I have been meaning to write a post about this ride… ….well, since September….but alas, work calls and that month of September slipped away with trade shows and recovery from said trade show. Posts have turned to Cyclocross subjects and so here I am…writing …about a ride that happened late summer, just as December snow moves in…….forgive me if it’s a bit long-winded.
Anyway, back to the title of the post here. Birthday + Gravel. Out riding a stunning route (most of which is gravel) on my birthday??? What could be better? I know what could be better…having an awesome family that is willing to drive support with cold beers, birthday cakes and friends waiting at the end of a one-way epic with a beer hand up….how ‘bout that for better? Yep, that’s better.
September 1st my birthday…39….. (again)! A Saturday this time around and falling during Labor Day weekend…. the days leading up to it my wife asks me what I’d like to do on my birthday….I think about it and since we have this amazing summer camping groove going, where her and the kids will meet me at a pre-determined location while I ride my bike there I opt for this option. Once there we set up camp, hike, fish, build campfire, sip beers and roast marshmallows all the while hopefully making lifetime memories for our kids. I hope when I’m long gone they will look back and talk about the times when their half crazy dad would ride miles and hours from home to camp…….maybe they’ll carry that tradition on with their families? I had been eyeing this particular route for a good many years. We had camped there before kids…. So it was set….destination: Trappers Lake….Flat top Mountains southwest of Steamboat.
The night before the trip we load the camper van with our provisions. I make ready my bike with all the items one might need ….tool roll/check….frame pump/check….bottle cages/check….tubes/check….
I wake the next morning for an early start. I roll away from our house at 6:30am….beat the heat and any storms that might brew. The first 20ish miles are pavement and give me a chance to wake up and start putting food down my hatch. I roll to the coal mine and turn left up the first two climbs towards Trout Creek where the dirt will start. Cool morning, I’ve judged my clothing just right.
I descend off the second climb and turn right up Trout Creek….dirt/gravel from here on out. I stop and let out just a few psi to soften the ride. The road follows Trout Creek so the pitch is gentle, but steep enough to let you know you are going up…and up. Towards the top there are switch backs that take me over the final kick of the climb…the 4th rated climb in less than 30 miles.
Turning south well above the small mining town of Oak Creek I make the connection between a side road and the main route that will cut through the Flattop Mountains. On the small connector road I encounter at least a thousand free roaming sheep and the South American sheep herder watching over them….along with 3 giant sheep dogs….that for once don’t chase me down. They are the only living things I’ll encounter all day until camp.
Next I turn right and start the climb towards Dunkley Pass (9,764 ft)….the first of two major passes of the day that will take me to just about 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m feeling good and then I see the sign that tells me I have 11 miles of climbing to this summit…on really loose gravel. I settle in and enjoy the views. I top out and have yet to see a car since I left Steamboat. The view at the top is amazing…cool fall breezes blow across the pass and I start the 10 mile descent to the next valley. 10 miles is a good ways to descend on really loose gravel….I’m using the entire road…..I reach the bottom and the deserted town (all of two buildings) of Pyramid. I pass through and start to climb again….the start of Ripple Creek Pass….longer and higher than Dunkley.
At this point in the ride my right knee is killing me which is very strange as I rarely have knee pain on the bike. I continue to push through the stabbing pain.(Later I would find my saddle to be 1.5cm higher than normal…I switched to and older saddle…ooops.) Getting closer to the summit….only about a mile to go to the top and I’m out of water. I started with two large bottles on the bike and two large bottles in my jersey pockets. I blew the intake calculation and there are no water stops on the route……..I push along. At this point in the ride I start to look over my shoulder for my support car. On past rides they would have caught me by now and been able to fill my bottles….but no sign of them. I slowly tick forward. Between my breathing and the wind I hear a faint noise…. the rattle of a large diesel engine…..It could only be one person….my friend and co-worker GLight….he’s in full rally mode in the Excursion + camper trailer combo coming up the pass. He passes me and pulls over. A beautiful sight for my sore legs. He almost asks me if I want a ride in the truck to camp..he knows not to..…still 20+ miles away, I like to finish what I started. I don’t even hint at the option…I ask for water and I think he gave me a coke but I can’t recall…..he rattles up the pass and I get back into my groove. Top out….Ripple Creek Pass (10,343 ft)…..10 miles of down, down, down….the gravel is even worse than the pass before…….I think to myself if this route was fully paved it would rival any that are in The Tour. Seriously….it’s that type of ride. Low valleys, high passes, scenery that makes you glad to be alive. I sing down the back side of Ripple Creek Pass….literally… I sing out loud as I use the entire road, still using caution in the corners……but bombing none the less….
I bottom out at Lily Pond (which is a marker for a trail head) and make the final left turn that will delivery me to Trappers Lake. Ten more miles of dirt/gravel….ten more miles of climbing….at the end of an epic day. I decide as I climb that this ride punishes you ever harder as it progresses. There is no easy rolling….it continually ramps up as the mileage adds up…along with the climbing. This will become a summer ritual….
I hunker down on my bike and grind out this last climb. I look over my shoulder hoping…no…. begging for my family support car to catch me. I have to stop and pee….a good sign…at least I have fluid in me…..
Up, Up I go….cars are now passing me and kicking up crap loads of dust. These cars are coming from the west side of the Flattops which is an easy access point for weekend tourist and fall color hunters….the dust is really making the end difficult….again, over my shoulder I look….where are they? God, did something happen? I’m worried now….my family usually passes me half way through my rides and leaves road side Cokes and water bottles along the way….they leave notes…: “For Jon, please don’t take.” Those Cokes and bottles over the summers are always there…..like bread crumbs leading me home.
5 MILES TO GO
My family appears behind me….they roll up to me and say “daddy”!!!!! I’m wiped out. They press on …we don’t talk about getting in the car…..”See you at camp” I mutter…..
Shortly after they pass I hit the final wall both physically and literally. The road kicks up one more time in the last 2 miles to camp….I’m “tick tacking” across the road….I’m D-O-N-E…..DONE. I make myself finish out the ride and swing into camp…..family and friends….a beer hand up from Glen before I can roll to a stop. Like a pinched inner tube I deflate quickly at camp….beer, camp chair, in chamois….I’m not moving for awhile.
Happy Birthday to me….one I will never forget.
Our kids play, we hike and sip cold ones by the camp fire. Truly as memorable of a birthday as I could wish for….
The next day we canoe around Trappers Lake and I land the biggest Cutthroat Trout of my life. Life is good and I’m dam glad to be here….turning another year older…ain’t so bad.
I tried my best to make my phone battery last so I could “Strava” the ride and prove to all (2-3 I’m sure) of my followers that this ride REALLY did in fact happen. Well, phone batteries suck and mine died at mile 30ish…into an almost 80 mile ride. I did manage to take a few photos, but really once the phone died the weight of the “Strava” world was lifted from my back. So I rode…and rode and rode. I later routed the ride on Map My Ride so I could see the numbers….they are:
80 miles total
Start elevation: 6,750 ft
Dunkley Pass: 9,764 ft
Ripple Creek Pass: 10,343 ft
Trapper Lake: 9,600 ft
60 of the 80 miles are gravel…and not the sissy type…real deal National Forest, don’t try to ride you road bike here type of gravel.
10,000 total feet of climbing
Gels, Waffles, PB & J….+ one save my ass hand-up from GLight who was driving the route with his family and camper in tow. Next time he’ll be suffering through the ride with me.
Psychlo X SL (older 6/4 model)
Back in the Spring I opted to sell off my real deal road bike in favor of having 3 Cyclocross bikes. One of which is my double ring, road bike, gravel adventure bike….the other 2 are for racing and training Cyclocross.
So back to the bike….my set up….
Psychlo X SL (older 6/4 tube set) stock 56.5cm size
SRAM Red group
Compact rings 34/50
Canti brakes (TRP Euro Mags)
Ksyrium wheels (11-28) cassette
Challenge XS 32c File tread clincher tires
A bike and set up that can truly do just about everything. I swear I could ride this bike forever.
By no means is this the toughest ride in the world and I am thankful for having been able to bag this on my birthday. A present that was all wrapped up in goodness.
Thanks for reading.