Our 2013 Colorado Tandem Tour: Part 1

MG did such a good job posting on Chasing Mailboxes about our progress during our July 4-12 Colorado tour (see her posts here) that I waited until we got home to put down my own thoughts about our experience.

We had a great time on this tour, and it marked a new step forward for us as a team: it was the first self-contained touring trip we had done far from home.

We have taken the tandem to randonneuring events in other parts of the U.S. (and France) and ridden self-contained in Virginia and surrounding states near home in Washington, D.C.

Going to Colorado to see friends and ride by ourselves was a new experience. Many questions had to be answered: where to stay, where to ride, how to get the bike to and from our start and end point in Boulder.

I’m happy to say all went well. The time we’ve spent randonneuring and touring helped us a lot in terms of determining the right distances and limiting our gear to the essentials. Our new Co-Motion Java tandem performed flawlessly, the weather co-operated and we were treated well throughout by drivers. In sum — a very fun and satisfying trip.

Summer vacation!
Summer vacation!

First off: Photos! Ours are uploaded at Flickr mine here and MG’s here.

You can see our routes at my Garmin GPS page here.


This tour started taking shape over the winter. We were inspired to return to the state after seeing the northern parts during the High Country 1200K randonnee with MG last summer. I previously rode the central mountains on the Bicycle Tour of Colorado in 1997, and wanted to see them again with MG on tandem at a more leisurely pace.

I contacted with our randonneur friends Tim Foon Feldman and HC 1200K organizer John Lee Ellis in Louisville, Colo., near Boulder, to talk over possible routes. Tim has drawn up the Haute Route 1200K randonner course, which I used as a template.

One of our goals was to take advantage of Colorado’s well-maintained dirt roads that the Java tandem would allow us to traverse with larger tires.

With their help I whittled the days into shorter versions with hotel stops. I included one of the six 200K-ish rides that Tim has made up from his 1200K: the 134-mile Trail Ridge 200K from Louisville through Rocky Mountain National Park to Kremmling, Colo.

It would be our first and longest day on the bike, going over the highest point on our tour at 12,200 feet of elevation with about 10,000 feet of climbing.

Route drafting led to hotel reservations, then vacation requests from work and airplane tickets. Colorado is a busy place during the summer — it was essential that we get everything locked in by early May.

We like Southwest Air to Denver because they allow two bags free per person and fly direct from Washington Dulles airport. The Java with S&S couplers broke down into suitcases that we could check without an additional fee.

From Denver a regional transit coach bus is available to Boulder, which lets one avoid renting a car.

We arrived late on July 3 after work. Tim would not let us take the bus and instead picked us up at DLA and took us to his and wife Donna’s lovely house in Louisville. They keep two cats, nice bikes, a lovely back yard and have a keen appreciation for good conversation, food and espresso. Tim likes to ride and ski, Donna likes to ski and hike.

We had a lot to discuss about the outdoors life in the Rocky Mountains.

Tim gets the shot on the Lefthand Canyon climb.
Tim gets the shot on the Lefthand Canyon climb.

After assembling the Co-Motion Java Tandem (provisional name: The Big Cat) on July 4 Tim joined us for a 50-mile checkout ride up Lefthand Canyon to the local holiday gathering. The bike came together well — it was our first time traveling with the Java. Later all of us went to a backyard party in Louisville and watched impressive local fireworks.

4th of July at Lefthand Canyon
4th of July at Lefthand Canyon

On Friday MG and I ventured into Boulder to greet our pals at Vecchio’s Bicicletteria on fashionable Pearl Street, enjoyed espresso at Ozo Coffee and at Atlas, and then rode out to Mary’s Market & Deli in Hygeine. This is something of a local cyclist stop and riders came and went often. Rain stopped us briefly on the way back and then dissipated quickly.

A year later, we're back: Vecchio's Bicicletteria.
A year later, we’re back: Vecchio’s Bicicletteria.

Saturday our tour started. Here’s our rundown, in a review format.

Day 1: Boulder to Kremmling via Lyons, Estes Park and Trail Ridge Road.
Mileage: 134
Road Surface: Paved
Difficulty: High
Conditions: Sunny
Route and elevation profile: here.

Day One: Off to Trail Ridge Road!
Day One: Off to Trail Ridge Road!

