Well, The Giro is behind us, The Tour is ahead and my favorite ride, Ride the Rockies, is a pleasant memory. It is becoming more pleasant the further away I get. But, wow has this summer gone by quickly.
The ride began in beautiful Carbondale, just down the Roaring Fork Valley from Aspen. Carbondale was a wonderful host, with Mount Sopris looming over the headquarters. Weather started out mild and mostly pleasant. Many of the faces I’ve seen in years past returned, like a sort of traveling homecoming.
Renee, Betsy, Liz and, of course, Chandler, the RTR staff, all worked like mad to keep the tour progressing smoothly. It’s amazing the amount of work they do, most of which we, as the riders, never see. They coordinate supplies for the aid stations, make sure venders have places to set up, and get there on time, help keep track of luggage trucks and shuttles to get riders in and out of the HQ and to the food and entertainment. And that’s just for the one week of the ride. Imagine the work involved just to get the rides organized and going.
The first day was relatively short, from Carbondale to Aspen. The 50-mile rout took us through Missouri Heights, a steep little climb on the east side of the valley. Lance Armstrong, the speaker in Aspen that afternoon, stated he hates the climb. I understand. The day, however, was beautiful and the skies remained clear almost to the end of the day. My riding buddy, Donald, and I made the turn into Aspen High School as the wind came up and the rain began.
Donald was one of three guys I rode with last year. The other two had work and training conflicts that did not allow them to make this ride. Donald, from Marin County California, had his wife and mother-in-law along, as well. The new arrangement allowed me to enjoy more of Aspen.
Aspen, tucked into the head of the Roaring Fork Valley and the foot of Independence Pass, was a quirky, artsy ski town many years ago when it attracted the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abby. Now, while some of the art scene remains, you are much more likely to bump into movie stars, rock stars or even the occasional star athlete. One such athlete put himself squarely in the RTR cross-hairs when the tour settled in: Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong has maintained a home in Aspen, along with girlfriend Anna Hansen and the couple’s children, since the cyclist’s glory days. Armstrong was instrumental in creating the USA Pro Cycling Challenge and advocated for cyclists in Colorado. Now, with the cloud of the doping era hanging over him, Armstrong, in his typical fashion, put himself infant of the crowd without flinching, to face the questions of sometimes adoring, sometimes resentful cycling fans.
Armstrong was calm and inviting. He took all of the slings and arrows, did not argue but even offered an apology for his part in the EPO era. Questions and critiques went on and on, but Armstrong seemed perfectly comfortable, never dodging a question or diverting blame.
The most disheartening thing the one-time world road champion told the crowd had an impact that resinated through much of the following day.
“If the pro peloton were to climb Independence Pass, they would all go over the top together. It’s not really that hard a climb.” Ouch. Another delusion of grandeur smashed.
Independence Pass was the first challenge facing Ride the Rockies on Day Two. From Aspen, the climb rises 4,193 feet over 20 miles. Riders pass waterfalls, aspen stands and, eventually, alpine tundra before topping out. Cruelly, the steepest pitches of the climb seem to be in the last 1.5 miles. But it’s all worth the effort.
The remanents of the cool, wet spring covered the mountain tops in every direction. Lots of riders took the opportunity to photograph themselves with their bikes on the tundra.
“Can you believe there’s still snow in June?”
When riders started down the pass toward Twin Lakes, they were merely a quarter of the way into an 80-mile day. The next twenty miles were a twisty thrill ride for those of us who enjoy descending. Back down through aspens and evergreens, past little shacks, former mine sites and tiny towns into the valley. Overtime we looked around we thought, wow, could this get any prettier? Then we took another curve, made another turn, and it was.
Riders headed north from Twin Lakes toward the highest incorporated town in North America, Leadville. While the tour stopped here for the night four years ago, this time around, riders pushed on to Fremont Pass, past the Climax Mine and down another fast descent into Copper Mountain Resort. The arrival was none too soon, as the weather that had threatened on smartphone apps began to appear in the little ski village.
