Friday at Ride the Rockies was about as good as a day of road cycling gets. Great weather. Quiet country roads. Stunning scenery. Challenging climbs. Swoopy fast descents. And a Mach 6 tailwind for the final third that helped push even the weariest riders to the finish at Gunnison’s Jorgensen Park where cold Eddyline beer awaited. You really couldn’t ask for much more.
The 79-mile ride kicked off at the Delta County Fairgrounds in Hotchkiss, then began the gradual southeasterly grind up State Highway 92 (aka the West Elk Loop Scenic and Historic Byway). Overhead a light cloud layer kept temperatures in check. All around were classic Western Slope vistas — the snow-capped San Juan mountains in the distance, brilliant green pastoral countryside closer in, the great Grand Mesa looming to the west. And while the road primarily trends upward to its high point at 9128 feet, occasional descents were just long enough to give tired legs a brief respite.
Once up top, the road traces an undulating path along the north rim of Black Canyon. Along the way are several great overlooks (including at the Hermit’s Rest aid station), availing glimpses into the magnificent abyss that was carved by the Gunnison River and gets its name in part because sections of the canyon receive less than an hour of direct sunlight per day.
From the Highway 92 high point, this blissfully smooth and quiet road continues to playfully roll up and down, before finally dropping away for good for the short crossing of the Blue Mesa Dam and yet another superb vantage point of Black Canyon and Blue Mesa Reservoir. It was an apt end to what will certainly be remembered among the top highlights of Ride the Rockies 2019.
But the fun wasn’t over yet. A short climb to the terminus of Highway 92 deposited riders onto US Highway 50 for the wind-aided dash to Gunnison. Even soft pedalers could stay above 20mph most of the way. Get on the gas or jump into a working group, and 30mph was achievable. Call it payback for stage 3 a couple days ago, when a ruthless headwind blasted riders from start to finish.
Next up is the final day of the 2019 Ride the Rockies, stage 7’s mostly flat 31-mile trip from Gunnison to Mount Crested Butte. This is the shortest and (potentially) easiest of this year’s tour, but the qualifier is necessary because so much depends on the wind and weather. Right now the forecast calls for just a light breeze out of the north. But if the weatherman gets it wrong, this northerly trek with 2000 feet of gradual elevation gain quickly becomes a difficult slog.
There’s also a 60% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, so riders best get started early and pack a jacket just in case. Also remember that unlike the stage 1 start from the town of Crested Butte, the final day finishes up the road at the base of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which is about 500 feet above town. No matter how the day’s challenges unfold, expect a raucous party (and lots more cold beer), as the 34th running of this great event comes to an end.
~ Jason Sumner