While most of the Wheelbrothers ride only local races, our resident ‘racer’ Ron rides all over the United States. While the Wheelbrothers participated in the Hotter ‘n Hell 100 bike ride in Wichita Falls, his latest adventure was the ‘Assault on Pikes Peak’ which is a 24.5 mile bike ride in Colorado.
Don’t quite get it but apparently he really enjoys the pain and suffering going up mountains. According to him though, it’s one of THE best bike rides you can participate in the United States.
Read his ride report and watch the videos below to find out why!
Assault on Pikes Peak
On August 28th, I got a rare opportunity to climb to the top of America’s Mountain — Pikes Peak. What makes this opportunity so rare is that this road is closed to bikes except for this one day of year where the road is closed to all traffic and the cyclist own the road.
The climb to the top of Pikes Peak starts in Manitou Spring, Colorado, which is about 5 miles outside Colorado Springs. From Manitou Springs, with a starting elevation of 6,200 feet, you ride 24.5 miles to the top of Pikes Peak where you top out at 14,110. When you factor in a couple of descents, your total elevation gain is 8,000+ feet. Based on these figures, the average grade of the climb is 7%, which includes a challenging 1.5-mile section of dirt and gravel around mile 15.
Statistically, this climb is only second to Mount Washington in New Hampshire as the toughest climb in the United States and maybe on earth. What makes this climb tougher than the European climbs is the altitude. The major climbs used in the grand tours range from 6,000 to 9,000 feet with the Cime de la Bonette, sometimes used in the Tour de France, topping out at almost 9,200 feet. Pikes Peak is nearly a mile higher or 4,900 feet, which makes oxygen a premium. As you try to breathe you feel like your gasping for air like a fish out of water.
Ok, enough of the statistics, let’s get the actual ride. The temperature before we started was around 75 degrees with winds of 5-10 mph. Overall a very nice day but we knew it was going to be a lot different at the top of Pikes Peak as the forecast called for highs around the mid-40’s. Of course at that altitude the weather plays a bigger role than most events. Rain and high winds are a daily occurrence in the afternoon which is why you want to get to the top as fast as possible.
The ride started at 8:00 am on the dot. And although this event isn’t an official USAC race, it was a timed event, which means everyone was going to treat it as a race. No words could be truer as we started out of Manitou Springs like a bat out of hell. Unlike most rides in Texas that start out fast, but on relatively flat grades, we started hitting 6% to 8% grades in the first mile. This slowed down a lot of riders but the elite few, which I could see from the second group, who took these climbs like they were flats and quickly started to separate themselves from the rest of the peloton.
Along the first 5.5 miles of the route, which were along route 24 heading west out of Manitou Springs, the pace was very fast. We were consistently going 14-16 mph over varying grades. This pace started to split up the group that I was in of 20+ riders as the speed was just a little too rich for a lot of the riders. Overall, I felt like I survived the fast start and started to get into a nice pace but the headwind presented a challenge that made hanging on a little tougher than I would’ve liked. As the pace picked up, I did my best to hang on. As a few people passed me, I was wondering where the rest of the group was. Since I was sitting in the middle of the pack around the first few miles, I felt I could just back off a little bit and draft off some of the people behind. This strategy, which sounded like a good idea, quickly fell apart when I looked behind me and noticed that roughly 10 riders where no longer in site and I was the last rider in the group and quickly falling off the back.
Normally, especially for an even as challenging as this, I would just back off a little bit and try to find my rhythm but I felt good and decided to put in a hard push to bridge the gap back to the group. After a 30 second effort with my heart rate getting to 175, I caught up to the group and even passed a few riders so I wasn’t the last guy getting whipsawed by the guys in the front. Once my heart rate settled down I started feeling pretty good and was happy that I was able to hang on to the second group for the first 5 miles where we climbed roughly 1,100 feet. Little did I know, but this was going to be easiest part of the climb.
Once we made the turn onto Pikes Peak Highway. About ¼ mile down the road, we saw a beautiful wood sign over the road that said something like, “This way to Pikes Peak”. As it turned out, no sign was required since the road told the story. As we approach this sign, we immediately went straight up and hit a grade of 12%. Of course, I don’t have to tell you what this did to our nicely organized group.
