Ride The Rockies 2021 – Day 6 The Million Dollar Highway

October 25, 2021 § 1 Comment

People kept saying the words “The Million Dollar Highway” all day the day before. When I re-read the route description, those words were front and center alerting us that this day would be unlike any other. Except of course we would be on our bikes going uphill and down. I could have googled it and at least gone into this day informed, but I was as ignorant as a rock. All I knew was we had three passes to get past before we would reach Durango. If you type that into google you will be directed to the Wiki page for 550, and there is one sentence in particular that accurately names which part owns this moniker. “Though the entire stretch has been called the Million Dollar Highway, it is really the twelve miles (19 km) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass which gains the highway its name. “. If todays ride was just this 12 miles it would be a ride complete. Those 12 miles were some of the most scenic miles I have ever witnessed on a bike in these United States, and I have witnessed a fair number of miles in these United States. More than a lot, not as much as some.

I seem to be on a roll. Two publications today, and here I am working on the third, thought to be completely honest, I finished 1 publication this am, wrote an entire one during the day, and now here it is evening, and I am opining on my recall of the events that make up the third, and this is the last day of Ride The Rockies for 2021.

When we last we together, I may have said my plan was to awake and rise before dawn. That was the plan. Somewhere between planning and executing, a small glitch occurred. When my eyes made sense of what the light was telling them it was clear that I must have silenced my alarm, and turned over. Instead of rising before dawn, I was rising at dawn, already an hour late. Fuck! Nothing to do but to execute. I can only move so fast, and even knowing everything I had to do, it still took time, and if my friends were still in Ouray when I got there it would be a miracle. No, miracle is the wrong word. It would be a fuck-up on their part because then I would be obligated to make sure they got over the passes, because we all had time constraints. It would be good if they weren’t there waiting on me, and I could just ride my pace, and if I caught them, great! If not, then it’s still a win as we would all be safe and in Durango.

Today, for me was opera day. I was fully charged, and today I was going to play some of my favorite Operas. Well, okay, I could only play the operas that I had on my phone, so I could only play the ones I had, but those were still pretty good. I started off with Le Contes de Hoffman by Offenbach, a tale of a writer who has a caring Muse looking after him, and wants him to devote more time to her. Her name is Poetry, and her plan is to induce Hoffman to relate tales of his failures with women. Maybe, once he recalls these events, he will dedicate his time to some real writing, but in the meantime we get to hear about his three loves. When I saw this opera at The Met, three different sopranos played the 3 different loves. I have read that this was necessary because the arias of each love are quite taxing, but what do I know? Nothing really, however whoever sings the first love has an aria with many High F’s, and apparently not all Sopranos can sing those. So taxing it may be.

The day prior we rode North on 550, and there was so much shoulder it was intoxicating. Apparently in the other direction there is so little shoulder, and so much more traffic, that the organizers sent us onto a parallel road for most of the distance to Ouray. We exited onto 550 just at the gap where the roadway begins to gain some elevation. It was along this stretch that I came upon a father/daughter pair that I have been chatting up since the first day. He, about my age, and she, about the age of my daughters. Theirs was a very nice story. Just past them I reached Cliff and Gerry’s hotel right on the edge of Ouray, and within five minutes I was riding through downtown. I stopped just to see if I could reach them, or see whether there was a text I had missed, but my unread message queue was empty. They were ahead of me.

Ouray is built in a box canyon, but what is usually implied by that is that it is a dead-end, however, the 12 mile stretch of 550 that is the Million Dollar Highway, begins its ascent on the South side of town, and has a couple of early switchbacks that gain elevation rather quickly. It wasn’t obvious from downtown, but on this day while I was riding through town, I could see the cyclists ahead of me on the various levels of switchbacks. I guess when I was in town the day prior, there just wasn’t enough traffic on that road to draw my attention to it. To say it gained rather quickly implies that it was a steep grade, and that was not the case. By the third turn the gain was 340 feet, and it was never more than about 5-6% grade. That’s 5 or 6 feet gained every 100 feet. That does get your heart rate up, put it shouldn’t put anyone at their limit. Maybe I am simply speaking for myself. Anyway, once we made the third turn out of Ouray, we lost sight of the town, and turned our focus to the what could be seen ahead which was a very long and visible ascent at about 4% along a cut into the mountain that continued to follow the Uncompahgre River Gorge. To be clear, when we were following the Uncompahgre River earlier, there wasn’t a gorge. It was the flood plains around Ridgway. Here up on the mountain, it was a gorge, and to our left was was the rock face of a road cut, and to our right was a very steep drop off. The shoulder was almost non-existent, and there was no guide-rail (guard-rail), and the land fell off almost immediately at the edge of the asphalt. No one, and I mean no one, was riding their bikes near that edge, but were riding about a foot or more inside the lane of traffic. Fortunately the Million Dollar Highway isn’t a terribly busy, or at least on this Friday it wasn’t, so there wasn’t much Southbound traffic to worry about, but it is the route that RVers want to drive, so there were the occasional junk hauling RVers out there with us.