Rain and cool temperatures descended on the tour late on day two. Many riders had already made their way to tents, gym floors or condos. Though the weather arrived about 12 hours earlier than expected, boosting moral for Day Three: the Copper Loop.
Rider awoke with frost on bikes. The air was cool, but the rain had stopped. After getting coffeed-up, riders immediately began climbing. The second of three nearly-80-mile days came out of Copper, turned right and began climbing back up Fremont Pass. The north side of the pass is relatively steep, with stretches of up to 7.5 percent over the first nine miles. But this is about as bad as it gets for most of the day. Riders then plunge back down the south side of the pass, back to Leadville.
Riders skirt the north edge of Leadville, while headed west. The views of the states highest peaks made the content headwind a bit more bearable.
Riders toiled on through the wind-blown scrub brush, past the ranches to Tennessee Pass, the Camp Hale Memorial and the lovely and famous Red Cliff Bridge, where many cyclists, including myself, took the opportunity to stop and take a shot.
From there, We climbed Battle Mountain and plunged down through Minturn. We soon found the bicycle path that links Eagle and Summit counties. This brought rider through Vail and up the infamous Vail Pass path. The path had been used many times over the years to test fitness. The Coors Classic, Teva Outdoor Games and several times for the USA Pro Challenge. The Pro Challenge liked to use it as a mountain time trial, sending riders up one at a time. Beyond a certain point, this seemed only logical, as the path gets pretty narrow in the steepest sections.
The climb take riders about 9 miles through beautiful scenery up nearly 2,000 feet. The old Shrine Pass Road no longer allows cars, which is great as riders try to focus on not blowing up through the steeper sections. The road takes riders to the bike path, which can be tricky. While taken as a whole, the climb averages 4 percent, once on the path, rider dive under I-70, then face a 300 foot section at 8 percent. If you’re not looking for it, you will be walking this stretch.
The trees and peaks are the main attraction throughout the climb, with both sides of the valley slowly closing in as riders grind out this category 2 ascent. After another short, sharp section, riders come to a false flat, signaling the end of the real climbing. Riders wheel past a small lake and on to the parking lot of the pass.
Th east side of Vail Pass is only about five miles of asphalt bike trail, with twists, turns, wooden bridges and amazing scenery. The trail is built between the east-bound and west-bound sections of I-70. It can be tricky if you don’t watch your speed, as many riders soon found out.
The fast descent brought riders back to Copper Mountain resort for entertainment and the resort’s many eateries.
All along the way, Chandler, Renee, Liz and Betsy organized great entertainment, venders and aid stations. Many local venders, as well as many tour favorites, like the Flipping’ Flapjacks, Revolution Smoothies and Allen Lim’s Scratch Labs food truck.
Day Four was a re-ride of much of the route used four years ago. Rider headed east from Copper, down the I-70 trail to Frisco and the Lake Dillon Dam, then north out of Silverthorn to Ute Pass.
The route along Colorado Hwy 9 was a gentle descent until the base of the day’s only sustained climb. Ute Pass is about 5.2 miles at 5 percent grade, or a cat 2 climb. The summit offers views of the mountains to the west.
After the descent down the east side, the ride spent the next several miles on dirt roads that, this time around, were just packed dirt. In 2012, the road was a scary-deep gravel. The packed dirt was a pleasant surprise.
The dirt ended east of Kremmling, on US40. The highway took us through Byers Canyon, to a rest stop in Hot Sulfur Springs, and into Granby; a town the RTR has passed through or stopped in two other times in the last five tours. Riders headed north from there, along US34 toward the day’s end in Grand Lake. Riders, or I should say, my buddy Donald and I, wished for the end as the road began to roll with short, steep climbs and the temperature climbed to it’s warmest so far in this tour. But Grand Lake is idillic and friendly, making for a quick recovery and an eagerness to experience the isolated mountain town.
