Trying the Triangle

In the six and a half hours I'm riding my bicycle on 7 Aug 2010, I get particularly good at one thing: getting passed.  I get passed by riders young and old, male and female, single and tandem, skinny and skinnier.  I get passed going uphill and downhill; on the downhill side, I get passed a number of times when I'm going 30 miles an hour.  I even get passed while passing other people.  If I hadn't spent some quiet time in the weeks before the ride reminding myself of this impending plate of humble pie my ego would have taken quite a bruising.


This is what happens when you're in mediocre shape and start the Copper Triangle at the crack of dawn.  Not that I'm the first person on the course; no, I see hundreds of cyclists in bright colored rain jackets ahead of me on the first hill as we all try to warm up in the 40 degree morning.  3,000 riders registered for the 2010 event; Iím sporting number 2231 on my bike frame, my helmet and on the wristband that give me access to the five aid stations and lunch at the finish.  The course is the same every year: start in the Copper Mountain ski area, ride over Fremont Pass (11,318 feet) to Leadville, make a sharp right to go over Tennessee Pass (10,424 feet) and some no-named pass into Minturn, make an even sharper right into Vail and cycle through that extremely elongated village until you find yourself climbing up to Vail Pass (10,666 feet) paralleling I-70 with a final 4 mile sprint down to Copper.  That's it; 78 miles, 5,981 feet elevation gain and loss, and all of it over 7250 feet in elevation.

Thank goodness it's not 6,000 feet elevation gain!  That additional 19 feet may have been too much.

Now all of this probably leaves you with one question: why?  Why would a reasonably sane 43 year old decide to do this?  Well, I have a number of answers, and none by itself gives the whole picture so I think you need to combine them together for completeness:  1) It gave me a good excuse to buy a new road bike that I really wanted, 2) I had ridden 2/3's of the course the previous year (on my own, not part of the big ride) and wanted to see if I could finish it, 3) I'm having a mid-life crisis and I am too cheap to buy a Tesla Roadster, 4) It was a good excuse to get into shape over the entire summer, and 5) I think the whole oxygenate-air thing is overrated.

Whatever the reason, I find myself at high altitude, cycling at 5:50 a.m. on Saturday morning on what's normally a quiet two-lane highway.  My strategy is to start slow and finish slower, and in that I'm off to a great start.  I'm pedaling slowly but steadily while chewing on a Cliff bar for breakfast.  I don't feel cold, and I'm one of the lightest-dressed cyclists: just shorts, Keen sandals with white socks, my long sleeve jersey and my hip new cycling jacket.  Many around me wear long cycling tights, winter gloves and multiple jerseys, arm warmers and jackets; within the hour they're peeling off all those layers.  I quickly realize there are many advantages to being part of an organized ride like this, and first amongst them is this: by having many cyclists around (and the Colorado State Patrol) the cars have to take a back seat to the bikes.  On a normal day like the last time I rode here cars and trucks where brushing past my left arm, but not today.  When the road is just two lanes the cyclists are always using half a lane, and when the road steepens and there's a passing lane for several miles we take over the right lane entirely.  It feels almost like being on a big bike path.  Most of the passing I'll do today is on this first hill, and I think that makes sense because all of us slow riders want to start early to finish before the course closes and/or before the typical afternoon thundershowers build up.  If you ride faster, you can sleep in a little and still finish before the rest of us.  Though the sun is up, we're in a shaded canyon so it's almost 30 minutes before I see the sun and stop briefly to change from my regular glasses to my sunglasses.  But then it's truly beautiful.  I had been worried about the weather because the ride goes on rain or shine, but it's perfect.  There's a little valley fog slowly evaporating just off the highway, the air is 1280p clear, and I'm feeling comfortable with my pace.  All is well.

