By Brett Ratner
Having ridden RAGBRAI on multiple occasions, I've grown to become a fan of the multi-day supported bike tour.
To me, they're a chance to concentrate solely on pedaling a bike while someone else deals with the hassle of planning the route, supplying food and bottle refills, and hauling gear. And in the unlikely event a serious mechanical issue occurs, it's comforting to know a truck will come pick you up.
But as much as I enjoyed my yearly trek through the rolling hills of Iowa, it was time for a change of scenery and some new challenges. And since Colorado has long been on my bike bucket list, I decided to expend this year's vacation days cycling over mountain passes.
Initially, the plan was to register for Ride the Rockies, but a friend told me about a slightly lesser-known (but equally respected) ride that also takes place early in the summer: Bicycle Tour of Colorado.
I wound up choosing "BTC" because unlike "RTR," it doesn't require that you enter a lottery to get in, and the BTC route is a loop (vs. point to point). All of this makes logistics and signup simpler...and I'm all about simple. Besides, the 2016 BTC route promised to take riders through some famously picturesque areas.
In addition, BTC offered plenty of challenge, specifically in the form of five mountain passes, four of which exceed 10,000 feet in elevation. Longer days (70+ miles) were alternated with shorter days (40-50 miles), and the shorter days often offered an optional bonus loop which featured an extra climb.
BTC's elevation profile provided new challenges for Midwest riders.
So, with registration in hand, I loaded up the car and headed to Montrose, Colorado, the start and end point of the 2016 edition. From there I'd leave my car in BTC's pre-arranged long-term parking lot, throw my gear on a truck, and start pedaling.
The "warmup" ride into and out of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park proved to be the most challenging part of the week.
Once at the bottom, there was the climbing out part. Grinding up 3.5 miles of switchbacks at an average grade of 11% (when not acclimated to altitude) proved to be the toughest challenge of the entire week. Fortunately, the views were spectacular, and the fast-and-flowy descent back to town made everything worth it. I definitely got more than I bargained for with that ride, but I certainly was warmed up.
The official event started the next day, and really there are too many highlights to mention...but I'll try.
First and foremost, from a riding perspective, the Bicycle Tour of Colorado delivered everything a flat-lander could hope for.
With the exception of last year's trip to California wine country, the longest climb I'd ever done was a mile or so. At BTC, almost right out of the gate, we had 14-miles of 5-to-8% grades over the famous Red Mountain Pass, complete with stunning views and nerve-wracking dropoffs (with no guard rail).
The climb to Red Mountain Pass didn't leave much margin for error should you get distracted and veer off the road.
The upside of climbing for hours on end is that you have plenty to look at.
Obligatory mountain pass photo. The over-sized seat bag carried rain gear and extra layers since mountain weather can take unexpected and dramatic turns.
On other days, we literally had 40-60 straight miles of going uphill at a steady 2-4% grade. These roads seemed to follow fast-flowing mountain streams, delivering the winter's snowmelt to the valleys below.
A gentle climb to the town of Ouray.
The ascent up Lizard Head Pass featured moderate grades, but was 60 miles long.
But as the saying goes: what comes up, must come down. Once over the passes, we got to enjoy miles and miles of sweeping turns and speeds often exceeding 50mph. True, a road bike can feel a bit jittery at that velocity, particularly if there's a cross-wind. But you got used to the feeling pretty quickly, and then it was crazy fun.
The Accommodations and Activities:
Once there, one had to be amazed at these mountain hamlets. They're so stunning to look at, they don't even seem real. Ouray and Telluride in particular stand out. It's like Bob Ross found a quaint town square and painted a background behind it. This lent to some seriously interesting locations to camp and hang out in the afternoons.
Ride organizers did a great job of picking cool places for participants to camp each night. Pictured above is Telluride.
Ouray's campsite wasn't so bad either.
Towns like Ouray, Durango, and Telluride offered plenty to do in the form of shops, restaurants, breweries, bookstores, and more. There also was hiking and Jeep tours available.
