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In-depth
9 May 2019
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Words Peter Stuart Photography Geoff Waugh

It was 15th November 1806 when Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike first made sight of what he called the ‘Grand Peak’. He estimated its height at 18,581ft, and speculated, ‘no man could have climbed to its pinical [sic]’.

It was probably the harsh winter, hostile natives and limited provisions that discouraged him from climbing the mountain, as much as its otherworldly height (which is actually a slightly more modest 14,111ft). But as my riding partner Charlie and I approach Colorado Springs in our hire car and the giant of Pikes Peak emerges on the horizon, we can sympathise with Pike’s reluctance to labour to its vast, bare summit.

While Colorado is not short of mountains, Pikes Peak has a heritage that makes it distinct from the rest of the state’s 53 ‘fourteeners’ (mountains surpassing 14,000ft). The annual International Hill Climb, a world-renowned event on the motorsport calendar, has played an important part in that mythology. Everything from GT racecars to classic sidecar motorcycles visit throughout the year to prepare for the annual 20km race.

It’s seen countless heroic attempts at breakneck speed up its slopes and through the 156 corners on the course, with the current record average speed of 145.27kmh held by champion rally driver Sebastien Loeb, and perhaps the most visually impressive run of all time by Ari Vatanen in 1988 when most of the track remained gravel (see it on YouTube).

For cyclists, though, access to the climb has historically been restricted to a single organised race per year. That was until 2013 when the authorities opened the Pikes Peak Highway to cyclists all year round.

As bike climbs go, Pikes Peak is very long indeed. Starting from the small town of Manitou Springs, the road rises 2,361m over 40km, with only an 800m long false flat for relief roughly halfway up. The average gradient is 7%, and the summit sits at 4,301m of altitude. It’s the second highest paved road in the US, a few metres short of the neighbouring Mount Evans. In terms of continuous ascent, though, Pikes Peak is the most testing climb on offer in Colorado and as I’m about to find out, one of the most challenging and incredible climbs on earth.

The Colossus of Colorado

When Pike first spotted the mountain he was 120 miles away, and thought it to be a distant blue cloud. ‘It was so remarkable as to be known to all the savage nation for hundreds of miles around,’ he wrote, and that’s no wonder. When we catch sight of it, it’s a good 10 minutes before we settle our own cloud vs mountain debate. Once we deem it to be the latter, we’re certain it can’t be Pikes Peak. Surely no road could go up such a desolate, gigantic mountainside?

Time makes fools of us all, and as we arrive in Manitou Springs to begin the climb it’s clear that the mountain is indeed Pikes Peak. The town itself could have been plucked from a Universal Studios film set, with wooden houses and fairground rides. It simply doesn’t seem real. As we unpack the car, a handful of cyclists shoot by. I manage to stop one – a pro rider for Team Poc Ritte – to quiz him on the climb.

‘You guys heading up Pike?’ he asks with some surprise. We nod nervously. ‘Ah man, it sucks!’ he laughs. ‘It’s horrible – 10% for kilometre after kilometre, it just keeps on going. I didn’t have time to go up to the top today, which is a shame. So much pain. You’ll love it.’

After this we’re not sure whether he’s a fan of the climb or not, but we’re encouraged either way. We set off on our bikes and begin our endeavour to reach the ‘pinical’ of the Grand Peak.

There’s only one way up Pikes Peak – a single road that leads solely to the top, and so today’s ride will be an out-and-back route. It may seem a little unimaginative, but with 40km of climbing at a 7% average, at stratospheric altitude, we’re happy to keep things as straightforward as possible.

The road to the summit, the Pikes Peak Highway, is the jewel of the region in riding terms. The road was built in 1887 purely to allow thrillseekers easier access to the summit. For over a century it was mostly gravel, and it wasn’t until 2011 that it was finally paved all the way to the top. To get to the Highway, though, we will travel along the main road through the valley. On paper a road of this size looks a little uninviting for cyclists, but it’s not without its charms.

Charlie and I set off on an easy 5% gradient, past ranch-like houses with white picket fences, and as Manitou Avenue leaves town and begins to climb into the hillsides, jagged red rocks teeter over the road. Against the deep blue of today’s sky it looks like a backdrop from a classic western movie. I peer back at Manitou Springs, nestled at the base of a huddle of peaks, and if it weren’t for the hum of cars I’m certain the scene would have been exactly the same a century ago.

The road skirts above a gorge before passing through a tunnel and onto Route 24. Now, if I saw a road of this size in the UK there is simply no way I would ride it, but in the US this six-lane highway is a mere countryside bypass. The roadside is lined with fluorescent ‘Share the Road’ cycling awareness signs, so pick-up trucks and 18-wheelers pass with surprising restraint. Plus, the rocky valley scenery and undulating road makes it more than worth the buzz of traffic.

After a slow and steep five kilometres we reach Cascade and turn onto a quieter lane that leads us to the Pikes Peak Highway, where the few cars on the road are restricted to a 25mph maximum speed. I’m filled with an unsettling tingle of both fear and excitement.

A 15% ramp welcomes us to the Highway and we’re both forced straight into our lowest gears. We’re already at an altitude of roughly 2,500m – close to the height of the Col du Galibier – and I can feel a weakness in my legs as my lungs seem to be inhaling pre-used air. 

We make our way towards the Pikes Peak tollbooth and cruise through with the smug assumption that our two-wheeled status grants us free access to the highway. 

‘Stop!’ comes a shout from close behind us. We come to a startled halt.

‘There’s a fee for bikes, boys,’ says a woman in a brown Parks Authority uniform who has just emerged from the wooden booth.

Charlie and I do our best to muster the necessary cash, but end up a few dollars short. Our patient park ranger isn’t willing to haggle, so we wait for photographer Geoff to arrive to bail us out.

Once through the toll, it’s clear that we’ve entered the realms of a national park. Pine trees and junipers surround us, with thick mountainous forest smothering the land ahead. Considering the park is home to bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions, it feels curious that someone first set out to create a road to nowhere through this wilderness.

Against the altitude

For those of us endearingly referred to as ‘sea levels’ by locals, reaching the top of Pikes Peak can be impossible. It’s not even a matter of fitness. A few days ago I rode in Boulder at around the 3,000m mark, and after two hours of perfectly bearable riding I came undone. First came a headache, then a complete lack of strength, nausea and finally a bout of hiccups that I couldn’t shake for hours. I finished the ride, but it was a few days before I felt back to full strength. That baptism of high-altitude fire has made me fully aware of today’s challenge.

With that in mind, we went to lengths to refit both bikes with compact chainsets. One of our key tactics for a climb of this magnitude is to find a rhythm at a low intensity, so we spin along around the 12kmh mark. I know that up to 20kmh would be possible on these 7% inclines, but I also know that we have several hours of uninterrupted ascent ahead.

After 4km on the highway we find ourselves scaling the edge of a mountainside where pine trees fall away from the steep banks of the road. These early foothills are home to the most energetic wildlife, where the sound of mountain streams complements the valleys and creeks that line the road.

Just as I’m settling into a gentle pace and soaking up the views, the road rises to savage gradients between 15% and 20% for a few hundred metres. The road curves around the cliff edge ahead and we pray that the gradient doesn’t persist, as we’re forced into energy-sapping out-of-the-saddle efforts to maintain momentum.

Once we crest the steep shelf of the mountain road, the gradient eases and the thick forest briefly separates to give a glimpse of the summit, which seems a very great distance away, and a long way up. We’re soon on the approach to Crystal Creek Reservoir, where we enjoy our only respite from the climb – an 800m descent – followed by a brief freewheel over the flat road that cuts across the reservoir, as the open plain offers a rare glimpse of the long road ahead.

Life in the mountains

When we hit the 3,000m mark, the idea of 1,300m of climbing still to come seems almost beyond comprehension, and we begin to notice a dramatic transition in the mountain scenery. The luscious greens of the foothills have given way to the arid, sandy landscape that dominates the summit, and it feels as though we’re travelling across continents in a matter of kilometres.

There’s a delicate and complex pattern of life on the mountain. The lowest level is known as the foothills zone, which we left as soon as we joined the toll road. From there, we’ve been in the midst of the montane zone, which winds up to 10,000ft (3,050m). Here there’s a rich ecosystem of wild flowers, junipers and pine trees, with beavers, elk, black bears and mountain lions for company – not that we’ve spotted any yet. Above that, we enter the sub-alpine zone. Trees can still grow at this altitude but, as we climb, wildlife becomes sparse in the absence of water and air. The trees nearest the top of this zone grow thin, tall and often are deformed – known as flag trees. Beyond this, you enter the moonscape.

The alpine zone of Pikes Peak, which starts above us at 11,500ft (3,500m), is where no trees dare to grow. It’s a barren and bare terrain, with few animals, low temperatures and sparse air. It’s a desert.

So far we’ve ridden only 26km, yet we’ve been on the road for over two hours. As we swing around the next hairpin we’re faced with the steepest ramp of the day – a 20% stint lasting 300m. The altitude is really beginning to take its toll. It feels as though I’m breathing from a half-inflated balloon. Charlie has lost all impetus for conversation and has sweat flooding from his face. Geoff, who has perched himself at the top of the ramp, asks us to retrace the last 100m to get more photos, a suggestion that’s met with a steely stare from both of us.