Fremont Pass is about 10 miles in, and that's where the aid station is set up.  The pass is near a defunct open pit molybdenum mine and there are a few other signs of civilization (like the highway), but it's pretty much the middle of nowhere and here we are at seven something in the morning and there are people in bright colors and clack clack clacky shoes everywhere!  There are several tables heavy with fruit, bagels, energy bars, and big coolers of water and sports-drinks.  But the strangest thing is the bikes: there aren't big bike racks or anything, so people lean their bikes against fences, boulders, cars, and when that space is gone they just lay them down on the ground (with the gears pointed up, of course, gotta protect the components).  And these are not cheap bikes; there's enough carbon fiber on display to knit together dozens of Boeing Dreamliners.  Very few of these bikes can be had for under 1,000 dollars; I saw at least one that must have cost five figures.  And they aren't locked up, they aren't vacuum packed and surrounded by Styrofoam, they're lying on the ground.  I add my humble flat-bar road bike from REI (retail price $799) to the mix and get some water.  During my long training rides I tended to get dehydrated and I am determined not to let that happen today, so at every aid station I not only fill my water bottles, I drink one of sports-drink and refill it again before moving on.

Then it's time for the first downhill segment.  It's 1300 feet down to Leadville, and boy is that a fun ride.  Of course, it's a bit scary, too.  When I am in my tuck, I can catch people in front of me (my extra mass is finally paying some dividends) so I'm passing everyone as I zip down the center of the lane... until some rider forgets to stay to the right.  Someone is already passing him on the left, so I go to the right of the road and scream, "On you RIGHT!  On your RIGHT!"  while carefully rolling past.  All's great until I catch up to some slower (e. g., saner) cyclists on the right side of the road.  I want to pass, but there's wave after wave of faster riders already in the center of the lane, swooping past like banshees.  So I slow a bit and practice applied self preservation while occasionally pedaling.  (I found I don't have any gears that make me go faster than 30 miles per hour; that's something I wouldn't have found out without the Triangle.)

Did I mention the Governor of Colorado road the Copper Triangle this year? (I didn't see him, but he and his semi-secret service sidekicks probably passed me, too.)  Take that, Mr.  Schwarzenegger!

After the right at Leadville (where, interestingly enough, a left turn would take you more or less to Albuquerque) we climbed to the wimpiest pass, Tennessee.  There's one surprise, though: the aid station is a quarter mile off the main route.  An uphill quarter mile.  If I wasn't low on water and worried about dehydration, I would have passed that puppy by.  After the aid station it's a long stretch of downhill, a little level ground and then a climb up what I call No Name Pass.  It is a much steeper climb than to Tennessee Pass and just as long, but for whatever reason it doesn't rate a name or mention in the course synopsis.  I'm glad I road this section last year or I would have been mightily surprised.  I'm pretty sure many were; there were people registered to ride from all 50 states (plus points in Europe and Asia, maybe next year they'll get more interest from Africa, Australia, South America and Antarctica) and I heard occasional comments like, "What's the course like from here?" and "How far is this ride, anyhow?" at aid stations.  Along this stretch, I am passed many more times; do you know that a tandem bike doing 25 mph sounds quite a lot like a car when it catches up to you?  At one point, though, I catch up to someone riding an Orbea bicycle (read: foreign, expensive, like a Maserati) and pass him.   I probably enjoy that more than I should.  I also am paid what I consider some cycling complements: several riders pass me within what seems like millimeters of my left elbow.  They wouldn't do that unless they think I'm riding steadily enough to track straight, so I appreciate their confidence in me and recognize this as evidence that I really am getting good at being passed.

Or maybe they just weren't paying much attention with their oxygen deprived brains, but I prefer the former explanation.

Then we get to Vail.  At the right-hand turn (which is exceptionally sharp and onto a bike path, and so backed up at least 20 riders deep when I arrive) is the lowest point on the course, meaning the climb to Vail Pass is by far the longest of the day.  And Vail is a long, long, looooong city, stretching at least five miles along the Interstate and marginally uphill the whole way.  Just after the aid station in West Vail, as I pedal up the gentle incline past million dollar condos (hi, Lindsey Vonn!), and enjoy another feature of the organized ride (nice volunteers stopping traffic for me and the constant stream of riders passing me) I notice that I am feeling a little nauseous each time I drink my sports-drink.  I switch to water, but feel nausea from that, too.  I had eaten 0.5 banana and a Cliff bar at each aid station; my bathroom breaks tell me I'm staying hydrated, but I also may have eaten too much.  In trying to avoid "bonking" (cyclist speak for running out of energy), I get nausea.  Or maybe I'm just overheating.  It is nearly noon and the sun feels unpleasantly like a waffle iron closed on my face (actual temp: under 70 degrees).  In any case, this nausea thing isn't good.  I decide to rest a little extra at the next aid station before the last serious climb begins.

