional releases come after hard efforts: especially those when we’re on that fine line between finishing and being unable to continue. There’s a gazillion strategies for conserving energy and staying in the moment until the challenge is overcome, but nothing tops the moment when you do. Going from willing the pedals to come around just one more time, to realizing that the climb is done is down right profound.
Shoving an energy bar into my mouth, I gathered my tired wits one last time and coasted down the bike path back to Copper Mountain for one last surprise. As I crossed the finish line, my wife yelled, I’M SO PROUD OF YOU! I was, of course, still contemplating her skill and timing to magically appear directly in front of me just as I came to a complete stop – and didn’t grasp the meaning of her words. In the post-event swirl of thoughts mainly concerned with the location of the food tent and finding a place to sit down, I heard her on the third try. Apparently, I came in just behind the first bunch of riders to finish…somewhere in the top 200 in a field of 2500.
Later she revised it to the top 100, which was okay with me.