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High Country 1200K

posted Jul 22, 2014, 5:14 PM by David Baxter
Jeff Newberry and I drove up to Colorado the weekend before the ride and spent Sunday night at 8000 feet at the home of one of my high school friends. It was great to catch up, enjoy the natural setting, and start getting acclimated to the elevation. The ride was laid out around North Park, a wide, high valley surrounded by a rim of mountain ranges. We would go in and out of North Park multiple times from different directions.

Day 1

The ride itself started at 4:00 am on Tuesday from Louisville (pronounced LOO-iss-ville), near Boulder, at about 5500 feet. I had made loose plans to ride with Jeff Hulett on a three-day schedule, and he and I joined a few other riders hitching a ride on the fast-moving tandem of Jonathan and Emma Dixon through the (relatively) low country, over the Horsetooth Hills outside Ft. Collins, and to the first Control at Vern's in Laporte.

Day 1, 7:26 am. First Control, with helpful easy-to-read sign

From there the next 65 miles or so was a gradual climb up Poudre (pronounced "pooder") Canyon and then up Cameron Pass, which tops out at over 10,000 feet. This was a big test for my altitude acclimation. I didn't have any headache or nausea, but found it hard to catch my breath. Jeff was kind enough to wait at the summit for me and take the traditional summit photo.
Day 1, 11:05 am. Following Jeff Hulett up Poudre Canyon

Day 1, 12:17 pm. Atop Cameron Pass.

I tagged along with Jeff the rest of Day 1, joining up with Quebecer Marcel Marion for a paceline out of the control at Walden that helped pass the many empty flat miles out of North Park and into Wyoming. I was still winded, and fell behind on a small climb about 15 miles outside of Saratoga, the first official overnight stop, arriving a little after 6pm. Riding over 220 miles in 14 hours and change is fast for me, and with the climbing and elevation it's not surprising I was tired. Jeff and Marcel decided to push on, but I opted to take advantage of the provided hotel room at Saratoga and get a little rest and acclimation time at 6900 feet before continuing. 

Day 2

The next leg was a 75-mile trek along the Snowy Range Road, and included the toughest climb of the ride: 27 miles with an average gradient of 2.5%, up to a summit elevation of 10,800 feet. In Tour de France terms, this climb (like the Cameron Pass climb) would be rated Hors Categorie, or off-the-scale hard. I set out at 1 am, so I would arrive in Laramie when stores and restaurants were open. It was dark and chilly (mid 50s to below 40 near the top) and pretty much deserted, as most folks who would drive on this scenic byway would want to do so during daylight hours. Mark Metcalfe also set out about the same time, and he and I leapfrogged each other during the climb, each of us climbing at our own pace and stopping to adjust layers, etc., as needed. I got to the top after a little more than four hours, just before dawn.

 Day 2, 5:13 am. Top of Snowy Range

By the time I reach the flats outside Laramie it was raining, and I got a flat tire about 4 miles outside of town about 7:30. When I changed it I saw that a large patch of tread had come off and I would need a new tire, which I didn't have. I pumped it up to about 2/3 the normal pressure and it survived the short ride into town, where I stopped at McDonald's for some coffee and warm food. While there, I used my phone to locate a bike shop a couple miles away in Laramie (home of the University of Wyoming and its bike-riding students), which opened at 9am. I got there and purchased and installed the new tire, but it was 9:15 before I was on my way out of town.

I hooked up with Mark Metcalfe again on the flat section between Laramie and the next climb, which took us over the Medicine Bow Mountains, topping out at over 9800 feet before dropping back into the high plateau of North Park (elevation about 8000 feet). This stretch of course included another stop in Walden, one of very few towns in North Park, at Mile 364, around the halfway point of the ride. I met some friendly motorcyclists at the convenience store who told me they had encountered some of the other riders taking shelter from a storm. Apparently most of the other people on this randonnée got much worse weather than I did.

The next destination was Rabbit Ears Pass, and on the way there I watched multiple storms move around the landscape. I didn't get more than a little rain and wind, but there were times when I thought I would have to put on my rain gear.

