Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - Colorado

I had been looking forward to Colorado. It was the only one of the US states on the route that I had visited before. My previous visit had also been with a mountain bike for the Singlespeed World Championships in 2009. On that visit I rode some fabulous trails, met some great people and ate and drank great food and beer. My expectations were high, and Colorado was not about to disappoint!

First of all there was a long steep climb up a gravel track in the late morning heat. As I went up I was passed by three vehicles coming down - the people in each of these cheered as they passed me. This was motivation enough for me to keep riding up the steep sections instead of pushing. Eventually I reached the Brush Mountain Lodge, where I was met by Kirsten, the famed trail angel who plied me with a giant heap of blueberry pancakes as well as melon, lemonade and water.

Billy Rice and his kids were in residence, having just held a debrief of Juliana Buhring's RAAM team. It was Juliana and the team who had just left and had been cheering me on up the last climb. Billy has ridden the Tour Divide route several times, including a double (Northbound followed by Southbound) and on a tandem with his 16 year old daughter Lina. He offered me some sage advice about the challenges coming up in the next couple of days which I tried to absorb while inhaling yet another pancake.

Leaving the awesome Brush Mountain Lodge - photo by the amazing Kirsten.

Soon I was on the way again over the hills to Steamboat Springs where I decided that my brain and my legs were done. It hadn't been a very long day at only 185 km and 12 hours moving time, but the 330 km effort from the day before and the lack of sleep had taken a lot out of me. I checked into a very dated looking motel where the Swiss owner was determined to tell me his life story even as I was falling asleep on the desk.

After a quick shower I headed out to find food. The curry house across the road was just closing when I got to it, but the friendly Australian guy running it gave me a free portion of rice which was perfect for the next morning's breakfast. I did manage to get an amazing steak from a restaurant a few blocks down which set me up for the next day's hilly ride.

The next morning started with a few road miles and then a climb to the pleasant Stagecoach Lake followed by some more climbing over the Lynx Pass and then some fairly technical descending. Billy Rice had warned me about the Radium section being like an oven and I was about to hit this in the early afternoon. The route descends into the Colorado river gorge before climbing steeply out of it. The walls of the canyon reflect the heat and make it into a furnace. Fortunately I was feeling pretty strong at this point, so I kept on riding and made it out in a reasonable state.

The rather lumpy profile of the Colorado section.
I was keen to get some food in before the final climb of the day, so I made the 2 mile detour into Kremmling where I enjoyed some tacos and ice cream before climbing the Ute pass which was all on tarmac, but still pretty steep in places. The view from the top was made more impressive by the storm over the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

Evening storm from the Ute pass.

After a swift descent there was a gradual uphill to reach Silverthorne which was lit up by double and triple rainbows which made it much more enjoyable.

Rainbows on the way into Silverthorne.

It was properly dark by the time I reached Silverthorne and I was delighted to find an Indian/Nepalese restaurant still serving food and beer. After pakoras, curry and lots of rice I set off to find a bivvy spot beside the Dillon Reservoir.

Dawn beside the Dillon Reservoir.

After a peaceful night beside the reservoir I headed on to breakfast in Breckenridge. Here Colorado bike infrastructure impressed me as there was a tarmac cycle path all the way there - albeit with a slight headwind and uphill gradient that made me feel that I'd really earned my breakfast by the time I rolled into town. Some locals spotted me and shouted out "go Tour Divider!" so I stopped and got their recommendation for the best breakfast in town. Amazing Grace provided me with coffees, hot food and muffins which got my body ready for the day ahead.

Breckenridge is renowned for being a high altitude mountain town - many athletes use it for high altitude training, so it was no surprise that the next pass was to be a high one. Fortunately the track up Boreas pass was a good one at a nice gradient and I even chatted to a local who was out for a morning mountain bike ride as I climbed the pass.

The highest Divide crossing on the route.

After the obligatory summit photo I set off down, passing some skiers who were carrying their skis up from the track to get in some turns on the remaining snow patches - a very Scottish activity! They had parked their van right in front of the signpost for the Gold Dust Trail. I only overshot the trail by a couple of hundred metres and was quickly on my way down this lovely piece of singletrack. Part of the trail follows an old water race which was built in gold rush days and this makes for a lovely bermed route across the mountain. Other sections are rooty and rocky and overall it really lived up to its billing as the best section of trail on the whole Tour Divide route.

