Mt Evans - 30 miles with 4000 feet of climbing, the highest paved road in North America

On of my big challenges for Colorado riding was to ride up Mt Evans. I had a spare day this week, so I went for it. It turned out to be a delightful ride. Actually the ride up, which I had worried about, was great. The ride back down was quite chilly and really not a whole lot of fun. Still, since I spent two hours and fifty minutes getting up there and only 40 minutes getting back down, it was a very nice ride. It just took me about two hours to really thaw out after the descent.

My day started in Idaho Springs at about 8 AM as I drove up SR 103 towards Echo Lake State Park. Then I realized that I hadn't filled my water bottles so I drove back to Idaho Springs! After the false start, it was about 8:40 when I reached Echo Lake. I was the second car there today, so I wasn't too late. The drive took 25 minutes, to ride to Echo Lake would take several hours. It would also involve about 3,000 of climbing. I wimped out by starting at Echo Lake because I knew I would be hurting tomorrow if I did the entire 7,000 feet today. Tomorrow is my weekly work day, so that would not be good. If you are riding from Idaho Springs, the climb is quite gentle for the first six miles and then gets fairly steep for the last seven miles. It is never really steep nor is the climb from Echo Lake to Mt Evans ever really steep. There maybe occasional short 10% grades, but the average is just over 5% (4,000 divided by 15 times 5280 is .0505).

At the entry station you have to pay $3 for a three day pass (hiker, biker, or motorcyclist) and then you see the sign "Summit Lake 9, Mt Evans 14". It is all pretty much uphill from there. The road initially travels through nice forest with less than a 5% grade. Very pleasant riding, although the 10,000 ft altitude makes itself known if you try to go too fast. Breathing well is what this ride is all about! I was scared of altitude sickness, so I took it easy, cranking along at five or six mph. I can do that speed for an hour on a 10% grade at low altitude, but not where the air is thin and the grade goes on for 14 miles. I figured it would be wise to go for a three hour 'pace' on this climb, rather than trying to do it in two hours (about my minimum time for 4000 feet of climbing) and getting sick. It worked for me and it made the climbing a pleasure rather than a pain.

The day was absolutely gorgeous, perfect for riding up Mt Evans, and very hot down in Denver. This is the only ride I know of that you want to do on the hottest day of the year. At 9 PM the temperature was in the 50 F range and it didn't get much warmer as I went up. I started the ride wearing my light jacket and carrying my heavier jacket and gloves on the rack. After half a mile of climbing I was too warm for the light jacket, so I took it off and put on sun screen - high UV up here! After about two and a half miles the road went above tree line. I quickly put my light jacket back on because the wind was really biting. The road runs along the north side of a mountain at this point and the wind was strong from the north west. I kept my jacket on for the rest of the ride up, and I was chilly when the wind was not blocked by a mountain.

After tree line the riding was influenced by the wind as well as the slope. Riding uphill into a 15 mph headwind at 13,000 feet and 50 F, is both hard work and cold. Of course thinner air means less air resistance as well as less oxygen to breath, and the cold was really more annoying than the extra work. I remember thinking when I got to one of the few downhill sections on this climb "Boy, this is going to feel good when I'm coming down." It did. Anyway the climbing was not bad, I was a little chilly in places, but the views were breath taking. I drove this same route a few weeks ago, but now I really got to see it. I also got to see all the wild flowers near tree line and the stunted trees right at tree line. It was not a boring ride. Even though the ride up had about 14 miles of uphill in a 15 mile distance, I rarely though about the climbing. I just enjoyed being there.

A big part of enjoying a ride like this is proper gearing. Many of the local 'hot shots' (and pseudo hot shots) seem to do this ride with road racing gearing. I used gears down to twenty inches while their lowest gear is about forty inches. That meant I could maintain a comfortable cadence (typically 70 rpm on this climb) at 4.5 mph while some of them would be cranking along at 40 rpm. Not only is that not good for you knees, it is also inefficient. If, like the real racers around here, you can maintain 10 mph or better up an 8% grade at 14,000 feet, then you should ride up Mt Evans with gearing for 10 mph and up. The rest of us need low gearing for this ride.

