Colorado High Country 1200K: The Best of the West

The year is at its end, and I realized this was as good a time as any to publish my story of the Colorado High Country 1200K from last summer.  It’s long, but I hope worth the read. MG posted her excellent story some weeks ago, see it here.

Without further ado, I give you:

Colorado High Country 1200K 2012: The Best of the West
by Ed Felker

The map of the days of the High Country 1200K.
The map of the days of the High Country 1200K.

After completing Paris-Brest-Paris last year, MG and I were on the fence about undertaking another long randonnee in 2012. They take a lot of preparation plus the time and expense of traveling to the event. We found the 2011 PBP trip rewarding, but also exhausting.

Then we forgot about all that as we considered the 2012 Colorado High Country 1200K. The route by organizer John Lee Ellis includes some of northern Colorado’s and southern Wyoming’s tallest passes, and offered a chance to combine randonneuring with some excellent sightseeing along the way.

As the July 9 start approached we watched the news reports about wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming, and the closure of roads on the planned route.

John quickly changed the route once because of the Poudre Canyon fire in Colorado, then changed it again because of a second fire in Wyoming. In the end we rode a third version that would get us around the known obstacles with an option to take Trail Ridge Road — the highest paved road in America — if a key segment through Poudre was closed.

MG and I arrived with half of our Co-Motion Speedster tandem on July 5 — one of two cases did not make the flight. This is no way to start a ride. I got up early the next morning and started pacing around the main road by host hotel, the Quality Inn in Louisville, Colo., outside Boulder, trying to work off some nervous worry.

A station wagon zoomed up and the driver asked me directions to the hotel, and I could see our case in the back. Much relief ensued. The bike came together without a hitch. More relief ensued!

For a test ride we went 15 miles under bright sunny skies to downtown Boulder that day with two other riders: Dave Cramer from Massachusetts and our old pal Bob Olsen from New York state.

Bob and Dave in downtown Boulder.
Bob and Dave in downtown Boulder.

(See all of my photos from the event here and MG’s here.)

We thoroughly enjoyed the roadie/hipster ambiance of Pearl Street’s coffee houses, bike shops and restaurants. Coffee plus a trip to Veccio’s super cool bike shop and lunch made for a mellow initial acclimation to the Colorado elevation.

Joe of Vecchio's and MG. He gave us free water bottles for the ride. Thanks Joe!
Joe of Vecchio’s and MG. He gave us free water bottles for the ride. Thanks Joe!

Yet there was still some concern about our ride to come. I was struggling with the remnants of a cold and a dry cough persisted that day and evening. By the next morning we had a talk about whether I might be too sick to ride.

We turned to a trusted source of medical knowledge — Dr. Google.

After matching the symptoms to the last stage of bronchitis on various medical sites, MG and I decided I was probably OK to ride. Sorry urgent care clinic, no fees for you today!

We tested this theory on Saturday with a hilly ride up Lefthand Canyon, north of Boulder, to see how I pedaled.

This ride needed a coffee boost, naturally, which I suspected would also help my condition — or at least lift my spirits. We returned to Ozo Coffee Roasters for yet another round of excellent espresso and espresso drinks.

Fortunately all went well, with the help of ibuprofen, which shrunk the swollen membranes in my lungs. We were good to go, though the cough would pop up here and there over the next few days.

Lots of roadies on the way up Lefthand Canyon.
Lots of roadies on the way up Lefthand Canyon.

More riders arrived on Saturday and Sunday, including our DC Randonneurs friend Bill Beck, amigo Jeff Bauer and a few other East Coasters. The 43 entrants showed John Lee their bikes and lights on Sunday evening, got brevet cards and cue sheets, and hunkered down for the 4 a.m. start on Monday. MG and I ordered pizza and tried to get that last few hours of shuteye.

Day One

After a few remarks by John Lee under a very light misting rain, the field rolled out of Louisville on the first day’s 220-mile segment to Saratoga, Wyo. via Laramie.

There was absolutely no shortage of adrenaline! Everyone stuck together across mostly flat and dry roads north toward Fort Collins and Loveland. MG and I pulled at the front on the downill sections and then dropped back after the roads leveled off. John Lee nicely greeted us roadside before Fort Collins after daybreak as we all steamed at a fast pace.

Tooling along on the way to Fort Collins at first light
Tooling along on the way to Fort Collins at first light

MG and I pulled over to de-layer after 30 miles and let the group go ahead. We caught a couple of stoplights in Fort Collins and grouped up with Vickie Tyer and some other folks who had adopted a similar moderate pace. A shower rolled through but stopped before we needed rain jackets.

Riders bolted through the quaint Vern’s control at LaPorte, where I wolfed down a quick espresso and a breakfast burrito. We took off again on US 287 to Laramie. The skies were partly cloudy and we had a tailwind to help with the gradual incline.

