Wheeling through Colorado’s high country
By Christopher Solomon,
In his 1969 book, “Challenge of the North Cascades,” legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey tried to explain why he was willing to bushwhack dozens of miles, endure blisters, bears, rain and freeze-dried food, all to stand atop high places. “Loveliness,” he wrote, “is paid for partly in the currency of suffering.”
He was right, of course: Heaven’s always been hell to reach.
It’s Beckey who swims to mind as I slam into Mile 90 of the ride cyclists affectionately call the “Cannibal Classic,” between the Colorado mountain towns of Crested Butte and Creede. Three days into a week-long, 500-mile cycling tour through the highest of southwest Colorado’s spectacular high country — a vacation I’ve mentally dubbed the Hypoxic Tour — I’ve had to earn every wildflower and every Kodachrome moment with a crank of the pedal.
But now this — this is just unfair: At the foot of 11,530-foot Slumgullion Pass, the road bucks rudely, takes aim at a summer sky curdling with thunderheads . . . and pegs there for the next 3,000 feet. The piney mountain air sours with the smell of burning brake pads from panicked Winnebago drivers trying not to hurtle off the mountain. I grind slowly upward in my granny gear on wheezy sea-level lungs, my hamstrings as tight as banjo strings. I chew on Beckey’s wisdom with gritted teeth; I badly need to believe that so much pain will make the colors brighter. Sniffing weakness, the asphalt now rears up to nearly a 10 percent grade.
I take stock: I am last in the group. I am all alone. I could push my bike uphill faster than this. I think, well, at least things can’t get any worse.
Then it begins to hail.
Masochism on wheels
Maybe “normal” vacations bore you, too. Maybe to you, too, beaches feel like morgues with better lighting. When I have a holiday, I need to move — preferably on a sweaty adventure to remote beauty. True, my itchy feet have taken me in over my head more than once. But that has only birthed my own twisted travel corollary to Beckey’s maxim: You never forget the moments you’d rather not remember.
When I first heard of the “Colorado Cols” tour offered by Lizard Head Cycling Guides, a small, well-regarded cycling tour operator based near Telluride, it sounded like just my type of masochism — a hardman’s grand tour of the prickly San Juan Mountains, but with a beauty-to-challenge ratio that would keep me turning the pedals. Using less-traveled roads, cyclists spin anywhere from 67 to 137 miles a day, sweeping across sagebrush range and wildflower meadows and climbing passes where the summits remain piebald with snow deep into summer. (A “col” is a small mountain pass.)
Still, this was no ordinary catered bike trip, especially for a relative novice in the saddle like me: The range boasts more real estate above 10,000 feet than any comparable range in the Rocky Mountains. It’s home to 13 of the state’s 54 14,000-foot peaks. The targeted intermediate-to-advanced riders could expect to climb more than 5,000 feet a day.
“It doesn’t really get any harder than this,” John Humphries, Lizard Head’s owner, cautioned me. “It’s definitely a limited audience.”
I signed up.
The Zen of Up
In the rotisserie heat of a late June morning in Grand Junction, I glance around nervously: The four other clients, all men in their late 40s and 50s, are serious life-long cyclists with corded calves and splendid machines. Len, an insurance executive from Manhattan, was once a semi-pro cyclist in Italy; he and his friend Steve, a real estate developer with a greyhound’s angles, wear matching cycling kits. Peter is a Web developer from Pennsylvania who rides 10,000 miles a year on his Moots bicycle, which cost more than my used Honda. Never have a bunch of dudes with shaved legs seemed so intimidating.
As he briefs us about the week ahead, however, owner Humphries is a soothing presence. A gnomish 42-year-old in a floppy leather hat, he has a child’s passion for bicycling, and it’s contagious. He loves to see people push themselves in the outdoors — but have fun while they’re doing it.
He explains the huge crutch we have at our disposal: A support van will leapfrog over the group throughout each day, setting up aid stations and lunch. “If you’re really not having fun, you don’t have to ride,” Humphries says. Hop inside when tired, take a 25-mile “bump” and then hop out to ride again, he encourages; the van shrinks even the most intimidating day to a manageable bugbear.
