Ride Report from Dave Thompson:
The Colorado High Country 1200 starts in Louisville CO, close to Boulder, altitude 5300 ft, climbs into the High Country (8,000 – 11,000 feet) after 67 miles, and returns to 5100 feet for the run back to Louisville.
The first day’s ride is dominated by the 57 mile ride up (yes up) the Poudre Canyon, from 5100 feet to 10,300 feet. That’s a very pretty ride, never very far from the river, a little undulating but varying from perhaps 20-50 feet altitude over the river. The grade is moderate at the lower reaches and increases as you get further into the climb. At those lower reaches the canyon is narrow and twisting; at the upper end, wider with long straight stretches.
The run up the canyon starts at mile 67. While there’s some rolling hills in that first stretch, it’s mostly flatish and fast riding. Leaving at 4am, it’s not memorable, but it certainly is on the return trip in the heat of the afternoon!
There’s whitewater rafting in the river; buses full of people pulling trailers piled with the large rafts. Most of it looks pretty tame but I’m sure that it’s fun. Vegetation is sparse in the canyon, some of that due to forest fires. In fact, vegetation is sparse for the entire ride! It’s quite a bit different than riding, say, the Rocky Mountain 1200k in BC where a large part is heavily forested.
Apparently typical in the canyon, we had a mild tail-wind as we climbed. That changed dramatically after the Control at 98 miles, with the wind becoming a headwind, increasing in velocity as we approached Cameron Pass.
That headwind was brutal. Some estimated it at 50-60 mph. A few times I had to stop, gripping my brakes and bracing myself into the wind to avoid being blown back down, left or right. Once I had to walk a hundred yards to get around a curve, finding that the wind would abate after the curve. I certainly looked forward to that headwind switching to a tailwind after Cameron Pass! Apparently the ride has never experienced this kind of wind before … lucky us!
There was no tailwind from the top. The headwind continued. Cameron Pass is at 125 miles and we still had almost a hundred miles to go to our night’s Control at Saratoga.
Typical on these rides, I found myself not quite in the back of the pack a few miles after starting. By the Control in Rustic at mile 98, I’d caught up with a crowd and was somewhat middle of the pack.
From Cameron Pass we had to fight our way to Walden, a Control that we would hit several times, fighting the wind, that is. Walden is at 8100 feet and should have been a nice descent; it wasn’t. From Walden it’s about 70 miles to Saratoga at mile 221; we had entered Wyoming at mile 178. The wind had died somewhat, thank goodness!
There was a large forest fire in the distance burning in WY, only about 5% contained. The smoke was never very dense but you could see it like fog in the distance and it burned my eyes. The WY terrain is open with long, long moderate rollers.
I arrived at Saratoga, altitude 6791, at 12:30 a.m. I wasn’t the last rider, indeed there were many who finished in that 11-1 timeframe. 8 riders out of our starting 43 threw in the towel due to that wind – 19%!
From Saratoga we go back to Walden by a different route and again we had strong headwinds. I left at 4:25 and got to Walden at 6:20 p.m. In between we had some wonderful riding through the Snowy Range, hitting the Snowy Range Pass at 10,847. That was the high point, altitude-wise, of the ride.
So far the altitude hadn’t really bothered me. Per John’s rider briefing material, the grades are manageable and I wasn’t finding much effect from the altitude … yet. The wind, however, was killing me. I don’t do well in wind and these two days had sucked a lot out of me. We lost another couple of people in Walden …
I hung around Walden for almost 2 hours. That’s highly unusual for me but I considered it necessary. I knew that the wind would die down in the evening and that would really help me. I needed the recovery time.
By this point, John was relaying to the riders that all Control deadlines were void due to the conditions, other than the final Control time, that is. That took the pressure off and people managed their time based on how they felt. Without that, we would have lost many more. I only made Walden barely ahead of the deadline.
Walden is 138 miles into that day; in between we’d hit Laramie WY. These names that you recognize from John Wayne movies are tiny little towns, their reputation larger by far than their population !
Earlier that day, pulling into one little town, a number of us had a good hot breakfast. The waitress’s t-shirt said population 100. The sign coming into town said population 270. I queried that population explosion and laughed with one couple that the larger number included the “greater metropolitan area”.
It’s “only” 56 miles from Walden to Steamboat Springs, mile 194 on the day. Leaving Walden at 8:13 p.m., it took me almost 7.5 hours to get to Steamboat Springs. Ok, the altitude was finally hitting me and my breathing whistled a little, sounding like exercise induced asthma. It was in that stretch that Larry Midura abandoned, not wanting to take a chance on that same condition. I stubbornly pushed on … it’s not the first time that my idiocy showed through.
Ok, I was now the lanterne rouge, many dropping off behind me. I arrived in Steamboat a few minutes after two riders from Brazil. They’d passed me at the top of the descent into Steamboat Springs. Knowing that 7 miles at 7% was going be a cold one, I’d stopped to don my rain pants and loved every minute of the descent. Wheee!!!
Another rider abandoned in Steamboat Springs, didn’t start that next morning. So many smart people, so many smarter than me!
Rolling again at 6:12 a.m., I was feeling far from spiffy. The altitude effect was cumulative; phlegm accumulation causing some whistling in my breath, anaerobic exercise can’t go on for long. I knew what was happening — legs felt fine for a short time but then they weren’t getting enough oxygen to do their thing.
Day three of this ride is, without a doubt, the worst day that I’ve spent on a bike … or off the bike as the case may be. I spent much time during the day cursing myself for stubbornness, not having quit earlier. Still, I continued riding.
The really smart people had abandoned before or in Saratoga, spent a couple of days there or in the hot springs and rode back the last day.
