I hope you gals/guys like silly ride stories accompanied with GIGANTIC pictures about going in a really big circle, because this is one of those really silly ride stories, about how I managed to get up Mt. Evans on a Fixed Geared Bicycle.
I get these ideas. Usually it’s something brewing in the background and then it just pops. Pop! Came this idea: cycle up Mt. Evans. I’ve done it before, on my touring bike, but that bike is currently just a frame with some pieces bolted on and is sitting, somewhat morbidly, on the ground, upside down next to me, waiting for some part or another. What do I have now?
A 56cm Surly Steamroller, with a welded back together chain stay I somehow broke over a year ago. Fixed.
Last week, I finally stopped pussyfooting around the idea that I was going to go to France, for two months and that, I was going to cycling away that two months and visit as many places in that two months as possible and bought a ticket and now, was extremely excited and slightly anxious about the whole idea.
A ride that long – a ride so long I’ve never taken a longer one, takes a little training – well, it’s not completely required, but I’m one of those people that rides for 3 days straight, then stays wherever they are for a few days, then does it all over again. I’m getting older and This Machine we’re all in takes away free time ever so slowly, almost by design, until we’re left with wanting to do things and never getting a chance to get them done.
If I can get 15 miles to my Ladyfriend’s house in the late afternoon and 15 miles the next morning back home, I feel great for the week. I don’t own a car, so a lot of the rest of my riding is just going around town to get essentials: food, coffee, thrift storing, more coffee, art supplies and bike supplies. Dates with Ladyfriend are extra training as she doesn’t have a bicycle yet, but I’ve got a good pair of handlebars for her butt and when you’re slightly tossed riding a few miles like that seems like a really good idea. I probably wouldn’t do it as much, if the protagonist in the film, The Harder They Come, played by Jimmy Cliff, didn’t do a similar thing with a beat up old jalopy of a bike and a very beautiful girl.
So Thursday I thought it would be a good idea on Saturday to take a little hike into the mountains. I told my Ladyfriend, “I think Saturday is a good time to take a little hike into the mountains. I’ll call you when I get back. It’ll be late.”
Mt. Evans seems somewhat unique, as it’s a 14,000+ foot mountain, with a paved road, that goes all the way to the top. And they allow people to ride bikes up it. Finding a higher paved road proves difficult and this one is probably the only one like it in the lower 48, if not the continent. (if not a very small brotherhood of world roads)
I had planned to go to sleep on Friday at around 10:00pm and get up around 4:00am to start the trip. Will be in the dark for the first hour or so, but it’s just simple city riding. Nothing fancy. Roads I’ve gone on, countless times.
At 10:00pm on Friday I had just finished dinner with my roommate and we were heading towards a coffee shop. A little off schedule already. I stuck with tea, but bumped into a former professor from school that was getting quite tossed and also a pretty girl that was really into Jesus. Not in any religious sense, she just thought he was an alright guy. She had a huge bible in her hands, notes scribbled in the margins. I had to find out what that was all about, so we stayed and talked and such.
I got home at around 12:00am and decided was now the time to tune up the bike and get it ready for this particular trip, terribly conscious about what time I was supposed to wake up.
My secret weapon for this trip was a wheelset with 37mm Conti Contact tires and a back wheel with a dinglecog. For the uninitiated, a dinglecog is a fixed cog with two different cogs put together. My particular one has two cogs with 4 teeth of separation. Match this up with a crank with a double up front, with rings that also have a 4 tooth difference and you now have a two geared fixed gear, with manual gear shifting. I like to call it, hand-ual gearing, as you must stop the bike while riding, flip the bike over, get out a wrench, loosen the track nuts, carefully move the chain over and tighten everything back up and go about your way.
This setup is an interesting compromise between the simplicity of a fixed geared bike and the utility of a multi-geared bike. Because the gearing takes so long to change, you do have internal dialogues about the decision to gear change:
Is the terrain you’re currently on call for it? Do you want to take the time to change, or will the time you change be longer than if you just tough it out? etc. It’s almost scatagorial, which isn’t really a word at all – just,
your mind gets very sensitive to elevation changes and road conditions and your choices on how to cope and make your legs a little happier and your ride a little more efficient are few. These types of problems don’t come up in city riding, but they do after about, say 30 miles in one direction.
