Riders tackle Independence Pass

Naomi Havlen
Hundreds of riders in the competitive division take off after the start of the Ride for the Pass on Saturday morning. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

More than 500 people hauled themselves up Highway 82 on bicycles to the ghost town of Independence Saturday morning as part of the annual Ride for the Pass, huffing and puffing all the way.The fastest riders barely made eye contact with volunteers handing out water along the sidelines – their eyes were on the pavement and their breathing was labored but hushed. The next crowd accepted cups of water in one fluid motion, took a swallow and spit the rest out, tossing the cup to the side of the road.But riders got increasingly chattier as time went by, taking the time during their 10-mile, all-uphill ride to thank the volunteers, pause for a banana or an energy bar and dump a cup of water over their helmets to cool off.When they complete the uphill ride and pass the finish line, all of them rip down the road at breakneck speeds, sounding like cars on a freeway as their nylon jackets flutter in the wind.Aspen High School alum and Durango resident Alex Hagman was the first to make it over the finish line. He did it in about 40 minutes.

“It was a perfect day to be riding on the pass – I can’t complain one bit,” he said. “It’s nice to ride with all the guys I used to race with – guys who taught me what the sport is all about.”Hagman attends Fort Lewis College in Durango and will spend the summer racing.The Ride for the Pass is the largest annual fund-raiser for the Independence Pass Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for restoration work alongside the road. Although the pass is beloved by Aspen residents as a summertime recreation paradise and a shortcut toward the east, construction of the road has resulted in erosion along some areas and dirt patches devoid of native plant life.The foundation has raised enough money in the past for some major reconstruction work along the uppermost sections of the road. Over the past few summers, rock walls and fencing that lies flush against the hill to prevent large rocks from hitting the road have been installed. And native vegetation has been planted to keep the soil stable.According to the foundation’s director, Mark Fuller, this year’s race entry fees – about $15,000 in all – will go straight to this summer’s projects. Another large rock wall will be constructed at the highest part of the pass, and a compost blanket will be laid out to encourage growth of trees and shrubs.

Also, the snow fences that were placed at the top of the pass in the 1960s for a failed program to collect snow and extend the summer runoff will be removed in July.Plenty of snow was still left alongside the race course on Saturday, piled up several feet by snowplows just weeks ago. The closure gate to the top of Independence Pass is set to open next weekend.”I’ve always thought Independence Pass would be neat to ride, but there’s no way I would do it with traffic on the road,” said Mary Coombs, a Grand Junction resident who got in her car at 4:45 a.m. to drive to Aspen for her first Ride for the Pass. Coombs stood in the parking lot at the closure gate before the sun had warmed the air, shivering and eating a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich.Old Snowmass resident Tomakin Archambault was racing for the second time and said the course is “hard but very nice” for all of the natural scenery. Heather Ryerson from Basalt said she keeps a slow and steady philosophy on race day and admires the “top guys who really crank. I’m not really racing, I’m just doing this for myself,” she said.Aspen resident Mike Tierney made his fellow racers chuckle by saying he could only afford half a bike when he showed up on his unicycle. In reality, Tierney has been unicycling seriously for the last four years and is the defending national champion for unicycle road racing. His 36-inch wheel only has one gear and no brakes; it travels nine and a half feet each time he pedals.

Since he cannot do any coasting on his unicycle, going up the pass and down are training sessions, with his legs constantly in motion.”You don’t see any gear heads or posers trying to do this – anyone can get on a bicycle and ride,” he said. “This is a true skill that takes a lot of focusing. But all of us here are adrenaline junkies, support the pass and want to have fun.”If there was a hitch during Saturday’s race, it’s that the 9 a.m. start was delayed in order to get riders fitted with devices to determine accurate race times. Because some of the timing chips had to be zip-tied to racers’ bikes, a line prevented some riders from starting on time. Fuller pledged that they’ll find a better system for distributing the devices for next year’s race.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is


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