The best thing, the greatest thing about an organized ride: aid stations.  I would have needed a little trailer or at least panniers and a backpack to haul all the water, gator-ish-ade, bananas and Cliff bars I had during the ride.  Thank you volunteers.  Vail Pass is more than a thousand feet above (and 8 or so miles away from) me as I try to relax and drink and otherwise let myself denauseate.  It seems to work, so after a little while I'm ready to get back on the bike.  The first half mile or so is fine, I'm pedaling what I tell myself is a steady six (6.x miles per hour) in my easiest gear and all is well.  But, when I drink I feel the nausea come back, and vomiting from the saddle just doesn't sound like fun.  My body temperature is too high to take anything in as I pedal so I adopt a new technique: whenever it is time to drink, I just stop, rest, sip, and then get back on the bike.  This works great on the lower part of the mountain, where the trail is actually the old highway (a precursor to I-70) as there's plenty of room for people to pass when I dismount.  In this section I pass and am re-passed by the same three guys at least four times.  But after the path cuts under the interstate it becomes a real bike path, meaning I have to get off the pavement to rest and then find a big enough break in the traffic to get back riding again.  It is not easy and I find it embarrassing to keep stopping - but it would be more embarrassing to throw up, so I keep on stopping.

Right before going under the interstate, I pass my longest single day ride ever (69 or so miles).

And, right at 70 miles into the course is the steepest hill, followed within the next few miles by two more steep hills.  The Copper Triangle isn't difficult because it's steep; there's nothing on the course to compare with, say, Lombard Street in San Francisco.  No, the challenge here is the unrelenting climbing not the steepness, but that hill at 70 miles is quite unfriendly.  I keep turning the crank and make it to the next local maximum and then very soon am climbing again.  I'm not pedaling a steady six on the three steep parts; it's more of a flailing four, but I don't have to get off the bike and push it up those three grades so that's a minor victory of some sort.  And I am glad I know this part of the ride very well, because for miles I'd been telling myself, "As soon as you kick the bum of that third steep section, you're home free!"  And that is only a mild exaggeration.  I really know I can make it when I top that third "wall" even though there is about two more miles worth of steady, not-too-steep climbing to go.

Vail Pass has a rest area off I-70, and when I pass a small reservoir and flail my four mph up the last hill and into the rest area where the last aid station is set up, I am pretty happy.  Pretty nauseous, yes, but still pretty happy.  I sit down, call Angela to tell her where I am, and sip some water.  My stomach settles a little, so I try a little watermelon (it's mostly water, right?  that's what the name says) and that is not so good.  But not terrible.  I eventually pick up my bike from amongst all the carbon fiber skeletons around it and slowly, steadily coast the four-ish miles to the village of Copper Mountain and the finish line.  At the finish line is Angela, who takes my picture for strictly documentary purposes.  We have lunch (though it doesn't sit perfectly well, it stays in my stomach), see some friends from a previous work assignment (hi, Jesse & Ingrid!), put the bikes on the back of the car and go back to our hotel in Frisco, a few miles closer to Denver.  I can't immediately imagine wanting to do that ride again, but who knows?  A couple years ago I didn't think I'd want to do it once.

The end

My stats, for the engineers in the audience:

Time: 6.5 hours of riding, about 7.75 hours start to finish.

Distance (according to my bike computer, anyhow): 80 miles

Average speed: 12.4 mph

Max speed: 43 mph (really, I saw this speed in real time as well as it being recorded on my bike computer.  I was zipping down the hills in my tuck like a maniac.  I want to thank all the people at Navaro Bicycles for making such a solid, reliable bike.  Incidentally, I developed a good aero braking technique when I wanted to slow down a little instead of a lot: I sat up straight.  It's not exactly revolutionary, I know, but my oxygen-deprived brain was impressed at the time.)

Cost:  Non-recurring costs (new bike, new gloves, new spiffy jacket, etc) about $1,100.  Recurring costs (entrance fees, hotel for The Ride and training rides, Cliff bars) at least $700.

For more information about the part of Colorado where I was riding my bike, check out my free guide to cycling Vail Pass here.