Day Five was marked on my calendar from the day the route was announced, back in February. The classic ascent of Trail Ridge Road from the West Gate is only about 22 miles at about 4 percent, but it is through some of the most spectacular landscape in the state. We started in sage brush meadows for about 9.5 miles, to the first aid station. From there, the road climbs for 17 miles at 4 percent, which counts as “HC,” or Beyond Category. This would have been challenging enough. When riders got past Milner Pass and above the treeline, the epic battle of will began.
As riders came over the highest continuous highway in North America, they faced horrible crosswinds, some clocked at 50 miles per hour. Over the 11-miles from the Gore Range Overlook to Rainbow Curve, no trees, no brush, nothing shelter the cyclists from the winds. While riders got a bit of a break from the howling winds after getting back down into the trees, the winds pushed riders all the way into Estes Park, where the town was awaiting their arrival.
The second half will post tomorrow.
Mathias Frank of BMC Racing has not claimed a lot of wins in his pro career, just five since 2008, but on Tuesday’s Queen stage of the USA Pro Challenge the Swiss youngster attacked on the shortest climb. The tough climbing stage from Aspen to Breckenridge was won on the short, steep final climb of Boreas Pass.
“It was a really tough day, especially with the altitude,” said Frank. “The stage win was the most important thing for me.”
Frank bridged up to a small group of leader before the last climb, a 15 percent pitch, in which only Garmin-Sharp’s Lachlan Morton could follow. With so many riders on the same time, Frank needed five seconds over the rest of the field to take yellow, but only beat Morton by three seconds. Garmin-Sharp’s 21-year-old American donned the leaders jersey to start Wednesday’s stage.
The second stage of the Pro Challenge was a 126.1-mile climbers’ fest, ascending some 12,250 feet over three passes. The fun started almost right out of the gate, climbing the category one Independence Pass, 13.7 miles from Aspen to the 12,095-foot summit. BMC’s Michael Schar attacked on the climb and was eventually joined by KOM leader Matthew Cooke (Jamis-Hagens Berman) and Luis Lemus (Jelly Belly) before crossing the races highest point. The group built a lead of five minutes before streaking down the east side.
The high pass was the end for two riders, Peter Kennaugh of Team Sky and JJ Haedo of Jamis. Both riders stepped off their bikes before reaching the peak of the first pass.
The team of Points leader Peter Sagan lead the chase to bring back the three escapees as the pack approached the second category Hoosier Pass. By the time the peloton was halfway across South Park, they had nailed back three minutes, narrowing the gap to 2:25. RadioShack joined the chase and the peloton swept up the break away near Fairplay.
Once the second climb started, the counter attack began. Fiteen riders, including Frank, Morton, as well as RadioShack’s Andy Schleck. The group only mustered 1:40 at the start of the Hoosier Pass. Morton attacked on the slope, separating himself from the group. Schleck tried to bring him back, but failed. Over the top, Morton was alone and had two minutes over the chase group of Saxo-Tinkoff’s Michael Rogers, Frank and Livestrong rider Lawson Craddock.
Morton continued pushing on the descent, but was caught by Frank and Craddock. The trio worked together at that point to hold the chase at bay, 45 seconds ahead of the chase on the way to Moonstone Drive and the final climb of Boreas Pass.
Schleck and the rest of the chase was pulled back into the main peloton in the race’s first pass through Breckenridge, with about 34 miles to race. The leading trio, however, managed to build a lead of 1:15 just 1,200 yards shy of the Boreas Pass summit. Garmin-Sharp and the Colombia team took up the chase as they headed up the last leg-breaking ascent.
Frank bolted away from his compatriots inside of the last mile up Boreas Pass. The move doomed Craddock. Morton followed Frank, but also lost contact just short of the summit.
The race’s most consistant, and on this stage, most surprising rider, Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, launched out of the pack just 900 yards short of the summit of the last climb, dragging BMC’s Tejay van Garderen with him. Five more seconds behind, Garnmin’s Tom Danielson and Colombia’s Darwin Atapuma tried to bridge to the chase group.
