14 October 2013

Pikes Peak Highway

Hardest Road Cycling Climb in continental North America

Pikes Peak in view near Halfway picnic grounds.
Hit the Reset Button
I don’t know where to begin with this one.  I see Pikes Peak every day; I grew up seeing Pikes Peak every day, looming, some 60 miles / 96km off in the distance to the south.  When I think of this mountain, one of Colorado’s most prominent as it juts out onto the prairie, many memories come to mind.  Topping out at 14,115 feet / 4302m it rises 8,000 feet / 2438m above Colorado Springs, one of Colorado’s highest vertical gains.  As a child I rode on the Manitou & Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the summit, truly an amazing ride if you don’t mind the tourist scene once in a while. The train climbs incredibly steep grades using a cog wheel system to it keep from sliding down the tracks.  I once knew a guy who worked in the restaurant at the summit; he lived up there full time for the summer and had sunrise and sunset to himself every day.  Oh, and of course there’s the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an absolutely sick auto time trial to the summit.  Yes many memories, but none of cycling to the top, it was a dirt road and cyclists weren't allowed.
Amazing views in all directions!  Click on photos to view in a gallery.
I see Mount Evans every day too, it’s only about 35 miles/ 56km as a crow flies, you can see the road winding up it with your naked eyes.  All paved.  Ominous.  I have many memories of cycling this road, an amazing 30 mile /48km climb that tops out at 14,150 feet/4321m in the parking lot.  There’s a bike race up Evans every year, the Bob Cook Memorial/Mount Evans Hill Climb takes you to your limits on its high altitude monster climb, or so I thought.

A Day To Remember
So back in March I was getting excited about Mount Evans opening for the season and posted a picture on my guide book’s FB page Road Biking Colorado-The Statewide Guide. Jeff Gibbs of Bicycling Colorado in Colorado Springs chimed in and reminded me that Pikes Peak was fully paved now, and for the first time, open to cyclists.  When it sank in I became overwhelmed with excitement!  I know of no other paved roads anywhere in the world that go above 14,000 feet / 4267m, now Colorado has two!  Absolutely I must ride this mountain, I said to myself.  I continued to get my winter legs up to summer speed and waited for perfect conditions; I purposely banned myself from researching the climb and saved documentation for a future edition of my book till another day.  It would be the first time I've ridden a Colorado road blind since my youth, when friends and I would routinely search for interesting squiggly lines on a Colorado road map and plan to ride whatever roads the lines turned out to be.  Yes, that was back in the Stone Age, before GPS, mapping software, and uh, guide books took the mystery out of the terrain that lay ahead.   A benefit of publishing my Colorado road cycling guide book "Road Biking Colorado-The Statewide Guide" is that I've documented and photographed some 7,000 miles / 11000km of Colorado roads, so I know the state well, but there are very few surprises for me to enjoy on a bike, and none of this magnitude.  Pikes Peak is a cycling jewel, a windfall if you will, I will be honored to add it to the next edition of RBC.
A good warm up is recommended, 
as this climb hit hard from the start.

There I was, a perfect summer day in Cascade, Colorado, it would be 95˚F/ 35˚C in town today, but a pleasant 75/24 F/C on the top.  Cascade is very small, just a couple blocks, as I rode through town my anticipation was sky high, the tone was set almost immediately when I saw a sign overhead across the road reading “Pikes peak Highway”.  It wasn't the sign that got my attention; it was the 10% ramp of a road that surged up ahead out of sight around the corner.  The first 6miles / 9.6 km amounted to a CAT 1 climb with sustained gradients of 8, 9, and 10%.
A narrow road with little or no shoulder in places near the bottom.

