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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:

Cycling Berthoud Pass 30 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado Passes, Cycling, Uncategorized.
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You know Berthoud Pass–probably as the inconvenient stretch of road that stands between you and a much shorter trip to Winter Park. And since the Ski Train stopped toot-tooting its way up to the resort last year–thanks, Amtrak–it is no longer simply slow, but mandatory as well. Not the winning combination. Bike rides, however, are optional, and while you might complain about the 24.3 miles between Empire and Winter Park come winter, spin easy for now in the knowledge that Berthoud Pass provides a pleasant diversion within an hour of Denver.

A while back, I mentioned that despite being Really Big, Golden’s Lookout Mountain fell short of truly enormous when placed alongside other climbs here in Colorado. Berthoud, on the other hand, is appropriately large. The route ascends a vertical half mile, topping at out at more than two miles above sea level. That is, 2730′ up, reaching 11,330′ over the course of a little more than 13 miles. Check out the profile:

11,300' can be chilly at any time of year. Plan accordingly. (Click for larger image.)

You can see, then, that it’s not nearly so difficult as it sounds at first. Large? Yes. Daunting? No. Provided you’re not arriving from sea level anyway. Those seeking real challenge can head elsewhere, but if you’re in the mood for a fairly benign climb with alpine panoramas nearly the whole way, you’ll want to check out Berthoud Pass.

First, a word of warning: if you’re not into dealing with traffic, Berthoud’s not for you. As the only sensible route north in this neck of the woods, US 40 carries a consistent if almost constant stream of cars, trucks, SUVs and 18-wheelers. Thankfully, the shoulder offers a road unto itself, well more than a lane wide. And all that traffic has driven commensurate investment: new, smooth pavement and grades never that never exceed the dreaded 6% threshold. So it’s a double-edged sword. As much traffic on any other road, and you’d take your toys and go home, but Berthoud makes it bearable, if something short of ideal.

Lotta cars

There, you’ve been warned. So what’s in store?

Your starting point depends on how much you’re willing to endure, but Empire makes the most sense if only because bike rides should always begin or end at a place with greasy food readily available. Dairy King serves fried mushrooms, malts, burgers and anything else that makes cardiologists cringe. Bring cash, though. No plastic here. Anyway, Empire’s more or less like any other small mountain town where everything involves antiques and buildings that look on the verge of collapse. The petunias help, at least. I’m all for urban renewal.

As you ride away, you’ll get a couple miles to warm up and wonder why exactly Empire is called Empire. But before it really starts eating at you, you’ll arrive at the more aptly-named Berthoud Falls, which in reality comprises little more than a general store and, I think, a campground. You’ve been traveling up a reasonably scenic valley so far, and mile seven offers the first point of real interest, a distinct avy track to your left, much better than the one that ran down the drainage at mile four. Crashing downhill for at least a couple thousand feet, the wall of snow laid flat every tree in its path–a remind of the terrible things that will happen to you if ski backcountry without the proper knowledge. (/teachable moment)

From here on out, you can thank every engineer who slacked in college and chose to design highways instead. I’d give you the number of switchbacks involved but I’ve never been very good at counting, so how does “lots” sound? Good, right? The first and longest rises perpendicular to the valley you’ve just completed and offers frequent and unobstructed views of the highway below. The majority of the more difficult grades occur from miles seven to ten, yet between the smooth roads and soaring peaks, the climb itself never commands much attention. Be on the look for waterfalls as well. They continue to flow late into the summer. You’ll catch a lot of gravel, sand and rocks heading this direction, as well, all of which can be easily avoided. Unless you’re looking up at a mountain of course–a distinct possibility.

You’ll also notice a fair number of concrete troughs lining your side of the road. The shoulder and curb feed into them, and if you peer in, you’ll see what looks like a sluice gate facing down the mountain. Curious? It’s all part of an effort to control runoff from snow melt and heavy storms. Because the road itself won’t allow the water to seep into the ground as it might normally, it concentrates runoff that scours streams and erodes the hillside. By allowing the water to run into the troughs and pour out through the relatively small gate, the highway engineers have constrained the flow at any one time. Total volume’s the same, but it no longer occurs as one stream-destroying spike. Same idea goes for the retention pond behind the local strip mall. Now you know.

The final switchbacks offer views into the western extension valley you initially climbed and more peaks above treeline. Engelmann Peak with its magnificent cirque dominates the landscape across the way. If you remember nothing else on this ride you’ll remember Engelmann.

It’s also right around here that the money seems to have dried up. Just before mile 12, the expansive shoulder disappears and the asphalt cracks like the sun-parched bed of a vanished lake. It doesn’t last long–only the final mile–and at its end, you find yourself at a parking area on top of this little part of the world. Up to right lies the what’s left of Berthoud Pass Ski Area, reputed to be the first public ski hill in Colorado, its first rope tow installed in 1937. Over the years, the mountain never really got going like its next-door neighbor Winter Park. The final owner pulled up the stakes in 2002, but the area remains popular with backcountry enthusiasts attracted by easy accessibility and several hundred inches of pristine powder each winter. Looking due north you’ll see the summit station of Winter Park’s Panoramic Express and US 40’s switchbacks into the valley below. Farther away, but still visible on a clear day, are the Indian Peaks north-northeast of the overlook.

From here you can continue into Winter Park, a slightly shorter ride, or return to Empire. The descent never really allows for the speeds you’d like to achieve because of the traffic, and that first mile must be taken with care, but overall, it’s smooth sailing. Take care and enjoy the ride.

