Monday, August 20, 2018

Colorado Front Range SR600

My friend Tim Sullivan and I decided to attempt the CO Front Range Super Randonnee 600 this summer. This is an out-and-back course designed by John Lee which starts in Niwot, climbs up St Vrain Canyon, and travels along the eastern edge of the Rockies to Woodland Park. Then you turn around and ride back to Niwot. So the entire route is 375 miles with over 34,000 feet of climbing. It promised to be a beautiful cycling adventure and challenge, and it would be almost all new roads for me.   With John Lee's encouragement, I am writing this report in the hopes that it will be useful to some intrepid randonneurs who ride this route in the future.  As a reference point, Tim and I would be considered middle-of-the-pack randos in terms of speed.  And we both live in coastal California, so we were not altitude acclimated at all.
Bighorn sheep (look closely)
 Last summer Tim and I rode the Sequoia/Kings SR600 in California, and for some silly, ego-driven reason we wanted to finish in under 50 hours (which was the originally established time limit for this type of ride). We did manage to finish in 49 hours, but we only had 2.5 hours of sleep, which made for a pretty miserable second day and night. This year we wisely decided to take full advantage of the new 60 hour time limit and arrange for two overnight sleep stops. The way we divided up the 600km was to ride 189 miles (half way) to Woodland Park on the first day, then 100 miles to Idaho Springs on Day 2, followed by a relatively easy 90 miles on day 3 to the finish. We started at 5:00am on Thursday morning, which meant we had to finish before 5:00pm on Saturday afternoon. Even though this plan was developed mostly based on availability of hotels, through dumb luck it turned out to be a good way to apportion the ride.
After getting our required time-stamped control photo, Tim and I left the start promptly at 5:00am. We got to the Lyons control before 6, and were delighted to see that there were open restrooms at the Visitor's Center. Now it was time to climb, climb, climb up into the mountains. The gradients were mostly comfortable, it was not hot yet, and we had a bighorn sheep sighting, so those early miles seemed to fly by. We stopped at the Peaceful Valley Lodge to get water. After I had filled both my bottles from a hose outside a cabin, the caretaker told us that their water was not treated water, "it comes straight out of the crick." At that point there was nothing I could do but take my chances because it was quite a ways to the next water source (and I must say that water tasted wonderful.)
Our first real stop (at about 10am) was in Nederland, a funky mountain town with plenty of coffee shops, bakeries, and pot dispensaries (if we were interested in that). Our coffee shop of choice was in an old, converted house, and the decor in the bathroom was entertaining, especially the skeleton in the bathtub.
After coffee and a peanut butter bagel, we continued on with high spirits.  The little spur to Eldora was fun- easy riding and amusing signs put up by the local to make sure drivers respect the 25 mph speed limit. Then there was a scenic section with expansive views along the mountain ridge on Highway 119 before we got to the least pleasant part of the course- getting through Blackhawk and Central City.   These are old mining towns that are now full of casinos and hotels.  Blackhawk is not bicycle-friendly (Google the city ban on bicycles in 2010), and the bike route that bypasses the central streets goes over some very steep, rough climbs.  But we just gritted our teeth, kept pedaling, and got through it.
When we got to Idaho Springs, we were ready for some real food.  We skipped the fast food joints at the entrance to town and kept going to the downtown district on Miner St.  There we found a good selection of restaurants, including a really nice deli that is popular with the locals.
After fueling up, we were ready to tackle the monster climb up to Echo Lake.  It is about 14 miles of climbing, but the gradients are very reasonable and I was feeling good.  I was tired at the top, but not exhausted.  (I think Tim might have a different memory of this climb.)  The control is at the lodge at an elevation of 10,600 ft.  Then we kept climbing for 3 more miles up to the cima coppi of the course at over 11,100 ft.  Originally Tim and I had planned to stop a bit at the lodge, maybe have some chili, but we both felt a little light-headed in that rarified air, so we decided to get down to lower altitudes as quickly as possible.  The descent on Witter Gulch made us pay attention- many sudden, steep, sharp switchback turns with no warning signs.
When we got to Evergreen, we skipped the crowded bars and restaurants on the main drag.  We kept riding along the course for about a mile to a little deli adjacent to a liquor store.  (BTW, this ride taught me that in CO liquor stores only sell liquor, don't expect to find chips and snacks and other bike food.  Also, don't expect to find any real beer in a convenience store.  Stupid liquor laws- I'm surprised the citizens of CO put up with this.)  Evergreen is about 200km into the ride.  So at this point we knew we had 100km to go, with about an hour of daylight left.  It was going to be a long night to Woodland Park.
The climb from Evergreen up to the control at Sandy Lane was surprisingly steep.  It was just about dark when we took that control photo.  Then we dropped down to Conifer, where we stopped at a gas station/C-store.  We knew that that would be the last place to get food until we got to Woodland Park- all the businesses in Decker close pretty early.  There is a significant climb between Conifer and Deckers.  As we were riding in the dark, we could hear a rushing river, but couldn't see any scenery (there was no moon yet).  Just before getting to the road junction at Deckers, we turned into the Lone Rock Campground to get water.  I was so happy that we found a water spigot right away and didn't have to wander all over the campground, shining our lights and waking up the sleeping campers.
