It is a long, winding and often steep road to the top.
Editor’s Note: Features editor Jason Sumner is spending his summer researching (and riding) all over Colorado for a road cycling guide book that will be part of the 75 Classic Rides series. He’ll also be penning RoadBikeReview travelogues recounting his explorations and highlighting essential gear. First up, the road to the top of Pikes Peak.
All by itself, 47 miles and 7,800-plus feet of climbing is a tough day in the saddle. But when you factor in the fact that all that climbing ends at the cloud-tickling altitude of 14,115 feet, shit just gets plain weird.
Weird, because once you’re above about 12,000 feet even one hard turn of the cranks pushes you into the red. Weird, because you start feeling punch drunk even though you’ve been gulping nothing but hydration drink all day. Weird, because your body is telling you you’re putting out max effort, but your power meter says 165.
These were just some of the revelatory experiences that accompanied an absolutely stunning all-day ride from Manitou Springs (elevation ~6,455 feet) to the top of Pikes Peak (elevation, in the clouds). With stops for photo snapping, food ingesting, heart-rate lowering, plus a long rest for coffee sipping at the summit cafeteria and gift shop, round trip was about seven hours with 4:15 of that spent going up hill.
For the record, the current Strava ascent record is 2:22 for a climb that ends up being 23.2 miles long with an average gradient of 5.9 percent. Don’t be fooled by this seemingly low number, though. The road to Pikes Peak, which just opened full time to bikes this year, is littered with nasty 10-12-percent kickers, including a few above the 13,000-foot mark.
In fact it’s so steep in places, that about halfway down all cars must stop and have the temperature of their brakes measured by a park ranger with a laser sensor. If the reading is over 300 degrees drivers are directed to a nearby parking lot for a 30-minute cool down session. Needless to say, leave the carbon clinchers at home for this ride.
For comparison sake, Colorado’s other bikeable 14er, Mount Evans, covers 27.5 miles, gains 6510 feet and has an average pitch of 4.5 percent (Strava record is 1:50 and change). The Pikes Peak road is also in far better shape, in part because it’s only been paved all the way to the top since 2011, meaning for now anyway, there are none of the teeth-rattling seams that plague most high mountain roads due to the freeze-thaw cycle. Anyone who’s descended Mount Evans knows how bad this can get.
Finally it’s worth noting that there’s a $12 entry fee, and that no matter what the weather is like at the bottom of the climb, make sure you bring along a good supply of foul weather gear (and extra cash for a hot chocolate at the top). You could easily encounter a 20-30-degree temperature swing on the way up. Here’s a list of some of the essential gear my wife and I brought along – and used – to reach the summit and get back down safely – without frostbite.
No matter what jacket you bring, make sure it’s warm, water proof and wind resistant. Because even if it’s 80 degrees in Manitou Springs, it could be snowing at the summit. Both of these Mavic jackets are constructed from rain-proof fabric and have a snug fit, so they don’t flap around like a sail when you are going downhill – for 23.5 miles. While not jersey pocket friendly, Stratos H2O Jacket ($400) is fully waterproof and has a wicking under-shell. The women’s specific Oxygen H2O Rain Jacket ($200), on the other hand, is seam sealed, waterproof and packs down tight.
On-bike comfort is always important, but when you’re slugging away for hours and hours, it becomes even more critical. Everyone will have their own favorite kit that fits well and matches their personal style preference. We’re big fans of Boulder, Colorado-based Panache both because they make high-quality jerseys and bibs, and it looks good, too. (Jersey $130, Bibshorts $160)
They fit well, provide ample coverage, have crystal clear optics, and the lenses automatically adjust tint based on the available light, which is a fantastic feature when clouds are moving in and out while you’re trying to take in all the spectacular views. ($239. Read our review.)
Ok, honestly, this isn’t essential gear. And some might argue you’d be better off without it on a climb like this when your power numbers are going to be so drastically (and negatively) effected by the altitude. Personally, we found it interesting to see just how much lower our power numbers were for a given effort as we climbed higher and higher up the mountain. As for the Stages unit itself, we’ve been using the crank-affixed device for about 4 months now and have found that it provides consistent and reliable data without being intrusive to overall bike set-up. (From $700. Read our first impressions.)
While we’ve definitely encountered occasional front derailleur shifting problems since installing this set of ovalized chainrings on my Parlee Z5sl, the Q-Rings were a big help on the way up – and down – Pikes Peak. Our 52-36 set-up means that at the weakest point in our pedal stroke, the 36 feels like a 34 (good for climbing 10-percent grades at 13,000 feet), and at our strongest point, the 52 equates to a 55 (good for going downhill for 23-plus miles). And in case you’re wondering, the oval shape is imperceptible when pedaling. For us, the feel is no different than pedaling round rings (From $245. Read reviews.).
Just like your kit, your shoes better fit well and be comfortable if you’re going to take on a climb such as Pikes Peak. For us that meant our faithful Mavic Zxelliums ($325) that we’ve been wearing for several seasons now. They are stiff and light for great energy transfer, but also comfortable thanks to a strap and ratchet closure system that creates a snug fit without pinching. (Read reviews.)
Yes we rode this climb on June 1 and yes we needed a full-on winter weight glove for the trip down when riding induced wind-chill factor had to have been sub-freezing. Specialized’s Radiant ($55) did the trick thanks in part to an elastic closure that pulls the wrist snug, keeping out cold and wind. (Read a full review.)
Designed to both hydrate — and feed you — this easy-on-the-stomach blend includes a small amount of carbs and protein in each serving, helping to keep the bonks at bay even if you don’t feel like eating. I can’t say that I like going all day on liquid alone. But this slow drip of fuel combined with an occasional chewable snack worked well on the way up Pikes Peak. ($35 for 16 servings)
When it came time for something besides liquid food, Honey Stinger’s brand new Cherry Cola Energy Chews were a satisfying elixir. Each 160-calorie package has 39 grams of carbs plus a tiny hint of caffeine to keep you rolling forward. And of course they taste good, too. ($1.75)
After a big ride, I prefer to forsake the powders and potions and opt for a healthy helping of real food (and beer). At the same time it doesn’t hurt to get a little rehydration boost, which after Pikes Peak came courtesy of SOS Rehydration Drink, a formulated blend of sugar, sodium, potassium, citrate and magnesium that follows the World Health Organization’s oral rehydration standards and has a very mild lemon flavor. Think of it as water with a purpose. ($8.75 for 5 servings)
Yes we dragged these boots ($1100) all the way from Boulder to Colorado Springs just so we could enjoy a relaxing recovery session after the big climb. It was heavenly. (Read the full review here.)
Every ride should end at a place like this.
Besides all the stunning views and reaching the summit, the best part of the day was spinning back to our weekend base of ops at the Cheyenne Mountain Resort. Well-appointed rooms: yep. Plush comfortable beds: check. More great views: yes sir. Multiple dining options for refueling: Yes again. Hot tub (and poolside bar) for recovery: perfect. There’s also an 18-hole championship golf course, full fitness center, indoor pool, tennis courts, playground for the kids, and a 35-acre lake. (Rooms from $235 per night)