The Inaugural Colorado North South: My Initiation to Bikepacking Racing

Earlier this year, Hailey Moore set out with a small group of riders in the first North South Colorado Bikepacking Race, a self-supported race event on mixed terrain – from Fort Collins to Alamosa – through the Rocky Mountains. Continue reading for Hailey’s immersive trip report and photos from along the route.

Day 1

The clouds had been steadily gathering all day, growing heavier the farther west I rode. As the final stretch of Cameron Pass came into view they let their cargo fall and I was soon soaked through by the cool late summer rain. Riding past the summit sign marking the 10k’+ elevation in my arm sleeves, wind shell, and bib shorts, I braced for the cold descent to come. Fortunately my hunch—that the rain would stop on the far side of the continental divide—proved accurate, but the wet road provided its own unpleasantness. There was a real rain jacket tucked in my seat bag, which in turn was secured beneath my sleeping pad and a tangle of straps. During a normal tour I probably would have stopped to unearth it, but not today—no time, keep riding. I was just over 100mi into day one of my first bikepacking race—the inaugural edition of the Colorado North South—and the race mindset was taking hold.

In total, the course would take riders along a 530mi diagonal cut down the state, from Fort Collins to Alamosa. A group of about 20 had set out that morning and in the intervening hours had accordioned out across the first stretch, traversing just south of the Wyoming border. During those early hours, I had settled into a steady, solo pace. The northern border of the route was wildly open and empty-feeling, but to call it desolate felt like I was simply projecting my own vulnerability while traveling under those vast skies. It was beautiful and intimidating and lonely, and it also just was.

Granby: At 155mi in and the first resupply, this was a long leg before dinner, but that’s why I was out there. Going into the race I was familiar with much of the route, so the sight-seeing aspect wasn’t my primary motivation for lining up. While I love touring, I was looking forward to the challenge of the race and seeing what it was like to stack up long days in the saddle, largely on my own. For me, there’s a unique satisfaction in covering big miles alone, going deep into myself and seeing what the experience yields.

By the top of the final climb before descending into Granby, I’d managed to catch two other riders. After riding alone for the better part of 12hrs, I hadn’t expected to catch anyone else the first day and I felt a flutter of excitement as I was reminded that this was, indeed, a race. We all took off down the now fully dark descent and I was glad to have the visibility of all of our lights as we approached town. At McDonalds as my riding companions, Leonardo and Artec, slid into a booth and took off their shoes I said goodbye. It was nearly 10:30pm. I wanted to push on another hour or so towards Winter Park and I knew if my shoes came off there was no way I’d do any more riding that night.

Starting day two near Winter Park would position me to tackle Rollins Pass early and in daylight. While I suspected that some riders out front might attempt to cross Rollins on day one—or as day one blurred into day two—I wasn’t interested in sleeping higher than 9k’ or in navigating the hike-a-bike across Rollins’ signature collapsed tunnel (above 11k’) and the following rubbly descent in the dark. I’d been turned off (and, admittedly, intimidated) by the sleep deprivation tactics that seem endemic to bikepack racing and wanted to test the waters by sleeping anywhere from 4.5-6hrs a night. I think the dance with sleep deprivation and how it affects one’s pace, emotional state, and decision making varies widely person-to-person, and to some extent is a muscle that can be developed. Still, I had a theory that (relatively) more rest would help me stay sharper and more positive while also allowing me to ride harder. Swallowing my sandwich in about three bites, I dumped my fries into an extra ziplock lining my top tube bag (à la Lael Wilcox) and rolled off into the night.

Midnight—late for me! It was already cold, the sign of a waning summer, but I’d found a school ball field with a sheltered dugout. Perfect. Clouded by the fatigue of pedaling 170mi and the surrealness of the day, I crawled into my bag with relief.

Day 2

Low clouds had gathered in the valley overnight and the morning was cold and thick. I packed up and got rolling with numb hands and coffee on the brain.

Starbucks: the only time I get excited about a stop here is during a bike trip. This Starbucks could have been anywhere in the country—from the Chicago airport to the one here in front of me; the placelessness of it was oddly comforting. Quality aside, this is what fast food aims to provide: a predictable, consistent experience. And Starbucks achieves this. The coffee is too evocative of brewed charcoal for my taste, but it could be worse, and although the pastries and sandwiches come in space-travel packaging, they’re reminiscent enough of the good stuff that you can convince yourself that it’s fine. The idea of what great poundcake should taste like carries you through the actual eating experience of poundcake mediocrity. Or maybe it has more to do with having a higher capacity for appreciation when you’ve been recently experiencing hardship (albeit, self-imposed)? Or, maybe I’m just a coffee snob (likely). Regardless, after a chilly night sleeping at almost 9k’ all I needed at the start of Day 2 was the idea of a hot coffee and hot breakfast, and whatever physical rendition that took would suffice.