“We have a term for some people — EFIers: Every Freakin’ Inch,” Humphries says of some cyclists’ insistence on pedaling every last mile. “I love it,” he says, laughing, “but there’s nothing left of them at the end.”
Outside town hulks our first day’s ride: 10,125-foot Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. Rising from the sagebrush desert, the mesa’s pancake summit is furred with pines and dotted with 300 cool alpine lakes. Humphries pronounces it “the easiest 6,000 feet you’ll ever climb” — a good opening day. We pedal out slowly beneath Plateau Creek’s desert sandstone cliffs, chatting and getting to know one another. In the warming day, the air smells richly of pinyon pine and cut hay. This is nice, I think.
It doesn’t last. Soon the earth cants upward. Len and the others vanish up the road. The van zooms past with a rider already inside. (What does he know that I don’t?) I get a flat tire. I try to keep up with the others and sweat Niagaras onto my crankset. I’m a mess. “Why do I do this?” I sputter.
Eventually I calm down and settle into what a friend once termed the Zen of Up — a pace I can keep up all day, and a detente with the discomfort. When I find it, my mind unclenches. My head lifts. I no longer hear only the asthmatic bellow of my lungs but the soft applause of aspen leaves. I see tailed copper butterflies flitting before my wheel like bits of bright cloth.
Make no mistake: Even Zen won’t rescue you from exhaustion. By the time we reach Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards, our night’s lodging, we’ve ridden nearly 70 miles and climbed 8,600 feet. The inn, run by Frenchman Yvon Gros and his wife, Joanna Gilbert, is a little piece of Provence in the high desert, but by dinnertime I’m drooling into the glass of soft Chambourcin that Gros pours for me. I limp off to bed before the first stars appear.
The next morning, we spin languidly through a Swiss-meets-West landscape of rolling ranchlands on little-traveled roads whose only bumps are the cowpies squashed by pickup trucks after a recent cattle drive. We’re on our way to Crested Butte, 98 miles distant. Eventually, as it will all week, the landscape rises. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park yawns open on our right, a dark ax-cleft in the earth’s skin deep enough to swallow the Empire State Building. We sweep along its rim at falcon height on still another empty road, as proud white clouds that could be escapees from a John Ford soundstage steam off toward the Great Plains.
At lunch, two more riders climb aboard the sag wagon. My ego is too big to fit inside; I keep pedaling. Near Gunnison, even Peter, the 10,000-Mile Man, looks stricken by two days at this high elevation and climbs aboard. Fueled by schadenfreude, and by a doppio espresso in Gunny, I turn north with Humphries up the gentle ranching valley toward Crested Butte, riding fast and chatting. “These are the good old days!” Humphries says as we stop at the East River to soak our bike jerseys against the heat.
Here I’d like to tell you about my triumphant arrival in Crested Butte, one of my favorite mountain towns — how we pedal strongly past moon-faced cattle in green fields, and beneath prickly peaks stapled to a John Denver sky. But today is only my second “century” ride ever, and the final 15 miles spank me. Weary hands cramp into claws. A brushfire erupts in my bike shorts, and a malevolent headwind whips up and tries to keep us from entering town. I arrive shattered.
After half of a Teocalli Martini at Montanya, a local rum distillery, I stagger to the hotel and into a fitful sleep in the stingy air of 9,000 feet.
Day Three is the crucible day: a Tour de France-worthy 137 miles and an absurd 11,000 feet of climbing strung between the former mining towns of Crested Butte and Creede known as the Cannibal Classic. In February 1874, a group of prospectors heading from Salt Lake City to the gold fields near Gunnison, led by one Alfie Packer, got snowbound here. Only a well-fed Packer emerged in the spring. After his murder trial, a local saloon keeper hollered, “You man-eating son of a . . . .There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!”
“You don’t want to get dropped by the group today,” Humphries quips at dawn as we oil our chains. I tug on a second pair of padded bike shorts in the forlorn hope of calming my raging saddle sores and waddle to my bike like a diapered baby.
