Tour de Pikes Peak: Reflections on My First Bike Tour

The journal entry following my first bike trip reads: “Why does recording life events feel so vital? Because memories can’t be trusted to stay in place. Because in their wake remains the shadowy outlines of phantom feelings—forms so great and vague that we long to recall the experiences that gave them flesh and weight. Okay. Bike trip.” On the next page I taped five sheets of 3×5 pages, carefully ripped from the pocket journal that I carried with me on the bike. I did this for the sake of chronology in my journaling, so that all of my day-to-day reflections remained bound together, in order, but in leafing through the past, I enjoy the three-dimensional quality that my inserted notes lend to the entry.

That bike trip was almost two years ago. At the time, I was going through a few major life transitions (though, I guess we’re never really static)—I had recently started dating my partner Tony, and I was leaving the corporate world to work as a pastry baker, with hopes of being able to carve out a life that allowed for more adventures outside. After moving to Colorado two years prior, I was finally feeling committed to calling it home, and I was keenly interested in becoming more familiar with the state’s topography at eye level. The bike is arguably the best tool for truly getting to know a place and this trip showed me that.

It was late October and the mornings and evenings were crisp with fall’s chill. Tony and I had been dating for just over two months and, aside from a trip to Berlin for my friend Nora’s wedding, this was our first bona fide adventure together. We had driven Tony’s truck down to Colorado Springs on a Thursday afternoon to get in a half day’s worth of climbing before setting out on the bikes, on a route to circumnavigate Pikes Peak. As we warmed up climbing—with families huddled below staging portraits against the rocks—the spiny sandstone ridges struck me as improbable and prehistoric. We climbed a few more routes so that I could get a proper sampling during my first trip to the Garden and ended the day topping out one of the tallest routes in the park in the dark.

The next morning, we woke up in the back of the truck then rolled into town to find breakfast. Wooglin’s Deli was the only place to go. Muffins of legend, so I was told. And eggs. And two rounds of americanos. We weren’t really in a hurry.

After the leisurely breakfast we moved the truck to the spot where it would stay put for the next 36hr on Colorado College’s campus, near the bike path. Bikes propped against a tree, and gear and food splayed across the green lawn while we got ourselves sorted. A woman walked past and I asked if she’d take our photo. She gave me a blank stare and kept walking. Who knows what she thought we were doing but I wanted documentation of this momentous event. My first bike trip was sure to be a transformative experience, for better or worse. We set up a self-timer and got our photo all the same. It was after 10 am by the time we were rolling.

A few steep pitches on the gravel path leading out of town had me worried early, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Because, truthfully I didn’t know. I’d grown up riding bikes and often used my bike over my car in high school to save money on gas, but my motivations were purely utilitarian. I’d always found the elemental independence provided by the bicycle compelling, and had a couple of college friends who’d regaled me with tales of touring, but it wasn’t until I’d lived in Colorado for a few years that I’d started riding with any intention—in fact just earlier that summer. My longest ride at that point had been a 43mi ride in Berlin a few weeks prior, where Tony and I had rented bikes with aspirations to follow the line of the old wall, but never-ending navigational hurdles (Verizon is stingy with its international data speeds) and a constant bone-chilling rain had nixed that plan pretty much out of the gate. And we stopped for three coffees during that ride! I had a little experience handling a loaded bike from a ride I had done in June—using a friend’s bike with borrowed panniers to haul myself and my stuff down to a three-day work conference in Denver—but that had hardly imparted any touring knowledge on me, other than the realization that I didn’t like panniers.

Luckily, the grade mellowed significantly once we joined Gold Camp Rd and I relaxed back into the ride. Gold Camp is an old railroad grade that starts out with views of the Springs below, takes you past Mt. Rosa, and eventually joins a road leading to Victor, a historical mining town. Gold Camp climbs gradually, but steadily, for most of the 30mi of gravel (an eight mile stretch is closed to cars entirely) and then crests a final pitch of steep pavement up to 10k’ just before the short drop into Victor.

As we pedaled, we talked about our respective college experiences—a natural topic as Tony had gone to school at Colorado College—the youthful aspirations we’d held and how those had changed over time. I was loving the riding and conversation, and my legs felt good for most of Gold Camp, but the last few miles to Victor did me in. I didn’t realize how bonked I was until we were sitting in a booth at the Gold Camp Cafe with a late lunch spread before us. I came around after a sandwich and a slice of cheesecake, and, buoyed by the knowledge that the next section, Phantom Canyon, was basically a 30mi descent into Cañon City, we started rolling again.

Since this initial trip, I’ve re-ridden our route twice and can say with certainty that the “climb” out of Victor to the ridge at the top of Phantom Canyon is hardly fitting of the term (there might be one switchback), but at the time I remember feeling completely drained. Food coma, lead for legs, brain in a fog. I woke up enough from my carb-stupor once we emerged from the trees to hear Tony pointing out the Sangre de Cristos, and there they were, a band of snow-capped peaks defining the horizon line in the distance.

