Sign up for our newsletter

Classic climb: Pikes Peak

In-depth
31 Aug 2021
Advertisement

Everything is bigger in America, and when it comes to Pikes Peak in Colorado, this climb towers over anything that Europe has to offer

WordsPete Muir Photography: Geoff Waugh

The American passion for the motor car is reflected in the country’s roads. Even when the landscape is wild, the altitude suffocating and the destination a dead end, the road will be wide, smooth and inviting.

There are no half measures here. Once it has been decided that a gravel track is no longer sufficient, the Americans will build a thoroughfare that can be cruised in comfort by Cadillacs, Chevrolets and SUVs wider than the average British terraced house.

Not for them the narrow tarmac strip so often found snaking up the side of mountains in Europe – in America, even above 4,000m you’ll find a road where two buses could pass each other on a corner without fear of touching wing mirrors.

So it is with Pikes Peak in Colorado. The broad road to its summit gives the impression of a state highway, with its double yellow line meandering upwards like the gentle curves of a slow-moving river.

It would be easy to assume, therefore, that the climb is equally benign for cyclists – just a case of ticking off the kilometres in the unhurried fashion of a day-trip in an open-topped Chevvy. That assumption would be a mistake.

 

Scary numbers

Any misconceptions about the severity of Pikes Peak soon evaporate on an analysis of the stats.

This is the second-highest paved road in the United States, just a few metres short of neighbouring Mount Evans (but with more continuous ascent). Before you even start the climb you are at an altitude – 2,190m – similar to the summits of many of the big passes in the Alps.

Above this height is where altitude sickness starts to kick in, and there is still another 2,112 metres of vertical ascent to go until the summit of Pikes Peak.

Climbing it is essentially like starting from the top of Alpe d’Huez and then heading upwards to do the elevation of Alpe d’Huez twice over again.

Then there’s the gradient. The average of 6.6% over 31km may seem fairly amenable, however that figure is skewed by a few flattish sections and even a stretch of downhill.

click to subscribe

Take a closer look at the profile and you’ll spot an 11km section at about midway – from kilometre 14 to kilometre 25 – where the gradient rarely dips below 10%. Those big, wide roads make it hard to gauge just how steep this climb is.

If the thin air and severe gradient don’t get you, there are always the bears. And the mountain lions. And the rattlesnakes.

 

Or, if you’re really unlucky, you could find yourself in the path of a car trying to break the record for the fastest ascent of Pikes Peak, which currently stands at 8min 13.88sec, at an average speed of 145.27kmh (90mph). Pretty impressive for a route that includes 156 bends.

That record was set in 2013 by nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb during the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a race that began in 1916 when the road was little more than a gravel trail.

This year’s race will be held on 27th June – a date to avoid if you’re planning a two-wheeled ascent.

Pikes by bikes

Slap bang in the middle of Colorado is the city of Colorado Springs. A few kilometres west is Manitou Springs, a good base for tackling Pikes Peak. About 10km further along Highway 24, is the small town of Cascade, where a turning off the highway marks the start of the climb.

After a couple of kilometres you arrive at the wooden toll booths that guard the entrance to the mountain road, but being on bikes you glide past the queue of cars and wave merrily to the attendants as you ride through the barrier – only for them to run out and shout at you to stop.

Yes, cyclists have to pay an entrance fee too. It’s currently $10, and it’s also worth checking ahead to make sure the road is open. Officially it is open all year, but changeable conditions mean it can be closed if the weather is bad.

Once you’ve paid your entrance fee, the road winds upwards through dense forests of pine and junipers that block the view but shield the wary cyclist from the enormity of the task ahead.

At this point you’re in the ‘Foothills Zone’, an area up to around 2,500m elevation where the flora is luscious and plentiful. After 9km there’s a moment of respite when the road dips and then flattens out along the edge of Crystal Creek Reservoir, before continuing its relentless ascent into the ‘Montane Zone’, where the trees become stubbier and more sparse as the air gets thinner.

 

Here the rocky domes of the summit appear in the distance, and the road starts to twist and turn as the gradient creeps up into double figures.

Above 3,000m you enter the ‘Sub-Alpine Zone’, where only the hardiest trees and shrubs survive in an increasingly barren landscape of rock and scree. This ends at the Glen Cove lodge, where it’s sensible to stop and refuel. After 20km and 1,200m of climbing, the hard part is just about to begin.

High drama

Beyond Glen Cove is the ‘Alpine Zone’, where the lack of oxygen and harsh weather conditions make it almost impossible for anything to survive.

As such, the final 10km and 800m of climbing is through a desolate moonscape of brown rock, punctuated only by the occasional patch of green moss.

By the top, even in the height of summer, snow covers the bare dome of rubble, and a squat building (thankfully housing a cafe) provides the only shelter from the biting wind.

The air is so thin it’s not a place to linger for too long – just long enough to grab a coffee and contemplate the achievement of conquering a climb that dwarfs those of its European cousins.

The views from the summit over Colorado and the Rocky Mountains stretch on forever, but perhaps the most wonderful sight of all is the swooping, sinuous descent to come – all 31km of it on that wide, smooth, all-American road.