Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Day Six - Crested Butte to Buena Vista via Cottonwood Pass

(apologies for this extremely tardy entry)

Friday was BTC’s unofficial Gert Steegmans Appreciation Day. And a day to heed the following we had heard from more than one source: On a big climb day, get up and off the pass early.

The chilly 8000 foot temps at 6:00 am and anticipated climb to the highest point of the week had me going a bit overkill on clothing. In addition to the usual bibs, jersey, vest arm and knee warmers, I had on the only wool jersey I own (New Belgium merino!) and my old ratty PI tights. The added warmth was welcome at the start of the day. Arron was sporting his Quick Step Belgian champion look.

Hey, man, you didn’t earn that jersey!

One little kick up the hill out of Crested Butte just after 6 a.m. and we were headed downhill south toward Gunnison with a turnoff at Almont. The leg was an effortless warm up for the coming ascent along the Taylor River.

The canyon was really beautiful, lined with steep slopes filled with fir trees. The road was a really buzzy chip seal / rock tar combo. This is where we saw Arron’s doppelganger sporting an identical Belgian champ jersey. If I recall correctly we were just about to the first rest stop when we passed him. A minute or so later this guy passes us in full on attack mode, but does so by riding between the two of us. What the heck, man?

After a quick break we followed the river through canyons and a few remote ranches tucked away in the mountains.

Taylor River on the left.

Along the way we were passed by Tough Guy, who was desperately stuck on the wheel of Dr. Colorado. Tough Guy could usually be seen wandering the gym camping letting people know that that there was only one real challenging day on the week’s route. He was pretty cocky and wasn’t afraid to let anyone know he was a tough guy.

Tough Guy sucking some wheel.

22 miles later the river was dammed and the road tipped up to meet Taylor Reservoir. We road up above it on a ridge for a hundred or so feet and then swooped back down across a bridge, around another ridge, and to the second aid station. With Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” piping over the sound system we made it a pretty quick stop. My right shoulder blade was aching so I got a few Aleve from the medical station wagon. Skies behind us were looking a bit gray.

The road tilts up just past the dam.

A bit higher we go above the reservoir.

Clouds gathering over the lake at the western end of the pass. Rest stop two.

Upon leaving we hit the start of the 14 miles of dirt road that make up the western end of Cottonwood Pass. I took a quick video of us riding the semi-washboard. After a couple of miles The sun was out and I was burning up with too much warm clothing. Arron was jumping ahead and I could sense I wasn’t going to stay with him the whole climb (like on Grand Mesa) so I told him to go for it. I stopped to take off the wool jersey and stuff it into the back of my vest.

Sunny skies at the start of the dirt road.

The climb up Cottonwood was steady and not too steep. The road was bumpy, but the dirt was dry so traction was not an issue. I noted that I was riding between 6 and 8 mph. That sounds slow in retrospect. There were a lot more trucks/trailers/cars on the pass than I had expected, but they gave a wide birth to riders. Again the Colorado troopers were riding up and down the route to assist.

On the way up I spotted yet another rider sporting a QS Belgian Champion jersey. Was there a sale that I missed or something??

The 14 miles of the climb are marked from 0 at the reservoir counting up as the road approaches the top of the pass. At one point more than halfway up I reached into my vest pocket for the last of a Vanilla Crisp Power Bar. My glove stuck in the pocket and when I wrenched it free with bar remnant in hand, the wrapper went flying. Crap. I stopped and rode back down about 50 feet to reclaim the wrapper. That’s all I needed was to be riding down the pass before riding back up the pass!

A few miles from the top of Cottonwood Pass.

As the trees started to fade, the wind made it cold on my bare arms and unzipped vest. The turns in the road could be seen farther in the distance cutting across the side of the mountain dividing fields of dirty late June snow. Around mile marker 13 our good buddy Cowbell Cathy was rattling away letting us know there was only a mile to the top. Across one final ridge with a steep drop off on the right and I hit the top of Cottonwood Pass. 12,126 feet. That’s pretty high.

This shot's for the folks back at Uphill Grind Bicycles & Coffee.

I spent some time wandering around, getting the requisite pictures of the bike with the continental divide sign, me with the sign, a random kid playing on a summer snow pile, and the gathering clouds off in the distance from which we just climbed. Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” started playing on the sound system, which was a perfect choice. “Staring out at the great divide. I could go east, I could go west, It was all up to me to decide.”

In reality, though, there wasn’t much of a decision. Behind me was a dirt road and ominous weather. Ahead was a sweeping swath of pavement leading to the east. I cleaned the tires off with the palm of my glove and glided down toward Buena Vista, the Ramones “Blitzkrieg Bop” replacing Seger. Hmmm… Bob Seger > Ramones. That’s some juxtaposition there.

Looking back to the west from top of Cottonwood Pass.

Summertime snow fun. Eastern side of the top of the pass.
Stay on top of the pile, kid. That's a steep drop on the other side!

Start of the eastern side of Cottonwood Pass. Pavement!!
The descent off of Cottonwood was magnificent. The top few miles had some twists and turns. Somewhere along the way there was what I could only describe as a small speed bump across the road. I kind of hopped it and kept rolling, but that’s a bit scary at 40+ mph. The middle to bottom section of the pass had steeper straighter sections of pavement. At one point I looked down to see I was just floating along at 52 – 53 mph. This wasn’t the quick 50+mph downhills like we ride in Wisconsin, but went on for a long time. Thrilling.

The whole way to Buena Vista was fast. I got to the high school, found Arron, and set up camp. Tough Guy was in the gym holding court while downing a 64 oz recovery cola from the local Loaf & Jug. After settling in we headed out to find. Walking to the nearby Subway we looked back toward the pass to see the rain clouds enveloping the valley. By the time we made it across the street it was pouring rain. We had beaten the storm.
The pictures below were taken within a couple of minutes. The mountains just disappear by the third photo.

Where did the mountains go??!??
There were plenty of other riders who did not have such luck with the storm. Riders were coming into the gym shivering and blue. I loaned my wool jersey to one person who was without dry clothes while waiting for their gear to arrive. We heard stories of riders who were ferried down off the pass huddled in the back of the big yellow Penske moving vans used for SAG support. Sounded miserable, but I guess it was safer than them trying to descend a 12,000 foot pass in freezing rain.
Later in the afternoon the sun came back out and baked things back to summer. We wandered out again to grab lattes at Bronco Billy’s Buena Vista Café. They had wi-fi. So we sat and read the Denver Post’s coverage of the death of Michael Jackson and just chilled. I had a bowl of Red Pepper Bisque for dinner. It was pretty good.

View southwest of town to 14,197 foot Mount Princeton after the storm.

The view northwest of Mount Columbia and Mount Harvard from Bongo Billy's Buena Vista Cafe.

Only one more day to go and another 12,000 foot monster pass to climb before we head home.

1 comment:

  1. i was just thinking about this day, our trip, and how much friggin fun it was.