As you'll know if you've read my previous blog posts, I DNF'd at the Cascade on the second day at 137 miles in due to some fairly serious back pain brought on by the extended climbing on days one and two. Naturally, I was really worried about a repeat at the High Country but there's no way of knowing how it's going to go until you toe the start line. I did work on core strengthening a lot between the two events and was hoping that would be sufficient to get me through.
My wife and I drove out to Saratoga, WY which was the overnight for day one, arriving on Friday evening before the ride start on Tuesday. My plan was to ride up Snowy Pass (the route for the second day) to acclimate to the altitude. I won't go into the details of the ride other than to say I did it and think it helped. We also went hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday to further acclimate. Here are a few shots from the ride:
Fishing on the North Platte
I was planning on posting a personal "Cyclist seeking companionship for 1200K adventure"
The High Country begins
Day One – Louisville, CO – Saratoga, WY 223 miles, 11,162 ft of climbing
The day started with very nice weather, mild temperatures and light winds. Rolled from the start to the first control at Laporte with a moderate sized group that got smaller as the pace stayed fairly high and whittled down to three (me, John Mangin, Peter Holtzenbein) when we got to the very steep climb at Horsethief Resevoir near Ft. Collins. After the control, rode up Poudre Canyon toward the first pass climb: Cameron Pass. The ride up the canyon was very nice, beautiful scenery and fairly light traffic. Started the looooonnnnngggg climb up Cameron Pass after going through the control at Rustic. No super steep sections on Cameron, just long stretches of 7% or so. I'd left Rustic by myself and did most of the climb solo. The absolute worst part of the climb were the deer flies, they were swarming all over me. No exaggeration, when I'd stop there would be upwards of 40-50 flies on my legs. My ankles were swollen with bites after a very short time. About 1.5 miles from the summit, I stopped to spray on some insect repellent (didn't seem to do a lot of good) and Corinne Warren caught me. She was also being plagued by the flies and asked if she could use my bug spray which I was glad to share. We summited together and started the descent.
On the west side of the pass the weather was nice for the first bit but then the inevitable Rocky Mountain afternoon thundershower and hail storm moved in. The wind was absolutely howling, either a full headwind or quartering cross, all the way into the next control at Walden. Corinne weighs about 100 lbs so I did all the pulling into Walden, working hard. A very tough stretch.
After something to eat at Walden, three of us left for the overnight at Saratoga (John M., Corinne and me). For the first 20 miles or so I was feeling really tired and feeling the altitude and any climbing at all had me dropping back. I told them to go on but they said they'd wait which was very nice of them. I was OK on the flats and could take my share of pulls but for some reason even the slightest bump in the road was too much. About 20 miles after the control there was a long climb with what looked like bad weather at the top. We stopped to put on jackets and I said I'd go ahead since they'd inevitably catch me on the climb given how I was feeling. I must have livened up because they hadn't caught me by the summit so I pressed on into what was again a howling wind. That was the last I saw of them until I got to Saratoga. Several miles on, I came upon Peter H. just finishing repairing a flat – this must have been really tough because the wind was gusting to about 40-50 MPH. Peter had a little rest while changing his flat so he kindly offered me a draft through the remaining cross winds. Once we turned north towerd Saratoga we had an absolutely screaming tail wind for the first 15 miles which gradually lessened as we moved away from the mountains. Nice while it lasted though!
I arrived in Saratoga at 19:20 against a ride plan of 22:00. I'd worked hard and hustled through the controls all day so I felt pretty good about the early arrival and my ride thus far.
Day 2 – Saratoga, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO 195 miles, 10,708 feet of climbing
Didn't sleep particularly well overnight but did at least rest for about 5 hours. Got on the road at 4 AM with fairly nice weather. The temperature was about 62 at Saratoga though I knew it'd be colder on Snowy Pass which was the first order of business for the day. It was roughly 30 miles from the start to the summit of the pass and I left dressed in shorts, base layer, jersey, summer weight arm warmers (sun sleeves) and fingerless gloves. I rode in this until about a mile from the west summit when I started to get cold. I stopped and put on toe covers, leg warmers and long finger gloves but didn't put on a jacket. I pressed on toward the east summit into increasingly dark clouds. About a half mile from the east summit the skies opened up in an absolute deluge with fairly large hail. By the time I got my rain jacket on I was absolutely soaked to the skin and really cold. I had another jacket with me on the trip but hadn't put it in my trunk bag (dumb) so other than heavier arm warmers (which I didn't put on then because stripping would have made me even colder) I had on all the clothes I had with me. It was 34 degrees at the summit when I started down.
As an aside, my average speed at the summit was within .1 of what it was when I'd done the climb a week earlier with fresh legs. I put this down at least somewhat to acclimation to the altitude.
The descent has several really steep (10%) and straight sections and I was shaking so hard I kept throwing the bike into a shimmy. For the record, the Hampsten is a superb descender, I've had it to 55 MPH and am very confident on it. The problem here wasn't the equipment, it was the operator. As a result of my shaking, I mostly rode the brakes all the way down. I finally arrived at Centennial about as cold as I could be. I'd not planned on stopping but was so cold I thought some food and being inside for a bit might warm me up. There was a big crowd of riders there and I was right, food really helped a lot. Two people DNF'd there citing weather as the reason – it was still raining in sheets and very cold.
I left with John Pearch and Jeff Newberry and headed toward Laramie in the rain. We lost Jeff after about 10 miles and about 5 miles out from Laramie John said he needed to make a pit stop so I headed on by myself. Stopped at the McDonalds in Laramie (open control) and got something else to eat and a cup of coffee. Left fairly quickly and caught up with John Mangin and Corinne Warren and pressed on in the rain. Finally quit raining just before we started a fairly stiff climb (6 miles of 7% or so) back over the Snowy range. Made it over the climb in good order and headed on to the next control at Walden.
Caught up with John Pearch on the way into Walden so we were now a group of four. The weather up ahead looked very nice but increasingly bad behind us so we were motoring hard to get to Walden before the storm. Just made it.
After eating we headed on into darkening skies. About 5 miles out it started raining hard while we were on a long, fairly gradual climb. We got to the top and were passed by an 18 wheeler (lots of traffic on this road). I was just passing John Mangin on the descent so I was in the middle of the lane when we hit a section of hail on the road that was at least 3” deep. John was in the track made by the truck but I was in the middle at the deepest part. The bike started fish tailing and sliding but fortunately I was able to keep it upright and move over into the truck track. Scary!
As we rode on toward Rabbit Ear pass and up into the foothills the skies got increasingly dark and we started to hear thunder. This got worse and worse and we started seeing flashes of lightning. We decided it'd be safer to stop so we pulled over and cowered under a rock ledge while it rained, hailed really hard and lots of thunder and lightning. We were probably there about 30 minutes and were all shaking from the cold by the time we thought it was safe to leave. While we were sitting there a couple of riders rode by and I was afraid we were going to find them on the road, struck by lightning. Fortunately they were able to get through safely but it was an awful chance to take.
Did the climb up Rabbit Ears and Muddy Pass which were pretty long but at least it had stopped raining. Got to the top and suited up for the descent. The descent has a lot of long, steepish sections (7-8%) and you could easily hit 50 MPH+ if you let it go. It was dark, foggy, the roads were wet and there was a fair amount of traffic so this one wasn't a lot of fun and I rode the brakes a lot on the way down to Steamboat Springs.
Got to Steamboat at 21:50 against a ride plan of 20:03. The unplanned stop at Centennial plus stopping for the lightning and putting on and taking off rain gear numerous times added the extra time.
A really, really hard day. Three pass climbs and being cold and wet all day were not a lot of fun. I think a couple more people DNF'd that day in addition to the two I mentioned. I can understand why.
Day 3 – Steamboat Springs, CO to Walden, CO 182 miles, 9,313 feet of climbing
Finally! A beautiful day! Left Steamboat with a moderately large group (Corinne, John M., John P., Jeff N., Barry Benson). Lovely ride to Yampa where we stopped for a second breakfast then on toward Gore Pass. Very nice climb up the pass and a lovely descent. Finally one where you could let it go with beautiful sweeping curves. I hit my fastest speed of the HCH at 47 MPH.