Long haul trucks rumbled past here and there but the traffic was light enough. This was our first introduction to the many miles of highway shoulders we would traverse the next four days.

We chatted with Chris Heg from Seattle, Bob Koen from Vancouver and Dave Cramer on this windswept road, and made a quick stop at a roadside oasis set up by volunteer Jim Kraychy at Virginia Dale to top off our water reserves.

MG, Jim and Dave at Jim's oasis near the Wyoming border.
MG, Jim and Dave at Jim’s oasis near the Wyoming border.

The air was exceptionally dry and the sun was coming out. Yes, we were officially riding our bikes in the open West!

After grinding up to the Wyoming state line with Dave, we flew solo into Laramie at 25 m.p.h., powered by a gradual descent and powerful tailwind. Downtown was hot and bustling as we stopped at a Subway, where Art and Dan Fuoco, and Rorie were pulled over.

Bill Beck arrived after us and we all pulled out together around 1 p.m. I looked longingly at the coffee shop across the street but resisted the urge to bolt in for an espresso. Subway ice tea would have to do. Oh, the sacrifices we make to stick to randonneur timetables!

The hot sun and southern crosswinds made the run to Centennial something of a chore, but we were happily distracted by the open range, bright blue skies and picturesque mountains ahead.

At Centennial riders were topping up supplies at the convenience store. A massive climb up Snowy Range Road loomed and nobody rushed out before refilling bottles and taking a few minutes break.

On the way to Centennial, Wyo.
On the way to Centennial, Wyo.

I took a photo of the Fuoco brothers and Rorie. After eating snacks and applying more sunscreen, MG and I started out toward the highest point of the four days — 10,700 feet — with more than 2,600 feet of climbing over 10 miles to conquer.

The effects of altitude intensified as we climbed. The thin air made us breathe harder for a given effort and kept us thirsty.

We traveled up, up, up over stairstep roads, in the vicinity of Mark Metcalf and Fred Hunley, who kept up a cheerful banter. Up through green meadows and tree stands, MG and I stood, cranked the pedals out of the saddle for awhile, sat down and panted, recovered, and repeated.

We really felt way out in the West on this segment.

This went on for about two hours as we spun our granny ring and shifted up and down the cogs. Temperatures dropped to the 50s as we rose and by the summit I was sweatsoaked, chilled and lightheaded.

On the long Snowy Range climb.
On the long Snowy Range climb.

After stopping to put on layers and eat a snack, the summit arrived and what a scene it was. Lakes, long-distance views and a dramatic, soaring bowl greeted us as we rolled through the saddle before starting the ascent to the western summit, which was actually another 100 feet higher, at 10,872.

A massive descent followed that was sheltered from updrafts and cross winds, and with no traffic to slow us, we bolted past a couple of riders on single bikes (hi Fred, hi Rorie!) on a thrilling dash to the valley. The curves were wide and gentle and in no time we were stopping again to take off layers as the road leveled and heat rose again.

The Fuocos and Rorie showed up, then Dave Cramer, and Mark and Fred rolled through. It was HOT at the lower elevation, and we got out of everything we donned at the top. A few big descending rollers over scrub land led us to the early evening out-and-back to a control in Riverside and then to the control hotel at Saratoga.

Riders streamed north from Riverside as we pedaled south. We didn’t know if the store would be open, but it was as we arrived.

I was a little disappointed to see people had already made the turn and were headed to the hotel, but tried not to let on to MG. The tandem captain’s job is to keep up a positive attitude, and there really wasn’t anything wrong.

MG and I sat outside and ate with some of our fellow riders, including Rod Geisert whose wife was supporting him at the controls. She nicely gave us bananas and we lit out in the low sunlight to tackle the 20 rolling miles back to Saratoga.

The setting sun illuminated the dry scrub and we caught up to Brent and Beth Myers on the only other tandem, a DaVinci.

Me, Beth and Brent on the way to Saratoga.
Me, Beth and Brent on the way to Saratoga.

They were riding strong and it took awhile for us to catch their wheel. A few pleasantries made the miles pass and in fading light the hotel appeared on the edge of Saratoga right at 9 p.m. — a much earlier arrival than we anticipated.

John Lee thoughtfully reserved the entire establishment. His helpful volunteer signed our cards and we were given a room at the front desk. Nearby stood two tables of hot and cold food being managed by another volunteer, who was serving up baked potatoes and chili. It was a perfect randonneur spread!

Riders sat outside eating in the twilight and swapped stories. We agreed to a 2 a.m. departure with Jeff B., Bill and Dave Campbell from Austin, Texas. Our work done for the day, we grabbed our drop bags and took bowls of food to our room to continue eating. After all that, we conked out for three blissful hours. Yes, three whole hours. This was our vacation, and we were intent on getting some sleep, ha ha!

