Our 2013 Colorado Tandem Tour: Part 2

I started writing this post Saturday at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, waiting for a flight back to Washington with MG and daughter DF after a week of visiting family and hiking around Sedona.

We like to take one trip a year together without bikes, instead choosing to hit the trails for day hikes. I was struck by the beauty of Sedona; it was reminiscent of Colorado and took me back to our trip last month.

I posted the first part of our tour recap here, covering our start from Boulder and segments to Kremmling, Glenwood Springs and Paonia.

Also, our photos and routes can be seen at Flickr: mine here and MG’s here.

All of our routes are at my Garmin GPS page here and all but the first day at Ridewithgps here.

In this post I cover two of the most incredible and remote days of the tour in the central high mountains, to Crested Butte and Leadville.

Day Four: Paonia to Crested Butte via Kebler Pass
Mileage: 51.2
Road Surface: Paved, hardpack gravel
Difficulty: Medium
Conditions: Sunny, hot ā€” low 90s.
Route and elevation profile: here at Garmin Connect, and here at Ridewithgps.

MG and I left the Fresh and Wyld B&B at 7 a.m., early enough that we missed the gourmet breakfast included with the stay that started at 8:30.

I felt like we were giving up one of the benefits that contributed to the somwehat costly room price, but we wanted to get to Crested Butte early in the afternoon to take advantage of our short day.

The overall loop we chose for this tour made it impossible to take a full day off the bike, which we find is good after three or four days. We compromised by taking Gunnison out of the route to stop in Crested Butte, for a 51-mile day over wooded Kebler Pass.

Leaving Paonia.
Leaving Paonia.

After breakfast at the downtown diner — accompanied by Neil Diamond’s greatest hits playing on the jukebox, we ambled over to the fancy and friendly Backcountry Coffee for morning espresso and treats.

The owners told us of the newcomers, like them, who had moved there for the organic food lifestyle. The dynamic was not without its tensions, but the influx had kept Paonia vibrant, unlike so many other small towns in America.

A local woman whose husband was away on a traveling forest fire crew gave us the lowdown on the construction of new homes in remote wooded locations in the West that were being consumed by the summer’s fires. She remarked how they couldn’t expect those structures to be saved from fires if they chose to live amidst so much dry timber.

We extricated ourselves from that conversation and pointed the tandem north, back the way we came the previous day, past the coal mine in Somerset. We then turned right at Paonia State Park (which had very nice restroom facilites) to begin the climb up Kebler.

Kebler Pass Awaits.
Kebler Pass Awaits.

The day beckoned, clear and bright, as the pavement gave way to smooth hardpacked dirt. The pass was not the highest of the trip, at 9,992 feet, but it may have been the prettiest.

County Road 12 rose over a set of switchbacks to join snowy peaks and grazing lands to an initial summit of 9,029, then dropped somewhat over rolling hills through woodlands. A second climb brought us to a high point 10 miles before rolling down into Crested Butte.

Was this one of those tour moments — where we become fully immersed, thinking only of our companionship, the clear sky, the soaring mountains and the miles ahead? Indeed. This is why we tour.

On the way up to the first high point.
On the way up to the first high point.

MG and I stopped often for photos on the way up, and again to capture the trees and meadows. A couple on mountain bikes appeared on a rise as we neared the top of the pass and we rode up to them just as they stopped to admire the view back toward the west.

The top of the pass is nothing more than a sign on the side of the road. We put the tandem into a downhill gear and swooped down the final miles into CB, arriving under hot sun just after 1 p.m.

Over the top of Kebler Pass, now down into Crested Butte.
Over the top of Kebler Pass, now down into Crested Butte.

CB is a ski resort town that has made itself into a rocking summer destination. The main street was humming with tourists.

After pizza and a coffee stop, we paid a visit to the strip’s bike shop, Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven, where we got some helpful local knowledge about the next day’s route and suggestions for dinner.

We found bike shops made for good information sources and the people were very nice in all of them, which made it easy to spend a few dollars on something small.

That evening we walked back into town from our room at the value-oriented Old Town Inn for Mexican food and a stop at the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. The hall is just an exhibit tucked into the old gas station/general store that serves now as a tourist gift shop and local history museum.

It wasn’t much, but we learned about some well-known MTB pioneers and racers and checked out interesting old bikes.

CB is known as a summer MTB mecca, and we saw a few full-suspension bikes being ridden about. But what we really noticed more was the ubiquitous townie cruisers that everybody rode around and parked unlocked. Hotels would have a few leaning outside for guest use, and we’d see families soft-pedaling around town. The original bikeshare, in a way.

We had been told CB was something of a special summer place. They were right.

Day Five: Crested Butte to Leadville via Cottonwood Pass
Mileage: 100.7
Road Surface: Paved, hardpack gravel
Difficulty: Hard
Conditions: Sunny, hot, low 90s.
Route and elevation profile: here at Garmin Connect, and here at Ridewithgps.

