On the Road to Heaven
As the Intelligentsia Cup wound down in Chicago, most members of TBD were plotting their departure back to the Big Apple. I, however, was making plans to extend my trip further west. Summer trips to Colorado have become something of a tradition for me over the past couple of years. Usually nestled into the early part of August, when racing burnout looms large like the shadows of early evening, the escape west serves both a restorative and motivating purpose. All it required was surviving 15 hours of driving, no small feat being that I had given up coffee the month prior. The mountains, however, were calling. For the uninitiated, the area around Boulder, CO offers (literally) breathtaking riding and inspiring scenery in a region that can best be described as an outdoor person’s heaven.
Colorado in 4 Acts:
Riding bikes in Colorado is an almost indescribable experience. As a flatland native, riding at elevation presents an immediate challenge. The combination of thinner air and longer climbs relative to that found in the mid-Atlantic region can lead to a humbling readjustment: aka when tempo/threshold efforts become recovery-level power. Though I could write infinitely about the riding in the Boulder area, I will instead focus on one of my favorite routes. Heading north from Boulder, it’s fairly easy to find yourself riding along the Foothills Highway. For those more familiar with NYC area riding, this roadway is akin to a 9W ride, but with some more substantial elevation changes. With the mountains at your left, it’s easy to imagine the fun you have in store once you make the turn into Lyons, CO (past one of my favorite distilleries discussed below) and into the hills this region has to offer. The roads from Lyons to Ward climb from roughly 5000 to 9000 feet, becoming increasingly deserted as the density of the air around you decreases. The few cars encountered on this route are both a welcome and insufferable distraction on this journey as you battle through hypoxia on your up towards discovering your true self. One thing that becomes clear on this long journey upwards is that short criterium efforts do not translate well to hour-plus climbs at elevation. Eventually, the route crests at Ward, and you have the privilege of descending rapidly through Lefthand Canyon back towards Boulder. Concentration is of the essence on this high-speed portion of the journey: harder at higher elevations, better as you drop to more reasonable heights. On this particular excursion, however, I had the privilege of descending out of 70-ish degree mountain weather and into 90-degree temperatures in Boulder. Cue bonking tragically 8 miles from home to the point where I seriously considered taking a cab. Welcome to long rides at elevation.
By my own, extremely non-official, count, it was possible to compete in as many as 4 races during my trip to Colorado. Had I been able to motivate myself to leave Chicagoland a little bit earlier the morning of my 15-hour death-drive there, or just driven faster, I might have been able to make the ill-advised decision to jump out of my car and into a Tuesday night crit at the Pearl Izumi headquarters. It was not to be for me, however, Scudney reported that it was a fun and fast weeknight race in a field that was something like a typical Rockleigh and FBF field combined.
My first race of the week would instead be the next night at the Wednesday Table Mountain Race Series near Golden, CO. A short drive from Louisville with the Scudney clan put me on top of a mountain at an exposed driving track used to train Colorado State Troopers; this was going to be interesting. Leading up to the race, Scudney offered an apt description of the race course, “Imagine if Floyd and Rockleigh had a baby.” It did not disappoint. Windswept and exposed, this course at 6000 feet was always going to be a test of true grit. This test became harder with the arrival of a legitimate UCI World Tour professional in the form of Alex Howes looking for a final tune up before the Tour of Utah. Game plan: beat a pro cyclist. At best, I can say the results sheet placed the two of us the same (DNP = outside of the top 15), but the reality is, I got shelled fairly hard. Feeling complacent early in the race, I thought that I could easily bridge across a gap that opened in the field due to some stiff crosswinds. Though I was able to make the gap, the field accelerated immediately upon my junction and I found myself dropped and chasing in no-man’s-land for the remainder of the race. Perhaps in consolation, Scudney told me after the race that it was the hardest edition of the race in which he had completed since first arriving to Colorado and before he was properly acclimatized.
