Ride The Rockies Day 1: There is hell, and then there is Day 1
Boulder to Winter Park
Course: 89 miles 11,315’ of climbing
Hotel in Boulder: Courtyard Marriot
Hotel in Winter Park: The Vintage Resort
Weather Report: Mid 30’s early with a high in the low 50’s, chance of a late afternoon mountain thunderstorm after 3pm.
Just look at that map. Who wouldn’t fear that map? Jens Voight maybe! But me? That map really put the fear of God in me. Not only was the total elevation gain constantly increasing every time they updated the course maps, but my very first EVER Category 1 climb started a wee 5 miles into the ride. 3 things kept me from totally freaking out about Day 1 –
The infamous Pancake Guy was at the top of that Cat 1 climb
We’d never have to face a day with this much climbing again
The weather was supposed to be really great
Oh how naive I was! But I get ahead of myself…
A lovely volunteer at the info tent advised us to start the ride officially from our hotel instead of riding or taking the shuttle bus to base camp in the morning. Our hotel was just off the main route and we would avoid the “holding pen” plan they had in place. Ride The Rockies was able to shut down west bound traffic through Boulder Canyon from 6am until 9am. So they let 300 riders roll out in 15 minute waves in order to avoid congestion.
Knowing that Day 1 was going to be killer, and slow, and hard, we ate a granola bar in our room, drank an iced tea, dropped our bags off under the Green Alpine Cycle Connection sign in front of our hotel, and got on our bikes and out the door by 6am. I had done a little route planning the night before so I knew the streets to take with bike lanes and we got onto Boulder Canyon Dr without a problem.
The morning was cold but I didn’t put on all my gear as I knew that I’d be climbing soon and warming up. Henrik made it only a few miles before we made our first (of millions) “Dis-robe” stop. We merged with the rest of the riders just before the start of the climb into Boulder Canyon. We were part of the early group for sure, but we were quickly passed by all the Coloradans that thought 5,600’ was sea level. They were fast.
We have limited climbs on Oahu. 4 miles is the max sustained duration we can train on so by the time we got into Boulder Canyon, we’d already done nearly double the sustained climbing we’ve ever ridden. Right away I saw my heart rate was way high yet my effort and speed were way low. I spent most of Boulder Canyon figuring out exactly how my body would work with less oxygen. I was very focused on hydrating and taking salts. We had just about 20 miles of climbing before we hit the first aid station so my goal was just to make it to the Pancake Guy. I got into a rythem, a groove. Found my pace, my happy medium. Somewhere in the 75% effort range. Sometimes it would go up to 80%, sometimes drop down to 60%. I watched my heart rate and my power and tried to keep my power right around the same watts that I was hitting for sustained climbing on Oahu. That proved to be a little too much for the heart rate, so I backed off a bit. My speed….
….well….I knew it was going to be a long day.
One thing that happened to Henrik, that wasn’t that odd, was that he had to stop to be (what seemed like) every hour. He usually has to stop to pee about an hour into the start of our rides anyway, so I didn’t think much of it. But he kept it up so I thought he must be drinking a ton of water and that was good. Well…you will see later what I think this was the first sign of!
The ride up the canyon was very nice. The lack of traffic really helped us to get a feel for the ride, the road conditions, the other riders, and just enjoy the sounds of the river. We saw some of the destruction the floods did the previous fall too. It was really amazing to see how much power that river had.
The little town of Nederland marked the end of the Cat 1 climb and it also marked the first time we saw the snow capped mountains we were going to be riding over. Take a look at the beautiful weather we have here! It was so nice. Henrik didn’t even need a jacket! I only had on my wind breaker, arm and leg warmers. It was fantastic! And I didn’t worry at all about my lack of speed up the hills.
At mile 20 we rolled into Aid 1 and got our first taste of the “line” for everything at the aid station.
First was the line to get into the aid station area! We all dismounted our bikes and shuffled along in a line to an area to park, drop, prop, or lay down your bike. It was tough to find a spot that didn’t box in other bikes, or get boxed in later. We were always very VERY careful not to lay our bikes on other bikes or in the way of other bikes trying to get out and back on the road. Then you have to either put on more clothes because it’s windy and you are hot and sweaty. Or you have to take off some clothes because it’s warm and sunny. Then you have to find your money and grab your empty water bottles. Then you have to go find the line you want to get in first.
