Monday, August 17, 2009

Lime Creek, Colorado Trail, Engineer Mountain Trail

37.2 miles
5700ft barometric altimeter, 6750ft per Topo
5hrs, 3min riding time
Just under 6hrs total time

Pulled off a flawless execution of a nice ride today. The weather was stellar. Nary a cloud around to start. It sure was cold to start though. I did not expect it to be dropping into the 30's in some areas around here this early in the season.

I parked just off Hwy 550, about 30 minutes north of Durango. The planned route was similar to the last ride Dave P and I did in Durango last year, except with a major extension. In short, the ride climbs Lime Creek Rd, a jeep road around Coal Bank Pass. This avoids pavement and cars. Lime Creek rejoins 550 four miles below Molas Pass. I had to suffer through this bit of pavement to pick up the Colorado Trail at Molas Pass, at nearly 11,000ft. It is this lengthy section of the Colorado Trail that we did not do last time. The rest of the ride is 100% singletrack, most of it undulating in the 11,000 to 12,200ft range. The Colorado Trail (CT) contours some amazing scenery above treeline. After many miles, Engineer Mountain Trail is taken to begin the trek back to my car.

Ridden counter-clockwise.

When I blasted through the Lime Creek section in just over an hour, I thought maybe this ride will only take 3-4 hours and I'd get to ride again later in the day. Legs didn't feel particularly snappy, but my energy level seemed good. Finally got some sleep too. The deal is, I live and train at sea level. You can kind of fake going hard up to about 7000 or 8000ft. But when you go above 10,000ft, there's no faking it. All systems seem like they are going really hard, but no Watts are coming out. It a funny sensation, really. It doesn't hurt. You don't suffer unusually, like say on a really hot day. You might be dizzy most of the time. But try as you may, you are not going to go fast. It is humbling. A week at altitude won't make much difference, except maybe in the initial acute effects. It takes months at altitude to get faster at altitude. Maybe I should buy a hypobaric tent for when I go on these trips...

Looking north up the Lime Creek valley.

Once on the CT, life was good. The scenery did not disappoint. I was going to be riding in all those really cool mountains Dave and I could only gawk at in the distance last year. Lots of contour singletrack here, sparse or no trees, and moderate climbing grades. It was 100% rideable, save for a dab or two around switchbacks.

I get to a point where I hear what sounds like hundreds if not thousands of sheep. What's up with that? Then there they were, in my way. Apparently somebody herds sheep up here. Lots of em. They didn't seem to be too concerned about my presence. I thought for a moment I caught a glimpse of another rider parting the herd. A lot of time went by without another siting, so I chalked it up to imagination.

Contouring on the CT near Molas Pass.

The riding got progressively more challenging. Very steep ups and downs, loose rock, exposure, deep washes to face plant in, you name it. Then I caught up to two guys. They were bike packers, spending the night on the trail. They seemed to be getting off their bike more often than I was, but they had a legit excuse. They were probably carrying 40 pounds of gear. They weren't doing the CT race, which just ended. The section they plan to do tomorrow is very exposed and storms are in the forecast. Yikes.

I plodded along, eventually realizing the ride would encroach on epic status (over 5hrs saddle time). Normal riders shuttle this segment of the CT, starting at Molas Pass without the 17 miles and thousands of feet of climbing to get there like I did. I was starting to feel it. The temp at altitude had finally risen to just right. Probably good thing I froze silly starting out, else I would not have had nearly enough water. I brought about 90 oz in my Camelbak.

Looking north from high point of ride adjacent to Jura Knob.

About two miles from Jura Knob, I caught up to a couple from Santa Barbara who stopped for a break. Great riders, as I believe one of them is who I spotted by the sheep. I stopped and talked quite a while. They too, being sea level dwellers marvelled at the impact of thin air. The woman, probably not much younger than I, stayed just ahead of me for at least 30 minutes, and I wasn't exactly putzing along. They parked at Molas Pass, were planning on dropping down to Coal Bank Pass, then hitch a ride 8mi back to their car. I guess that is how they shuttle rides in California. When I told them about the five mile descent on Engineer Mtn Tr, they thought about extending the ride. What's another 4 miles when hitchhiking? They made it up this high and in good time. The asphalt, while hot, ain't gonna melt MTB tires, you know? The passes around here are typically 7% grade, tame by New England standards.

The couple stopped to eat while I pressed on. A lot of the riding up to the junction of Engineer Mtn Tr was pretty brutal. I got off my bike more times than I care to think about. It was all good though. The scenery was awesome, the weather was perfect, and I had all day.

Looking north from base of Engineer Mountain.

The view from the pass next to Jura Knob was incredible. This was the high point of the ride, literally and figuratively. I was at 12,200ft. Beginning the descent heading south, I had one of those oh-oh thoughts. It was like there's no way they are contouring the trail out of this mess. I was right. Lots of nasty fall line stuff, deeply rutted, maybe two feet deep in places. Fill the ruts with large loose slabs of rock and Dougie was walking down much of it. My Garmin registered bits steeper than 30%. What went down went right back up almost as steeply. It was definitely carry your bike stuff for a while. I think a four mile stretch through here took nearly 2hrs to get through. I sure hope I don't have shin splints the next morning.

I finally regained buff singletrack at modest 10-12% grades climbing up to notch at base of Engineer Mountain. This is were Dave and I picked up Engineer Mtn Tr last time. The descent from here back to the car I think was my all-time favorite. After finishing my last Gu and nearly sucking the Camelbak bladder through the tube trying so hard to get the last drop out, it was plummet time. This descent drops over 3000ft in five miles on non-stop switchbacks. A bit choppy for a hardtail, but grins all the way down none-the-less. Closest New England trail to this is the Red Tail Trail in N. Conway. The trails have nearly identical vibe to them, except Engineer Mountain drops twice the vertical in less than twice the distance. I think you pedal two or three times the whole way down.

Blue daisies on Engineer Mountain Trail.

The temperature rose dramatically as I descended from the high country. Most of the alpine flowers are now well past peak. But the small daisy-like flowers were in full bloom the whole way down Engineer Mtn Tr. White, Yellow, Blue and Violet. Saw tons of hummingbirds here too.

Glad I had a liter of water waiting for me in the car. It was hotter than bathtub water, but I wasted no time killing it. Back in Durango, it was nearly 90 degrees. The AC in the cheap rental could not keep up with the sun. It was cooler to let 90F air blow in through the windows. At least the humidity is pretty low. The car is a Kia Forte. All I can keep thinking of is Performance Bicycle's cheap house brand "Forte." Is that what I'm driving? Will there be a recall because steerings columns (stems) keep breaking?

Perfect post ride recovery beverages.

I did push that car to the limit getting here way late yesterday. A bad crash on Hwy 285 between Denver and Salida shut things down for five hours. I had to go all the way back to Denver, get on I-70, then head south on Rt 24 through Leadville. My map didn't show any other routes through the mountains. The detour cost me over two hours and half a tank of gas.

Not sure what's up for Tuesday yet. Might do a ride right from the hotel to get an earlier start. There is threat of afternoon T-storms tomorrow. Forecast the next few days after that looks peachy.


rick is! said...

very cool stuff. keep the posts coming.

Bill said...

Great ride - thanks for your write-up. Glad you enjoy The Colorado Trail. If you ever want to "be in the loop" about the CT, just email us. We organize the volunteers who work it. Thanks,

Bill Manning
The Colorado Trail Foundation
bill [at]