I arrived in Como just as a torrential thunder shower began, so I passed a few minutes buying and writing a couple of postcards in the museum before continuing into South Park as the rain stopped. The empty spaces of South Park were periodically broken up by abandoned subdivisions. It seems that small parcels of land have been sold off for housing, but since land isn't exactly scarce around there they have virtually no resale value, so if the owner decides to move on the home they have built is simply left to rust and rot.

After passing through many empty miles I reached Hartsel and was glad to be able to get some lunch in the characterful Highline Cafe and Saloon. I chatted to a fisherman who had been driven off the river by the thunderstorms while I ate and drank then hit the trail again heading over the hills to Salida. The descent to Salida was long and exciting with some dangerous sections of loose gravel, big drops into the gorge and no crash barriers. I was glad I was tackling it in daylight rather than having to do it in the dark.

I rolled into Salida and checked in to the very friendly hostel, then went for a huge pizza and a beer at the Moonlight Brewery which left me feeling very full and happy.

The next sections on my route card showed some alarmingly large numbers in the height gain column, and sure enough I was onto the big road climb up the Marshall Pass as soon as I left Salida. After turning off the initial tarmac section the pass went up a long way on the gravel and I was certainly ready for a break after cresting the top. A nice and not too tricky descent brought me to the tiny settlement of Sargents "Eleveation high, population low" and the Tomichi Creek Trading Post. Unfortunately I was a little too early for lunch, so I made do with microwaved breakfast rolls and coffee. While I was finishing my breakfast David Stowe arrived. I hadn't seen him for a few days, so we caught up with how we had each been going on the trail.

The rest of the day passed by as I crossed the Cochetopa and Carnero passes on dirt roads dodging thunderstorms. As the light was beginning to fade I passed a sign for the Ghost Ranch and reached an interesting section of trail which wiggled around some hills before dropping into Del Norte.

I found Jose and Pavel at the fuel station in Del Norte. Pavel had been knocked off his bike by an old man driving a truck, and was not looking too good. He had had to get a lift with the police to Del Norte where he had replaced his broken handlebars at the bike shop and then the police had driven him back to where he had been knocked off so he could continue his ride. He must have lost a few hours to this as well as having very sore ribs and being a bit concussed but he was determined to carry on an find somewhere to bivvy. Jose headed off to the motel and I followed after having a microwave burrito for dinner.

The motel was like so many others down the divide, looking like it had not had any money spent on it since the 1970's but at least it was cheap.

From Del Norte the climb of the Indiana pass ramps up almost straight out of town. Planning for the divide I had been a little apprehensive about the altitude on this section. The top of the pass is at nearly 12,000 feet (3,600m) which is seriously high for someone who lives at sea level like me. The route also remains above 11,000 feet for almost 40 miles. Fortunately having been on the trail already for two weeks meant that I was fairly well acclimatised to high altitude and I didn't suffer too much apart from feeling a bit sluggish on the steep uphill sections.

Top of the Indiana Pass, high point of the route at 3,630 m (11,910 feet).

The top of the pass gave stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains, but also a view of Summitville - a site where the mountain had been torn apart by gold mining from the 1860's until the 1990's. The most recent firm to exploit the site was wound up leaving massive environmental problems including run-off of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The US government stepped in declaring it a federal superfund cleanup site and spent $155m on decontamination. The work goes on and there is still a lagoon of scary red liquid below the old mine workings.

Marmots on rubble at Summitville.
After staying very high for a long time there was finally some descent through fantastic scenery to reach Platoro and lunch. This tourist town has a couple of restaurants and I picked the Gold Nugget Cafe where I had a good burger and an excellent bread pudding with whisky sauce.

Red Mountain helping Colorado live up to its name.
The day was hot by this stage, so I was able to justify a stop for ice cream and a quick snooze at the gallery in Horca. Here Pavel passed me just as I was about to set off, but I overtook him on the road climb up the La Manga Pass. I think Pavel was suffering from the effects of his crash the previous day.

After cresting the pass, leaving the tarmac and crossing a narrow-gauge railway I reached the New Mexico state line - the final state on the ride!

The final chapter - New Mexico

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