Chia Pod thing?
They all had a line. If they didn’t, you’d wonder why!
We were now right smack dab in the middle of the bulk of the pack so the lines for everything were very long. We got in line for the Pancake Guy ($5 for all you can eat pancakes and sausage!) right away. They were HOT, fresh and so damn good it hurt. I ate only 3 because I had all day to ride and didn’t want to be full of pancakes. HUGE mistake. We tried to hurry as fast as we could. But we both had 1 water bottle to refill (seriously we needed to drink way more water), we wanted a banana or Gu or something, and had to use the bathroom. It took us a long time at Aid 1 and I still felt rushed.
I also learned that bib shorts with multiple layers on top SUCKED. Sucked bad! Sucked so bad it was so aggravating! We both got out of the porta potties and said “Bad idea on the bib shorts!” And I only had 2 tops on at that point!
We got out of Aid 1 with full bellies and water bottles and very little knowledge of what was coming next. We knew we had quite a long ride before we got to the main climb of Berthoud Pass. We also knew we had 3 more Aid Stations to hit before that main climb so we just let the miles roll on and broke our day down into Aid station rides.
Another thing to note here is the coughing. Everytime I’d stop for longer than 2 – 3 minutes, I’d start to cough. It was a dry cough…deep, full chest cough. I’d continue to cough for as long as we were stopped. And once I got back on the bike, I would stop coughing almost right away. We think this was due to the lower % of oxygen. But we aren’t sure.
16 miles later we were nearing Aid 2 and trying to avoid the dark and ominous clouds over head. The difference in temperature between shade and sun was quite jolting and I found myself getting colder and colder as the clouds got thicker and thicker. When we finally made it to Aid 2 (36 miles in already over 4000’ of climbing) we were just in time for the shift in the weather. The winds picked up and got very gusty. The temperature dropped quite a few degrees and the dark clouds we’d been trying to avoid opened up with a lightning show on the horizon. I quickly put on my vest and rain gear – including my full fingered gloves and shoe covers – and we filled up our water bottles, used the evil porta pottie in BIB SHORTS WHY GOD?! grabbed a quick PB&J and got right back out on the road. By this time we’d witnessed the garbage tent blow down, the pretzel box take off and the dust storms kick up. It was dark and we could see the rain coming from the clouds and we suddenly could see our breath. The road was illuminated by bolts of lightning. Never a good sign. Especially on a bike. In the Rocky Mountains.
Within a mile or so from Aid 2, the rain started. It was COLD rain. Big drops. They hurt. It wasn’t raining hard, just big. And the thunder was loud. The cracks overhead made us jump. But the roads weren’t that wet (yet) and we pushed on. Then we got into Central City and the rain started to hurt a LOT more. And fall a LOT faster. I quickly realized that it was not longer rain – it was sleet and hail and after a few nailed me square on the head, hand, and face we sought out shelter. We saw many other riders (in shorts!) hiding in doorways and under awnings. We finally found a spot that could fit us and we shuffled onto a covered porch next to a ton of other riders packed into a little covered cafe deck.
Probably one of the hardest things to do that day was to get back on my sleet covered bike and continue on. I knew we weren’t even HALF WAY for the day and the biggest climb was yet to come. (Looking at our data, we were had been out for 6 hours and had ONLY gone 40 miles.) After sitting out the sleet/hail storm for 10+ minutes I was cold, my muscles were cool and my gloves were soaked. My fingers were numb and my toes were getting there. I had to get back on that bike and get moving again to warm up. So we waiting until the sleet stopped and the rain was less intense. The skies weren’t as dark and the lighnting seemed to have moved off. We wiped down our saddles and handlebars and continued on. The roads were soaked now with clumps of sleet/hail here and there. I plowed (ha!) right through it all with my fat tires but got the face full of cold, dirty water water from the front wheel.