From Steamboat Springs at 6700 feet, we traverse another couple of passes in the mid 8000 and mid 9000 range, eventually doing a leg to Grand Lake and reversing direction, heading back to Walden via Willow Creek Pass. From the turn to that pass on highway 125, I had about 20 miles before I could start the descent to the overnight in Walden.
I dithered. I had cell phone service at that point. Can I do this? Is there enough time in the world for me to get to that pass? I hit a couple of downhill sections, rode out of cell phone range.
The climbing started. I walked. I rode short distances, mostly on downhill stretches. Uphill or even level stretches on the bike didn’t last more than a hundred yards before I had to stop. My legs weren’t getting any oxygen and neither was my brain. I was quite unsteady, fell down once at zero mph, cursing on the ground with the cleats still attached. What an idiot!
I finally decided that I’d never get there from here. A car would come by every 15 minutes or so and I’d stop walking (yes, it was all walking at this point), but no one stopped. I hoped that a support car would come by; none did.
Finally someone stopped — “are you all right ?” — “no”. I finally figured out that they weren’t part of the team and he agreed to call one of the support cell numbers once he got to an area with service. I told him that it wasn’t a 911 situation, I was warm, lots of clothing, I was walking, don’t worry about me. It’s a lovely night for a hike pushing a bike.
The miles wore on, albeit very slowly. I counted them off with my Garmin, which by now with the slow progress wasn’t even charging from my Schmidt hub and was complaining “batteries low”. I kept walking. There was really nothing else that I could do. Sitting at the side of the road wouldn’t accomplish anything. There was no guarantee that anyone would ever come. You get that “alone in the world” feeling.
A car approached. He was obviously looking for me … Scott was his name. “What can I do for you?” he asked. Well, says I, I don’t think I can make it. He said that it was only two miles to the pass … I didn’t say anything but I knew that was an optimistic number unless the cue sheet was incorrect, it had to be more than three. He had some soup and he had a warm car. I sat inside and got my breathing under control. I agreed to continue and he would wait at the pass.
An hour or so later, he approached again, acknowledged that it had been more than two miles, but I only had a mile or so to go ! Right. Plod on. Are we having fun yet?
Finally, finally I got to the pass. With relief, I started the descent only to find that it’s not a straight descent, in fact there are about four climbs during the descent. Not only that, but my back was killing me. I’d walked so many miles pushing the bike that I couldn’t get myself comfortable even riding downhill. I had to keep stopping to straighten myself out. It was 30 miles from the pass to Walden, a long ride even with a drop in elevation of 1500 feet.
Arriving in Walden at 4:30 a.m., I squeezed in a half-hour sleep and left at 6:25. Normally I’m more efficient than that but every minute off the bike was recovery time. Recovery was more the issue than sleep.
It was a new day. The sun was up. The end was in sight, sort of. Onward!
A few miles into that ride my addled brain told me that I’d miscalculated. There was no way that I could make Louisville before the cut-off. This was all for naught. I’d have to average 15-16 mph to make Louisville on time even if my stops were incredibly brief. I decided that I’d text Scott later and ask him to pick me up on the way to Louisville. I might even be in danger of missing my flight!
A few miles later my brain cleared somewhat and I realized that I only had to make 10 mph, not 15-16, and as long as I made the top of Cameron Pass in good time, I’d be ok.
The wind picked up … oh oh …but didn’t become a factor.
It was 30 miles from Walden back to Cameron Pass. I knew that somewhere in there I would run out of steam, riding wise. I wanted to make the Pass by 10am, figuring that would leave me lots and lots of time to get to Louisville.
Sure enough, around 9000 feet as the grade increased, I couldn’t ride more than a few feet before the muscles burned. Oxygen, what oxygen? The grade wasn’t more than 5-7%, usually not a problem at all, but without oxygen to the muscles … well, it was no go.
I made 10am, just. I now had 12 hours to finish the ride. 120 miles to go and 12 hours, this should be easy.
It was. Finally. Remember that there’s now a 57 mile descent … Sandy was watching my SPOT and figured that I’d abandoned. She thought that I must have been in a car, hitting 40 mph at times. It was wonderful rolling down the canyon, and when we hit those undulations at the lower reaches, suddenly my legs felt fine. They weren’t tired at all!
Out of the canyon, it was hot. I’d started the day with light jersey, wool jersey, heavy jacket, leg warmers, winter gloves, you-name-it. Long before I got to Cameron Pass I had removed most of that, regretting that I didn’t have any throw away clothes as I’d now have to carry it all.
It was likely mid 90’s out of the canyon, back close to 5000 feet altitude. I had oodles of time and didn’t push myself. I stopped under shade trees. I soaked parts of myself in sprinklers. I had a couple of cold drinks.
Rolling into Louisville with almost 2 hours to spare, I met up with John and we agreed that you’re supposed to ride these things, not walk. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like with road shoes vs mountain!
Believe it or not, there were three people finishing a little after me. There were 16 abandons out of the 43 starts. That 43 includes two 1000k riders.
The ride was well organized, great volunteers, services in all the right places, vistas of mountains, open ranges, the canyons – Poudre and the Colorado River – definitely a tough one though.
The wind had made it a war of attrition. A combination of the wind and my body made it very difficult for me. No, it was more than tough. I can take solace in the fact that it didn’t take much to convince me to carry on, but the fact is, I had decided to quit. I’ve had tough times on these rides, but nothing like this. Had that passerby not stopped or Scott not showing up, I’d have made it on my own; no choice. I owe much to Scott for his words of encouragement; being there for me.
I’m still coughing; feeling the effects, even after a couple of days at sea level. I do need to get back on the bike soon; yes, it’s back together and ready to ride. Tomorrow. My back is still very tight on the one side. I’ve got a chiropractor appointment in Sudbury today!
These things certainly do call into question your physical conditioning … and your sanity!!