Mid-Summer Bikepacking Chronicles: Part 2
Earlier this year, I set my sights on a bikepacking race. As I alluded to in the previous blog post, my desire for doing these kinds of things doesn’t have much, if anything to do with competition or racing, but more for exploration and personal challenge. The North South Colorado, a 600-mile route from Fort Collins to Trinidad, caught my attention while reading about events on bikepacking.com. With 52,000 ft of elevation gain, it promised a challenging adventure through mostly gravel and dirt roads, some single track, and occasional pavement. A fairly new race, the first two years had about a 50% completion rate and this year would be no different. Similar to many bikepacking races, it isn’t a typical bike race with registration fees, waivers to sign, aid stations, swag bags, post race parties, prizes, podiums, etc. It’s a self-supported event where riders follow a designated route, carrying all their own gear. The rules are straightforward, same as the Tour Divide rules. It was a perfect choice logistically, fitting my work schedule, and also aligning pretty well with my personal goals.
I told Brad I wanted to do this race, and naturally he said, “Well, I want to do it too!”. Of course that would make logistics a bit tricky. We’d need to find a ride for both of us to the start and back home from the finish instead of my original thought that Brad would simply drop me off and pick me up. Ultimately, we made it work with some creative planning.
Unlike some racers who aim for a top result and go with little to no sleep and minimal gear, my main goal was to complete the race and get back to Steamboat by the time I was scheduled to work again, which proved to be a tighter timeline than I expected. Brad’s ambitions were a bit different. Being the competitive spirit he is, he wanted to see where he could stack up in the end results. This of course would help guide his gear choices, or lack thereof. While Brad debated on bringing a sleeping bag, I on the other hand, gave myself too many choices for gear and probably overpacked, as I tend to do. A 600-mile race is on the threshold of being able to get away with hardly any sleep, but still it was surprising to me how many people were willing to do so and did not bring sleeping bags. Sure you can sleep without a sleeping bag, but it’s a gamble considering the elevation and terrain within the first half of this route. The course hovers around 8-12,000 feet within the first 2-300 miles, which means colder temps at night and a high probability of thunderstorms. The second half is at lower elevation, traveling through some dry desert(ish) terrain where a sleeping bag wouldn’t be essential. I think most riders struck the balance with a 40º bag. Ultimately, I convinced Brad to at least bring a lightweight 50º bag, but I don’t think he was happy about carrying the extra 450 grams.
James the cat helping me pack.
Shakedown ride on the way to Fort Collins.
Startline on a Tennis Court in Fort Collins.
For me, Bikepacking can feel like stepping into a time warp where one mile can take an eternity but when I lay down to sleep I wonder where the day vanished to. The days begin to blend into one another and remembering where I was the day prior and what terrain I’ve already passed through takes more brain power than I’d like to admit. After a day or two I feel like I’m in a dream – maybe a side effect of the physical exertion and the whirlwind of experiences while traveling through different places by bike.
In this post I’ll share some highlights and memorable moments from each day, but there is certainly more I could reminisce about. Apologies I can’t speak for Brad’s experience, I know you’re curious about his journey too. What I can share is that he finished 3rd overall, just 4 minutes behind 2nd place, completing the race in 3 days and 8 hours, and he speaks highly of his overall adventure. I’m sure he’d be eager to share more if you reach out to him.
Day 1 kicked off at 6am on the Tennis Court of a town park in Fort Collins. After the first 15 or so miles, I found myself mostly riding solo, occasionally crossing paths with other riders, and minimal words exchanged in passing. Riding alone allowed me to get some nervous energy out, and think about a rough plan for resupplying throughout the route. A thunderstorm passed through around mile 108 near Gould – which is not a town but more of a historical marker with some cabins for rent, a visitor center, and a gift shop with snacks. Luckily the gift shop was open as the next resupply after that was another 70 miles and a lot of climbing. Some riders rented a cabin in Gould for the night and some carried on through the storm. I waited out the storm for about 30 minutes and carried on for about 140 miles and 11,500 feet of climbing for the day. Many people went further, but I didn’t want to overcook myself this early in the race, which I know is easy to do with all the excitement and energy on the first day. With that in mind and the sun almost fully down, it was reassuring when I spotted a few racers setting up camp near the base of the next pass, Stillwater. They shouted a friendly “Hey there!” and welcomed me to bivy next to them. I accepted the invitation, quickly set up my sleep kit, had a string cheese & tortilla, and immediately fell asleep.
Rollins Pass, on Day 2, at about 190 miles in, I thought would be the pinnacle of this race. I figured once I got up and down Rollins, the rest would be smooth sailing. I was wrong. Each day, the ride presented increasingly difficult challenges for me. After Rollins Pass, the descent is an incredibly uncomfortable 6-8 miles of chunky rocks, sometimes embedded and sometimes loose. There is about a mile of relief on a smooth dirt road before the route immediately takes a turn up Mammoth Gulch, the same amount of chunk but uphill this time. It was about 8:00 pm when I made the turn up Mammoth Gulch. Even though I’d only ridden about 85 miles that day, I decided to bivy for the night in an effort to keep energy up for the rest of the race. This proved a wise decision as I later learned that some fellow racers struggled to find a camping spot further up the route near the next town, Central City and ended up paying $300 at midnight for a hotel room in the Casino-laden town.
String cheese & tortilla before falling into a deep sleep on night one.
Brad’s picture from the High point on Rollins Pass.
Climbing Stillwater Pass.
Brad’s picture from the North Fork Trail.
Somewhere on Rollins Pass.
