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Monday, April 30, 2018

The Copper triangle

Long before cycling, in fact long before the wheel itself was invented, man entertained himself through song. The subject matter was varied. Initially recounting tales of heroic acts, or local stories. In more modern times that developed into songs of emotion, of love and loss.
Not only of each other but of places too.
Frank Sinatra brought New York to our gramophones, George Ezra streamed Budapest to our Apple devices whilst various artists sung about Amsterdam no doubt influenced by its green leaf culture.

In 1970 Singer songwriter John Denver got into deep water with the US Federal Communications Commission after singing about The Rockies.
Remitted by a legal ruling to censor music deemed to promote drug abuse,  they were concerned that his song Rocky Mountain High could have only have been making reference to stimulation of Narcotic consumption.

With their offices based on 445 12th Street in Washington DC close to sea level, they may have felt inclined to hold an alternative view if they had paid a visit.
Colorado is High all the time.

With its high plains set flat as a 'frame' for it's surrounding mountains, Colorados lowest point is a staggering 3,315 feet above sea level at the Arikaree River in Yuma County.

To put this in perspective its lowest point, is higher than the highest point of 18 other US States.

Even if they had visited they would have been wrong despite such an apparently obvious reference.
What John Denver was singing about was not the elevation but how it made him feel.

A sense of euphoria and Majesty.

As a child I spent 3 years living in America and although many years ago now I do remember holidays in the Rockies with great fondness.
Returning as a cyclist in 2014 I was blown away by the magnitude and natural beauty of this largely uninhabited terrain.

In 2016 I returned to take part in the Courage Classic Tour.
Founded in 1990 its a charity event to raise money for 'Children's Hospital Colorado'.

The two day tour takes place usually on the third weekend of July each year and is based in the Copper Mountain Ski resort about 1.5 hours from Denver on the I-70W.

It offers a variety of routes and family rides for those wanting to ride, and a beautiful base for hiking, fishing or just absorbing the atmosphere with some local wine.


For the more adventurous the 77 mile Copper Loop or Copper triangle on Day 1 is a must for any visitor.
Considered one of Colorados classic alpine rides it crests three of Colorados Mountain passes. Freemont Pass at 11,318', Tennessee Pass at 10,424' and Vail Pass at 10, 662'.

I was privileged to be invited to ride for the ARC Thrift Classic Team arranged by John Sladek, Eric Larson and James Simpson who with many others work tirelessly each year for not only their team but for the event as a whole.

 We set off just after sun up.

Anticipating a scorching hot day I was dressed accordingly, not realising that the thermometer would not start rising until an hour or more after the start.

It was like being in Yorkshire on a summers day 'without thy coat'

My fingerless gloves were just that - 'fingerless' I could see the numb protruding digits, but there was very little feeling.

The route headed south on Highway 91 with an ever increasing gradient up over Freemont Pass.
The climb was long and unrelenting but it at least generated some inner warmth.
I stopped at the top where there was a feed station. I needed no food or drink but just the opportunity to warm my hands before the descent and to allow the sun to get above the mountain tops.
The descent into Leadville came with a cocktail of terror and exhilaration in equal measure.
With the road being wide with good visibility and shallow bends there was no excuse, not to let gravity take its course.
When the Garmin reached 45 mph I got a bit nervous from not being able to trust my numb fingers and reluctantly started to feather the brakes.

Being surrounded by Medics I am sure I would have been ably assisted if I had embraced the Tarmac, but I was there to help raise money, not to ruin their weekend.

From Leadville we climbed steadily north west up towards the Tennessee pass.
The landscape changed with open wide plains, where the now more elevated sun had no problem exploiting with much needed warmth.
I found this section quite strange with such a gentle incline it felt more like a false flat and had the feel of a more rational lowland coastal plain. It belied the fact that we were still over 8,000 feet, surrounded by Peaks close to 14,000'.

Following on from Tennessee Pass we approached Battle Mountain crossing the magnificent Red Cliff Bridge which shadows the Eagle river below.

It seemed that at each lay-by or Junction many locals had come out to cheer us on shouting out with the same gusto and enthusiasm for each rider.

