Ride the Rockies: A Week of Challenging and Rewarding Cycling

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By Anne Findlay — Riding out of Salt Lake, the mountain canyons draw me in with their beautiful pine and aspen forests, spectacular vistas, and challenging yet satisfying climbs. So, naturally, when my friends in Denver asked me to join them again at this year’s Ride the Rockies – a 6-day road cycling tour through the Colorado Rockies – I could not resist. Even better, my friend Lisa Hamann from Cottonwood Heights wanted to join us. A week with good friends, beautiful mountains, and bikes? What more could I ask for?

This year’s route, connecting the towns of Copper Mountain, Glenwood Springs, Basalt, Salida, Breckenridge, and Golden, went right through mountains and towns I had long wanted to explore. (Each day, aside from day 5 in Breckenridge, where we stayed 2 nights, we would ride from one town to the next.) Initially, I didn’t give too much thought to the details, but saw lots of over-10,000’ passes on the profile, and some pretty long days. I kept looking for the easy rides and, well, there weren’t too many. Built into the schedule was a “rest day” ride on day 2 and another on day 5, with an option to add on a significant climb and, oh, 40 miles. I was pretty sure I would not be adding on the extra 40. The rest of the rides were significant in climbing, miles, and often both, and the first and third days kicked things off with centuries.

However, I like a good challenge, love riding my bike in the mountains, and figured I had time to train. Maybe, I could just view the whole thing as a super fun training camp week with friends? At elevation?

Our group of women (Stephanie, Lesley, myself, Lisa, Catherine) riding out of Breckenridge along the Dillon Reservoir. Photo by Ryan Muncy Photography

Initially, I had a little trepidation about signing up again after 2021, which faced some major challenges due in part to extreme heat, as well as the primary caterer falling through completely on the second day due to Covid (which affected people camping the most, but also some of the aid stations).

I was also a little stressed by some of the 2021 descents (especially gravel descents) on my beloved but aging Colnago, with its underperforming rim brakes + carbon rims combo. I had to actually stop and let my rims cool off a few times on the loose gravel descent from Lizard Head Pass. I was not amused.

However, the vastness and jaw-dropping beauty of the Colorado Rockies that we rode through in 2021 just blew me away – I mean, these mountains are truly next level– and I wanted more! (And I finally upgraded my bike to one with disc brakes, which gave me a lot more confidence on the descents. Also, this year’s course didn’t have any challenging gravel sections.)

I was hopeful that improvements would be made to on-course rider support, after the event was sold to new management in November 2021. In fact, that new management fell through, so the Bill Plock from 303cycling.com took over in April 2022 to become the current director, a mere two months before the event took place. At the time he took over, only one of 40 necessary permits was in place, and planning had been essentially stalled since January, so Bill had a daunting task ahead of him!

The tulips had already finished blooming when I looked again more closely at the route, again searching for something reassuring. Yikes, I was not ready! Life stressors (hello new puppy!) had taken a toll on my health and riding in 2021, and somehow, I had lost that little engine that I had come to rely on over these years. I was doubtful that I would be able to finish the event, let alone stay within reasonable distance of any of my friends.

Although I had made some progress with regular indoor training throughout the winter with TrainerRoad, I needed a more personal approach; fortunately, I connected with Dave Harward and Breanne Nalder Harward from PLAN7 cycling and nutrition coaching. The training took me out of the canyons for a bit as I worked to significantly increase my cadence and build back my endurance. I had gotten in the habit of riding up the canyons almost every ride, which I loved for the scenery; however, my fitness at higher cadences had dropped, and it took some work on flatter routes to build that back. I also focused on proper nutrition on the bike (i.e., using an electrolyte drink and getting enough carbs), recovery from workouts, and throughout the rest of the day.

As a person with type 1 diabetes, I had gotten into the habit of sometimes just eating to prevent low blood sugar, rather than eating to support my workouts, which would leave me under-fueled during my rides and really hungry the rest of the day. It took more effort to dial in the proper amount of insulin. High blood sugar can also be a big challenge because it messes with hydration and electrolytes; because I was eating more, I had to actually increase some of my insulin rates on my pump.

In addition, as a single parent with two young kids, the quality of my nutrition sometimes took a backseat to other obligations. Addressing all these changes would be critical to my success at Ride the Rockies, and I was really grateful to have expert help from Dave and Breanne.

The logistical planning for Ride the Rockies to get away without kids for a week was no joke. Fortunately, our fearless group leader, Lesley Anderson, is an expert planner and secured our lodging for the week through the company Summit Cycles Solutions (SCS). SCS supports riders who opt to stay in hotels by transporting their luggage from hotel to hotel, or in their “Camping Elevated” tent section by setting up tents and air mattresses for riders at each location and dropping off luggage at the tents. (Free camping is also always available for those who don’t mind doing it all themselves.)