Day Two

Our friend Roger Hillas says he has better legs on the odd-numbered days on a 1200K more than the evens. Fresh legs on Day 1 are followed by fatigue on Day 2. The legs seem to snap back on Day 3, but heavy fatigue on Day 4 makes that day a challenge (that is, if you don’t finish in three days or less — not us!).

Though the distance for the second day was to be shorter than the first, at 198 miles, we were to climb one major pass and ascend over a very tough section of rollers to the overnight hotel late in the day.

First off was the dreaded 100-Mile Climb. No kidding. The elevation profile showed a steady rise from Saratoga, at 6,791 feet, to the summit at Rabbit Ears Pass, some 105 miles away at 9,426 feet. We would then descend into Steamboat Springs for lunch.

Our group rolled out under twinkling stars and cool breezes back to Riverside, and then turned left on desolate Highway 230 for 59 miles to a morning control in Walden, Colo.

Temperatures fell into the low 50s, maybe upper 40s, as daylight approached. We rode in vests, long finger gloves, caps and leg coverings. It was lonely and cold, but being in a group helped us wile away the miles. A car shot past every so often, but not _ very _ often.

At the Colorado border we stopped for fun photos. The sun was up and we were back in Colorado, 264 miles done! Daybreak had come and it was a relief to be less than two hours away from Walden and breakfast.

We made it! MG, Dave, Me, and Bill. Photo by Jeff Bauer.
We made it! MG, Dave, Me, and Bill. Photo by Jeff Bauer.

There was no way to make fast time on this long stretch. The low-percentage climbing forced us to spin at a moderate pace in the teens, so we, Dave, Bill and Jeff just traded stories and rolled as best we could.

No more than a few vehicles passed by and we mostly rode down the center of the right lane through the scrubby ranch country. There was one big hill near the end of this segment to break the monotony, but the best strategy seemed to be to avoid eye contact with our odometers.

At the sleepy town of Walden, Jim greeted us at the hotel control. He signed our cards and we u-turned back to the Moose Creek Cafe for breakfast. Mark Thomas, Jimmy Williams and Tim Sullivan walked in and we proceeded to plow through pancakes and huevos rancheros.

The pancakes were as big as dinner plates and MG could not finish hers, nor could anyone else. Big country breakfasts, indeed.

Another 38 miles of steady gradual uphill plowing faced us to Rabbit Ears pass. The day got warmer and the sun stronger. We had burned in odd spots the day before and were learning that sunscreen did not last nearly as long at high elevations as we expected.

I wore a wicking hat given to me by Randy Mouri from his extra RAAM kit to protect my head, which had gotten red stripes through my helmet, and slathered sunscreen everywhere else, especially the back of my neck and forearms.

The ascent to Rabbit Ears was preceded by a smaller climb to 8,772-foot Muddy Pass, a point on the Continental Divide, under relentless sun. MG and I had to wave the group on as we slowed and slowed, finally pulling over to regroup in an absolutely shadeless spot before starting the long uphill grade.

This was a low point for us; the seated pedaling with no downhill coasting had sapped our legs and morale. Bill and Dave rolled on. Jeff had slowed earlier and passed us at a steady, easy pace.

It occurred to me again that we could not, should not, rush this ride — steady effort was the only game plan.

We followed Jeff up to the top of Rabbit Ears with a swarm of flies buzzing around us. I spent much of my time swatting away at them when we were not out of the saddle trying to keep up some kind of momentum.

Second summit of the event, at Rabbit Ears Pass. Courtesy MG.
Second summit of the event, at Rabbit Ears Pass. Courtesy MG.

The three of us stopped for fun photos at the summit sign and then proceeded over a set of rolling hills with steady car traffic before the big seven-mile, 7 percent drop to Steamboat Springs.

The road pitched down hard and I got in a low crouch for a fast run. Sadly the pavement had too many rough sections and the crosswinds were too strong to let the tandem fly.

Mark had stopped halfway down and we flew past, then a hard left bend with a guardrail approached very quickly and I grabbed the brakes for a rest stop before proceeding.

I hate stopping on a descent, but we were not the only ones to find this descent scary — riders later told us they braked often to control their speed. Welcome to the mountainous West!

I now understood the value of a tandem drum brake — our dual disks didn’t fail to stop us quickly or scrub speed, but I had to keep working them to safely negotiate the turns.

Off the descent, the approach to Steamboat on US 40 was hot and full of traffic. Mark turned off at the shopping center on the edge of town to eat but we went on to downtown for something more appetizing than McDonald’s.

The town center had plenty of places and we found a cafe with sidewalk seating. We tried to get Bill to join us by exchanging Twitter messages but he also stopped early. We watched him and other riders roll past our spot without noticing us.

