Seeing I've lived in CO for a number of years now, I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with the fact I've never cycled one of the +10,000 ft passes. I've done plenty of hiking at higher elevations, so it wasn't altitude I was concerned with - but I kept having nagging thoughts of 'but that's just walking/ you just take smaller steps when you get tired/ starting & stopping are a whole lot easier/ Cycling you have to be able to still turn the pedals/ You have to go fast enough so you don't fall over.' Then there was the issue of when. Riding over these passes on a weekend with lots of car traffic didn't exactly appeal to me. Then there was the matter of convincing someone to go with - didn't feel smart to do alone. Always reasons not to do something. The mind, it plays tricks on me.
Enter the USA Pro Challenge - the road would be shut down to non-race traffic pretty early in the morning, there would be plenty of other cyclists doing this as well, and the added benefit of medical staff being along the route just in case! When ant1 commented he was going to give it a go, I knew it was time.
It was early morning as I drove up - and when I exited the highway to steady rain, cold temperatures, and more clouds on the western horizon, I had a silent cry to myself at what I was in for. Then I was unable to find a proper coffee place in Leadville and had to settle for gas station brew. Not the most promising of starts. I did however have a nice conversation with a local about 'that bike race thing'.
I parked at the junction of 82 & 24, along with a handful of others - we exchanged pleasantries about the task at hand and the general consensus was to allow for 3 hours (~25 mile climb, 3000 ft gain/40 km, 914 m). Thankfully it had stopped raining and the view over the mountains wasn't as threatening. The pass was already closed to non-race traffic = very little car traffic = awesome. And so I started the climb and came up quickly upon Twin Lakes, which were terribly low. As were the clouds...
The first 18 miles (30 km) or so were gently undulating - there was a net gain of about 1500 feet, but nothing too prolonged or steep. I kept thinking 'when's it going to get hard?'. At 16 miles, a handful of us had stopped to help out w/ a flat and were told we had 7 miles to the top - 2 less than expected! Hooray!!
This shot gives you an idea of the undulating nature of the road
After a rather pleasant first 18 or so miles, the road got 'sexy' really quick. The average gradient kicked up to the 5-6% range. Even with the sudden kick-up, it still wasn't bad - I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it never came. The following pics are from an 'enjoy nature pullout'
Here's where the climbing began in earnest
View of where I'd been
The advantages of riding 7-8 miles an hour? One can snap pictures while they go...this stretch is from right before the last few hairpins.
George & Tejay and to a lesser degree Jens! were by far the most popular riders based on chalk art - I went thru a stretch of 'Shut Up Legs' encouragement about 2 miles from the top, so that was nice. A handful of people were on the sides of the roads, ringing their cowbells and cheering - always appreciated!
Once I saw the KOM arch I honestly gave myself a fist pump. And then quickly looked around to make sure no one saw it. Ah hell, this was by far the most serious climb I've ever ridden, I earned that fist pump! Then to really make me feel good, I realized I climbed this thing 20 minutes faster than I thought. Always nice to exceed your expectations.
View from the top - towards Twin Lakes
I was on my way to check out the Aspen side view and that's where I met up with ant1. Things that will happen when you wear your PdC jersey - someone will ask you for coffee, or you'll wonder why a bearded man is saying your username as you pass. If you get the chance to watch a race w/ ant1 - go - he's enjoyable company and brings whiskey.
View from Independence Pass, Aspen side
We were about 200 meters or so from the offical KOM. Rumors were circulating that there was a solo man out front, with a small breakaway chasing. I asked a lady who appeared to have access to updates who was leading. 'Jan Tote' (or something ridiculous along those lines) was the name she gave me. 'Jens! Voigt' I asked back. 'Yeah, that's it!' Jens! was on a solo breakaway over Independence Pass and I was there to see it live. He was in full Jens! glory when he passed - face all grimaced out, bike taking a beating...and I snapped a picture of the road. <facepalm>
Here's a pic of the general atmosphere - since auto traffic was so limited, I'd say majority of people up there got there via bike. It was pretty impressive.
The break staggered over the climb, here's one of an EPM-UNE rider that came over before the main group. Based on my pictures, these guys were all over the front of this stage at this point.
The Liquigas led main group
PdC denizen Ted King
After the race passed, it was time to go home - even with my driving skills, there was no way I'd make it back to catch the finish, so I enjoyed my descent, stopped in Buena Vista for some ice cream, and was on my merry way. Wonderful day all around - good ride, good people, good racing. 'Til next year!
(All pics mine, more here for those interested)