Schofield Pass: Marble to Crested Butte

9484WP

From Carbondale, there are several ways to reach Crested Butte– none of them are paved the entire way.  Several routes from Aspen to CB are enticing, including the famed Pearl Pass route, but snow above 10,700 ft excludes them this time of year.  Pearl Pass is over 12,700 ft, and Star and Taylor passes are nearly as high, and include some singletrack.  McClure Pass is paved, but connecting Kebler Pass to Crested Butte is technically unpaved, although improved and in great condition.  The paved road from Carbondale to Marble connects to a dirt route through the town of Crystal and over Schofield Pass.  At 10,705 ft, Schofield was clear of snow.  On the other side of the pass awaits the famous Trailriders 401 trail down to the town of Gothic.  The ride over Schofield is the most direct, and holds the allure of the “401”.

The road from Marble begins with Daniel’s Climb, a lung-busting grade to Crystal.  Thereafter, the aspen are electric, and the road turns to a rough 4×4 track which is unrideable at times.  The Devil’s Punchbowl is a steep, narrow feature that is largely unrideable, but is a fun challenge on fat tires.  The Pugsley is a stellar slow speed rock crawler, but even a momentary loss of momentum is enough unseat me.  Cresting Schofield Pass, pockets of snow lurk in the shadows.

9264WP

9286WP

9278WP

9303WP

9292WP

9313WP

The mill in Crystal is one of the most photographed sites in Colorado, drawing leaf-peepers from all over.

9320WP

Downtown Crystal.

9336WP

9319WP

9339WP

9340WP

Turn left to complete the Lead King Loop back to Marble; stay right to Crested Butte.

9351WP

The road turns up, and degrades to a narrow 4×4 track.  Unimaginable, this was once a wagon route.  The other riders are friends of Joe Cruz.  In fact, Joe was Anna’s professor and they share a love of cycling.  She is now entrenched in a 6-year philosophy program, but has found time for some winter endurance racing including the Susitna 100 and the White Mountains 100.  That’s 100 miles, in the snow.  I’m working hard towards a PhD in bicycle touring.  Push.

9371WP

9361WP

9378WP

9392WP

Wet feet.

9394WP

Rocky road.

9405WP

Finally.  Another world awaits on the other side.  From the top of the pass, turn up onto the 401 Trail to climb above 11,000 ft.  An epic descent awaits.

9414WP

9416WP

The 401.  With a light cover of wet snow, the Pugsley has come full circle.  From snow to snow, this bike has been everywhere between an Anchorage winter and high mountain passes in Colorado.  The tread on my Larry tires is worn, and doesn’t hold well in soft terrain.  I’m dreaming of the Nate tire at times.  Lael’s Maxxis Ardent holds the trail well.

9424WP

9429WP

9428WP

9435WP

Before cresting the ridge, an alpine park has views in all directions.  In the distance, the backside of the Maroon Bells.

9453WP

9465WP

9466WP

Going down.  Bundle up.  The soil on the other side is rich with organic matter, making for a lot of mud.  A gorgeous, but not so epic descent.

9471WP

9480WP

9497WP

9517WP

9509WP

9523WP

9532WP

9538WP

Walking, to reduce our impact on this heavily trafficked trail.  A fine coagulation of cow shit and mud temporarily clogs our wheels.  Cass would be in heaven.  Raised on English mud, he loves this stuff.  Grateful to have a fender, I came out looking a lot like a human, rather than the mud-encrusted primates seen in cyclocross and gravel races.  Platform pedals always do their job, even clogged in mud.

9546WP

9549WP

9557WP

9553WP

Rideable.  Coated in mud, the chains operate smoothly and silently.  Deore: +1.

9564WP

9573WP

As promised (finally), a rideable descent and some memorable trail at the end of the day.

9580WP

9585WP

9609WP

9597WP 2

9621WP

9622WP

9624WP

No need to filter this water.  It comes directly from the heavens.  At least, it comes from a cow-free wilderness above.

9629WP

9631WP

Camp.  Awake to clear skies, the frozen morning rapidly thaws into a t-shirt day.  The spoils of a frozen night are ideal lighting and a heavy layer of frost.  If only Lael had a camera, she could document me running around the frosty meadow in my long underwear with my camera.

Breaking the seal of our small frosty tent, I’m always excited to see how the world has changed.

9647WP

9702WP

9650WP

9674WP

9664WP

9684WP

9657WP

9686WP

9677WP

One of the nicest campsites of the entire summer.  Heat some water for tea, and ride into town.  Crested Butte is one historic home of mountain biking, and claims the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Museum.

