Grand Mesa takes you up to one of the largest mesa’s in the US, to nearly 11,000 feet of elevation. [Strava Activity Here]
I wanted to make sure I got back before check-out so I could shower before heading to Grand Junction, so I left before dawn and rolled 2 miles down hill to the official start of the climb.
After the two 14ers (Pike’s & Evans) I was happy that I could just ride my own pace and not worry about going easy for the first half.
The climb is pretty consistent – never too steep and not too boring, and the scenery changes from desert, to alpine, to tundra meadows pretty quickly. The early lighting didn’t lend itself to great pictures, but the views with the desert plateaus and mountains were pretty cool.
The worst part was the continued road construction – miles and miles of fresh chip seal turned this into a gravel ride. Luckily the descent is not particularly technical, so I didn’t worry much about it.
3/4 down I got caught up in one way traffic control again, waiting for an escort vehicle. When they finally arrived, they asked if I’d like my bike carried down instead of riding and I was totally fine with that – not due to the risk, but due to all the dirt I’d have to eat following a bunch of cars on gravel!
Made it back to the hotel with plenty of time to shower and pack up, and headed to Grand Junction.. and promptly got stuck in another one-way traffic control.. for 30+ minutes, in 95 degree heat. This was not pleasant, I felt like my motorcycle gear was filling up with sweat from the bottom up.
Once finally released, I made my way to Grand Junction and stopped at a cafe for a gallon of iced coffee to recover from that huge, 1 hour motorcycle ride!
Tomorrow is a non-climbing day, I’ll be getting up early again to do the Colorado National Monument loop (44 miles, 3400 ascent.)
Starting to trim off climbs that were on my list, Ouray was looking rained out, so I headed to the desert – Mesa, CO.
Since today was forecast to be a hot one, I wanted to make it into town before noon, which meant 300+ miles of all backroads wouldn’t work, but I sure didn’t want to superslab it either. I split the difference – the first half I took Highway 24, which was empty and very few cars and great views of Mount Elbert. It was also really cold! I had to pull over and put on my heated jacket after an hour or two of 42 degrees.
24 joins up with the main east west highway, Highway 70. Unfortunately within 5 miles of the junction, CODOT was out setting up for chip seal work, which resulted in a FORTY FIVE MINUTE delay, luckily it was not hot yet or that would have super sucked.
Once hopping on Highway 70, you drop straight down into the desert, but it’s actually pretty scenic – Glenwood Canyon in particular is a marvel of traffic engineering – it sort of feels like you’re riding through a mini-grand canyon via overpasses, tunnels and bridges.
Once I reached the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway turn-off.. more construction. I hope this doesn’t screw up my bike ride tomorrow.
The weather looks reasonable to climb Grand Mesa, this is the 24th most difficult climb in the US, with roughly 5700 feet of ascent, judging by the views coming into town, it should be pretty epic.
Right after the climb I plan to head to Grand Junction and do the Colorado National Monument loop – not really a climb, but supposed to be amazing scenery.
Wow, this was hard.. really really hard, steep and relentless, possibly the most difficult (subjectively) climb I’ve ever done. [Strava Activity Here]
I got out early and headed up the highway, and it pretty much goes straight to 6-8% grade right after leaving town. Zero shoulder and cars blowing by at freeway speeds, not fun.
After a bit of this you make a left and head up on the Pike’s peak road, and things get even more serious with 10% grade that just goes straight up. Just getting to the top of this section took about an hour.
I had left early figuring to beat the tourist traffic.. except in typical “zero research fashion” it turns out the road is only open at 7:30.. and they are quite serious about it, it’s a whole production: van loads of rangers and volunteers blanketing the mountain, 2 mobile EMT trucks(!), massive gates and toll structure.
So I had to sit around for an hour until the road opened, it was not particularly cold or windy, so it was ok.
From about 8K to about 10K, things were ok, the typical alpine tree tunnels.. at 10K I started feeling not so great, which is odd since for both Trail Ridge and Mt Evans I didn’t really feel poorly until 12K.
I can only assume the combination of the much steeper grades and it being significantly warmer (and no wind) were making things more difficult.
