Colorado Trail, Desert Southwest (CO,AZ,UT,NM), Trip Reports » Colorado Trail Race 2009


Seven sunrises on the bike. The first was on pavement, pedaling a prologue to meet some forty fellow bikepackers at the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail. A singular goal was on everyone’s mind: ride self supported to Durango, over 470 miles away.

I’ve never seen so many bikepackers. Pretty damn cool. SPOT units were handed out as I crossed my fingers that everything would go swimmingly with the tracking software. I had fixed a glitch, via Rob Kranz’s laptop, at just 10pm the night before.

We rolled out for a mellow neutral start. Finally, everything is said and done, all that remains is to ride and live with the decisions and preparation now behind us. Freedom on the bike.

The front runners launched their attacks. I thought myself ‘smart’ by being the first rider to let the gap grow. “I don’t think that pace is sustainable for 470 miles.” But I was fooling myself. Neither was mine.

Still, you have the strength to go fast, so why the hell not? At a cost, but it feels good and energy has been building for weeks without an outlet. Outlet found.

Rather than riding hard, I made my transition in Bailey quick, getting a jump on several riders. Highway 285 was frightening. My heart rate never slowed, thinking this was by far the most dangerous part of the race. An ambulance passed me. The last thing I wanted to see was a biker down up ahead. Please, no.

At the town of Grant, CDOT grants mercy upon CTR riders — a shoulder. I whipped out the phone and dialed Matthew Lee, getting a tracking update while pedaling. All was working, and he gave me updates on where people were. Relax. When I shut the phone and extended my arm it cramped, bad. I spent the rest of the climb trying to regain usage of that arm.

At Kenosha Pass singletrack resumes and I was surprised to run into Ethan, Jason and Stefan. Thoughts of racing hard and pushing through darkness with them ran through my head. False dreams.

A small storm crashed us at the base of our first climb above treeline — Georgia Pass. It went on just long enough for Stefan to pull out his full rain gear, then it was gone.

We climbed the semi-slick trail, cresting with plenty of daylight remaining.

An attempt at recreating the header pic — same bike, same trail, different day.

Jason Shelman and I rode the descent off Georgia Pass together. We both cracked. He’s on a rigid singlespeed. I had no excuse, I just knew I had been riding too hard. “That would have been fun any other day,” he says. Good point, so why wasn’t it fun today?

Stefan, Ethan, Andrew Carney and I found ourselves at the base of the 10 mile range climb, a vicious hike-a-bike, at dark. I knew I was more or less done for the night. Carney and I pushed on for an hour or so, making little progress, before throwing out the bivy gear.

Jefe and Dave Harris passed us early in the morning. We pushed bikes for quite a while before sunrise #2 presented itself, perhaps not technically ‘from the bike’, but pushing it…

It was going to be a long day, both on trail and paying retribution for day one’s aggressive pace. Once you accept and know that, though, it gets much easier.

Andrew enjoys one of the steepest parts of the hike-a-bike in the morning glow.

The top was reached, and magical tundra riding ensued. I may not find myself up here on a bike ever again, so I had to savor it.

Hopefully you can see why. There’s about a mile of amazing trail up there. Then you start the descent and hold on for dear life.

Cracks were evident. We detoured into Copper Mountain, first to the store, then to Tuckers for breakfast. It was the only way to salvage the day, race or no race.

Properly fueled for the first time in the race, the climb to Kokomo Pass still went slow. Andrew had some shut downs, but news of three racers cresting the pass and one snoozing on the trail (must be Harris!) motivated us to keep the strength. Sure enough it was Dave, and we caught him too easily.

“I’m looking for the quickest way outta here,” he says.

What’s a good way to motivate Dave? Pass him. He didn’t let us go easily, but was obviously struggling. We waited a few minutes at Searle Pass before beginning the descent together. Riding several miles of narrow trail at 12,000 feet had done well to put me out of race mode.

Searle’s massive descent is a real ripper, laced by an abundance of flowers. I wanted to take a bunch of pictures, but Andrew and Dave were in no mood to stop. Soon I was behind. Now at ‘low’ elevations (sub 10,000′ is low for the CT), Dave smoked up and over Tennessee Pass, never to be seen again.

We were ‘SPOT stalked’ in Leadville, by a prospective CTR racer and by Lee’s wife Joan. It’s strange, but a still kinda cool to see spectators getting so excited about the race and the live tracking. We ate, and I thought about trying to find Harris to share his hotel room, but we were motivated by the possibility of making it to Buena Vista that night, so we pushed on.

