Friday, September 21

The Alpine Odyssey: Alpine Gothic

As the one week anniversary of my gloriously victorious finish at the Alpine Odyssey rapidly approaches I reflect, with nostalgia, on the experience.

My memories of the day are bathed in aspen gold. I've almost hacked all the alpine dust out of my lungs. Now I'm looking ahead to my next torture session on the bike.

Wait, this started out positive, right?

Anyway, mundane reality hardly tarnishes my new-found status as Mountain Bike Racer. While the phone hasn't been exactly ringing off the hook with sponsorship offers I know it will start any minute.

I'd like to go back (and dwell forever) to that day and share a few more details of the event and the course for your reading pleasure. Maybe someday I'll get back to blogging about serious cycling issues (like derailer adjustment), but for now I'll just keep bombarding you with my thoughts on endurance MTB racing.

I signed up for the Alpine Odyssey in a frantic panic to temporarily redeem myself after giving it 87% at Leadville.

When I signed up I knew four things: 1) the race was in September, 2) Lance Armstrong had won it to previously qualify for Leadville, 3) the race was 100k long whatever that meant, and 4) it takes place in Crested Butte.

All metric system-hating aside, I had no clue how hard this race was going to be. I'd never been to Crested Butte, much less was I familiar with the course.

I had a month to scrounge together the pieces of my shattered ego and pull together a coherent plan to ride and finish the Alpine Odyssey. My only goal was getting back into Leadville next summer. There was no underlying desire to do the Odyssey.

Let's face it, the race could have involved me riding a unicycle dressed up as a bear in a tutu at a honey festival while Lance Armstrong threw angry bee swarms at me and I would have signed up just for a chance at slot in Leadville. I'm a whore that way.

Thankfully no bear suits were involved. That made the 62 mile (googled "kilometers to miles") bike race a lot more enjoyable.

Two weeks out I hadn't received anything from race staff concerning the route. All I could find was a blurry old map from a previous year. I was a bit worried about the course and how it would try to destroy me. I sent Shannon an email and she assured me that 7-10 days before the race I'd receive something. The email came much later (I completely understand Shannon!), but finally I could map the course and see what I was in for. While the profile seemed rugged the overall course just didn't seem so bad. What was I missing?

Anyway, I set about making my final plans. Changing my tactics from Leadville I'd decided to completely forego the hydration pack and run with two bottles and jersey pockets full of food. I'd take full advantage of the aid stations and go fast and light. Minimalism is so sexy to me these days.

It was a good plan, but completely contingent on good weather. If there had been rain or it had been overcast or colder my whole plan would have changed.

In one sense I went into the race blind. I didn't know what to expect, and I approached it as if it were just some 62 mile ride in the foothills near home. That strategery could have blown up in my face. But on to the ride...

As I mentioned in my initial writeup, the hardships involved in traversing the stout course were offset by the majesty of the continuous alpine vistas. It's hard to bemoan your wretchedness when it's surrounded by unobstructed views of pristine Rocky Mountains.

The small sections of the course that prohibited landscape oriented views were typically situated in Tolkien-esque settings. The Emerald Lake gorge was one of them. The aspen-cloaked shoulder of Mt Crested Butte was another. The posh resort area, despite triggering my gag reflex toward overdeveloped wastefulness, had a European feel and added to the novel ambiance of the event.

The first lap left the resort and turned northwest up the Slate River valley. The road was dirt with a few public access roads off to the sides. The further up the valley we rode the less development there was. Above the community of Pittsburg (just a couple cabins) the valley had a distinctly alpine feel and the elevation was only about 9,400'. At Pittsburg we felt the first significant grade under us. There were lots of groans of complaint, but no one walked that I saw.

After that things eased up before THE switchbacks, and the scenery continued to inspire.

There was enough of a reprieve after Pittsburg so the vicious angle of the first switchback didn't seem quite so torturous. But the last three miles to the Paradise Divide aid station were sore cruel, gaining about 1,600'. Still, for the most part it was a good road. There was one steep and loose section just before mile 13 that I walked. I needed a break so my feet would stop tingling from all the climbing and I wasn't in mind to take a tumble all bunched up with the group is been riding with.

The road from Washington Gulch came in just above mile 13 and the road above kept climbing all the way to the pass/divide between Cinnamon Mountain and Mt Baldy and the Paradise Basin and the Slate River Valley.

The views from the uppermost section of the road were incredible, with steep dropoffs to the west and mountains all around.

The aid station was situated by a picturesque little alpine lake with Cinnamon Mountain as a backdrop. I imagine it got its name from its color.

The road into the basin was rough and steep. All the way down to Rock Creek I had to stay sharp and watch the road (No whammies! No whammies! Big money!) until I reached Schofield Pass between the Rock Creek and East River drainages. The surface was much improved there and the view would soon far exceed anything we'd seen to that point. The road down from the pass hugs the steep western-most flanks of Mt Bellview above the stunning Emerald Lake. I won't recount my experiences there save to say its one of the most dramatic landscapes on the whole route.