Sandwiches and fries, with multiple glasses of ice tea, revived us. I tried to buy a bandana at the outdoors store nearby to protect my neck but gave up when all they had were some kind of crazy performance model that cost $15. I mean, should a bandana cost more than $3? Not in my world.

(I would find the bandana later that day that I had packed in the Carradice bag. This made me feel not so smart.)

Now at mile 346, we looked forward to passing the half-way point, only to be greeted by an rolling but hot and busy 25-mile run to the little town of Hayden.

Saddle soreness was getting the better of us. We stopped at a stand of trees to discreetly apply chamois creme and cool off, and saw Brent and Beth pulling out.

Then we had to stop at the first of two highway construction sections under blazing sun. As we approached, they and other riders ahead were allowed through before our side was blocked again, giving us a joyful (not!) 10 extra minutes to kill.

“Where are all the women?” joked the fellow controlling traffic. He also wanted to know why we were going to Hayden, only to backtrack partway to another road before turning to Oak Creek. Finally MG said, “the point of the ride is to go to all these towns!”

There you have it: randonnueuring, the abridged version.

We finally got the OK to proceed and passed along cliffs that were being netted to catch falling rocks.

A few miles later we saw cars gathering at a second work zone. MG and I hammered to get there before they proceeded. Through this section, we saw groups of riders going back towards Oak Creek after controlling in Hayden.

Once in town we saw the Myers at one store but we proceeded on to the second store as indicated on the cue sheet; both were acceptable. I oiled the grinding dry rear chain and we chugged down ice tea and ate some snacks. Tim Argo was there recovering from the heat and Rod pulled up, followed by Hugh Kimball.

Our plan was to get going fast and we lit out after 15 minutes or so, spying the Myers mounting up as we rode past their store stop. The work zone had closed up for the night and we had no construction stops on the way back to the turn onto Twenty Mile Road.

This was a picturesque former dirt road past a Peabody Coal mine that covered a set of intensely steep rollers, leading to a big pitch up 1,500 feet to 7,872 feet.

We made the turn and started swapping places with Tim Argo. We’d spin up a climb to about 7,000 feet, then drop in a flash down a hill to 6,700 or lower, then climb again, on and on. The terrain was dramatic, all soft hills with horses grazing amidst rock outcroppings.

Climbing away from the coal mine.
Climbing away from the coal mine.

We passed by the mine and then the real steep stuff started — granny grinders, followed by twisting descents of a mile or so, then another grinder. Dark clouds gathered and threatened rain.

I watched the altimeter on the GPS and grimaced every time we topped a nasty little rise, knowing we were about to surrender our elevation gain.

We started the final grade up to the top and dropped into the granny for good. Here some fears started creeping in. I had inflamed my Achilles tendon at PBP and was scared to blow it up, but we had no choice other than to walk.

A stray rain drop fell and we alternated spinning and standing at a 5-6 m.p.h. pace. Tim’s chain failed to drop off the big ring at the bottom of the hill and he was behind us after he stopped to fix it, while Mark and Jeff B. were up the hill.

I used them both as rabbits and we gradually overtook Mark, then reached the easy pedaling Jeff just at the summit before the brief plunge together into Oak Creek. We arrived in dramatic fashion at the grocery store where Mark, Jimmy, Bill Beck and Dave C. were refueling, with a big “whoo!” of accomplishment for getting the tandem up that brute of a road.

Dave gave us a nice compliment about our tenacity (thanks Dave!) and we tried to recover our wits for the final miles into the overnight back in Steamboat. MG took some pictures and I staggered around.

The grocery store staff warned the other guys about a rough construction zone on the main road, but Mark T. had cleared an alternate route on the phone with John Lee that added a couple of miles but was preferable.

We left with Jeff and had a general idea where to go, but it took a knock on a resident’s door before we got around the pretty detour and back to the main road. There we still turned left instead of right, but Henk B. was on the roadside a little ways up, fixing a flat. “You’re going the wrong way!” he advised us. Oops!

We pulled into the control hotel at 8:30 p.m. Brent and Beth rolled in a few minutes later, which was good to see. Today had not been very tandem-friendly. I’d call it tandem-unfriendly!

Brent gave as a nice comment about keeping our momentum up on Twenty Mile Road, which was much appreciated. Only the tandem teams can understand the challenges of working together to get these big bikes over the steeps while staying coordinated and supportive of each other’s travails.

The breakfast area had been taken over as a feed zone with bar-b-que sandwiches, pop, potato salad, sandwich makings, and all sorts of goodies.

MG and I grabbed our drop bags and got up to the room, returned for food, and then tried to settle into bed quickly. This had been an exhausting day and we could think of little but showers and rest. We set another 2 a.m. departure time with Jeff and Dave.

