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Cycling Fremont Pass 25 August 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling.
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Key Stats

– Start location: Copper Mountain, CO

– End location: Copper Mountain, CO

– Route type: Out and back

– Directions: Take Colorado 91 south from Copper Mountain. Turn around in Leadville.

– Vertical: 2776′

– Distance: 40-ish miles round trip

– Average grade: 1.3% (This is a little misleading since it includes flats)

– Steepest sustained grade: 8%

– Surface type/condition: Varied. Some new pavement. Potholes and fissures in old pavement. Gravel/debris in places.

-Other notes: Ride early and pack rain/cold weather gear

First of all, if you haven’t been watching the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, you should be. Or at least you should be recording it on your DVR so you can see it when you get home from work. It’s on Versus. Or here. That’s your homework for the week.

Your other assignment is to bike Fremont Pass, though maybe it’s better to say “brave Fremont Pass.” It’s kinda scary but generally worth it.

So here’s the thing, if cycling were all about discovering Colorado mining history, every guide would list riding Fremont as the state’s best ride. This pass counts four mining towns–three of them extinct–one truly enormous excavation, and all the hallmarks of an extractive industry boom. You’ll also run across three 14ers, a couple mountain lakes and more traffic than you can stand. With the generally crappy road added to the mix, it all makes for a bittersweet cycling experience, at least on the weekend. This is the sort of ride that makes you dream of flying along a fresh strip of asphalt on a quiet Tuesday morning.

If only it were so.

Anyway, if you’re planning to bike Fremont, here’s what you need to know: compared to other Colorado passes, this one’s fairly easy, but the rides on either side couldn’t be more different. From Leadville heading north, the road slopes gently to its summit, only really gaining elevation on the final ramp. From Copper Mountain heading south, the route climbs a healthy 1,750′ over 6.5 miles, topping out at an eight percent grade.

Click for full size.

Let’s take a look at the details.

Your best bet will be to exit from I-70 at Copper Mountain and park in the lot that’s a half mile or so down the road on the left hand side–across from the golf course. Leaving the parking lot, take a left, south, on Colorado 91. You’ll get about a mile or so to warm up, and to assess your comfort level with all the traffic. It gets no better. (As an aside,  a drunk woman in a Dillon brew-pub told me she’d never bike CO 91 because there were, she said, too many tourists gawking at scenery and driving all over the damn place. She’d never do it, she concluded. Of course, I don’t know if she’d every really bike anything–and she was drunk–but you’ve been warned.)

After the first mile, the gradient increases, hitting an average of 3.9 percent for then next several miles, but if that seems a little weak sauce, it’s not. At times, the road turns upward, climbing at better than 8 percent. And it never really seems to back off in the way sections of Lookout Mountain do. Along the way, you’ll catch glimpses of Ten Mile Creek, which cuts from the left, the runs under the road and appears again as a more expansive valley opens up to the east.

It’s here, about four miles in, that you’ll catch the first signs that something is amiss. Gates block roads leading off to the right, each of them bearing ominous “No Trespassing” signs. Then, the tailings ponds, with quaint names like “Mayflower” and “Robinson.” If they look unnatural, it’s because they are.

Essentially everything in the valley to your right is the result of molybdenum mining, and these tailings ponds imprison the byproducts of that process. Unlike the gold and silver that brought most folks to the mountains early on, molybdenum appeared on the scene because of its industrial applications. You probably know it from old bikes; that “chromoly” is a form of steel, hardened with molybdenum. But before it became popular for bikes, most molybdenum went into production as America entered World War I. As world demand for the ore has ebbed and flowed, the Climax mine higher up the hill has operated in fits and starts. At one point, though, it shipped 75 percent of all the molybdenum on earth. It’s closed now, but a recent Denver Post article suggests the production will begin again. Soon.

