Wednesday, September 3, 2014

West Elk Bicycle Classic 2014

I live in an amazing state and there is no better way to experience it than on the seat of a bike.  Living in Denver, most of my rides are restricted to the Front Range and occasionally Summit County.  It is the rare treat for me to go further afield and experience some of the rides in other parts of the state.  Some of my favorite rides west of the divide are the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, Tour of the Moon and The L'Eroica, so it was with great delight that I had the chance to add another ride to this list of favorites.  That ride is the Dave Weins West Elk Bicycle Classic.  It's a tough 134 mile ride from Gunnison to Crested Butte the long way around.  It has long fast cruising, fun rolling descents and tough climbs across varied landscapes.

I actually first heard about it over a year ago from a Primal rep at a Courage Classic team captain's meeting at Wheat Ridge Cyclery.  I'd mentioned that I'd grown up in the Elk Mountains but had never really done any riding there and he suggested that, if I was up for a challenge, I should give the West Elk Classic a look.  Not one to back away from a challenge, I mentally filed this on my to-do list.  As my Labor Day weekend was looking clear in 2014, I went ahead and signed up.  It was particularly neat doing the ride this year for we'd be following the final portion of the USA Pro Challenge Stage 2 route over Kebler Pass.  My only hope was that we'd have better weather than the pros.

Though Gunnison is off of the I-70 corridor, the drive really isn't that bad and is quite pretty.  We made it from our house in east Denver to Gunnison in around three and a half hours.  Once we arrived, we checked into the Econo Lodge (perhaps the nicest one I'd ever been to) right on US 50, across from the Western State campus.  This location was ideal, for check in and the start were located just a few blocks away on the college campus.  We picked up our generous packet at check-in (sweet jersey, socks, bib, Honey Stinger gels, etc.) and then walked the few short blocks to the downtown for dinner.  Gunnison has a charming little downtown area and the people could not have been nicer.  Folks asked if we were in town for the ride and seemed quite happy to have us there. 

Western State starting line in Gunnison 
with buddy Dan
The next morning, after a full breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, waffles and more (Thank you, Econo Lodge!!), we were fueled up and ready to ride.  It was a beautiful morning though chilly enough to require starting the ride in jackets.  At 6:30am, we rolled over to the start area, picked up our timing tags and lined up behind the starting gate for the 7am shotgun (yes, a real shotgun) start.  While I am not sure precisely how many riders started, it seemed to be somewhere around 200-300 riders.  There seemed to be quite a few very strong, serious riders lined up for the event, but the atmosphere at the start was quite social and laid back.  If folks were riding for time and to place in the top three, it didn't show.  

After the starting gun, everyone rolled out as a large peloton and turned west onto US 50.  With a Colorado State Patrol escort, we rolled right through the heart of Gunnison and on toward Blue Mesa Reservoir. The first ~27 miles are pretty flat and we were able to maintain a strong ~23-26 mph pace.  I'd driven along this stretch of highway along Blue Mesa Reservoir many times, but it was nothing compared with the experience of riding one's bike through this beautiful area, especially early on a Sunday morning when we pretty much had the road to ourselves.  Riding in a peloton was also a unique treat.  You can definitely feel the energy savings and it was fun to have so many people to talk to as we rode.

Near Aid Station #1
I only made it as far as the first aid station at the Blue Mesa Dam as a part of the peloton, for I needed to make a pit stop and had no chance of catching them.  The weather was quite pleasant at this point and I was able to finally shed my jacket.  The rest of the ride was mostly solo, which suits me just fine.  I was able to continue the ride at my own pace and enjoy the scenery that the route offered.  From the Blue Mesa Dam, we turned north on Hwy 92 toward Crawford.  It was mostly a nice easy climb along the eastern end of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.   There were a few steeper sections, but nothing that lasted terribly long.

The next stop on the ride was the second aid station at
Start of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Hermit's Rest, 17 miles beyond the dam.  The aid station, like most of the aid stations, was very well stocked with high-quality, palatable hydration and nutrition.  I'm a huge fan of Honey Stinger products and was thus very happy with the large selection of gels, chews, waffles and bars. Yum.  After the aid station, there was a short descent followed by another easy climb and then it was a long ~10 mile downhill roll into the town of Crawford and the third aid station.  At this point, the route left the highway and followed a series of picturesque rural roads out towards Needle Rock and then continued descending down toward the town of Paonia.  

