A little over a decade ago, I spent the summer on La Reunion, a small French island off the coast of Madagascar. One weekend, I decided to circumnavigate the island on a bicycle. I borrowed my friend’s rickety, single speed cruiser and bungeed a tupperware of rice and vegetables for lunch to the rear rack. I set off at 4am to ride 250kms with the hope of making it back in time for dinner. I did little to no planning, brought no spare clothes or repair kit and figured that if it didn’t work out, I’d simply sleep on the beach and hitch a ride back the following day. I was less concerned with the final result of whether or not I’d make it around the island, being far more compelled by the excitement brought forth by a spontaneous adventure.
Last July, sitting at the Oskar Blues’ (OB) Tasty Weasel Tap Room, sharing a few pints with Derek, Chad and Tony, I was beginning to rekindle the desire to get back into some long distance bicycle shenanigans. Since Tony had been dealing with a stress reaction in his shin for several months, he’d taken to riding his bike a lot, which had naturally opened the door to all sorts of ideas for future self-propelled projects.
Derek has spearheaded OB’s venture into the coffee business and roasts small batches of high quality beans under the name of Hotbox Roasters in his own little corner of the brewery. We met through running and immediately hit it off with common interests in the bean, the brew and bikes with fat tires. Derek introduced me to Chad who’s in charge of Oskar Blues’ marketing and heads up Reeb, OB’s handmade bicycle fabrication business. Everything OB does has a focus on craftsmanship, driven by a group of incredibly creative people. With Tony’s and my interests and aspirations lining up with Reeb, Oskar Blues and Hotbox Roasters, we were eager to start collaborating on self-powered adventures.
I’d done a little research on Reeb’s different bike models and the Sam’s Pants stood out to me as the ultimate all-rounder. I used to be obsessive about finding the best travel gear, stuff that had multiple uses, equally at home on the trails or at the pub after a long day in the mountains. If I were to bring one shoe to go around the world, what would it be? I’m still unsure of the answer, but I now know what bike I’d ride.
Chad plainly describes the Sam’s Pants as “a bike”. In a world of increasing specialization, it’s refreshing to build a simple machine, that can ride road, dirt, and even technical trails. The Sam’s Pants might be a simple bicycle, but its clean, matte black coat of paint hides expert craftsmanship, made with American steel beautifully welded by Chris Sulfrian.
While Tony and I have long term goals of linking peaks self-powered by biking, running and climbing, I had a more immediate desire to ride The Colorado Trail Race (CTR), a 560 mile self-supported mountain bike race from Durango to Denver.
“When’s the race?” Chad asked
“In a couple weeks…” I replied
Chad continues “I can probably get you a rig really quickly…you been riding a lot?”
“euh…a bit.” I responded with confidence infused by hopes rather than reality.
A couple of days later, Chris had welded and painted my frame and I was at CyclHOPS bike shop picking out parts with Tim Moore, the shop manager, who worked until midnight that day to have my bike ready to test a week out from the race. I was overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity and couldn’t believe that the whole project was actually materializing.
The CTR is ridden as an unofficial time trial, since permitting the entire route would be a nightmare and involve all sorts of liability and insurance issues. The race switches directions each year with the grand depart being in Durango this time around. Riders typically carry a Spot GPS device to track their progress and follow one overarching rule “Do.It.Yourself.” This is an honor system whereby all riders agree to carry all of their own gear and receive no individual assistance that isn’t available to all other riders. This means riders cannot share food or gear, or have caches or planned assistance. Riders can resupply in towns for food or gear or get a room as this is available to everyone.
The night before leaving for Durango, my good friend Fred Marmsater, stopped by the house to check out the bike and wish me well. As I was giving him the rundown of my gear, I mentioned I wasn’t planning on wearing bike shorts. “What?! You’re absolutely crazy man! Your ass is going to get destroyed…” was his response. Fred used to race bikes at a high level so I trust his judgement. He told me to get some high-end, preferably European made, thin road shorts and chamois cream. The next day, right before leaving, I picked up a pair of fine Italian shorts and still a bit nervous of “getting destroyed” switched out my new saddle for my trusty old Brooks leather one.
While the whole process of getting to start line was hasty and a bit all over the place, I felt strangely serene on the drive down to the San Juans. My style and enthusiasm was certainly not uncharacteristic, but this was an involved project with lots of uncertainties. Tony had graciously offered to drop me in town and while he was outwardly encouraging of the whole endeavour, I knew there was some definite head–shaking going on inside his mind. For me though, the thrill of a looming old fashioned adventure, far exceeded any nervousness or doubts I could have about anything that might possibly go wrong.