I finally started riding at a casual 6:50 am—kind of laughing about the late start (some serious bikepack racer I’m turning out to be), kind of kicking myself at the same time. In total, I’d only been stopped 7hrs since arriving the night before, but it was too long. Oh well, I was well-fueled and at least the climb up Rollins would be a little warmer. The climb up from the west is idyllic—gradual (mostly) smooth gravel, mist-shrouded views of Winter Park above treeline, and alpine lakes studding the horizon on the final push over the divide. The terrain abruptly changes at the summit—the road narrows to singletrack cut into an exposed shelf ending in a pair of wooden trestles. An old railroad tunnel follows which, to cross, involves pushing your bike over precipitous terrain while doing the hike-a-bike one-two (“squeeze the brakes, take a step”). On the other side, the remaining 14mi descent follows a babyhead-strewn jeep road where suspension would not be remiss.

With tingling hands and numb feet, I made it down Rollins intact. Another—steeper—chunky climb immediately followed: Mammoth Gulch. I hiked maybe half of it, using the time on feet as an opportunity to eat and mentally relax after white-knuckling down Rollins. It was hard not to feel like I should be riding, as on any day ride I’d surely pedal the whole climb. But I reminded myself, I wasn’t on a day ride and on most day rides, my bike doesn’t weigh 40lbs.

Just when I was getting down about my slow pace, I reached the summit, only to find Artec ready to bomb the descent on his dropper-equipped hardtail (he’d also kept riding the previous night but had gotten an earlier start than me). He too had hiked much of the way up Mammoth, and we both shared our relief about being done with what we hoped would be the slowest miles on the course. Catching another rider at the top suddenly reframed the last hour—what had felt like solo toiling now seemed like I’d actually been making decent progress. It’s all relative and everyone else was out there trying to make their way over the same terrain.

It was nearly 3 o’clock when I reached my lunch stop in Idaho Springs. The town was a zoo of tourists. I tried to make quick work of finding food, but the crowds and some labor-shortage closures made for an inefficient stop. Everything about this day was feeling slow; the first 60mi had taken 8hr, and now finding food also felt like it was taking forever. Expectations are a double-edged sword: I think when they motivate goals, they can be a powerful tool. But, in this context, they were also creating a source of negative pressure. My goal that day was to make it all the way to Colorado Springs—a point that was still over 100mi away—and to do so I’d hoped, I’d expected to be moving more quickly. As I was eating lunch, I decided to let that one go, I’d just ride ‘til midnight and see where I landed.

Squaw Pass followed, my third pass of the day. Tackling that much climbing during a standard tour would feel daunting, but going into this race I’d committed to trying to accept the route as the route. I would do my best on the climb ahead, but if my legs weren’t there I could gear down or, of course, walk. It didn’t serve me to feel frustrated or defeated by the terrain, I needed that energy to keep moving forward. And, this worked—most of the time.

I found Artec again on the climb up the pass. By now we felt like pals and I rode some with him before putting my earbuds back in to push on to the summit. I was amazed to find that I still had legs and hoped to make up some time after the morning’s slow miles. My favorite thing about long days out, or multi-day trips, is this kind of discovery–the moment(s) when it seems totally implausible that you could still be feeling good, or come around after a hard section. In some ways it just feels like my body goes into autopilot, my legs working on their own and before I know it the climb is done. It’s often not this way but when it does happen it feels like I could ride forever.

Spending over half the day on the bike reframes time and the next few hours passed like minutes. There was the tree-lined descent off Squaw Pass into Evergreen, the sun setting over rolling farm roads, a sign and the sounds marking a wedding. I slid through all of these moments like water, seeing them then letting them go.

Conifer Springs: Artec arrived at the gas station just as I was finishing up a couple burritos. We rode our longest stretch together that night—cruising the big downhill to the Platte River, the many s-curves feeling more exciting in the dark. Along the easy grade of the river’s bank below, we talked about other races he’s done (i.e. many). The opaqueness of the churning water and the beam of our lights cutting through the inky dark made the night feel almost palpable. Then the grade got less easy and there was less talking as we began up the steep west side of Jarre Canyon to gain Rampart Range Road. As we hiked during a particularly stout section, I could sense Artec’s light fading behind me. I kept on at my pace and pulled away once back on the bike.

Rampart begins with a 10mi sustained climb up to ~9k’ to gain Devil’s Head, and then you spend the next 35mi surfing 100’ to 300’ rollers before the big drop into Colorado Springs. Due to its proximity to the city, Rampart is also popular for camping and I was worried about finding a quiet spot this Labor Day weekend. At nearly midnight, I passed one campsite overrun with what I can only assume was a family reunion—backed-in cars guarded all ports, lights were strung from a dozen tents, the smell of cooking food wafted through the air and Zydeco music blared. I passed by completely unnoticed. It looked like a good time, but the sound traveled far along the ridge. I rode on until I could barely hear it, pulled over at a wide spot in the road and called it a night. Dozing off, I heard the faint crush of gravel under wheels—Artec! Well off the road and invisible in my bivvy on the ground, I knew he wouldn’t see me. I looked at my phone for the last time that day—12:24am.

Day 3

When I’d set up shop the night before I’d been thrilled to find a low-hanging fence beside my bivvy spot. I hung up all my non-sleeping clothes and went to bed feeling very civilized indeed. I woke up the next morning at 5:15 to a light drizzle and dashed hopes of starting the day in dry clothes.

I was keenly interested to see if I’d find Artec on the road, or if my calculation to sleep at midnight had been too conservative. Each time I’d ridden Rampart in the past the constant rollers had felt interminable. But this morning I felt surprisingly fresh. Fortified by my sleep and carrot cake breakfast and buoyed by the ineffable combination of sunrise and some morning music, I could tell it was going to be a good day.

I soon came upon Artec getting sorted on the side of the road—I waved and said “good morning” and kept rolling. Nothing against him but I was pretty tired of leap-frogging. It takes a lot of emotional energy for me to ride with others, especially a near-stranger, and I was enjoying my music-induced bliss. And, knowing that the pendulum always swings back, I wanted to ride out feeling strong as long as possible.

Artec and I were now firmly holding down 3rd and 4th but after another brief encounter on Rampart I wouldn’t see him again till midday and, aside from a near miss between an unattended pitbull’s mouth and my ankle, the rest of Rampart flowed well. With 10mi left on the ridge, Pike’s finally came into view. The sight of such a proud-looking peak carried me into town.

Colorado Springs: Still riding high off of a solid morning, I had a real meal at the Safeway. It was already quite warm and only 11:30am—I knew the hours to follow would be roasting. Artec arrived just as I was leaving—in lieu of a baton, I gave him my remaining strawberries. I packed extra liquid calories and hoped it would be enough. It would be over 40mi and 4k’ of climbing before I reached the next stop in Cripple Creek.

That afternoon was my first encounter during the race with any late summer heat—we’d been lucky the first two days, either riding up high or having the good fortune of cooler temps—and I started to feel its effects about 10mi from Cripple Creek. Eating was nearly unthinkable. That, and in an effort to save time by not stopping to filter, I’d been conserving my last half bottle too long. I knew that second place, Jason Kiefer, wasn’t that far ahead, and I’d ridden over half of the climb up Gold Camp at what felt like a sustainable, focused clip, but soon after realized I’d pushed too hard on too little water and food. At the gas station in Cripple Creek, I was hit with a bad stomach, chills on my arms and a hot flush across my cheeks—low blood sugar and dehydration.

A brake-dragging descent down Shelf Rd followed, then a detour through Red Canyon Park before reaching Cañon City. The good energy I’d felt along Rampart and all the way up Gold Camp was spent and I was fried. Leaving the pavement at Red Canyon, I couldn’t have known that the next 16mi would take me 2.5hr thanks to a few punchy climbs, rough roads, and a flat (my only mechanical of the race).

It was nearly 9:30pm when I reached the gas station in town. Rough vibes. This was the first place on the route where I’d felt hesitant in leaving my bike unattended outside. I tried to make quick work of my dairy-bomb dinner: a couple of dorm-room sized Kraft mac n’ cheese bowls topped with tuna and mayo and washed down with a few drinkable yogurts. Trying to inhale the scalding noodles, I thought why does eating take so long all the while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the thought. My goal of reaching Westcliffe—30mi and 4k’ away—that night seemed unlikely. I told myself all I needed to do was start making a dent in the climb up Oak Creek Grade. While I wasn’t sure if actually catching second place was feasible, keeping our gap as slim as possible was hugely motivating.

