One of the greatest aspects of Bicycle Passport is being able to plan your own adventures. Naturally our group is trying to climb all 41 passes as soon as possible so therefore we are always looking at different ways to string more than one pass together in a single ride. One way to get three passes in a single ride is by doing the Copper Triangle organized ride, offered every August. Of course you have to sign up months in advance for an organized ride like this and plan ahead. But one thing you can’t control is- the weather. We had signed up in 2016, and as the date approached, the weather report was not looking good- calling for rain. Another great aspect of Bicycle Passport are the flexible, customizable “rules of engagement”. Our group has decided that we would include rides over 50 miles in length and 2000 vertical feet of initial elevation gain. A quick calculation let us know that starting at Copper Mountain with the rest of the group would not allow us to attain the required elevation by the time we reached Fremont Pass. So we backed up- or down- our starting point several hundred feet lower- to the parking area at the west end of Frisco, just off of I-70. This would add approximately 5 miles to our ride, but more importantly, the extra 500 vertical feet we would need to satisfy our “rules of engagement”. Our group started out at shortly after 6:00 a.m. heading south along Ten Mile Creek and I-70 towards Wheeler Junction. At that point we joined the other riders and continued south on CO 91- a spur of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway. Traffic is controlled for this organized ride and there are plenty of cyclist out on the road, so the atmosphere is congenial. The grade is average steep until around mile 12 where it flattens out and presents a few false summits before reaching the actual summit of Fremont Pass at 11,318 feet where we crossed the continental divide. That portion of the ride took us about ninety minutes. We stopped for quick refreshments and were back on our way. We descended south on SH 91 for 11 more miles until the turn off to US 24- a continuation of the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway just before we would have headed into Leadville. Instead we veered off to the right and continued down into the valley. Gradually, the descent turned into our second climb of the day towards Tennessee Pass. The climb is short- around 6 miles with some pitches at 5 and 6 percent. Once we reach the continental divide for a second time that day at the summit of 10,424 feet we can hardly believe it, but the ride organizers direct us to ride the steep entry into Ski Cooper for the second rest stop. It’s only a couple hundred yards, but it comes when we are ready for a break. More quick refreshments, and we are again on our way. By now it is nearing 9:00 a.m. and we are commenting to each other that we couldn’t be any wetter if we jumped into a swimming pool. We’re all pretty well prepared with arm, legs, extra base layers rain jackets and shoe covers, but at 45 degrees and a light steady rain there was just no getting warm- or dry. We pressed on. The descent starts with a couple of nice, fun hairpin turns and then straightens out for the next 5.5 miles at approximately -4%. The grade flattens out slightly along the Eagle River valley and off to the right is the remnant of Camp Hale, a U.S. Army training facility constructed in 1942 for what became the 10th Mountain Division. Soldiers were trained here in mountain climbing, alpine and nordic skiing, cold-weather survival as well as various weapons and ordnance. When it was in full operation, approximately 15,000 soldiers were housed there. 49 miles into the ride we hit our low point of this descent and cross over the Red Cliff Bridge. It is a cantilevered steel arch bridge located about a half mile southwest of the town of Red Cliff. The bridge carries U.S. Highway 24 over the Eagle River, as well as a county road, and the former Union Pacific Railroad track between Tennessee Pass and the city of Leadville to the south and Minturn, to the north. One of only two steel arch bridges within Colorado, Red Cliff Bridge has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985 and is the state’s only cantilevered steel arch bridge. We usually round the bend, begin a short ascent and then cross the road to a pullout for a nice view and photo opportunities with the bridge in the background, and today was no different. We roll along the Eagle River valley for another 8 miles past the bridge until we turn into Minturn for another scheduled rest stop. The rain continues, but down in the valley, and later in the day, at least the temperature is increasing slightly. At mile 60 we reach I-70 and join the bike bath along Gore Creek and begin our ascent towards Vail Pass. We roll along the creek at a steady rate and the heartache doesn’t really begin until around mile 78 where the real climbing begins. The climb from west to east is shorter, but much steeper with some short pitches at 10 and 12 percent. We summit Vail Pass at 10,662 feet in elevation at around 12:40 p.m. and the sun is beginning to break through and we are beginning to slightly warm up and dry out. From this point it’s a quick descent back to Copper Mountain and the end of another great quest. In the last seven hours we had ridden for 6 hours, covered 85 miles and climbed 5,850 vertical feet in elevation, crossed the continental divide twice and had checked off three more passes on our quest towards all 41 improved passes over 10,000 feet! It was another great day of Colorado cycling! Thanks Bicycle Passport!
Ryan: Excellent report. However, you did not mention that you can modify this ride and capture a third pass by veering right at the Town of Red Cliff and going up and over Red Cliff pass — which brings you out onto I-70 at Vail Pass. The dirt road from Red Cliff is surely not for road bikes, but a gravel grinder, cross-bike, or a legitimate MTB will do the trick.
Likewise, the climb from Vail up over Vail Pass is famous for a couple of reasons: (1) You first climb the well-known section from Vail east past that golf course and then upward onto the old roadway (now the converted bike path). This route is used for a number of time trials in the PRO ranks and competitions that are forever visiting Vail and changing the name of the competition. And (2) after you get off the old roadway (about halfway up the pass) you find yourself on the bike path that cuts back underneath the highway and then takes a sharp left turn where you are confronted by “The Wall”. Baby, it is steep. It will leave you hunting for air and panting like a dog at the top…and there is no flat recovery zone. You just wobble on up the hill and slowly, painfully, recover. 🙂 But, you do recover and then the beautiful lakes are presented as you hammer towards the top. The summit is anti-climatic, but on a sunny day gives you that wonderful feeling as you perch atop it and look out towards the Ten Mile Range in the distance and Copper Mountain ski trails below. Zoom…you have a blessed descent right in front of you!