From there its downhill again, descending into Minturn the lowest point of the ride at 7,861'.
You would not think so surrounded by giant peaks all around you.
From here the only way was up.
I got to this point at about mid day and the valley floor acted like a heat conductor. It was hot.
With my breathing already effected by my introduction to altitude riding the heat was trying to get in on the act.

From Minturn you pick up a bike path that takes you through Vail, up and over Vail pass and back to Copper Mountain.

With the combination of the altitude, gradient and heat it looked like a procession of slow moving ants inching towards their destination.

After 6,000 feet of climbing you are ready for a drink.
The beer was great and the company even better.

Day 2 offered various options with a shorter route around the Dillon Dam to Keystone and a longer route adding an extension up to the top of the Ute Pass.

Not forgetting the previous mornings 'frostbite' I took an extra pair of gloves following the fast cycle track down the valley towards Silverthorne and then writing the Dam

The route then headed North on Highway 9 following the Lower blue River for ten miles.
From there we turned east on Colorado Route 15 up Ute pass Road.

From there its all up hill for 5.3 miles. The first 1.2 miles averages about 4%, the next 3.4 miles about 5.6% until it flattens off at the top.

Its then an an about turn facing the imposing Gore Range to the West and a heart thumping descent.

On the way down I was listening to Music on my headphones and had to smile to myself as Mr Denver sung of the virtues of this magnificent playground. Leaning into each corner Imaintained both my speed and the ecstatic grin on my face.

'When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hanging by a song'

'He climbed cathedral Mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see'

There was no Censorship up here

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Cycling Bucket List - Mount Evans - Colorado USA

After cycling for a number of years I soon formulated a 'cycling bucket list'.
It appears as a natural progression for any cyclist who is prone to the seduction of two wheeled adventures.
It was more specific than my standard bucket list although when I compared the two side by side the top ten appeared very similar.
There were the obvious entrants such as Alp D'uez, Venteux, Col de Tourmoulet, and Sa Collabra but many others also grabbed my attention.
In homage to Richard Dreyfus I declared that 'a bigger bucket was required'
The list was dominated by mountain climbs with the notable exception of such classic routes as Paris - Roubaix, London to Paris, Lands end to John O' Groats and The Coast to Coast (UK) 

As and when they were crossed off, other routes or destinations took their place rearranging the table. 
I congratulated myself heartily on my endeavours each time the bucket was engaged, although I soon became troubled.
The movement within the bucket was far too frequent and there was obvious prejudice.

My list was full of accessible rides. 

Although challenging in their own right, each were in the UK or Europe which could easily be accessed either by a full tank of diesel or a cheap budget airline.

It was less of a bucket list but more of a 'what shall I do at the weekend list'

After some 'self scolding', I decided that an urgent review was required. 
From now on the list would not be limited to anything apart from its quantity, and should be declared and fixed from the outset.

After changing the goal posts,  I soon found myself searching for 'The Highest paved mountain in the World'

A storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie by Albert Bierstat
The logistics ruled out the top 4 in remote parts of India and Ethiopia, although they were considered.
At No 5 and the highest paved road in America was Mount Evans at a staggering 14,0130 feet.
That was a wapping 3,000 feet higher than the highest one in Europe (Pico del Veleta in Spain at 11,135) 

 Compared to other bucket list entrants it was like taking the Galibier and sticking Alp d’Huez on top. 

So Mt Evans was top.

It was originally called Mt Rosalie made famous by the landscape painter Albert Bierstat who capture the majesty of the mountain before the road was built. 

Starting at the historic mining town of Idaho Springs which stands at 7,526ft (2,294m) 
you start the daunting 27.9 mile ascent, journeying through three life zones, passing forests, lakes and ancient trees. Although the gradient is never too steep, averaging 4.6% and topping out at 10%.

What sets Mount Evans apart from any other climb is the elevation.
Irrespective of your power weight ratio or level of fitness, it's the altitude that conspires against you.
At the top you are adversely affected by HAPE High Altitude Pulmonary Edema where you undoubtedly affected by a variety of different symptoms. The most obvious is being short of breath and short of power in your legs. Its like setting off with bungee attached to your seat post  and the other end fixed to the starting point.
Each stroke you take gets incrementally harder.