Day 1 – Durango to Cataract Lake
I arrive at the start at quarter to four in morning, in front of Carver Brewing with roughly 60 other riders lining up in the street. Stefan Griebel, endurance athlete extraordinaire and the driving force behind the CTR, reminds us of the “do it yourself” rule, to respect the law and wishes us well before setting us off on our way.
When starting in Durango there’s a short prologue on the road that leads to the Junction Creek trailhead where we all funnel on to the singletrack for 6000 feet of climbing up to Kennebec Pass. I get onto the track behind roughly a dozen or so other riders as the climb begins in earnest.
The first thing I realize is that I’ve never really ridden trails at night. My front hub has an internal dynamo system so I can generate my own light. The brightness is sufficient for climbing, but I find myself wishing for an extra headlamp when descending, something I’ll remedy the following nights.
The climb is gradual and I get into a good rhythm riding most of the way, save a few choppy sections. Occasionally, someone in front will dismount causing everyone behind to do the same, but within an hour or so we start to spread out allowing for more fluid transitions on and off the bike.
The first major descent is incredible. Tight singletrack cut into the side of the slope, a great mix of flowy and rocky trail. Halfway down my pedal clips a root, with the shock sending me flying over the handlebars. I’m uninjured, but lose my sunglasses out of my jersey pocket without noticing.
Having never really ridden a mountain bike before, these first few hours are deeply thrilling and I find myself getting unreasonably excited for what is still to come.
I also know very little of the trail, having only seen the last 80 miles to Denver and bits and pieces around Leadville. The San Juans are one of my favorite mountain ranges, so it’s without surprise that the trail through here is of exceptional quality.
My bike is set-up with a Rohloff internal gear hub and a carbon belt drive, making the drivetrain essentially maintenance–free and giving me a very wide range of gears. The gearing makes climbing efficient and allows me to stay seated on the bike. It’s easy to relax in this position and I patiently work the climbs. The tops of the passes are often loose and rocky forcing me to get off the bike and push. Being a mountain runner, I probably enjoy this more than most, even though pushing a loaded bicycle is fairly strenuous and awkward. My bike shoes feel like clogs with the cleats pushing uncomfortably into my forefoot.
I’m surprised to catch up to Jefe Branham hiking up one of the early passes. Jefe is a CTR legend and one of only 2 riders to ever break the 4 days in the race. While I seem to be able to keep a reasonable pace on the uphills, the technical downhills are challenging on a fully rigid bike. I need to pick my way carefully down the trail, still getting constantly pounded like wielding a jackhammer. I get no breaks up or down and get to Silverton, worked, after 15 hours of riding.
My emotions are torn between elation from the extraordinary section I’d just covered and a bit of concern, that if the technical trail doesn’t relent, I’m unsure if my body will hold up to the beating.
I take a necessary break at the convenient store to eat, drink and restock the bike with food as the next resupply is close to 200 miles away. I cram as many calories as I can into my jersey pockets and frame and top tube bags. Still, I know I will be cutting it pretty close especially if something goes wrong.
I leave town with Alex Lussier from Montana just before dark. We’re both exhausted and hike the bike slowly the entire way up Stony Pass road, the last section of the Weminuche Wilderness bike detour. We pass several other riders who are bivvied alongside the road. It’s tempting to stop for a nap, particularly as the next section around Cataract Lake is all open and up high, at at least 12 thousand feet. My preference though is to push until 2am and sleep for a few hours then, in an attempt to not mess too much with my circadian rhythm. Alex and I stumble along a bit longer and after 22 hours on the go, find a half decent spot to lay down our sleeping bags. I sleep remarkably well for 2 hours, despite the high altitude, wet ground, lack of sleeping pad and damp clothes.
Day 2 – Cataract Lake to Sargents Mesa
I wake up coughing violently, hacking up phlegm, with a taste of blood in my month. I feel sort of asthmatic or as if I might have a lung infection. I pack up the bike and put a Buff around my neck, trying to mitigate some of the soreness in my throat. As Alex and I are preparing to leave, Aaron Johnson rides by and we join him on the climb to Carson Saddle, the highest point of the CT.
