Words: Phil Elsasser
Images: Lliam Dunn and Stephen Fitzgerald
Scared. I haven’t been scared about doing something on a bike since, well, probably 2009 when I got the chance to do my first NRC stage race at Cascade Classic. Lining up against guys that you have held in awe while watching pro races for years can be at the least, a tiny bit intimidating. So to be scared the night before a bike ride, with a few local guys in the mountains seemed silly. But when you looked at the stats of the ride, maybe it was worth being scared. 175 miles, 17,000 feet of climbing across a mixture of single track, gravel, and plenty of pavement for good measure.
A few weeks prior Stephen had offered to let me join him on this adventure and even better yet, let me demo the new Trail Donkey that he has been working so hard to get out to the masses. The opportunity sounded too enticing to pass up. The plan was to meet up with Stephen and Liam at the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail, the meeting location was about 40 miles from my house, so an alpine start was in order to meet them at the trailhead by 6:00am.
I rolled out of bed around 3:00am in some sort of excited stupor as I poured some coffee quickly down my throat and got ready to depart. The morning’s darkness was surprisingly warm, calm and wonderful as I made my way through Golden south towards Waterton Canyon. A few minutes of nervousness at the trailhead vanished as youthful enthusiasm for adventure won out. I spotted Liam and Stephen approaching and we quickly greeted one another and set off up the canyon toward the start of the trail.
Not 500 meters into the start of the Colorado Trail, the sound of a rock cutting sharply into the sidewalls of a tire not well suited for the rigors of single track was heard from behind. Luckily, Liam had some fancy tire boots that seemed like it would hold together the large slice in Stephen’s tire. A few minutes later, we were back rolling.
I have to admit that some small amounts of doubt began to creep back into my mind after this incident. It happened so early on in what was a rather long stretch of rocky trail, that I was sure this wouldn’t be our last mishap while trying to cheat the single track gods with our slick tires. Luckily, all worries got pushed aside as the enjoyment of the Trail Donkey took over. Climbing through the forest, every switchback was more enjoyable than the next, it was still early morning and the temperature was near perfect.
We gradually topped out on the climb and started the descent towards platte river road. Liam took the lead cruising down the trail with me bringing up the rear as a recent crash and a bad head injury kept me a bit more cautious. Eventually we all re-grouped at the river and followed the road towards Buffalo Creek.
Luckily, the small convenience store selling Hostess fruit pies from 1976 was open, and we refueled before Nice Kitty, an awesome single track climb through the old burn area of Buffalo Creek. This climb is made for a bike like the donkey, it is loose in sections but otherwise a gradual meandering trail up the hillside with stunning views all around.
Once at the top of the climb, we followed the gravel road towards Wellington Lake. At this point of the ride, I was already pretty exhausted. I was 7.5 hrs in, and while the single track was beautiful, I was looking forward to some mentally easier miles on gravel. Unfortunately, a few 10-15 miles later, I was wishing we were back on the single track. The road was hot, dusty, and managed to crush all of our souls with the extreme washboard surface. We all tried to find the best line, hugging whatever small patch looked smooth regardless of which side of the road it happened to be on, but in the end there was no escaping the jarring. Bailey, the next major town, and the promise of pavement, couldn’t come soon enough. I was about to pull over just to rest my hands when we finally reached the paved road. A quick look back at Liam made me realize it wasn’t just me that was feeling the pain.
Sometimes the best moments in rides like this come after the worst, and I am pretty sure for the low point of the gravel road, the high of espresso milkshakes in Bailey improved all of our moods greatly. For good measure, we stopped another 4 blocks down the road to eat some more at the gas station.
Knowing that the looming Guanella Pass was our next big obstacle, getting some fuel and fluid on board was a priority. We all filled up our camelbaks downed some salt tablets, and took off down 285 towards Guanella. 285 has significant traffic on it, but upon taking the right hand turn onto Guanella and seeing the freshly paved, near carless road heading up above treeline, all was again forgotten.
We all picked our own pace up the buttery pavement towards the alpine tundra. Some conflicting mileage markers, and signage left us all longing for the top rather prematurely. In the last ½ mile or so of the climb Liam came flying by me hanging onto an SUV ala Nibali in the Vuelta. Only in the exhaustion of being 12 hours deep into a ride of this proportion did his explanation of trading a bag of half eaten chex mix for a hitch up the mountain make any sense. We regrouped at the base of Mt. Bierstadt as many climbers were finishing their descents and headed down towards georgetown.
14 hours and 140 miles in, it was unfortunately time for us to split up, with Liam and Stephen headed back towards Denver, and I back up towards Peak to Peak. The waning daylight and the wonderfully smooth gravel of Virginia Canyon was the final highlight of the ride before exhaustedly descending down Coal Creek Canyon having just apparently missed a large hail storm that tore across the front range. The following day at work was a tad rough, but the amazing fun and camaraderie of this ride will linger much longer than the fatigue.