Pace was high throughout the Halfmoon area. GPS track errors abounded, and darkness fell early. “I’m tired as hell, but this is too cool to stop.” Moonlight bleeding out of our souls, the lake shimmered, showing a very clear goal. The singletrack was easy to ride, but not easy to follow. We did a full circle down by the dam, why can’t I remember where to go?

When CDT (but not CT) signs directed us away from the GPS track I finally yielded. Enough for now. Mental fog was getting thick, and it was time for rest.

Just as we flipped off the headlamps, around midnight, Brian Taylor came rolling through, all amp’d to push into Buena Vista. Impressive, I thought. This wouldn’t be the last time Brian passed me late in the night.

Dave Harris left Leadville at 2am (!), passing us just as we were tapping the potential energy of the pre-dawn darkness. Once again I watched the world come alive (sunshine!) from the bike, though this time most of the action was obscured by the forest.

We turned off the Colorado Trail for another welcome wilderness detour. Tail breezes pushed us effortlessly along the banks of the Arkansas River, through old railroad tunnels and safely into the backside of town.

Not sunlight, not pedaling, not mp3 files, not conversation, not beautiful views were enough to lift the fog. Breakfast at Poncho’s did it. We swung into action, aiming to get out of town and back onto the trail as soon as possible.

There was quite a sight at the City Market. Dave had set up shop, buying groceries that looked more like he was filling his apartment’s empty cupboard than filling his bikepacking bags (a full box of cereal!?!).

Dave said to Andrew after I left, “damn, what took me two hours took him twenty minutes.” But I was planning to get more food later on. With full food bags I expected Dave to move slowly, but he quickly passed us and quipped, “no drafting!” As if that was even possible. He disappeared seemingly into thin air.

At Princeton Hot Springs, the next waypoint on the trail, I found a surprising amount of food to stock up on. Now I was fully loaded, and relatively confident I could make it to Silverton, ~3 days away.

Mishap struck Andrew on a briefly rideable part of the climb away from Princeton Hot Springs:

Ugh. The little ring is pretty much the only one you use on the Colorado Trail, though on the present climb no rings were useful. We hiked together, rode some wonderfully contoured trail to the bottom of Raspberry Gulch, then studied my GPS basemap for Andrew’s best escape route to Salida and Absolute Bikes.

It was a bummer to watch him pedal away. We had been well matched in pace and mindset, and it looked like we were set on a solid pull to the finish. I called Paula to get a bearing on where other riders were. Dave was not far ahead. Ah ha, a carrot. Go, go!

Segment 14 is somewhat legendary for being nasty, but I didn’t notice much. The fog was in the troposphere by now, and said ‘sphere was still happily free of anvil shaped clouds and electricity. I was pinching myself at all the good weather we’d had so far. I was on top of the world, and no vagaries of trail conditions or lack of flow could tear me down. Although you hike, it seemed the top of every hill held a nugget or two of tasty singletrack, breezing through the trees.

After the Angel of Shavano Trailhead, it was new territory for me. I bailed into Salida here in 2006, before the CTR existed. Occasionally I’d see a camper or hiker and ask if they’d seen another cyclist. ‘About an hour and a half ago’, ‘maybe an hour back?’, ‘just a half hour.’ I was gaining, but night fell just as I caught a glimpse of highway 50, ready to descend.

I found Dave Harris just about to nod off a little ways up the Fooses climb. I decided to stop early, hoping Andrew would rally his new chainring and catch back up. I never saw him again, though the SPOT replays show that he was within an hour several times.

Dave was rolling early, so I joined him for sunrise #4, moving near treeline, aiming to gain the Monarch Crest Trail. The sun’s rays were enough to burn off the morning fog, and I was soon reveling in the chase of Dave, whose lights I had seen fade into dark long ago.

I saw him, then I caught him, just like that. He was not moving fast. Seeing me behind, he quickened his hike-a-bike pace for a moment. Then he collapsed on a rock. Between gasps and coughs he said ‘AMS, I have all the signs.’ AMS being acute mountain sickness. It was clear that he wasn’t getting much air in, regardless, and I was starting to worry. I offered my inhaler that I carry but rarely use, touring or racing. That seemed to help, and we continued up the ridicu-steep push up to the crest.

You can see in that pic that Dave’s not in a happy place.

NOW, he’s in a happy place!

I tried to nap, but I was psyched to ride the Monarch Crest Trail and couldn’t really settle down. I didn’t want to leave Dave until I knew he was OK, but also there was no one to chase. The next racer was 8+ hours ahead, and not being in race mode, I didn’t want to ride solo. I enjoyed the psuedo-tour feel of the day.