 I got a short brake at Crystal Creek Reservoir before winding up into an HC summit finish with miles of sustained 8 to 12% grades.  I was wishing I had a 26, I was riding a 39/23 which serves me just fine pretty much everywhere else in Colorado, I realized that I would spend most of the day out of the saddle, Stomping my way up the mountain.  On one occasion I rode around in circles for a moment to take the pressure off my legs and rest, I was thinking how unreal it was, awesome; does it keep going like this?  I channeled Alberto Contador’s rhythmic, animated -out of saddle- climbing style and found a comfort zone that made for an incredible outing.  What an amazing road, the descent was one of the fastest and most enjoyable I have ever had the pleasure of riding, 50+mph / 96kmh easily on this one and no room for mistakes!
Downhill traffic is slow, be mindful
of blind corners on your descent.

My benchmark for Colorado’s difficult climbs has forever changed.

I started with a bit of comparison between Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, both have brutal climbs on amazing roads, although Mount Evans needs new pavement.  Both are the highest paved roads in North America and top out above 14,000 feet / 4267m.  Evans’ parking lot is 40feet / 12m higher and the climb is 11miles / 17.7km longer than PP.  I had to double check what I thought to be true so I rode Mount Evans two weeks later and spun right up it.  It’s not unusual for me to easily spin a 21, 19, or even a 17 on Evans but that is simply not possible for me on Pikes Peak.

It is very clear to me.
Pikes Peak is harder, it’s a lot harder.
The shear steepness is visually stunning.  Looking down through 
the 4 Legs and Double Cut.
How does PP compare?  I did some research; I looked at elevation profiles for many major paved climbs around the world and found that most fell short of Pikes Peak’s combination of distance, grade, and altitude.  Mount Evans is eleven miles longer and has the altitude, but not near the steepness.  Having ridden all of the major Colorado passes multiple times over the years, I know there’s nothing in this state that compares, not Trail Ridge Road, not Independence Pass, Red Mountain Pass… Slumgullion? Nada.  If you look at some famous climbs around the world you’ll find that Stelvio Pass in Italy, for example, has the steepness and a fair amount of mileage, but at just under 9,000feet / 2743m at the summit it falls several thousand feet short for maximum altitude.  L’Alpe d’Heuz doesn’t even come close. 
Food and water at Crystal 
Creek Reservoir, mile 6.

Mont Ventoux is a beast but it lacks distance and altitude.  There are a few out there, the road up Mauna Kea Volcano in Hawaii (on Hilo) is a monster, you start on the coast at sea level and climb 13,796 feet / 4205m on grades as high as 14+%, the road climbs 7,000feet / 2133m in the last 15 miles / 24km of the 43 mile / 69km ascent.  There are a few monsters on the Hawaiian Islands and a few others around the world, there is a website called climb by bike.com where climbs all over the world are compared, it’s a cool site to visit if you’re looking for hills to conquer.  If you would like to race up Pikes Peak there is an annual event, the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb is a USA Cycling sanctioned event and is also part of the Rocky Mountain State Games, it’s a brutal challenge open to all riders and covers the last 12.4 miles / 20km of the climb – the same course used for the auto race.  Not sure why they don’t start the race at the bottom in Cascade, perhaps it’s tradition from the auto race or logistics in Cascade, anyhow, since I won’t be able to add this route to my book anytime soon, I’ve included it below in all its 19 mile / 31km glory for your enjoyment.                                       
A jaw dropping panorama comes into view as you approach
Crystal Creek Reservoir.

Pikes Peak Highway
Difficulty: Most Difficult-Hors Cat├ęgorie (HC)
Distance:  19.4 Miles / 31.22km
Start Elevation:  7,475 ft. / 2278m
Finish Elevation: 14,115 ft. / 4302m
Total Gain:  6,640 ft. / 2024m
Total Descent:  150 ft. / 45.7m
*Fee required:   (cash or card)
$12.00 per person May 1st – November 30th   
$10.00 December 1st – April 30th
Multi-passenger vehicle discounts available if you’re driving past the gates.
*Open all year: weather permitting
*Hours of Entry:
Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day
Uphill gate: 7:30am–6:00pm
Summit closes: 7:00pm
Downhill gate closes: 8:00pm
Tuesday after Labor Day through September 30th
Uphill gate: 7:30am–5:00pm
Summit closes: 6:00pm
Downhill gate closes: 7:00pm
October 1st through Thursday before Memorial Day
Uphill gate: 9:00am–3:00pm
Summit closes: 4:00pm
Downhill gate closes: 5:00pm