Regarding food, I purchased the optional meal pass, which included breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The quality of the food varied from bad to quite excellent, depending on location, but was a convenient option and worth the cost in my opinion. There also were food vendors on site, and numerous opportunities to venture into town to eat out.
Typically, we were set up to camp at local parks or schools. A complimentary shower truck was provided, as were porta-potties. You also had access to the schools for restrooms, electrical outlets (to charge phones), and simply to chill out in air conditioning.
Other sleeping options (at extra charge) were access to the gymnasium floors, or hotels.
An advantage people typically mention of Bicycle Tour of Colorado over Ride The Rockies are the fully-stocked, mid-ride rest stops. BTC provided fresh fruit, PBJ sandwiches, cookies, Gatorade, and more. RTR rest stops only offer cash vendors, I'm told.
My registration, camping, long-term parking, and food plan came in around $900, which I thought was pretty reasonable for a 7-day event.
Additional Observations and Impressions:
For the long, sweeping, mountain descents, my rim brakes worked just fine. But not so much when dropping into Black Canyon. What could have been a fast and fun MotoGP-style exercise in late braking and cornering was compromised by the fact that rim brakes can offer inadequate stopping power when grades exceed 12%. Also, you have to be careful not to overuse rim brakes because you risk heating up the rim and blowing a tire. Granted, I made it down, but I didn't have fun, nor did I feel completely safe. True, I'd get better with practice (one of the locals I was riding with that day had no issues with his rim brakes and completely bombed that descent). But regardless, next time I head out west, I'm rocking discs.
Another thing of note is that the unpredictable weather on top of the mountain passes really changed the daily schedule when compared to, for example, RAGBRAI.
Specifically, hot summer weather at the base of a climb can turn to freezing rain (and even snow) when you get to the top, particularly in the afternoon. As such, organizers were adamant about riders being on the road early, and over the passes well before noon. In fact, they had us on the road at 6am on the Red Mountain Pass day. Definitely no rolling out at 9am and stopping for coffee on the way out of town.
In addition, organizers wanted riders to carry waterproof gear and extra layers...advice many riders ignored to their detriment. For example, on the way into Telluride, lots of participants got caught out in a really bad rain and hail storm. I can't even imagine how cold that would have been coasting down a mountain at 40mph wearing just your cycling kit. I, fortunately, was long gone when the weather turned, but saw several people on the verge of hypothermia when they rolled into camp.
Anyway, the early mornings resulted in early bed times, and very little of the social interaction or party atmosphere you find on RAGBRAI. As such, I'd recommend signing up as a small group, with a significant other, or bring lots of good books.
Another thing to note is that this ride was more difficult than your run-of-the-mill century or multi-day supported tour. The typical participant seemed to be well older than 50, but in above-average shape, experienced, and had decent gear.
I wouldn't describe BTC as "brutal" by any stretch, and honestly I think anyone could complete it with some preparation. But hours in the saddle going uphill at altitude definitely requires some fitness, as well as patience, plus good management of hydration and nutrition. It also helps to have a bike shop install some lower gearing (e.g. bigger rear cassette, compact crank) to enable you to spin up the inclines. The few bikes I did see on the SAG truck each day seemed to have standard road race gearing.
If you're interested in this event for next year, I'd suggest seeking out hilly roads for some training. The area west of Madison, Wisconsin offers shorter, but much steeper climbs, and as far as I know is the best we have here within a reasonable drive of Chicago. At the very least, get out in the country and do a number of longer rides before heading out.
I, personally, was a bit nervous how I'd do, particularly for the second day (which featured three passes and more than 6,000 feet of climbing). But as it turned out, it was just a matter of sitting in, relaxing, and grinding each climb out.
All in all, Bicycle Tour of Colorado is definitely more about the ride than the hang. But if you're looking for an epic ride, look no further.
Visit http://www.bicycletourcolorado.com/ for more information.
About the Author:
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player, and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums, and gravel for The Bonebell.