The Copper Triangle Alpine Classic

triangle mapAltogether, 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 [11318], Tennessee Pass [10424], and Vail Pass [10600].

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.

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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.

sul2The 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.

IMG_0956Shoving 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.

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When it’s All Said and Done

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The view of the Never Summer Range from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park

Vacations come to an end. As much as I love them, the itch to come home and get back into a familiar routine finally outweighs the desire to be gone. We have 18 hours before the bikemobile is loaded and pointed east for the 20 hour drive back to northern Minnesota. There’s a certain bittersweet, [Let’s give a shout-out to Big Head Todd and the Monsters], finality that comes with pre-packing and organizing our stuff to take down to the car.

It’s been a momentous journey. I’ve been scribbling on a rough draft for five days, trying to capture the extra-large experience of the Copper Triangle. Three passes and 6560′ of climbing qualify this as both a classic and a lifetime ride. Suffice to say that a top 100 finish in a field of 2500 riders was something to write home about. I still can’t quite believe it…a 55 year old flat-lander preacher from Minnesota? I’ve heard that under many mountain passes lie the bodies of mid-westerners.

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Sinuous line and great pavement on Willow Crk Pass

Equally large in it’s quietness was Willow Creek Pass – a glistening ride through alpine meadows far off the beaten path. And the long descents? My technique is pretty dialed, and I’m relatively calm and composed rolling along at 40-45 mph. Hairpin turns that double back on themselves are a hoot: a rider can get a little dizzy before the road opens up again to straight pavement .

The large disappointment was not having opportunity to ride to 14,000 feet on the Mt Evans auto road. Bad weather descended this morning…and you just can’t mess with high altitude mountain weather. There are sections of road where a lone cyclist can be blown over the edge into a boulder field strewn with small bits of bikes and shreds of rider clothing. And…truthfully, I’m a little cooked after 10 days of hard riding at high altitude. Everything – I mean EVERYTHING – climbs at 200-300 feet per mile around these parts.

So, when it’s all said and done, I rode 312 miles, climbed 25,713 feet over seven mountain passes. When I lamented not reaching my 32K climbing goal because of today’s cancelled ride, my dear wife reminded me of something endurance athletes ought to take to heart and repeat often:

Don’t think about what you didn’t do…focus on what you DID.

Wood-fired pizza, a couple of beers and the new Mission Impossible movie will close out our final evening in this slice of mountain paradise. Then will come the hypnotic hours of watching the white lines until we arrive home and reunite with our bright and beautiful daughter.

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A Day of Extremes


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Trail Ridge Road is wholly contained within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park. The alpine section of the road – which tops out at 12,095 feet –  is fully above treeline, and exposed to the elements.

wizardofOzTwisterRowingAs I pulled through the switchbacks on the mid section of the climb, it became increasingly obvious that it was quite windy up above. The patches of sun disappeared and the temperature dropped sharply as I rolled over Milner Pass. A sudden gust hit me sideways, and for a brief moment I felt the bike lift up beneath me. When I rolled out this morning I couldn’t possibly know that TODAY would be THE DAY I finally GOT the twister scene from the Wizard of Oz. You know, the two guys in a rowboat flying through the sky?

The winds continued to build as I ascended. I felt strong and relatively warm until I came to some road construction, and had to wait 15 minutes for the lane to open to uphill traffic. I couldn’t regain the warmth I lost, and the race against time began as I felt my core temperature drop. In the world of hypothermia shivering is on the mild end of the scale. My concern was that, on the severe end of the scale, my coordination began to suffer as I battled 40 mph winds that threatened to blow me off the roadway. Did I mention it was 42 degrees?

fun and hypothermiaI sprinted the last 100 yards to the Alpine Visitor Center and sought out my wife – who took one look at me and went to find a cup of hot cocoa. The National Park Service not only sells hot cocoa in it’s visitor centers, but also warm clothing…more specifically, really warm fleece jackets. This grateful taxpayer forked over the funds to purchase one. In the picture at the left you can see that very same jacket, and the beginning of my first smile in about an hour.

I left the summit in the passenger seat of the Subaru to get past the construction, and the potential of another long wait in the cold and wind. Two miles later I pulled the Grey Goose out of the car and finished the descent on an empty road. Few things are more fun than the freedom to use all of the traffic lane to set up for each turn – except maybe my wife following behind and taking video.

It was 77 in the valley, and after a quick stop to drop all my layers, I rode full tilt boogie the last 15 miles. [If you don’t know about FULL TILT BOOGIE it’s okay…it’s a 70’s thing that probably had something to do with Burt Reynolds]

In the last two miles I flatted and experienced two more of the aforementioned gusts to round-out today’s cycling experience.

It was a day of extremes.

The Art of the Rest Day

raleigh-smokeWhat do you feel like doing? I don’t know…what do you want to do?

These are words spoken on the most sacred of days: THE REST DAY. Everyone needs them, and their timing can have a profoundly marvelous affect.  Having a plan will stain the rest day, because the whole idea is to cease from our labors. Getting out of bed before 8 am is prohibited. Rushing about is VERBOTEN. Lying in bed and listening to good music is encouraged until such time that hunger finally drags you from the sack.

To ensure a positive rest day experience, here are some guidelines:

  1. Breakfast must take at least an hour – unless conversation and coffee are good, and then it can expand to fill available time.
  2. Conversation [see above] always takes precedence over activity. When in doubt relocate the conversation to the couch and keep talking. Long pauses and lost trains of thought are no big deal. I simply ask my wife, WHAT WAS I SAYING? If she doesn’t remember, then it wasn’t that important.
  3. Long Showers. There’s no need to find your comfy clothes, because you were wearing them before you started your 30 minute shower. Pick them up off the floor, get dressed and find the nearest couch.
  4. Limited travel is permitted. For example, it’s okay to walk out to the balcony to sit in a chair in your comfy clothes. Walking over to the espresso bar to find a place to sit for two hours and drink coffee is also cool. Grocery shopping is better attempted on a different day.

