Moving out to Colorado opened up many new possibilities, particularly when it came to adventures on two wheels. It wouldn’t have been unheard of to head out west for a bit of a bike vacation, but beyond riding trails I don’t know if it really would have happened. I actually enjoy road biking but I probably would not have wanted to travel with multiple bikes, etc.
But now that I live here, the list of places I wanted to ride the skinny tires in Colorado just exploded. There’s some many great climbs and destinations in Boulder county, all places out west, passes like Independence and Cottonwood, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, and so many more. And then that’s just what I knew about, not what I would learn about after a year and a half here.
Recently a few things aligned so that it looked like a good opportunity to ride Trail Ridge Road in RMNP. If you have never experienced this road you are missing out on high tundra, wildlife, and mountainous views in all directions. On Friday I was going to head up to Estes Park to visit with my mom who was on vacation in Colorado and Saturday to see part of the stage of the US Pro Cycling Challenge. So Friday afternoon I took off work, drove up to the visitor center. Driving up 36 towards Estes Park, things didn’t look too great: dark clouds in the direction of the park. But as I pulled into the visitor center, those clouds had moved south and partly cloudy skies took over. So I was feeling pretty good weather wise, despite the start time.
Quickly I scrambled into my riding kit, shoved some food, tools, and a rain jacket in my jersey pockets. I loaded up my water bottles with a little extra electrolyte mix, and I headed up the road, stopping to pay my entrance fee, then started the climb. Hitting the climbs pretty much as soon as I left the car, after an hour and a half drive, my legs felt a little tired and stiff. Since my start time was late, I was hoping to climb for 1.5-2 hours and then turn around. After all, it’s afternoon and that’s not significant in late-summer Colorado, right?
The road, while not having a bike-friendly shoulder of any kind, is pretty rider friendly. The gradients are never killer, cars have a descent view in many for much of the road and speeds are relatively low for our four wheel friends. In the first several miles there are actually two short descents, but other than that the road just points up. I found a pretty happy gear and just pedaled. I passed by Many Parks Curve which is the only point a felt a bit nervous about cars. They have added cones in the middle of the turn to prevent people driving up the road from turning into the first lot for this viewpoint, which if someone had tried to pass there would mean less room for us both. But I passed by here without issue and kept climbing.
My legs were feeling better, a few of the gradients were low enough I would gear up for a bit, which sure beats being in your last gear wishing you had more to work with. I would stand occasionally to mix up positions, but never really pushing too far. The approach towards Rainbow Curve steepened slightly but is amazing as the trees are just starting to thin out and the world begins to open.
As I passed the viewpoint parking lot, two people having a snack at the tailgate of their SUV just starred as I pedaled on. “Hi there,” I said without slowing down. I was approaching what I call the “window”: a section of the road where both sides are exposed. For most of the climb one side of the other is against the hill, so this one point always feels pretty vulnerable. Reaching this point I could really tell just how long I’d been climbing: my legs were starting to feel a bit tense from being essentially in a single position for so long and my calves were aching as well. But I kept pedaling.
The wind picked up some and I noticed some clouds to my left that looked menacing. The beautiful high alpine tundra rolled sharply from the edge of the road to the mountain peaks across the valley. It was hard to get a sense of which direction the wind and clouds were headed. I stopped at the Forest Canyon lot to throw on my rain jacket before continuing. That was the first time I stopped pedaling in about 2 hours. I made my way towards the rock cut, when I heard the first crash of thunder. And as I pulled towards the parking area past the rock cut, a few drops of rain began to fall. I stopped, snapped a picture of the 12,000 ft elevation sign.
And then I made the decision to rest here instead of heading down immediately. Which meant that as the sky opened, dumping cold rain thunder raced somewhere instead of the dark gray clouds all around, I hid in the entrance to the restrooms here. And I waited. A few people raced down the trail and into their cars. I waited. I saw another cyclist come up from the other direction and stop in the other restrooms. There were several cars that I wondered if they would stop and offer assistance to some stranded cyclists. I waited.
Finally the thunder had stopped for a while, the rain had let up. The roads were covered in water and oil, but I decided that now was better than waiting much longer. My cell phone was dead (and there was no cell reception there anyway) so I had no way to reach out into the world.
Pedaling down the hill I found the front end very unstable. At first I tried to assess what was happening: loose wheel? am I shivering? something worse? For the most part I believe that the watery surface of blacktop and water/oil was just causing a vibration. As I descended I would get very cold, but I think the vibration was something else than just shivering. At each pull off I would stop, warm up let cars pass. The temperature, which start slightly at about 75°F had fallen to about 45-50°F.
After a few times of this pattern (descend, try not to steer off the road, stop, warm up), my mental strength was fading. I stood on the side of the road and tried to thumb a ride. Even if I could just get lower down the road, that would help. No one stopped.
Nothing left to do but keep pedaling.
As I got further down the road, the air warmed up. The blacktop gave way to some chip-n-seal. Chip-n-seal is a bit of a pet peeve with cyclists: it’s rough, slow, and often has loose gravel. But this was slightly older and the roughness allowed for better grip and less pools of water. I started to trust the bike more and was able to descend like normal. I stopped at both Rainbow and Many Parks curves to warm up, shake off the descent, and to allow any cars that may have been caught behind me go by.
And eventually the sun was partially out, the temps had hit 60 able to cruise back to my car. For a moment I was a bit shell shocked but I changed out of the cold clothes and drove back into town. Yeah, that wasn’t so smart, I thought to myself. But it was a fun mis-adventure. And at some point I want to head back and ride again in the park. But hopefully before noon!