9698WP

9715WP

9726WP

Gothic, seemingly named for the gothic arches encased in the mountainside.

9746WP

9769WP

9785WP

9782WP

9773WP

And a bike path into town.  Mt. Crested Butte looms overhead.

9790WP

9792WP

9798WP

Colorado Trail: Copper Mountain to Leadville

7566WP

Just another day or two on the Colorado Trail.  Still, there’s nothing not to like.  Pushing the final few hundred feet up to Searle Pass, the sun sets in amber brilliance.  Sleeping above treeline ensures an immediately warming morning sun; sleeping in the trees is cool and moist, and the most enticing campsites near water seem to be shaded until noon.  At just over 12,000 ft, we erect the tent as a shield from a cool breeze and frosty, mountain dew.  By morning, only a light layer of ice has fallen.  The early sunlight treats our tent like a greenhouse; growing, glowing, warming until slowly awake.  The final half hour of sleep, cradled in warmth, is the most restful.  We like biking and hiking and eating and sleeping, but this time of year the sleeping is best.  Golden aspen and light snow on high are signs of the season’s change.  We love fall weather, but winter is soon to follow.

A short section of trail from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain climbs and descends at extreme grades, and is said to involve much hiking and pushing.  Theres is a paved 16 mile bike path around the Tenmile Range, which we took in search of the next rideable segment of trail.  Climbing across ski slopes and away from Copper Mountain, Searle Pass finally comes into view.  A final push over the pass leads to our camp, in top-of-the-world brilliance.  Just before cresting the pass, not a single road or building can be seen.  On the other side: a mine, a paved highway, and a few forest service roads are visible, and in the morning several bow hunters crest the ridge.  We’re far away, but not that far.  This is what I like about Colorado.  Alaska allows you to get away, but only through a gauntlet of muskeg, moose and mosquitos, with very few trails and roads for access.  The constant threat of grizzlies adds to the sense of the wild, and lessens my level of comfort.  Alaska is a beautiful idea, but not ideal for comfortable outdoor living.  While we tackle immense challenges, hardship is not part of the design.  Colorado is easy living.

Lael’s bike has seen some improvements recently, including a new tire.  The fast-rolling Maxxis CrossMark was great for smooth hard packed trails and dirt roads, but was short of traction and volume on much of the trail.  Her XXIX has some monster tire clearances, and a 29 x 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent hooks up well.  Descending, the suspension fork and the large tires allow her to pick her way through rocky sections without steering around every pebble.  The bike is finally becoming a familiar extension for her, despite a few mishaps.  No matter how well equipped, a rider must become intimately aware of their bike.  This is why we choose to own and ride only one bike at a time.  Equipment or skill is no match for familiarity.

Lael’s Hooligan has broken the one bike rule, but it is exceedingly fun and practical, and has a future with us.  For anything but real trail riding, including urban riding and touring, she demands to have “Hooli”.  With a 2″ tire, it would be fine on mild unpaved surfaces.  While 4″ tires and 29″ wheels provide much benefit, there is a lot to say of a highly maneuverable, and lightweight bike.  26″ and 20″ wheels have their place.

6977WP

7050WP

7053WP

7059WP

7080WP

7085WP

7103WP

7113WP

7122WP

7124WP 2

7138WP

7143WP 2

7150WP

Searle Pass is the saddle left of center.  Many trails become quite rocky above treeline.  Gaining the ridge:

7145WP

7164WP

7153WP

7180WP 2

7186WP

7201WP

7187WP

7208WP

7215WP

7218WP

7224WP 2

7205WP 2

7226WP

7246WP 2

7231WP

Camp at 12,050 ft.  Over the pass, a large mining operation and a few roads are visible.

7248WP

7254WP

7263WP

7259WP

7268WP

7279WP

7289WP

7320WP 2

7316WP

7309WP

Warming light.  Yoga atop mountains is Lael’s favorite, in lieu of yoga in the park, on the sidewalk, in the backyard, on the beach, in the woods, or inside.  She has done yoga almost everywhere.  Dressed for the cool morning, she practices “Yoga for Ninjas”.

7367WP

Riding, pushing over Elk Ridge and descending down to Kokomo Pass near 12,000ft.  Descending, descending, down to 9,000ft feet over several miles of trail.  Brakes, kick up dirt, pedal and lean, fly; brake, skid, stop.  Snack.  Soon, 10, 9 thousand feet again and climbing.  Up, to Tennessee.

