West Elk Bicycle Classic 2015
I love Gunnison, I love Crested Butte, I love Paonia, and I love the Kebler Pass road. I have loved this part of Colorado since I first saw it way back in the mid-80s.
When I first saw this country, I loved it for its rugged beauty and remote places. As the years have gone by, and as I’ve lived close by just over the Continental Divide in Salida, I’ve learned to also love Gunnison County for the people. They tend to be kind, generous, fun, and friendly. Many are amazingly talented elite athletes with the humility of a novice.
Over the years I’ve been able to meet many of the key characters in the Gunnison County cycling universe. I met Dave Wiens, first through an event I help to manage, the Vapor Trail 125. Dave raced and won the event in 2005, the first year it ran. Then he assumed the role of aid station captain at our critical Aid Station #2. I raced the Growler a couple times, saw what a quality, well-run event it was, and became a volunteer.
I met Jarral Ryter also through the Vapor Trail 125, first as a competitor and then as our Aid Station #2 captain during some years when Dave’s boys were busy with high school athletics and he couldn’t be there to run it.
Jarral and Dave started an event several years ago as a benefit for the Mountain Sports program at Western State Colorado University. It’s a road event, and I’m mostly mountain biker. But the course! The road I had only seen once between the Blue Mesa Reservoir dam and Paonia! Kebler Pass! And the Gunnison County people! With Jarral and Dave involved, I knew it would be run like a swiss watch. (Turns out I was right!)
So enough gushing about Gunnison County! What about the ride?
I got to Crested Butte the night before and had beers at the Brick Oven Pizzeria and Pub. The next day started before dawn. I got dressed and had some coffee thanks to my friend Dan who had offered me his spare room. When I stuck my face outside for the first time, raindrops were spattering. Whaaat?
I gave a little uh-oh and started re-thinking my clothing. I had hoped to get away with wearing shorts, short-sleeved jersey, arm warmers and light rain jacket. Leg warmers too? Rain pants? I needed leave soon with everything I would need, and to be able to carry everything all day. I did not want to wear a pack. I decided to stick with Plan A. If the weather wound up too nasty, the day would probably end early for me anyway. And I probably wouldn’t be the only one.
Loaded up in a van a little while later in a dark, wet parking lot. Weather was the topic of conversation for the first 10 minutes or so, then we drove out from under the dome of Crested Butte moisture and into the gray dawn, and the rain stopped. By the time we got the the Western State Colorado University campus to the starting line, the sky was blue and the air was crisp and cool.
Boom! The gun went off and so did the peloton. We moved through town and west on highway 50 toward Blue Mesa. It was hold yer line and stay in the draft of the rider in front of you. The pace was brisk but comfortable even for an old fogie like myself. I just sat in the middle of the peloton and let it carry me along.
And then about 10 miles from the start, it seemed that the riders at the front decided it was go time. The whole train upshifted and the chit-chat went away. Slowly the peloton started to break up. I wound up hanging with groups of 6-10 until we arrived at the dam and it was time to turn right onto CO Highway 92.
The first aid station was on the north side of the dam. I stopped and filled bottles with Tailwind Nutrition calories. The station was stocked with all kinds of good food choices. But I was only interested in water to mix my Tailwind.
The next section of the ride on CO 92 was one of my most anticipated parts of the day. And it did not disappoint. The views into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, undulating pavement, cool air, and the near absence of traffic other than skinny-tire two-wheelers made for a wonderful mid-morning.
Funny how you never really know how much climbing there is on a bit of road you’ve only driven.
What a beautiful place for a bike ride!
Colorado Highway 92 rolls up and down along the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, then eventually drops into the clay hills and rabbitbrush of Crawford and eventually Hotchkiss, CO. Fast descents on smooth, empty roads; deeper into the beautiful western slope landscape.
And warmer. The cool of the morning up in the hills had burned off. Not hot really, but definitely not cold. I became conscious of how much elevation I was giving up. There will be payback for all this la-de-da descending!
Did I mention aid stations? They were common, stocked with great food and drink options, and manned by friendly, helpful people. You could probably do this event carrying nothing more than a single water bottle. Crawford and Paonia are sweet little towns. Rolling through on my bike made me want to come back some time to look around. But the clock was ticking, and there was a boatload of climbing to do before it was beer:30 back in CB! I kept turning over the cranks.
After leaving Crawford and the wonderful aid station there, it was time to start the climbing. Very gradual at first, while we rolled on CO Highway 133 along the N. Fork of the Gunnison River. Shortly after passing through the old mining town of Somerset, we turned east off the highway onto a narrow paved road that soon became a narrow gravel road. We had reached the Kebler Pass road, and it was time to start really climbing. Between the low point on the course around 5,200 feet and 10,007 foot Kebler Pass there was nearly a mile of climbing to do.
The climbing was tough, but every pedal stroke took me up a little higher into cooler air with more shade. My fatigue was significant, but the scenery was so amazing! I had driven the Kebler Pass road before, but never pedaled it. I’m here to tell you, pedaling it is the way to go. So much to see, such a beautiful cruise through the West Elk range.
Arriving at the pass was wonderful. Lots of cheers, photos being snapped, and the promise of a long smooth downhill into Crested Butte where beers and food were waiting. When I rolled in to the finish a band was playing and a crowd of bike people were strolling around in the green grass. It was a wonderful finish to a great day on the bike. I got to catch up with lots of old friends, ate some amazing food, drank perfectly cold beer and heard some great music.
Perfect day, can’t wait to line up this year!