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The Trough Road between Radium and Kremmling is part of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and when I caught up with some fellow bike tourist I assumed they were on the big tour but they were on their own tour just like me. They had just come from my hometown of Steamboat Springs and I wanted to apologize for it being an overpriced tourist trap but they just loved it so I kept my mouth shut, and I guess I love it too, so I enjoyed their enthusiasm. They weren’t too far from their final destination in Silverthorne but at the speed they were going it was still going to be a while. I left them behind and rode the Trough Road to its end just outside of Kremmling where a quick half mile of pavement took me back to the dirt next to the Colorado River. I turned away from the river and climbed up to the Williams Fork Reservoir where it was getting late and I needed some water and a flat place to lie down.

Some people would never do a tour like this because they are too afraid of the the wildlife that live out in the mountains. “What about the bears?” I have been asked more than a few times. The bears seem to scare people the most, but I had an old housemate who was afraid of mountain lions and at least once a year I would have to talk him out of his lion fears by pointing out how rare lion attacks and how good they are at avoiding humans. I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild, but I’m sure that they have seen me. I tell people not to worry about the bears but to look out for the moose. The moose can be a little ornery and hard to predict. If you ever get charged by a moose try to get something, like a tree, in between you and the moose. You could never outrun one on open ground but they aren’t very good laterally so just keep moving around to keep the tree, or whatever, in between you and the moose. My big wildlife encounter for the trip came when I jumped down into the creekbed to fetch some water next to the Williams Fork Reservoir and came face to face with a large skunk. I think we both had about the same amount of panic and probably had some of the same thoughts, “You are way too close.” I jumped backwards through the brush and ran back up the hill. The bears don’t scare me but the skunks do. I could only imagine the way in which being skunked would ruin my trip.

The Williams Fork
Ready for the Rain

I rode around the reservoir until I came to a campground on the water with just one other person camped there. I went right through the sparse campground and pitched camp next to the boat ramp where a thick clump of cottonwood trees was protecting me from the wind. Those trees ended up being my savior as a grumbling thunderstorm came straight for me before I had finished dinner. Even with the trees blocking the wind the storm knocked my bike over and flattened my poncho up against me, there was hail and a few way too close lightning strikes. I casually finished my dinner propped up on one elbow trying to stay away from either end of the poncho where the storm was producing some spray.

When I woke up in the morning it was calm and clear. There was a perfect morning after the storm ambiance in the campground. There were branches and leaves scattered everywhere and everything I had left out was knocked over and/or filled with water. My cooking pot which I had filled with water for oatmeal was knocked over and I looked at with a profound sadness and said the words I don’t think I had ever spoken in all of my years bike touring, “I’m not hungry anyway.” It was the equivalent of having the check engine light come on in your car. I’m the kind of person who is liable to ignore the check engine light in my car too, if I had a car, so I packed up and started charging on hoping to get over Rollins Pass before the growing band of clouds decided to meet me up on the summit. I put a package of PopTarts in my handlebar bag and started picking at it reluctantly, still not able to acknowledge the giant warning sign that a lack of appetite foretold.

The kind of hunger that you can build up after a couple of days of bike touring is the stuff of legends. I like to joke that I have to count my fingers after I eat in case I need to hack one back up and have it re-attached. I had a memorable experience from my first ever bike tour when I stopped at a supermarket for a resupply and made myself a big salad from the salad bar. I was eating the salad with the little plastic fork from the salad bar so I didn’t have to dig through my gear for a fork. At some point I noticed that I was having trouble shoveling salad into my mouth as quickly as I wanted and stopped and looked at my fork which was now missing two of its four tines. I searched the bottom of the container for the missing tines but quickly realized that not all the crunchy things in my salad were sunflower seeds. I went back to shoveling only to encounter more problems a few moments later and when I looked at my little plastic fork it was missing all of its tines. I held out hope that there would be some stray pieces of plastic in the bottom of the container but there were none.

If I sit down to eat at a restaurant when I’m on a big tour I will usually order two entrees. Sometimes it requires a little coaching for the waitstaff but I know some kitchen-speak and can talk them through it. “You drop the second ticket after you drop the first entree…” It’s good to ask for a full pitcher of water too if it was a hot day. I usually resist the urge to lick my plate clean, but have been known to eat the garnish. There is nothing like bike tour hunger to make everything taste delicious. I still remember the best PowerBar I ever had, it was a wild berry flavor and it had some sand on it, but the memory of it makes my mouth water because I wasn’t just hungry, I was delirious with hunger. I have had warm cans of cheap beer and slices of ketchup-on-cardboard that I have proclaimed to be great beer and good pizza during the course of previous bike tours.

The Trough Road
Rollins Pass

I picked away at my package of PopTarts as I made my way across the wide open Williams Fork valley and up into the national forest. The PopTarts go great with coffee but I wasn’t into making that either which was another bad sign. I was starting to feel like I was behind schedule despite having 3 more days left before returning to work and a couple of shortcuts to take once I made it to North Park. I knew that I needed to get over Rollins Pass before the afternoon storms set in and I rode right through Frasier vowing to do my next resupply on the other side of the pass in Rollinsville. Once again I choose a convoluted route through the valley to avoid the highway and get in as much dirt as possible which resulted in having to stop and check the map over and over again. The road was freshly graded, which felt like a personal insult, it had a series of dramatic descents which felt like and insult to my hard earned vertical gain and it was starting to rain, which I took very personally as well. I should have checked the map again but under the burden of all this abuse I just put my head down and kept grinding away convincing myself that I was on the pass and would be at the top soon.

