In defence of the vertical road: Colorado and Wyoming

I passed a whole week in and around Moab, smiling lots and riding plenty – it’s a desert paradise for biking. The whole week I looked at the La Sals jutting up to the west, a little apprehensive and excited about heading back into the mountains for a serious jaunt.

The thought of heading into the mountains can come with suprising realisations – firstly that nothing comes easy, and that in more than a couple of ways you need to be prepared for absolutely everything. The weather would become unpredictable, the nights would become frigid, and the food would again need to be strung up in the trees to sleep soundly with only a few thoughts of bears. Altogether it’s such an exciting thought however, which I hope any cyclist who has spent more than a few weeks riding through big sky country would appreciate. In the same way that it was possible to look up at the mountains outside of Moab and appreciate that everything was about to change from desert to alpine, there’s also the instant reality that once you’re up in the mountains the landscape has the capacity to change three times a day as you knock the top off of each pass in the row.

Progressive Eastern Utah

I finally got out of Moab and spun along the Colorado river before turning east in search of altitude, and within half a day I was in sight of the pass which would symbolise my triumphant return to the rockies. The rain beat down and I found a drainage ditch which I thought would stay dry and set up for the night. I prepped a quick half cooked pasta and lay back by a cow pie as I realised that the next great jaunt in my tent was about to begin. I strung up my food, finished the last of my gummy bears and slept soundly. The next morning I quickly blew the top off the mountains and lay down in the shade of a portapotty to escape from a soul drenching drizzle. I took off shortly after and crossed paths with a group of seven exhausted cyclists passing the other way with only a small amount of gear.

The hut-to-hut team out of Telluride had a spare bed and a million beers for me

The group was on a hut-to-hut ride through from Telluride. Essentially an unsupported tour which ended each day in a wilderness hut fully loaded with food, beers and other goodies. It means that all you’re really responsible for are some basic repair tools and some rain gear. The group wasted very little time in inviting me to turn around with them and take the 8th unused bed in the hut. Although it was 2 miles back where I came I agreed quickly and made my net distance for the day about 3 miles. I spent the afternoon drinking beers and shooting the breeze with the mixed group of old friends and got a great nights sleep before heading off the next morning – at their demand I took a handful of beers from the hut and loaded up on canned goods and m&m’s. One gave me a hip flask of bourbon as a final parting gift and I headed out of the mountains and back down into the unexpected desert of Western Colorado.

Western Colorado is not quite what I imagined

I sat and drank water at a closed general store, and in turn 3 people came up to offer me granola bars and chocolate as they listened to my story. After the short rest I set off into the desert again en route to Telluride and where I knew the mountains would begin again. I found a host on the outskirts of Telluride and was offered a bench in an outdoor sauna for the night, and the following day I took off into town and stayed with a local family for two nights to read and write and eat before venturing into the San Juan range.

Ophir Pass – 11,789 ft

In Telluride the local advice I received was continually that it wouldn’t matter how light I was, I would likely be pushing over the crest of any passes in the San Juan’s, on account of my bike tyres and the scree which existed above the tree line in every direction. As I broke above the trees towards Ophir pass this reality set in, as the grades pushed to 30% in brief places and the stones became large enough to swallow my wheels along the way. The road was only wide enough for cars in one direction, and the small amount of traffic on the pass would take half an hour sometimes to wait out the car from the other direction – being on a bike I was even further down the pecking order but I collected admired gasps as people passed me trudging my bike up and over. Hours later at the pass I inhaled a cheese and salami number and loaded up on m&m’s before rocketing down the other side to Silverton to rest and refuel on beers for Engineer or Cinnamon pass.

Cinnamon Pass 12,640 ft

When I finally left I snaked up towards Cinnamon pass and intermittently dashed for cover as brief spells of mountain weather staked its claim on the road. I met a bunch of four wheelers at Animas Forks and was gifted bags of more delicious food than I was carrying, after which I pushed up and over Cinnamon pass as the snow fell close to 4000m. The last 3km was through a wet snowstorm with just about every car stopping to check I was ok and drive off muttering I was an idiot. It never ceases to surprise me where people draw the line on what they think is sensible – I felt like I was in complete control of the situation. I was soaked though by the end of the day as the snow near the pass had manifested as rain further down the valley when I finally cleared Cinnamon. The next morning I flew downhill quickly and after a jug of coffee and a grilled cheese I set off towards Gunnison only to notice within a few km’s that my fork was cracked almost right through and I was running the gauntlet with a faceplant and a broken big and wheel at any moment. I limped back into the nearest town and started asking about bike mechanics or welders who might splint the thing for me to keep me going, but I wasn’t at all hopeful about it.