Initially the road passes between the geologic hulks of Bellview and Baldy, but not far below Emerald Lake the valley starts to open up rewarding diligent mountain bike racers with stunning views of the greater East River valley.

As the valley opens up the road continues to improve and to lose elevation facilitating a six mile luge run back to the resort area.

I screamed through the community of Gothic, and saw very little of it, but I did manage to absorb the grandiose vista that included Gothic Mountain's awesome east face and Avery Peak's bloody red upper western flanks. Oh, and about 14 gazillion aspens in full fall color.

After Gothic there are some moderate rollers, but nothing like the Pipeline-Twin Lakes section of Leadville. Dirt changes to asphalt and then the course took us through the eastern-most neighborhood of resort homes on the shoulder between Mt Crested Butte and Snodgrass Mtn.

It's a moderate climb, but for whatever reason it felt like a rest on the first lap, and even on the second lap I felt like the long ride up the street left me feeling a bit more spry.

Directly off the paved road we picked up "Meander," a long switchbacking singletrack. Low on the section the slopes are steep and it takes a bit of concentration to keep moving. The grade isn't steep, in fact the sweeping turns on the switchbacks are kind of nice, but it's a long, long climb up the shoulder.

I couldn't tell if the trails are new, or just poorly built causing some really bumpy spots. It seems like a new trail, and I can't find it on Google Maps/Earth, so I think it's just new.

The descent through the aspens is similarly rough, and has lots of tight (i.e. narrow passages between trees) turns. I could attribute the rough and tumble nature of the singletrack section to the extremely dry summer we've had. Some areas didn't seem well packed and some areas seems to be sloughing away in the arid climate.

Finally there was the downhill course ending both laps. It's not as extreme in surface profile as some of the stuff I'd ridden at Valmont, but it was dry and rough and completely unexpected on the first lap. I really didn't want to blow my race on a jump. I've typically been a keep-both-wheels-on-the-ground kind of rider. I've just of late discovered the joys of leaving terra firma while clipped into my pedals. I tried to ride it cautious.

The second lap began at the start/finish line. The aid station was just down a bit from the line. From the aid station the course took the back way out to the street, at one point actually following a concrete gutterpan through the grass, and finally out to the main drag through the resort. Another fast descent toward town truncated with a hard right turn onto Washington Gulch Road. The first two miles up the valley were resort residential with expensive vacation homes and condos on the flanks of the lower ridges.

Washington Gulch Road turned to dirt soon enough. Gothic Mountain dominated the view ahead. It's striking facade bade me get off the bike and climb to its summit. Oh, the latent mountaineer in me was frothing at the mouth!

By the second lap it was late enough in the day that vehicle traffic was up. There had been a bit around Gothic and a busy trailhead on the first pass down he East River valley, but otherwise traffic had been sparse.

It was obvious who had come from out of state to see the aspens. But really traffic was almost a non-issue for the entire race.

The upper third of Washington Gulch Road becomes heartbreakingly steep. Finally I found myself walking repeatedly. I rode more than I would have with my virgin Leadville mentality, but I still hoofed it more than I wanted.

Near the top of the climb there is a small ghost town, Elkton I think the sign read, and then some mining remnants before the top of the Washington Gulch climb. There was a very psychologically helpful volunteer that said as I approached the top: "Looking good number 79! You've got a nice downhill before the climb to the aid station."

Glory. Hal-le. Lujah.

I was all alone on the descent back to the top of the Slate River switchbacks. It was nice to have my own space. The road weaves in and out of the trees alternating sweeping views and cool shaded glades.

The second pass up the last mile to the Paradise Divide aid station is hard. It comes at mile 47 with the majority of the 6,000' of overall gain behind you. The only climbing of any significance after Paradise is the singletrack at the end. It's hard to put that last bit of climbing out of your head when you haven't found your second wind yet.

 Boone and I are pretty sure that's a bald eagle

The three miles from the aid station to Schofield Pass can beat you up the second go round. But they go quick. Then there are about seven miles of screaming descent. Down Gothic the second time the sun had moved into the western sky and Avery Peak almost glowed red above the aspens in the valley.

It was during that seven miles I did find my second wind. The field was stretching thin as the last miles fell away. Riders were tiring. The day wore on.

The last miles went much faster than I'd anticipated, but I had to keep moving.

The finish was maddening as I'd said earlier. Back and forth over and over when all you really wanted was straight down the hill to the finish.

As I rolled toward the red carpet and across the line I considered raising my hands over my head. For me, just crossing the finish was enough.

Oh, it would have been cool to roll across on a unicycle while dressed as a bear wearing a tutu while Lance Armstrong threw angry swarms of bees at me. Of course I left the bear costume...well, it doesn't really matter where. And Lance had cut and run. Big baby. They're just bees man!

Anyway, the course was incredible. The loop format versus the out and back of Leadville was interesting. My altered strategy worked very well. I'd race the Alpine Odyssey again. And again.

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