About three miles from the true summit, the hard climbing ends and the rollers begin. The first takes you down, almost level with a reservoir that offers a view toward the back of the Ten Mile Range. From here the road rises and falls slightly, and just before the final ascent the summit, the route provides a pull-out with views toward Mount of the Holy Cross. A few signs describe the area’s gold mining history, including the expansion and desertion of a few mining towns, and suggest that the Climax mine is doing its best to restore the valley to its original state, bulldozers, backhoes and denuded earth not withstanding. From here the road eventually winds up in front of the Climax mine itself. Curiously, the 11,318′ summit lacks the standard sign indicating the accomplishment, but not to worry, you’ll find something better: old mine cars and a dude selling elk jerky. To the north is the mine, a colossal affair that has dispatched with most of the visible hillside behind it.

Descending from the summit, the road improves significantly, and you’ll ride happy on new pavement. If you climb passes for the heart-pounding descents, though, the south side of Fremont will disappoint. It’s pedal pushing all the way into Leadville, although the road does meander alongside a pleasant creek for most of the way, and to the east you might catch the scenic railroad winding its way along the slopes. The highway pitches up again just before entering Leadville, and the first junction offers a chance to complete the second leg of the Copper Triangle, a breezy 35-mile ride into Minturn. But for now, stay the course and enjoy a snack or lunch in Colorado’s could-have-been capital.

I’m still figuring out when I want to write my Leadville post, but it’s still not now. Suffice it to say, you should skip the Golden Burro Cafe (all the time) since it hates cyclists, and try the Tennessee Pass Cafe instead. Its reasonably priced food from every standard ethnicity—including Indian—gets most everything right. There’s beer on tap, too, if you’d like, but don’t count on speedy service.

Heading back to Copper Mountain, there’s not much to say about the ride north. Compared to the north aspect, this side of the the pass seems essentially flat until the final ramp up to the mine, then prepare for a screaming descent into Copper. I’d suggest erring toward the shoulder to avoid the cracks, potholes and outright fissures that crisscross the lane. But by the time you read this, it may have been repaved, and if so, then by all means, try to set a new max speed. It’s a nearly a straight line into the starting parking lot.

And that’s it. Cross Fremont off the list. Then come back next weekend to give Tennessee Pass a try.

Bottom Line: Fremont is a Colorado essential, but one best attempted on a weekday. Completely repaved, it ought to be a dream.

Cycling Independence Pass 14 September 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling.
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Key Stats

– Start location: Aspen, CO

– End location: Aspen, CO

– Route type: Out and back

– Directions: Take Colorado 82 east from Aspen. No other possibilities.

– Vertical: 4000′

– Distance: 18 miles one-way (from Aspen)

– Average grade: 4.2%

– Steepest sustained grade: 7%

– Surface type/condition: Chip seal/bumpy, potholes, some sand

-Other notes: Pack cold weather gear. Descending from 12,095′ is a lot nippier than climbing it. Also, you know, Colorado weather changes without much warning.

From May through late September, you can drive Independence Pass. For some amount of time on the other side of those dates, you can probably snowmobile it. But why choose either when you can climb 4000 feet on two wheels?

Bike Independence Pass. People will think you rock.

Topping out 12,095 feet, Indepedence Pass rises higher than any other paved pass in the state. Cars gasp for oxygen at this altitude. Lesser humans turn back or faint. Someone’s always around to complain that it’s “too damn cold and windy up here.” And that same person is the one who’ll ask, “So you rode a bike all this way? Isn’t that, you know, hard?” And yes, it is hard, but well worth it since Independence Pass offers one of of the best, most scenic climbs in the state, and probably all of America. 10/10. In the fall, with the aspens ablaze, you may turn the dial to 11. It’s better, you see.

 

Your starting valley

 

The ride begins in Aspen or Twin Lakes, two cities so different you’ll wonder how they coexist in the same state. Not that Twin Lakes is straight outta’ Compton, but the down payment on any house in Aspen could probably pay for a sizable portion of the clapboard shacks on other side of the pass. In Colorado-speak, this means that while Aspen has cachet, Twin Lakes has “charm,” the last stop before obsolescence or super-stardom. See: Telluride.

