Phantom Canyon

Words: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Photography: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Date:

“Some of those roads were fashioned without switchback technology. It’s like the engineers didn’t respect or appreciate gradient. It’s like they looked at the hill from the bottom and just started clearing, leveling and paving a path straight-up the fall-line, terrain and gravity be damned. Cyclists be damned.” commented Rich Bravo a few days after riding Six Gap, in Vermont.

There are two large scale differences about the climbing in the West. The roads there were made much later with better surveying, engineering, materials and techniques than in the East. And the mountains in the West; the Rockies, Wasatch, Coast Range, etc, just aren’t that steep, not like the Appalachians. From the perspective of cyclists, baring some outrageous pitches in the Redwood and Eucalyptus covered hills in Northern California’s Coast Range, the climbing out West, in Colorado, California, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, is grand.

The West is big and ambitious.

The climbing in the East needles and wears and wins by attrition and by the relentless accumulation of feet; 10, 15, 200, 350, 400 at a time, over hours and in multiple sittings with no clear crux. While the climbing in the West is long with steady inclines bearing double digit mileage and elevation gains like that of Fremont Peak’s 2,400 feet in 10 miles. The East Coast’s elevation profiles look like the erratic zigzags of a lie-detector test, while western profiles generally look like a number of triangles together in a line – with summits clearly visible.

Wherever you are, East or West, rides and roads influenced by a railroad are a different story. Railroads respect grades and gravity. Having more to do with descending than ascending, the result, counter-intuitive though it may be, is the same; slow and steady climbing.

Nowhere else has this been more evident, for the Continental, than Phantom Canyon and the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad built in 1894. Phantom Canyon is dominated by a tenacious single-lane dirt road paralleling the Arkansas River through two tunnels, blasted through solid rock, and across several bridges, the longest and prettiest by far, an original from when the railroad was active. The road is 24 miles long and ascends ever so slowly from 5,500 feet to 9,500 feet. At 4%.

But still, 24 miles on dirt above 5000 feet is large, and spots in the road were demanding in other ways – rocky, rutted and without clear lines. The beginning, out of the Canyon City area, was arid, desert-like and wide open like so many other washes and nearly dry riverbeds in the Southwest. As we gained and rose deeper into the mountains the canyon walls closed in steep and craggy. And the surface of the road changed from sandy to rocky and pocked, with holes and breaking-bumps forcing the group to continuously disband and reform around the worst of it like a swarm of bees.

Near the top, the grade steepened substantially for the first time, views of the canyon chasm below and shear rocky walls above, was coupled by a change in the horizon from a block of blue interrupted at times by large billowing clouds, snow capped mountains and an aspen forest. After several miles through the aspens, all white and green and rustling, we came through the tree-line to a ridge with views of several valleys below and the town of Victor to the west.

Victor and Cripple Creek, Victor’s bigger brother, are historic Colorado Mining Towns rich with characters, gunfights, gold rushes, cowboy architecture and western style with brightly colored buildings lined-up tightly together, side-by-side, down steep and narrow brick streets. And murals. Murals of running horses, working girls, howling coyotes, cactus, railroad carts full of gold, shoot-outs; murals of every major scene in western mythology. Swinging doors. Ice cream parlors.

At nearly 10,000 feet in the middle of Victor, the hills riddled with mine entrances, rusting cable cars and various long-ago abandoned machinery, you can almost hear the piano playing.

The climbing in the west is grand.

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