And just when I’m starting to be able to feel my fingers again, we hit this little asshole of a hill outside of Central City! It was less than a half mile long but the effer was a 14% grade! It hit as you came around a turn from the old town. You had no warning and no speed or momentum. You turned and BAM, there in front of you were a bunch of riders rockin’ and rollin’ out of the saddle trying to fight their way up this bugger of a hill. In the middle, right as it went off to the left, was a volunteer cheering you on and telling you where the worst part was over. I shifted down to my easiest gear and had to get out of the saddle. Henrik got into his granny gear and even HE had to stand to get up the thing. We were around 8,700’ and the lack of oxygen hit me like a TON of bricks. It hit me hard. But I REFUSED to stop on that hill. I was GASPING for air, I mean gasping like a fish on land. It SUCKED people. SUCKED. I finally got up to where the road went left and wasn’t as steep. I had to stop there and take off my winter clothes as I was so damn hot. I caught my breath too and had some water. It was shit. And we weren’t even half way done with the day.
After the rain finally stopped we were on a very odd temp bike path that took us on a dirt road and along the freeway against traffic. There were a few little hills here and there but for the most part it was a downhill ride into Idaho Springs and Aid 3. The sun was back out and we made sure to stop and take the time to eat a PB&J and have a drink. Again with the damn bib shorts. We were at mile 51 in a ball park right along side of the main freeway. It wasn’t the nicest of places and that helped to sort of rush us out of there. I re-lubed here because things were already on fire down south and the worst was yet to come. My goal was to focus on getting to Aid 4 which was 10 miles away and 1000’ up.
It’s here that things start to go downhill while we continued uphill. Turning out of Idaho Springs and getting onto the main road we were faced with a pretty intense head wind. This is also where the climb started for the rest of the day. We drafted as best we could but it’s very difficult to find a group of riders that are right at your exact pace. We were back into the 8000’ range so the air was thin and getting thinner as we went on. We knew we couldn’t really push too hard – at least I knew *I* couldn’t. And I knew it was because I had big Berthoud Pass to conquer. I wanted to have something in the tank.
I don’t remember much about this stretch of the road. I locked onto Henrik’s back wheel and never took my eyes of his rear derailleur until we turned into Aid 4. This will come up on the last day of the ride…so remember this.
The 10 miles of headwinds took a lot out of us. It was also much cooler at this point and there wasn’t much in terms of sun. The rain had stopped – which was good. But in its place was the headwind.
We finally turned into Aid 4. 62 miles. Empire. This will forever be referred to as “down at Empire” for the rest of the ride. At this point I would have said we were in the back of the pack of riders. I was pretty tired and had shifted into a “let’s just get this done” mode. This aid station was pretty sad. It was very cold at this location and the winds were streaking through the aid station. I noticed there were very few people there, and even the food trucks were line-less. The ride support food was meager. And as I filled up my water bottle I heard someone mention that there was a warming bus on the other side of the building across the field.
A WARMING BUS.
We made a bee line for this bus, propped out bikes up agains the building and were lucky to get a few seats on the bus. It was warm for sure. And I stripped off my layers of clothing in order to not over heat. Henrik’s seat-mate was a guy that had done RTR 6 times. He was in a RTR jersey and shorts. That. Was. All. He asked Henrik how he knew to bring all the warm clothes we had with us.
Dude. 6 times? Rider Manual? No? Nothing? Really????
His wife got pulled by medical at Central City during the sleet/hail storm for hypothermia. He wasn’t sure if he was going to continue.
My seat mate was better dressed than that guy. But she was still under prepared. She was hanging onto a rumor that the pass was closed. She refused to start again until she knew if the pass was open or not. She was probably pretty smart in that sense. But I started to feel guilty about sitting in a warming bus. Plus, one of the volunteers came on to ask for folks to give up their seats if they were warm so that others could come in.
Huh? Wasn’t this the back of the pack? Wasn’t everyone else pretty much in front of us?
Well, guilt got the better of me so Henrik and I made our way out of the bus to get back on our bikes. I mean, that’s why we were there, right? The pass was open, the ride was on, we had warm clothes and had warmed up. We’d spent 30 minutes in the bus. Time to go.
Well, I knew it was gonna suck as soon as we stepped off the bus and into the COLD wind. There was a line of folks on the leeward side of the bus using the heat from the engine to stay warm. It wasn’t a good thing to see. Oh, and the rain had started again.
I got into all my gear as quickly as I could – rain coat, rain pants, vest, full fingered gloves. Any warmth I had from the bus was gone and I was shivering by the time we started off and up the mountain. I latched right onto Henrik’s wheel again and that was it. Focus. Just keep going. 13 miles and 2800’ of climbing to the top of Berthoud Pass – just over 11,000’. In the wind, rain, and cold. THIS is what we signed up for. THIS is why we bought all this damn gear.