7421WP

7417WP

7440WP

7443WP

7465WP

7467WP

7498WP 2

7503WP

7506WP

7507WP 2

7514WP

7521WP

7517WP 2

7530WP 2

7549WP

7540WP

7547WP

7557WP

7561WP

7569WP

7577WP

7579WP

We both appreciate the value of a lightly packed bike.  I was carrying a small cooking system and a two-person tent all summer, so Lael only had to show up in Denver with a sleeping bag and pad, as well as some clothing.  She’s packed into a Revelate Vischasa seat bag, Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag, Revelate Mountain Feed Bag, and an eVent Sea-to-Summit compression sack.   A spare tube and tire are strapped to the down tube, out of the way. She’s not carrying a shelter at the moment, but overall, her bike is optimal for this kind of riding.  It is simple, quiet, and light.  The bike rides like a bike.

Every day, I enjoy Lael’s combination of socks and shoes.  Other trail riders must think we are lost, or from another decade.

7582WP 2

I am carrying quite a bit more equipment, but this is exactly what I was carrying all summer.  We carry our own gear in favor of trying to match our paces by re-distributing the load.  Releasing ourselves from the idea of matching paces and necessarily riding together, we are relieved of stress.  It’s simply too much mental work, and is likely to slow one of us down or push the other along.  For such a fun, simple endeavor as walking or riding, there’s no need to complicate the joy of being on the trail.  Sometimes I ride ahead and wait at junctions.  Often, I ride behind allowing Lael to see the trail first, and we talk all day.  Other times, Lael rides ahead, descending with abandon as I stop to take photographs.  We’ve had too many fights about nothing by trying to match paces, so we don’t.

Tightly packed away is MacBook Air and an Olympus E-PM1, as well as a gaggle of accessories, chargers and cables.  Maps, a water filter, tools, a tent, and a cook system are stowed away along with food, clothing and shelter.  It’s tidy and it rides well, if a little heavy.  A framebag is a key component of any lightweight touring system and is the single greatest step to leaving racks and panniers at home, unless you are Lael and don’t even need a framebag.  In many cases, more important than the weight of equipment, is the ride.  My bike is quiet and comfortable, and the tires cloud the rocky disturbances of the trail.  I’m finally finding the optimal tire pressure for these trails, and it is much lower than I initially estimated.

7589WP

7592WP

7593WP

Up and over Tennessee Pass, and on to Leadville.  We heart Leadville.  Good living at 10,200ft.  Without a ski resort, Colorado towns such as Salida and Leadville avoid the glut of condos and t-shirt shops that plague other mountain towns.  Leadville and Salida are both beautiful communities in the mountains.  Fourteen thousand foot peaks, everywhere.

7610WP

7599WP

7616WP

7620WP

7632WP

7623WP

The beauty of this part of the state is that it’s not a simple destination for tourists, but finding transportation out of town has been a challenge.  We’ve finally secured a ride to Interbike.  Some writing obligations and planning will take some time away from riding this week, but we’ll be back at it in a few days.  Thereafter we will transport to a galaxy far away from the CT, awash in the glitz of Las Vegas.  Whatever it brings, Interbike and Vegas will be an experience.

The promise of fat tires

5473WP 2

Pneumatic tires and large volume rubber had been in use for almost a century when in the late 70’s a strong lightweight frame with adequate brakes and gears turned an average balloon bike– a klunker capable of country lanes– into a performance machine capable of climbing and descending off-pavement.  These were all-terrain bikes, later dubbed “mountain bikes”.  As sales of fat tires grew in the 80’s, bicycling magazines published forward-thinking expeditions to Everest Base Camp on Specialized Stumpjumpers, out the abandoned Canol Road on Ritchey frames in the Northwest Territory of Canada, and along the flanks and spines of local mountains everywhere.  Never before had bikes been able to ride these routes and riders were willing to dream new places to ride; as well, riders quickly found the limits of the new bikes.  The Canol Road, for example, is unrideable for much of the distance due to washouts, overgrowth and avalanche– and thus, the term hike-a-bike was born.  Still, prices for these new machines fell and consumers bought up “mountain bikes” by the millions, finding varied uses.  Many bikes became daily commuters on urban streets, cycletourists found larger tires and strong frames to be ideal for long distance travel on unknown roads, and some riders actually rode singletrack trails as pictured in magazines.  But many (or most) mountain bikes, like Jeeps and Ford Explorers, spend very little time in the Tolkein environment pictured in sales catalogs and magazines.   Consumers buy mountain bikes because they promise the ability to go places, simply because they can– it’s the promise of fat tires.