Eventually we stood up to cheer Brian Taylor up the ridicu-steep push.

He was happy to be on flat ground again.

Then, all of the sudden… cyclists everywhere! Wow. We outdistanced them soon enough, and then made the fateful turn at Silver Creek. Shuttle riders go down, CTR riders make trail for Sargents Mesa.

Sargents is legendary as being the most brutal section of the CT for cyclists. The Oracle Ridge of CTR. Suffering was guaranteed, but in many ways I was looking forward to it. Everything is worth riding once, and I really had to see this one for myself.

Joe Bagley and Steven Garrett caught Dave, Brian and I. It sounded like Dave was OK, but likely bailing, so I jumped up at the chance of riding with somebody new.

I thought this was supposed to be hard? Mellow singletrack through aspens? OK, OK, we’re not yet to Sargents proper. I had expected the hell to begin much earlier on, though.

Joe had an interesting setup — panniers and no pack. In a way I was envious, and in a way… not so much. Joe didn’t have much to say, a strong and stoic rider, but he did say his setup was working well for him (the bags become messenger bags for extended hike-a-bike sections).

I spent most of afternoon riding with Steven from Illinois.

We climbed up a long and pleasant meadow, which finally gave way to what I had been waiting for: impossible rocks. For the next few hours the trail climbs up and down, always unnecessarily, going out of its way to reach each and every highpoint in the area. The ups (and even some of the flats!) are so rocky that you’d be a fool to try and ride them. The downhills are occasionally enjoyable, but always full of punishment.

Steven nailed the description of Sargents Mesa: “SOUL CRUSHING.”

Just as our souls had nothing left and the clouds and fog built steadily around us, we emerged into a meadow near Lujan Pass, and my brain malfunctioned. I saw a large tent, reading ‘Trail Angel’. Next to it, a cooler, reading ‘please, help yourself.’ Surely a mountain mirage.

But there was trail angel ‘Apple’ from the Appalachian Trail, setup for all Colorado Trail hikers and bikers, for two whole months. Besides providing snacks, sodas and encouragement, he was counting trail users via infrared beams and a radio relay of his own design. He had learned about the SPOT tracker from Ethan, and was pretty excited to talk to me about it. We took some sodas, cookies and the like, but refused his offer of driving us to Gunnison for chinese food!

It was a huge boost to the spirits. Dave rolled in, somewhat to my surprise, and had a similar reaction. Is this for real? This is the middle of the most remote stretch of the race!

We all debated about staying the night near the shelter of the trail angel tent. Once it started sleeting it was an easy choice.

Before we drifted off to sleep Dave and I agreed that we’d had our fill of hike-a-bike (me) and high altitude suffering (Dave). We resigned to ‘finish the CT’, but not the CTR, and take Cinnamon Pass instead of this year’s addition to the race — Coneys and Cataract. That resignation put a lot of fear and anxiety out of my mind, and sleep came easily.

Coneys and Cataract add up to some 33 miles above treeline. The miles are slow, full of hike-a-bike and trail-less riding. You are highly exposed to storms the whole time, and woe be to anyone that runs out of food out there, some 200 miles from the last resupply point. It’s enough to soil the shammy of even the most experienced bikepacker.

Dave and I were up at 3:30. We got organized and headed out for sunrise #5. Per usual, an hour’s morning fog meant Dave was long gone before I was moving at non-glacial speeds. I usually don’t have a problem getting moving in the morning, and I wasn’t sleepy, just couldn’t get my body to limber up and quicken to normal functionality.

Cochetopa Park was a perfect setting for sunrise 5. The dirt road detour was a bit on the long side, but it mattered not. I transferred nearly all my carried weight to my bike (thanks to the big Epic Designs seat bag) and even got my pack to rest on the seat pack.

The Los Pinos descent and associated Cathedral views energized my weakened psyche. I began to think more positively about Coney/Cataract. Clouds were building, but I cared not. I’ve come this far, why not try? Nothing like a long dirt road detour to inspire you to more singletrack. With that said, I truly enjoyed the dirt riding through what seemed like such a remote area of Colorado. A lot of the CT is missing big views, but the roads afforded quite a bit of scenic gawking.

When Dave caught up to me (somehow I had passed him) it was clear we were operating on the same wavelength, even though we hadn’t seen each other all day. We formed a pact, determined to push through any and all challenges that awaited us on Coney and Cataract.

It wasn’t looking so good as we crested Spring Creek Pass to begin Coney.