I first attempted this climb on October 6th 2014 with a friend of mine Simon. Having already been in the Rockies for over a week and completed the 'Tour de Moon' Sportive in Grand Junction we both felt acclimatised and ready. 
The road to the summit was closed to vehicular traffic which presented both pros and cons. Although we had the road to ourselves we also had no support if things got difficult. 

Effectively we had to be 'sensible' and 'responsible' - not my greatest attributes. 

Unfortunately as we left the protection of the tree-line the wind was registering over 50 mph with the possibility of it being over 70mph at the summit.
On the narrow exposed slopes cycling was dangerous and with the temperature now below  freezing the exaggerated wind chill factor ripped through every layer of you're clothing.
To continue was out of the question.


At 11453 feet (3491 meters) we decided to head back. It was the highest I had ever been on my bike and although I was disappointed it was the right decision. I didn't say goodbye to the Mountain I just said 'Ill see you later' as if I were just going to the corner shop for some milk.

On the 21st of July 2016 I returned with a full 'Mule Train' of Dave Rees and his sons George and Harry. Although we had only had four days to acclimatise that was the only factor that was against us.
The planning and preparation left nothing to chance.
Even in the middle of summer the temperature range is often remarkable where it could be 100 degrees at the bottom yet below freezing at the top.

This time we had SAG support from the our great friend, guide and Evans 'aficionado' Rachel Simpson. As well as being all of the above, she has native blood that courses her veins, which is not lost on mother nature herself. 
If you want the elements to be kind to you, usually she can arrange it, although much to her husbands disappointment she can't always influence the Colorado Rockies or Denver Broncos.

As well as her special powers Rachel brought additional drinks and vitals and just as important she was able to carry additional layers of clothing to combat the temperature changes. 

We started soon after sunrise where the weather gods were kind. There was little wind and already the temperature was in the mid 80's. I have never been a climber and am used to finding a comfortable pace dictated by the gravitational pull on my 'organic saddle bags'.

On this climb it was totally different, the pace was directly related to my ability to absorb oxygen.

This in turn seemed to vary depending upon my position on the bike and my concentration on how I was actually breathing.
After some initial experimentation I found an optimum position.

If I rode with a wide stance on the top of my hoods, with my shoulders back and chest out, whilst taking in long slow extended breaths everything was easier.
This position was unusual. 

If you had given me a beret, a string of Garlic for around my neck and  a scruffy dog to follow me then the picture would have been complete.

As we got passed the tree-line I put on an extra pair of gloves, booties and placed some arm warmers around my wrists rolled down in preparation. The air temperature was now into single digits which was in contrast to my core temperature still close to triple digits. 

I was joined on Mount Evans by many goats. Seemingly they had all flocked from neighbouring mountains fighting for roadside tickets to see my performance. 
Tipped off by their cousins the 'Black Sheep' from Masham in North Yorkshire. Tickets had been selling at ridiculous prices on E-Baa
As I rode past them they moved their heads in symmetry.
Either in appreciation of my efforts or maybe they were just was mocking me. 
I decided on 'goat humour'. 

As I was rationalising the argument in my head I was reminded of the side effects of Oxygen deprivation. Im sure none of them induced such thoughts.
 I had got an app for my phone which not only gave the altitude but also provided me with descriptions of the side effects at the various points of altitude. As I was nearing the summit  i decided to have a look to see how I should be feeling.

Not put off by the crosses across the Emojis eyes I rejoiced in the fact that I was still conscious and alive. There were no notes about moving forwards like a constipated tortoise. 

In order to get to the summit you have to skirt around other lesser peaks and various small lakes or tarns. When it does come into view it is way above you! 
Despite the lack of Oxygen I was still able to do some basic mathematics and work out that the gradient would have to change.

The road builders clearly got frustrated or ran out of materials. Whatever it was they clearly finished the last bit on a friday afternoon !!!!

Almost within reach of the summit the road suddenly rears up like an angry rattlesnake.
The surface worn by the ravages of the elements. 
Deep potholes and cracks become added challenges to the final push.