Winter endurance racing and sand-crawling cyclists birthed fatbikes over the past twenty years, and out of a slow stew of development the Surly Pugsley was born in 2006 as a mass-market option.  The purple Pugsley that I ride is the analogue of the 1981 Stumpjumper, a ready-made option to those curious about riding large-volume rubber.  In 2011, Salsa introduced a complete Mukluk build and Surly followed suit with a complete Pugsley– 2011-2012 has seen the explosion of fat tires as a result.  Being able to enter a shop, point at a bike and ride out the door is a boon to sales and to curious consumers.  A dismal snowfall in the lower 48 has done nothing to lessen interest in fatbikes this past winter, as curious and creative riders are finding new ways to ride big rubber.  That’s the promise of fat tires– new places to ride, and new ways to ride.  It’s more than just a snow bike.

Over the past few months I’ve explored the capacity of my Pugsley in reverse, finding that it can ride pavement and the graded dirt roads of the Great Divide and the Top of the World Highway on 2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires.  I refit “ultralight” 120 tpi Surly Larry tires to the 65mm Marge Lite rims a few weeks ago and have been riding the varied terrain of the Great Divide Route through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Skeptical onlookers point out that I’m still not putting fat tires to full use– much of what I’ve ridden can be ridden on a normal mountain bike– but the sandy soils of the Western Idaho Trail and the intermittent washboard of the Divide are minimized under large-volume rubber.  There are more instances where I am happy to have big tires than I curse the disadvantages– there’s more to gain than to lose.

We’re easily convinced that 29″ tires make obstacles “smaller” (despite statistically significant evidence to prove their efficiency), but many riders are calling fat tires a fad, and even worse, sacrilege.  Admitting the obvious penalties of weight and rolling resistance on pavement, fat tires improve upon all three features of the pneumatic tire: traction, suspension and flotation.  If you don’t need it, you don’t need it; but if you are curious and can dream up new ways to ride then it’s available through your local bike shop.  It’s 1984 all over again, and in addition to the refined custom options, Surlys and Salsas are filling the floors of shops all over the country like Stumpjumpers and High Sierras.  With the assurance and insurance of big rubber, I can plan a trip of unknown routes through the mountains and deserts of Colorado, Utah and Arizona.  I’ve passed-by and turned away from enough rough-stuff riding opportunities in the past to know that I need a bike with some teeth.  With new riding opportunities ahead I can point and shoot without limits, as my fatbike has teeth.

5426WP

5439WP

5441WP

5432WP

5445WP 3

The direct comparison of fatbikes to “normal” bikes is often unfair.  First, the riding conditions in which they are compared is necessarily biased towards a typical mountain bike, unless you’d previously included a lot of loose sandy hike-a-bike in your rides, snowy commutes, muddy trails or deeply rutted roads.  Secondly, comparing bike weights of a refined mountain bike to a base model fatbike is also unfair, even at the same price point.  Comparing bikes based on cost benefits the mass market offerings with “normal” 26″ and 29″ wheels; much of the additional cost and weight of a fatbike comes from specialized componentry, mainly rims and tires, which are expensive due to limited production.  Rim weights have been cut in half in the last half-decade of fatbike development and the new Surly Marge Lite rim is only 690g (the 50mm Jeff Jones rim is 660g), both of which approach the weight of standard-duty XC rims.   The weight and price of fatbike equipment is only coming down.  Within the year, I suspect the Surly Pugsley will lose the 1150g DH Large Marge rim from the stock build; another tire manufacturer will enter the game, undercutting the weight of Innova tires and reducing rolling resistance with more advanced casings; and non-utilitarian offerings such as the new Salsa Beargrease (28.5 lb XC and race-oriented model) will change the way we think about these modern day klunkers.  A studded fat tire, no matter the price, will be a panacea for dedicated winter commuters in Alaska and other consistently wintry climes, where a single commute can include fresh snow over hardpack, glare ice and icy rutted lanes.

Looking ahead even further, the leap to 3.7-4.5″ tires has left a huge gap, and the Surly Krampus arrives soon to fill it.  Large volume tires in more practical everyday sizes and weights will continue to roll in, as will the frames that can handle them.  Expect to see more lightweight (non-DH) 2.5-3.5″ tires in the future.  The Krampus is betting on a lightweight 3.0″ tire on a 50mm-wide 29″ (622mm) rim, and I’m all in.