But the bright green bag on Dave’s handlebars isn’t just to grab attention. It’s got a full on tent in it!

We made good time for a couple hours, but a wall of white approached from the south. Dave threw out the tent, fiddled around a bit, then we climbed in and drifted off to sleep as it drizzled down on us. The storm looked worse than it was, but boy was it nice to climb in the tent and drift off without a care in the world. I woke up on fire — the sun was out, cooking us, and it was time to ride!

For a number of reasons, everything seemed to come together that evening, and the riding was off the charts bliss. I got camera happy, and I hope you can see why.

photo by Dave Harris

Amazing doesn’t even begin to describe the riding, the views, and the trail up there. What a privilege to be up there as the sun set, the wind howled, and everything in the world seemed strangely at peace. At least from my perspective.

photo by Dave Harris

Yep, big smiles from this bikepacker, and it only got better from there. We pushed up to 13,000′ through a brief section of climb-a-bike. Darkness surrounded us. Our lights revealed the smooth trail ahead. Lights behind us revealed two chasers, likely Joe and Steven. The visceral thrill of being chased, far off in the distance, kept focus strong.

I found myself cleaning switchbacks, at 13,000′, in the dark, and still yearning for more. Holy crap, can it get this good?

The moon outlined a faint cloud, then flooded the tundra with white light.

Several false summits led to Coney Summit proper, the high point of the entire Colorado Trail (wilderness included). To my surprise, the first 600′ of the descent is butter smooth, well graded and, well, a damned hoot to ride. Pinch me, is this for real?

We continued descending past Carson saddle, to the lowest spot for a day in either direction. And that was about 12,000 feet. We found a flowing creek, but no trees. Full on water, we threw out the bivy gear and was just settling in when Joe and Steven rolled up. They decided to bivy at the same spot.

Clouds zoomed across the effulgent sky, ghostly dancers to these tired eyes. So fast and so close, almost as if I could join them in their waltz through the troposphere. Just as the sky dancer dreamscape began to unfold I noticed something larger moving in, just as fast. Grey and solid. Rain clouds.

I tried for a minute to finish setting up my tarp, but with 30 degree cross slope and nothing but a bike and CT marker to tie to, it was pretty pointless. I scooted down into the bivy bag and sleep was intermittent as grey cloud after grey cloud scrolled across.

It felt more like a brief pause than a night’s rest, as it often does when you watch sunrises and sunsets from the bike. All the better, because the ride was picking up momentum, and I wasn’t keen to lose any.

Dave contemplates the strange world we found ourselves in after sunrise six.

I left early from camp, by headlight, and thinking Dave would quickly catch up. But 12,000′ was enough of a slowdown for Dave to match my morning fog. Or perhaps there was no fog.

Dawn’s climb brought us to 12,900 feet, and we were now ‘in the game.’

An infinite wilderness was ours to explore.

A strange planet, so beautiful and yet so inhospitable.

A place where humans are only passing visitors.

Following rock piles on faith.

Having a hard time imagining that a world this large exists inside the state of Colorado.

Dave soldiered through it, fighting off the altitude demons at every hike-a-bike. My inhaler helped, but in my mind it was determination that won the day. He was loving it, and only at the last couple hills did he admit, “OK, I’m ready to be done with Cataract.”

Some things thrive up here…

I sure was (thriving). Bikepacking (and especially racing) has always been such an ‘ultralight’ endeavor for me that there’s usually an element of discomfort involved in it. After a couple days out I long for town, for the food and beds that civilization offers. It’s something I struggle with, the dissonance between wanting to be away from it, and yet back in it all the same.

But despite being in the hardest, most remote and most inhospitable sections of the route, I didn’t want to go to town. I’d slept poorly, never for more than five hours, since the beginning of the race. I’d spent less than an hour, total, indoors, in the last week. Only a few hundred calories sat in my bags. I couldn’t even remember my last actual meal.

But I was sad when segment 23 ended, we hit Stony Pass and it was time to blast into Silverton. I looked longingly at a group of horse packers, able to continue with the infinite wilderness of the Colorado Trail.

Whammo. We were quickly in town, modulo a stiff headwind for the last couple miles.

While scarfing carne asada I watched Joe and Steven roll by. That’s strange, I’d never seen anyone behind us, and often the view is of the last hour+ backwards on the course. Matthew Lee checked and found they’d bailed on Cataract, taking Pole Creek out.