As we all got out of the saddle and started going through our gears as quickly as possible to find that gear that would make the pain bearable, the group literally fell apart. I did my best to hang on with the top climbers of this group but to no avail. Instead I just found a gear that worked for me and started to climb at a hard but manageable pace as I knew this grade couldn’t last forever. The good news is that I was right, the grade didn’t stay at 12%. The bad news is that it settled in at 9% – 11% for the next few miles.
After making up this tough climb to the Pikes Peak toll gate, I found a couple of guys who climbed at a hard pace but one that I could hold on to. From miles 9 to 14, the average grade was around 5% with a couple of rollers to give us a little break. Once we hit mile 14, I looked at my computer and noticed we were at an elevation of 9,500 feet. The quick math in my head told me that we had 10+ miles to go with 4,600 feet of climbing ahead of us with an average grade of 9% the rest of the way.
Once my computer started registering a 10% grade, I dropped in to my second easiest gear and tried to spin my way up to the top. This brought my heart rate down to the low 160’s as I held 75-80 rpm’s and a blazing speed of 6 mph. All was going well until mile 15 or so when we hit the dirt section. Although the dirt was rideable, you still had to negotiate gravel and rocks not to mention a couple of steep switchbacks. My speed quickly dropped to 5 mph and getting out of the saddle to push through the dirt only made me and the bike feel a little unstable. With that said, I just got back in the saddle and hammered my way the rest of the way through the dirt section. After getting back on the pavement again, I felt like I was riding on glass which gave me a little more energy as I rode though the Glen Cove checkpoint at 11,400 feet. Only 6 miles and 2,700 feet to go.
I have to say that these last 6 miles where by far the best. Although the trees and beautiful lakes were enjoyable to see on the way up, this last section was epic. Once I got above the tree line at around 12,000 feet, there was nothing to block my view of what was ahead. In plain terms, it was pavement and steep roads with multiple switchbacks surrounded by dirt and rocks all the way up to the top of the mountain. Although this may not sound like an awesome sight, let me tell you it was one I will never forget
At this point in the ride, my bike found the easiest gear I had and I only went up a gear when I got out of the saddle to push through a switchback or chase down someone in front of me. Through these last few miles, I was so tired and sore that every pedal stroke was a challenge. I could’ve stopped for a rest but that word just isn’t in my vocabulary. The way I see it, you can stop once the job is done and that means crossing the finish line.
In order to take my mind off the pain, I rode my bike over to the edge of the road a couple of times to see the view from below. Since there are no guardrails, except for the switchbacks, I was very careful not to get too close as I was tired and didn’t want to swerve over the edge. The two or three times I did this really gave me the inspiration to keeping pushing as hard as I could since the view from below was my vindication that this was not just any climb but one to remember. With that said, I felt that I needed to give everything I had so as to honor such a climb. Anything else would be disrespectful to a mountain as beautiful and challenging as Pikes Peak.
After 24+ miles I could see the top. I crossed the finish line with an out of the saddle burst up the last 10% section of the climb at 11:00 sharp for a total time of 3 hours. Since my goal was to finish the climb in 3 hours or less, I was pleased with effort. Of course, this won’t be the last time Pike’s Peak will see me on her challenging mountain. I plan to see her again with the hopes of a better finishing time. Until I see you again, thanks for the memories of a lifetime.
Ron, you are absolutely amazing and we thank you for sharing your adventure with us.
Looks like I have something else for my ‘bucket list’!
Incidentally, Ron’s next ‘big ride’ will be his participation in the California/Nevada State climbing championships
Let’s wish him luck!
In order to appreciate the incline, watch this video by a guy DESCENDING after successfully finishing the ‘Assault on the Peak’ bike ride:
For a visual idea, of what it is like to participate in this ride, take a listen to this interview with former Tour de France rider Norm Alvis featuring some spectacular footage:
A ‘Assault on the Peak’ video from last year:
Last but not least, here is a team of guys riding up the same road Ron went up with bikes that have motors in them…. ‘wtf?’