On we continued on to Woodland Park.  It was mostly uphill, sometimes gradually so, sometimes a real climb.  I'm sure Tim and I each imagined what the scenery looked like in our minds, not being able to make it out.  It was a real treat the next morning when we rode back through this same area in the daylight and saw how pretty it was.
We arrived at the control spot in Woodland Park
at 2:30am, a little later than I had hoped, but
still okay.  I chuckled at the misspelling in the control sign as I snapped the picture.  We then made a quick stop at the 24 hour Loaf 'n Jug in town for some food, and headed back down the street a half mile to the Bristlecone Lodge, our sleep stop.  The motel staff was very helpful- I had called in advance to explain our very late arrival, so they had left our room key (and a map) in an envelope on the office door for us.  And our USPS Priority Mail packages that we had sent to the hotel with clean bike kits were waiting in our room for us.  (We had included a prepaid return mailing envelope in those packages so that we could mail our dirty clothes back home.  The USPS makes a pretty good drop bag service.)
There was no need for us to leave early in the morning on day 2 because we only had 100 miles to cover.  We slept until about 7:30, got ready to ride, then had breakfast at the motel at 8:00 when it opened.  After breakfast we took off for Deckers, enjoying the mostly downhill ride and all the beautiful scenery we had missed the night before.  Once we got to Deckers we stopped at the restaurant/bar for our second round of coffee and breakfast #2 (this is why I love bike riding- two breakfasts!).
We made slow, but steady progress over the climbs to Conifer.  The stretch along SW Platte River Road was especially beautiful and enjoyable.  In Conifer we stopped at the same gas station we had visited the day before (this seemed to happen a lot during this ride).  As we were drinking our drinks and munching our snacks, the sky darkened, the temperature dropped significantly, and it began to rain.  We took off in a fairly steady rain, each of us worrying about what the weather might be like up on the big mountain later in the afternoon.  It rained off and on to Evergreen, where we stopped at our same deli to have soup and a sandwich.
When we left Evergreen, we caught a huge break- the rain stopped.  And by the time we were struggling and grunting up the switchbacks of Witter Gulch, the sun was out.  It stayed mostly sunny for us all the way over the 11k summit and on to Echo Lake Lodge.  But even in the sun, the air up there on the big mountain was very cool.  I put on all that clothing I had been carrying with me for the long descent into Idaho Springs and stayed just warm enough. 
Poor Tim didn't have as many layers to put on and shivered his way down the mountain.  We arrived in Idaho Springs at about 7:30pm,  picked up some take-out dinner from Beau Jo's Pizza and checked into our rooms at the Argo Inn hotel.  That night I had the amazing luxury of seven hours of sleep, and woke up feeling recovered and raring to go.
We decided to give ourselves 11 hours in order to finish the last 90 miles of the ride on day 3.  We figured it would actually take about 9 hours, but we wanted to have a buffer in case things went wrong.  So we hit the Starbucks near the hotel at 5:45 for some coffee and a little breakfast, then off we went.  The climb up the Central City Parkway was hard and not pleasant, but at least there was very little car traffic early in the morning.  And I knew that once we got through the Central City/Blackhawk area, the rest of the ride would be enjoyable.  After Blackhawk, I really enjoyed the third day- I felt strong thanks to a good sleep, and we knew we didn't have to rush so we could enjoy our stops.  We continued our pattern of stopping at the same places we had visited on the outbound leg- Taggert's Shell station on Highway 119 and the Happy Trails Cafe in Nederland.  Then on the final descent we added an ice cream stop at the Raymond Store.  That was an interesting place- staffed by an older gentleman who wrote down all of our purchases in a little notebook.  And the cold drinks were in a 1950's vintage refrigerator.
We had another unexpected blessing when we got down onto the flats, leaving Lyons.  There had been a triathlon early that day, so the right lane of Highway 66 was coned off for almost 6 miles-  our own private bike lane.  We passed the store in Hygiene just as a group of local cyclists were leaving.  As we pulled up along side them, one of the riders said, "go ahead- we've just finished a really long ride."  I didn't have the heart to tell him what ride we had just done.
Tim and I pulled into the finish at 2:30.  We had a few smiles, a hug, took our final control photo,
then headed off to find some beers to celebrate.  It was a great ride, probably the most enjoyable of the three SR600's I've done.  I encourage anybody who is considering an SR600 to consider this one.  I think it is ideal for a first attempt- the navigation is easy, the climbing is mostly not steep, the scenery is fantastic, and it is fairly easy to keep yourself supplied with food and water.  Thanks to John Lee for coming up with this course.  And thanks to Tim for keeping me company on another grand adventure.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Guanella Pass Gambol Permanent # 3546

