Pueblo, CO to Saratoga, WY
To be riding out of Pueblo was magical. It had been somewhere that had been so far ahead of me for so long to have got there felt like a huge achievement. The town itself was a bit of a disappointment but I wasn’t staying there long as I’d decided to put off my rest day until I reached Breckenridge. I stopped in to the local bike shop and bought and fitted some new tires to replace my worn ones and tightened a few spokes and trued the wheels up after the pummeling they had taken on the roads since Nashville. It had gone lunchtime before I got out of town but that was OK as it was a relatively short 45 miles to Canon City which sat at the foot of the rockies.
The landscape between Pueblo and Canon city was mesmerising. The sandstone of high desert and miniature sun flowers framed by majestic mountains then you come round a corner and there’s violent rip in the landscape with a small river gurgling along at the bottom of a deep gorge where you can clearly see each strata of stone.
The next morning the climbing began. Coming out of Canon City I spent 7 miles climbing alongside a busy road up towards Royal Gorge. About halfway up I lost all drive then my chain fell off. I was worried something had gone wrong with my Rholoff gears which would be nigh on impossible to fix out here. A closer inspection revealed that my eccentric bottom bracket bolts had come loose and the whole bottom bracket had rotated - I was able to fix this without unloading the bike while semis rocketed past 6 inches from my butt. Not an ideal situation but least it was fixable!
I finished the climb up to royal gorge and then turned right to begin the 90 odd mile climb towards the Hoosier Pass. The first 30 miles were the toughest with some quite long sections of 6-8% but it wasn’t bad in comparison to many of the climbs in the Appalachians and what ever effort was required was rewarded with breathtaking scenery. I stopped for lunch at the entrance to South Park, at an elevation a bit over 8,000 feet and ate my peanut butter wraps in awe of how beautiful it was.
After lunch the gradient leveled out and you emerge into long high valleys climbing very very gradually with slightly steeper sections as you reach the top of one valley and cross into the next. After 60 miles I reached the small town of Hartsel with an elevation of about 9,500 feet. I was feeling tired and the sky looked like armageddon was about to kick off so I stopped in at the only cafe/bar in the town to find if there was somewhere to camp. They said I could camp behind the bar which was great. I got a soft drink and sat at the bar and soon struck up a conversation with a bunch of bikers who were gradually getting drunker and drunker, maybe gradually is the wrong word - they were downing shots and beers rapidly but due to their girth it seemed to have less effect than one might expect. They were incredibly nice and wanted to buy me some food after they heard about the ride. As I was waiting for my food I was shocked as they then made their way outside and jumped on their bikes and roared off - I was surprised they could stand let alone ride. I sat around in the bar for another hour or so and just began to get a bad vibe - I don’t think there was another sober person in the bar and the landlady was by far the worst. I decided I didn’t want to spend the night there and feeling slightly better from the food and with the threat of armageddon having somewhat dissipated I decided to push on for the extra 17 miles to Fairplay. It would make the next days ride shorter and hopefully give me a better night’s sleep.
The ride from Hartsel to Fairplay could be best described as terrifying. The road I was on was busy, it was windy, I was tired and struggling to concentrate, light levels were low and it felt like every driver wanted to see how close they could get to me. I also had the state of the bikers and the rest of the bar on my mind thinking about how everyone of those drunks would probably be climbing into cars and driving home at some point. The only saving grace I had was it was still too early for them to be doing so. Arriving into Fairplay (elevation 10,000’) I was destroyed. I stopped into the local gas station to find where I could camp and was directed to a ‘rocky’ patch down by the river. As I began to head down there I came across a very inviting motel and before I knew it I had given in and got a room for the night.
I didn’t sleep at all well. At the time I couldn’t understand it but it turns out that poor sleep is a side effect of being at the he’s that altitude. I’d climbed from about 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet in a day and was really feeling the lack of oxygen.
The next morning I headed off. It was incredibly cold with the overnight temperature dropping to 4C so I layered up. As I got up towards Hoosier Pass (elevation ~11,500) riding got harder and harder as if I pushed too much I’d wind myself and have to go incredibly slowly while I caught my breath. The climb to the pass itself would be pretty easy if it was at sea level with only 4 miles of 6%+ but the altitude made it a real struggle and I was incredibly relieved when I reached the top. I exchange a few high fives with a bunch of other cyclists up there and we celebrated being at the highest points on our rides as well as crossing the continental divide, the point at which water one side drains into the Atlantic and the other side drains into the Pacific. After the obligatory photos I then layered back up again (having taken my layers off on the climb), pointed the bike down the other side and barely touched the brakes or pedals until I coasted into Breckenridge 13 miles later.
