Words: Carey S-H | Photography: Dan Sharp | Date:
If you’ve ever been a somewhat serious skier in the United States, then you’ve probably had Vail Ski Resort on your list as a place to visit. After all, it has been deemed the number one ski resort in the US for fourteen out of the past seventeen years. It boasts a summit of 11,570 feet, 5,289 skiable acres, and the longest run is a leg-burning four miles long. This short list of statistics are pretty impressive but don’t really tell the full story. Beyond the stats the landscape is grand, the air is thin, the sky is forever, and sunsets are glorious tokens you can collect. Vail Village has such a European feel that you don’t feel like you are in Colorado and the inhabitants of Vail Valley are all laid back, athletic and have a beautiful energy spawned from the mountains.
On a brilliant Sunday in June the Rapha Continental landed on Bridge Street in the Vail Village to ride a 90-mile route that would put a total of 10,826 feet of climbing in our legs, reveal a summit of 11,313 ft and deliver a max descending speed of 59.3mph. But, like the region, this ride wasn’t spectacular because of the numbers.
The bike path that weaves away from the village in Vail parallels Gore Creek, a fly fisherman’s creek. It presents an intimate small stream setting for anglers to stalk everything from high mountain ‘brookies’ to trophy size rainbow and brown trout. On this day the “Gore” was high but clear as gin, it sparkled and refracted the intense mountain sun which much like our spirits, was high and clear. As we spun and chatted along the creek’s edge, we all knew that the 31-mile climb up Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass outside of Minturn was going to be magnificent and painful.
Minturn is a small town about five miles from Vail that sits in a small canyon and houses a short strip of funky houses, restaurants, and parallels the icy Eagle River. In 1887 Minturn was a transportation hub for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and the population consisted of miners and railroad workers. Today, the town is filled mostly with locals, ski bums, and artists. Since 1938 celebrities have enjoyed a night at The Saloon and a signed picture of Greg Lemond shares the wall with the likes of John Wayne, the New York Yankees, and Gerald R. Ford.
Riding against the current of the river out of Minturn, we were Leadville-bound and once we hit the town limits it was time to climb up Battle Mountain. The switchbacks up Battle Mountain are perfectly curved, appropriately steep, steady and consistent. In four miles we gained 2,000 ft of elevation and passed the erie abandoned mining town of Gilman. Over the top, it was time for a short descent over the breathtaking “Lover’s Leap” bridge near Red Cliff that hangs 200 ft above the Eagle River.
“Umm…I think I need to be in the middle of the group for this bridge. I’m scared of heights and as beautiful as that bridge is, I might not be able to ride over it.” James Selman commented.
“Yeah, I need to be in the middle as well. We should wait until the whole bridge is clear of cars so we can ride the yellow line.” says Joe Staples.
Cyclist scared of heights? Something I had never thought of before until this bridge. We wait for a clearing, and we positioned Steve Francisco in the front, Selman behind him, Ben next to Selman, Staples and I next, followed by Pete Rubi. The coast clear, we start to pedal hard, because we want to get Selman and Staples across the bridge as fast as we can, but really, all we want to do is feel the exhilaration of the perfectly banked right turn that shoots us onto the bridge. Francisco escapes off the front, I believe this was his tactic to get Selman and Staples mind off the height and just focus on chasing him. We fly across the bridge, it’s beautiful and perfect and I look over at Staple’s face and he has a calm satisfying smile. His face looks like I feel, like we’ve just had a somewhat religious experience descending that bridge.
The ride could have almost stopped there, on that bridge and we would have all been satisfied, but we still had the climb to Leadville. We still had to ride through an alpine valley that’s surrounded by about six 14,000 foot peaks, hit a 4 mile section of gravel that’s part of the Leadville 100 course, and refuel in the quaint mining town.
As we rode through all the splendor that is Tennessee Pass and rolled into Leadville, a mini-tornado ripped right through our group. Not just a little wind, but a funnel legitimate enough to flip the woman, who had just grabbed my wheel, like a turtle onto her back. We rode for cover, anchoring on signposts and guardrails, there was nothing but a swirling brown wall of dust, tree branches, and wooden crates flying through the air towards us. In survival mode, I saw a half-wall across the street and basically crawled with my bike over to the wall to avoid getting flipped over myself. Crouched and hiding I looked back onto the road at the woman on her back, she was still clipped in and fully getting pelted with dust and rocks. Then, it was over.
“What the fuck was that!” Selman and Francisco say simultaneously.
“We had our heads down and we literally get run over by a mini tornado! You do a 31-mile climb and that’s what happens at the top. Welcome to Leadville.” Joe Staples says.
“Ahh…Rapha gear withstood that no problem.” Ben Leiberson says smiling and pointing at his Gilet.
After Leadville and the mini tornado, ahead of us was the aptly named “Climax” summit, at 11,313 ft, this beautiful and mining-scarred pass is the highest point we would have ridden in all our time in Colorado. This was truly the first time in the day that we felt the pure sensation of thin air. We all thought we had finally hit our fatigue point after riding 8 days straight, but really it was the lack of air at that altitude.
When you climb to 11,313 feet you eventually have to come down. And when that “down” is eight miles long and you lose 2,000+ feet in elevation, you are bound to go fast. After summiting Climax we couldn’t help ourselves when we saw the sign on the side of the road that shows a truck going downhill and suggests using low gears. Francisco, Selman, myself, and Joe all looked at each other with shit-eating-grins, got in our drops and went. We did everything to gain speed. We tucked in behind cars, we took turns pulling while we where topping out over our gears, and just kept trying to go faster and faster. It was our last day in Colorado, our last day riding together, and our last day to hit our top speed.
The hill swooped down to the base of Copper Mountain Ski Resort where the four of us stopped to wait for the others. Selman’s computer read 59.3 miles per hour.
With new found energy from our descent, we rode to Vail Pass on one of the most beautiful bike paths I’ve been on in this country and then it was a twisty descent back to the Vail Valley and the covered bridge we had started at.
59.3mph, max summit of 11,313 ft, and 10,826 ft of climbing in 90 miles are pretty impressive statistics, but these numbers don’t really explain how it felt. I suppose that’s why data is always eclipsed by experience.
Click image to download pdf.