From 13K on up.. it was a death march.. just put it in the granny gear (helllo!) and tried to keep the pedals turning. The quantity of pictures declined significantly from here on out.
After what felt like forever, I made it to the summit and received many high-fives and fist bumps!
Whew, well, after Pike’s, nothing is quite as difficult on the list (I hope!)
My current plan was to head to Ouray, CO and ride Red Mountain Pass, but it looks like they are gonna be blasted out by thunderstorms over the next few days.
I had thought some of the valley rides I had on the list were not going to happen due to heat, but maybe they’re back on if the mountains are too washed out!
We’ll see what tomorrow brings – either way, it is time to start heading west, so probably a 400+ mile motorcycle day.
Left pretty late this morning, since this is only 90 miles away. Manitou Springs sits right at the foot of Pike’s Peak.
First 20 miles or so are all superslab 4 lane freeway with angry cagers, reminding me why I stay away from cities when I’m out on motorcycle trips! After that, it turned into “mountain traffic” which is the Colorado version of California beach traffic, so that was nearly an hour of 20 mph. The urge to lane split was almost impossible to resist, but I refrained. I don’t know how non-lane splitting state residing motorcyclists do it. It was torture seeing all that open space!
So, despite being only 90 miles, it was more unpleasant than a lot of the desert runs.
The weather right now is looking pretty good, so hopefully it holds, because that mountain looks really really tall. Unlike Mount Evans where you can’t really see the peak from the start, Pike’s you can see it right there.
I’ve acquired breakfast and pop tarts, so the plan is to roll out around 6 AM before the tourist traffic really gets going.
Short jog by motorcycle over to Westminster to visit an Internet buddy, amusingly he has been in the SF bay area several times, but always in San Francisco, and during the week, that 40 miles might as well be 100.. so it was just easier to ride my motorcycle 2000 miles than to go into SF from the South Bay.
Thanks Mike and his gracious wife for allowing a slightly scraggly motorcycle/bicyclist to hang out and take a break from hotels and bars.
Plus, Mike cooks a mean brisket and ribs and has 2 cute cats!
Tomorrow I head over to Manitou Springs and, weather holding, tackle Pike’s Peak on Monday.
After working my way up in altitude (10K a couple times, 12K on Trail Ridge Rd) – time for one of the 14ers, Mt Evans, the highest paved road in the US at around 14,200 feet.
This is also a pretty tough climb, even without the altitude – it is long (27 miles) and a solid 6700 feet of ascent, at my “easy” pace of roughly 2000 feet per hour, that’s 3.5 hours of continuous climbing. Definitely the most difficult climb of this trip.
The weather report the night before was a bit dodgy – calling for 40% chance of rain and up to a quarter inch of precipitation. I had already decided I was going for it and if it got ugly, turn around. Mountain weather is very unpredictable.
I “slept in” until 5, checked the forecast, and things had improved – now calling for mostly clear conditions until the afternoon. The downside of the clearing conditions was the summit was forecast to be 35 degrees.
Headed out – the first half of the climb is on a highway, big shoulders and sweeping turns (and more “MOTORCYLCES USE EXTREME CAUTION” signs.. since I wasn’t on my motorcycle, I guess I didn’t need to use caution.)
After turning right at Echo Lake, you take a much narrower and bumpier road for another 14 miles that gets narrower and bumpier as you go along – there tend to be large expansion cracks every 30 or 40 feet.. ker-thunk ker-thunk ker-thunk the whole way up. I saw a single lone deer along this stretch, and lots of the arctic tundra marmots, that sort of look like fat prairie dogs with bushy tails.
Around 13K, the weather started getting a bit more ominous, but never actually rained.. but those wet clouds are colllllld.
The last 1000 feet of ascent was.. pretty rough. Having roughly 40% less oxygen is definitely something you notice, but luckily I didn’t seem to have any other altitude sickness issues, not even the vague nausea I had felt a few times before. But you definitely feel.. odd. Even just grabbing a water bottle would leave me breathing extra hard.