A small part of you becomes Tullio Campagnolo, on the Croce D’Aune Pass, hoping that next time the simple machine doesn’t freeze and that there will one day be a better way. But these days, there’s a whole lot of Better Ways. I guess when I’m riding these days, it’s not about better ways, but taking a simple machine and going in a big circle, for the most part and having fun doing it. I doubt I’m as fast as I was when I used to race alley cats or cyclocross, but it’s not that I really care. I’ve been happy bringing along a cheap digi-camera and taking badly framed pictures.
I like stopping every once in a while – you start to enjoy it. You enjoy the silence of the machine when it’s riding, and the simplicity of the whole rig and having two gears with you – well, that really does count as a creature comfort.
But, you don’t change gears all that often. It becomes just like any fixed gear riding in the city. You tough it out, because it’s what you’ve got. Riding in the mountains is not like riding in the city, the elevation change is insane. The two-geared setup makes it almost realistic. Almost. I hadn’t done this particular climb yet, using one.
While wrenching on the bike after mindnight I managed to gouge my right palm while trying to change the cranks from one chainring to two. The chain ring bolts would not budge, and then, they did! and when they did, I smacked my hand right into the chain itself. It was brutal – I need a stitch, but hands do heal quickly. Blood everywhere and me with a greasy rag holding the blood in. Such a stupid thing to do. But I kept wrenching the bike. Problems cropped up with the wheel set:
You see, on the Steamroller, the back brake (or should I say, the back brake I had) doesn’t work, at all, unless the wheel is as forward into the track drops as possible – the pads never can reach the rim. The tires were so big for this frame, that putting the wheel as forward as possible makes them rub the seat stay, so you have to add a link and go, the Hell with it: no back brake. I wouldn’t have minded, but I’m not going down a little hill or anything. One front brake and my feet will have to do.
The only other modification I did put on an old school Cannondale front handlebar bag, which was an NOS find at Cycle Analyst for some insanely cheap price.
Prepared all my clothes and went to sleep finally, at 2:30am, with an alarm set for 5:00am. I didn’t sleep a wink, haunted by anxiety nightmares about unr
But at, 5:00am, I dutifully got up, put on the clothes I had laying out, grabbed 7 or so Clif bars and was outside my place by 5:30am.
I went to the gas station not a block away to grab some cash – the road up Evans costs $3, and if I get there, it’s best to pay the fee and stick around and check things out. You can just go up without paying, but you can’t stop riding your bike. You pay for the view, I guess. Some kids were in cars snickering at me while I got some cash. I’m sure I looked hilarious with the bike stuff on at such an early time. I had no idea what they were up to at this same time.
The ride towards Golden and into the foothills was calm and easy – no cars at such an early time and the temperature was very comfortable.
Hit the first major hill by getting onto HW-40. This started my first gear change from 42:17 (pretty low for a high) to 38:21 (pretty high for a low).
HW-40 ends at a nice scenic overlook which gives a good vista on the mountain ranges it hides, if you’re below it.
At this point you actually get onto I-70. I-70 is an insane interstate through the mountains. Taking it towards Summit County, one always sees an accident, but on this stretch, it’s fairly tame and many cyclists take it – there’s really no alternative.
Getting to Idaho Springs (where I needed to go) means taking the Scott Lancaster Memorial Bike Path, ala:
I made a mental note to figure out who this guy was. Turned out, he was an avid cyclist that disappeared one day. Some people thought he was murdered. Turned out he was eated by a mountain lion or something, which makes the rough stenciling on the path:
All that more creepy.
After about half way to the top of Mt. Evans, I stopped in Idaho Springs to get some coffee and a snack.
I’d been attempting to pace myself, knowing full well the mountain (literally) ahead of me. The ride so far seemed pretty easy. Legs, everything felt fine.
The road to Mt. Evans starts at Idaho Springs. It’s 30 or so more miles to the top. And 6,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s starts very gradually and just keeps going, gradually. 30 miles is a long time to get a mile and some change up.
Reached Echo Lake and the 10,000 foot mark without much trouble. There’s a restaurant and general store here and it’s the last place to grab some water, which is what I do. It’s a stopping point for a lot of cyclists, as it marks the beginning of the road you turn right on that goes straight up to Mt. Evans and the road I have been traveling on turns from South West to South East and continues all the way back to the foothills, or so I hear.