Given the time of year, dusk was already fast-approaching as we started our descent of Phantom. As we began picking up speed, the soft crackle of tires rolling over gravel filled my ears. The dim light in the canyon made my eyes feel keener, and the air was cool but I wasn’t cold. I have a hunch that there’s a collective nostalgia for this time of day—the ethereal transition from day to night, light to dark when the mind relaxes but the senses sharpen. It’s the time of day that reminds me of being a kid, panting warm-breath, running around barefoot in grass that’s grown cold and wet, playing tag, not wanting to acknowledge the curfew of “dark” and give up the game. Now, it’s my favorite time to be on a bike.

We were lucky to have our first experience of Phantom when we did—we didn’t see a soul as it was the late season so there were no cars driving up canyon to camp, and the low light imbued the canyon walls with a supernal quality. The grade is slack enough that you only have to brake going into corners and the gravel is mostly smooth. Aside from a few hoots and awe-struck exclamations, we rode down in serene silence. At the bottom, as the canyon opened up to the high plains desert surrounding Cañon City, the spell was broken. Night had fallen. We put on headlamps and made plans to ride into town to scavenge gas station fare for dinner before riding part-way up Shelf Rd to camp.

We hit the gas station around 75mi in—I grabbed a yogurt, a couple sleeves of cashews, and a cookie for dinner, and, not having packed a stove, we stashed a few tooth-achingly sweet coffee drinks for the morning. So it goes. From there we headed north out of town and picked up Shelf Rd.

The first 12mi of Shelf is paved and rolling as the road climbs before turning to gravel—fairly uninspiring riding compared to the rest of the route (although, we’ve since found a worthy alternative to this paved section that adds a little extra distance). Under the veil of night and ignorance, I was blissfully unaware of the riding ahead. When Tony stopped to pee, I decided to charge ahead to see how long I could hold him off.

Defying your own expectations is a wonderfully liberating experience. At that point in the day, I had already ridden twice the distance of my previous longest ride and significantly more than twice the vert. I felt euphoric and emptied my proverbial tank by riding those paved miles as hard as I could, occasionally glancing over my shoulder to see if Tony’s headlamp was gaining on me. He caught me after about half an hour, laughing at my endorphin-induced surge, but by the time the road turned to gravel my jets had decidedly cooled.

We bypassed the main camping areas that climbers frequent (we were over 90mi in and I was scheming to make it a full century), not realizing that our options would be slim further up the canyon. As the road surface changed to loose gravel, I could sense the eponymous exposure to our right that lends Shelf its name, but it wouldn’t be until the next summer that I would ride that section in full daylight and really be able to take it in.

After a few miles, the road drops down and crosses Four Mile Creek, and the real climbing begins in earnest shortly after. Having ridden Shelf before, Tony assured me that we didn’t want to go much farther than the creek, for fear that we’d really run out of bivvy options and end up sleeping in the road, so we made camp behind a small boulder in a flat pull-off on the right side of the road just across from the creek, four miles short of completing my first century. It was not ideal and the creek bottom made the ambient air temperature chilly, but we huddled into our bivvies and bags, ate dinner, and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning was autumnal and cold. Tony had brought his “summer bag” (35-degrees) and said he had trouble staying warm enough to sleep. Wearing my down jacket, tucked inside a 20-degree bag and emergency bivvy, I’d slept great, though I’m sure my physical exhaustion played a significant role as well. We huddled behind our rock, breakfasting on day-old muffins, bars, and iced coffees until our hands were so cold that the only thing to do was to get moving.

Fortunately for us, the huck up to Cripple Creek (9mi/ 3k’ elevation gain) was adequately warming, and I was shedding layers before long. I felt worn out from the day before and the stout start to the day was jarring, but we were motivated by hopes of hot coffee and a hot (second) breakfast in Cripple Creek. When we finally arrived, the old mining-turned-gambling town’s dining prospects were bleak. Everything (read: the donut shop), it seemed, was closed for the season, except the casinos. Slow rolling down the main street we decided to try one of the more innocuously named spots, The Midnight Rose.

Once seated upstairs, the glow of slot machines visible through the double doorway at the far side of the room, our waitress seemed completely uninterested in us—paying customers or not. We were able to flag her down to order coffees and breakfast sandwiches, but throughout the encounter I kept stifling the urge to apologize for our presence (“like, sorry we’re not going to drop a few G’s on the slots after this…?”) which was completely out of place with the rest of the casino’s denizens. Oh well, at least the egg and cheese croissants were passable.

Given the service and ambiance, we didn’t linger long at the Midnight Rose and were soon astride the bikes once more, pedaling up the hill north out of Cripple Creek. While Shelf Rd may end at Cripple Creek, the climbing itself isn’t finished until you top out Tenderfoot Pass (10,200’) just above town—my legs protested much of the way!