Last set of stacked switchbacks that take you to the summit
By now the wind and clouds had picked up, so I knew the descent was going to be chilly. I didn’t bring any legitimate winter thermal clothes – just some toe covers, wind jacket and my buff (neck/face gaitor) to keep my face from getting frozen.
I settled for riding until I couldn’t feel my fingers, then I would stop for a bit and let them thaw out. That was okay since the expansion gaps were even more punishing on the way down – KERTHUNK KERTHUNK KERTHUNK!
The wind had also picked up a bit, and I sure wasn’t going to ride right on the edge of the road. Once down to the highway, things were easier, it’s just a long long way down!
This was the first climb on this trip I’d say was challenging for climb difficulty reasons vs. cows or wind or whatever. The cold also seemed to really suck the life outta me.
Pike’s Peak is even more difficult – it is another 1300 feet of ascent, and 4 miles shorter (so steeper average grade.) That’s definitely the “queen stage” of this trip, so I’m going to take the weekend off and plan to ride it on Monday.
Nothing real exciting to report – you can get to Idaho Falls from Estes Park by dropping back into the flat lands and taking the superslab, or you can take some of the back roads.
The weather was pretty much perfect (finally, the first day of good weather!) which was good because it is also the season of road construction, so I sat in several lines of cars waiting for 1 way traffic control.
Amusingly, the entire byway has signs posted every so often that say “MOTORCYCLES USE EXTREME CAUTION”
Even after using extreme caution for 90 miles, I still can’t figure out what the signs are cautioning about. It’s good pavement, well signed, etc. The only thing I can figure is that it is open range and heavily populated by moose and mountain goat?
In any case, the ride was fine and beat the freeway for sure. It was a short leg so as usual, I didn’t take any pictures. Here’s one of the bike in the hotel parking lot.
Tomorrow is Mt Evans, first trip up near 14,000 feet. Weather calls for some sprinkles off and on, but nothing too bad and no crazy wind or major thunderstorms.
Juggling my schedule around the weather, I decided to spend another day in Estes Park. I had dreams of tackling the old dirt road that was replaced by Trail Ridge, but I woke up late, it was raining, and was probably even harder than doing the paved road, much less doing it in the mud.
Plus then I’d probably have to wash my bike, and I hate washing bikes.
The light, but steady rain meant I wasn’t tackling any high passes, so I decided to go down Hwy 34 aka Big Thompson canyon, a relatively sedate 44 miles and 2600 feet of ascent.
Traffic was moderate but generally the shoulder was sufficient to leave room for cars, and nothing very technical or challenging even with the wet roads.
Since I was Just Riding Along, I headed to a shopping center and a sign told me I needed pie, so I stopped for breakfast.
Headed back to the hotel and hit up a local bicycle/coffee place, they have TWO Slayer espresso machines, and I hadn’t had a good coffee in 2 weeks.
Rolled back to the hotel, still pretty wet and rainy.
Will spend the rest of the day doing laundry and getting organized for the next two big climbs.
Current plan is Idaho Falls tomorrow and ride Mt Evans on Friday (Saturday is the official Mt Evans Hill Climb race, so I expect Idaho Falls will be filled with cyclists.)
I chose this climb because it would put me at a new altitude record for bicycling – approximately 12,400 feet above sea level. It also crosses over the continental divide, which is pretty neat.
Mt Evans and Pikes’ Peak are both around 14,000. So if things went poorly on Trail Ridge, I knew I should not attempt those (or attempting my white whale – the full Mauna Kea in Hawaii.)
Technically you can start this climb down in the actual valley, and turn it into a 7500+ foot ascent, but since this was supposed to be a warm up ride for Evans/Pikes, I opted to leave from Estes Park, which has the added bonus of a breakfast place I can park at, so I can eat pancakes when I’m done riding.
I was obviously not on my game this morning, since it took me until 6 AM to get kitted up in the parking lot. Then I forgot to start my bike computer. Then I got .8 miles in and realized I left my camelbak hanging on my motorcycle.
So on my 3rd attempt of starting the climb, I headed up.
The first 2000+ feet are pretty much.. tree tunnels. Not much to be seen except the epic huge mountains in the background, and increasingly dire warnings about changing conditions. I was pretty much surrounded by dark clouds, and you could see lots of puddles from the previous day’s precipitation. I REALLY didn’t want to do the descent in the rain.