The moment you get off the bike at the top, you know you have achieved something special.

For most of the year this mountain is not accessible.
For the rest of the Year Evans herself decides whether or not she will let you.

When you are be allowed she is sure to show you something special.
At over 14,000 feet you can faintly see the curvature of the earth, Hundreds of miles around you and the full Majesty of Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. 
Despite the pain and exhaustion there were big smiles and a few happy tears.

We could never have dreamed about this without the support and guidance of Rachel Simpson whose influence did not go unrecognised.
She gave me a knowing look, I reckon her and Evans have had words together.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

New Blog site

Apparently the little man is very popular. So much so he now has his own site at Minimules 
This will feature his very own perspective on life.
Please follow to share his adventures.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Chapeau Events - Part 2 Bordeaux to Bilbao

In 2017 Chapeau Events decided to lay on a new route from Bordeaux to Bilbao. 
When I first saw it I must admit I was a little surprised and wondered why?
It had never been on my cycling radar although I liked the idea of exploring new gems.

Not put off, I 'Googled' the route expecting some information about an historic byway used by the crusaders or some fictional character like Don Quixote.
I got nothing. Nothing apart from an assortment of various routes, methods of travel and differing fares.
I now know that by train it takes 21 hrs and 13 minutes and you can get a bus for as little as £8.

I knew that David Wright (Chapeau Events) was a smart man. 
But recognising his allegiance to the Blue side of Manchester, it was clear that his judgement could be questioned.

With my credit card still fixed in my wallet, I was forced to question him on his new venture.
After he had stopped laughing he hooked me in and ignited my appetite with a variety of cycling opportunities.
It was inspirational.

Although in essence it was Bordeaux to Bilbao it was so much more. 

Fast riding on the flat plains towards the Atlantic, Cap Ferret, miles of Forrest track, The Dunes of Sabloney near Archachon, The seaside and costal vistas along The Bay of Biscay, Biarritz, stunning San Sebastian, The mighty Jaizkibel, The Green mountains, Durango, and of course Bilbao itself.

By the time I finished my phone call I had signed up and paid for my second Chapeau Event. 

Chapeau Events collected all of the riders bikes from various locations in the UK and transported them down to Bordeaux - whilst their owners flew in ready to undertake this adventure.

Rather than fly out to Bordeaux I decided to drive their with a friend of mine taking the Ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo. This gave me the option to explore the Pyrenees after we finished at Bilbao.
I had arranged with Chapeau Events to use my Club Van as an extra support vehicle.

The drive down to Bordeaux was simple and stress free. The roadsigns were easy to follow and the traffic relatively quiet.

I had never been to Bordeaux before and soon asked myself why.
It is a beautiful and stylish city providing a gastronomic paradise and wine fit for any cellar.

One of the great attractions of cycling for me is 'carbo loading' and 'calorie replacement'.
It can't be all stick..stick...stick. 
Sometimes you need a carrot or two to encourage you .........................................

Day 1 Bordeaux to Parentis

The route for the first day of 76 miles was kind - heading west towards the Atlantic Coast it follows flat plains punctuated by various vineyards. It was tempting to swap my Bidon with a nice Bordeaux, but my thumping headache reminded me of my previous nights wine tasting. 

As in all group rides you soon find your own pace group and I was joined by some 'interesting' characters. They all appeared to have a similar philosophy of 'work' and 'play' so we rode hard and punctuated our progress with a variety of cultural breaks.

Our last stop, less than ten miles from our destinations was sought amidst the heat of the afternoon, where no singular libation was ever going to be enough. We remained there until the course markers caught up with us and hurried us on. Seemingly we had made our own mark.

Day 2 Parentis to Biarritz

The second day brought much more variety in cycling terms where the route followed the coast south through forests and coastal cycle paths. In this 'carless Utopia' we passed miles of sun kissed sand dunes and unspoilt beaches. Like the swell coming in from the Atlantic the terrain had a rhythmic rolling quality which gently eased us into Biarritz. As we entered this vibrant French resort the gradients changed along with our heart rate. The foothills of the Pyrenees and the green Mountains could be seen in the distance reminding us that the hardest day would come with the next sunrise.