Back to the gorge. The other way to look at this is that it is a huge water shed that drains through that gorge, which means there is a lot of water that joins the flow of the Uncompahgre, and when it joins it in a Gorge, that usually means waterfalls, and so the eye candy along this initial stretch, with the high peaks covered in melting snow, are series of cascades coming off the mountains and draining into the gorge. You could see it, and you could hear it. Maybe you could smell it as well, but with the occasional RV going by, the sense of smell may have suffered more than the sense of sound. By the time I reached this section of roadway, the opera I was listening to reached the first love story of Hoffman. Olympia was an automaton creation of her “father” who requires winding to work. So that Hoffman doesn’t figure out she isn’t real, the father gives him Rose Colored Glasses to wear which I guess hides the stitching(?) and makes her seem real. Well she has probably the best aria [“Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (The birds in the arbor, nicknamed “The Doll Song”)] in the entire production, and it was this aria which was flooding out into the gorge as I rode through. Numerous high F’s echoed off the face of the rock and carried far and wide. Most of the riders loved the music, but one particular person started singing (badly I might add) a Neil Young song. Maybe she viewed my choice of music as an intrusion in her world.

The highway is 12 miles from Ouray at 7500′ to Red Mountain Pass at 11,300′ and with the actual start from Ridgway, the organizers found a “Scenic Vista” with enough room to setup an intermediate aid station as an early reprieve from the grind of the climb. I used the word grind, but I don’t think anyone was complaining, as it was probably the finest scenery any of them have ever witnessed. As I said, it was the finest scenery I have witnessed on a bicycle, but I have been backpacking in more beautiful still, locations. I didn’t find my friends, but I did find Paul Doherty for a quick check in. I would see him often on this day.

When we pulled out of the aid station, we rode over a culvert that fed a significant waterfall before edging around and driving through an avalanche protection tunnel. You see these a lot in Tour De France stages in the Alps. There was only one, and soon we emerged onto an upper plateau where it leveled off a wee bit before we entered the final switchback sections to the summit of Red Mountain. By the time I reached the summit of the Pass I was playing my second opera, Cosi Fan Tutti by Mozart. Another fine aria filled production for the Alps of Colorado. I won’t go into details but the basic premise is two men make a bet with a third man that their girl friends would remain true to them if presented with other suitors. The third man, since he is risking the money has the other two’s promise that they will follow his instructions, which they promise with honor, and they are then transformed into different men, after they play this charade of having to sail off to join the war. In their disguises each has to woo each others girl friend, which by the end is eventually accomplished, but not without the aid and support of the girl’s handmaid, who was enlisted for a fee. The opera is just another example of why Mozart was the best, with each act ending in a building crescendo of duets followed by trios, and quartets, quintets, sextets and then the entire company singing at the audience. It’s an absurd storyline, but what opera isn’t?

The pass at Red Mountain was a proper fully supported aid station with the same breakfast truck as the previous days. One down and two to go. Paul and I found each other again and traded our views on the day so far. His crew was doing great and I found that the only other Battaglin bicycle being ridden on this ride was one of his crew. A bit older than my bike, but still an Italian beauty on these roads. The area is likened to parts of Switzerland, but I would think the Italian Alps are just as magnificent as their Swiss cousins, so Italian beauties in the Italian Alps-like terrain of Colorado.

Once I left the summit, it was a spectacular downhill all the way to Silverton. I don’t think there was one level section, let alone any part that gained elevation again, just downhill splendor. At some point the town of Silverton (Hmm, I wonder what the mined there) came into view. Silverton sits at about 9200′ so we drop nearly 2100′ and that explains the no level ground. To lose that amount of elevation requires some significant ramps, and it was high speed all the way. Now, you would think that a bicycle going 40+ mph could operate in the lane and car traffic could respect that, but you would be wrong. There were a lot of cars, mostly out-of-staters, so tourists, that just couldn’t live driving behind a bicycle, and would come around. Now think about it this way. On the bike, not inside a cage, a cyclist has the air moving past their ears, and this makes noise. In addition there is noise from the cyclists own tires on the road, as well as the freewheel spinning. So all that noise means that we don’t hear what is behind us. So, here we are descending at 40-45 mph in the lane (that means taking the lane), and suddenly we perceive a cager (sometimes a rager) passing us on our left. Make no mistake. If there is sufficient smooth shoulder, and I mean like 3′ of it, we will move over there if we know you are back there, but if there is no shoulder, then the lane is ours, and passing us through a double yellow line is dangerous and a violation of vehicle codes. There were plenty of assholes who did just these things.