We knew that the turn to go up Berthoud Pass was just about 7 miles up the road. And then the climb to the pass from there was another 6 miles. That first 7 or so miles was MURDER. I was frozen and trying to generate enough body heat to feel my fingers and stop shivering. I also had to pee something fierce. But it was fucking freezing, raining and windy and we were in the middle of nowhere in a valley with nowhere to pee on the side of the road. Also, we saw at LEAST 10 people riding back DOWN the mountain and heading back to Empire. We could only guess as to why. But we pressed on.
Finally, about 5 miles outside of Empire I had to stop to pee. It had to happen. The terrain on the side of the road went straight up. There were a few Lodge Pole Pines and a rock here and there, but no good place for me to take a squat. There was a steady stream of dudes pulling over as well, so I had company. Henrik went off first and at this point it was probably his 10th “side of the road pee” break. So he was all pro and could care less about actually finding a good spot to pee by this point. I scrambled up the side of the mountain, in bike shoes, with frozen fingers, and began to disrobe. I had it right then and there. I had to TAKE OFF EVERYTHING. With nothing to hide behind. Rain coat, vest, wind breaker, jersey. All of it – OFF. Just to get my god damn bib shorts down to piss. I had to squat, on the side of the road, up a mountain, behind a rock no bigger than a coffee table, holding my jackets and top in my hands as the freezing rain came down and the drivers on the road looked up eye level with my hoo-haa.
I did not care anymore.
I fought to hold it together because for once, I failed to find ANY effing humor in the situation at all. And then I had to try to get the bib shorts buckled behind my back…with frozen hands….holding all my clothes…on the side of a mountain. And I lost it. Full on break down sobs of total giving up right there. I just wanted to get my fucking clothes back on!!! And I couldn’t. I stumbled/slid down the mountain back to Henrik who knew not to dare approach me unless called for. He helped buckle me back into those stupid ass bib shorts and helped me zip up all my tops with my frozen and shaking hands. He then made me eat one of the Gu’s we had carried with us and drink some water.
It took me another mile or so to get out of my funk and it helped that I warmed up. The cold, the wet, the lack of food, the lack of a pee break, and the worry of what was to come got to me. My crappy speed (I was lucky to maintain 6 mph up these climbs) was getting me down and the realization of just what sort of ride this week will be was setting in and I was not pleased. It was a hard pill to swallow.
Then we came across a SAG van and an ambulance parked in a pull-out on the side of the road.
They were just before the turn up to Berthoud Pass and there were a few cyclists and volunteers there. We stopped to get the scoop and we were told that we could ride up to the top of Berthoud Pass but we could NOT ride down the other side due to fog and poor vizibilty. Drivers couldn’t see us and it was too dangerous.
A few folks took that as their Get Out of Jail Free Card and stopped there to wait for pick up or headed back down to Empire. Henrik and I both wanted to continue! That’s why we trained and that’s why we endured the shit up until that point. We were gonna get up that pass regardless.
So off we went. There was another couple about a quarter mile ahead of us and there were 2 other guys with us that made the turn and went up. There wasn’t much to see except low dark clouds and a wet road. We were at about 10,000’ at this point and we had to stop for a breather every mile or so. The temps were cold but we were able to generate enough heat with the work we were doing to get up that mountain. My pace declined only a bit but the breathing was very difficult and the rest breaks were necessary. Plus we were 70 miles into this ride and tired from that alone. About 3 miles into the 6 mile climb things started to get noticably more difficult. We both took another Gu and some salts and that helped us keep going.
Another mile later the couple that was in front of us had pulled off to the side and was on the phone telling someone where they were stopping. We pressed on.
A 1/2 mile from them we turned right around a switchback and got hit with a wall of ice-cold wind. This kept up for another 1/2 mile…
And then the snow started.
And it got foggy and dark.