I don’t remember whether I had a huge angry meltdown when I found out that I had been going the wrong way for the past hour or whether I was crushed by the hopeless futility of even trying to complete this ride in the first place, but it was pretty much one and then the other, and then back again. Turning around and riding back down the mountain was completely demoralizing and shortly after I found myself back on course I finally stopped for coffee. I’m sure I looked about as happy as a wet cat and when a jeep came by I tried to straighten up so they wouldn’t feel obliged to stop and ask me if I was okay. The clouds pulled back for a moment blasting me with sunlight and revealing a big patch of dark blue Colorado sky. I pulled out my solar panel plugged it in and right on cue the clouds changed direction and left me back in their shadow.

I didn’t take it very well.

If there was a moment that would define my eventual retreat that would be the moment. It really came down to my thought process while I was drinking my cup of coffee. I knew I was going to get lost again since I hadn’t ridden this section before, that my legs had lost their punch, that I needed my appetite back so I didn’t bonk like a champion and that I would have to average a hundred miles a day to finish the route and get back to work on time. Things weren’t adding up and when I decided to brew up a second cup of coffee the decision had been made, I was done charging forward and was ready to retreat.

It took me a day and a half to ride home. The rain was relentless the first day, but when it cleared out it and the wind start howling at me on the next day I started to miss the rain. The headwind across North Park was epic, but I kept looking up at the ridge where Buffalo Pass crosses the Park Range and thinking to myself,  “There, I’ll be there soon.” since the top of Buff Pass feels like home even if it’s still a ways away. I was running on fumes as I made it over the top of the pass and by the time I made it home I was empty as empty can be and still had no hunger.

Happy Camper
California Park

It didn’t take long to come out with the first “Okay, next time….” statement. I did a 24 hour solo race once and I remember the morning after when I felt like I had been beaten with sticks and could barely walk I started saying to myself, “Well, next time….” but I cut myself off quick and insisted I needed to get up and tell myself “Next time” while I was trying to walk. I went on to tell my friends to just slap me if I even said “Next time” in order to keep me from doing that again. Should fate smile upon me and give me another chance to ride The Colorado Route again I could imagine a few improvements. The first improvement which unfortunately didn’t even occur to me would be rest day(s). As I pointed out after my adventure, even God takes rest days. It never occured to me to rest because I had 11 days off and I was going to ride for 11 days straight. I don’t get a lot of vacation time and that seemed like the best way to make the most out of it. Riding a hundred miles a day is standard procedure for my bike tours, but I usually only tour for 3 or 4 days before I’m back to work. I’m sure that my body had a “what are you doing” moment on about day 5 or 6 that I completely ignored before the check engine light came on on day 8, which I also ignored. The next improvement would be better food. As someone who generally eats pretty healthy going to a diet of oatmeal, Snickers bars and instant soup was a bit out of the ordinary but it worked for those 3 or 4 day tours so why not? Well it turns out I can only do that for 7 days and then my body begins demanding less sugar and some more nutrients. I just assumed once you had the furnace burning that hot you can throw anything you want on the fire. Part of my food choices is determined by my packing strategies, I try to make my touring setup as light and tight as possible and applying that philosophy to my food stuff I have reduced it to oatmeal for breakfast, various bars all day on the bike and something instant of freeze dried for dinner. It is light and packs down into a very small space, but maybe what I need is an expandable space so I can stuff it full of real food like pizza, sandwiches, bananas or maybe even a salad from a salad bar which I will eat with my titanium spork.

Other additions to my Next Time list include some faster tires. I opted for comfort over speed with my tire choice, a slick 54mm wide mountain bike tire, they worked great with no flats the whole tour, but they were overkill for 90% of the riding. I’m thinking of reducing the minimum recommended tire size for the Route down to 35mm for an unloaded bike and from there on up depending on how much you are carrying and how much speed versus comfort you are willing to trade off. For the amount of gear I was carrying a 40mm tire would have been sufficient. I would have hated it when I was picking my way over Hagerman Pass and probably would have had to walk one or two steep loose sections along the way but it would be the right call for the entirety of the trip.

There are few more improvements I could think of for the Next Time list like a way to attach my solar panel to the bike so I can charge while I’m riding. I managed to strap it on to the back of my bike once, but was worried about it falling off the whole time, and my shadow kept falling across it and cutting the charge. There is part of me that really wants to bring my bluetooth speaker with me next time. The idea of having some driving beats as I climb up a big pass or having some mellow tunes to chill out at camp with both sound enticing, but I know the speaker I have is too heavy and too bulky to make the cut once I start packing. If I could eliminate the weight and size restrictions on my kit I could bring all sorts of stuff with me next time. I could bring a guitar to strum while resting at camp, an extra pair of shoes and a case of cold beer, but that is the makings of a very different tour and the enforced minimalism of bike touring has its own truism: the more comfortable you are at camp, the more miserable you are on the road.

The Colorado Route will remain a work in progress for the foreseeable future.  I will be updating the map to reflect my experiences from this lap around the state, but I suspect the improvements and updates will continue for years to come. I have dreams of creating an app that would provide riders with the route as well as some history, geology, hydrology and good places to eat along the way.  An app could also provide up to date information like road closures and alternative routes around the closure. I would like to give everyone some more information, but not too much since there needs to be a little adventure along the way.

For those of you who are pondering riding The Colorado Route I would like you to make the journey your own. Ride whatever bicycle or motorcycle or unicycle you want, bring anything you want to bring, set your own agenda and feel free to modify the route to suit your own needs.  There is no right or wrong way to ride The Colorado Route.

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