The Route itself is going to be a work in progress. I can already see room for improvement after this first run through. I would like to eliminate as much pavement from the route as I can while still connecting all of the great dirty roads that I have discovered over the years. The remote stretches of rural pavement are okay but the highway miles need to go. There is nothing that bad about burning some miles on the side of the highway provided that it has some shoulder and maybe even some rumble strip next to you, but after experiencing the remoteness of the backcountry roads with next to no traffic on them it is a little traumatic to end up on the side of the highway with weekend traffic buzzing by endlessly.
Starting out is always hard. Preparing is relatively easy with plenty of time to make important decisions. Packing is a mere formality, taking everything that you have already decided on and putting it on the bike. Taking the bike downstairs and throwing a leg over it to roll out is a hard moment. From the time you’ve finished packing until you are underway and up to speed it is an anxious series of second guesses. It is a little like going skydiving, the parachute is packed and you are on the plane, but at some point you are going to have to step up to the open door and jump out. Once I’m under way everything goes according to plan. No last minute realizations about what I forgot, no need to stop and adjust the bike or the baggage and unlike my attempt on the Colorado Route last year my rear rack does not snap off and dump all of my stuff on the ground, so I’m off to a good start.
I wanted to get an early start in the morning but my favorite fleece hat has just enough material to pull down over my eyes in the morning when it starts to get light out and I can sleep in later when I’m out camping than I do when I’m at home. The day rolls on nicely, past the Rifle Gap reservoir, back on the Route, down though Silt, across I-70 and the Colorado river. Climbing up out of the Grand Valley I ride through one of the impassable when wet sections that has turned me around before and just getting past that feels like an accomplishment. Before I reach the Buzzard Divide I run out of water, but since I’m climbing up into the mountains I believe there will be water somewhere along the way, but I’m wrong. When I see the sign that say Owens Creek 6 miles I feel reassured, but when I reach Owens Creek and it is just a pile of dry rocks I have a whole new perspective on my trip. After such a hot dry summer my trip is going to be as much about finding water as it is about mountains and milage. When I do find water it has a faintly bovine flavor to it and I have to cover it up with some electrolyte tablets, but I’m just happy to have it. I end up stopping early for the night just because of the spectacular creek running across the road in front of me. After a day of running dry it looks and sounds like heaven.
The stretch of the Colorado route from Paonia to the Blue Mesa Reservoir is all paved. There isn’t much traffic out on this road but it still doesn’t make me happy. I tried to find another dirtier route but right here you are squeezed in between the West Elk Wilderness and the Black Canyon. Going west of the Black Canyon means going around Delta and Montrose while going east of the West Elks takes you down into Gunnison and all of these routes have the same problem; too much pavement. I chose what I thought would be the lesser of all evils and went with Hwy. 92 which is so winding that makes people car sick and is therefore ideal for bicycle riding. It even has water you can stop and filter along the way.
When I finally got to the Blue Mesa Road and was back on the dirt again it was euphoric. It had one of my favorite signs at the start “No Winter Maintenance” and then proceeded to climb up through some sacred Ute lands and on to a high mesa where I felt much more at home than on the side of a highway. There was still another stretch of highway on my day’s agenda but I only saw about 5 cars on my 8 miles of Hwy. 149 and it was the straight up and straight down nature of the road that was wearing on me. When I got to Powderhorn it was getting late and all I needed was a little patch of public land to lie down on but it took miles to ride out of the hay meadows and old ranch houses until I reached the BLM campground on the side of the road. I usually avoid campgrounds and generally refer to them as “cramped-grounds” but with no fees and no one else staying there it was perfect. I sat down at the picnic table with Jim Beam and watched the moon set behind the ridge.
After the blissful solitude of the Cochetopa Basin US Highway 50 was a little traumatic, despite the fine shoulder and the gentle tailwind I couldn’t wait to get away from the traffic and back to the dirt which is why I have earmarked this section for a reroute even if it means some rough forest road with a bunch more vertical. I have designed this route to make myself happy and I decided that Highway 50 does not make me happy. Turning off the highway at the town of Sargents the Colorado route begins climbing the historic railroad grade of Marshall Pass which definitely makes me happy. I fell in love with railroad grades during the course of this tour. The perfectly engineered slopes of the pass provide a methodical and almost meditative path up through the mountains. There is nothing too steep, no sudden dips and no sharp corners for the whole pass and knowing that much of it was dug out by hand over 100 years ago adds a sense of awe and grandeur to it all. Climbing up such a perfect grade only required two gears on my bike which I came to refer to as the fine grind, middle chainring two cogs down from the top, and the medium grind, three cogs from the top. The top cog was called the turkish grind and it didn’t work so well because of my chainline and anything below the medium grind was just a coarse grind.
I rode over the top of Marshall Pass and made camp about halfway down the other side. It was the only campsite on the whole trip that had cell service so I made the most of it, answering texts and sending pictures as well as searching for info on Salida so I could resupply the next day.