And the snow flakes got bigger and the wind blew harder and the temperature continued to drop. We didn’t stop. We couldn’t. Our headsets had died back in Empire and we couldn’t really hear each other in the wind. At this point I noticed I had someone on my wheel. Henrik was pulling us both up the mountain. He was my wind break. But it wasn’t enough. My hands were numb. I had curled my fingers into my palms trying to keep them warmer, just using my thumbs to hold onto the bar. My feet were frozen from the ankle down. I was starting to shiver. I tried to tuck my face into my jackets so that only my nose was exposed. My sunglasses kept the snow out of my eyes, but it had gotten so dark that I could barely see. We couldn’t stop. We couldn’t turn around. We just kept going and hoped we’d make it up to the top.
We passed a guy that was walking his bike.
We didn’t stop.
Then, coming towards us around a switchback came a Medical SAG van followed by a Sheriffs truck. They stopped the traffic and yelled over to us that they were pulling us off the mountain right now.
I said “YES PLEASE THANK YOU!”
The Sheriff asked us if we were ok. I said no. Henrik said no. The guy behind me said no. The guy that was walking the bike said yes and kept walking.
Our bikes were thrown into the empty truck and we were thrown into the Medical SAG Van. In the rush I left my wallet and phone on my bike. I was told our bikes would be in the bike corral in about 2 hours as he was taking the truck down to Empire to pick up bikes. !!!
The Medical guy radioed in that he has picked up the “last group on the mountain.”
Holy hell. DFL people. He turned the van around, picked up the guy walking his bike and then drove the short half mile to the top of Berhoud Pass. It was 6pm. We had been out on the road for 12 hours and we were literally rescued off the mountain a short half mile from the top.
We learned that the pass had been closed to the cyclists due to the lack of visibility but that quickly turned into a hypothermia problem as the temps dropped and snow started. It was a 14 mile downhill almost 3000’ loss in elevation along a curvy mountain rode with fog and snow. NOT ideal. A few riders spent quite a bit of time in the back of an ambulance trying to get their core temperatures back up. We were very happy to not be one of those people at this point.
After a brief stop at the top to check in with the Emergency crews acting as rescue for the cyclists, we headed down into Winter Park. The snow was still falling – thick and slow now. Like that beautiful winter snowfall that you love. Quite and still. The other 2 guys in the van were camping that night (NO FREAKING WAY) and still had to set up their tents for the night. We got a ride to our hotel and we grabbed our bags that were right out in front (along with quite a few others still). The check in procedure for our room was super fast and we were in our room and in a hot shower by 7pm. Luckily the hotel had planned a special All You Can Eat Lasagna night for the riders. They were closing at 7:30 but extended it because folks were coming in so late. We got down to eat at 8pm and inhaled salad, garlic bread, and huge pieces of lasagna. We watched the big flakes of snow come down.
After dinner we waited for the shuttle to get us back to the bike corral. It was still light out but going fast and I needed to get my wallet and phone off the bike. Henrik started to feel pretty bad and almost passed out. He had to lay down in the hall and get his feet up…and then the shuttle bus showed up! So I left him there to try and get up to the room without passing out! I got on the bus at 9pm and when I got to the bike corral it was a sea of 2000+ bikes with no lights and darkness coming quick. I found Henrik’s bike within minutes but it took me another 30 minutes to find my bike. By this time it was pitch black and I was barely able to see anything. I grabbed my phone and wallet, made a mental note of where my bike was and ran to get the last shuttle bus back to the hotel (they stopped running at 10pm).
Meanwhile Henrik had made it up to the room after nearly passing out twice. He felt guilty about me out in the cold all alone trying to find our bikes so he did a load of laundry. The clothes were done when I returned and we hung them near the heater to dry. We got our stuff ready for the next day and I would lie to say a small part of me wanted the day to be cancelled due to snow.
We got to sleep around 11pm. I had a hard time sleeping as Winter Park is just shy of 9000’ in elevation. We planned to start a little later the next morning as it was supposed to be very cold in the morning. We set our alarms for 6am with the goal to make a 6:30ish shuttle bus and get to or bikes to fill up water bottles, pump tires and hit the road by 7am.
Day 1 was the hardest day of riding I’ve ever done. And in 8 hours, I’d have to ride nearly 100 miles.
Neither one of us wanted to do Ride The Rockies again. Ever.
Actual Ride data on Strava:
Elapsed Time: 11:51:17
Moving Time: 8:22:12
Total Distance: 72.6 miles
Total Climbing: 10,472 feet
Average Speed: 8.7 mph
Max Speed: 42.5 mph
Suffer Score: 372 = EPIC