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|July 30 - August 5, 2009
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Cycling the summits
A recap of the 2009 Courage Classic
by Erica Grossman
An alarm went off at a far-too-early 5:30 a.m. The day had begun.
Clothes were layered. The day’s necessities were packed. And then my dad and I escorted our bicycles into my car and headed off toward the starting line.
It was the first morning of the Courage Classic, a three-day 157-mile bicycle tour through the mountainous regions of Leadville, Summit County and Copper Mountain, Colo., in support of the Children’s Hospital of Denver. The annual event, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has raised nearly $20 million to date, the proceeds of which help treat the thousands of sick and disabled children served by the largest children’s hospital and research center in the region. Many of the riders on the Courage Classic can be seen wearing tags on their back in support of an ailing child, or in memoriam of one who has passed away.
As we left the ski resort town of Copper Mountain and headed up Highway 24 toward Leadville, my dad, a 14-year Courage Classic veteran, pointed out familial highlights from the passenger seat. We passed a pyramid-shaped, rust-hued structure. Decades ago it had been a mountain like any other in eyeshot. But through years of human and machine erosion, Bartlett Mountain had become the Climax Mine, a once-booming mining operation where my grandfather worked in the 1950s. Just beyond the mine arose astonishing views of Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the entire Rocky Mountain Range, and its neighbor, the aptly named Mt. Massive.
The car crept into the sleepy town of Leadville, the start of our three-day adventure.
After taking out the bikes, grabbing a quick breakfast and some last-minute helmet adjustments, we were off.
The first leg of the tour was interspersed with short downhill drops and gradual inclines along a Leadville backroad. Though trees blocked most of the scenery, the solitude was pleasant. Few cars made for a quiet morning, where bikers could concentrate on their pace instead of traffic noise. After a 200-foot climb, the road stretched out to the top of Tennessee Pass. At 10,424 feet, the Tennessee Pass crosses the state’s continental divide and sits in between the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges.
At the Courage Classic aid station set up at the site of the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division at the top of the pass, I refueled on fruit and water, while taking in the expansive views of the Sawatch Mountain Range.
It was smooth sailing from Tennessee Pass to our next destination, Camp Hale. An all-downhill 1,000-foot drop in elevation brought us to the former WWII training base for the soldiers of the Tenth Mountain Division for one last brief stop before the real climbing began. We had gone only 20 miles, but the morning was still young and cool.
A couple of hairpin curves later, and in front of us sat the jagged side of Battle Mountain, a steep, beautifully rigid hill. Savoring the last few pumps I could possibly muster in a high gear, it was finally time to shift low — real low. Quickly the tour had gone from a cool jaunt to full-fledged shoegazing workout. But the reward came soon: the summit arrived quickly, and offered beautiful views and late-morning sun.
A bit of coasting brought us to one of my favorite Colorado towns, Minturn. Through this hippie-meets-hillbilly city you can catch glimpses of farmers’ markets and bars and know that the trailers there have better panoramic views than most of the multi-million dollar homes up the road in Vail, where we then stopped for a brief lunch before the day’s biggest challenge.
Vail Pass is a difficult hill to climb on a bike. Not only is it steep (the climb is about 3,000 feet), but it’s also long (almost 15 miles). This was the leg of the tour where people began to really question their sanity. Sweat poured off faces, and many bikes could be seen stopped on the side of the trail. Even the most fit of cyclists were cursing under their breaths, and I survived only with the help of a series of podcasts, and a cool breeze to take my mind off of the never-ending hill.
But it did end, much to everyone’s relief, and the day was finished. A six-mile descent down to the Copper Mountain rounded out the afternoon, where food and drinks awaited us all.
The second day of the Courage Classic could be considered the most pleasant, solely for the fact that it’s relatively easy, with few challenging ascents. The day began with a downhill descent on a bike path from Copper Mountain to Frisco and Dillon Dam.
Though the path offered a nice break from roads, the scenery was sparse until Lake Dillon opened up. Colorado mountain lakes may be small in comparison to those in other states, but what they lack in size they make up for in beauty. Surrounded by sharp peaks and pine and aspen trees, it was a beautiful experience so markedly different than typical rides in the city. I dodged pinecones instead of cars and inhaled a crisp breeze instead of bus exhaust.
The only use for low gears came from the short-but-steep climb up Swan Mountain to Sapphire Point, a three-mile uphill stint that offered fantastic views of the towns below. The ride continued on toward the tourist town of Breckenridge, where riders could pause for lunch at Upper Blue Elementary School. Though the day’s remaining 20 miles were not the most threatening, the skies were.
Dark, ominous clouds moved overhead and sprinkled a few preliminary drops on our sandwiches. Hoping to not be caught in a mountainous rainstorm (high elevations and thunderstorms are not a great combination), lunch was rushed, and I threw on the rain jacket.
Somehow, the rain was avoided (though I still sweated through that extra layer of clothing until the sun finally returned). But winding the bike path back toward Copper Mountain presented its own difficulties. Though the paths avoid the noise and traffic of roads and highways, they also make it difficult to maintain a good pace when filled with hundreds of riders of a range in abilities. The blind curves and oncoming opposite bicycle traffic often made it difficult to pass the slower riders. But with a dozen or so near-misses, I stopped off at the final aid station to refuel before the uphill ride home.
Though 10 miles is not a far distance, and 250 feet is not a steep incline, when combined with an exhausted rider at the end of a day’s worth of pedaling, both of these factors made the last stretch of the day seem unending. The sun had found its way back out from the clouds, and it beat down on the path with high-elevation intensity.
“Just a few more miles,” I found myself repeating, wondering why this relatively easy stretch was beginning to feel just like Vail Pass.
And then, around a corner, I could see the land flatten out once again. Another day was behind me.
The final day of the Courage Classic retraces the same route driven up Highway 24 on the first morning. But what seemed like a casual drive in a car turned out to be a bit more hellacious on a bicycle. The morning began with a 10-mile haul up to Freemont Pass, in which we gained nearly 2,000 feet in elevation. It was a struggle. Though it wasn’t the most difficult climb of the trip, it was certainly formidable in its own right, especially when coupled with the fact that we had ridden 112 miles in the two days prior.
Exhaustion was definitely starting to sink in.
The ride up Freemont Pass felt slower than it would have on the first day. But once at the top, the sweeping views made it all worthwhile. Freemont Pass was the highest point of the entire three-day journey. At 11,318 feet, it was easy to forget the hill we had just endured. The sky was blue, and the mountains impressive with details of trees and rocks that can’t be seen when far away. Even the Climax Mine looked beautiful in its own distorted way.
The views only seemed to get better as we descended at frighteningly high speeds down the pass and back into the town of Leadville. We zipped by mountain lakes and round desolate bends to the final 10 miles that would bring us back to the finish line.
With one mile to go, I was tired and excited, trying hard to push the last uphill distance with as much speed as possible. I could hear the crowd of friends and volunteers cheering on each cyclist that made it to the finish line growing closer.
From behind me, a woman crept up to pass me on my left. She was riding with tremendous strength and speed, like these final miles were just a walk in the park. She offered some words of advice as she moved past.
“Hey, remember we chose to go through all of this pain,” she said making her way past me and onto the next few cyclists ahead.
“Those kids at the hospital didn’t have a choice.”
The last mile turned out to be easy after all.
To participate, volunteer or donate to next year’s Courage Classic, visit www.couragetours.com. For more information on the Children’s Hospital and its services, visit www.thechildrenshospital.org.
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