Following a few days of riding, running, and otherwise enjoying all that the Boulder area has to offer, I opted into two crits to round out my experiences racing at elevation. Now, I had attempted to compete in these two races on my trip to the region last year but, through a combination of poor weather and dumb racing, failed to complete both. This time, I was back with an axe to grind. Saturday’s race was the Littleton Twilight Crit, which serves as one of the stops of the USACrits series. The announcers at the race proclaimed the Littleton course to be one of the fastest crit courses in the USACrits series, and the 27+mph average of my race maybe gave that statement some credibility. Given the few days of riding and running I had leading into the race, I was not overly optimistic about my chances, and, when the race started, a few sharp accelerations and fast laps saw me sucking wind at the back of the field as if I was trying to breathe through a straw. Several laps in, I found myself warming up to the efforts I was making but running out of matches at the same time. I moved up well going into the last two laps but found myself a few wheels out of place to contend for the final sprint, content to roll in for 15th place on the day. Achievement unlocked: finished a crit at elevation.
Sunday’s race was the Bannock Street Crit in Denver. This 8-corner crit in the Golden triangle of Denver has been going strong for 25 years, presenting ample opportunities for skillful bike-driving and application of power. Power, I felt slightly short on given the realities of racing at a mile of elevation, but cornering skill and pack maneuvering were two abilities I planned to use to their fullest as I sought a decent result. As the race started, I found myself racing better than the day before: responding to surges and following moves with, better-than-expected, ease. Going into the last couple of laps, I established myself near the front of the proceedings, being mindful to preserve one solid match for the long sprint that was surely inevitable. At the start of the final lap, I found myself 10th-ish wheel, ready to unleash a sprint and pray for a podium to round out my vacation, but this was not to be. I managed to drop my chain in turn 2 after railing a bump in the road and went from 10th wheel to 50th. Game over. All told, it was a much more successful weekend of racing than my attempt at these events last year, but I couldn’t help but feeling a little bit bummed about what could have been had mechanicals not taken me out of that finale. Plus, that race had an advertised payout 15 places deep: I wouldn’t have hated that gas money.
As much as I love the Boulder area for its fantastic riding, I’ve also found a few spots that extend the joys had while riding to downtime as well.
This small-ish distillery in Lyons produces a good variety of high-level liquor using ingredients they know well. That alone would be a selling point for most, but the welcoming feel created by its laid-back decor and friendly staff make this a must-visit for me on trips to the area. This is the same distillery that I passed on my long ride up to Ward, and, having endured that trip, I decided to stop in later that day to make some questionable choices in rehydration. Several hours and many free samples later, I left Spirit Hound with a small treasure trove of whiskey to replenish the vastly depleted stock back home.
Continuing my bulletproof hydration game plan, I decided to drop by the Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont. Beer has electrolytes, right? This brewery offered me a chill place to unwind with a sampling of delicious brews. The bar/tasting room can be open to the outside depending on the weather, which means it is open often during the summer months thanks to Colorado’s favorable climate. A good locale, with satisfying beverages, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff: I ended my visit here feeling pleasantly at ease with life and toting a case of beer to be driven back to New York.
If I had to sell someone on visiting the Mountain Sun Pub, it’d be tough to pick out just what features to highlight. It serves great pub fare, sure to leave even the hungriest of cyclists well-sated; I’d recommend something from the burger menu. It has a great location in central Boulder, offering outdoor seating for fair-weather dining and people watching (a New Yorker’s favorite). The staff is friendly and does their best to turn over tables efficiently without making patrons feel rushed. But, I should have probably started with the brewery. The best part of waiting for a table at the Mountain Sun is being able get free samples of the multitudes of beer varieties they have on tap, all brewed on site or specifically for the pub. Pro tip: bring cash, they don’t take plastic.
I get plenty of grief over running as a member of a bike racing team, so I will keep this part short. Running at 5000+ feet feels about as terrible as one would expect. My mile times were a full minute per mile slower than at sea-level and I had to fight to even produce those times. Going for one such run the day of my first race of the trip surely didn’t help my performance, but, hey, nothing ventured… During my trip, Scudney’s wife, Becca, competed in a half-marathon in Estes Park, CO. She reported that it was one of the best conducted races she had ever taken part in and was in the area of the Stanley Hotel of The Shining fame. 13.1 miles at 8000 feet, I was short of breath just think about it.
Every time I visit Colorado, it feels a little more like home. Home in the sense that it combines the friendliness of my native Chicagoland with the outdoor activities I have taken up since relocating east. The best of both worlds. I would especially like to thank Richard, Becca, and little BG for opening their home to me on this occasion. These annual journeys west might just be a regular occurrence for the foreseeable future, though maybe I'll let myself buy a plane ticket next time. Until then, here's one parting shot for the soul: