The Colossus of Pikes Peak
by Andre Dekerf
Pikes Peak behind the “Gardens of the Gods”
Watch this video first to get in the mood:
The Colossus of Colorado
September 2019: One of my business trips takes me to Colorado, USA
Colorado Springs to be more precise. Maybe needless to say, I jumped at the occasion. Not because the conference I was going to visit was so exciting, but because of the unique cycling opportunity it could give me: riding up Pikes Peak more than 14,000 feet above sea level!
Colorado Springs is a city in Colorado at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado Springs is near the base of one of the most famous American mountains, Pikes Peak, at the eastern edge of the southern Rocky Mountains.
Reading up on Pikes Peak I realise that it’s located in a national park – Pike National Forrest.
It means that I will be surrounded by pine trees and junipers and is home to elk, white-tail, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and antelope. However, it’s also home to the black bear, mountain lion, Canadian lynx, bobcat, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and coyotes… This ride could turn out to become a lot more challenging than I anticipated.
Pikes Peak is one of Colorado's 53 Fourteeners, mountains more than 14,000 feet (4,267.2 m) above sea level. The massif rises 8,000 ft (2,400 m) above downtown Colorado Springs.
At an elevation of 6,035 feet, Colorado Springs is situated over a mile above sea-level. While this means locals are closer to the moon, it also means there's less oxygen. This is great if you’re training to be an endurance athlete, or if you like to get drunk on fewer beers (I tried the latter and can confirm it works). Unfortunately, I was not going to stay long enough to train as an endurance athlete.
Colorado Springs has two-thirds of the oxygen found at sea level and the summit of 14,115-foot Pikes Peak has only half the oxygen found at sea level. Visitors are advised to give it a few days to adapt to the higher altitude before heading up the mountain (gulp).
There’s only one way up Pikes Peak – a single road that leads solely to the top. Starting from the small town of Manitou Springs, the road rises 2,361m over 40km, with only an 800m long false flat for relief roughly halfway up. The average gradient is 7%, and the summit sits at 4,301m / 14,111ft of altitude. Pikes Peak is the second highest paved road in the US, a few meters short of the neighbouring Mount Evans. In terms of continuous ascent, though, Pikes Peak is the most testing climb on offer in Colorado and as I’m about to find out, one of theI had one day of adaptation to the altitude of Colorado Springs, suffered a jet-lag, was sleep deprived and with the perspective of 40 km of climbing at a 7% average, at stratospheric altitude, I decided to keep things simple.
Rather than starting from Manitou Springs I will start the ride from Crystal Reservoir Visitor Centre (elevation 9,230 ft.) to the Summit (14,115 ft) with gains of 4,885 ft. in elevation. The road turns 154 times and is about 13 miles long one way.
Putting things into perspective
To put the altitude into perspective, think Col du Galibier - a mountain pass in the southern region of the French Dauphiné Alps near Grenoble. It is the eighth highest paved road in the Alps and featured many times as the highest point of the Tour de France. Think top of the Galibier, that’s where I will be starting my ride (gulp).
The thought of “only” having to climb for 13 miles gives me confidence…..surely climbing a mere 13 miles is not only achievable but possibly done and dusted in a short time frame and back in time for the main speaker of the day at the congress.
Crystal Creek Reservoir
I Park up at Crystal Creek Reservoir, the sun is out, the temperature is nice and almost warm. I’ve been to the Alps several times and know from experience that it can be hot at the bottom of the mountain but cold at the top.
For that reason, I’ve come prepared, dressed up warmly with several layers and I have my gloves and overshoes at hand.
I’m ready for the ride and set off. The open plain offers a glimpse of the long road ahead to the top and the sun is warming me up nicely. I’m up for it, feeling confident and good.
However, just 5 minutes into the ride and I’m already out of breath! Maybe I started a little bit too fast? Anyway, I’m determined not to get any altitude sickness and therefore take it easy.
There’s a delicate and complex pattern of life on the mountain. The lowest level is known as the foothills zone, which you leave as soon as you get to the toll road up Pikes Peak. From there, the Montane ecozone starts, which winds up to 10,000ft (3,050m). There’s a rich ecosystem of wildflowers, junipers and pine trees, with beavers, elk, black bears and mountain lions for company – not that I’ve spotted any yet.
Above that, you enter the Sub-Alpine ecozone. Trees can still grow at this altitude but, as I climb, wildlife becomes sparse in the absence of water and air. The trees nearest the top of this zone grow thin, tall and often are deformed – known as flag trees.
Beyond this, you enter the moonscape. The alpine zone of Pikes Peak, which starts above us at 11,500ft (3,500m), is where no trees grow. It’s a barren and bare terrain, with few animals, low temperatures and sparse air. You get it, it’s a desert.
The altitude is taking its toll
The altitude is beginning to take its toll. It feels as though I’m breathing through a straw. Thank God I’m on my own and I don’t need to have a conversation with anybody. Sweat starts flooding from my face. I work my way up, meter by meter.
After a few difficult moments I reach Glen Cove, the physical separation between the Montane ecozone and the Alpine ecozone. When I hit the 11,440 ft mark at Glen Cove, the idea of 2,675 ft of climbing still to come seems like a Herculaneum task and comes with a dramatic transition in the mountain scenery. The luscious greens of the foothills have given way to the arid, sandy landscape that dominates the summit.
I get off my bike to get something warm to drink at the café at Glen Cove before I push on to the next phase of the climb. I can use some warmth. Although I have dressed warmly the wind is bitterly cold and vicious.
I park my bike up against the cabin, order a coffee and walk outside next to the building, sheltered from the icy winds but nice and warm in the sun.
Outside I see a woman trying to do the same as me: enjoying a nice warm coffee and the warmth of the sun sheltered by the building.
Americans are easy to strike a conversation with and this lady is no different. It starts with the usual: “how are you?”. As with so many other conversation I’ve had here it only takes about 2 seconds for them to hear that you’re you’re not from around and ask: “Where you’re from?. The “I’m from Amsterdam” works a treat on keeping a conversation going. However, I notice she’s shaking almost uncontrollably and ask if she’s alright. I’m still warming up from the walk at the top of Pikes Peak she says. Did you walk up there? I ask her. She replies that she went up in her car – it’s not a car by the way it’s a massive Ford F150, everybody rides a ford F150 in the US – and just got out at the top for a quick stroll and then came down again in the car. That sets the scene for my remaining miles to the top (gulp).
I drink my coffee and get back on my bike to get this “thing” over and done with.
I’m a cyclist, I won’t give up
Once past Glen Cove it feels as though I’ve set foot on Martian soil, accompanied by a clear view of the mountain.
The temperature has dropped dramatically, and the wind has picked up also through the absence of the shelter of the trees.
Ahead, the jagged, ruthless edge of the mountain challenges me to continue.
The road becomes a maze of switchbacks, overlapping and decorating the exposed mountainside.
The fierce wind seems to draw all the warmth from my body, and my hands are turning cold despite wearing gloves. The dull throb of an altitude headache is encroaching. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll reach the top and finish. I can feel my legs go weak as my lungs seem to be inhaling pre-used air through a straw.
However, with a strong desire to get this done and over with - remember, I’m a cyclist - and to escape the mountain and altitude, I decide to empty the tank and ride flat out.
With each minute that passes, I’m tempted to get off the bike and catch my breath. Unfortunately, up here, the thin air will do little to replenish my energy levels.
As another crest comes into view ahead, I pray the summit sits beyond it.
Of all my experiences in cycling, the final ascent to Pikes Peak is undoubtedly the most surreal and challenging to say the least.
I’ve taken another corner. The wind is brutal, and at my current altitude there’s nowhere to hide. I’m dizzy, with only a faint grip on the job at hand. With the wind blowing sand across the road and the sun blazing against tarmac and snow, the summit is like a distant mirage.
I pour all of my energy into the pedals but can barely make them move, even as the gradient eases.
But I know I’m close – I will not give up, I’m a cyclist.
However, the more determined I am the more Pikes Peak throws at me. The wind is now blowing so hard it not only pushes me all over the road but nearly of the road towards the abyss next to the road.
I stop at the next guardrail get of my bike and have a sit. Or at least that was the plan. The wind is picking up and I can just grab hold of my bike before it gets blown of the road. One hand is holding the guardrail and the other hand is keeping my bike from being swept away over the edge. Then it hits me. Yes, OK, I’m a cyclist and I’m tough, obviously! But, first and foremost, I’m a father and a husband. I’d like to get back without a pit stop to the local hospital due to my dogged determination to reach the top of this mountain in this atrocious weather.
I’m still a cyclist
With only very little distance left to the top I decide to abandon the climb to the top. However, I realise that this will not end my predicament immediately.
This will probably be the most terrifying descent of my life. I’m shaking violently from the cold – and fear - as the wind batters me from left to right across the road – so much so that oncoming cars are coming to a stop for fear of coinciding with my erratic line. I try and hold the middle of the road just in case the next gust of wind tries to push me of the mountain. Sheer drops on the side of the road plunge down hundreds of meters. There’s no air, so no air resistance – the speed surges uncontrollably…
I arrive back at glen Cove where the park authorities demand that all descending cars stop here to check the brake temperatures, as many burn out their brake pads navigating the countless hairpins on their way back down.From here the road becomes less steep and the road is more shielded from the wind.
Once I’ve dropped a few hundred meters from Glen Cove, I realise that with miles and miles of uninterrupted downhill, on smooth National Park tarmac, this may be a descent to remember. As I’m soon to discover, while descents are often considered a reward for the climb, such language wouldn’t do the descent from Pike any justice – it’s an odyssey!
Descending at Pikes Peak is truly stunning and exhilarating. A panoramic picturesque view unveils itself at every hairpin. The surface is immaculate, and I cruise through undisturbed. The roads are wide and open, and a braver rider would have tackled this road at a breakneck speed but I’m a bit of a sissy on the downhills – still tougher than the average footballer though. Still scared from since I had my front wheel literally collapse on me during a downhill in the Forrest of Dean a few years ago, I take it easy and enjoy the views.
With a little more oxygen and a few more degrees of warmth ebbing into my cold body, I roll along the jagged mountain road. Winding around the hairpins, I begin to find my feet, and my legs return to their sea-level strength and I’ve nearly forgotten all the hardship just a few minutes ago.
Soon I find myself safely back at Crystal Creek where the car is parked – exhilarated and exhausted. I’m a cyclist, I did it, I made it! I get of my bike and walk into the souvenir shop for some additional warmth and a drink. Yes, Ok also to get the T-shirt obviously. I pose a strange figure in the souvenir shop in my tight Lycra cycling clothing, orange top and black cycling helmet. Obviously, an easy target as some visitors walk towards me and strike a friendly conversation after recognising me as the guy that was riding up the hill just a bit earlier.
After a warm coffee and some friendly chats, I head back to the car and drive back to the conference I’m supposed to attend.
The climb up Pikes Peak has truly been an epic journey. I will be back though, to do the entire climb. After all, I am a cyclist!
Hasta luego Pikes Peak!