At around mile 80, we reached the low point of the route in a wide flat basin.  Looking down the road here, many of us noticed that the road looked as if it went straight up a steep wall at the opposite end of the basin.  We were all relieved to discover that the climb was short and considerably more gentle than it appeared.  The next ~8 continued along gently rolling rural roads into the next aid station in the town of Paonia, about 88 miles in.  In addition to the great food at the other aid stations, the Paonia aid station also had freshly picked apples, peaches and cherries.  I decided to take a 5 minute break here to rest up before the bigger climbs ahead and to eat as many peaches as I could manage.

 A few miles out of Paonia, the prolonged climb commenced.  The route turn northeast onto Hwy 133 and began slowly climbing along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.  Despite being almost 100 miles into the ride, I still felt quite good and was able to maintain a pretty good pace.  At mile 100, I'd managed an average pace of about 19 mph to that point.  Not blazing fast but I was quite pleased.  The route passed several coal mining operations but it was hard to tell if they were still active.  Towns like Somerset seemed like they'd seen better days.  A few miles past mile 100, the route turn off to the east toward Kebler Pass.

The road is flat or gently climbing for the first seven or eight miles.  The first couple are even paved, but the road eventually turns to dirt and remains this way for the majority of the remaining miles.  Due to the recent USA Pro Challenge, the road was freshly swept and was almost like riding on pavement on the flat and climbing portions.  As I approached the next aid station at about mile 108, I was starting to feel a bit fatigued and could tell that I hadn't stayed on top of my hydration as well as I should have.  I tried to drink as much as I could at the next aid station without making myself sick.  I also discovered that this was where the real climbing began.  

Here I am approaching the Mile 117 aid station
The next ~8-9 miles were of sustained climbing on a decent grade.  My legs could really feel the miles on them and it was psychologically challenging to keep going when I realized that I still had about 25 miles left.   I'd done many century rides and even the 120 mile Triple Bypass (both ways), but with these rides you were done or mostly had down hill ahead of you at mile 100.  I still was facing a hefty climb and I really had to push myself at several times over the last 34 miles.  I was so pleased when the next aid station came into view at about mile 117 as I'd completely drained my bottles and desperately needed fluid.  I wasn't hungry but knew that I should eat
Aid station cheering me on
something and manage to wash down a energy bar with some water.  My wife Rachel was also waiting for me here and gave me some needed encouragement.  The aid station volunteers were also very encouraging and generally just fabulous.  They cheered as we rolled in, promptly greeted us andoffered to get us food and fill our water bottles.  I was grateful to not have to get off my bike. I may not have been able to get back on.

The next few miles were rolling and easy, even being as tired as I was.  I rolled right past the last aid station before the top of Kebler Pass and started the last few miles and last decent pitch to the top of Kebler Pass with a bit of a second wind.  The pass and 2-3 miles on either side were once again paved, and, while this didn't make much of a difference on the way up, it was very nice to have a few miles of easy rolling after the top.  The seven miles between the top of Kebler Pass and the finish in Crested Butte were pretty easy but still included about 3 miles of dirt which demanded alertness and picking the smoothest line possible.  It felt glorious to turn into the finish in downtown Crested Butte and hear the cheers.  It was my longest ride I'd ever done and probably the toughest.  Completing it was very satisfying.

The finishing celebration was a blast and felt like a small town block party.  They offered great foods, great beer from 2 Rascals in a souvenir WEBC pint glass, ice cream from Third Bowl (I recommend the Cinnamon Cayenne Honey!), and a fun party atmosphere.  Rachel didn't ride this time but had fun providing ride support and taking pictures.  Perhaps the best part for her, given that she's a complete cycling groupie, was getting to meet Susan DeMattei and Dave Weins.  They are both such nice people and really made Rachel's day.  

Now, I have to wait until next year to see if I can do it faster!

Here my data-

Rachel with Dave Weins.   Dave is perhaps 
best known most for his six consecutive 
wins in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB 
mountain bike race including 
defeats of both Floyd Landis and 
Lance Armstrong.

Rachel with Susan DeMattei.  Susan 
is a professional mountain biker 
who won the Bronze Medal in 
Mountain Biking at the 1996 
Olympic Games and wife of 
Dave Weins.

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