After espresso and breakfast sandwiches at Camp Four coffee on Elk Avenue (excellent!) our second-longest day began with the brief descent of 10 miles south from CB. We turned on Jacks Cabin Cutoff to begin the 48-mile ascent over Cottonwood Pass via Taylor Park Reservoir at Almont.

Camp Four in CB. Good stuff.
Camp Four in CB. Good stuff.

Jacks Cabin turned to gravel and MG urgently informed me that one of the couplers was loose — as in, completely unscrewed. Not good!

I immediately halted the bike and got out the S&S coupler wrench. Besides the loose one, three or four of the other five were less than fully tight, and I gave them all a good turn.

Back on the go, we got back on pavement near Harmel’s Ranch Resort, a dude ranch/fly fishing desination on the Taylor River. We stopped at the ranch store for Gatorade to take up the hill, and had a nice conversation with the fishing concierge (is there such a thing?) who lives in the offseason off the Appalachian Trail in Georgia.

He noticed my AT bandana that I wore to protect my neck from the sun and we talked a little about the West and the East.

Taylor Park Reservoir
Taylor Park Reservoir

The road was paved all the way up to Taylor Reservoir and we enjoyed a fairly easy climb through the forested canyon. At the Taylor Park Trading Post MG and I decided we better eat something solid and had a full breakfast at the Nugget Cafe.

The reservoir is a haven for ATV riders and there were signed trails for the little four-wheelers that zoomed around like Tazmanian devils, traveling in their own whirling dust clouds.

Second breakfast at the Nugget Cafe, Taylor Reservoir.
Second breakfast at the Nugget Cafe, Taylor Reservoir.

Next stop was Cottonwood Pass, a 13-mile climb on dirt among forests to 12,119 feet. As a well-used road between CB and Buena Vista/Breckenridge and Interstate 70, the grade was quite pleasant without any steep sections. We had acclimated to the elevation by this day and rode up to the top without any drama.

Nearing treeline on Cottonwood Pass.
Nearing treeline on Cottonwood Pass.

A nice woman from northwest Arkansas took our photo and talked about the nearby cabin she owned with her late husband. They spent summer vacations there with the now-grown kids, and she talked a little sadly about how she planned to sell it as there wasn’t the same appeal for their grandkids.

12,119 ft. elevation, summit of Cottonwood Pass.
12,119 ft. elevation, summit of Cottonwood Pass.

After photos and snacks, I was looking forward to the 19-mile paved descent to Buena Vista. It started out fantastic — including a sighting of a touring cyclist — nearing the summit on his way up. The switchbacks came fast, indicating the grade was steep on the east side of the Cottonwood.

Soon the headwinds picked up, some quite violent, and the riding became a challenge. Cars started backing up behind and we pulled over at trailhead parking lot to take a break. We’d been lucky with updrafts so far, but today they were a handful.

Buena Vista was a bustling town, hot and windy, as we arrived around 3 p.m. They had a worthy local coffee shop, Buena Vista Roastery, a friendly bike shop, Boneshaker Cycles, and a handy brewpub, Eddyline Brewery, where we ate pizza and salads.

The folks at the welcoming Boneshaker did us a big favor by getting into the unpacked stock to find some Chomois Butt’r lotion. We liked their whole deal, very laid back, and MG bought a little T-shirt to take home as a souvenir.

After all that we had a 30-mile gradual ascent to Leadville, which we began under threatening skies, with distant thunder booming. A little rainsquall came over us north of town and we put on jackets, but it stopped in a few miles and off they came.

The shoulder was wide enough on US24 to make the trip comfortable and a gentle tailwind negated the ascending grade. We made good time north, with views of the Arkansas River to the east side of the road and the Sawatch Range to the west, which features a number of 14,000 ft. peaks. This range includes the highest elevation in Colorado, the 14,433 ft. Mt. Elbert. Read more about this range at 14ers.com.

Headed to Leadville. Courtesy MG.
Headed to Leadville. Courtesy MG.

Imperceptably the road steepened as we neared town. MG and I slowed to a fast crawl over the last 10 miles and rolled hungry and spent up to the shabby Super 8 on the south side of town.

There are better accommodations in Leadville but they were sold out before we could grab a room. I learned later one of them was hosting a Leadville 100 bike race training camp.

We walked to downtown at dusk and everything looked well worn — the houses, the cars and trucks, the businesses. Not all was discouraging: the bike shop, Cycles of Life, looked pretty cool from outside, and there was plenty of Leadville 100 signage around, which made us feel like we were somewhere special.

At the historic Quincy’s Restaurant, one of the few places still open at 8:45 p.m. that was not a gas station, the choices were just two: steaks or lasagna. The lasagna was good enough and we actually got a good night’s sleep at the Super 8, so all ended well.

In Part 3 I’ll wrap up our final two days on the road.

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