Our little group splinters on the descent before beginning the second detour around La Garita Wilderness. I’m surprised at how pleasant these detours are, mostly along scenic dirt roads with little pavement. This type of terrain is much more suited for my bicycle. I pedal hard even on the descents, trying to keep my body as relaxed as possible to absorb the vibrations from the waterbars.
The temperatures are rising and the road exposed so I make it a point to stop and filter water next to a cow pasture before the climb up to Los Pinos Pass. Aaron Denberg catches up to me and stays close in arrears as we grind our way up the climb. While I feel relatively good, I don’t like the heat much, so I stop again to camel up at a small creek.
I’m starting to pick up the rhythm of the trail, my bike and body gradually breaking in, my mind open and elated.
A little before night fall, approaching Sargents Mesa, I catch up to Aaron Johnson. This segment is notorious for its difficulty. It’s remote, rocky and slow going and for us comes at a difficult time as we enter the second night. Aaron J. raced the CT in 2013 so he’s familiar with what’s up ahead. I can only base my knowledge on what others like Stefan have told me. Unanimously, everyone agrees that Sargents Mesa is particularly challenging, so Aaron and I decide to rest for a few hours before attacking it this section.
I lay down my sleeping bag on a soft bed of pine needles. It’s warm in the forest. I lay on top of my bag sweating, coughing, with mosquitos biting my face and hands for a restless few hours. Aaron is in a similar predicament and neither of us gets any rest.
I set off a little before him around midnight, crawling along the rocky trail, physically uncomfortable, yet mentally calm.
Day 3 – Sargents Mesa to Clear Creek Reservoir
Just before Sunrise, Aaron J. catches back up to me and pulls ahead, while I rejoin Aaron D. We have an interesting dynamic, leap frogging, occasionally in sync and happy for the company, but also very much alone. Aaron D. and I take a minor wrong turn, rapidly realising our mistake after a few miles. Once back on track, we begin the very strenuous, loose, rubbly climb towards Marshall Pass. I had underestimated this segment looking at the map and it proves to be the most challenging so far. Progress is extremely slow and I’ve began rationing my food for fear of running out before the Princeton Hot Springs convenient store.
Stupidly, I miss another turn to the Fooses Creek Trail and continue along towards Monarch Pass, but again only straying for a few miles. Aaron D. had warned me that Fooses was a steep, technical trail that he’d taken a bad fall on while on a recon ride. Down in my drops, I grip my brakes with everything I have and somewhat miraculously make it down in one piece. While I’m taking a beating, I’m amazed at how well the bike and tires are doing through the constant thrashing.
At highway 50, my food has dwindled to but one last honey stinger waffle with roughly 25 more miles to go to the Princeton Hot Springs. I’m running on empty, having rationed for the past 8 hours. I choose to hold on to the waffle for as long as I can to not bonk, nibbling on tiny pieces that I let dissolve under my tongue.
Aaron D. and I are back together, moving slowly and both deteriorating in the intense heat. At the top of one particularly difficult climb, I lean forward in agony putting my head on my handlebars, breathing heavily. I turn to Aaron to complain, but before I can say anything he smiles and proclaims “man, I love this!” How could he be so positive, when he’s clearly struggling just as much as me. “Yeah. It’s awesome.” I reply, halfheartedly.
I gaze down the precarious final descent to the springs, uncertain as to whether I can manage it. The waffle is gone, so is my water. I’m dehydrated and lightheaded. I lay in the dirt for a few seconds to collect myself and keep repeating “just hold it together, just hold it together.”
Somehow, we make it down to the Princeton Hot Springs convenience store, scoring some trail fairy loot a couple miles out from a table set-up for CT racers.
At the store, I eat and drink a lot. I sit in a blissful food coma on the soft grass out front, as the previous dire hours dissolve into my bag of chips. I’m approaching 300 miles of riding and have only slept for a couple of hours. I can feel it. Aaron leaves the store before me, heading up the paved road towards the Princeton trailhead to rejoin the CT. I have to consciously focus on restocking my bike with food and prepare to leave so as not to succumb to a longer rest on the grass.
On the way up the paved road, I turn on my phone and receive 3 texts of encouragement from Deanne, Tony and Fred. The combination of fatigue, bonking and soreness in my body heightens my emotions. On the bike, I mainly exist in my own head, so these small outside messages of support provide a tremendous amount of comfort. I’m reenergized and start to pick the pace back up, catching Aaron D. before the highway into Buena Vista.
