Colorado High Country 1200K: A Breathtaking Trip Out West
The Colorado High Country 1200K is a 90-hour, four day jaunt through about 750 miles of the great states of Colorado and Wyoming. Felkerino and I rode it last month and this month I wrote my story about it.
I fretted a lot in the months leading up to the ride. Weather, terrain, altitude, training, gear choices. You name it, I worried about it. To top it all off, Felkerino caught a bug right after we flew into Colorado, which had us waffling about whether or not we would even make it to the starting line.
Someone told me the only way to curb the nerves is by starting the event. Then you can put all your energy into turning the pedals over (and over and over), and you have no need or time to stay up late scouring workout logs to assess the adequacy (or not) of your preparation.
After ride organizer John Lee Ellis sent us off into pre-dawn, things fell into place. Ride preparation, good luck, as well as the excellent event organizing and volunteer support flowed together to create an amazing and unforgettable ride.
Our days laid out in the following stages:
Day 1: Louisville, Colorado to Saragoga, Wyoming. 219.9 miles
Day 2: Saratoga, Wyoming to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. 198.1 miles
Day 3: Steamboat Springs to Walden, Colorado. 181.3 miles
Day 4: Walden to Louisville, Colorado. 147.5 miles
I’ve assembled this report like a highlight reel. It doesn’t follow any chronological sequence, really. Rather, it lays out the highlights of what made this ride special.
Despite my dampened motivation about the brevets this year, Felkerino and I still got out there, knowing that the High Country awaited us in mid-July. The D.C. Randonneurs series set up well for us, as we participated in our 600K the weekend of June 9. I finally got my act together during this ride, moving efficiently through our brevet with the knowledge that we’d be clipping in for a ride twice that distance one month later.
After completing the 600K, we settled into maintenance miles for the next few weeks. Given that the 1200K began five weeks after our 600K, we felt it made no sense to put in any additional big efforts, as it would not improve our fitness and we needed some recovery to put the pop back into our legs.
Our approach worked, and we showed up in Boulder with fresh legs (though Felkerino did have a harsh little cough he was managing up until the day before the ride) four days prior to the official start.
The following morning, Dave Cramer of Massachusetts, Bob Olsen of New York, and I got together for a shakedown ride to Boulder. The next day Felkerino and I went out and rode up to Jamestown using a route one of our Twitter connections cued for us. These rides gave us an opportunity to test out our legs as well as the bike. Both felt good, ready to take on the big event.
The pre-event rides also allowed us to explore the area, and feel like we were really on vacation. Yes, the ride was part of our vacation, too, but it involved intense physical work and sleep deprivation. Not so vacationy. It felt good to arrive to the Boulder area a few days early in order to acclimate and enjoy a couple of mellow days. And being a cyclist in Boulder was awesome. Everywhere I turned it seemed like there were people out riding their bikes. It was a sport rider’s paradise.
If ever a ride challenged an organizer’s routing skills and flexibility, this one did. In the days leading up to the ride, wildfires burned in Poudre Canyon, which John Lee had planned for us to ride through on both Day 1 and Day 4. Another fire broke out near one of the roads we would use to travel to Laramie. Firefighters contained the blazes in Poudre Canyon, but all of the burn resulted in a landslide that blocked the road there. John Lee diligently proposed new route possibilities, including the possibility of crossing Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the United States, on the final day.
Fortunately for us, the fires near Laramie were contained prior to the ride start, and the landslide in Poudre Canyon cleared in time for us to experience it on the final day. Thanks to John’s routing skills, we were treated to many beautiful roads and mountain passes, some of which were last-minute substitutions. And no Trail Ridge Road… PHEW!
Good Weather, Cold Mornings.
With the exception of a few raindrops on the first day of the High Country, the weather was almost ideal. As soon as the sun rose over the mountain so would the temperatures. For four days, we left the muggy air of the Mid-Atlantic behind and breathed the crisp dry air of the West.
The sun would shine brightly throughout the day and, in order not to worry about burning, I wore sun sleeves that my friend Barry recommended I purchase. “They weigh nothing and cost next to nothing.” It was $30 well spent. Protecting my arms prevented a sure sunburn, since I could never apply enough sunscreen to keep up with the strength of the sun.
Winds were always manageable, even through some of the more wide open spaces. We even had the pleasure of riding with some tailwinds.
The latter three days started out cold– in the high 30s to low 40s, I would guess. Mentally, I did not accept that July mornings would be this cold. I brought booties along, but thinking I would not need them, I left them in my drop bag until I endured two mornings with numb toes and stiff ankles. I’ll never forget the beauty of Gore Pass, and I’ll not soon forget how frigid my feet felt.
I brought along a wool skull cap, and then laughed at myself for even considering that I would wear it. Into the drop bag. As we descended Cameron Pass on the final day, our acceleration into the cold morning numbed my brain until all that remained was a vision of that sweet warm purple wool skull cap. If only if only. I know Felkerino was feeling the discomfort, too, as I ended up loaning him my helmet cover.
Randonneuring encourages self-sufficiency. There is no SAG wagon if you break down and for the most part, riders are on their own to figure out food needs and any mechanicals that arise throughout the day.
Nevertheless, events like this need volunteers for whatever level of support the ride organizer wants to offer (within the RUSA and ACP rules, of course). For us, that support included a snack oasis at a somewhat desolate spot near the Wyoming border, as well as super-efficient staffed overnight controls.
At each overnight stop, someone immediately signed our card, assigned us a room to sleep, told us where to park our bike, and directed us to food. Volunteers laid out drop bags in advance of our arrival so we knew right where to find them. After hundreds of miles of riding, their help meant a lot.
To top it off, we ate hot breakfasts every morning. Awesome! With food being the fuel to get us through the ride, I had extra appreciation for the hearty control meals. Thank you, thank you, volunteers!!
I forgot how breathtaking stargazing can be. On a ride as long as the High Country, I can guarantee that Felkerino and I will be pedaling plenty of miles in the dark. Sometimes those segments can be monotonous, especially in the stoker zone, as you pretty much see nothing on all sides unless someone else’s headlight illuminates a peripheral patch for you.
The evening riding on this ride was absolutely the best I’ve ever experienced. Felkerino and I had the company of other riders so I often had that peripheral light helping me. We were the only traffic on the road so the riding was perfectly peaceful. The stars gleamed brightly in the sky, with the luminous dust of the Milky Way visible to the naked eye. It’s been years since I’ve seen skies like that.
With skies that stunning, I looked forward to our early morning departures from the controls. We were fortunate to arrive before dark each of the three nights of the 1200K so we moved up our exits from the controls the next day as a result, leaving at around 2:30 each day.
Up in the night sky, I saw planets, constellations, and maybe I even spied the Curiosity Rover at one point. Kidding! I did not see Curiosity. On the fourth and final day, our riding group of Dave Campbell, Bill Beck, Felkerino, Jeff Bauer and I pulled over for one reason or the other. The night sky drew our glances up and we all paused to savor its beauty.
The High Country represented the first time I’d ever ridden in Colorado and Wyoming, and I could not get over how awesome it was. Having done most of my endurance riding on the East Coast, I was more used to shorter and steeper climbs, with more limited vistas.
Riding out west contrasted starkly to the east. While both are beautiful in their own way, the majority of the climbs on the High Country 1200 were about a billion times longer and graded more shallowly, with the exception of the two-mile pitches to the summits.
Almost all of the summits on our ride were forecast with signs that read “X Summit. Two miles. Whenever I saw that, not only did I know we were close to the top, I also knew that it was time to get out of the saddle and grind away.
John spaced out the climbing well. Even though each day involved plenty of climbing, the descents and mellow sections in between the mountains allowed us time to rest and recover. As I said, the passes were long, but usually forgiving in their pitch. The water flowing through the mountain creeks, blissful light of sunrise and late afternoons, open views from the high plains, and the mountain landscapes served to distract from the sustained effort of climbing for miles at a time.