I had the privilege of the inaugural ride of John Lee Ellis’s Guanella Pass Gambol Permanent. Since the forecast was for near record heat in Denver, I chose to go into the mountains for a little respite. The course starts in Downieville, heads to Georgetown, and then climbs over Guanella Pass to Grant, CO and returns on the same route.

Being on out-and-back route, you get to climb Guanella Pass from both sides, so the climbing is essentially covered in the first 45 miles of the ride.

I chose to park in the east end of the parking lot, next to the Starbucks, but used the Downieville Fuel Stop Sinclair next door as my start and finish check points. The “wildlife” viewing started immediately .

The route starts with a gentle climb to Georgetown, on quiet roads with a bike lane. The approach to Georgetown may be gentle, but one can already get a feel for the climbing to come looking across Georgetown lake toward the gap that is Guanella Gap.

Georgetown is a historic district with a quaint style which even includes the local post office.

The climb begins quickly with steep switch backs that produce a nice view of Georgetown which reward you for your efforts.

As Guanella Pass is not maintained during the winter, weather conditions can close the pass and it is advised to check the weather forecast and CDOT website to insure safe passage.

There are many beautiful water falls and rivers flowing next to the road to help distract you from the relentless climb.

A multitude of flowers also make the scenery and the climb breathtaking.

On the day of my ride, there were many many cars parked at the summit, so hikers could explore Mount Bierstadt and the plethora of trails in the area.

The descent down to Grant was smooth, quick and easy, but the enjoyment was tempered by my knowledge that I would be retracing my steps on the climb back toward Guanella Pass on the way home.

Although Grant is little more than a few houses on Hwy 285, I was able to feast on a pulled pork sandwich and rehydrate before returning to climbing.

Services are limited in this area, so I advise stocking up on liquid at the start and again at either Al’s Pit Barbecue (open only Fridays thru Sundays) or the Jerky stand just down the road from Al’s. Apparently they are both operated by the same group, but the Jerky stand is open almost everyday.