We roll into town together, stopping at Ks for burgers, fries and a shake. As we eat Aaron asks if I want to split a room for a few hours of sleep. I hesitate as it’s still early and I want to make it to Clear Creek Reservoir before resting. However, my cough has noticeably worsened, so I rationalize that a couple hours in a warm bed might do me good.
It’s hot in the room, extremely hot. I lay there sweating, tossing and turning, coughing and all around uncomfortable. Aaron is out cold. His snoring doesn’t help my case, so after an hour without sleep, I decide it’s best to leave. Aaron is extremely apologetic, blaming himself for my departure. I assure him that it’s not his fault, that my body is simply rebelling and I need fresh air. To my surprise, he decides to leave too, so we head out of town together. It’s a beautiful night. The dirt road that parallels highway 24 makes for an easy and pleasant ride. Once we pass Clear Creek Reservoir, we begin a dusty, sandy singletrack climb towards Twin Lakes. I’m struggling to keep my eyes open and push the bike with difficulty. There are no good resting stops until we reach the top of the climb, where we both collapse on either side of the trail for a few hours.
Day 4 – Clear Creek Reservoir – Wellington Lake Road TH
With the rising sun comes a new sense of purpose, as if I hit the reset button and forget about the distance already covered. Another huge boost is knowing I’ll make it to Leadville around mid-morning, a most perfect time to enjoy a cup of coffee and food at City on a Hill coffee shop, one of my favorites in the state.
Leadville also brings familiarity. I now mostly know what lies ahead and with roughly 150 miles to go, I’m in proximity of the finish. However, this slight shift in mindset dampens my focus with my positivity rapidly waning as I start the ascent up Kokomo Pass.
It’s hot again, and I’m really feeling the wear and tear and fatigue as I struggle to keep riding, defaulting to pushing the bike more frequently than I should. By the top of the pass, I’m bonking hard and sit there for a good 15 minutes eating and re-hydrating. I spend another 15 minutes trying to tighten my brakes, but the tedium of the micro-adjustments only brings frustration.
While I had been able to relax on most of the technical downhills, lessening the pounding on my body, I’m tense coming off the pass, feeling every rock and inconsistency in the trail. The only thought on my mind is making it to Copper before the store closes so I can stock up for the final push to Denver.
I make it to the ski area a little before 7pm. I immediately buy a pizza and collapse on the gravel road, too beat to walk over to the bench. I call my wife for the first time on the trip. “I’m fucking beat, babe…I’m bonking so hard…everything hurts…I’ve got the Tenmile range coming up and I don’t know what to do…” I complain. Deanne’s supported me through these types of situations many times before and knows exactly what to say. She’s positive and encouraging, but keeps her answers short and pragmatic. “Get to the store before it closes, stock up the bike and gently get back on your way.” That’s all I need really- a bit of venting and some straight talk.
I thank her, tell her I love her and that I’ll see her soon before heading over to the store. After my episode coming into Princeton Hot Springs, I cannot mentally afford to run out of food again. I buy several frozen burritos, that I’ll let reheat naturally in my bag, along with a number of candy bars and a plastic jar of nutella in case of emergency.
Just out of town, I stop at the bottom of the climb to ponder whether or not I should make it over the Tenmile range now or after a few hours of sleep. It’s only 8pm, so it feels too early to sleep, but the climb ahead is strenuous and the descent on the backside, steep and technical. As I sit there undecided, Sam Koerber pulls up to the trailhead. He’s in a similar indecisive mood so I say with false confidence “I’m gonna go.” To my disappointment, Sam answers “yeah, you’re probably right. Let’s do it.” Dammit!
As night falls, pushing up the steep trail, we see a light coming down our way. It’s Aaron Johnson. He’s broken a hub and can’t go on any further. He’s called the bike shop in Copper who have the parts for the repair and he’s planning on setting off again in the morning. I’m extremely impressed with his determination and his relative nonchalance towards the situation.
Sam and I push on over the pass and he immediately puts some distance on me with his masterful skill on the downhill.
I’m struggling on all levels. Four hundred miles and I’m reaching my limit. I’m physically destroyed. I can’t see or focus properly on the line ahead, trying with everything I have to not fall off the bike. I’m grunting, cursing out loud and feeling exceedingly vulnerable. The trail is too rocky to stop and sleep. It’s cold out too and for the first time in the whole trip I’m losing control. I’m frustrated with my poor judgement to tackle this climb in such a state.