In addition to lodging, though, I would need to arrange childcare for the week, find someone to take care of our dog, and make sure I could get the time off work and take care of all the last-minute things that seemed like an ever-growing list. After making arrangements with two babysitters, my mom, and enrolling my girls in a day camp for the week, I hoped things would be smooth sailing.

Finally, the week before Ride the Rockies arrived! All this preparation was worth it to me because – let’s get back to it – a week of riding every day with my friends in the mountains? I mean, come on! However, I wasn’t sure I would actually make it out of the house. And the news of extra drama with the kids hitting my phone as we crossed over the Colorado state line made me question if I would get to ride at all. After several hours of worry, things were resolved, and I took a huge sigh of relief — it was time to get on my bike.

Ride the Rockies 2022

Day 1: Copper Mountain to Glenwood Springs: 110 miles, 4390’ elevation gain

We had finally made it to the start of the ride, some last-minute bike mechanical drama notwithstanding. I was so happy to be riding at last with Lesley, Lisa and our other posse members, Stephanie Fowler and Catherine Collier. The early morning weather was chilly at nearly 10,000’, but we started with a climb to Fremont Pass (11,391’), which was a good way to warm up and shake off my initial sluggishness. Surprisingly, I felt normal during the first 3-4 hours which we spent riding above 10,000’, including cresting Tennessee Pass (10,423’) and Battle Mountain (9,269’).

The rest was “downhill” except for the 1000 more feet of climbing and massively strong and demoralizing headwinds – you know, the kind that make you work to ride downhill. It had become quite hot, and with the headwind and accumulated exhaustion, I bonked hard. We were all delighted to find a convenience store with icy drinks and a refrigerated beer cave to cool off in.

I tried to muster my strength for the remaining ~30 miles we had at that point and was very grateful for Lisa who patiently pulled me along. The last 10 miles riding next to the absolutely raging Colorado River on the Glenwood Canyon bike path were spectacular, and in the shade. Happily, I started to feel better and truly enjoyed this part of the ride. (I also reflected on how Colorado had managed to put this trail next to a massive river and right alongside, and often below, I-70; Utah needs to do better.)

I learned later from Bill Plock that the US Forest Service closes the bike path if there is a 30% or more chance of thunderstorms in the area, due to flash flood risk; we had lucked out with a good forecast. We learned later that there had been a small fire in the canyon after the riders went through, and there were two raft rescues on the Colorado River which had affected some riders getting through.

Day 2: Glenwood Springs to Basalt: 31 miles, 2926’ elevation gain

We started the morning out of Glenwood Springs on the Rio Grande bike path, taking a detour up a climb through some beautiful back roads that kind of reminded me of the Heber Valley–some rolling green hills and open areas, with mountains as a backdrop. We enjoyed a short stretch of packed dirt/gravel, the only gravel at this year’s event. Along the ridge top, the winds picked up and were incredibly forceful, too strong to even grab a bottle for a drink. The wind was absolutely whipping up waves on the nearby lake. The descent back down to the Rio Grande trail was super sketchy and I think we were all relieved to get down safely to Basalt.

Initially, we had planned to ride another 27 miles (with significantly more climbing) to our hotels in Snowmass; instead, we opted to stop in Basalt, the official stop for the day, and take advantage of the shuttle service that had been arranged for riders staying in Snowmass. Before heading out, though, we stopped by to get much-appreciated massages from massage therapists who help support Ride the Rockies each year. Massages can be scheduled each day and are set up right next to the camping areas.

Day 3: Basalt (Snowmass for us) to Salida via Independence Pass: 107 miles, 7140’ elevation gain

After the winds of the first two days, I felt a little anxious about what the ride to Independence Pass, at 12,095’ in elevation, would be like. I had heard that maybe the road was a little scary, maybe there was a cliff on the side, and what about those crosswinds. I was honestly a little shaken by the winds coming down to Basalt from the day before and kept studying the weather maps trying to reassure myself.

It didn’t help much.

The weather also looked a little unstable and perhaps there would be rain? Needless to say, we spent a lot of time engaging in the cyclist’s favorite quest of making the perfect clothing choices.

Riders make their way up Independence Pass from Aspen. Photo by Ryan Muncy Photography

After all the worry, the pass turned out to be one of my favorite rides ever, reminding me of some of the riding here in the Wasatch. It is a long climb at about 20 miles, but humane in steepness and spectacular in beauty. We had a little light rain early, and a few flurries near the top. The wind was often at our backs, although, at one hairpin turn, the crosswind was so sudden and strong that it very nearly blew me over.

The view of an expansive mountain valley surrounded by the mountain peaks was the reward as we made the last stretch to the top. Grateful to have my disc brakes for the descent, I enjoyed the views of the lush green grasses, trees, and rivers, as well as the tailwind down to Twin Lakes.

We grabbed lunch at the welcoming Twin Lakes General Store, warmed up, and were on our way. The tailwind moved us along quickly through the subsequent flat and rolling sections; however, as we neared Buena Vista and alongside the highway to Salida, we were repeatedly buffeted by incredibly strong crosswinds.

