Category Archives: Bicycling

Cycling a 14er: Idaho Springs to Mount Evans

There aren’t many summer afternoons with blue skies above Mount Evans, the 14,265-foot peak west of Denver that features the highest paved road in North America. Today was one of those days. Carpe diem.

Mount Evans
A rarity: clear skies above Mount Evans

I had planned to bike from Idaho Springs, 7,555 feet, up to Summit lake, 12,830 feet, and then turn around after 23 miles or so. I’m training for the 47th annual Bob Cook Memorial Hill Climb on July 21 and a 1,000-mile bikepacking trip along the Great Divide later this summer.

When I got to Summit Lake and saw clear skies above Evans, I decided to go for it. I had the wind at my back the first mile or two, which was a total blessing, and once I was within a few miles of reaching the top, I felt a surge of energy and there was no going back. The very end of this ride is brutal–a series of sometimes steep switchbacks that snake up the last 1,000 feet or so of elevation. It’s almost always windy up there, but today was relatively tame and when I got to the parking lot at the summit there were tons of motorists walking around in short-sleeve shirts.

Atop Mount Evans
At the top of North America’s highest paved road

I snapped a few photos, gobbled a Cliff Bar, and then bundled up in a jacket and leg warmers for the 28-mile downhill.  I knew this benign weather wouldn’t last long.

The descent from Evans is one helluva ride and karmic retribution after you’ve busted your ass to climb the 14er. From the top down to Summit Lake, the road is in pretty rough shape. There are some nasty potholes, frost heaves, and cracks in the asphalt that limit your speed, as do the switchbacks. But things get smoother on the second half of the trip back to Idaho Springs and the good folks at the state highway department have just paved some sections that are a joy to ride. I peaked at 43 mph, a few clicks short of the maximum on last week’s ride, but it still felt like being on a motorcycle, or so I would imagine.

This was only the second time I’ve ridden all the way to the top and I felt much better today than during last year’s ride. Then again, my time of just under 4 hours is more than double the unbelievable course record of 1 hour and 41 minutes, achieved in 2004 by professional cyclist Tom Danielson, who also holds the record for New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Jeannie Longo, the 13-time world champion, holds the women’s record at 1 hour and 59 minutes.

I’m not about to set any records, but I was surprised how strong I felt toward the top of the ride, especially because the first 7 miles coming out of Idaho Springs were into a pretty stiff headwind.

Breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe
Breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe

I think I did a good job with keeping myself fueled and hydrated, starting with an enormous breakfast of eggs, french toast, and bacon at the Sunrise Cafe, a greasy spoon near home where I sometimes gorge before heading into the mountains.

On the climb, I always stop for some goodies at the Echo Lake Lodge, halfway to the top, and while I was crestfallen today to find the caramel smores already gone, some dark chocolate with sea salt and a cashew grizzly provided a nice sugar high, as did the four packets of GU energy gel that I inhaled along the way.

Another positive was that I kept my heart rate under control. My goal was to keep my ticker below 150 beats per minute so I wouldn’t burn out too early and I did a decent job with that. As you can see in the graphic below, I was in the low 150s a fair amount, especially at the very top, but I never got above 160. Once my heart rate gets above 155 or so, my legs and lungs start burning as my asthma kicks in and my performance plummets. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty tired now and I’ll be feeling this ride tomorrow. But I’m glad I pushed myself without blowing up and I’m now even more excited to tackle this same climb three weeks from now. Fittingly, when I got home to Denver this afternoon, my race packet and jersey had arrived in the mail.

Mount Evans hill profile and heart rate

First test ride: signs of drought

My campsite
My home away from home

You’d think someone preparing to bikepack more than 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide would have some experience with this form of travel, but I’m a total newbie. So this weekend I decided to take a test trip to see what I’m getting myself into.

The good news is that I’m still psyched to tackle the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, starting in about six weeks, and I’m feeling more confident now that I have at least one night under my belt. The bad news is that I’m gonna suffer this summer. There’s just no quick or easy way to bike up a steep dirt road while hauling 40+ pounds behind you. Much of my time in the saddle will be spent cranking slowly and steadily until gravity takes over and I can fly down the backside of a hill or mountain pass, only to repeat again and again.

This weekend’s trip was in a part of central Colorado that I’ve never visited: the mountains between South Park and Salida. On Saturday, I drove 2.5 hours from Denver, parked my car, and set off into the San Isabel National Forest with the goal of camping at the top of a 1,000-foot climb. I only rode about 10 miles, but it took two hours. Near the summit, at 10,000 feet elevation, the road was so steep I was barely able to turn the cranks in my lowest gear.