Anyway, spend a night in Aspen, experience the town, marvel at both the restraint and the glitz. By constrast, Breck exploded on the scene, with developers tripping over themselves to build mid-range condo towers. Vail grew by design, the Disney World of major ski resorts. But Aspen stayed small and grew expensive. Nothing about this movie-star hangout is real, of course, but it’s classy. Aspen thrives without condos; expansive lawns take up valuable real estate. Ignoring the mountains for a moment, it could look like Upstate New York–with a median household value just south of $800,000.

Leaving town, head east on Colorado 82. It’s possible to park in Aspen itself, but the myriad parking restrictions and any lingering insecurities you may hold about stabling your Honda alongside a Bentley, make a pull-off somewhere up the road a more attractive option. You’re heading up the Roaring Fork valley at this point, a largely natural area that receives federal protection several miles up the way. For now, though, enjoy the couple rolling miles that warm up the legs for the ascent ahead. Get used the the bumpy road, as well. In all but a few places, this is a shoulderless route on crappy pavement. The views and the accomplishment make up for it.

Somewhere late into mile two or early in mile three, the road turns uphill, following the north side of the valley at grades between 4 and 7 percent. For the next few miles you wind your way through mixed pine and aspen forest. The truly enormous aspens receive their own gravel pull-offs and and from these, well-worn footpaths lead to better views. Farther along, you’ll begin passing “Road Narrows/ 15 m.p.h” signs, followed by “Do Not Pass” and then when it seems the road can grow no narrower, between miles 5 and 6 it slims to barely more than one lane, hugging a cliff face for several hundred yards. There is no good way to please drivers through this section. Don’t dawdle, but do admire the view. This is the first section to open up beyond the trees.

The views remain for the next couple miles as the road cuts a path between the creek and the valley wall. Another valley spreads to the east. At mile 8, mountain bikers and more adventurous drivers can take the dirt road back to Grizzly Reservoir and even those on more delicate frames can enjoy a dunk in the frigid Roaring Fork just beyond the parking area. Here, at 9800′ Colorado 82 turns away from the central valley, finally setting a course toward Independence pass–no detours available. It’s a relatively inauspicious beginning, however, rising steadily at grades between 2 and 4 percent for the next 5 miles.

Ever so slightly, the pines back off the road, offering bigger and better vistas until finally, several hundred yards beyond the switchback at mile 12, they give way entirely. The true tree line waits closer to the pass, but count yourself out of the woods for the remainder of the journey. The next 5.5 miles are all alpine, and true to Colorado fashion, pass a 19th century ghost town. No Colorado pass is complete without a few good abandoned structures. Independence, however, became a full scale town in 1880 when prospectors moved in looking for gold. Some 2,000 people lived and worked at 10,900′, and today, quite a few structures remain. The residents, though, disappeared when the gold became too difficult to reach and long, frostbitten winters no longer ended in riches. They packed their things and (yes, this is true. I asked teh internets) skied into Aspen on planks they’d fashioned from the wood in their homes. In the 1930s the government came back and blowed up the mines to discourage interlopers, and you, from exploring them.

Passing Independence reveals the final, brutal switchback. The steep stuff returns, ascending at 6-7% without respitefor a couple miles, but in return, the valley floor drops away and the view improves with every pedal stroke. The road tops out at a parking area few hundred yards past the end of the switchback. Prepare to leave your bike behind and wander along the paved trails to the scenic overlook toward the Twin Lakes side of the pass. As so often happens crossing these passes, you’re standing on the Continental Divide. La Plata Peak looms large to the east, all 14,334 feet of it. You may now, as necessary, begin acknowledging compliments about just how hard core you are.

One final note: careful on the descent. Bumpy roads make control difficult and sight-lines never extend far until that last few miles. Be on the lookout for potholes as well. Some look large enough to swallow even 27″ tires.

All the photos: