Life elevated: Colorado Trail Race 2009

I am a lucky guy.  Lucky that for one key week in the mountains of Colorado the season long storminess eased up.  Lucky that Stefan devised such an imposing challenge as CTR.  Lucky that Scott carries (and shares) an albuterol inhaler.  Lucky to have more lives than the proverbial cat.  Lucky that the best of times unexpectedly come on the heels of the worst of times.

CTR was one big unkown to me.  About all I knew came from seeing Stefan & Jefe at the finish of the ’07 event, the Guidebooks, and of course a bit of the CT near Durango has seen my tread a time or two.  But, from Denver to Silverton, it was all unkown territory.

I think it was back in June when the route was finalized – and the route alterations nearly had me backing out.  The profile tells the tale:


As if the first 350 miles aren’t high and hard enough, the call was made to include segments 22 & 23 of the CT in this years race.  That’s the red blob above, all above 12k’ and it goes over 13,200 at the high point.  I get crushed at altitude.   It’s a limiter I’ve dealt with over the years mostly by avoiding altitude.  But damn, the CTR is the summer’s biggest party for technical multi-day racing, how could I not go?  And, it was certainly appealing to escape the 100+ temps of StG for a week.

Time to formulate the plan.  The route is so massive that I couldn’t wrap my head around it before the race.  I like to know a lot about a route before racing it (to do otherwise in a *race* is darwinism) so the first decision was that this year was to be one big pre-ride.  If all was good towards the end I’d give’r some gas (ha!), but for the most part I just needed to scout the route, ride it with open eyes, see what everyone was doing, see how elevation kicked my butt and all that.  I planned to restock at BV and Silverton, make no use of any post office.  Simple, right?

A massive group of bikepackers left the Waterton canyon trailhead.  Roughly 40 started this epic ride!

Andrew Carney rode well on his new Siren.  He had more than  his share of mechanicals and forced detours but still made it to Durango by alternative routes.


Dave Nice came fully equiped to numb the pain he knew was around the corner.

36 inch wheels are huge!  They roll over telephone poles just fine.

Starting at ~5500′ I thought it would be dry and warm.  It turned out to be lush singletrack from the gun, flowers everywhere.

The trail for the first 3 segments was pretty easy riding.  Grades were not severe, all was rideable.  The biggest surprise was a rattler stretched out full length on the trail in segment 2, I passed within an inch of the little guy.  JJ and EdE were out there taking pics and sharing some positive vibes.

At Bailey it was time for a quick chocolate milk before  hitting the highway to Kenosha.  Doug, Stefan and I left about the same time.  Heading up 285 mid-day on Sunday was terrifying.  No shoulder, semi trucks and heavy traffic, 2 lane Denver commuters.  Semis don’t slow down for bikes!  I got pushed into the dirt twice by trucks.  A short while later an ambulance went by and I was certain it was bound for one of the leaders in front of us.  Whew, turned out it wasn’t as everyone was stopped at the pulled pork sandwich stop.

I hit Kenosha with Doug and only Owen was in front of us.  Although I didn’t feel to have been riding hard, I was sleepy now at 10k’.  Not about to dig any  holes I pulled over for a little rest.  Scott did his best to keep from sleeping this whole week, he came by some time later and yelled out my name just for good measure.  Woke me up!  Time for a little snack and it was off into segment 6.  I had really been looking forward to this part.  Time to see what the lungs and legs can do at altitude!

Segment 6 is spectacular riding, one of my favorites for sure.  Rolling, twisting trail, big climbs, huge descents, that mega out there sensation on the back of Georgia pass, all rideable – it was simply brilliant.

I did get my first harbinger of things to come on Georgia pass.  Just near treeline my legs dissappeared.  OK I could see them, but they were dead weight.  Hmmm, not good.  Off in the distance was a massive ridge I recognezed to be 10 mile, the big hurdle of segment 7 – another new addition.  4-5 hour hike a bike is what I had heard on that one.  I was hoping to get over that the first day, but it looked so far off still.

Getting dark and it is still far off.  By this point I’d spent at least an  hour off-route doing some random exploration. 

Where on earth am I??  Amidst the sea of mountains I was never exactly sure where I was.  On the bike.  But where was the bike?  It didn’t matter so long as I was on it and it was on the CT.

Top of the Tenmile range sunrise day 2.  Looking at my gps file it looks to have been closer to 3 hours of hike a bike than 5.  It’s a particularly challenging piece of the route as it comes near nightfall of day 1 and you really want to push over it that first day…I don’t think anybody pushed over it without a bivvy though.  Shortly after nightfall most of the leaders had stopped somewhere along this hike.  All except Jefe I imagine, that guy doesn’t stop unless he’s seeing double!

Breakfast at Copper mountain awaits below.  Just point yer steed down and let’r rip!  Check your brakes first though.

At Copper I made my one and only call in to MTBcast.  And that was because after Copper I had my first death experience.  I swear I died a thousand deaths on this ride…good thing I have lives to spare.

On the way to Searle pass beyond Copper, I simply could  not move beyond treeline.  It was morning and I’d just had a bunch of good coffee too, but the body was frozen in space and my eyelids were falling.  I pulled out my emergency blanket and curled up below the last tree on earth.  As I lied there my heart was pounding out massive, rapid beats.  I could not breathe beneath the blanket.  My head was pounding with a splitting headache.

I expeced some altitude fallout but now I wasn’t sure I could do this ride.  This was ugly…and I felt broken.  A hiker woke me from restless sleep and I got up and walked up Searle.  Slowly.  Scott and Andrew were behind me, said I came into view then suddenly they were on me.  Scott was surprised how fast he rode up to me (I was walking).  And what do you know – being with other riders offered immediate pain relief!  I could still barely keep up with them to Kokomo, but once at Kokomo it was downhill for MILES.  Andrew was ripping the DH on his Siren and I thought back to that feeling when I first rode a new Siren.  That long descent was forever, flowers armpit deep, and easy riding.  Plus, it dropped us to below 10k’ and suddenly the headache mostly left and some power came back to the legs.

It was clearly time for a reset nonetheless.  In Leadville the Super8 pulled me in for an early stop at 5pm.  By midnight I was wide awake and ready to get rolling – getting the nocturnal groove on!  Leadville to BV via segment 11 rocks.  Great trail, elevations topped out early around 10.6k’.  The moon was full and glowing brightly under a clear cool sky.  It was a beautiful night to be riding.  This is livin.  There was some confusion around Twin Lakes and I did some full loops of exploration for good measure, nonetheless it was only about 6.5 hours to BV from Leadville.

I had planned to leave BV with about 17k calories so had some shopping to do.  Scott and Andrew somehow got their shopping done a lot faster than me and we left up the road together.  But, as Scott and I would eventually figure out later, in the morning or at lower elevations I would dissappear up the road, while at  high elevation or evening I’d come right back to  him. 

The part of segment 13 we did was great once up past the initial hike a bikes, but segment 14?  That piece of rubbly trail cracked me.  Part of the problem was my gearing.  For some reason it seemed best to come with a 1×9, 32/34 was my low gear on a 29er – and that turned out to be on MAJOR miscalculation.  Maybe it works great at low elevations, but I needed granny in the worst way.  Anything that was marginally rideable, I was pushing.  I walked most of 14 and my feet were getting worked.  There are so many trees the views were obscured, even in the shadows of Antero.  All of segment 14 looks like this except the initial vertical climb which is a 40% grade sand hill.  Yea I loved this part ;)

So I set up a bivvy and about 90 minutes later Scott arrived…chirpy as can be.  Keeping me awake again!  I think he liked 14, what a sicko.  The tables would turn for us at 17 the next day though – “Sargentos!”

The next day dawned with us near the top of the Continental divide up Fooses creek.  It’s really a spectacular climb – and I finally came to grips with my gearing, and what I had to do to keep it rolling.  Once over about 10k’ I simply couldn’t ride out the saddle.  That was my strategy with the 1×9, to ride sort of like a SS with optimized gearing (sorry purists), but I turned to a wet noodle above 10k.  The power file from the trip is fascinating.  The Garmin 705 has both altitude and power traces and the inverse relationship is plain as day.  In any case, it dawned on me (finally) that getting out of the saddle made me blow up and want to crawl up under a tree.  So I opened up the suspension and stayed planted until the last day…it made life much more bearable.

That notwithstanding, the top of the crest had me on my thermarest pad seriously contemplating a descent into Salida.  I felt like shit, and breathing was hard.  Talking was mostly out of the question as trying to say anything had me coughing in fits.  Hence no more MTBcast call ins…

Scott said he was going to finish this beast and I was too.  I took his word for it and didn’t look back as we went by the Rainbow descent.  On the Sargents Mesa!  The infamous segment 17.  Lots more time above 11k’.  Will this darn trail ever drop to where there is air?

This is flat and barely rideable.  I found it quite fun though, probably because the suspension of my milk money soaked it up, and it didn’t require power, rather simply to relax and some focus.  This segment ended with a relentless series of  hills that for me was all hiking.  I was riding solo and it wasn’t bad.  Other parts of the trail seemed so much harder it didn’t really register to me?

Then a big surprise at North Pass:  a trail angel!  Pefect timing, the pop up awning kept the rain off of us that night, the  hot soup warmed our bellies, the fire warmed our spirits, the cold pepsi like manna from heaven.


Before leaving North Pass, Scott and I had decided Cataract was over the top.  I had been on the edge of acute mountain sickness for some days now, and Scott just didn’t think doing a ton more hiking made any sense whatsoever.  We made plans to do the Cinnamon detour and get a room in Silverton that  night.

Ha!  Not a chance…

As usual I took off solo in the morning.  Seg 18 + the La Garita detour was nearly 100% rideable and fully restored the riding stoke.  By the time we reconnected at Slumgullion I had formulated a plan.  It was pretty simple.  We would do the full route as planned.  There would be no shortcuts/detours.

So we did.

We entered a region where humans are not meant to be, at least for long.


The views were endless, the country massive

In places the wind was absolutely  howling

At one point I was overcome with emotion.  I mean, I had real fears about whether or not I could physically make it across these two sections.  They essentially commited us to ~20 hours above treeline including a bivvy.  It was here I knew I’d make it to the finish.  To be amidst such raw beauty, fierce winds, getting it done in the face of extreme doubt – I got choked up and the tears flowed.

We bivvied right on the trail in a most spectacular spot.

The next morning was blustery, cool after a wet night.

And the alpine goodness just kept coming at us.  It was slow, hard going with a lot of  hikes up to near 13k…but segments 22 & 23 were by far the highlights of the trip.


Surprisingly I was able to get some rest even at 12k and felt ok up there.  I had been running low on calories and had started conserving the day before.  I timed it right to run out just before silverton but also with a pretty big fat bonk.

It’s funny to look back on our attitude in Silverton.  We stopped at the first restaurant we saw and ate a good $25 apiece.  We burned up our remaining cell minutes.  We dried wet gear at the visitor center.  We generally goofed about and spent 6 hours in Silverton for no good reason other than we were far from racing mode ;)  Doing 22/23 left a sense of accomplishment and I’d already seen the rest of the course…what was the hurry?

Finally we headed up the road to Molas.  Cars seemed scary fast.  Not soon enough we were back on trail at the pass and muscle memory took over.  Suddenly my bike seemed to float over obstacles, up  hills, and getting out of the saddle didn’t cause me any more grief.  After 400 miles of this I was finally beginning to adapt to the altitude!  Whew.

And then my hub died.  It had been making bad sounds since day 2 and not engaging correctly every now and then for the last 2 days.  But just past Molas it croaked.  I could pedal and nothing would happen.  Sometimes it would catch, most it would whiff.  The prospect of walking the next 65 miles to Durango was overwhelming, a real flow killer.  Against Scott’s desires we stopped early.  I just didn’t have it in me to start hoofing it in the dark.

In the early dawn under that big moon we got going again.  The hub was working only in 32.20 or taller gearing.  Any other gear would toss the chain every which way, so it was an overgeared SS for me.  That sure beats walking!  It worked for a short while.


It finally gave up altogether a few miles later.  Scott did his best to help with the hub – we took it apart, cleaned it, resprung the pawl spring – all to no avail.  Finally he suggested the fixie fix…and sadly we had to go our separate ways.  We had been a great duo for many days, completely bolstering each other at low point and enjoying the highs together and had already decided we would finish together.  But the hub was my problem, not his so I told him to scoot before that hard charging Brian Taylor caught up with us.

As he rode off I began to set up my emergency fixed gear bike.  Ever zip tie your cassette to the spokes?  It works in a pinch, well sorta.  You can even shift gears – except I still couldn’t use anything lower than 32.20.  Segment 25 is quite techy and  high – super exposed in many spots too.  It was “interesting” terrain on which to try out the fixie thing.  Let’s just say I have a whole new respect for the genre.  I ended up walking up AND down, it was almost worse than the busted hub alone.  Finally, the zip ties all broke on a steep climb and I never put them back on.  Walking uphill/coasting down seemed a better solution.

Photo credit Mike Curiak

The last day was loooong and slow.  Every now and then the hub would engage and I could make some headway.  Sometimes it was DOA.  The views from Indian Trail ridge go on and on…

Finally Kennebec pass comes into view.  Once on Kennebec the hub would not be such a disadvantage.  I could coast most of the way down…the final 21 miles are well worn by my tires, it was like coming home.

6 days, 16 hours and 3 min after leaving the TH in Denver I arrived at the TH in Durango.  Scott was there with Max, and Krista Park was there also.  Thank you Spots!

What a ride.  Thanks go out to Stefan for dreaming this thing up; Scott for being such a great riding partner and sharing that inhaler which surely kept me alive up there; Lynda for being so excited every time I talked to her…and just for being her; Mike Curiak for not asking me if I had thought of bailing with that broken hub, rather saying “ah hell you can walk to Durango in a day from here”, all the CT riders for making this such a cool event (salty group of riders for sure!), and of course the Colorado Trail Foundation.

Scouting mission complete.  Maybe next time I’ll be ready to race it.

16 replies on “Life elevated: Colorado Trail Race 2009”

  1. Very impressive ‘stick-to-it’ Dave.

    Humm, so next yr I get to watch your spot “race” from the comfort of my cozy office…………..ya looking forward to that..

    (oh & 22 & 23 are still in my head………..)

  2. Excellent writeup, Dave. It’s strange how much the elevation kills you, but in a way I’m not complaining — it made it so we could ride so well together.

    If you can acclimatize or figure out the elevation thing, lookout CTR!

    Until next time amigo.

  3. Wow. Great report. Seems the CTR has it all. Beautiful views. Alpine landscape. Fun riding. Deep doubt. I love the feeling of emerging from that kind of doubt – doubt so deep that you’re not really sure whether you’re going to live or die. Sucks to be lost in that space, but it feels wonderful to come out. That’s why I love the whole winter bikepacking thing so much.

    Someday I’ll set foot to the Colorado Trail. And I will probably not be bringing my bike. :-) Call me crazy, the bike thing seems way too hard. But fastpacking it … that would be a fun way to traverse the state.

  4. Inspiring read, Dave! The way you fought and conquered the altitude time and time again throughout the race was just amazing. And doing the last 72 miles with a broken hub just floors me! That’s some serious dedication. So glad you had a great time and finished it up. Can’t wait to ride with ya a bit more sometime!

  5. Damn! That was incredible. Knowing how hard YOU were suffering puts the race/ride into perspective. I think I was gasping for air just reading it. Thanks for sharing.

  6. That’s true grit right there.

    Nicely done Dave and thanks for the write up and pictures. Congratulations!


  7. Dave, Awesome write-up and pictures! What an accomplishment. I’ve done road bike tours near many of the places you mentioned; the semis flying by sounds familiar. But I don’t think I could fathom going off-road, “over the mountain.”
    Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. Awesome ride, Dave. Wish I could have been there, but instead I was getting hassled by polar bears. Did all the riding with Scott provide any insight into all the days Chris and I rode together in the Divide, despite the geared/SS difference? Perhaps next year I’ll do my own scouting run on the CT…

  9. Kurt! Welcome back from Baffin.

    To answer your question…not really. By the time Scott and I teamed up we were JRA and not racing anymore. It did make the good parts even better, but I think the hard parts are easier going solo…maybe that’s just me ;) We were both pretty whipped at one point and if we didn’t team up I’m not convinced either of us would have delved into segments 22/23. You’ll see it next year I’m sure, unless TD calls again.

  10. It was a 2008 PowerTap hub, probably the heaviest and most expensive hub out there. It does tell quite the story though.

  11. Awesome report Dave. I’ve waited a bit to read this, spacing out all the good reports. I have to say, the CTR has much more pull for a repeat than the Divide. It’s just so beautiful.

    Nice work and maybe we’ll be lining up for this one together next year.

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