We rode this segment as a randonneur permanent ride — The Trail Ridge 200 — with a total time of 14:20 to complete the course. The challenge was to get to the Granby control on the other side of Trail Ridge Road, mile 107, in 11 hours 28 minutes. That seems like plenty of time, but we were on the button most of the day as we slowly climbed the first 70 miles from 5,500 feet to 12,200 feet.

We left just before 7:30 a.m. and Tim joked that we should leave Estes Park, mile 45, by noon. He was not kidding. The climbing to that point, at 7,540 feet, got us there at 11:20 a.m.! We found the long uphills on Rt. 36 very tough. After a quick lunch and drinks at the Safeway, we entered Rocky Mountain National Park for the big push to the top.

The ascent up renowned Trail Ridge Road was at once thrilling and nerve-wracking. Holiday weekend car traffic was heavy and with little shoulder, and dropoffs to our right, I kept one eye forward and one on my rear view mirror. I wanted to ride out in the lane but had to give way often as groups of cars would pass. All this made MG nervous about riding off the edge.

A rest stop on the way up Trail Ridge Road.
A rest stop on the way up Trail Ridge Road.

We stopped at turnouts to regain our composure and catch our breath. As we rose above treeline temperatures fell into the low 50s and the wind picked up — vests and jackets came out for each of us.

Air is getting thin up here. Courtesy MG.
Air is getting thin up here. Courtesy MG.

The mountain and valley views were spectacular! We had never gone that far into the sky on the tandem and the payoff was immense. The kind comments we got at the Alpine Visitor Center store just past the summit were very much appreciated.

A mile from the top. Courtesy MG.
A mile from the top. Courtesy MG.

It was all downhill to Granby, but we had to cover the 37 miles in a little over two hours to stay within the ride time limits. We pressed hard all the way down the twisty descent and through Grand Lake, and arrived with about 12 minutes to spare. There’s nothing like a deadline and a descending profile to get one to go fast!

On our way to Kremmling.
On our way to Kremmling.

After a rest stop in Granby, the rest of the 27-mile route to little Kremmling continued trending downhill. After the busy Trail Ridge Road, we had Highway 40 mostly to ourselves. We thought we had to get to Kremmling before 9 p.m. to get food at the local grill, so I called in an order for 8:45 p.m.

MG and I resolved to make it happen. After a day like this, we were going to be famished and did not want to go to bed hungry.

A soft evening sun bathed our faces as we shot west through Byers Canyon and over cattle lands. I got out my camera to photograph the passing freight train and the engineer blew the whistle and waved.

We saw a guy running with a follow van as part of a coast-to-coast cancer fundraising challenge. A car passed once every so often. Hills glowed.

A lovely early Saturday evening ride.
A lovely early Saturday evening ride.

Kremmling appeared in the distance and the clock struck 8:30 p.m. just as we rolled into town. Success!

We got our brevet cards signed at the Rocky Mountain Bar & Grill and they served us dinner. Turns out they did not close until 10 p.m., so we had time to eat there. I ordered dessert too.

Our hotel was the nearby Allington Inn, which was kind of pricey but new and very comfortable. It was a long day for touring, but one of our most memorable ever.

Day Two: Kremmling to Glenwood Springs
Mileage: 89.5
Road Surface: Paved, hardpack gravel, paved bike path
Difficulty: Medium
Conditions: Sunny, hot — low 90s.
Route and elevation profile: here at Garmin Connect, and here at Ridewithgps.

After breakfast and a passable espresso at the Moose Cafe in Kremmling, we tooled over the days only long climbs via the hardpack gravel County Road 1, which runs along the Colorado River. At Mile 27 we descended to the outdoor concert venue and river access point known as State Bridge Landing. After a few miles of paved road we turned onto the hardpack Colorado River Road to the 20-mile bike path into Glenwood Springs.

County Road 1: Next stop State Bridge Landing.
County Road 1: Next stop State Bridge Landing.

Along CR 1 views of the Colorado River and dry scrub land stretched in all directions. Trucks carrying inflatable boats and kayaks made a regular appearance as we mixed in with the river rat and fishing enthusiasts.

State Bridge, a little outdoor entertainment and camping enclave where the party crowd was just stirring at 11:30 a.m., offered the only notable rest stop. We feasted on tasty blackened fish sandwiches and sodas from a vendor truck and took some snacks to eat later.

Overlooking the Colorado River.
Overlooking the Colorado River.

