The Three Day Day Ride
Narrative of a three day tour over the Trail Ridge Road passes and Berthoud Pass.
Every morning I woke up, I still felt I was waking up in a resort town . I had just moved to Colorado, specifically to Golden, west of Denver. There were snow capped mountains all around me, peaks to climb, passes to ride, pictures to take, new adventures waiting around every corner. The mountains were at some distance. But I could see them glistening from where I worked and lived. They were calling me. On this weekend I could get out and see what's on the other side of the Front Range. The Denver Bicycle Touring Club had organized a dayride from Frazier to Grand Lake and back, and I was about to join them.
Two of my new bike club friends were on the ride, Bob and Jack. Both were active club members. Bob had even been the DBTC president just recently. Jack also was remarkable. He suffered from diabetes. But this did not keep him off his bike. He just carried the implements necessary to test his blood sugar along with him. He also told some scary stories. In these stories Jack suffered a diabetic seizure while riding his bicycle. He practically fell off his bike, and laid there waiting for the seizure to pass. Then, after spending half an hour having a seizure at the bottom of an embankment next to the road, he just got back on the bike, and continued his 80 mile day ride.
Chatting with my friends, I learned that they would not only ride from Winter Park to Grand Lake. Instead of returning back with the club, they planned to cross back over the Front Range via Trail Ridge Road to Netherland. Their plan was to spend the night at the youth hostel there, and ride home the next day. They invited me to join them. Now this sounded too good to pass up. Since that time I have ridden many times over Trail Ridge Road. But I will never forget that special excitement of anticipating it the first time. There was just one problem. I was on a day ride, not a three day tour. I didn't have changes of clothing, or enough money along to keep going for three days. On the other hand, I didn't need a prearranged tour with 4 star hotels, a bottle of wine, and a toilet with a paper bow strapped across it, waiting for me every night. After all, what's a three day ride, but three day rides joined together by sleeping twice. There was also the undeniable fact that a weekend is almost always followed by a working Monday. But that wasn't a problem either. My job as a contractor had a four day work week. But I didn't have enough money with me to bike for three days. Neither did I have any credit cards. All this also could be solved. Another friend on the ride lent me 5 bucks. This brought the grand total to 26 dollars in my wallet. That's probably around 75 dollars in current terms. Since we planned to stay in youth hostels, I thought this was enough. All the conditions for a three day circle ride through Rocky Mountain Park seemed to be falling into place. I joined up with Bob and Jack for a fantastic three day tour.
While the DBTC ride was getting ready to head back from Grand Lake, we looked for the youth hostel. The town was typical for a service town on a National Park perimeter. Deprived of the their commercial habits inside the park, tourists show a great appetite for all those things they can't get in the park, hamburger stands, go kart races, minigolf parks, little stores selling every conceivable knick knack souvenir imaginable. Clever entrepreneurs took advantage of this fact and erected all the businesses, necessary to relieve tourists of their hard earned money. But Long Lake is not nearly as bad as its counterpart on the east side of the park, downtown Estes Park. Grand Lake has a smaller pool of people from which to extract money. The billboards look almost natural on the natural log buildings. The town drowns in pine .forest The pine forests still much denser than the sign forest The bars and restaurants are great places to plan your next excursion in the park, just on the other side, where there are no more bars and restaurants.
But the biggest attraction of the Grand Lake area was the minigolf park, and its ball lifting machine on hole number eight. "Just think, people come here from all over the state just to play minigolf". Bob advised me on the spectacle of it all. ... "just to to watch the ball be lifted from street level to first floor on hole number 8". For those not interested, watching the people who find the first spectacle so interesting, is a spectacle in itself.
We stayed at the youth hostel. It's a youth hostel custom to help with a chore in the morning. Usually that's something like, washing dishes, drying them, something domestic. Our youth hostel chore this morning was something more unusual. Our assistance was asked in wrestling another hostel guest to the ground. An obscenity spewing Missourian on drugs with a rather large circumference was making trouble. We were then asked to detain him, until Warren the warden, could get further official help. We accomplished all this, mostly by sitting on the troublemaker.