There was a reward at the top: a pretty campsite amid aspens and conifers that offered views of the Collegiate Peaks. At night, the Milky Way twinkled in the rarefied air and the next morning dawned without a hint of a cloud. It looked like it hadn’t rained or snowed in these parts in ages and that lack of moisture will pose one of my biggest challenges. Had I done this trip last summer, the record snowpack from the previous winter would have forced me to take detours, but this year I’ll face the opposite problem: a deep drought has dried up water sources and primed the high country for wildfires that could also force me off the route.

Mountain biking with a trailer can be grueling, but there’s a major benefit to the punishment: after reaching your destination, you can unhitch your possessions, hop back on your bike, and feel like you’re Lance Armstrong. On Sunday morning, I did just that and explored a network of dirt roads around my campsite before heading down the hill (the descent took me only 20 minutes).

All in all, a successful maiden voyage that allowed me to test out a bunch of new gear and better envision myself on the route. The parched vegetation, shriveled creeks, and smoke rising from nearby wildfires offered sobering reminders of the drought’s impact and how my journey this summer will encapsulate the fundamental dilemma of the American West: how to find enough water to survive.

Some favorite cycling and fitness apps

For decades, I mounted bicycle computers to my handlebars and attached sensors to my wheels so I could tell how far I’d pedaled and how fast I was going. But smartphones have changed everything. I now rely on my iPhone and apps to track my rides.

If you’re willing to take a few seconds at the beginning of your ride to open up an app and tap a few buttons, you gain access to a wealth of data: distance, elevation, speed, precise maps, even cadence and heart rate if you buy some accessories. You can mount your smartphone to your handlebars so you can view the measures while riding, but I prefer to slip my phone into my jersey pocket or Camelbak and forget about it. As you ride, the apps record a trail of digital breadcrumbs that can be plotted in everything from Google Maps to GIS software. Websites connected to the apps store all your rides, show your mileage in calendars, and offer lots of advanced features I haven’t even explored, including nutrition and weight tracking.

I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of fitness apps and have settled on two as my favorites. The first is Strava, which is made for cycling. Below is an example of yesterday’s ride, from Denver to Golden and back on the Clear Creek Trail.

One of the features I like about Strava is the ability to track your performance on specific segments, usually hills, and compare yourself to other riders. It’s a great way to benchmark your fitness and make your standard, close-to-home rides more interesting. I live in a neighborhood called the Highlands, so I finish pretty much every ride by sprinting up one of the hills tracked by Strava and this little game prevents me from dogging it on the tail ends of my workouts.

Apps like Strava can also help you find new routes. Dozens of others cyclists here in Denver are using Strava and creating a sort of crowd-sourced bike map of the city. It’s amazing/humbling to see how fast some people get up these hills. Are they on motorcycles or really that fit?

MapMyFitness and its cousin MapMyRide are similar to Strava, but with the former you can also record runs, hikes, and other types of outings. Like Strava,they use GPS to track your ride and offers a number of ways to analyze the data, including a 3D virtual tour. If you’ve got a website or blog, you can easily embed ride summaries like the one below, or post to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

One disadvantage of these apps is that your phone needs to be running its GPS, which drains your battery. The problem is even worse if you try to pair these apps with a heart rate monitor. I bought a pricy dongle for my iPhone that picks up the ANT+ signal, but never could get it to work well with any iPhone apps. Instead, I download data from my heart rate monitor watch, a Garmin Forerunner, to my PC (or Mac) using a free application called SportTracks. Below is an example of a graph from the program that shows my heart rate and elevation during today’s recovery ride along the Cherry Creek Trail.SportTracks

More on heart rate training in a future post, but for now I’ll say that it’s been super-helpful for pacing myself, avoiding over-training, and improving my endurance. In the meantime, I’d encourage any fellow cyclists to try out some of these apps (another popular one is Endomondo). They all have free versions that should satisfy most needs and you’re bound to learn something useful about how your ride.

Bikepacking the Great Divide

Mile high training
Training at Mile High, nearly 7,000 feet below the route’s peak elevation.

I’ve reached a watershed moment in my life, so it’s high time for me to mountain bike the Continental Divide. In late July, I’ll hop in the saddle and pedal off on a 1,000-mile, solo journey along the spine of North America. Starting in Southern Wyoming, I’ll head south through the Colorado Rockies and wind up in Northern New Mexico a month later.

I’ll be bikepacking: a hybrid of mountain biking and backpacking that entails hauling my gear behind me in a one-wheeled trailer. Along the way, I’ll be filing online updates, posting photos, and sharing other observations through this website and social media. In this inaugural post, I explain where, how, and why I’ll be making this trek.

Where?

You’re probably familiar with the Continental Divide, the imaginary line that separates watersheds draining to the Atlantic Ocean from those draining to the Pacific. There’s a hiking path called the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail that follows this line for 3,100 miles, from Canada to Mexico, but that path is just too steep and rugged to mountain bike, especially with all my gear.

Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
The section of the Great Divide I’ll be biking.

Instead, I’ll be following the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which stretches more than 2,700 miles, from Banff in the Canadian Rockies, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on the border with Old Mexico. Billed as the world’s longest mountain biking trail, the Great Divide was mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association, which has developed a variety of cross-country and long-distance routes for bicycle touring. About 90 percent of the Great Divide route is on dirt and gravel roads, most of them passing through public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The rest is on paved roads, but the route passes by tons of single-track trails that I plan to explore—after unhitching my trailer.

How?

My wife Ginette, who deserves sainthood for letting me pursue this adventure, will drop me off in Wyoming, then pick me up a month later in New Mexico. She’ll join me for a portion of the trip, but mostly I’ll be alone. My plan is to bike an average of 35 miles a day, camp out most nights, and check in to an occasional motel to get civilized. Such opportunities to shower and sleep on a mattress will be few and far between. The biggest towns I’ll pass through are Steamboat Springs, Frisco, and Breckenridge, Colorado. At times I’ll be dozens of miles from the nearest food, water, supplies, and cell-phone signal, but I’ll have a satellite messenger on hand in case of emergency. The segment I’ll be biking is the highest portion of the Great Divide route and will rarely dip below 8,000 feet elevation. I’ll cross back and forth over the Continental Divide several times, topping out at 11,910 feet elevation on Indiana Pass in Southern Colorado. On the toughest climbs, I’ll be lucky to average 5 mph.

Why?

Bicycling, backpacking, exploring, and photographing the American West—these are my passions, so it’s hard to resist the chance to combine them all in one trip. First and foremost, this is a summer vacation and about having fun! But that’s not the only reason I’m embarking on this three-wheeled odyssey. Some of the others:

1)    Racing against the clock. According to an online life expectancy calculator from the Wharton School of Business, I can expect to live about 80 years, so statistically speaking, I’m already over the hill. My asthma and arthritis are bound to worsen, making the journey that much harder. There’s also another biological clock ticking: Ginette will turn 35 in August and our window for having a child is closing. I’ve managed to put off fatherhood for a while, but I do want that day to come. Once I’m a dad, doing a trip like this would be mighty tough—at least until my kid is ready to join me.

2)    Getting in shape. The daunting prospect of biking atop the roof of the continent has given me all the motivation I need to get my ass in gear. As part of my training, I’ll be doing two major races on my road bike. On July 15, I’ll ride in the Triple Bypass—a 120-mile route that includes 10,000 feet of climbing from Avon, west of Vail, to Evergreen, in the Front Range foothills near Denver. On July 21, I’ll set off at dawn from Idaho Springs, elevation 7,555 feet, and start the 28-mile ascent to the top of Mount Evans, elevation 14,264 feet.

3)    Warding off burnout. I have an unhealthy tendency to overwork and spend way too much time in front of a computer screen. On this trip, I won’t be going totally dark: I’ll be bringing an iPhone and iPad. But a solid month away from Microsoft Outlook, PowerPoint slides, conference calls, and the other trappings of the business world is what I need to recharge my batteries (a portable solar panel will recharge my gadgets).

4)    Journaling to return to journalism. The implosion of the American newspaper industry forced me to abandon my reporting career in 2006. I don’t pine for the days of covering 8-hour public hearings, but I do miss the guts of journalism: documenting the world around me and making sense of it by telling stories. For an environmental journalist, the Divide has plenty of news hooks because it’s the West’s backbone. This is where most of the region’s precious water supply originates. It’s where rugged topography and brutal weather have discouraged—but certainly not stopped—overexploitation by people. And it’s where plants and animals will be retreating in coming decades as global warming forces species to seek higher, cooler climes.

5)     Listening to mom’s advice. Watching my mom suffer and die from ovarian cancer was the worst experience of my life and I’m not sure there were any redeeming aspects to her death nearly three years ago. But if there were a benefit, it’s that I no longer take my good health for granted and I’m now acutely aware of my own mortality. Those awful images of my mom, emaciated and in pain, still haunt me, and they always will, but in a weird way they’re also a source of inspiration. “Mitchell,” she told me toward the end, “you can do anything as long as you have your health.” From her deathbed, my mom gave me one simple piece of advice about how to lead my life: “Just be happy.” Easier said than done, but that’s the plan for this trip.

Staying connected

If you’d like to track my journey and my preparations, I’ll be sharing posts and photos through this site and broadcasting from the backcountry through my Facebook page and Twitter account. You can also subscribe to my RSS feed or opt-in for occasional email updates.

I hope you’ll join me, at least virtually, on what promises to be a wild ride!