It was another day of perfect weather and superb scenery, as the 2019 Ride the Rockies headed south from Carbondale to Hotchkiss along the West Elk Loop, one of Colorado’s 26 scenic and historic byways.
On paper, stage 5’s 65-mile trek wasn’t overly difficult, with just one significant ascent, only 3300 feet of total climbing, and lots of high speed descending. But for the first time this year heat was a factor, with midday temperatures climbing into the high 80s. Fortunately, riders were greeted with live music, delicious food, cold beers and lots of shade when they arrived at the finish at the Delta County Fairgrounds.
The day began with a leisurely spin out of Carbondale on the rec path adjacent to State Highway 133. A few miles in the path ended and riders moved onto the quiet highway, continuing south along the banks of the raging Crystal River, swollen by recent snowmelt. Though this section of road generally feels flat, there was a near-constant 1-2% grade, accounting for over 1000 feet of elevation gain by the time riders reached the base of McClure Pass at mile 21.
Here there were no misconceptions, as the road pitched skyward for the testing 3.5-mile ascent that gains about 1200 feet with a leg burning average grade of 6 percent. Speedy riders crested the summit in under 25 minutes. Others took a more measured approach, taking time to soak in the stunning valley views ringed by snowcapped peaks.
Up top, at 8770 feet, the Ride the Rockies aid station crew was waiting with food and drink, a just reward for yet another challenge overcome. Once fuel stores were replenished, it was time to blast downhill to Hotchkiss. Indeed, there was 3439 feet of elevation loss between the top of McClure and the finish.
Along the way, riders zipped along the shores of the Paonia Reservoir, spun through the small coal mining town of Somerset, and pedaled past Paonia proper, where the day’s final aid station was situated at the Black Bridge Winery. And yes, samples were available.
Next up is arguably the hardest day of the 2019 Ride the Rockies, a 79-mile push from Hotchkiss to Gunnison with 6861 feet of climbing. Fortunately, stage 6 is also one of the most scenic days, serving up stunning views into the yawning depths of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which owes its name to the fact that parts of the canyon receive less than an hour of direct sunlight per day.
The ride starts with a jaunt through the small town of Crawford, and then heads steadily skyward on State Highway 92 (also part of the West Elk Loop) to the route’s 9128-foot high point at Hermit’s Rest Overlook around mile 35. From there it’s an ever-rolling ride along the Black Canyon’s north rim before the road drops away as you cruise down to the shores of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in the state. After crossing Blue Mesa Dam, riders will head east on a mostly flat section of US Highway 50 to the finish in Gunnison. With more favorable weather on tap — and the possibility of a tailwind — it should be yet another great day riding in the Rockies.
~ Jason Sumner