Day 2, 3:37 pm. Storm dancing across my path to Rabbit Ears Pass

Day 2, 4:46 pm. Rabbit Ears Pass in the distance.

Day 2, 5:01 pm. Stopped to take photo of roadside grass.

Day 2, 5:40 pm. The Rabbit Ears formation from top of pass.

Days 1-2

Strava Entry for Days 1-2

Day 3

I started Day 3 still with hopes of riding straight through the rest of the ride and finishing in under 72 hours, so I started at 1am. The first segment was a 45-mile gradual climb on a deserted state highway, culminating at the top of Gore Pass at over 9200 feet. It was chilly and foggy and extremely quiet and peaceful. Jonathan and Emma Dixon on their tandem leapfrogged me a couple of times, then dropped me on the amazing 2100-foot descent down from Gore Pass just after dawn into the next control at Kremmling. I arrived around 6:15, had a coffee and danish at the grocery, and left around 6:45.

Out of Kremmling the route turns onto US 40, and this road had more-or-less constant traffic. More stunning views, though, in Byers Canyon and again along the out-and-back stretch to Grand Lake.

Day 3, 9:00 am. Byers Canyon on US 40 en route to Granby.

Day 3, 11:16 am. Grand Lake, near turnaround point.

By the time I finally turned off of US 40 at Granby to head back north into North Park I had done the math and realized that I would likely have to ride 100 miles over a mountain pass at night with no services to have any hope of finishing in under 72 hours, and it just wasn't worth the risk to me. The next stretch follows Colorado 125 up to the summit of Willow Creek Pass, at over 9600 feet. The climb is about 22 miles long, and is mostly gentle, but is a little steeper towards the top. Again I found the state highway to have little traffic, a good surface, and stunning scenery. No wonder people like riding in Colorado! 

Day 3, 3:10 pm. Two miles from top of Willow Creek Pass

Day 3, 3:28 pm. That was a long two miles!

The final 31 miles of the day transition down from the pass out onto the flat expanse of North Park again. The sun was extremely strong and made it feeler much hotter than the upper 70s my Garmin registered. Once in North Park the landscape opened up dramatically, which makes it feel like it takes forever to make any progress down the road. You can see landmarks 15 miles away and it takes an hour to get to them. I used my aerobars whenever I could, but the road had a lot of bumpy seams across it that would give me a jolt every couple of seconds, so I had to sit up and even stand quite a bit.

The overnight control at Walden (of course) featured some great home-made cooking and single-occupancy rooms at the North Park Inn. I arrived with plenty of time to eat, unwind, bathe, and get ready for the last day.

Day 3, 6:49 pm. Selfie in overnight room, featuring collarbone scar from crash in April.

Day 4

I started Day 4 at 4am with my riding buddy from Austin Jeff Newberry and a few others. The day's route basically retraced the first 150 miles of Day 1, starting out with a 30-mile climb from Walden up to Cameron Pass, the first pass we had climbed on our way into the High Country. The climb started out very gentle as we traversed the North Park valley floor, then got steeper as we got to the rim, averaging 4% for the last 4 miles or so to the top of the pass. We stopped at the top to put on remaining layers for the descent (it was in the mid 40s) and take photos.

Day 4, 5:08 am. Mountains forming the eastern rim of North Park in twilight.

Day 4, 7:04 am. Fellow 1200K-er Barry reaching Cameron Pass Summit.

The descent from Cameron Pass was glorious, featuring over 5000 feet of vertical drop over 60 miles of smooth roads and the beautiful scenery of Poudre Canyon. This brought us back to Vern's, leaving 65 miles to the finish. That last stretch was mostly about getting it done, as the temperature had risen into the 80s and 90s, the climbing and descending was done (we were back in the "Kansas" part of Colorado), and scenery was more strip malls than pine trees and mountain streams. I rolled back into Louisville about 2:30 pm, and got my card signed at 2:42.