Bucket List Rockies

Bucket List Rockies

We are puny. Nothing on earth so thoroughly drives home that message to me than being in big mountains, such as the Alps, Pyrenees … or the Rockies. Looking out on the expanse below helps to demonstrate the immensity of the world around me, and reminds me to remain humble.

Last weekend I flew to Denver and then drove up to Copper Mountain for the Copper Triangle. On paper, the event looks challenging, but not a recipe for destruction. At 80 miles and with 5800 feet of climbing, a route like this is not exactly a stretch for me. However, 9750 feet, the elevation of Copper Mountain ski resort, is a whopping 54.1666 times as high as the elevation of my home. The presence of oxygen at this altitude is thin like the excuses I used to give as a kid for why I hadn’t finished my homework.

Oxygen, considering how crucial it is to my continued well-being, is something I prefer to have in ready supply when I ride my bike. Even relatively easy riding can raise your respiration rate by seven times. However, I’m aware that if I eliminated every ride above 4000 feet of elevation, I’d miss out on a lot of great events.

The course for the Copper Triangle is straightforward enough: Turn right out of Copper Mountain and head south on Colorado 91 to climb up to Fremont Pass. The climb rolls a bit but the grade hovers right around six percent as the road winds its way below snow-dusted peaks and above ranches to 11,000 feet and the first rest stop.

I felt lucky to know a few riders on the ride; Skratch Labs’ Allen Lim and his co-author and collaborator, chef Biju Thomas rolled into the rest stop few minutes before me. I caught up with them and learned they had the same idea in mind as I did: hang out at the rest stop until the sun rose above the ridge and warmed us enough that we wouldn’t turn to ice cubes on the descent toward Leadville. Hanging with them and meeting friends and fans of theirs was a terrific way to wait for the sun to thaw us.

The event was as well-marshalled as any I’ve done. There were multiple people directing us for each of the handful of turns and five sag stops. In addition to orange vests, the marshals were also equipped with cowbells to cheer everyone as they passed.

Descents in this part of the Rocky Mountains are significantly different from those I typically do in California. The descents are longer, noticeably less steep, more consistent in pitch and the turns carve with the sweep of a banking plane. All that is easy enough, but the thin air and lack of need for brakes in the turns means speeds are higher.

Steep hillsides obscured by pines gave way to green fields in the valley below. The climb up to Tennessee Pass and the Continental Divide was much shorter and on a slope that would have been gentle anywhere else. This was the location of the second rest stop, which sported cookies, sliced fruit, bagels, peanut butter, sample-size Clif Bars and trail mix. For hydration, riders enjoyed the choice of either water or Skratch Labs. The Skratch Labs was welcome; it’s a shame most of the rest of the food didn’t measure up.

It was the descent to Minturn that provided some of the ride’s best views and its most enjoyable descent. Old mining operations punctuated the hillsides, while mesas and buttes recalled the landscape of Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. Minturn was little more than Colorado 24 with a handful of roads bisecting the highway and fewer businesses than your average strip mall.

We reached the lowest elevation of the ride shortly after rolling away from sag stop three and out of Minturn. Though 7800 feet is high enough to rob me of a good chunk of wattage, the fact that I was 2000 feet lower than when I started, I felt comparatively amazing, and by amazing I mean how you feel when you start to sober up after having had one too many beers. That kind of improvement.

The JERCKx are the Jakarta Expat Road Cycling Klub (in Indonesia club is spelled with a “K”).

Just a couple of miles later the route turns right onto a road that parallels I-70 and the roughly 20 mile climb through Vail and up to Vail Pass begins. That detail—the distance of the climb—is one of those details I’m glad I didn’t really know before the start of the ride. Though the ascent is shallow (at least relative to my day-to-day), the distance puts it clearly into the realm of hors categorie. After riding on the right side of the Interstate through Vail, the road crosses to the left side before ultimately turning onto a bike path roughly half way up. While it’s close enough to I-70 that you can hear highway noise, the bike path winds past a creek and up through pine forest; where most of the views have been expansive, this is intimate. It’s on the bike path that the steepest ramps are found, and while 11 percent isn’t all that bad, at 9000 or 10,000 feet, it’s brutal.

The last sag stop of the day sits atop Vail Pass. In addition to the fare we’d found elsewhere, this one also included homemade brownies with chocolate chips in them. This being Colorado, a heard a few people asked if the brownies had any magic to them.

The bike path riding continued for nearly all of the descent back to Copper Mountain, down through a slot valley, weaving through tall grass. It was as breathtaking as anything else I encountered that day.

Organizers set up a finish line in the resort village and congratulated finishers as we rolled in. There was bike parking on a lawn and a veritable bank of massage tables and therapists along one wall of a building. I opted for a massage even before eating. There was an expo with maybe a dozen different exhibitors. Inside the cafeteria I ate a lunch of lasagna—they had both meat and vegetarian—Caesar salad, garlic bread and lemonade. Cookies the size of salad plates were waiting for anyone who wasn’t already full.

 

I’ve been invited to do the Triple Bypass any number of times over the years. If I didn’t live at sea level, I’d probably have done it several times. It’s the Ironman Hawaii of Rocky Mountain rides, but also so hard for anyone who doesn’t live at altitude, I don’t really see how all that many people would really have that good a time. The Copper Triangle, by comparison, was convincing as a solid day, and serves up vistas that are second-rate to nothing, and that makes it an easier ride to recommend to people who don’t live in the mountains. It’s a ride that should be on every cyclist’s bucket list.

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4 comments

  1. Jeff vdD

    I’ve done both the Triple (2009) and Copper Triangle (2014). Both were coming from sea level (Boston). In 2009, I was pretty new to serious cycling, and while my time wouldn’t have triggered any Strava complaints (if Strava complaints were a thing in its first year of existence), I didn’t find the day overwhelming. Give it a try, Patrick!

  2. David

    Hey Patrick, when you hit that curve after the bike path bridge (just before you come out on the right side of the highway) the ramp actually hits 19%. Thats why they call it The Wall. There are a few other ramps near 20% along the way, so its not ONLY the lack of oxygen!

  3. Kevin

    Nice article. Rode Copper for second time this year. I am 56 and had been riding for a year before first ride. Yes it was challenging and Vail was very challenging (I did make it up the wall) For this flatlander from Minnesota, the experience in the Rockies was as you described. The views amazing. I hope your article inspires some to Ride Copper. i will be back again nexr year.

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