Aches aside, it’s a fine morning to be in the saddle, riding two abreast down the valley in the blue dawn, talking and joking, and escorted by mountain bluebirds. Later, after the grunt up Nine-Mile Hill, we spin through handsome, broad-shouldered ranching valleys of ponderosa pine far off the tourist map. We ride along lonesome roads beside trout-y streams and ride through sudden squalls that beat perfume from the thirsty sagebrush. This is why I love bicycling: In the stirrups, you experience a different world from the one you see from behind the windscreen of a Hertz.
Of course, all these pretty moments come with a price tag: Outside Lake City, we meet Slumgullion Pass, which boasts the steepest grade of any continuously paved road in the state. The other guys disappear up the road. I stop to fill water bottles at the Alfie Packer Massacre Site and point my wheel uphill.
The next 90 minutes are heartbreaking. Thighs howl. The mind cracks. Cold rain falls, then hail. Lightning. I reach the summit, descend tentatively, then climb toward 10,901-foot Spring Creek Pass.
At the Continental Divide, the support van idles. Nearly everyone’s inside — even stout Len has climbed aboard, wisely choosing not to ride the snot-slick descent — and they stare, expecting a broken man to join them. But something amazing has happened on my solo climb. The clouds have broken and a euphoria (or maybe hypoxic delirium) has descended. Improbably, I feel great. I’m the only EFIer left — and for the first time I know that I’m going to survive this week.
I grin like a lunatic and say I want to keep riding. A cheer goes up. Humphries grabs his bike and together we rocket the last 30 miles down the headwaters of the Rio Grande River toward a valley with a look so trademark West that Johnny Depp has just wrapped up filming “The Lone Ranger” here.
That night, we feast on Colorado rack of lamb at Antlers Rio Grande Lodge and fall asleep with our doors open to the river’s murmur.
The grand finale
The days continue in a yin-yang of beauty and exhaustion. We cross Wolf Creek Pass and the Continental Divide again, then take a rest day in Pagosa Springs, a resort town about 20 miles from the New Mexico state line with dozens of thermal soaking pools. Next we roll on to Durango, a former mining town that’s now mad for all things cycling.
With mock seriousness, Humphries dubs the final day the “Queen Stage.” Other days have been longer, but the finale has more punch per mile. On paper, the route resembles the EKG of a man having a heart attack: three mountain passes, 78 miles, 9,400 feet of climbing along the sublime San Juan Skyway roadway.
We ride fast together through the Animas River Valley before the oven of the day is lit. When the climbing begins, I suck on Len’s wheel as long as I can, but soon I drop off and am alone. The climb to 10,640-foot Coal Bank Pass is a punishment, with late June’s anvil sun overhead. Though briefer, 10,910-foot Molas Pass is hardly easier; the only thing that keeps me moving are the top-of-the-world views of the San Juans’ dusky jawbone as the mountains collect clouds for the afternoon monsoon. Coasting into the former mining town of Silverton for lunch, I confess to Humphries that I’m toast. Finished. Kaput.
“You can do it,” he encourages. “You can still do every mile.”
I force down a sandwich, chug a Coke, swig pickle juice to stave off cramps, and climb back into the stirrups. Steve and I fall in together, and we pace each other up Red Mountain Pass, elev. 11,018 feet, a road with no guardrail and where a poorly timed twitch of the handlebars would require every bit of gauze in the van’s first-aid kit.
And one last time, when I need it most, the views provide: We pedal past waterfalls tumbling off mountainsides, past roadside bouquets of Queen Anne’s lace and larkspur, past creeks that flow orange and poisoned from the skeletons of abandoned mines. It’s a tableau of the whole broken and beautiful West.
When I reach the pass, the last cyclist, everyone is waiting. There are high-fives and hugs over our accomplishment: six days, about 500 miles and 45,000 feet of climbing. It’s too big, and too soon, to understand in this moment. Only weeks later, fully recovered, will I hold the pleasure and the pain together in my mind. And want to do it again.
For now I do the one thing that’s left to do: I climb back on my bike and open the throttle for the 13-mile corkscrew descent into the old mining burg of Ouray. The last ride turns out to be the very best of the week. And for once, I’m in the lead.
Solomon, who lives in Seattle, writes frequently for Outside magazine.