In 2006 I became hooked on road cycling when Pete sold me his old Cannondale. In 2007 Pete suggested that we should try this ride through three Rocky Mountain passes out near Vail, Colorado, called the Copper Triangle. This is the story of my experience participating in this event on August 2, 2008. Without Pete.
I arrived in Denver Thursday July 31 from a conference I had attended in Houston. I drove to Copper Mountain ski resort, where I would converge with 3000 other like-minded (i.e., questionably sane) cyclists. I admit that I had my doubts about this decision when the guy at the Denver airport rental car counter told me I’d need to turn off the air conditioning to make the drive up to Copper Mountain (elevation around 9500’). Both the rental car and I survived the 2-hour trek from DIA into the stunning highlands, and on arrival I noted that the resort offered plenty of summer activities—mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, restaurant/café dining and bars, and shopping. The room I’d rented was Spartan but adequate. Although I was by myself, it was nice to observe that the location would be fairly friendly for non-riding significant others.
I’d had my bike shipped via UPS from Vernon, CT, making use of a case which Dave Barrow of Tolland Bicycle generously lent to me (although John S told me that as a member I also had access to rent the Nerac shipping cases). My bicycle arrived at Copper Mountain’s central warehouse on Friday August 1st, in time for me to reassemble it and take a shakedown ride.
On Friday afternoon the vendor area was busy with staff setting up near the center of the alpine village. Of course Colorado Cyclist had a major presence there due to their involvement with the ride, and other vendors included Mavic, Clif, Crocs, and even Saab. On Friday night I picked up my registration SWAG bag which contained, among other goodies, my 2008 Copper Triangle jersey. The registration fee was $100, plus a donation to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s ($10 minimum).
On Saturday morning, the day of the ride, I still couldn’t shake the nagging headache I’d developed from the high altitude, a weakness of us thin-blooded lowlanders, despite my efforts to continuously hydrate, and—more tortuous yet—refrain from sampling the fine local brews. Despite feeling pretty lousy, I was here and I was going to ride at first light. I donned my NERAC kit and headed out.
At the start area, even in the dimly-lit 6 am dawn I noticed that the demographics contained a healthy mix. There were a significant proportion of women (or maybe I just noticed them more). Riders were mounted on everything from full-on race bikes to commuting bikes and mountain bikes, and I even saw one couple on a tandem. The population spanned a large age range, including old guys on new bikes…and vice versa. Of course there were quite a few serious enthusiasts and elite cyclists, but there were also some other Clydesdale-sized hacks like me riding aluminum frames.
As I left the resort area and began the first climb, I realized how cold it was. Even though I thought I was well-dressed for the ride, I already couldn’t feel my toes in this 43 degree morning mountain air. Wow, I was born and raised in New England, and this is August?? I poked along, climbing at a sluggish 7 mph or so, unsure what lied in wait for me, and wanting to keep something in reserve.
The beginning of the route follows highway 91 south from Copper Mountain, with a 55mph speed limit and no shoulder for first 4 miles. Fortunately at that early hour, traffic was light, and ride support was great, so there were no issues with cagers. Through the first hour of riding, the sun started slowly emerging to kiss the still snow-capped treeless peaks, providing a beautiful backdrop to this first climb. Seeing all the other riders chugging up the mountain ahead of me, as a huge chain of carbon (both bike and human) snaking through the switchbacks, was quite a sight, and inspired me to ponder, “At least I will not suffer alone.”
The first rest stop was around 12 miles into the ride at the summit of Fremont Pass, elevation 11,318’. This aid station, like the four others that followed it, was very adequately stocked, as well as being well staffed and organized. I helped myself to the Smorgasbord of variety: Clif Shot drink, Clif Shot Bloks, Clif Bars, bananas, pretzels, Fig Newton’s, cookies (Oreos!), bananas, apples, slices oranges and watermelon, grapes, trail mix….I had brought along my own Clif bars and Gu packs, but never needed them due to the cornucopia of sustenance available at the rest stops. The aid stations were also thoughtfully placed, with spacing such that I would just about drain my 2 water bottles by the time I arrived at the next stop.
From Fremont Pass, we started downhill past the historic frontier mining town of Leadville, and north on Route 24. We passed through a construction area with pretty rough road for about 5 miles. It was unfortunate, too—this would have been a nice, fast flat if not for the questionable conditions. I saw plenty of roadside tire repairs resulting from the bumpy dirt road in this section. The harsh surface also succeed in violently jostling my bladder which was full from all my pre-hydration efforts…I started anxiously looking for that next aid station.
The ride organizers provided plenty of support, including clear and frequent signage, staff stationed in various areas to provide verbal cues, state troopers controlling traffic at key bottlenecks, and even a Mavic-sponsored BMW chase motorcycle. Cool.
The 2nd rest stop came around 36 miles at Tennessee Pass, elevation 10,424’. The sun was feeling pretty strong so I finally warmed up enough to remove my jacket. After a bathroom break, fueling up and hydrating, I was off again.
I did get passed quite a bit on climbs, but I made up for much of that during the long, fast descents. I knew Pete would enjoy this feature of the ride: fat guys rule on the downhill 🙂 Most of the descending sections were quite fast; 40+ mph for maybe 10 or more continuous miles. Big smiles.
We continued to ride through some beautiful and interesting high country, including Camp Hale, which was established during WWII for winter/mountain training (10th Mountain Division trained here), and the mining/farming town of Minturn.
The last portion of the ride took us along a bicycle path which runs parallel to I-70 and had us pedaling past Vail resort. The third rest area was at 55 miles and 7,500’, just before big final climb up over Vail Pass. With my oxygen deprivation headache barely in remission, I popped last of my pain meds. Only at this point did I take off my sleeves and leg warmers, as it was now 80 degrees and very sunny.
I started up the solid 10 miles of tough climbing. There was one section of 15% grade where I did experience a few dizzy, max heart rate moments at a whopping 3.5 mph of forward motion. This was suffering for certain, but I was not suffering alone. As the mountain droned on, I still felt like I had something left in the tank and actually passed a number of other riders in this difficult portion (go Nerac!). I was relieved to see the final aid station at the summit of 10,666’ with a sign that read “It’s all downhill from here!” The sign was right—it was only a few more miles downhill to the Copper Mountain resort area, where an applause-lined finish chute awaited.
Data from my bike’s computer indicated I’d ridden approximately 81 miles in about 6 hrs, at an average of 13.4 mph, and a maximum speed of 49.3 mph. The ride brochure indicated that total elevation gain for the journey was just under 6000’.
After showering back in my room, I packed up my bike in time to attend the post-ride barbecue and concert. I grabbed a drink, sat in an Adirondack chair overlooking the ski mountain, and enjoyed the music provided by the New Orleans funk band “Bonerama” (they have 4 trombonists). Man, I was really digging that first beer and my headache seemed to dissolve as I emptied my inaugural pint. As I sat there even hours later, riders continued to drip in past the finish line.
As one participant said to me at the BBQ when I told him I was from Connecticut, “That’s a long way to come for a bike ride”. True, but OTOH, overall it was a fantastic experience, participating in a very well-organized, challenging ride with breathtaking scenery, difficult climbs and incredible, never-ending descents. Plus the event benefits charity for a good cause. I hope you will all join me next year, to suffer together.
Thanks to Dave Barrow for building and maintaining a bicycle capable of tolerating me during this ride, and for all his help with packing and shipping, and to Pete for his willingness to endure training rides with me. –Doug