*Hours of Operation for the Food/Gift Shops on Pikes Peak:
Crystal Creek Reservoir 
8:00am-6:00pm (mid April-Late October)

Timberline Cafe at Glen Cove
9:00am-3:00pm (mid April-mid June) & (late August-late October)
9:30am-7:00pm (mid June-late August)

Summit House Restaurant
9:00am-3:00pm (mid April-mid June) & (late August-late October)
8:00am-8:00pm (mid June-late August)

*Elevation Profile Links:
Light traffic on a quiet Monday morning

Getting There
From Colorado Springs head west on US Highway 24 which runs east-west across the south side of town, if you’re coming from north or south of Colorado Springs, you’ll likely be heading into town on I-25 which runs north-south and intersects with US 24 on the west side of town.  Either way, from the intersection of US 24 and I-25 head west on US 24, it’s about 6 miles / 10km to Manitou Springs and another 5 miles / 8km to Cascade and the start of the Pikes Peak Highway.  Turn left at the light and find parking.
From the west you’ll be driving in on US 24 through Woodland Park, from there it’s another 9 miles / 14km down to Cascade.  Turn right at the light and find parking.

Note the curb on lower sections.
Amenities, Parking, and Camping
Colorado Springs has everything you would need supplies and accommodations wise, including plenty of bike shops and eateries.  If you have time, be sure to stop by the US Olympic Training Center and take a tour or watch a track race at the 7-11 Velodrome
Manitou Springs has plenty of eateries, tourist shops, and food supplies but I didn’t see any bike shops.
Cascade is very limited; you’ll be lucky to find water.
Woodland Park has everything you need including a couple bike shops (last time I checked).
As is the case throughout Colorado, parking is easy, just make sure there’s no posted signage indicating parking restrictions or private property, and that you’re clear of the road.
There is no camping allowed anywhere within the Pikes Peak recreation area (anywhere the PP highway accesses), there are several pay campgrounds in the region but I always prefer finding a quiet backcountry forest service or county road where one can always find secluded, open camping that’s free and unforgettable.
If you have SAG vehicles there are plenty of pull-outs along the route including food stores at mile 6 / 10km, mile 12.5 / 20km, and on the summit.  There is also plenty of parking on the summit.
The beauty of this road calls out to you to ride.

This is one of America’s most visited mountain summits (by tourists) so traffic can be a bit heavy at times, ride it on a weekday in a non-holiday week for best results.  It’s not much of a bother on the way up but heavy traffic on the descent can ruin one of the finest descents you’ll ever ride, you’ll be stuck behind a line of cars and hard on the brakes the whole time.
Bottom line; no holidays, no weekends, and start early and you’ll have an outstanding day.
The view continues to open up as you gain altitude.

Gear Considerations
For a ride of this magnitude you must prepare as a mountaineer would, you will be at extreme altitude where altitude sickness can be a factor, possibly in extreme weather, with possible threat of lightning and hypothermic conditions, and of course the possibility of crashing and falling great distances to your possible death.
The brake check station at Glen Cove 
is the start of the upper sections.
As I make light of this I also remember the coldest I’ve ever been on a bike was on Mt. Evans, laying on the sun warmed pavement at Summit Lake trying to get some feeling back into my fingers, I still had 25 miles / 40km of descent left.  I also remember crashing at 50mph / 80kmh on a couple occasions as a young racer, you don’t want these memories or any others like them so be prepared, be smart, and pay attention.  Be prepared to turn around if you’re sick or if weather conditions dictate, pushing ahead against better judgment can leave you begging people for a ride, or facing a long, cold, and dangerous descent.  If you haven’t ridden in the high mountains please do your research, get a copy of my book if you don’t already have one and read up on it; pages 1-6 in the 2012 edition.

