Pedal for the Sky

It was right around 10:30 a.m. when the afternoon storm clouds caught our attention. We were not long into our first big climb over Engineer Pass and it was clear this wasn’t going to be the “long slow bike ride” I told Randy I was looking forward to. Granted, you can only go so fast up 12,500-foot mountain passes when pedaling a bike fully loaded with water, food, clothing and camping gear for three days.

We were embarking on our mostly above treeline bikepacking tour primarily along the renowned Alpine Loop—which the Colorado Department of Transportation dubs “demanding” for those driving four-wheel drive vehicles—between Lake City and Silverton on the backend of the first monsoon storm system of the summer. The clouds came in at a crawl and they were moving out just as slow, putting on a dramatic show and bringing some cold rain over the course of a week to Colorado.

“So what’s our lightning contingency plan?” I asked, watching electricity illuminate the dark space between the peaks of mountains above. There was a long pause. Yep, there was no contingency plan. We climbed steadily toward Engineer Pass with an eye on the sky. Then my chain broke.

Randy had invited me to join in on this trip with his roommate Tyler, who planned out the logistics. Any excuse to spend time in the San Juans was good enough for me, but the last self-supported bike trip I’d done was a decade ago when I joined two brothers and another friend for several months on their transcontinental tour of the Pan-American highway. We called it “bike touring” then and I just had to see what “bikepacking” was all about. Besides, my friend Kevin Passmore at Defiant Packs makes some of the best bikepacking bags out there and gladly lent me a few to use on the trip.

I also had my trusty Surly Karate Monkey—a fully-rigid machine that will climb with the best of them and descend as fast as your skills allow (and body can handle). Cheap and dependable (though still needing some occasional maintenance), it’s the 1974 Ford F150 of mountain bikes. Randy was embarking on the maiden ride of a bike purpose-built for our current San Juans endeavor.

I recall reading these words a long time ago as a student in a book about some of the greatest cities in the world: “Like a lover, you only have one chance to explore a place for the first time.” The author enjoyed setting out blind into a city and allowing nothing but that raw exploration to inform his first understandings of a place. There was time for research and preparation later.

It stuck with me both as a profound statement and as a philosophical basis for being underprepared. And maybe I should’ve at least done some seasonal maintenance on my bike prior to our trip. I was riding on last year’s well used drivetrain, which had held up fine during the few rides I’d done this summer, but the additional force of pedaling a loaded bike was too much for it. I took the broken links out, relinked the chain and told myself I needed to stay mindful of those low gears and not push them too hard. I only had so much chain left and a lot of dirt and uphill to go.

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We topped out on Engineer Pass to a small parking lot of 4x4s and ATVs manned mostly by out-of-state tourists who were bundled up against the cool alpine air and dumbfounded we would ride our bikes up something so drivable. Someone came over and snapped a picture. I hadn’t yet put a shirt on—the cool air suited me fine.

After seeing the third convoy of beautiful modified Toyota FJs chug by, I stopped to ask how many rigs were out and about for the national summit, which was taking place right here, right now. “About 350, but only 300 of them are FJs. A few Tacomas and 4Runners snuck in.”

I figured then that we’d be seeing a few more rigs on our tour. And that we did. There were all kinds of 4x4s, ATVs, dirt bikes and even a few fully built rock crawlers. The roads we were on weren’t particularly technical, but the exposure, terrain, and general nature of the roads were. They certainly made a man from Michigan—his family fastened in the back—pause at the last hairpin before a the top of pass and exclaim expletives as I pedaled up, before resigning to “Well, I guess I just have to go for it.”

It’s that kind of terrain in the San Juans. And despite the heavy motorized traffic of a summer weekend on one of the most celebrated scenic backcountry routes in the country, it made all the uphill pedaling and pushing of our bikes well worth it. Every pedal stroke to higher ground, every corner we turned, every pass we gutted up and over revealed some of the most incredible terrain in the lower 48.

“We had to show those Texans how we have fun in Colorado,” Randy said later.

We looked out across a sea of mountains and small network of roads, some active and some remnants from the mining area, clinging to steep mountainsides and seeming to go nowhere. These roads are ripe for skyriding—surely the next evolution in biking. We descended down towards Silverton, stopping for a snack near a large flock of sheep and soon after taking shelter in an abandoned cabin in Animas Forks as the rains finally came.

When they let up enough, we continued our descent past more mining ruins and arrived in sunshine to a much needed meal in Silverton. After dinner, we headed out of town to the upper reaches of the Animas River and camped for the night.

The next day, we pushed further up the valley past an incredible array of mining history, including the site of last year’s blowout at Gold King Mine. Topping out over Hurricane Pass we continued onto to California Pass and soon looked down into the sublime California Gulch. The weather was holding and looking favorable. The FJs were somewhere else. We had one more pass in our itinerary.

After coasting down through California Gulch, we made our way up our final ascent to Cinnamon Pass. We surveyed threatening clouds and rolled into a continuous 20-mile descent with a shocking lack of traffic down to Lake City.

There’s only one way to the top and that’s with a lofty vision and one small pedal stroke (or step) after another. At least that’s what I kept telling myself during those wonderful long slow uphills watching Randy in the lead on his nice new bike.

Blake Gordon is a photographer living in Carbondale earning his backcountry ski bum merit badge. He regularly photographs for the Nature Conservancy and other national publications. blakegordon.com

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