45.0 mi / 9.5 mph / 3419 ft. climbing
Home: Suzie and Dave’s House
Adventure Cycling’s TransAmerica Route directs us downstream and west along the Colorado River from Hot Sulphur Springs to Kremmling, and then upstream along the Blue River as it rises southeast to the Dillon Reservoir. The short bit of riding we did on US-40 yesterday wasn’t very fun with its heavy traffic, so doing more of that but with dodgier shoulders sounded even less fun. Then CO-9 (the southeast portion) also had a 5-mile shoulderless section (and longer if we didn’t loop around the far side of Green Mountain Reservoir, which adds 3 miles).
Ever since we left Glacier, our route has also danced and flirted with Adventure Cycling’s Great Divide off-road route. In this area, it actually gives a more-direct (13 miles shorter) route to Dillon via CO-3. In exchange, it has more total climbing (it goes up and down over 9600 ft. Ute Pass), and it has a long section of gravel road. We’ve been teased and burned by gravel “shortcuts” before, so maybe just sticking to the standard road route is the safer option.
But! It’s “only” 13 miles of gravel. And it’s only in the lead-up to Ute Pass. By the time we reach the steep up-and-down section, the road returns to pavement, which is critically important for us. But the real key is that, unlike all the other gravel roads we’ve been on, this one is on the heavily-traveled Great Divide route, so I could look up multiple, recent reports of the surface quality! One of them described it as “champagne gravel”, nearly like a hard-surfaced road in places, so that was promising. Let’s do it!
First we had to do a shoulderless section of US-40 through Byers Canyon. Early in the 40-degree morning, there wasn’t much traffic to deal with, but there was still enough that I couldn’t get the amount of photos that the incredible landscape deserved. For two miles our road, the Colorado River, and the Union Pacific/Amtrak tracks wound together through the deep gorge with the rising sun painting the top of the craggy walls orange.
We got spit out into a suddenly-wide-open landscape again, and before we reached Parshall we rolled those dice and branched south onto CO-3, with an immediate climb out of the Colorado’s valley. We got four miles of smooth no-center-line asphalt, and then the gravel began. As promised, it was the best gravel road we’ve ever been on. There were spots where it was compacted nearly to the density and smoothness of pavement, so not only did we not need to constantly be seeking for a rideable line, we were able to move nearly as fast as we would have on pavement.
Of course we’ve been bait-and-switched before, with a good gravel surface suddenly changing to shit, but this one held pretty constant through the whole 13-mile stretch. The ease of riding allowed me to even take notice of how long our shadows remained unusually late into the morning; we’re definitely on the tail end of summer!
Just before the pavement returned we passed the ore processing plant (and giant tailings pile) for the Henderson molybdenum mine. The actual mine is 15 miles away on the other side of the Continental Divide, and for some reason the ore is delivered here via a conveyor system that goes through a 10 mile tunnel under the mountains! At least that means the vast majority of the rock stays up here in the mountains rather than being transported over roads, and so we only had a few loaded trucks go by us on our way up (and maybe that’s why the road is gravel, because they figure it’s an easier surface on which to repair the trucks’ abuse?)
It would have been a surprise to see this big industrial operation up here in this mostly-natural area if I hadn’t read about it in all the ride journals when researching the gravel. But what was a surprise was that none of the journals had mentioned a major use of molybdenum: the chro-moly steel alloy that is used in nearly all steel bicycle frames, including both mine and Rett’s! Maybe none of those Great Divide guys ride steel bikes? Anyway, I’m happy to assume that the molybdenum atoms in both of our bikes came from this mine that we rode up a gravel road to; it’s the biggest Mo producer in the world’s 2nd-biggest Mo-producing country, so it’s possible!
It’s a good thing that the road then returned to pavement, because the subsequent 900-foot climb to the top came in three bursts with 6-7% grades rather than the 5% we’re used to on Western mountain climbs. And we were also trying to beat the afternoon winds, which are always gustier higher up, and forecasted to be knock-us-sideways crosswinds. We got a couple of ominous blasts, but it seemed like the tree cover kept us sufficiently protected.
We stopped for lunch at the parking area on top of Ute Pass, and had a great conversation with Mary Jo from Steamboat Springs, who was celebrating her birthday with a ride up and down the pass from the opposite direction. In addition to commiserating over one particular asshole semi-truck driver (“at least I now know he got 3 ‘fuck yous’, which makes me feel better even if he didn’t hear any of them…”), she also confirmed the superiority of this route over the paved CO-9 option (“I headed north on CO-9 just to warm up for a bit before starting the climb, and the traffic suuucked, so I turned around after a quarter-mile”). We also chatted with a friendly musician from Tennessee(?) who gave me a couple of Hershey bars and a recommendation to listen to Kansas’s “Song for America”.
The five mile, 1400 foot, also-steeper-than-normal descent from Ute Pass (which came all in one chunk rather than the three steps on the way up) was exhilarating, with ever-changing views of the Gore Range across the valley. We turned south onto CO-9 (the exact point at which its shoulders returned), and began the long low-grade uphill. Several miles in, we got our second pickup-truck carry in a couple weeks. This one was much more-organized than the construction zone in Yellowstone, with a bike rack on the back of the truck. CDOT’s website specifically says the truck has slots for 5 bikes, and yes, the rack did, but our bikes needed to sit further apart than that, so I felt a little bad when another rider showed up while we were waiting for the one-way traffic to turn around and the driver told him he would need to wait for the next cycle. It’s a good thing the loading was relatively-easy, because we only got driven about a mile before we needed to get out and reverse the whole process of unloading our bikes and reattaching all the bags. But at least that one mile took us up the sole steep-ish climb embedded in the long slope and dropped us at the start of a brief downhill!
Before too long we were in Silverthorne and passing its miles of all-brown new housing, the highest population we’ve been in since maybe Bozeman? There are enough people living here that the population has enough diversity to support a Mexican grocery store, which Rett immediately turned into to acquire some of her beloved treats.
Despite the outlet malls and crossing of I-70 (it seems not long ago that we crossed I-90, then I-80…), multi-lane US-6 felt safe enough (at least in the early afternoon) to ride into Dillon, which meant we didn’t need to take any of the janky bike-trail options. The last 2 miles of our 15-mile slope kicked up another notch and gave no relief, forcing us to stop less than half a mile from our destination for a quick M&M boost.
Our destination was a special one; we were going to spend a few nights with our friends Dave & Suzie, who we had met on our kayak trip in Baja last year. More on our visit in the next post!