Somehow, miraculously, I make it down into the woods, following a trail that’s gradually improving until I find a good place to stop. I drop the bike, pull out my sleeping bag and pass out without setting an alarm. I sleep for a good 4 hours and take another hour to get back on the bike.
Last night’s feeling of precarity all but vanishes in the warm, early morning sun. I snap into a good rhythm on buffed out, quality trail past Breckenridge to Kenosha Pass. I’m amazed at the contrast of how my mind and body feel after only a handful of hours of rest.
The final bike detour around the Lost Creek Wilderness, named the Tarryall detour is about 70 miles mainly on a dirt road. I’m joined by Sam “Papa Murphy” Harney, for the first stretch to the Stagecoach bar. He’s a nice fella from Portland, Oregon.
The bar is a welcome stop for a last hot meal before the final push to the finish. It’ss crowded with folks playing pool, a hearty bunch eager to hear our stories from the trail. Sam and I order a pair of meatball sandwiches, which we inhale as soon as they are served. I get a chicken sandwich for my jersey pocket to eat later and we’re on our way. Sam bums a cigarette off one of the guys which we all find amusing. The smoke doesn’t seem to impede his athletic ability though as he quickly drops me on the road out from the bar.
While the Colorado Trail is very well marked, the detours aren’t marked at all. I don’t have a GPS, so I nervously make my way forward following directions from the pocket sized trail databook. A massive storm is brewing up ahead, providing an incredible lightning display.
As night falls, I resume my struggle with sleep deprivation, frantically checking the databook to ensure I haven’t missed a turn. The negative thoughts that stem from exhaustion appear to sit more placidly in my mind tonight, a sort of adjustment to the discomfort.
My objective before resting is to finish the detour and reach the trail which I regain at 1am. I decide on one final bivvy, allowing myself to sleep until 4am, which will mark the start of the 5th day.
Day 5 – Wellington Lake Road TH – Waterton Canyon
Upon waking, I notice my Spot device is flashing red so I’m unsure if I’m still emitting a signal. My phone has 5% battery left and I foolishly brought the wrong cable for my back up Goal Zero charger. I’m now much less concerned with the last 40 miles to Waterton Canyon than the idea that Deanne might not be there at the finish because of the phone and Spot failing.
The track is good now, rolling and flowing and I enjoy riding in the cool morning air.
Right before the Little Scraggy trailhead, I’m stopped by a guy sporting a retro unitard, riding a vintage mountain bike, exclaiming “whatever you do, don’t go that way! There’s a group riding horses and there’s shit all over the trail.” I laugh and answer: “I don’t mind the horse shit. It probably smells fresher than me.”
Thankfully, I only catch up to the group of about 60 horses at the South Platte River with plenty of space to pass them. Only one more climb to go before the long downhill and 6 miles of dirt road to the finish. With the excitement, I ride the entire way up the climb. I fall a couple of times as the sole of my bike shoe is completely coming apart. It’s like riding in flip flops and hiking is no better. As I engage the final descent, I’m too lazy to stop and readjust my brakes, so with my shoe flapping and dragging on the ground, I precariously skid my way down the hill. I simply don’t care about anything anymore and will walk it in barefoot if I necessary.
Once I reach the final stretch of road, I have mixed feelings of relief, contrasting with a strong desire of not wanting the trip to end. The past 5 days condense into this one moment, a raw slice of life, palpable and real. I pass day hikers, riders and people fishing, a strange return to civilized living, a sort of counter-culture shock from my feral ways.
I drop my water bottle and drag my foot into the dirt to stop my brakeless machine. Trying to dismount, I fall off my bike, pick myself up, looking around wild-eyed at the bewildered passers-by, before grabbing my bottle and hustling on forward.
At the trailhead, Deanne is there waiting. My voice is hoarse and I can barely speak. I tear up, so thankful to see her, overwhelmed with love. I feel a deep sense of contentment not just from finishing, but from the profundity of the whole experience.
Stefan Griebel said prior to the race that riding the Colorado Trail is a life-changing experience. For me, it has shifted my perspective back to a place of excitement, curiosity and wonder of the simple joys of self-propelled adventure.
I’m eternally grateful for the support and generosity of the good folks at Reeb, Oskar Blues, Hotbox Roaster and CyclHOPS. Special thanks to Derek, Chad, Chris and Tim for everything bike related as well as Tony for the ride down, Fred for the advice, Jenny from Tailwind and Deanne and Bella B for being the bestest!
I will write a follow up post with a complete rundown of the bike and the gear I brought on the race.