Pikes Peak isn’t just long – parts of its 40km duration are relentlessly steep as well, rising to 10% and persisting for kilometre after kilometre. At times we climb in the knowledge that we have 20 minutes to go before the gradient will let off, not to mention the several hours before we’ll see flat road again. Yet there’s a strange rhythm that comes with the climb, and the feeling that it extends indefinitely does away with the anticipation of nearing a summit. We just work our way up, metre by metre.

After a few difficult spells we reach Glen Cove, the physical separation between the sub-alpine and the alpine zones. The park authorities ask all descending cars to stop here to check brake temperatures, as many burn out their brake pads navigating the countless hairpins.

Once past Glen Cove it feels as though we’ve set foot on Martian soil, accompanied by a clear vista of the mountain. The contrast of the snow-capped Rockies in the distance and the vast, flat Colorado plains is like an altitude-induced hallucination.

The temperature has dropped, snow is lining the road, and the wind has picked up. Ahead, the jagged, ruthless edge of the mountain challenges us to continue. The reservoir we passed an hour ago is a faint blue speck below us. Yet the mountain ahead still seems insurmountable – nearly a vertical kilometre above us. 

From here, the road becomes a maze of switchbacks, overlapping and decorating the exposed mountainside. The cold breeze seems to draw all the warmth from my body, and I scramble for a pair of armwarmers. When we reach a point that’s less than 10km to the summit with 750 vertical metres still to ascend, I know the climb will take another hour. The dull throb of an altitude headache is encroaching, and my hands and feet have begun to tingle.

I’m filled with a newfound respect for the finely tuned respiratory systems of pro riders, in contrast to my substandard sea-level lungs. Only a few days before our trip, Robert Gesink ascended this mountain. He recorded the fastest ever ascent of 2 hours and 11 minutes, taking 10 minutes off US Pro rider LeRoy Popowski’s longstanding record, at an average speed just under 18kmh. We’re struggling to maintain half that. In all honesty, I don’t know if I’ll finish.

Into the dead zone

The summit escapes our view as we ascend the upper ridges of the mountain. As we round each corner we pray for the peak to pop into view. No such luck – each crest reveals a set of peaks ahead of it. Despite my lungs working overtime, my legs offer only a limp response, and my heart feels as though it will soon pound itself clean out of my chest. The gradient offers no relief; nor does the wind, which saps our forward momentum. I’m counting down each pedal stroke. We roll up to Geoff who is standing next to the car, signaling for us to stop.

‘I am not looping back!’ Charlie shouts in protest, but Geoff shakes his head. He points to his chest and explains that he is experiencing some concerning pains, and given a history of heart trouble he can go no further. The rest of this account, then, you will have to take my word for, because there are no photographs of it.

We now have a view of the final climb – a mountain in itself. We’re just below 4,000m of altitude, and ahead are three peaks. The middle one, and highest, I believe to be the end of the climb. Charlie stops to pull an energy gel from his rear pocket, as a friendly driver yells, ‘Not giving up now are you, partner?’ to which he receives a muffled animalistic roar from Charlie. The driver smiles awkwardly before speeding off.

With a strong desire to escape the altitude, I decide to empty the tank and ride flat out. With each minute that passes, I’m tempted to get off the bike and catch my breath, but I’m all too aware that up here, the thin air will do little to replenish my reserves. As another crest comes into view ahead, I pray the summit sits beyond it. 

Of all my experiences in cycling, the final ascent to Pikes Peak is undoubtedly the most surreal. I’ve taken the last corner and the summit lies ahead. The wind is brutal, and at 4,300m there’s nothing to shelter us. I’m dizzy, with only a faint mental grip on the job at hand. With the wind blowing sand across the road and the sun blazing against tarmac and snow, the summit is like a distant mirage, and I feel as though I’m cycling to the edge of the world.

I pour all of my energy into the cranks but I can barely make them rotate, even as the gradient eases. But I know I’m close.

Back to life 

When I reach the flat gravel of the summit, I’m filled with a deep elation that I’m sure I will never feel again – no doubt amplified by my oxygen deprivation. My Garmin tells me I’ve climbed for 3 hours and 30 minutes. I’m on the edge of tears.

From here, against the peaks of the Rockies, the Great Plains in furthest sight sit two vertical miles below us. The view stretches out a very long way indeed. It is, in a word, humbling.

As Charlie arrives, I am still feeling no relief from the tingling in my hands and feet, nor my dizziness, and determine to descend to more abundant air. Charlie is eager to grab a coffee, confident that the break will alleviate his numb hands. Without entering into debate, and in a primal survival mode, I leave him to it.

If I were in possession of my faculties, this would be the most terrifying descent of my life. I’m shaking violently from the cold as the wind batters me from left to right across the road – so much so oncoming cars are coming to a stop for fear of coinciding with my erratic line. Sheer drops on either side of the road plunge down hundreds of metres. There’s no air, so no air resistance – and the speed surges uncontrollably.

Once I’ve dropped a few hundred metres, Charlie catches up, and I realise that with 40km of uninterrupted downhill, on smooth National Park tarmac, this may be a descent to remember. As I’m soon to discover, while descents are often considered a reward for the climb, such language wouldn’t do the descent from Pike justice – it’s an odyssey in itself.

With a little more oxygen and a few more degrees of warmth ebbing into our bodies, we roll along the jagged mountain road. Winding around the first hairpin, though, I begin to find my feet, and my legs return to a hint of their sea-level strength. Pressing on the cranks, the speed catapults to 60kmh.

Descending on these roads is as scary as it is stunning, with a panoramic view unveiling itself at every hairpin. One moment we’re facing the sheer snowy face of the mountain, and a moment later we seem to be riding into thin air and blue skies as we plunge down into the tree line. The descent is open, even where trees crowd the roadside, and a braver rider could tackle this road at motorsport pace.

Once we crest the incline at Crystal Creek, we begin the fastest part of the descent, where the gradient touches on 20%. I’m sure I spot my Garmin flutter to 90kmh and immediately I’m petrified that the shadow of a tree may conceal a pothole. Luckily, the surface is immaculate, and we cruise through undisturbed. With a couple of cars ahead, I ease off slightly as Charlie shoots in front, weaving daringly around hairpins at a speed that leaves me a little unsettled.

We reconvene at the wooden tollbooth and I’m drenched with sweat. We shoot down the highway to Manitou Springs with not a hint of the intimidation we experienced a few hours earlier, now easily keeping pace with the traffic. Winding our way off the highway and through a gorge onto Manitou Avenue, we find ourselves safely back in Manitou Springs – exhilarated and exhausted. 

It’s baffling to think that we’ve travelled such a relatively short distance for a day’s riding, and along only one road. It seems like an eon has passed since we left this morning. The road up to Pikes Peak may lead to a dead end at the summit, but to climb and descend the mountain has truly been an epic journey.

The rider’s ride

Alchemy Helios, £4,285 (frameset only), alchemybicycles.com

Alchemy began life in Austin, Texas, but after a recent relocation to Denver the bespoke brand now calls Colorado home. The Helios is the brand’s workhorse, positioned between the super-aero Arion and the super-light Xanthus, and it’s made entirely in Colorado – making it the natural choice for this ride.

Alchemy makes its own tubes and bonds in Denver, and the few tubes it doesn’t make in-house come from Enve over in Utah. Frames can be built entirely to the customer’s spec, and the Alchemy paint jobs have become the stuff of legend.

In terms of ride, the Helios was delightful, and clearly it has been created with Colorado riding in mind. Gravel roads are common here, so it boasts superb comfort. Indeed, few bikes at this level roll over disturbances in the road quite so seamlessly.

The Helios is agreeably light, making the journey to the summit that fraction easier, and it’s stiff enough to surge up the 20% ramps of the steepest inclines of the Peak.

With the Enve wheelset and finishing kit, the bike has an incredible aptitude for handling – the descent from the summit was a dream aboard the Helios. The one drawback is that the plushness of the ride can give the impression of a lack of feedback, and sometimes I was unsure how far I could push it through turns.

The bike has a heavy pricetag, but it comes from a brand with soul and character while offering a ride quality to rival any Grand Tour racer.

How we got there

The Toll Road

The Pikes Peak Highway costs $12 per person to enter ($10 in winter) – check opening hours at pikespeak.us.com. Parking is available in Manitou Springs. An annual cycling hill climb race is held on the route we rode every August – visit coloradocycling.com for details.

Travel

We flew with US Airways from London Heathrow to Denver. Flights can cost from as little as £500 in the off-season, if you’re willing to deal with some slightly lengthy connections. Direct flights tend to cost more than £1,000 and are only available from Heathrow.  

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Monaco in Denver, a great base for riding in the region. The hotel is an 80-minute drive from Pikes Peak, but it offers quick access to downtown Denver, and sits within several blocks of Route 87, which opens up quick access to northern or southern rides in the state. The hotel offers a high-security bike lock-up from which staff will collect or deposit a bike at any hour of the day. Prices start from $229. Visit monaco-denver.com for details.

Thanks

A big thank you to Caley Fretz, senior editor at Velo Magazine, for advice on riding in Colorado and Pikes Peak, and for loaning us a Cannondale Synapse for the week. Also, thanks to Ryan Cannizzaro for lending us an Alchemy Helios for the climb.