Colorado River Road was hot and dry, but the river’s growing size and strength kept us entertained. There was almost no shade and we stopped to take advantage of the shelter at the Burns post office and then again at a bend in the road with some trees. We left State Bridge with three full water bottles, full 70-oz. Camelbaks, and Cokes for the Burns stop, which got us through this long stretch without services.

The Glenwood path took us into town but was a narrow in places and had occasional foot traffic, so we had to keep our speed in check. At Glenwood we went directly to our Courtyard hotel across the river from the tourist area near the springs and we missed the sights.

That was OK by us. After the big ride Saturday and the heat of Sunday, we were pretty tired. We stayed put in the hotel area for the evening and ate dinner at a chain place nearby. Next time I want to see more of Glenwood.

Day Three: Glenwood Springs to Paonia
Mileage: 77
Road Surface: Paved roads, paved bike path
Difficulty: Medium
Conditions: Sunny, afternoon headwinds.
Route and elevation profile: GPS at Garmin Connect, Route at Ridewithgps.

The first two days caught up with us this morning and we struggled to get in sync about breakfast. We went into Glenwood’s older downtown for espresso and food with a couple of pointers from Yelp.

But, nothing looked right at first and we (really, me, since I was on the espresso mission) u-turned a couple of times trying to decide what to do, while avoiding urgent Monday morning car traffic.

Finally we went into a touristy coffee & lunch place and got truly terrible espresso. This put me in a bad mood.

We found a good breakfast place next door, however, and noticed another coffeenhouse nearby, The Bluebird Cafe. It was the real deal and sold me a very tasty doppio.

A few years of touring has taught us that mornings can be stressful when we’re tired and hungry and have no exact place to alight. This knowledge helped us avoid a tandem team meeting, and it was all behind us soon enough.

The bike trail south of Glenwood Springs.
The bike trail south of Glenwood Springs.

After a few miles south on the bike path with some local roadie cyclists, we stopped in quaint Carbondale at Ajax Bike & Sport. Aaron and gang gave us some excellent local knowledge and encouragement.

A great stop in Carbondale.
A great stop in Carbondale.

Next stop: a second espresso and treat at lovely Bonfire Coffee. Next time we’ll consider overnighting in Carbondale if possible rather than Glenwood — much quieter and easy to navigate.

By this time it was late morning and we still had most of the day’s ride ahead, with 8,762 ft. high McClure Pass at Mile 38. Colorado Rt. 133 gradually ascended to the base of the climb, then pitched up more steeply for three miles to the summit.

"-- Job". We covered the same route today as this year's Bicycle Tour of Colorado.
“– Job”. We covered the same route today as this year’s Bicycle Tour of Colorado.

We hit the climb after one more stop in the little resort community of Redstone for snacks and drinks. One the way up we saw a few touring cyclists headed down, but did not find out their group. This climb was not bad and we enjoyed awe-inspiring views in all directions. After photos at the top we blasted down, convinced we could practically coast all the way to Paonia.

A tour group was coming down McClure Pass as we ascended.
A tour group was coming down McClure Pass as we ascended.
On top of McClure Pass. Big payoff for a relatively pleasant climb.
On top of McClure Pass. Big payoff for a relatively pleasant climb.

Not true, of course. While we had a downhill profile, there were enough hills and a strong southern headwind to keep us working. The big coal mine at Somerset loomed and beyond that was little Paonia, a community based on a mix of coal jobs, farming and the local/organic food movement.

Near Paonia, really bad railroad tracks on Bowie Road.
Near Paonia, really bad railroad tracks on Bowie Road.

Imagine a small town where the local businesses are still thriving and people move there to get away from city life. That’s Paonia. Our B&B Fresh and Wyld Farmhouse Inn was a lovely retreat from chain hotels and we had a terrific local food dinner at The Living Farm Cafe.

After getting an ice cream cone at a nearby parlor, we stopped at the pizza place to chat with some folks watching the Tour de France on TV and drinking beer. MG and I strolled a mostly quiet main drag before heading back for a great night’s quiet sleep. This was one of those touring days where we felt at one with the road, the sky and air, and found a community on the upswing.

Stay tuned: I’ll detail the final four days in Part II.

4 thoughts on “Our 2013 Colorado Tandem Tour: Part 1

  1. Great tour..!! Followed entire trip. Thanks so much for sharing..
    PS… Don’t you think you guys have rested enough… and it’s now time for another tour..?? ;))

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