Checking in on the race happenings was fun. Owen, Doug, Stefan and Jefe had finished under five days. Incredible. Max had dropped out, sadly, but that meant he was going to pick me up in Durango, simplifying what could have been a very long and tiring set of logistics to get us back to Tucson. And to top it off, the forecast was for zero percent chance of rain today and tomorrow.

Still pinching myself! What are the chances everything could go so well?

We dried out our bivy gear from last night’s rain at the visitor center, then started the paved climb to Molas Pass. Dave pedaled with strength. I caught a glimpse of him as he turned onto the Colorado Trail and his muscle memory took over. He was on fire, not to be seen again until he stopped to eat.

photo by Dave Harris

It was yet another magical evening to be on a bike, pedaling through the high country of Colorado.

The fly in the ointment was Dave’s dying rear wheel. It had been giving him some grief for the last 200 miles at least. But this evening the cogs started deflecting, causing ghost shifting. The freehub also was failing to engage more frequently. It did not look good, but I remained hopeful it would stay together long enough for us to finish at the same time.

This looked more doubtful as the sun lowered. It was getting frustrating for Dave, having to pedal in high gears and only some of the time having it engage. Though I was fired up to push on into the night, I suggested stopping early.

After midnight I woke up to a headlamp and freewheel in the trees. It was Brian Taylor, passing us yet again.

The cold night made it easy to get up at 3:30 and head out on the trail. It was the only way to truly warm up.

We passed Brian, snoozing not far from us. Dave forged on ahead, despite failing gears. I pushed my bike in the darkness until the seventh and final sunrise burst into the sky.

I found Dave at the side of the trail, wheel off the bike. He couldn’t pedal anymore.

We spent the next hour trying to figure out something to do. I got the hub open and fiddled/lubed the ratchets, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do. Finally Dave told me to just go, he’d get there or he may have to bail. I suggested the zip tie fixie method, not really sure if it was good idea or not. After a few more futile attempts I realized I was losing my hands. Frostbite from bike repair wasn’t really on the agenda. I was reluctant to leave Dave, wanting to finish as a ‘team’, but I was even more desperate to get my hands back.

Wearing all my clothes, and climbing hard, it took the better part of an hour before feeling returned. I was sweating like a pig in my rain gear, burning hot and yet so cold. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but boy did it start a fire that was beyond my power to control.

It raged unabated for hours and hours. I stood to dig deep into the pedals around Hermosa Peak. Cleaned Blackhawk Pass’s monster climb, and ripped the ensuing descent and endless flowing ridgeline.

Only at the climb to the Cape of Good Hope did things finally simmer down. I needed to eat, put my head back and close my eyes. Pedaling forward seemed like the last thing I wanted to do. But it only lasted a few minutes, and soon I was above treeline, battling it out on Indian Ridge.

That’s actually a big smoke plume in that pic, not clouds.

As I began the final descent into Durango, I was on top of the world. I was overwhelmed with how well things had gone on this ride. My body had held up beautifully, injury and nagging pain free. I hadn’t even done so much as a barrel adjustment to my bike the entire time–flawless. The weather and trail conditions had been near perfect, and far, far better than I expected. Company had perfect too, I was able to ride on and off with a number of good folks.

Through circumstance and chance, but also an element of deliberate determination, it seemed I had found the perfect balance. A balance between suffering and bliss, moving fast and rest. I was one with the Colorado Trail, and the entire ride was flow.

Or so it seemed to me. Maybe I was just having fun ripping what is arguably the best descent on the trail. Krista Park met me for the last five miles of trail. She expected me to be tired and limping in (what, after 470 miles on the Colorado Trail?) not catching air at every opportunity and dancing down the trail.

photo by Krista Park

What can I say? It was disappointing when there was no more Colorado Trail to ride.

Max was waiting there. Krista was able to get online by her truck and I was happy to see that Dave was not that far behind, likely finishing about three hours after me. After grabbing a shower and some grub we headed back to the trailhead to wait for him. How he finished that fast, with no freewheel (the fixie thing didn’t last long), I’ll never know. Brian Taylor finished just a half hour later.

I was 6th place in 6 days, 13 hours and 29 minutes. This is getting long, but I just want to thank a few people. Stefan the organizer and smoking fast racer, Matthew Lee for watching the tracker, Chris Plesko for the updates, Joe Polk on the audio, Max Morris for picking me up and driving from Tucson, Lee Blackwell and Joan for getting us to the start and also my car to the finish, Apple the trail angel, Dave Harris for making Coney/Cataract happen, Rob Krantz for the hotel room and laptop the night before the race. And most of all to Paula (and the rest of the fam) for supporting and cheering me on from home. You guys all rock.

Thanks for reading.

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