At the bottom of the descent was a T intersection. A left goes into Silverton, and a right goes to Durango. To my surprise there was another aid station right there, but I had had enough of aid station food, and I hit a quickmart that was also there to pick up something different, and while I was munching, a traffic control officer was hanging out, and we talked about what lay ahead. He told me that the next climb begins immediately, to which I scoffed that we just came down, and we have turn around and climb again already? While he was inside the store I looked a little closer at the mountain in front of me and up pretty high I could see that telltale line of cyclists. They looked like they were 300′ higher than where I was standing, and they weren’t far away, so that meant the climbing must start immediately. Like the nice officer had said. With my refreshments consumed, I exited and soon found myself in the first switchback, and before long I was staring down at the same quickmart that I had just been staring up from. This climb was taking us to Molas Pass at 10,800′ so a total of 1600′ to gain. While there were somewhat level places, it was all climb all the way, and now the sun was high enough in the sky that there was no mountain shade any longer. The full brunt of yet another 100F day was upon us.

On this day I was wearing my Penn State Cycling Club kit, and it wasn’t long on the ascent to Molas Pass that I happened upon one of the riders who were doing this ride with just arm power. Veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq who had lost their legs and threw their motivation into cycling, and were here doing Ride the Rockies. They had their own support vehicles that setup every 10 miles for aid and comfort. The rider who caught my attention was also flying a Syracuse flag, and me in my Penn State kit, I pulled up behind him and started off our conversation with “I really do miss the old rivalry that Penn State and Syracuse used to have”, and with that ice broken, we spent about 30 minutes riding together. I am sorry that I don’t recall his name, but he was a Navy Veteran, who was originally from Syracuse NY, and he had been doing rides like this for about 10 years. One thing I didn’t think about was this. If I thought it was hot 4′ off the ground, imagine how much hotter it is 5″ off the road surface? Whether we had these 100F days or not, his support still would have been every 10 miles, but the heat made every stop essential for him and the others. After 30 minutes, I said my farewells, and I rode up the road ahead.

I hooked up with a couple of riders who were putting out about the same effort as I was. It was easier to ride with them than to go it alone. Follow a pace, and have your own pace followed. I don’t think we were pushing each other so much as just keeping each other company. One thing about riding in the West vs riding in the East is in the East when you climb you can’t see the top, or maybe it is fairer to say you can’t see very far. You can only see the next turn, whereas in the West you can see miles sometimes. You can see the next 2 or 3 turns. Sometimes you can look across a drop-off and see the road higher and steeper on the other side and you know that in 10 minutes, or more, you will be on that incline and you hope it doesn’t hurt too much. But at least you have company. That is how the last bits of the climb to Molas Pass was, and eventually we turned a big corner and there was the top. We pulled in. There might have been water available, but this was also big parking area with a very expansive view to the East. The view to West didn’t suck either. One thing I didn’t know at that time, but know now, is this is where the Colorado Trail, a trail connecting Denver and Durango, crosses 550. What I would learn later in August, which is in this trip’s future, and in my past while I write this, is this is the access to the Elk Creek Trail, that would be my starting point for my Weminuche backpacking trip that I had been planning for 3 years. We will talk about that in another post.

The Molas Pass vista was swarming with tourists and cyclo-tourists (that was us), and so after a few pictures, I didn’t stay long, and remounted my Italian steed and started the descent. This was to be a shorter descent than the one off Red Mountain, and once we started climbing again, it would only be back to 10,600′ to Coal Bank Pass. It was another fast descent, and yes there were still Autos, and RVs that decided to pass. I think Colorado has to come to grips with a few issues regarding just what the rules of the road are. I seem to have heard there is a preference (Surprise!) to the cager, and that the feeling is that a cyclist going 40-45 mph down a hill is a cyclist who is not in control of their bike, and therefore is being reckless. There are no assumptions applied to cagers except for maybe if they are weaving all over the road, then they must be intoxicated. I am in control of my bike at 40-45, and so I kept a vigilant eye out for vehicles on this descent, and if I saw that one was near, then I slowed, and pulled to the right and “gave way”.

Before I knew it, I was climbing again, and it was on this climb that I ran across Paul’s friend riding the older Battaglin bicycle. He was riding with another Samaritan rider, and we hung out through to the top of the climb. I don’t remember the details of how long he had his bike. It was an Evo version if I recall, which has gone through some design improvements recently. We reached the summit, stopped for a picture or two and then started the descent. I was a faster descender, and soon there was separation between us. Once we dropped out of the main descent we reached a ski area called Purgatory where the final aid station for RTR 2021 was setup. There was just one problem with this station. No port-a-johns, and I had to pee. There wasn’t anywhere to sneak one in, and while I was getting some refreshment I noticed a tall skinny as fuck rider with a something that referenced the DC area, and so I approached him, because he looked pretty strong, and fast and if he rode DC then he probably rode Haines Point, and if he rode there then he just might know a friend of mine, and it didn’t take long to confirm that. As soon as I mentioned it to my friend Chris, he said he knew just who I was talking about, and yes a strong as fuck rider. After our chat, I ran into Paul again, and we agreed to seek each other out at the end. I was hot, and I was ready to put RTR 2021 behind me, so I mounted up and rode off.

Purgatory is the name of the river that runs down, but there is another feature regarding this are and its called Purgatory Flats. What that means is that out of the rest area, we did not start descending. It was a 4-6 miles of this, with maybe a few little uphill sections, and I think I speak for everyone when I say, that we really only wanted downhill at this point. I don’t think it was a headwind, but it certainly wasn’t a tailwind, so I labored through the flats and then finally 10 more miles of downhill before we reached the Animas River plains which still meant about 10 miles of relatively flat riding. The organizers altered the course, and kept us on 550 for the entire return into Durango, which was fine with me. The closer I got, the more I wanted to be there, so the harder I pushed. I was drinking my water, so hopefully I wouldn’t cramp up on the long bus ride back to Denver.

Eventually the landscape changed, and plots of ranchland turned into small developments and the beginnings of retail establishments. The first numbered cross street came into view, 33rd street. The fair grounds were 25th street. Not too much further. I pulled in, finished my water, and headed straight for the dis-assembly building where I found my friends just getting started on their bikes. They pulled in just about 5 minutes before me and were setting down to some bicycle tear-down. We lamented not seeing each other that day, but they got my texts that I awoke too late meet up with them, and we all agreed that they did the right thing not waiting on me.

I am not going to bore you with the details of tearing down my bike. Once that was complete, Cliff, Gerry, Aaron and Alex said their goodbyes, and picked up their day bags and found the shuttles into downtown. Ken and I went to find the shower trucks only to find another oddity about the organization. Instead of 4 shower trucks, two for men, and two for women, there was only one truck, so half a truck for the men. Ken and I were very lucky because the line was only one or two deep for the men’s side, and we got in fairly quickly, but when I came out that line was now 25 people deep, and the truck could only accommodate 5 people at a time.

Cleaned, my bike packed, and all my gear together, I found Eddyline for one more beer, though it wasn’t the end of my Eddyline tickets, so I gave my last two away. I didn’t need to pissing a lot on a seven hour bus trip! I found Paul, and together we were walking the same direction and we chatted about my experience. This was his 15th or 20th RTR, but it was my first, and I told him that fortunately for RTR, they have the roads of Colorado, because no matter how much of the shit-show the organization was this year, the roads and the scenery of Colorado still made for a great adventure. He mentioned he was on the board, and there would probably be a giant “Come to Jesus” meeting (As Mary Gannon Gunn always used to say, may she rest in peace) where they would asses the ride and decide how to do better next year. I guess my greatest surprise was how all my friends told me how it was such a great ride, and so well organized, that I just felt there were issues when it came to getting some basic things right. Like, with 30 of them behind them, how could it have gotten this bad? To blame it on the Pandemic was maybe just an easy excuse. Maybe I will never really understand how this year became so poorly executed, and when you consider they had an extra year to plan it out.

I would rather leave you with a positive, rather than any negatives, so I had a great time on this ride. I could have done without the 100F temps every day, but that wasn’t the organizations fault. That was our ignorance of our affect on our own climate, and these kinds of anomalies will be the norm rather than the exception. The scenery was outstanding, and the people I spent time chatting up are what make RTR the event that it is. Will I do it again? Well, on my way walking out with Paul, he said that if I wanted to ride with them next year, and also participate in the RV glamping experience, I was welcome to join. So I just might take him up on that. RTR 2022 route announcement is January the 25th. I will see what the route is and decide then. For now, enjoy the pictures, and the stitched together live photos included as links to YouTube, and note that I have also gone back to earlier RTR posts and updated those with their YouTube link.

Coming soon more Weminuche 2021.

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