The High Country 1200K made me feel like Felkerino and I were a couple of bada$$es. Climbing mountain passes on a tandem will do that. Climbing mountains that are graded enough to make you work, but not so steeply that your knee cartilege starts wearing off will do that. This route crested several passes over its four days, and each one of them was spectacular.
John also included a section known as “20-mile road,” a 20- mile road about 10 miles too long that rivals the Heartbreak Hills of the Endless Mountains 1000K in its steep dips and climbs. This was a last-minute addition to the route due to the fires outside of Boulder. Apparently, the road was originally dirt, but had been paved in recent years to accomodate the traffic in and out of a coal mine that had been built in the area. We would arduously climb up up up, standing in the granny, only to give back all the ground we had gained in a brutally swift downhill.
By the last five miles of that road, I started to take it personally whenever we would give up any ascent, knowing that we would have to recoup it somehow. It was a gorgeous, but mentally and physically challenging stretch of the course. Just when I thought I might have to write John a strongly worded letter, we reached our final granny grinding ascent of 20-mile road and arrived at the control. I was slightly frazzled and aggravated, but with knee cartilage intact.
Fortunately, 20-Mile Road abutted one of my favorite parts of the route, Stagecoach Road. This peaceful stretch wound through a state park (also called Stagecoach) and by a lake. We passed through in late afternoon on the second day of the ride. Long shadows and warm light made for a beautiful 15-mile or so run through this lush green undulating section. It also included some zippy downhills, resulting in some fun tandeming back to Steamboat Springs.
As I mentioned, Poudre Canyon opened up to the public just days before we passed through it. The transformation of the canyon due to the fire was shocking. The sour burnt smell of scorched vegetation lingered in the air. You could trace the path of the fire by looking at the land. A tree that completely escaped the fire’s wrath stood beside others that had not been so lucky. It was hard to comprehend. As we left Poudre Canyon and entered the towns near it, homemade signs stood in people’s yards thanking and recognizing the firefighters for all of their work.
One of the other riders remarked during Day 2 of the ride that our randonnee was really a group ride. “Some weird kind of group ride,” I remember thinking. “The longest, hilliest group ride I’ve ever been on.” As the ride progressed, I think I understood his comment.
Our ride was clearly organized into four distinct days. At the end of each day, a comfy bed and warm food awaited. Riders were welcome to continue further, but they then had to figure out their own sleeping and eating arrangements. Most riders stuck to the pre-determined stages of each day, which meant that we were all riding within hours of each other each and often crossing paths throughout the day.
We spent many hours in the pleasant company of other randonneurs. That was great. People were serious about completing the ride, but not so serious that they wouldn’t engage in conversation about rides gone by, scenery, bike tech talk, or whatever comes up as a topic on brevets.
There were some sections that Felkerino and I rode in solitude, but not many.
It’s difficult for me to express how much it meant to keep the company that we did, so I hope the photos I’ve included give you some idea. Thanks to everybody who rode with us and helped the miles go by.
I also want to give a special shout-out to Dave Campbell and Bill Beck for waiting for Felkerino, Jeff Bauer, and me at the finish so that we could all ride in together with the same finishing time.
Until a ride actually unfurls beneath your front wheel you have no idea how it will go. You work away faithfully, put in the miles, make travel plans, do the other real life stuff you gotta do, and watch the weather websites like a deranged hawk. You imagine what the ride will be like ride based on your preparation, ride descriptions, weather forecasts, and any ride reports you can get your hands on.
I feel so relieved and grateful that Felkerino and I had the ride we did. I know it’s because of the good luck we had with the weather, the gorgeous landscape and carefully planned route, the efficient and hardworking volunteers, and the people with whom we shared the adventure.
Thanks to everyone who made it happen and thanks to you all for reading.