Route Description

Hard work ahead as you approach treeline, look for the switchbacks
traversing the ridge above.

Truly the hardest paved climb in Colorado, a climber’s climb, probably the hardest in continental North America.  Quite a statement in a landscape of seemingly countless climbs, but Pikes Peak represents!

An awesome patio at Glen Cove,
 mile 12.5.  Unfortunately there's
no beer, this would make a great
happy hour spot.
Pikes Peak is located just west of Colorado Springs, her presence, rising 8,000 ft. / 2438m above town is ominous, it seems as though you could touch her eastern flanks as you stand at the base of the foothills craning your neck, but she is a world away and demands your best, most committed efforts to gain her summit grounds.  If you look closely you can see the restaurant and cog rail train on the summit with your naked eye, that’s right there’s a restaurant and gift shop on the summit.  The restaurant is great for anti-bonk snacks or even a full lunch, but don’t expect high quality caloric intake, do expect to pay a lot though, and don’t get stuck behind a fresh load of train passengers (tourists) hungry from a long ride up or you’ll be waiting in line as your legs begin to seize.  If you’d like a memento there is a vast selection of kitsch to be found in the gift shop if you can fit it in your jersey, of course if you've brought proper gear for cycling 14ers then you have little room to spare.
You'll have to earn your way through these switchbacks if you want
 to reach the flats at Devil's Playground.
As you ride NW through Cascade the road forks, go left under the sign reading “Pikes Peak Highway” and get ready to climb.  The road is in great shape with a shoulder that varies from thin to nonexistent but traffic is slow and accommodating, there are lots of pull-outs for any stops you need to make.  The toll gate is less than a mile up the road where the friendly rangers will take your $12.00 (cash or card) and give you a pass and a map.  So, from the start you’ll immediately launch into grades of 6 to 10% with sustained sections at 8 and 9%, it’ll back off a bit after 3 miles / 5km and then kick back up.  At about 5 miles / 8km the road starts to level off as you’re treated to on of the only breaks you’ll get all day, a half mile descent to Crystal Creek Reservoir.  The views of the surrounding countryside are amazing as you ride through the Pike National Forest
Above Glen Cove, Double Cut and
the 4 Legs ahead.
At the reservoir you’ll find a food store/gift shop with supplies and a bathroom.  The view of Pikes Peak from the reservoir is absolutely picture perfect; you can see the switchbacks on the summit ridge to the right of the peak.
As this description continues you’ll note many named corners or sections, I’ve borrowed from the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb auto time trial in which the drivers are going so fast that every corner is critical to avoid driving off the road and crashing as Jeremy Foley did in 2012, check out the link, he and his co-pilot walked away.  With stakes so high, the corners are numbered, 154 in all and many of them have acquired names, I rather like that.
Classic high mountain terrain.
Continuing from Crystal Creek Reservoir the road climbs moderately with some rolling terrain, take advantage of this as you will earn your keep very soon.  Along this stretch the views are amazing and the summit looms ever closer with increasing detail revealing more of the road above. 
You’ll ride through Hansen’s Corner, Horseshoe, 9 Mile, Engineer’s Corner, and Halfway Picnic Grounds.  At Halfway you’ll be just that, all of the real work is in the second half.  Soon you’ll ride through Gayler’s Straits and at about mile 10, through the first major hairpin at Brown Bush Corner, 12% grades are what you’ll find there and it doesn’t let up.  Another 2.5 miles of 9-12% grades (steeper in some switchbacks) through Big Spring, Blue Sky, Heitman’s Hill, Grouse Hill, and Gilly’s Corner finds you approaching timberline at Glen Cove (11,500 FT. / 3505M).  Through here you get an ominous view of the switchbacks above.
Steep grades at the 4 Legs.
At Glen Cove there are bathrooms, food, and drink, expect movie theater prices for food items.  From here on out the altitude will begin to play a major roll, if you are not acclimated it will become exponentially harder to keep your pace.  I do not recommend this ride without some sort of acclimation, on the other hand, riding it is great acclimation training and you can always turn back if you’re not ready for the upper slopes.  
Something you’ll also find at Glen Cove is a mandatory brake inspection station in the middle of the road.  It is a testament to the brutal steepness of this mountain, in all my life in Colorado I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing.  So you pull up (in your car-downhill traffic only) and they use a digital temperature gun to check you brakes, if it reads over 300 degrees you have to pull into the parking lot and wait for them to cool off.  The road continues very steeply, upwards of 12% at times through George’s Corner, Cove Creek, Elk Park, and Ragged Edge.
Looking down from Devil's Playground, Glen Cove at left.

