Ride the Rockies tour lost in haze for many cyclists | AspenTimes.com

Ride the Rockies tour lost in haze for many cyclists

For many cyclists who completed Ride the Rockies Saturday, the 2002 tour is already lost in the haze.

This tour will forever be remembered as the one where much of the stunning mountain scenery was clouded with smoke from the wildfires raging throughout Colorado.

No one was complaining about the visual and occasional respiratory inconveniences, keeping in mind that the real burdens were borne by evacuated homeowners and brave firefighters.

But the fires and their effects were as much a part of the 2002 tour as tough mountain passes, parched terrain and unmerciful head winds.

Whether the rolling city of cyclists was creeping up Coal Bank Pass north of Durango or sprinting east on Highway 50 toward Gunnison, there were constant reminders of the fires.

The route was even altered at times because of the flames. The tour took a different road than planned into Durango on day two because the Missionary Ridge fire was sweeping toward the planned route.

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Chaos was averted by a couple of days when the Million fire exploded southwest of South Fork on Tuesday. Cyclists had clogged Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass just two days before. That busy road – already resembling an interstate highway – was the escape route for people evacuated from harm’s way.

While the cyclists were long gone from the South Fork area by the time that fire flared, its plume and effects on air quality were evident throughout the ride from Silverton to Montrose.

Early rising cyclists in Gunnison Thursday were treated to a big red ball of sun that was obscured by smoke. It was impossible to tell if the smoke was coming from the Hayman fire to the east, the Million and Missionary Ridge fires to the southwest, the Coal Seam fire to the north or the Glade Park fire to the west.

Ditto for the smoke that all but obscured the Sangre de Cristo mountain range on the east side of the San Luis Valley.

The only rain of the tour fell while the cyclists were camped in Salida Friday night. Enough drops fell to barely knock down the dust.

“We’ve seen fire and we’ve seen rain,” said a note on a sag wagon patrolling the route the next day.

But not even dry, dusty and smoky conditions were enough to ruin this excursion into the heart of the Rockies.

For some cyclists, me included, the tour got better with time. The four-day stretch from Durango to Salida shows Colorado at her best. It features climbs up three high passes of the stunning San Juan Mountains and dashes through the unspoiled ranchlands and natural settings of the Gunnison River Valley before topping it off with a climb up 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, one of my favorites in the state.

On day three north of Durango, Coal Bank Pass and Molas Divide provided a combined 6,500 vertical feet of climbing, but the beauty of the area has a way of keeping a cyclist at peace. Plus the descent on Highway 550 into Silverton was nothing short of heaven.

A wind shift that morning drove the smoke from the Missionary Ridge fire north and prompted race organizers to urge people with respiratory problems to take the sag wagons. (I couldn’t help but wonder why a person with respiratory ills would Ride the Rockies in the first place.)

Fortunately, the smoke didn’t penetrate Silverton’s pastoral little valley. The town’s wonderfully preserved, historic business core provided a nice change from Durango’s bustle.

The bliss continued into day four with a climb over Red Mountain Pass and a coast into Montrose before hot winds became too bad on a day when the temperature pushed 100 degrees.

Days five and six featured 65-mile rides through one of the least-spoiled sections of Colorado – from Montrose to Gunnison then up Monarch Pass. For the most part, there are ranches and ancient little resort enclaves. It was a nice contrast to the sprawl spreading around Pagosa Springs like a cancer.

The high point of the trip – in both elevation and the collective mood of the masses – came on the challenging but pleasant 11,312-foot Monarch Pass.

Nearly everyone had a grin on their face when they chugged up the final climb of the challenging pass. Groups were gathered around to cheer colleagues. Scores of folks got their pictures taken beside the summit sign with the expansive blue sky and acres of green trees as the backdrop.

Mother Nature, though, got the last laugh on the seventh and final day of the tour. A 1,500-foot climb up the 9,010-foot Poncha Pass normally would have been a temporary bump in the road for a crew buffed by six days of cycling.

But the difficulty of the pass was magnified by a stiff wind that stayed in the face of riders throughout the trip. Many bagged it, either by design or necessity, before traveling the full 83 miles to Alamosa.

The Colorado mountains once again delivered the riders a dose of humility. It’s best that way.