My Picture from the North Fork Trail.
Day 3, I rode 95 miles and climbed over 10,000 feet before I found a spot to bivy up on Goose Creek Road. My average moving speed for the day was 8mph, which gives some perspective. This included an awesome singletrack section that I’d love to go ride again called the North Fork Trail. You know it was a legit day of climbing when one of the Strava segments is aptly named “Fuck This Hill“.
Day 4 kept up with the theme of ever-increasing challenges. It wasn’t even noon yet when I began to notice the lack of water along the terrain, the sun’s intensity, and dryness in the air. Approaching Red Canyon Park, around mile 400 near Cañon City, the temperature must have been 100º. My newfound riding buddy, Johnny (whom I met at the gas station 30 miles back), and I crawled along the last dirt roads into town. The cool mountain breeze I felt only a day prior was replaced by convection oven winds. I decided to get a hotel in Cañon City. I figured a good night’s rest, air conditioning, a shower, and some real food would serve me well before tackling the final 200 miles. I went to pick up some food at the restaurant across the street from my hotel and I saw a bunch of riders I’d been flip-flopping with in the days prior, and Johnny! They also planned to get a hotel in Cañon City and were nice enough to invite me to join them for an early start at 4am the next morning. 4am was earlier than I would’ve planned for myself, but I accepted the invitation. I joined them the next morning, a smart decision as Day 5 ended up being the most challenging day for me and we all know tackling difficult tasks becomes easier with camaraderie.
Goose Creek road climb.
Red Canyon Park Climb.
Johnny rolling into Cañon City.
Day 5, I did not expect it to be as hot as it was considering we climbed back up to 8,000 feet elevation. Throughout most of the day, I rode with my new companions. Their company was something I greatly appreciated and added an extra oomph to the entire experience. It was unbearably hot for much of the day. I am familiar with the dangers of heat, so I was mindful of hydration and tried not to push myself too hard to keep my core temperature from getting too high. This day would have been a lot more challenging had I been on my own, and to be honest, I probably would have stopped and waited out the heat, pushing my finishing time out a day or two.
We made it to the town of Walsenburg where the Safeway parking lot was like our own little bikepacker’s oasis. I normally wouldn’t loiter in a parking lot or sit down on the sidewalk in front of Safeway for that long, especially considering some of the characters wandering around in the area. Over an hour went by, and we figured we’d better get moving to La Veta if we wanted to finish the race by the next day.
Day 6 was another early start, 3 am this time, to avoid as much heat as possible. Again, it was earlier than I would’ve planned on my own, but again proved to be a wise decision because it was another extremely hot 80 miles to the end of the route in Trinidad. I finally rolled into Trinidad around noon, my final time being 5 days, 7 hours and some minutes, I forget the exact number. It felt good to complete this ride, but as always with these kinds of things for me personally, it was a bit anti-climactic. I felt a quiet sense of accomplishment and at the same time, some sadness that the adventure was over. Also the fact that I had to work the next day dampened my spirits a bit. To add to the mix, within the last 5 miles of my ride I received a text from my boss asking if there was a chance I’d gotten home early – a reminder that I would soon be entering back into my civilian life.
Questioning my life’s decisions after a tough ride.
Brad’s picture from the last day.
Shelby taking a nap in the Safeway Parking lot.
Finishline with my new friends.
Shelby and I heading towards La Veta
Brad’s finishline pic with his new friends.
I bet you’re curious about how we managed to make it home in time for my work. Long story short, since Brad finished a couple of days earlier, he rode his bike 120 miles up to Pueblo, the nearest town that had rental car options. There he rented a truck and gallantly drove back to Trinidad to pick me up and also give a fellow racer a ride back up to the Denver area – what a guy! There’s also an amusing twist involving a new friend named motorcycle Kevin, but you’ll have to ask Brad about that one.
A common question people ask is, “So how much did your bike weigh?”. Brad weighed our bikes at one point during the packing process, but I changed my setup after that, so I can’t say for certain it was accurate. Also, it didn’t include water. Our loaded bikes were both in the 45-50lbs ballpark when he weighed them. I can’t remember the exact numbers. Honestly, I didn’t want to know. It was heavy, that’s all I cared to know. For me personally, it’s too easy to let that number negatively affect my mindset and send me down the rabbit hole of comparison to other rider’s setups. I prefer not to weigh my bike before these kinds of things. I think I’d rather weigh it after the fact – maybe next time I will do that so I can be prepared to give an accurate answer when someone asks me.
This was an extremely challenging endeavor for both myself and Brad. It’s a simple statement and yes it’s cliché, but I’m proud of everyone who even attempted this race, finishers or not. I’m also grateful for the friends I made along the way. It’s a privilege to choose to challenge myself in this way and finding joy in this experience was incredibly rewarding. Upon our return home, a friend asked the question, “How was your experience?”. This is the best question I received! It highlights the fact that this was an experience and much more than just a bikepacking race. I’m looking forward to the next bikepacking adventure I choose to take on. I don’t know what it will be yet, if anyone has any ideas, feel free to let me know!
Feel free to reach out with questions about gear or bike setup for this race. I’m happy to provide insight, but keep in mind that your choices for gear and bike set up are highly dependent upon your goals, expectations, comfort levels, and personal expectations and will most likely differ from mine and Brads. Throughout my endeavors I’ve learnt that there is no perfect setup. Mine is constantly evolving and my gear preferences are always changing. As with most of my bikepacking trips, there are definitely things I would’ve done differently on this trip but that’s all part of the experience, live and learn!