You’ll be above the trees at this point and the view will overwhelm you as you negotiate a road precariously perched on the mountainside.  Next comes Double Cut and the 4 Legs, Double Cut is sequence of 3 steep switchbacks, the 3rd of which is the beginning of the 1st Leg.  The 4 Legs are a set of steep switchbacks as well; at the next switchback you’ll start the 2nd Leg, and so on, you have to get through these to reach Devil’s Playground.  From the brake check station at Glen Cove to Devil’s Playground you’ll grind through 10 major switchbacks and climb about 1,500 ft. / 460m in under 3 miles / 5km.  As you make your way up don’t forget to look back down the mountain to see where you came from, it’s quite epic to see the road winding its way up to you.
From Glen Cove to
 Devil's Playground
the  climbing  is brutal
Devil’s Playground brings relief as the grade levels out to as low as 1% for the next mile / 1.5km or so with views opening up to the south and west.  At this point you’re at 12,900 ft. / 3932m and you can see for a hundred miles / 160km on a clear day.  There is also a large dirt parking lot but no services; it’s a good place to hook up with SAG vehicles if you have them.  The relief continues as you loose 40 ft. / 12m of vertical on your way into Bottomless Pit, it’s only a half mile / .8km or so but it feels like a major descent at this point.  As you descend into Bottomless Pit you can see the restaurant on the summit up above, and a daunting view of the road cutting it's way steeply through the tundra.  The last 3 miles will go at 8 to 12% with the steepest sections at the top.
An incredible setting on the summit ridge.

Near Boulder Park.

As you climb above Bottomless Pit you’ll be on the southern slopes of the summit ridge, fully exposed to all elements on your way to Upper Gravel Pit, you’ll know it when you see it, piles of gravel probably used for road maintenance.  Finally up through Boulder Park, and Olympic Corner to the summit.
After a brief respite at Devil's Playground and a leg saving descent
 into Bottomless Pit, the grind up the summit ridge to 
Upper Gravel Pit begins. This shot painfully captures the
 severity of the grade as youcome around a corner and start 
the descent into Bottomless Pit.

The climb ends as abruptly as it began, and treats you to fantastic views in all directions.  Pikes Peak stands alone with no neighboring peaks, this is rare in Colorado and affords an unobstructed panorama into Colorado’s mountain west and down to town, as well as far out into the eastern Prairie.  The parking lot is a hacked up, unpaved mess, perhaps pavement is in the works for the future.  Full facilities on top including food, drink, restrooms, and amazing views!

