Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Day on the Mountain

A guest blog post by Tom Wiseman, Assistant Service Manager and Certified Bike Fit Specialist at Century Cycles in Medina:

The Pikes Peak highway has been open to bicycles for several years now. When I first heard about this, I could hardly wait to do the climb up the mountain and come screaming back down at high speed as my reward for making the ascent. This year, I had the chance to do the ride after attending the Medicine of Cycling Conference at USA Cycling headquarters in Colorado Springs.

My wife dropped me off at the “highway gate” where I paid my toll, checked in at the gatehouse, and noted the altitude of 7800 feet. I asked the nice woman at the booth if there was anything I needed to be aware of before I started. She explained there was some minor construction just a few miles up the road and I would need to follow all the same laws that are required of automobiles. After a quick photo I began my ride. It was only about a mile into the ride at “Camera Point,” which overlooks Ute Pass, that I started wishing for a few lower gears.
Ute Pass
The 34x28 was going to be my home for the next few hours and not quite low enough for how I was feeling at that moment. Nevertheless, in a bit, I came to the “mile sign” indicating that I was one mile of altitude below the summit (Photo:Mile Sign ).
Mile Sign
Knowing I had 16 more miles of riding to cover before reaching the summit, I really started to take in the enormity of the situation I had gotten myself into. The ride is 19 miles from gate to summit, with 6,200 feet of climbing, and I had only climbed about 1,000 feet to this point. I pressed on, but pedaling became more difficult every moment. At Crowe Gulch, I got my first glimpse of the peak in all its glory (Photo: First View of the Summit). I stopped to snap a photo and reminded myself not to stop for very long - the only way to the top was to stay on the pedals.
First view of the summit
I continued on past the Crystal Reservoir Visitors Center and up to mile marker 7.5, where the famous Pikes Peak Hill Climb Auto races start. Putting my head down, I slugged on for about a solid hour without stopping just trying to get some elevation under my wheels. Glen Cove arrived at 11,400 feet, and all I could see from there was up. I had trouble believing a road could go higher than this point without an elevator. I could see cars way up the mountain, far above me, above the treeline. They looked sooooo small. I told myself not to look up for awhile and just pedal.
Looking up at the W's
I persisted through the switchbacks (or the W’s as the locals call them). Here the road went back and forth and up, up, up … very steeply up at times. The turns were sharp and it was now I noticed the distinct lack of guardrails. While crawling up slowly at 4-6 mph I didn’t think much of it, but I would become very aware of their absence on the descent later. At the top of the switchbacks is a place named Devil’s Playground, which is above the treeline, and at this point everything started to seem surreal (Photo: To of the W’s).
Top of the W's
I was now 3 riding miles from the top at an altitude of 12,800 feet, and I noticed that my heart rate was not coming down below 160. I then decided to stop more frequently. My average heart rate for the whole climb ended up being 157, but at the moment I was struggling to keep it under 170. I started to break it into little jumps. Make the next turn. Take a rest. Find the next mile marker. Take a rest. Bighorn sheep. Take a rest. Marmots and picas … rest. Some cars would stop and say supportive things but nothing registered - I saw lips moving, but I could only mutter “thank you” and continue pedaling. The 10% grade made every pedal stroke near-agony.
12,800 feet
Rounding a turn, I spotted the Cograil Train tracks and knew I was close to the top. The last half mile above 13,500 feet, it became a matter of sheer will to continue, but I was determined to make it. I’m going to make it! Seeing the summit house and parking area was the most welcome site I may have ever seen on a bicycle in my life. After riding 3 hours and 5 minutes I reached the top at 14,115 feet ( Photo: Summit).
Summit of Pike's Peak
Having thought about this moment for the past couple of years, I thanked God I made it and wondered how I would ever make it back down. I had some people take my picture at the summit sign, and after a few minutes of recovery, I spoke with many folks who wanted to say everything from I was “crazy” to “job well done.” There was on older Asian couple who waited until I was done taking photos and were speaking in their native language, which I did not understand. They approached and said a few things I didn’t get, and then they said just one word in English … ”Respect” the man said slowly with a bow. Truly humbling. I thanked them profusely and dressed for my ride back down the mountain. I heard a passerby say that they drove through some rain on the way up to the summit, which was a balmy 39 degrees. I didn’t like the sound of that one bit! After experiencing beautiful sun and warm weather on the way up, I noticed clouds were moving in. I was not particularly prepared for rain or any other weather surprises. I put on my Smartwool cap, Warmfront, and the winter gloves I had carried up the mountain. I started the GoPro and pointed my Foundry Chilkoot down the mountain. About 2 miles off the peak, I hit the beginning of the rain, which quickly turned into freezing rain, and finally to sleet. My heart just sank. I then realized I was doing over 40 mph! Slowing down and making turns was not as bad as I thought it would be, but still very nerve-wracking, with no guardrails for the most part. The rain and sleet only lasted about 15 minutes but it was enough to make my hands and feet numb. I was soaked to the bone and really starting to wonder how the W’s were going to be in this rain.

Just about the time I got to the switchbacks at 12,000 feet, the sun broke through, and it began to warm up. When the road was dry I could let go of the brakes and really open up and dry off. By Glen Cove I was dry, but still very cold. I had been in the drops for a full 30 minutes without pedaling. I was sore and tired. I rested in the gift shop and warmed up by the heater for a few minutes before continuing on my way. There were fewer hard turns and I could really let the bike fly here. I spent the next few miles at 35-40 mph. Strava and Garmin says I hit 71.4 mph through here, but I find that hard to believe. It was still a big rush for sure, and a cyclist’s dream downhill. Before reaching the park gate, I hit a wall of fog and visibility was reduced to a couple hundred feet. I figured if I made it down just a little farther, I would get out of the clouds and it would be smooth sailing back down to Colorado Springs. Under 8,000 feet, I came out of the fog, visibility improved to normal, and I got on US 24 headed down into Manitou Springs. A few miles on a 4 lane highway (legal in Colorado) was amazing - I was cruising at 55 mph without pedaling as the drivers stared in astonishment at me. After 28 miles of descending, and dropping 7800 feet into Colorado Springs, I made it back to where we were staying. I was tired and sore but had accomplished something I knew I would never forget - I had earned respect the hard way.

Switchbacks - Descending off Pikes Peak in rain and sleet 8/23/17

Glen Cove - Just below treeline. Glen Cove after a rest and warming up.

To the Park Gate - This starts out at over 60mph. Really awesome part of the descent. Great flow.

1 comment:

  1. Earned respect the hard way? Is there any other way to earn it? What an accomplishment, nice job!!