The climb up the south side of Guanella Pass is shorter than that from Georgetown, but also quieter. Since ninety-five percent of the climbing on this ride is encountered in the first 45 miles, I was getting worried about finishing on time. However, once the top of the pass is reached, its all down hill back to Downieville and this gave me the opportunity to make up time and finish successfully.

I did take time on the descent to make the most of the opportunity to enjoy the sighting of a big horn sheep along side the road, but my attempts at closer photos proved he was rather camera shy.

The Guanella Pass Gambol is an outstanding permanent for those seeking a change in scenery, the challenge of a healthy dose of vertical climb, and the enjoyment of delicious barbecue !! I hope to repeat this ride again in the fall, as the changing colors of the leaves will add an additional grandeur to this ride!

- Paul Foley

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Two in Tucson: #2 - Mt. Lemmon

In December, 2017, my wife Pat and I spent a few days in Tucson, for a winter getaway from Colorado. I was fortunate to ride two of Roger Peskett's 100k perm populaires.

This is the second one I rode: the Mt. Lemmon Hill Climb 104km Permanent Populaire.

The ride starts on the NE edge of Tucson.

The route starts on the NE end of Tucson, at about 2150 ft, climbing to about 8200 ft just before the turnaround. (You can continue on a couple miles to the ski area, at about 9,000 ft., but the route doesn't do that.)

When Susan Plonsky - who founded the AZ: Casa Grande RUSA region - created this perm populaire in 2009, I knew it would be challenging. So it's great that I was able to ride it eight years later.

You climb up from Tucson through the saguaros of the sonoran desert environment.

The Mt. Lemmon road is beautifully engineered and well maintained, with a moderate grade.

This plaque shows the climatic zones you climb through on the way to the summit, from "Sonoran Desert" to "Mixed Conifer Forest." (A similar trip up Mt. Evans or over Trail Ridge Road would top out at "Alpine Tundra.")

The vegetation changes, amid interesting rock formations.

About a third of the way up the climb, you pass through hoodoos jutting up from the landscape.

To me, this was the most scenic section of the climb.

Occasional guardrails provide convenient bike rests for eating a sandwich or a snack.

An extremely quiet road, too, at least at this time of year.

My guess is that this is a good climb for about half the year, before the lower elevations get very toasty. It was comfy in the 50's at the turnaround point. The high in Tucson that day was close to 80º.

Mt. Lemmon is probably a big recreational draw during warmer months, with more traffic.

This may be the first "bear and bear cub" warning sign I've seen.

At the village of Mt. Lemmon, the checkpoint and turnaround point is this general store.

And then it's a gentle, fun descent back down to the desert.

Mt. Lemmon was the high point of my cycling in the Tucson area.
I'm lucky the weather was so good (which, admittedly, it often is in Southern Arizona).

Three days after this ride, they closed the road because of snow.


Monday, April 9, 2018

Two in Tucson: #1 - Picture Rocks

In December, 2017, my wife Pat and I spent a few days in Tucson, for a winter getaway from Colorado. I was fortunate to ride two of Roger Peskett's 100k perm populaires.

This is about the first one: the Picture Rocks 102km Permanent Populaire.

As you see, it traverses Tucson Mountain Park and Saguaro National Park. But the name "Picture Rocks" was the big draw for me, as it was bound to be picturesque!

Weather when I rode was seasonal: 50's to 60's, and partly cloudy to sunny.

From a north section of Tucson, we make our way to the loop trail, with an info checkpoint at a non-traditional bike shop perched on the trail at the edge of the Santa Cruz River.

The trail was one of the highlights of the route. Lightly traveled, a few cyclists and joggers, with nice riparian views.

Nice views and some shade, too!

The second checkpoint was at a courtyard of various cafés and other places to enjoy the passage of time, as a number of cyclists were doing when I breezed through.

The second highlight for me was climbing Gates Pass (3172 ft.). A few stiff sections, but really a delightful pass with low traffic and fine scenery ... 