Bryce Barker Beats Bikes (With a baseball bat) 18 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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This dispatch brought to you with pride by the Crazy People Who Hate Bikes Foundation.

July 18th near Berthoud, Colo.:

Guy drives behind some cyclists in their 50s—pretty non-threatening folks. Guy gets the “bikes is slow” road rage thing going on and pulls out in front of said cyclists. Guy climbs out of the car with a T-Ball bat, says something profane and then goes to town on a $4,800 Trek Madone. No joke.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan story:

Stevens says he’s still shocked by what happened to him and his carbon fiber Trek Madone bike, which was destroyed.

“He let out this scream and he beat on my bike on the ground a couple times. Then he made stabbing motions at me with the bat, calling me obscenities. Then he got in his car and took off,” Stevens said. “It was pretty crazy.”

When police later confronted the assailant about the incident, he said the cyclists had attacked his Pontiac GT by throwing their bikes at it and that he had “tried” to escape. Mhmm… Bikes cost more than your car, dude.

More here.

Cycling Lookout Mountain 11 August 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Cycling, Uncategorized.
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If you have ever sinned a great sin against a cyclist, you may atone for it by riding Lookout Mountain. There waits the ritual purification of climbing.

When I first drove up Lookout, I marveled at the cyclists completing the same task on two wheels and under their own power. “Intense,” I told C—, “I’d be hating life if that were me.” And at the time, that would have been the case, but several hundred miles and many thousands of feet climbed separate that time from now. My tune has changed. So will yours if you’ve never given this great little ride a try. It’s only twenty minutes from Denver, and mile-for-mile absolutely the most scenic route this close to downtown. Hands down.

Let’s start with the important part: the climb. This about sums it up.

7 sad states have high points shorter than this climb.

Rising 1300′ give or take  from the curiously-named Beverly Heights Park to Buffalo Bill’s grave—yes, that Buffalo Bill—Lookout Mountain is Real Big. Maybe not Colorado big, where passes routinely involve 3000-4000 uphill feet, but at an average grade of 6.1%, this thing’s not joking. Of course, it’s not as though anyone laughing either. They’re grimacing, mostly. And you will too at first.

The ride begins at A,  just outside Golden. It’s highway the whole way from Denver, too. Just stay on, or get off on US 6, and take a left on 19th.

And then it’s pretty simple, really: park the car, get your biking self together and point the front wheel uphill. As you can see from the elevation, however, you get about a half mile to warm up and then the pain begins. It’s a subtle thing, though, since way back in 1917 (did you notice the date on the gates when you started?) the engineers designed the road for maximum scenic value and, consequently, maximum windiness. You’ll rarely see more than a couple hundred feet ahead. If you’re a Denver-area English teacher, a ride up Lookout offers an excellent way for your students to muddle the distinction between torturous and tortuous.  Field trip!

Regardless of whether you can divine the road ahead, the view to the right continues to improve as you climb. The initial mile or so heads north, giving you the chance to peer over a miniature version of Golden, the Coors Brewery and Table Mountain. Start your ride after 5:30 in the summer and you’ll spend the entire time taking in the scenery during what photographers call the “golden hour,” those fleeting minutes of every day where the light strikes the landscape just right and everything seems to glow. And because afternoon thunderstorms roll over Denver more or less every day, you’re going to see a lot of rainbows if you make this trip enough.

I say all those nice things to make you forget that this is indeed a climb involving several stretches of 9% grades. The scenery grows no less pleasant as you turn away from Golden at mile 1.2. Clear Creek Canyon opens ahead and you’ve put the really nasty stuff behind you for a bit. At 4%, those big switchbacks feel positively flat, although on days when the wind howls down the canyon, you may wish for the steep stuff  just to be rid of the gale. With the switchbacks behind you, the road briefly swings back over Golden then turns up a gulch toward Windy Saddle–the three mile mark. If you’re not concerned about timing yourself up the mountain, the parking area here provides a view well worth a stop and a place to start your ride if you’d prefer a “Lookout-lite”: 400 vertical feet from this to the full ride’s 1300.

Although Windy Saddle sits more than two thirds of the way up the mountain, I’ve always found that road beyond this point seems the most difficult. The several steep switchbacks that follow feel much worse coming off the easier stretch, but they lead to an even better view and what will by then seem like a benign 4% grade into the summit.

There’s a gift shop and interpretive center up there, but I’ve never felt an inclination to wander into either. If you must know, though, Buffalo Bill was a crazy young, and later, old, coot who ran around American and Europe with a bunch of Indians in tow presenting a caricature of the West in his Wild West Show. You can blame him, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood for most of the silly, romantic things people believe about this part country today. The real West sprawls before you from the viewing platform behind the gift shop. Here you can see the Denver skyline, the suburban blight, the reservoirs, the highways. Look at all that and then buy a panoramic postcard of it in the gift shop.

The ride back down defines “technical descent.” Prepare yourself and your brakes for switchbacks at high speed. Despite the rare and easily-spotted patch of sand or gravel, the descent never gives reason for concern. The last third of a mile even received new pavement this summer, and the rest is nice enough. Back at your car, take a look at your watch. Bet it took less than an hour if you didn’t dawdle. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for your post-work minutes, and although that means you’ll often run into other folks along the way, you can now share in their pain. And their joy.