Around 11,000 feet.. you hit some gaps in the mountain, turns out, this is the divide. Apparently the west and the east weather systems are fighting it out, because the wind turned REAL gusty.
WIFE: STOP READING HERE
Alright, if you’re not my wife who worries about me – it was probably 40+ mph gusts for about 10 minutes. One picked me up and moved me a good 8 feet to the left – luckily to the side where there was mountain and not cliff.
I definitely was having second thoughts and considered turning around (since there was still another 30 or 40 minutes of climbing.)
Luckily by the time I was done waffling, some trees sprang up again to block the wind, and it wasn’t bad the rest of the way up. I suspect it’s just that continental divide thing.
Once you get up past 11,000 or so, it turns into the now familiar arctic tundra.
There was actually another deer RIGHT on the shoulder, giving me the eyeball.. once again, no picture as I tried to figure out how to get past an animal larger than my motorcycle. Then I noticed it was chewing on a candy bar wrapper, so I figured it was distracted by whatever delicious treat an idiot tourist gave it. TOURISTS: WILD ANIMALS WILL KILL YOU, DO NOT FEED THEM. So dumb.
I continued over the summit (no sign?!?!) and down a bit of descent to a turnout area, there’s a paved trail that leads up a bit from here, so I decided to go up it – here I finally got to use my granny gear, as it was 15%+ in spots. Also a good test at 12,000 feet if I could power through something like that.
Generally I felt ok, slightly nauseated again – but hard to tell if that is altitude or just too many Pop Tarts and Lifesaver gummies. No dizziness or vertigo or anything like that.
My heart rate behaved much better – barely creeping up around 80% once I got over 10,000 feet, lowering my cadence seems to help significantly.
Alright, now the descent.. if my wife is still reading this she should stop again.
While I was dawdling at the summit, the weather degraded, it was now 25+mph pretty continuously, and the divide section was.. not good.
The only good part was that traffic going down was still quite light, while going up there was a steady stream of cars throwing off turbulance. But at least I could claim the whole lane – which was good, because I needed it – between the wind changing directions as I rounded switchbacks, and then the extra 40+ mph gusts coming through the divide, I was all over the road.
Thankfully it had not started to rain yet. After that andrenaline and white knuckle first 2000 feet, I pulled over and took a breather before tackling the rest.
The rest of the descent was also no fun, but not as scary, just very unpleasant. I meant to stop a few places and take more pictures – then another gust would pick me up and I’d change my mind.
I coasted into the breakfast place and got my victory pancakes, relatively confident I can attempt Evans and Pike’s Peak without immediate altitude sickness, assuming I can find an acceptable weather window.
500 miles, all motorcycling today, with the added excitement of random thunderstorm warnings.
The mosquitos would just not quit, even at 5:30 in the morning and at the Wyoming gas stations, I hope Colorado mosquitos are not as vicious.
Leaving Greybull is a bunch of secondary highway, which isn’t bad, then you connect through Windriver Canyon, which is very impressive and worth the trip – I was being chased by thunderstorms, so no pictures. The heat was cranking up again too, so unfortunately I could not stop at Thermopolis (“largest hot spring in the world” scrawled on a mountain with a big arrow) – it did look pretty big from the highway!
Unfortunately after that bit of excitement, my GPS beeped and said “Continue 238 miles on Highway 20”
I won’t say it is as bad as the high desert droning, since the scenery does change a bit and there are a few small towns descending into Ghost Town status.. but it was still pretty rough.
After a long, long time, I got into Loveland and it was 96 and humid. Even worse weather than where I was! Ugh.
The road to Estes Park goes through Big Thompson Canyon, which snakes along a river – it would be a very entertaining motorcycle road (ie, roller coaster) but it is also a heavy tourist corridor, so I settled for enjoying the scenery – steep rocky gorges and other interesting formations.
Lots of thunderstorming going on, but at least that is cooling things off.
Tomorrow my first trip above 12,000 feet before tackling Mt Evans & Pike’s Peak (14,000 each)