Day 4

I slept poorly—almost hot, mind racing, yet completely exhausted. With an alarm set for 4am I was up at 3:15, ravenous after the previous evening’s lackluster dinner. Eating a few fig newtons while packing up, I realized that I probably wouldn’t have as much food as my body wanted to get to Westcliffe.

On the bike, the road dropped into a canyon that then steadily climbed up to cross the Wet Mountains. The air immediately changed. The still-lingering heat of Cañon’s high desert climes turned cold as I rode higher through the narrow walls. I thought my cold hands and feet had more to do with my caloric deficit but my Wahoo’s thermometer corroborated the low air temp: 45,40, and then 35F. It was a dark and cold ride to Westcliffe. All I could think about was getting warm and eating.

The walk-up coffee shop I first tried had little in the way of a substantial breakfast and the Subway (attached to a gas station) on the way out of town ended up being closed due to staffing shortages. Aside from the national shock of the pandemic itself, these closures as a result of labor scarcity were (and have continued to be) the most I’ve ever personally experienced on-the-ground repercussions of a national phenomenon.

Talking to the friendly gas station clerk about the situation, I felt shame about my own selfish endeavors—being able to afford to take the time to participate in this race was a huge privilege, one that I truly valued. But, I was also starting to feel desperate. Okay calories, I just need calories. I compiled an assortment of food to take on the bike, and more to eat before leaving the gas station. In hindsight, I should have eaten twice as much. For me, apathy is the biggest signifier of being under-fueled but also makes eating more of a chore, and my tongue was already raw from all the gas station fare. There was just one more pass ahead.

You gain the last 1,000’ to top out Medano Pass in a little under 2mi—I walked a lot of that. From the summit, the descent in the distance looked long and steep but, I thought, at least it’s going down. With just 45mi to go, I thought of the finish. Too soon. Over the course of the next 10mi, I probably got off my bike 10 times—steep, loose descents rutted out by jeep traffic, encountering said jeep traffic, multiple stream crossings. It was slow going, and I was trying hard to keep myself together mentally—better to get off than have a dumb crash, just keep moving.

The steep descent off Medano leveled out and deposited me into the skirt of the Great Sand Dunes themselves. I’d never seen this geologic marvel and I was awestruck by the still waves of the blond dunes that formed the horizon.

The sand under my own wheels was far less inspiring. Walking, under the blazing sun, my Wahoo reading the temperature at 95-degrees. The slow pace was disappointing, but it was the heat that had me slowly unraveling. The sun was making my skin prickle and my feet felt on fire atop the hot sand in black shoes. I had no idea how long I’d be walking. There was a long line of cars heading into this place that I was so ready to put behind me, my unenviable situation shown back to me in my reflection in their windows.

Kicking through the sand, I realized I was responsible for my own angst. At the summit, I’d told myself that I was almost finished and had, prematurely, congratulated myself on being tough. But the natural world doesn’t keep score. You don’t get points for being tough in one moment that then turn to rewards in the next. This is so glaringly obvious but also inexplicably hard to learn, and relearn, and in that moment I was mad at myself for having forgotten. But because the terrain exists independent from your own experience, the attitude you bring to it is ultimately what shapes that experience. And, if you allow it, that is an incredibly liberating discovery.

At one point, a younger couple stopped and rolled down their window to ask if I was okay. I noticed bikes on the back of their car. They offered me some water and a bar which I gladly accepted. As they moved on, I thought about how they reminded me of my partner, Tony, and myself, and how if we encountered a cyclist similarly toiling, we’d have done the same thing—offered any small token as a lifeline. It was uplifting to be seen, even for a moment, by these kind strangers. At the edge of the unrideable sand, I stopped in the shade of a juniper to put my socks back on. From there, the rideable sections started to get longer than the sections of pushing, and then—finally, 90mins later—I was released!

At a little shack that served as a campground store, I downed a coke, a bottle of ice water and a popsicle. The sand had nearly cracked me but I was still feeling driven to chase my 3 ½ day goal. 36mi to go. I put on music and listened to a few of my favorite songs on repeat for the next two hours. A fast section of pavement—a very welcome reprieve—was followed by 14mi of dead flat gravel. I was too tired to think about the experience as a whole, and I was also still too close to it, but pushing along I felt uncommonly content.

I made a turn on the edge of town, one mile to go. The last 84 hours felt like they held a year’s worth of experiences. I rounded the final corner into Cole Park. Tony jogged over. And just like that, I was done.

Hailey finished the Colorado North-South in 3:11:50, third overall and first female. You can check out a short post she wrote on the PEARL iZUMi blog for her full gear breakdown.