Once over Tenderfoot, the miles turned prosaic. While we had been able to avoid some highway riding on a paralleling gravel road, when we rejoined the highway it was six miles of pavement into Divide. These were memorable for me as the least enjoyable section of the trip—no shoulder, slow rolling hills, and lots of cars. With my focus narrowed to not straying from the white line, I felt every second of those miles.

We were relieved to escape the traffic in Divide but also ready to get to Woodland Park—on these kinds of trips, it’s funny how as soon as you have met an intermediary goal, you’ve already replaced it with a new aim to reach the next town, or pass, or milestone. On the more workmanlike miles the hardest thing can be just remaining present, rather than wishing yourself farther along to a more interesting section of the route. There is character-building value and mental fortitude to be gained from working through what is before you instead of fixating on the future. Of course, it is an ongoing process.

For the sake of expediency, we traded in the next gravel stretch we had planned for 14 ripping fast miles down the highway into Woodland Park. (Recently, Tony has refined our route further to eliminate just about all of the aforementioned pavement, replacing this section with a detour up to the flowy Ring the Peak singletrack—objectively slower riding that adds in some climbing, but preferable to the highways if you’re up for the comparatively more technical terrain). Woodland Park actually had an open donut shop (the much-hailed Donut Mill) and was the gateway to the last substantial section of riding: Rampart Range Road.

Looking back, my stomach turns a little recalling how much sugar and baked goods I ate on this trip, but at the time, I felt so depleted that a couple of donuts and coffee for lunch sounded like exactly what I needed. Refueled and motivated to take on the last climb separating us from our starting point in Colorado Springs, we pointed the bikes toward the ridge.

Rampart Range Road is an iconic geographic ridgeline with a gravel road that stretches over 55mi; from the South Platte region the road ribbons along the crest of the foothills all the way down to Colorado Springs. We climbed up to the southern portion of the ridge, riding about 10mi until we reached the highpoint overlook. The riding is punctuated by continuous rollers and frequent washboards but I didn’t care as it was the first time in the trip I really got a good look at Pikes Peak. Rising to an elevation over 14k’, the mountain is an anomaly among Colorado’s 14ers in that it sits completely alone. Its solitary nature is a majestic sight, especially as we witnessed it with the mauve dusk descending upon us. The expansive views of the mountain from Rampart Range Road proved to be one of the highlights of the whole route.

A couple of strangers snapped our photo at the overlook, and then donning jackets and gloves, we headed down. A few switchbacks into the descent we stopped to fine-tune our tire pressure to accommodate the rough road surface, which consisted of marble and golf-ball-sized gravel. After a 3,000’ descent, the road deposited us into the Garden of the Gods. I couldn’t believe we were back—we had ridden 170mi with over 14k’ of climbing—I would have been exhilarated had I not been so exhausted. My body was spent and my brain was reeling from sensory overload.

It was almost dark as we weaved our way through the web of roads in the park, back to the bike path and, finally, to the truck. It was still there! Admittedly, I hardly remember packing up, but we must have because Tony drove us home that night—I had to work at the bakery the next morning after all. Nodding off on the way home, moments from the day flashed across my mind, replaying like a haywire home movie reel, the body still feeling the inertia of continuous movement.

When my alarm sounded the next morning, I woke up, got dressed, and carried my single speed commuter downstairs. The pre-dawn air was cool. I marveled at how it had only been three days since my last shift at the bakery; the experience that I’d gained largely outweighed the intervening hours. Time is truly elastic. I had gotten a taste of what it meant to travel self-contained on the bike, what could essentially be a limitless cycle of moving under your own power, so long as you ate and slept occasionally. I was also beginning to understand that it is almost always your mind that holds you back— using trivial discomforts as excuses—not your body. It is always just a matter of deciding to keep moving, and this notion of mind over matter translates to all aspects of life, on and off the bike. From then on, even a mundane errand like riding to work or to the store could conjure memories from the trip, a reminder that the simple act of pedaling was a connection to this broader feeling of freedom afforded by the bike. A wellspring of motion memory was taking form.

Almost two years hence, it is clear to me how impactful this trip has remained. For one, I’ve certainly ridden my bike a lot more since and taken many subsequent bike trips. I’ve sought to weave the bike into my lifestyle, for environmental reasons, but also just as a preferred vehicle for taking in the world. On a rudimentary level, riding a bike is artless and (barring inclement weather) downright pleasant—and you can actually cover significant ground while carrying everything you need. The machine is as simple or sophisticated as you want it to be, but either way, your connection to your surroundings remains unimpeded. This trip was a turning point in my ability to begin to articulate what it is that holds meaning for me.  In bike touring, the singularity of focus inherent in waking up and riding—no distractions—is itself fulfilling and provides space for introspection. The sense of independence gained is emboldening and the ability to travel self-sufficiently, unparalleled.


These photos were shot on a Contax iia from 1950 and a Yashica T4 with Portra 400