I named my bike, “Fudge”, after fudge factory comics, and the character of whom is situated as my headbadge. In a different life altogether than the one I was being a part of today, I had helped the artist hang up a show. He had made a mural of the same character reach the 14 foot high ceilings, so it sort of stuck with me. As a thank you, he gave me some stickers and some mini zines. A really friendly guy (the real Fudge)
I paid the gatekeeper at the toll booth my $3 and headed up a road that got quite a bit more steep. The conditions of the road turned from pretty good to questionable almost straight away.
The constant freezing and thawing of snow and ice does cause problems with upkeep. Cracks every 30 feet. From the tollbooth, it’s 14 more miles to the top with the mile markers start all over again from the tollbooth. The mile markers never do let you forget where you are on your fight up the hill.
10,000 feet really does mark the elevation where the air goes from, “pretty thin”, to im
pacting breathing while riding. It’s probably all in my head – but I live quite a bit in my head, but the lack of oxygen coupled with riding a bike up a mountain starts to screw with you: things just become much harder and the ride becomes less about physically riding up and more of a mental struggle to keep going, even though your body really doesn’t want to. It gives you a grimace on your face and my movements at least, become jerky as the one realistic gear I’m riding on, and have been riding on since Golden Colorado – 25+ miles away, doesn’t give me much choice when things get a little steep. But those are the breaks I’ve given myself, so you just ride, literally, through it, enjoy the beautiful scenery all around you and count the mile markers
3 (treeline begins to end…)
5 (snow everywhere)
And it’s not all bad. You can’t really understand why, but the elevation makes the colors around you seem… off. Almost too saturated. It may be that the air is so clean and clear, but even the photos I’ve taken almost seem over-saturated, lackind detail, but making it up in color.
At mile marker ten, you see the summit lake. The road takes a slight breach downhill – the first in the entire ride, but it’s only for a few hundred meters.
Then the ride starts getting a lot more steep. For a mile or two, it gets very steep and at the end of it, you’re greeted by what looks like an uncountable number of switchbacks. Now at 12 and 13,000 feet these switchbacks are heart-breaking. The road is narrowed to accommodate a car at a time, with no barrier between you and falling off the mountain. Anywhere. From here, you just brace yourself and ride up. It’s not particularly steep, but I now have 30+ miles behind me and I’m starting to feel it. My lack of sleep has also caught up to me and I find myself taking micro naps whenever I lose concentration for even a second.
The last mile is of course, the hardest, as each amount of elevation gain means less air and more wind and now: cold. Stopping now is out of the question.
At the end and very anti-climactic – your speed now is around 7mph and you’re looking forward to stopping – anyways, you make it. Like so many other people before. Like you’ve done before. And that’s it. You get to look around and view the view. The view that day was incredible.
Mt. Evans’ road also allows cars and it’s a very strange mix of people at the top: those who’ve just simply drove up the mountain, people who have cycled up the mountain and the very random hiker, who I’m guessing follow the road up, which seems devastatingly boring. And mountain goats:
My personal elation must have given me a smile ear to ear and made me look like quite a friendly guy. I was asked to take the family photo at the top for a family and I of course made a friend quick to do the same for me.
The view was unprecedented. You could see as far as downtown Denver from the top, just using your eyes.
The last time I was up here, a very angry thunderstorm rolled in and it was hailing. Not today, not today.
But it was very cold and I decided to head home. I checked the time when I got on top: 1:20pm – a good 7 hours, 40 minutes to go around 60 miles. Very slow going. How was it going to be going back home?
I said my goodbyes at 2:00pm to people that I was chatting with. The kind person who took my photo gave me a Gatorade to drink he brought for cyclists he was inevitably going to bump into and also a bungee chord as my handlebar bag’s internal bracing broke and needed fixing. Now I know why it was so cheap. It was cheap.
My talks on the top were pretty funny, as inevitably, someone would notice the bike I was riding and then ask where I started:
“Downtown… Idaho Springs?”
“No – no, downtown Denver”
And then looks of incredulousness.
I’m not really anti-technology, so using a bike with a 100 year old drivetrain design isn’t really my M.O., but I do like not forgetting about history and alternative ways to do something. It’s why I draw a lot with a dip pen and a pot of ink. I enjoy simply doing it.