I had gears down to sixteen inch (19x32!), but I didn't use below 20 inch (19x26) and I would have been fine with my normal 24X32 low gear. Having the 19 on the front did give me a better selection of low gears, and that was helpful. Mostly I rode in 19x23 (about 23 inches), but for the steeper bits I used 19x26 (about 20 inches) and for the gentler ones I used up to 19x13 (about 33 inches). The latter is bad cross chaining, but gives me a nice 10 mph gear.

The climb above tree line ends, for a half a mile or so, with an actual downhill before Summit lake. This lake lies almost vertically (the slope must average 45 degrees) over 1500 feet below the summit of Mt Evans. I stopped there for a bathroom break and a snack. Summit Lake is five miles from the top, but those five miles are a bit steeper than the previous nine miles and a lot higher, so it really is pretty near the middle of the climb.

After Summit lake the road seems narrower and it has no markings. Riding it is a little scary because the edges are rough and the outside drop off could be very dangerous if you went over the edge. This is true for much of the road above tree line, but it is more obvious after Summit lake. There isn't a great deal of traffic (I'd ride for five or ten minutes between cars or, more often, groups of cars) but there also isn't enough room for two cars and a bike to safely share the road. I had one rude person who passed me into another car, nearly forcing the other car off the outside edge. Not nice.

Most of the four miles from Summit Lake to the top is a series of switchbacks. The road runs straight for a hundred yards or two and then has a hairpin turn before another straight stretch. The slope of the road is steepest in the middle of those hairpins, and then settles back to its usual 7% or 8%. My focus on this part, other than on the incredible views, was breathing. You are at 13,000 feet or more for this section and the air is thin. I basically tried to hyperventilate. That can't be done at 14,000 feet while riding uphill, but if you breath as hard as you can the riding is much easier. Even breathing as hard as I could, I felt a little short of breath as I neared the top, but I just shifted to a lower gear and I was fine. I wasn't even breathing hard after I reached the top.

At the top I visited with some folks, took a few pictures with my digital camera, and got ready for the descent. On the way up one rider had passed me. I met him again heading down a mile or so from the top. I don't know if he had a support vehicle (lots of the racer types do) but on the way up he was wearing a regular jersey and shorts and on the way down he had on full length pants, a wind breaker and full fingered gloves. I met another couple of riders near the top who did not look like they had ridden to the top. They were heading down, and already looking rather uncomfortable, in riding shorts, and sweatshirts, without gloves! My hands got cold coming up, going down without good gloves would mean frozen hands. You need working hands to use the brakes, and you need brakes badly on that descent. I put on my heavy wind proof jacket and a pair of 'two finger' leather gloves I bought for six dollars at the Boulder Army Store. These were designed as work gloves with a trigger finger, but I crammed two fingers into the trigger finger of the gloves and they worked pretty well. My fingers got cold, but not cold enough to interfere with braking control. I also wore knee warmers for the entire ride.

Coming down the switchbacks wasn't fun: let the bike get up to twenty mph or so and then brake hard to slow to less than ten mph for each corner. After the switchbacks, I was often able to coast at more than thirty mph. My peak speed, near the bottom, was about 41 mph. Above tree line I could have gone faster, but the wind chill was bad enough at thirty mph. Also the penalty for missing a corner was much more severe. If you went off on some of those corners you might bounce a long way down through rock fields. Somehow the forest seemed a more comfortable (?) place to crash..

When I got back to my car I sat inside the hot car for a while, warming up, before I loaded my bike and drove (via back roads) to Denver. It was a hot day in Denver (95 F), but I didn't really feel the heat. 100 F is a nice temperature when you are chilled. So, if you like climbing and if you are ever in Idaho Springs or Evergreen (another access route), consider a unloaded day ride up Mt Evans. It gives one bragging rights (highest road, etc.) and, on a hot day, it is a beautiful, and really not that difficult, ride. Just bring low gearing and warm, wind proof, clothing!