5479WP

5474WP

5477WP

5466WP

5469WP 2

5481WP 3

5488WP 2

5486WP 2

5494WP 2

In Kremmling, CO a local raft guide rides a new Surly Pugsley with 45North Husker Du tires.  He’s owned full-suspension mountain bikes in the past, but never enjoyed rebuilding suspension parts and linkages after a season of hard use.  On a whim, he hopped on a fatbike.  Of course, he bought it!  He’s devoted several upcoming months between the rafting season and the ski season to play, and his first-ever cycling trip will be on a the new white Pugsley somewhere in the west.  I’ve lent my Great Divide maps and assorted state highway maps, which I’m hopeful will get some use.

On another note, my Schwalbe Big Apples tires have made their way to Anchorage via USPS where they have again found a home on the Surly Man’s Big Donkey.  A modern proverb states, “it takes more than one man to wear through a Schwalbe”.   Below, mountainous snowbanks persist though late March in Anchorage, conquered only by the mighty Mukluks.  The snowbanks would not disappear until sometime in May.

5195WP 2

The “promise of fat tires” was realized late at night as an indirect rebuttal to a recent article on Mike Varley’s Black Mountain Cycles blog.   A favorite cycle-centric digest, Mike reflects expertly on old bikes, new technology and practical tire sizes.  Check out the BMC Cross frame, which features the largest tire clearance of any non-suspension corrected steel 700c/29″ bike available.  With a fast-rolling 1.9-2.1″ tire, this frame would make a real dirt road scorcher!

Voracity, and veracity

4367WP

Wheel built, tube patched, tires mounted and a hundred miles of pavement out of Bozeman.  Crest the Continental Divide, and turn left onto USFS route 84 near Butte.  I’m back on dirt, back on the Divide, and back on fat tires.

Big hungry tires eat dirt and climb without tractional hiccups as pressures are dialed for optimal suspension and maximal traction.  Mostly, as this winter in the snow, I keep draining air from the tire for a better and better ride.  A new rear Marge Lite rim is technically one pound lighter than the old Large Marge, but fat tires add some heft back to the system.  The bike is not heavier, but it is not lighter or faster.  It rides very differently.  The Pugsley had become an all-road bike with the Schwalbe Big Apple tires, capable of 100 mile days on pavement.  At times, the 60mm smooth tires were capable of riding dirt roads and more.  The fat tires do other things.

It’s ironic that Montanans enjoying fat tire off-road vehicles ask, insistently, if my big tires are slower.  I sass: “slower than what?”  Are not the big tires of a Ford truck or an ATV slower than a theoretical skinny slick racing tire?  Big breath of diplomacy: “Fat tires afford a contemplative pace and a sure-footedness that permit my thoughts, even as the trail turns upward and the ‘road’ disintegrates.  Fat tires go almost anywhere.  Fat tires are fun.”

If you insist, “sometimes fat tires are slower”.  I insist, with fat tires I can descend with my eyes closed.

I ride slowly and studiously, engaged in something other than human traction control or anti-lock braking.  This is easy.  Relaxed, song lyrics and upcoming articles saturate my brain and old memories nearly lost, resurface.  Last year on the Divide, I was riding a 47mm Schwalbe Marathon and proud of the transition from pavement to dirt on the same set of rubber.  But the Marathon was a dull scalpel, requiring my attention.  This time is different– the 94mm Surly Larry is a big fucking tire and a lot of fun.  After only a day, I pass dirt miles in blissful oblivion.  As long as F-250’s and cattle aren’t between me and Colorado, I’m barely conscious.  In my youth, I spent a decade in a swimming pool counting laps, conversing with myself in French, and calculating.  Riding fat tires allows me to get lost in my thoughts.  In the physical realm, I’m hoping the fat tires afford the same luxury of exploration.  That’s the future, and most of what I dreamed about today atop Fleecer Ridge.

4185WP

4189WP

4197WP

4199WP

4219WP

4233WP

4230WP

4250WP

4261WP

4277WP

4291WP

4302WP

4318WP 2

4322WP

4339WP

4354WP

4361WP

4377WP

4365WP

4331WP

For the record: offset Pugsley wheels aren’t that weird, the Profile Design Kage is highly versatile, and riding fast and far is not the point.  Bicycles are overwhelmingly fun these days.

Sean has come up against some unexpected scheduling constraints and has bravely charted a new route towards Tacoma.  What awaits him, in place of the Divide, is his own adventure.  I am solo once again.