We get stronger when we rest.

A good day doing nothing will lead to several good days of doing something.

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These people are having fun resting

Greetings Twice from 11, 306

IMG_0943I was feeling a bit sporty this morning, and got on the road at 630 dressed in full warmers and vest. The cool mountain air was purely exhilarating – as was the fact that my early departure completely avoided all the construction traffic. [Colorado DOT is completely repaving the north side of Berthoud pass, and the daytime traffic jams are not pretty.] After the initial 8-10% climb from the valley floor, it kicked back to a steady 5-6% grade all the way to the summit. I arrived feeling pretty good, talked to a hardcore cyclist who used to be from Duluth, MN, and then rolled into the descent. Being pretty early in the day, I passed through some bracing spots of refrigerator-like shade, and then back into the sun: thawing out in like 30 seconds.

After about 7 miles of exceeding the speed limit on glorious pavement, I got to the final hairpin and pulled off for a snack. The return climb didn’t have the steep faces of the north side, but simply ascended steadily at about 300 feet per mile. Coasting into the parking lot at the summit while exclaiming the words HOLY CRAP three or four times, I was high-fived by a person I’d never met. WHAT A CONFIDENCE BUILDER. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been on the bike, and super pleased to feel ready for the Copper Triangle on Saturday.

It’s probably worth mentioning that we’re still working hard at acclimating. It’s easy to get rubber legs in the first few days, and feel out of breath. Staying hydrated is a huge big deal, as well as eating lean protein, low carb meals with plenty of fresh fruit and veggies. At least in theory, much less taxing on the body’s energy resources than a diet of, say, spam and ice cream.

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Greetings Twice from Berthoud Pass

This Could Almost Lead to Gloating

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Vasquez Creek Road – steep rollers, to die for views, and no traffic

I’m writing from a breezy couch looking out on a mountain side, listening to one of my favorite music mixes and systematically devouring a whole wheat pita with roast turkey, swiss, sprouts and assorted veggies. Today’s miles and climbing are in the bank. Could be I’ll play some guitar a bit later. This COULD most definitely lead to gloating…vacation is a wondrous invention.

IMG_0927Yesterday and today I did two acclimation rides below 9000′ – though I could definitely still feel the altitude. The first sortie was 24 miles and 1500 feet of climbing. Today’s ride included a bit of gravel, two CAT 4 climbs and very fun steep rollers along Vasquez Creek: 40 miles and 2615 feet climbed. Part of the charm of Winter Park is that there are grand mountain vistas everywhere you look…there are NO BAD RIDES.

However, my foray onto the gravel was brief due to two realizations. First, that I found myself on a serious climb, and second, that descending loose gravel on skinny tires does not lead to a long and prosperous life. After two miles and 450 feet of climbing, I turned around and picked my way down [ever so carefully] back to the pavement. Once there I climbed up to YMCA Snow Mountain Ranch, and then descended for five miles at 30-40 mph back down to Tabernash. After that, the aforementioned roller coaster along Vasquez Creek road, complete with perfect meadows suitable for rest breaks.

Tomorrow I climb the north side of  Berthoud Pass [11,306′], descend the south side, and then turn around and climb back up to the summit. I am told that my wife and a few  friends will meet me at the top with cowbells and water. This will be my last training day before the Copper Triangle on Saturday, and hopefully a measure of my fitness and adaptation to the altitude.

I could go into detail about excellent post-ride food and recovery while enjoying the view from our balcony, but that might lead to gloating.

And So it Begins

looks like more suffering in the wilderness

looks like more suffering in the wilderness

This morning there was music. I got up, made a pot of stove top espresso, fussed over my bike a bit, and sat down to play some guitar. I played a few chords, and as I listened to the sweet decay of the notes, I heard some other music outside our window. The understated buzz of humming birds at work is a song that has welcomed us to the mountains of Colorado for many years. I listened to this concert for 15 minutes…the delicate breath of their wings rising and falling. Yes, hello to another Colorado mountain morning.

Our drive out was a humid, buggy affair. Iowa and Nebraska delivered clouds of insects that exploded [sometimes spectacularly] on our windshield. The aerodynamic properties of my bike on the roof rack did not spare her the same treatment. I spent an hour this morning scrubbing interstate bug guts off of every surface that faced into the wind. After a quick buff with Pedro’s Bike Lust, I think the Grey Goose is now presentable. I don’t know who Pedro is, but his product is top notch – and the silicone in the formula may help keep flying vermin from sticking to my frame.

burning carAs we entered Iowa, the traffic ground to a halt, and we could see billowing smoke up ahead. After emergency vehicles made their way through, we began to roll forward and came upon a car fire. Now I’ve seen a few of these in my time, and I’m here to tell you that this car was billowing flames. The most frightening part of the scene was, just outside the frame of the picture, two emergency workers who were WAY too close if the gas tank were to explode.

We’ve driven across Iowa from north to south, and east to west – and this takes the cake for excitement. Not even my turkey club from Arby’s just outside of Des Moines could hold a candle. Thankfully there were no passengers in the car.

The drive up out of Denver has always been something of a holy moment. There are so many rich memories associated with having lived here, and having come back so many times. We watched the thermometer fall from 98 to 68 as we gained elevation. Passing though Empire at the base of Berthoud Pass, there was a little storefront with a sign proclaiming: IT’S LEGAL…GET YOURS HERE. Judging from the number of glassy eyed folks we saw at the Safeway later on, gaining some extra altitude has become right popular.

Time to get dressed and head out for a ride, and get my altitude the old fashioned way.