Tuesday, August 11, 2009

copper triangle

Bruce and I stopped to do the Copper Triangle on our way to Montrose for the CRMBT. This ride is a famous 78 mile loop roughly in the shape of a, well....triangle. It's sponsored by the Colorado Springs bicycle retailer Colorado Cyclist in support of the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson's. The ride is hosted by the Copper Mountain ski resort on I-70, 75 miles west of Denver, and is limited to 3000 riders.

The ride follows CO highway 91 south from Copper Mountain to Leadville over Fremont Pass at 11,318 feet. The road has a smooth, wide shoulder, and runs straight enough for cars to pass each other safely. The scenery near the top is somewhat marred by the Climax molybendium mine, but the Clinton reservoir and tree covered slopes on the climb from the north make it a beautiful ride.

After crossing the continental divide at Fremont Pass and the first of five aid stations, you are rewarded with with a short, but steep, drop off the mountain. After that you have to work to stay at a high speed, but it's a long, smooth, slightly downhill run through the valley all the way into Leadville. Before you roll all the way into town, you hang a right and jump onto highway 24 heading west through the outskirts of town before veering to the north.

The next 20 or so miles is among my favorite stretches of riding anywhere. You pass Mt. Massive off to the west behind rolling ranchland. Then, after a slight downhill run out of Leadville, which sits at 10,200 feet, you begin a short, scenic climb over Tennessee Pass at 10, 424 feet. Our 2nd aid station was here and I met a couple whose picture I saw on the Ride the Rockies website. They were newly married and doing that tour wearing their "dress" jerseys.

On the long sweeping descent from Tennessee Pass you go by the remnants of Camp Hale, the main training ground for the 10th Mountain Division which trained there for duty in Italy. After riding through some beautiful, rugged terrain, you climb again on a sometimes steep, but not too long summit of Battle Mountain. Near the top the road hugs the mountain, and if you turn around at the overlook, you can see where you have been, looking down at highway 24, the turn off to Red Cliff, the Eagle River, and a railroad bridge running underneath an auto bridge. Spectacular view!

Another couple of switchbacks and you're at the top of the summit. Now, the first reason I love this stretch of road is the descents. The ride out of Leadville takes you up and down several hundred feet before a great descent from Tennessee Pass. After the climb to Battle Mountain Summit you get an even longer, faster descent all the way into Minturn. For a little work to do these climbs, you are rewarded with awesome descents. You start the 2nd side of the triangle at just over 10,000 feet, and end up about 2,500 feet lower when you reach the bike path that runs along I-70 towards Vail.

After a leisurely ride to our 3rd aid station, then into and through Vail, following the bike path and frontage road, you reach the base of Vail Pass. Payback begins here! The first section of the climb is on the road that was closed to traffic when I-70 was opened just to the south of it.When you turn off the frontage road, there is a parking area, beyond which you can drive no further. I was almost able to bike no further when the road turned very steep at the location of the 4th aid station. The elderly gentleman directly in front of me decided to stop suddenly and I, unable to un-clip from my pedals, fell over into the gravel at the roadside, onto my back with my bike in the air above me. He was very apologetic, helped brush dirt off my back, and expressed concern for my bike. I told him I didn't think that my derailleur even touched the ground. It gave me a good reason to walk the last several yards to the aid station and barricades, beyond which was only bicycle traffic (and 1 CO highway patrol motorcycle looking out for us.)

Then you're going up. There are a few things I like about Vail Pass. Someone has painted in the road the names of several Tour de France legends and the number of times they won the Tour. There are some pretty meadows and evergreen trees. Other than that, it's brutal! While in the trees your view is obstructed, and when it opens up you get a view of a 4-lane Interstate highway. Near the top you get off the road, back onto the bike path, under the highway and right beside it for a while. There are some short, steep sections made even tougher by a crowd of 3000 riders. You finally ride along a reservoir to a highway rest area where our final aid station was located. This is the summit of Vail Pass at 10,666 feet. There was no discernible sign for photo opportunities, but, by then you just want a nice descent.

Not gonna happen! The entire descent and ride back to Copper Mountain is on the bike path. You lose about 1500 feet in about 4 miles, which means the narrow bike path has switchbacks, steep curves, and blind turns. On a Saturday afternoon with weekend warriors, families on vacation joining 3000 Copper Triangle riders on the path, your only choice is to ride the brakes and try to get home safely. I don't like Vail Pass, but if it's the price you pay for riding the triangle, it's worth it. If I did this route again on my own I think I'd start at Vail, or even Minturn. Save the best for last.
Eventually you end up on the road around Copper Mountain routed into Copper Village where you cross the finish line with people yelling and ringing cowbells. I need more cowbell. It's actually kind of emotional to finish a long, tough ride and receive such a greeting. I felt like throwing my arms in the air like the sprinters in the Tour de France, but falling off my bike again would have stirred different emotions.

The only problem we had with the Copper Triangle was that we had to locate each other, get to the van, and head for Montrose. It looked like it would have been fun to spend the weekend at the resort. There was a post-ride lunch, live music, and beer gardens to enjoy. As it was I didn't even change, and after the drive to Montrose I was still wearing the Copper Mountain jersey as we unloaded the van. Lindsey from St. Louis asked if we had done the ride and told us that she had read a comment that I had posted on the CRMBT rider forum about this event, checked it out, and registered for this ride too the Wednesday prior. I don't think she held it against me.


  1. Sounds and looks like you had a lot of fun. Keep up the good work.

  2. I am going to put that ride on my bucket list - thanks for sharing!

  3. Nice description and photos. Doing it for the first time in a few weeks. Thanks!