The restaurant is a welcome sight,
especially when the weather is bad.
The Descent
Not much to say, I could give a blow by blow but it won’t help you when you’re in the moment.  You have to tune into the road and read the corners, on the upper slopes they will come very quickly and you won’t have room or time for much adjustment.  This road is in great shape and very nicely cut into the mountainside, it feels like you're glued to the road, yes an illusion that tempts you-it tempts you to fly, a solid descender can hit 60mph/96kmh on this one, you just have to shut it down hard for the corners.  Down lower it opens up more but watch out for a few sharp corners, your speed through there will require very hard braking.  As you wind down through the forest near the bottom you’ll be flying through mellow corners, just watch for traffic, when you pass Crystal Creek Reservoir you’ll have to get over that little hump, keep your momentum and you can power through it.
Looking down past the cog rail tracks at 
Crystal Creek Reservoir and the dam 
you rode across at mile 6.

Remember, if you hit this on a weekend or holiday your descent will result in cramped hands due to lying on the brakes as you sit behind a line of cars.  When conditions are right, it doesn't get any better than Pikes Peak.

A few more photos for your enjoyment.
A surreal experience at Devil's Playground.
Double Cut.

Near the top of the 4th Leg, looking NE down past
Double Cut to Crystal Creek Reservoir.

While the first 3 Legs are shorter sections between switchbacks, the
4th Leg is longer and contains 2 switchbacks within it before
 you reachDevil's Playground.  After a long steep section you can
see both turns,just above the second corner (above right)
the road levels off at Devil'sPlayground where your legs
 will enjoy the flats.

Top of the 4th Leg.

The flats at Devil's Playground.

Looking down from Upper Gravel Pit
 into Bottomless Pit.

Looking down from the summit parking lot at Boulder Park,
Upper Gravel Pit, Bottomless Pit, and over to Devil's Playground at top right.

Coming out of Cog Cut, one more switchback, Olympic Corner lies
between you and a short dash to the summit. 
The summit can be a bit hectic during the peak summer season.

08 August 2007

Cycling Mt. Evans, photos to psych your soul and temper your ego

Hi Fred,

Great to hear from you, the 25th sounds fine, pray for good weather! May I suggest that we ride it from Bergen Park, up over Squaw Pass, then a partial descent to Echo Lake (the halfway point on Mt. Evans). This route is a bit longer (four miles) and a bit harder, but has some varied terrain to break up the tempo a touch. The Squaw Pass road (CO Hwy. 103) dumps you out at the toll booth for the Mt. Evans Highway (CO Hwy 5), This is a local's approach to Evans and avoids a lot of traffic. Check out Mt. Evans at http://www.googleearth.com/ and type "Bergen Park, CO" in the search box. If you don't have Google Earth it's well worth the down load, if you already have it make sure you have the latest version, it's way better. The images of Evans on Google Earth are with snow on the summit but you can still see the whole road. Another cool resource is http://www.bicyclerace.com/ where you'll find the official site for the Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb. It's really cool with course info, photos, and history of the race.

02 July 2007

Road Biking Colorado is a comprehensive route planning resource.

Hello there, glad to see you've found my site. Maybe you're here looking for my cycling guide, or maybe you already own a copy and have come to see what I've got going on, perhaps you've stumbled upon me while surfing. If road cycling interests you read further and let me know what you think. I started this blog in hopes of providing a way to communicate with my readers and other fellow cyclists. My book, "Road Biking Colorado-The Statewide Guide" has been out for a few years now and has enjoyed rave reviews, I would love to hear your thoughts. Another objective I have for this blog is to provide updated information regarding any subject matter relevant to my guidebook and Colorado road cycling in general. For example; there are a few roads in the state that were not paved when I was documenting for my book, that have since been paved, and some major construction projects that have been finished or started as well. So feel free to make a comment, ask a question, tell a story about your cycling vacation, an event or group outing. Below you'll also find an ever growing list of cycling related links for your enjoyment. I'd love to hear from you, I'll be adding some route updates soon. In the meantime post a comment or visit http://www.roadbikingcolorado.com/ (mid-Summer 2007) to read more about my book and see some beautiful shots of Colorado cycling country.