We all laughed later to see we had taken Strava trophies when we made the turn into Salida, with the winds at our backs. If we had only bothered to pedal! I would love to spend more time in Salida – we had a delicious dinner at a local restaurant and enjoyed watching the kayakers practicing in the rapids in the Arkansas River.

Day 4: Salida to Breckenridge: 79 miles, 6013’ elevation gain

The ride north out of Salida was beautiful, with more favorable winds and cooler temperatures. We backtracked to Buena Vista and this time I was able to enjoy the scenery a bit more, as we passed by some of the Collegiate Peaks 14ers in the area and an interesting mountain called Chalk Mountain that had big patches of, well, white chalk.

Although I enjoyed the terrain (mostly gradual climbing), I did not enjoy riding alongside the highway, which we did for almost the entire ride that day. I don’t know if there would have been an alternate way to get up to Breckenridge, but I was just counting down the miles until we got off the highway, only to turn onto … another highway.

We picked up lunch at the rest stop in Fairplay – wow, two huge buttermilk pancakes never tasted so delicious. Every day along the ride, they set up a tent at one of the rest stops to sell eggs, burritos, tacos, and pancakes. Another longtime RTR caterer set up at the rest stops to save riders from the heat with their fruit smoothies. YUM. The pancakes and syrup were a lot higher in carbs than I usually take in all at once, so I took a small amount of insulin to cover it, which can be a risky move due to the dramatically increased potency of insulin during exercise. It turns out, I guessed wrong and had to eat a lot more than I wanted to get through the climb up to Hoosier Pass, due to repeatedly falling blood sugar.

When I got to the summit at 11,542’, I was feeling a little spaced out – maybe the elevation or maybe just from too much insulin – and I just needed to get down. I was ready to be done for the day, and ready to be away from cars.

Day 5: Breckenridge Loop: 31 miles, 1512’ elevation gain – or 71 miles, 3984’ elevation gain with Ute Pass option

Ahhhhh, this was the day we all needed. We had a day to just relax and do our own thing. We could go short, go long, go early or later, and would be able to stay in the same place for two nights.

I had been pretty determined that I would not be doing the bonus 40 miles this day, but was persuaded by Stephanie, who made the compelling point that, “Before you know it, you will be back at your desk wishing you could be riding.” So true! I had the luxury of riding all day if I wanted to, so maybe I could give it a try.

Our group and others riding on the bike path along the Dillon Reservoir the last day. Photo by Ryan Muncy Photography

With a tailwind and downhill out of Breckenridge on their fabulous bike path, and our ladies’ posse leader that morning, Catherine, pulling us all along, we figured that we essentially had our recovery ride right there! The views of the Dillon Reservoir with the Breckenridge mountains backdrop were breathtaking as we wound our way around. I made a gametime decision to join Stephanie and Catherine on the Ute Pass out-and-back and was stunned by the beauty from the top of the Gore Range. Wow, Colorado was really showing off.

I felt surprisingly good that day and was glad I had decided to opt for the longer ride. Although my longest ride leading up to Ride the Rockies was 70 miles, I had just done 4 rides between about 70 and 110 miles in the past 5 days. I could see how the training, both cycling and nutrition, was really paying off, and was gaining confidence that I would not only finish the event, but finish feeling better than I started. I had not anticipated this.

Day 6: Breckenridge to Golden: 87 miles, 5500’ elevation gain

Our last day! As our “ladies posse,” 5 women strong, rode in a paceline around the Dillon Reservoir, I was both excited and sad to see our week of riding drawing to a close. It had been such a gift to be able to spend this much time riding and traveling with some of my favorite people, riding bikes in such awe-inspiring locales. Each woman in our group had shown such strength, power, talent, and grit along the way, and I don’t think I had laughed so much in a long time. Ahhh, just wonderful.

Anne Findlay enjoying the car-free ride up Loveland Pass on the last day. Photo by Ryan Muncy Photography

As we approached the Loveland Pass climb, I could hear the cheers of the cyclists as we saw the CDOT sign indicating that the pass was closed to motor vehicle traffic!! OMG! We were all so grateful to have a stress-free ride over the pass. Wow! With a stop for a delicious and perfectly timed scone from the Steep Coffee Shop in Keystone (I was over eating gels and blocks when I could help it), I was powered up for the climb to the 11,991’ pass. It was truly glorious, and the perfect way to end the week. We enjoyed the rest of the ride to Golden, including a bike path down through lush pine forests, the locally infamous Floyd Hill, and a locals-only side trip to Lookout Mountain.

I think we hardly even noticed the shuttle ride that we took to cross over some construction in Idaho Springs. I’m not sure if it was a week of riding, or the drop back down from higher elevations, but I felt the best I had all week. There had been a lot of preparation, and I had absolutely depended on support from my coaches and cycling friends both before and during the event; but somehow, I (as well as the rest of our group) had made it successfully through this incredibly challenging week of cycling!

 

 

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