“It was just a crazy race all around, hard to predict and hard to control,” van Garderen told VeloNews. “When Sagan went, I saw Danielson was struggling and I said ‘let’s do this’”
With just a mile left, Sagan and van Garderen caught Craddock. Ahead of them, however, Frank was drilling it to stay away and eventually claim the second stage. Frank coasted across, hitting a bodybuilder’s pose as he stopped the clock at 5:05:19.
Morton followed close behind to claim both the leaders yellow jersey and the Best Young Rider jersey. Sagan came across the finish line 14 seconds back, in third place, retaining his Points Leader green jersey. Sagan is third overall, only 11 second behind Morton in the GC.
Jamis-Hagen Berman’s Matt Cook hangs on to the King of the Mountains jersey, six points ahead of Garmin’s Morton. At just two stages in, BMC is the best team, 21 seconds ahead of Garmin-Sharp.
Of the big favorites, BMC’s van Garderen is in fourth at 11 seconds back. Garmin-Sharp’s Danielson is 29 back, in sixth. Saxo-Tinkoff’s Rory Sutherland is 41 seconds back in 13th. American Joe Dombroski, the de facto leader of Team Sky, is 1:04 back in 26th. The team’s Tour de France champion, Chris Froome, is suffering at altitude, some 16:08 back and about mid-pack at 76th place.
Wednesday take the riders out of Breckenridge to Steamboat Springs. The third stage is 106.6 miles with 5,865 feet of climbing, mostly on the climb up the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass. The pass is long, but not too steep. A break could get away on the roads leading to the climb, but with 20 more miles into Steamboat after the summit, it is unlikely a break will hold off Cannondale and their sprinter, Sagan.
Cannondale’s Peter Sagan through kisses at the Aspen crowd, then regaled them with a wheelie after winning the first stage of this year’s USA Pro Challenge. Sagan, replete in the new black Cannondale jersey, came around BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet with 100 meters to the line and easily put a bike length between himself and his Belgian rival.
“I think I did good work in two weeks in Aspen,” said the Slovak national champion.
Many of the riders came to Colorado early in an attempt to acclimate to the races high altitude. Most of the race will be spent at higher altitude than the highest climbs of this year’s Tour de France.
The day started with a three-man break. Matt Cook (Jamis-Hagen Berman), Craig Lewis (Champion Systems), and Ian Burnett (Jelly Belly) charged out to get some TV time for their sponsors at only six miles into the 64.8-mile circuit stage from Aspen to Snowmass and back. The pack did not show much interest in the break until the return to Aspen on the last lap. Sagan’s Cannondale team did the bulk of the work to real in the break, as no team wanted to help hand the charismatic sprinter his first win. As it turned, Cannondale and Sagan didn’t need anyone else.
One surprise came as the peloton began to wind up their chase. Tour de France champion Chris Froome was ejected out the back, along with several of his team mates. Froome only arrived on Wednesday from a series of exhibition races in Europe and was unprepared for the 6,000-plus feet of altitude on stage one.
At the end, Sagan crossed first, followed by Van Avermaet and American Kiel Rejmen of United Healthcare Systems. Of the General Classification contenders, Tejay Van Gardener of BMC placed fifth and Tom Danielson of Garmin-Sharp placed ninth, all on the same time of 2:26:00.
Sagan will begin Tuesday’s stage wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, but also leads in the Cliff Bar Points Classification (Green Jersey) and the Colorado State University Best Young Rider competition (Blue Jersey). Matt Cook (Jamis) took the King of the Mountains jersey (KOM) and break-away mate Craig Lewis was awarded the Most Aggressive Rider jersey (Orange Jersey).
Sagan will test his high-altitude fitness on Tuesday as the race hits the highest point of any pro race, the daunting Independence Pass. The race heads out of Aspen and immediately begins the race’s biggest climb, 15 miles, 4,000 vertical feet to the 12,096-foot summit. Then they bomb down to US Hwy 24 before looping around and past the highest range in Colorado, before heading over Hoosier Pass, 11,500 feet, and into Breckenridge. The course is 126 miles and could be won either by a break or by a climber. It is not likely that the big bodies, like Sagan, can hang on for this stage.