Day Three

Volunteers Leslie and Dottie helped us get out the door with plenty of breakfast food — breakfast burritos, no less — and good cheer. I sat with Brent and contemplated the day ahead. We faced another 181 miles starting with Gore Pass at 9,527 feet and ending with Willow Creek Pass at 9,621 feet before a long descent back to Walden.

Dave and MG, ready to face Day Three.
Dave and MG, ready to face Day Three.

We first rode back to Oak Creek with Jeff B., Mark Thomas, Dave Campbell, and Jimmy, leaving around 2:30 a.m. The 34-mile ascent to Toponas got colder and colder, with brisk winds, and the store in Yampa was closed when we passed by. Thankfully we had plenty of water in our Camelbaks and food in our pockets.

The sun started rising as we began the gentle climb up Gore Pass, which actually leveled off and descended a bit before rising again to the summit. Only a few cars passed us. The road was ours.

I said to Mary that it was improbable that we’d ever traverse this lush mountain pass at daybreak if we were not on a randonee. This kind of riding brings us all together at wonderful places at remarkable (to some, insane) times of the day. I was grateful for the experience, even if we had to get up in the middle of the night.

Top of Gore Pass. Dave, Mark, me and MG.
Top of Gore Pass. Dave, Mark, me and MG.

At the summit we took congratulatory photos, then began the twisty, fast descent. With no speed advisories posted on the turns I was braking at first, until Jimmy bolted past on his sweet Gunnar tour bike.

An advanced descender, he led the way until the turns became more manageable for me, then we took the lead and both shot down the descent.

Mark and Dave rolled up as we hit the flats below. “You guys looked like you dropped down an elevator shaft!” Mark said. It was lot of fun to get a fast run down after having to brake on Rabbit Ears the day before.

Big rollers led us to Kremmling, 70 miles into the day without a break, and we stopped at the Moose Cafe to start devouring. A group of four riders was heading out of town as we parked our bikes — I think it was Tim Foon Feldman’s group. Laurent Chambard was at the grocery store, I recall, and others were in the vicinity.

We walked in around 8 a.m. past the local cowboys and retirees. I spied an espresso machine behind the counter and I said a quiet prayer of thanks. Nearly 48 hours had passed since my last double shot and those Cokes and ice teas only go so far.

Sitting under a large stuffed moose head mounted on the wall, we gathered for what was to be our only cooked food on the road that day. I ordered a big pancake plus eggs and hash browns and managed to down them all.

Dave bought a T-shirt for his daughter, which reminded me to call my own daughter to wish her a happy birthday.

After a fresh application of sunscreen and the ritual “taking off of layers,” off we went to historic Hot Sulfur Springs. A roadside marker said that the Old West-style, end-of-the-month-payday gunfights led to the town celebrating Halloween on Oct. 30 to protect the children! The tradition is observed still.

We rode through the sublime and steeply walled Byers Canyon, waving along the way to touring cyclists who were looking down on the rushing Colorado River.

Through Byers Canyon.
Through Byers Canyon.

Temperatures rose quickly into the 80s and a stop at a convenience store let us get ice and cold drinks as another pair of touring riders passed by.

Our group split up there. Dave and Mark rolled on as MG, Jeff and I lingered. More sunscreen. I had put on a bandana around my neck at this point (the one that was in our Carradice bag) to shield it from the intense sun. MG wore the white sunsleeves she had bought before the trip to stop any more sunburn on her arms.

Just as we made the turn towards Grand Lake, John Lee rolled up and stopped to say hello. We felt pretty good and had a nice conversation with him.

What a nice treat, before some hard work ensued getting to the next control. The skies were bright — really bright. I felt like I was in some kind of photo filter: EXTRA SUNNY.

After more ups than downs we arrived at Grand Lake, just below the rise to Trail Ridge Road. Ominous black clouds were gathering on the high mountain summits but we got only stray drops and some wind gusts off the lake. Riders leaving town in the other direction were smiling, which was a good sign.

The control store was a disappointment, though. We struggled to get something worthwhile to eat. The packaged sandwiches were expired and we had to make do with snacks, and the staff was largely indifferent to us. There was nowhere to sit inside or out and we had to linger in a corner by the bathrooms when a shower rolled through.

MG was a little cooked, as was I, and it took us a good 30 minutes to regroup. I took some Advil and a Sudafed to control a nasal drip that had been making my throat sore.

Jeff gave us some cough drops, which helped tremendously. Note to self — get some of these next time in the West. They allowed me to swallow without having to take a gulp of water every time.

By now a storm was brewing. Pills and drinks consumed, we got back on the road and started flying with a gusty tailwind blowing us back towards Granby. Summation: Awesome!

I recalled some downhills on the way into town, but if there were hills going back, we didn’t notice them, and our tandem with Jeff in tow shot back to the gas station in Granby at US 40 without much effort.