Trying my best to outrun the torrent approaching through the San Juans

To my surprise, as I was asking at the post office about where I might find a fork, the local bike mechanic walked in to collect mail and took me to his workshop to see what he could do for me – when he turned up trumps on a fork he took me to Gunnison with my bike to introduce me to a friend who could sort me out with a new fork.

The friend was Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race champion Jefe Branham who sorted me out quickly the next morning with a brand spanking new fork and some inside info on how best to get to onto the Great Divide route towards Denver to meet up with some friends and rest for a week. I didn’t realise for about a week after that I’d met a bit of an endurance cycling legend, but his humility has stuck with me since.

Jefe Branham and the team at Rock n Roll Sports in Gunnison

Along the divide route I only spent about 4 days and popped out near the edge of the mountains where my Denver friends Kat and AJ picked me up and took me home with them to spend a week relaxing and catching up on sleep with good company. After a week they dropped me on the other side of the mountains and I set off towards Steamboat Springs to visit some other friends made along the way.

Before I set off on the last pass before Steamboat I stumbled into a campsite with a beer tent, assuming it was a beer festival I might bluff my way in to – it wasn’t, but the folks at the site were coor’s reps and also owned a brewery in Denver. I was quickly invited to join them and spent the night by the fire drinking plenty of fine beer, and then leaving the next morning with a bag full of extras for the road.

I had to spend 2 nights in Kremmling after the first blizzard of the season closed all roads out

Snow and sunshine

I was stopped in my tracks by the snow for the first time shortly afterwards and spent a day waiting out a snow storm camped under the cover of a seasonal ice rink. The next day I made my way over Rabbit Ears pass to Steamboat Springs. I only spent a few nights there but I was taken in by a family I met on the way through Nevada a month or two earlier. Steamboat is an amazing place and was all the warmer for the kind reception I got, I spent time with the manufacturer of my tent there (who switched out my badly beaten old friend), as well as drinking beers with the folks from smartwool who kitted me out for the road north and toured me about their cool local offices. I washed myself in the local hot springs and laughed like old friends despite being among relatively new company.

Rick and Aimee took em off route and gave me a heated hunting lodge to sleep in after the temperature hit -8C

I rode off north and was almost immediately confronted by the cold headwinds I figured I wouldn’t find until Wyoming. The temperatures dropped just about immediately and rested about 10 below 0 as I approached Grand Teton National Park and spent the bulk of my day defrosting my tent and finding the muster to turn myself into the wind again. When I finally got the Jackson I spent a few days sleeping and chatting with new friends who took me in for the night. I headed north into the National Park with a warmshowers host and spotted 4 bears in a single day at the point that I thought I probably wouldn’t encounter any on my trip. I replenished, as has become the norm in the USA, with some local beers and hottubbed like it was out of fashion as the snow fell around me and all over the mountains. I pushed off for a final dirt stretch to Idaho and felt for the first time like I was on the home stretch for this section of my journey – I knew soon I would need to stop and think about topping up my bank balance, and registered that probably by the time I reached the pacific north west and my entry to Canada that I would probably be considering a brief stint at home. On my way through the mountains in Colorado I had all but been offered an Engineering position, and it’s been on my mind since then – I’m not any closer to knowing what I’ll do but I think a few months at home will be a nice summery break that I need.

I only saw 4 bears through the trip – though they were all on the same day

Jenny Lake – Grand Teton National Park


1 comment

  1. Hi Jesse
    Glad you are still enjoying your journey. Daunting though it is! Glad you are getting a full beer compliment as you go. Hope you have a summer back in Oz to replenish the coffers. Kind regards and thanks for sharing the adventure. Rosie

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