After having done the good deed for the day, and a cereal breakfast in the hostel kitchen, we were ready to tackle Trail Ridge Road. Our climb from the west is the shorter of the two. Each one of us worked their way up at their own speed. First a view over the forested valley opened up. Slowly we climbed above treeline, and stayed above it longer than I ever had before on a bicycle.
After a thrilling descend, we rode right through Estes Park, trying to reach the youth hostel in Netherland. On this rather long ride, each one of us hit several personal walls, walls of energy depletion. We all had to stop to recuperate at several points. Eventually, all the walls crumbled, broken down by Hershey bars and sugary donuts. We reached our goal, Netherland, as it was getting dark. To our surprise the advertised youth hostel existed no more. The fact that my remaining 7 dollars would not cover my share for a motel was completely irrelevant. That's because at that time there was no motel in Netherland. We spent a spartan night having dinner at the local 7-11, and found a friendly Netherland house sitter who offered us pieces of floor and porch to spend the night on.
On day three our routes diverged. Bob and Jack had reached the starting point of our ride by carpooling with other DBTC members from Denver. It was their plan to decend down one of the Front Range canyons to get home. My car, on the other hand, was waiting for me in Winter Park, where this afternoon ride lasting three days had started. I said goodbye to Bob, as he was getting energized to coast down Boulder Canyon. I bid farewell to Jack, as he put the large chainring to work and began to coast down Lyons canyon. I had the hardest day still ahead of me. I would get to ride the full elevation gain of Berthoud Pass, starting at its lowest legally accessible point. That's the base of Floyd Hill, where Rte 6 joins I70. The problem was however, that this lowest legally accessible point was only legally accessible from the west side. On my route, Rte 6 leads through several short tunnels that are still declared illegal for bicycling. This restriction is completely illogical. The tunnels are so short that even pedestrians are clearly visible. There's even a shoulder on the road. This stretch of road is much safer than the preceding 8 miles from Central City, on which cycling is completely legal. I did what was logical.
Now all that was left was the final climb over Berthoud Pass. I'm not aware of any club rides over Bertoud Pass in recent years. Now the road is expanded to four lanes, and the traffic can be described as impressive, to use just one word. Back in the 1980's, Frazier weekend condos were a new concept. The road was a moderately busy two lane highway, and the Denver Bicycle Touring Club ran frequent day rides over the pass. They usually started in Empire. Empire sits at a short steep part, near the base of the road. For me getting to Empire was half the workout. After that I could measure my progress by gazing over to the impressive glacier carved cirque on Mt. Englemann, and measure my altitude relative to it. More than one cyclist has gazed over to that impressive hole in the mountain and asked if this was a volcano that blew its top. Of course the answer is no. But if you aren't aware of the geology and the metamorphic rocks all around, it really does look like a volcanic ridge.
This ride was certainly one of my most interesting experiences of the year. But, if you would actually plan to ride this route, you would probably do it differently. The lopsided mileages of 43, 98 and 76 can be balanced by starting at the eastern base of Berthoud Pass. Day one is spent riding from near Empire to Grand Lake. Day two consists of crossing Trail Ridge to Estes Park. Day three would get you back to the starting point of the ride.
Alternatively you could spend another night in the Central City area, and then ride over Oh my God road to Central City, back to the starting point, for an abbreviated last day. This would replace the short illegal stretch with a little longer legal scenic climb, which really deserves to be called a pass by itself. Instead it carries the odd name "Oh my God road". As of 2002, the north side of Oh-my-God is paved. The east side is dirt. This may present a problem for some riders, but if bicycle racers can race a road bike from Boulder to Breckenridge in a day over this hill (and they do), we should be able to get a touring bike over it.
Central City isn't your ordinary unspoiled cycling destination resort. Instead of unspoiled nature and a lonely grocery store, you'll be in for gambling, drinking, sin and bargain priced all-you-can-eat meals. The last item is actually tailor made for a bicycle tour. I never did understand why gamblers need to eat so much. It's preferable to schedule the ride in the Central City area on something other than a weekend, when heavy gambling traffic can be annoying. Oh yes, it's probably also advisable to take along funds in excess of 26 dollars, as well as the usual touring necessities. (Aug. 83).