... and our intro to saguaro country for this ride.

Nice views from the pass into the desert hinterlands beyond Tucson.

A plaque explains that local rancher Thomas Gates explored a way over the Tucson Mountains west from town, and found this pass. While at the close of World War I there was a flurry of local interest in spreading west of Tucson to establish mining and agricultural claims, Gates sought to preserve some of this landscape, and succeeded, resulting in what we see today as this Tucson Mountain Park, adjoining Saguaro National Park.

The national park is the next stop, replete with lots of info on saguaros, their place in Native American life, and local flora and fauna.

There are various side trails and items of interest at the visitors center, to peruse at another time. Here is a tour of cactuses.

The pavement through the park was a joy to ride, and a contrast to most of the roads in this area, which were quite rough with expansion cracks.

Out in the Picture Rocks area, it was a broad expanse dotted by rock formations. This is a desert agricultural area with lightly to moderately traveled roads mostly with no shoulder, and very polite traffic. This route avoided another feature of Tucson area roads: the roller-coaster traversal of washes, which make driving and cycling some mixture of fun and adventure.

This not very good photo shows a field of cotton backed by one of the rocky ridges.

The rest of the trip featured a segment down the I-10 frontage road, then final miles in town on roads with traffic but bike lanes.

I chose this Wienerschnitzel restaurant as the finish establishment.

Among the many offerings, they had a special on corn dogs, which was my choice.

I enjoyed this route overall, a great sampler to biking in Tucson and the Tucson area, and especially Gates Pass, Saguaro National Park, and the Tucson loop trail.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

John Mangin's Colorado SR600 Tips!

At the beginning of last September, John Mangin became the third rider to complete the Colorado Front Range Super Randonnée 600. Here are his tips! These are geared to a two-stage ride, 300km to Woodland Park, sleep, and return:

  • Start early.  I started at 4 am, 3 am might have been better to allow for more natural sleep in Woodland Park.
  • At the bathroom station in Nederland there is now a water fill station on the north side of the building.
  • Woodland Park makes a lot of sense for the overnight.  Most restaurants close at 10pm almost everything by 11pm.  I ordered Jimmy Johns subs delivered to the hotel so I had food when I got there.  I did not have to ride to get food and also had a sandwich for day 2.  Had I started at 3 am I would have arrived before the County Market closed at 10pm.
  • It will be chilly riding to Deckers on the return.
  • Check the open hours at Deckers.  I was there around 8:30 pm and the restaurant was still open.  This won't be the case on the return.
  • Potentially very important:  At the mtb trailhead for Buffalo Creek there is a tent with snacks, water, Gatorade, and bike tools.  I was able to get a spare water bottle, which was important due to the heat.  On the return ride, if Deckers is closed, this could be very useful.
  • Witter Gulch is tough.  Not much more I can say about that!
  • I hit Echo Lake during the day both ways so it was open but this would be a control to check the hours on, depending on when one starts.  I was almost empty from Conifer to Echo Lake, but it was also hot.
  • There are plenty of service in Idaho Springs.

I think being very familiar with the route is important.  There are plenty of services along the way and I never had any trouble with food or water, despite temps that were in the upper 90's.  I did have a 100oz camel back, and this proved to be a good choice due to the heat.  I would also suggest a hard look at gearing.  This may seem obvious, but I made some changes to my drivetrain for this ride and it made a major difference.  

Be prepared to ride slow.  This is difficult mentally, for me I figured I would have the right mindset after LEL and that proved valuable.
I did not hit any inclement weather but there is obviously potential for that.  Aside from the heat I had near-perfect weather.  It was still very cool in the early mornings.

I will say that this is a spectacular route and well-put together.  It seems remote but there were always services close by if you know where to look and consider open hours.

John's bike at the Eldora checkpoint

From John's and Corinne's experience riding in early September, it does get colder at night than in mid-summer. But the days are reasonably long. For my July ride, I started at 3am, which did work out well.

Congrats to John, and encouragement to future aspirants!