Breckenridge is a ski town with a lot of money. Given it is the height of summer it was still very busy with lots of well dressed people with good hair. I’d booked myself into The Fireside Inn a hostel and b&b based on recommendations I’d had from other cyclists I met. I arrived to be greeted by Andy who had a very familiar accent - pretty much the first brit I’d spoken to for over a month. He and his lovely wife Nikki had moved out to Breckenridge when Andy retired from the army and had run the Fireside Inn ever since. It has the perfect balance between being comfortable and homely while also not making you feel like you are intruding on Andy’s and Nikki’s home. Breakfast is served round a large communal table giving you a chance to meet everyone else staying there - normally a mix of cyclists, hikers doing the Colorado trail and one or two more normal people. It was a very relaxing atmosphere.
On my day off I planned to take a ski-lift up the mountain for a gentle walk with good views then head into town and find a cafe to finish my last blog post. I duly headed off in the morning and caught an incredibly wobbly gondola up to the start of the ski area and jumped on the Colorado super lift which promised to whisk me up to a little above 11,500 feet. Finding myself at the top I had four options, a path in each direction heading along the mountain, one going down and one going up. Stupidly I spotted a hut maybe 800 feet higher up the mountain and decided it would be fun to climb up to it. So off I headed straight up the side of the mountain. A lot of of other people had had the same idea but for every 10 meters you climbed the number of people seemed to half. After the best part of an hour’s long slow trudge I found myself amongst patches of snow and at the hut. The only other person who was up there was a guy who had just completed his first ironman. Looking up again I could see the summit just another few hundred feet above us. It seemed a shame not to give it a go. I left any semblance of path and started hiking directly up the steep mountain side. I was really really feeling the altitude now, having been down at 5,000’ 36 hours earlier I was now crossing 12,500’. I slowed my pace to a crawl but it was still not enough. I was getting more and more confused and getting more and more out of breath. As I climbed the penultimate false summit I had to sit down for a minute or two to catch my breath. I set off again and immediately got into trouble breathing again, my vision began to go and I felt dizzy. Despite being only a few hundred feet below the summit I lost my nerve and decided to turn around and descend before I got myself into real trouble. As I now descended into what felt like gloriously thick air I began to feel better and better and by the time I was back in Breckenridge I was feeling pretty normal. So much for my gentle walk!
The next morning I popped into a bike shop to get a few spares that I hadn’t managed to get in Pueblo before heading heading out of town. The first 15 miles were a gentle downhill along a bike path. It’s very childish but it was a lot of fun to streak past the day riders on their expensive road bikes while being on a fully loaded tourer. As I came down into Silverthorne I was able to repay one of the many acts of kindness I’d experienced by fixing an older lady’s pedals for her.
After Silverthrone two guys I’d met in the street the day before had suggested an alternative route to the main transam trail which climbed over an additional pass but avoiding a lot of roadwork on the main route. The climb took a little while but the view from the top was worth it. After that I plunged down the other side and joined a dirt road through the wilderness for the next 30 miles or so until until I rejoined the main route.
After I rejoined the main route I could see these large hills between me and where Hot Sulphur Springs - my target for the day - should be. I hadn’t expected another climb as the official route map for the day showed no big climbs. It eventually became clear what was going on - I rounded the corner to find myself in a beautiful narrow, deep canyon alongside a river and rail track.
I found the Sheriff’s office and asked where I could camp - directed to a small park on the edge of town I was relieved to bag the last campsite. As I rehydrated and got some calories on board another cyclist rocked up and introduced himself as Patrick - he was doing a loop from San Francisco to Seattle via Colorado. I offered for him to share the campsite and we spent most of the evening chatting about all sorts before retiring into our tents when the mosquitos got too bad. What we hadn’t spotted was the train line just a few tens of meters away - four or five times during the night we were woken to trains blowing their horns at nearby crossings. Thier horns are incredibly loud and having suffered with this many times in Kansas every time it happens it perplexes me how Americans seem to accept trains waking the whole town multiple times per night by sounding their horns constantly.
The next day was the last big climb in Colorado and another crossing of the continental divide. Patrick had headed off 15 mins before me. He was more lightly packed than me so it was quite nice to pass him while he had a break at the top of the first section of the climb. The next hour or so was spent climbing up through a gentle valley at a pretty good pace (desperately trying to keep ahead of Patrick). The most striking thing about the valley was the amount of dead trees - 60% of the trees were dead or dying and the thought of a wildfire getting going in there was scary - the whole valley would turn into Hades before you knew it. Patrick passed me in the final steep section of the climb. We then had lunch together at the top before heading off down hill. I arrived in Walden, Wyoming and decided to stay there for the night. Patrick arrived a few mins later and decided to push on another 20 miles so we said goodbye and I went to find somewhere to spend the night.
The next day was spent cycling down a long wide valley which was pretty but nothing special. I arrived in the small town of Saratoga, WY and found a camping spot a mile or so out of town. I headed back into town to use the public hot springs - aka the hobo pool - they were a beautiful temperature and very welcome for sore muscles. I was heading back to the campsite when I spotted what looked like a good Italian restaurant so decided to eat there as pasta is great fuel for riding. Boy was I happy I did as I ended up having the best meal I’d had since Nashville. I returned to my very pretty campsite very satisfied…