Riders were still headed toward Grand Lake and we waved to them, then found Art and Rorie fueling for the ride at the store. Tim Sullivan, Dave and Mark were there, getting ready to go on to Willow Creek Pass.

The food options were somewhat better and MG and I worked on a Coke, packaged turkey sandwiches and chips. Jeff went over to a stand in the parking lot and bought some kind of animal jerky. The winds were howling down the canyon under darkening skies.

I was sure we’d get slammed by rain in Willow Creek Pass but after a slow climb up the initial ascent, we entered a sweet, quiet valley of creeks and high peaks under clearing skies.

Surrounded by wooded hillsides, MG, Jeff and I swapped stories about past rides and quirky riding pals and gobbled up the miles on gently rollers.

Jeff climbing with us up Willow Creek Pass. Courtesy MG.
Jeff climbing with us up Willow Creek Pass. Courtesy MG.

I was having some trouble staying seated because I’d chosen a pair of Voler shorts that just weren’t working for me — I think I got the Wrong Trousers model — forcing us to stand up every so often, but nothing seemed wrong or bad or out of place.

It was a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday afternoon, scratchy chamois and all.

A three-mile pitch led us to the summit where John Lee was waiting, as he said he would be when we saw him earlier in the day. Jeff paused briefly and rolled on, and John Lee took our photo. “Downhill all the way from here,” he said cheerfully.

John Lee gave us welcome encouragement. And left out one little detail. Courtesy MG.
John Lee gave us welcome encouragement. And left out one little detail. Courtesy MG.

That should have been our first clue. Never believe the terrain description from anyone on a randonnee, especially the organizer!

We had visions of coasting all the way to Walden, and it certainly started out that way. But the descent eventually leveled off. We scooped up Jeff and set about polishing off the rest of the 30-mile stretch under puffy white clouds.

To our chagrin, the road was in really bad shape, with regularly spaced frost heave cracks across both lanes. Bump-bump. Bump-bump. Bump-bump we went.

A car passed once in while, but otherwise we had the road to ourselves and I wove the tandem trying to find a smooth line. It was a bummer but hey we were ahead of schedule, which made things better.

Walden appeared and we were at the hotel just past 7 p.m., the earliest we had gotten to the hotel yet.

A large room with kitchen was set up as a control room and John Lee’s volunteers were cooking up a frenzy. It was so early, people were sitting around have a great time as more riders rolled in.

MG and I got some awesome beans and rice and signed a big whiteboard indicating we’d be back for breakfast at 2 a.m.

I should have inquired when I overheard Jeff say, “so there’s no real reason to leave before 3?” or something to that effect. I knew we’d be awake after three hours, so in bed by 10 p.m. and up by 1, we’d go at 2 or else just kill time.

Food, showers, bed. Our room also had a kitchen, but we ignored that part. Another good day to ride, and more cherished sleep.

Day Four

I started waking up before the alarm, restless to get going. The fear of oversleeping always gets the better of me on brevets and radonnees, and this night was no different. We had a 30 mile ascent ahead and I wanted us to finish by mid-day.

Digging around in the drop bag, I considered how much cold weather gear to take. I figured I didn’t need more than my long finger gloves and some other items already in the Carradice, but I did put on light booties. These would come in very handy at the top of Cameron Pass.

I was relieved to get back into my favorite Gore shorts. My skin had one more day in it, I was certain, but good shorts and plenty of chamois butter would help a lot.

The rider board at the overnight control.
The rider board at the overnight control.

After breakfast in the control room, MG, I, Jeff, Dave, Bill and another rider whose name I forget rode off into the night around 2:30 a.m. The slope was relatively imperceptible at first but it was clear by our pace that we were headed uphill. Ken Bonner rolled past and we saw his taillights rise on the horizon.

A bright blanket of stars draped the sky, taking away all desire for daylight; we were the star-lit randonneurs, making our way through the Rockies without a care. At one point during a roadside stop MG looked up and noticed the Milky Way.

The climb was never steep, just long and steady, and all of a sudden I noticed dawn’s first light illuminating the crest of the mountains to the east as we neared the summit around 5 a.m. Somebody with better eyes than mine saw a family of moose off on the meadow and pointed them out.

A sense of accomplishment came over me. We had made it up the final big climb and with daylight coming, a terrific 120-mile (easy!) ride was ahead, right?

Not quite! We’d worked up good body heat coming up but now we we chilling fast. At the summit sign, still too dimly lit for good photos, MG and I stopped and put on everything we had.

For me that meant leg warmers, arm warmers, my Gore rain jacket, my vest over that, an earband and cap under my helmet.

We started down the rapid descent toward Poudre Canyon morning control in Rustic, some 26 miles away. The sun was pouring more and more light over the ridges to the east and the vistas were stunning. This was truly the mountain riding we had envisioned. We saw Jeff pulled over, taking photos of the canyon stream rushing down the mountainside.

I started to shiver badly, though, and had to pull over after a couple of sketchy turns. We started again, and the same thing happened again. My head was freezing from the wind chill as the bike rocketed at speeds of 40 m.p.h. and higher.

MG gave me her helmet cover, which helped greatly. I began to feel more confident, but then we rounded a corner at a moderate speed and there was a massive moose standing on the shoulder.

I put all I had into the levers and stopped us before crossing its path, not knowing if the great beast would turn left or right. If it charged us, well, who the heck knows. Hopefully our nighttime rando outfits were scary enough to prevent that line of attack!

Our antlered friend had no ill intent, however. It jumped up the slope and gandered away into the woods, we caught our breath and thanked the stars, and off we flew.

Everything good, right? No. The descent moderated and we had to start pedaling again here and there, but with less than 10 miles to go to the control, I began thinking about sleep.

Wouldn’t it feel good to get a nap there? Oh yeah, I thought. Can’t wait. MMMM. A nice warm nap.

And with that, I started nodding off on the bike. My eyelids started drooping. MG felt the bike shudder as I fought to concentrate on the road, then saw me begin shaking my head back and forth, trying to force my eyes to stay open.

The cold didn’t help. We rolled past a nice sunny spot into a shaded stretch, and a pulloff approached on the right. “Stopping! I have to sleep right now!” I shouted to MG.

Before she could protest, I got the bike off the road, climbed off and laid down on the cold pavement with my arms crossed. MG stood there with the tandem and noted strongly that we were in complete shade, there was nowhere to lean the bike, and, oh, it was freezing.

I peeked at my watch, said I’d be up in five minutes, and my eyes shut like bank vault doors. I drifted away immediately to a lovely place where I wasn’t fighting to stay awake. That place had really firm mattresses too, but comfy enough.

Critical stop-a roadside nap in the cold
Critical stop-a roadside nap in the cold

My slumber lasted less than two minutes when a cold gust prompted a full-body spasm, and I woke up with start. MG had her phone out, taking a photo of me sprawled on the roadside that she sent out on Twitter, with a note about her valiant captain or something. Oh, the dignity.

I jumped up, figuring I had put enough coins in the meter to get us to the control, where I could sleep again. MG shook her head at this sad rando spectacle and got back on the saddle.

We got to the control, dreaming of breakfast, and found it did not open for more than another hour. Sad feelings ensued. I wanted a Coke really, really strongly.

After standing around for awhile and chewing on a Clif bar, Tim Foon Feldman’s group rolled up, as did Bill, Jeff and Dave.

Tim told us to sign our own times on the cards and mark them “PC” for personal control, which was new to me, but with so many witnesses around and an RBA (Bill) among us, it sounded perfectly fine.

I was wide awake for some reason and off we all went down the canyon. Now the scent of burnt wood started to arise, and the farther down we proceeded, the stronger it became.

Burnt trees in Poudre Canyon.
Burnt trees in Poudre Canyon.

Rounding turn after turn, the magnitude of the Poudre Canyon fire became obvious. Whole hillsides were charred, or worse, cleared of all brush. Other sides were only charred — they appeared to be an odd gray, but the green of the few unscathed trees showed the difference.

At once, a magnificent and yet sobering section of the route. We had the rushing Cache La Poudre River rushing down the mountain and soaring hillsides and cliff walls, tempered by the signs of residents and businesses thanking the firefighters for saving their structures.

Dave, Bill and me at Poudre Canyon. Courtesy MG.
Dave, Bill and me at Poudre Canyon. Courtesy MG.

What should have been a busy summer weekday was mostly quiet, with public facilities mostly closed to visitors. Some rafting outfitters were driving up the canyon, but there was little tourist traffic.

Before getting to our final official control back at Vern’s, mile 690, Jeff flatted and we gladly stopped for a spell to relax. I tried to take in what we had done over the last three days and wish the high mountains goodbye.

That difference between touring and randonneuring always hits me on the last day of a 1200K. I tell myself to come back, to spend more time in the areas we ride through in such a relatively short time. This was our first trip together to Colorado and I started thinking about our possible routes when we next come to ride.

Bill gets a shot of the riders at Vern's.
Bill gets a shot of the riders at Vern’s.

At Vern’s our table and Tim’s started mowing through mounds of breakfast food, and John Lee came in to say hello and take some photos. I liked it that he was checking on us here and there during the ride — thanks John Lee!

A number of other riders showed up as we were getting ready to go, including the Mark Thomas group. In return for coming back to lower elevations we now had to accept hotter temperatures. Out came the sunscreen, away went all the cool weather gear.

The 60-mile run back to the finish was the normal herky-jerky pace that sets in on the last day, at least for this randonneur. Road construction in LaPorte had us making U-turns and riding sidewalks but we got through OK with no breakdowns.

Strong crosswinds in the 12-mile run on narrow Taft Hill Road nearly split our group of Bill, Dave, Jeff and us, and then more construction in Loveland jangled the nerves some more.

The timing was right for one last impromptu stop at the country/boutique store in Hygiene. We found a few riders there and more stopped in after us. Ice tea, chips, candy — at the last stop I always buy whatever I feel like. I figure I’ve earned it at that point.

Jeff flatted again leaving town and we waved on Bill and Dave. Mark Thomas and his group rode by, where he dryly observed that at least we were stopped in the shade.

Jeff gave up on the tire and put on his spare. I thought with some effort we could catch back up to Dave and Bill and finish together, and still beat the 83 hour mark.

It was just 20 miles, no problem! Ha ha!

MG and I put on our meager jets and did our best to ride hard all the way in. We and Jeff caught Mark’s group and rolled through on a downhill, and thought they’d sit on, but they let us go. The stoplights coming into Louisville broke our momentum but we made good progress nonetheless, though we never saw Bill and Dave.

Until, that is, we turned the last corner off Dillon Road at the hotel. Bill was stopped on the roadside across the street by Lowe’s hardware and waved us down.

“Dave wants to ride in together! He’s in the store getting a drink and he’ll be right out,” Bill said excitedly.

Dave came blazing out of the Lowe’s parking lot and in three pedal strokes we were at the hotel, along with the Mark Thomas/Tim Sullivan group. It was a sweet sentimental finish with Dave and Bill, after many good hours together over the last four days.

Jeff, me and MG with our finisher medals. Courtesy MG.
Jeff, me and MG with our finisher medals. Courtesy MG.

All done, MG and I gave each other a “way-to-go, glad-that’s-over” kiss, and turned in our cards. We came in at 82:52, just about what we expected with three night sleep stops. John Lee awarded us handsome finisher medals – a very nice touch.

I liked that we came in with plenty of time to spare and still with good legs. That’s not to say we were in excellent shape — my hands were bruised up and tingling, my seat was pretty tender from pressure soreness and my toes were a little numb from the out of the saddle climbing.

But overall we had a solid ride and a great time with our band of riding campanions. Where PBP is something of a free-for-all, the Colorado High Country was more like a fine outing with your best riding buddies over some of the most spectacular country in America.

Many thanks to Dave, Jeff, Bill, John Lee and his volunteers, and all the rest of the riders and helpers for making our CHC 1200 a truly memorable and satisfying randonnee.

And, let me express my gratitude to MG for her spirit, patience, trust, strength and determination. She’s the best stoker and riding partner one could ever want. Thanks, Love.


We didn’t realize it at the time, but a little ticking noise near MG’s seatpost during the ride was a more serious problem than we thought.

When I was taking the tandem apart the day after finishing I found a hairline crack in the top tube at the stoker seat tube junction. When we got back to Washington, our expert shop manager Charles at College Park Bikes immediately recognized it as such and we found another crack inside the seat tube.

They sent the frameset back to Co-Motion and the end result is that we agreed to a very generous credit toward a new Java 29er tandem that will let us run bigger tires.

We put more than 24,000 miles on the orange Speedster — many brevets, two 1200Ks and a 1000K, and thousands of touring miles. We were truly sad to see it go.

Goodbye trusty pal, it seems like we were just getting started. You finished on a high note, having traversed us over the peaks of the Colorado High Country 1200K. Well done.

So long, Speedster. You were a mighty steed. Courtesy MG.
So long, Speedster. You were a mighty steed. Courtesy MG.

8 thoughts on “Colorado High Country 1200K: The Best of the West

  1. Ed,
    Greetings from Munich! Perhaps you remember me (Tim Egan) from ’99 PBP and the DC Rand brevets…
    I left DC in 2002 and lived worked in Boulder, CO, for 5 years, (google: Tim Egan bear Boulder for a laugh!). Skied, cycled every CO pass, and loved the wild west before our start-up company (my brother started a med device co in 2004) was sold to a German/American firm. My brother and I were cycling in the arctic circle of northernmost Norway (6/2011) when he was hit and knocked off a cliff and died, it was beyond horrific…(google: Mike Egan Vail CO)
    I then agreed to join the purchaser of our company at the subsidiary in Germany, as I hoped that the change could help with the grieving process. So I live and work in Munick with access to the skiing, cycling, and culture of the Alps. Life improves daily…
    I was attempting to contacts our old pal Bill Alcorn who lives now in Portland, OR, and Iventured upon this blog! So I thought I would say hello as I have fond memories of riding with you throughout VA and France in 99.
    I hope that all is well in your life, Ed, all the best!
    Warm regards,

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