But now I had to get home and I was admittedly, very tired. The last 5 miles killed me. One person told me to try to go right after
getting out of the road that starts at the tool booth. I asked him where it went and he said around Evergreen or somewhere. Being tired and taking a new route, one I haven’t researched didn’t seem like the best idea, but what the Hell.
So down I rolled. Pretty slow going down, with all the switchbacks and you didn’t want to risk rolling off the end of one of the turns.
And the bumps –
One of the drawbacks of riding a fixed geared bike is that you can’t easily take your ass out of the saddle to relieve it from such nuisances. I had also disregarded the sound advice floating in my head to change out the old school and rock-hard Deda saddle I had found at a thrift store for $6 (hey, it had Ti Rails!), with something a little more appropriate for the day – say, my Brooks B-17.
When I got passed Summit Lake and over the slight (now) uphill, I decided to break the chain, to coast down. It seemed somewhat like a momentous decision – as if my very life depended on breaking a part of my bike as the only reasonable way to get down. The elevation again, probably. I had a chain tool and in a little while, it wouldn’t be hard again to put it back on.
But, I was now only with a front brake for about 9 miles to the toll booth. But what a fun, 9 miles. It went by in a flash.
At the tollbooth, I did turn right in uncharted (for me) territory and was greeted by a thousand or so additional feet to climb, up what I found was Echo Mountain and Juniper Pass. “Great”, I thought. Exactly what I didn’t want.
But after I got over the pass, it was all downhill.
For 30+ miles.
I had neglected to change my gearing back to my, “high” ratio, and didn’t want to stop to break the chain again – I didn’t know how long this downhill would be, having never taken it, so I just unclipped my shoes and sucked my feet up and onto the fork crown, sitting right on top of my entire bike and watched the scenery slowly unfold around me, my only worry was staying on the road and not hitting the potholes the were hiding in the shadows cast by the pine trees all around me. There was absolutely no traffic and not one car passed me, until the road ended.
I wasn’t going that fast or really wanted to – I was tired and enjoying what seemed like floating down the world. This lasted well over an hour. It seemed unreal. A disenchanting thought started to creep up: Maybe this wasn’t the right road to take. Maybe I’m getting myself stuck into a valley, I’ll then have to climb out of – maybe that’s 1,000 more feet to get out. I don’t know if I had that in me.
Maybe I’m going to the wrong way.
I couldn’t really even see which way the sun was shining, so I was a little lost, but going with it – one thing I realized was that I was going downhill, which usually means away from the Continental Divide, which I was painfully near, on top of Mt. Evans, so things are probably alright. I didn’t know where I was going to be spat out once out of the mountains, but things seemed like they would work out, just fine.
The road finally ended at HW 47, which I wasn’t too familiar with. I checked a map on a bustop. About a mile away North is where I got off I-70 going the other direction. I was a good 20 miles away from home still, but still still 8,000+ feet up, which mean a lot more free downhill time to get back.
Hopped on I-70 and then on HW 40 and with barely a pedal,
got to downtown Golden, where the road evens out to a slight grade down and back home. The ride from Golden to downtown Denver was tough. My knees were starting to get very sore and my left one had had just about enough.
The last few blocks I decided to give up on my left knee and just pedal home one legged. I got off the bike and realized I couldn’t walk very well and it took me 2 minutes or so, to crawl up the stairs to my place, to eventually collapse onto the carpet. Theatrically.
I stayed there for a little while, until I realized I had no audience to see my pain, but since no one was about, I ran a bath and got all the sunscreen and grease that was covering my body and making me look like a coal miner, off.
Checked my time back: 6:20pm – 4 hours and twenty minutes coming home. 3 hours and twenty minutes faster than getting to the top, which gives you an idea how slow I was going and how much elevation that is to gain, especially since coming back is down while exhausted. Looking at my time last year, it took 14 1/2 hours total, so somehow I bettered my time by 2 1/2 hours from last year, doing it on a geared bike. Forget it if you think I know how I was able to better it that much with this kind of bike. I don’t know.
I Napped the rest of the day and in the early afternoon on Saturday, took the Lady Friend out to brunch at Bump and Grind, where cross dressing dudes serve you while making sexual innuendos as thick as their Hollandaise sauce and afterwards, helped her on her homework, until I crashed again for an hour on a couch. The knee felt a little sore, but was a lot better. The next day, everything was OK.
How I got there:
How I got back: