High times in low gears

Nice aspens on CR68J

Nice aspens on CR68J

Ben has a new cyclecross bike and I spent the summer building my gravel grinder. Instead of the traditional end-of-summer mountain run, why not get out for a little Indian Summer wheeled idiocy? Early this summer we did an all-night run from Boulder to Nederland as ultra training. So we put together a bike version of this, though in the daylight so we could actually enjoy it. Ben #2 joined us for the first half of this on a bluebird Saturday in downtown Boulder.

First up was a climb up Flagstaff Mountain. I’ve ridden up the road as far as the Amphitheater (half way) before and it’s not too bad.  The top half is pretty steep but my legs are strong and my bike has ridiculously low gearing. Shouldn’t be too bad.

It was bad. Everything looks steeper on a bike and the so-called Wall of Pain looked like a nearly-vertical cliff. Whelp! It’s only about a quarter mile but it’s at a grade northward of 15%. Both Bens puffed past me as I quickly learned the limits of my aerobic fitness despite my low gear ratios. Wow.

Committed now (because there’s no way in hell I was going to ride down what I just came up), we switched to downhill mode for the long, swoopy run to Walker Ranch and then a surprisingly steep climb up to Gross Reservoir. Finally off the pavement, we rode easy dirt roads through Lakeshore and found the turn onto the critical CR68J 4×4 road. In many ways, this was the most beautiful part of the whole day; warm sun, the easy dirt, and the tail end of the aspens still holding on amidst the small hills. Beyond the last of the houses, however, the road quickly took a turn to the more technical with deep pits which eventually gave way to moderate rock gardens, then loose rubble at the top of the pass. The bikes were performing well, even though the riders each fell at least once on loose sand or other hazards.

The thing about biking which is different from running is that the uphills and downhills are drastically different speeds. Downhill running is slightly faster than the uphills. But on a bike you can do 30 mph down while only 5 mph up; you spend nearly all your time puffing up the hills in a low gear. Back on good gravel on CR68, we flew down a hill, then puffed up another interminable climb up to Magnolia Road. Ben #2 turned for home here while Ben #1 and I continued up to Nederland.

Soon enough we sitting in Ned savoring the sting of 4500’ of vertical and 22 miles of riding, gnoshing on quality pizza and beer and girding our loins for the second half. I’d originally had various ambitious plans to ride up a lot higher, but time was getting on. Instead, we took a nice route up Hurricane Ridge, through the recently burned area, and then down Cold Spring Road (lovely). A brief bit of pavement brought us to Road 103 which parallels the Peak to Peak highway on the west side, climbing all the while.  Goody! Honestly, this climbing thing was getting a little old now and we were really looking forward to switching to a long, easy, gravelly downhill on the Switzerland Trail.

It wasn’t.

Oooh!  More climbing!

Oooh! More climbing!

Oh, it was long and it was slightly downhill, but it sure wasn’t easy! Here was another section that was vastly different on foot versus wheels. The Switzerland Trail is an old railroad grade which has turned into a 4×4 road. What I remembered as an easy trail run turned out to be a gruelingly-technical (on road bikes) gravel-fest. After five miles of dodging the larger rocks in and out of divots and washout gullies and getting shaken to bits on every piece of it, we reached the Sugarloaf trailhead, arms and feet numb from the vibration and effort.

The plan was to continue along another four miles of Switzerland down to Sunset, then out the dirt road past Wall Street to the pavement of Fourmile. However, after the beating we’d taken on the first section of Switzerland, we weren’t in the mood for more (and steeper at that!) and bailed south down to Sugarloaf Road.

Golden light after a long day in the saddle.

Golden light after a long day in the saddle.


I’m a huge chicken when it comes to descending under any circumstances, so the five miles of very steep pavement was definitely deemed the lesser of two evils. However, it wasn’t bad; sweeping turns, no precipices, and fantastic scenery—-not to mention a certain sense of fatalism—-made it actually kind of enjoyable. Late-season foliage down near the bottom and wind in my helmet made it actually kind of beautiful. Then it was just a quick bomb with traffic down the busy shoulder of Boulder Canyon to the creek path and Boulder itself.


Our total mileage tipped the odometer at 50 miles even with 6200’ of gain. Not counting our extended lunch stop, we took seven hours to do it in; not fast, but that wasn’t the point. We definitely found the limits of what our legs, guts, and bikes could handle in terms of grade, technicality, and sheer brutal climbing. Cruising the back gravel roads is pretty fun on the Blue Meanie, but a little technical terrain (a few miles) is plenty. Next time, I’d probably do the extra bit of vertical and come down Gold Hill or even through Jamestown rather than do Switzerland again.

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