Day 3 Biarritz to Durango

Day 3 started with immediate climbing. With 94 miles and over 8,000 feet of climbing this was the 'Queens stage'. Continuing along the coast we drew breath descending into the beautiful Saint Jean de Luz before continuing to the Spanish border at Hondarribia.

From there you climb the Jaizkibel, famous for its inclusion in the San Sebastian Classic Cycle race.
As far as climbs go its 'no monster', but still a 'beast' of a climb rising up from sea level to 455 meters. With a varying gradient of between 5 -12% and 8 km there is no respite.
I opted to stop at a view point half way up, telling all I needed to take some pictures.
Writing a blog does have ready made excuses for stopping sometimes.

From this stunning vantage point we followed the mountain ridge before descending down into San Sebastian itself. Prior to this trip I had ashamedly never heard of San Sebastian and was immediately struck by its natural beauty, exuberance, cleanliness and climate.

If at that moment I had suffered an irreparable mechanical breakdown I would have not been that displeased. I made a mental note that I would have to return.

Although stunningly beautiful, the terrain continued to suck at the enthusiasm of the legs with a succession of brutal climbs.
These included one particular surprise on a back road up to Talai Mendi campsite.

On its approach I was curious as this rough narrow track weaved up the escarpment.
On rounding a corner I spotted the first glimpses of names daubed in paint on the surface.
That could only spell trouble I thought.
Closing my eyes momentarily I imagined the track lined with fanatical basque cycling fans screaming for their heroes as they watched them force their strained bike frames up this concrete wall.

We then followed the coast to Deba before turning inland to Durango. Away from the cooling effect of the Atlantic the last section was hot and sticky with no let up in challenges. Meandering close to the main road we followed a succession of assorted local roads to keep us away from traffic.

We had all been warned about 'The sting in the tail' close to the finish which was reflected by a spike on the route card. As we got closer the greater elevation of the surroundings threatened are dwindling sense of humour. Suddenly without warning our triangular route markers took us onto a forestry track made from ill fitting concrete slabs. The final climb hit us like some giant 'Pave' where every 20 meters was punctuated with expansion gaps in the road. At close to 10% gradient the climb bit in where the gaps created an addition burden to force the bike through, and acted as barriers to any rhythm. One of our group who I won't shame, took exception to the surface, dismounted and stamped 'her' feet whilst using rude words. I couldn't blame her.
Thankfully the climb was completed before the sun set which allowed a leisurely descent into the historic town of Durango.

Day 4 Durango to Bilbao

Although only 54 Miles the last day was no less daunting. Even before your breakfast had started to digest, we were climbing. Up the glorious Muniketa as the rising sun burned off the morning clouds behind us.

The road headed North towards Guernica and Bermeo climbing up the ridge towards Bakio and overlooking the Atlantic again.
At this point the visibility faded as we found ourselves cycling in low cloud. It was the first moment on the trip I looked to put a layer on rather than wanting to remove one.

We then headed south West to Bilbao and all rode in together

The trip was everything I expected it to be and more and it is my aim to return to the Basque region to further explore this secret gem of a cycling destination.

Chapeau Events are running the same Tour from the 11th -16th of September 2018

Bike Basque

If you can't wait until September or the dates don't suit you, I personally can recommend that you still venture out to this part of Spain.
It does not have the same lure as Mallorca or Gran Canaria but having spent time at both of these I can say it's certainly not inferior.
Accommodation is cheaper and more varied, the roads are very quiet and you won't be swamped or intimidated by other cyclists.

As well as being an amazing cycling playground, it is rich, in culture, history and amazing cuisine.
There are a number of different destinations that you can use as a base and can readily hire bikes.

If you want to have a similar experience to myself I would urge you to consider Bike Basque.

It is run by Xavier Lopez who knows the British well having lived in London.
He has an intimate knowledge of the area both as a tour guide and as an ex-competitor on the continental circuit.
 His company provide a number of bespoke tours in and around the region and he would be happy to hear from you