Climbing Gore Pass (photo by Jeff Newberry)
A happy guy at the top of Gore Pass
The next part of the ride was absolutely the worst of the whole HCH. The 6 miles from where we turned onto US-40 into Kremmling had a huge amount of truck/camper traffic in both directions and no shoulder. I was riding behind John M. and Corinne and we were going up a short grade. I checked my 6 and saw a huge pickup pulling the largest camper I'd ever seen about to pass us on the blind hill. Naturally, a semi crested the hill in the opposite direction. I yelled “Car back” at the top of my lungs. I must have had the appropriate amount of hysteria in my voice as John dove for the gravel shoulder and Corinne and I hugged the absolute edge of the pavement. Fortunately we all stayed upright and none of us were sideswiped by the moron who couldn't wait a few seconds to get to Rocky Mountain National Park.
From Kremmling, we headed to Granby then out and back to Grand Lake. As I said, this whole part was the worst part of the tour. The road to Grand Lake is the ONLY entry to Rocky Mountain National Park from the west and although it has a good shoulder on both sides it's like riding on the interestate. High speed, heavy traffic in both directions the entire time. Miserable. Awful. Pick your negative adjective. Hated it.
Up until Grand Lake, the whole group had stayed together all day with lots of soft pedaling and jawboning while we rode. We also were taking upwards of an hour at every stop. I'd planned on getting into the overnight at Walden early and there was no way that was going to happen riding at the pace we were riding. It looked like everyone was settling in for a long break at Grand Lake so I said I was going to head out. Took off at a hard pace, stopped briefly at Granby to top up with water (no water for the next 55 miles). While I was there the rest of the group arrived.
On the road to Willow Pass
At the summit of Willow Pass
John Mangin, Corinne Walker, Jeff Newberry, Barry Benson, John Pearch and me
Day 4 – Walden, Co to Louisville, CO 148 miles, 5,166 feet of climbing
The day started off quite cold but the weather was generally pretty nice. Left with the same group as the previous day but after a gradual climb found myself riding alone toward the Cameron pass we did on the first day though this time from the west. The worst thing about this part was there were about 10 miles of false flat where you'd SWEAR you were going downhill but were working like a dog to go 10 MPH. This was really demoralizing. I'd round a curve and think “great, finally some downhill” and it'd be more false flat.
On the climb to Cameron Pass
A very happy guy at the top of Cameron Pass
It was really strange to be "back in the world" with other riders that weren't part of the HCH1200K, traffic, etc., and it really highlights how wonderful the route was. For the vast majority of the ride it was just us randonneurs and a few cars enjoying absolutely spectacular scenery.
Already lengthy story cut short, I motored hard from the summit of Cameron Pass to the finish, about 110 miles. I was glad to share those miles with Barry, John and Corinne. It was pretty tough going from Laporte to the finish as it started to get hot and there was a lot of traffic so I was glad to just get it over with. Final time: 82:48.
Overall there were 48 starters with 11 DNF’s. Glad to be one of the finishers and so sorry to hear about the DNF's!
A very, very happy guy at the finish!
John Mangin, Corinne Warren, me and Barry Meade at the finish
As I said at the outset, part of the pleasure of doing a 1200K is the people that you share it with and I was fortunate to share a good portion of this ride with some truly wonderful people. To John Mangin, Corinne Warren, John Pearch, Barry Meade, Barry Benson, Jeff Newberry, David Baxter, Peter Holtzenbein: thanks so much for sharing your ride with me. Your companionship during the ride and your grace in sharing the struggles and the good times made a memorable ride that much more so.
I'd also like to thank the volunteers, without whom this would not have been possible. I especially want to thank Tammie Nakamura. She worked like a slave at the Walden overnight cooking both dinner and breakfast - great meals both and served with a smile.
Finally, although I've made a few negative comments about portions of the route I'd recommend this ride to anyone. It's hard to put together a 750 mile route without a few bad stretches and the good absolutely overwhelmed the bad. Mile upon mile of beautiful scenery that really showcased everything good about riding in the Rockies. One for the bucket list.
Legs willing, I'll be back!