Thursday, August 7, 2014

Copper Triangle-- a "life experience" cycling event


Event: Copper Triangle Alpine Cycling Classic in Colorado
Start/End: Copper Mountain Resort. 90 min west of Denver on I-70
Date: First Saturday in August

Start type: rolling, non-mass start between 5:45am-8am.
Registration: $135.
Benefits: Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson's

What you get: awesome jersey, maps, riders guide, helmet and bike stickers (it's worth paying $15 extra to have this mailed to you before ride)

Number of cyclists: 3,100
Distance: 79 miles (no other distance is offered)

Elevation at start of ride: 9,900 feet
Elevation range: between 7,800 feet (bottom of Vail) to 11,400 feet (Fremont Pass) .
Total climbing: 6,000 feet

Temperature at start: 32°
Max temp during ride: low 80°s
Rest stops: about every 15 miles.


The Copper Triangle Alpine Bicycle Classic is more of a life experience than a bike ride!

As this was my first time riding a bicycle in the Colorado mountains, I faced three big, obvious challenges:  1) breathing at high elevation, 2) climbing thousands of feet without being able to train for it, 3) and dressing for the extreme temperature range.

1) Breathing at high elevation.... We've all heard about or maybe experienced breathing thin mountain air-- so how does this affect cycling?

Two days before the Copper Triangle, I "practiced" cycling at 7,000 feet with my friend Kim, a Denver resident and Tulsa native. I immediately noticed a difference in the elevation! My lungs burned in the less dense air after just one mile of cycling. My usual pace of 18ish mph required heavier breathing. It wasn't awful, just different. Feel the burn! 

Kim is in much better shape than me, and she pedaled on with a smile and without worry. She could have zoomed on without me!

We look good in matching Lee's jerseys from Tulsa, eh? Kim took me on my first Colorado bike ride two days before the Copper Triangle-- she kicked my rear end up Ute Pass! 

After a warm up Kim introduced me to my first mountain.

She led us up Ute Pass, a 1,100 foot climb-- literally my tallest order to that time. (I'm more accustomed to 200-300 foot climbs around Tulsa.)

I stopped a few times to catch my breath on the moderately difficult 4-6% grade. We eventually reached the scenic Ute Pass overlook with my heart and lungs still functioning after a 30+ minute climb.

I was ok! Just pedal a super slow pace to ease breathing while cycling mountains. 

2) Climbing thousands of feet... this wasn't as big of a deal as I thought. By climbing Ute Pass, I learned that if I could pedal up the 300 footers around Tulsa then I could challenge 1,000 to 2,000+ foot climbs of Colorado.

My average speed up the Colorado mountains? A not-so-intimidating 5-6 mph. (Cyclists: my Shimano compact crank and 11/28 rear cassette was sufficient-- I didn't need a triple crank like I thought.)

3) How to dress for the extreme weather... On the Saturday morning of the Copper Triangle, I froze at the beginning of the ride-- my bike computer thermometer read 32° at 7am. Shadows from the mountains blocked the sun's warmth after sunrise.

I warmed quickly on a big ascent near the start. The immediate climbing created body heat and sweat. I was wearing too much warm clothing, and I was getting hot on a cold morning.

The temperature rose to all of a balmy 40 degrees by Fremont Pass at mile 10. It actually felt warmer in the early morning emerging sunshine.

Many sweaty cyclists then froze on the following downhill section, plunging 40 mph (create your own wind chill!) with valley temperatures hovering in the 30s. Brrr! The mountains blocked the low sun angle. 

Cyclists began shedding layers of clothes before the second climb near mile 30. Temperatures quickly climbed into the 50s and 60s mid-morning under the blue sky and rising sun.

Most cyclists successfully stuffed their extra clothes into the rear pockets of their jerseys; however, I had too much stuff to stuff! I had overdressed.

I tried cramming all my cold weather gear into the back of my jersey, but the result looked like a small child growing out of my lower spine! Overloaded: leg warmers, undershirt, wind breaker, ear warmers plus thermal gloves. This extra girth made me super hot, extra sweaty and uncomfortable.

By the time I reached the valley of Vail (hottest location during day) the temperature had climbed toward 80 degrees (bike thermometer incorrectly read 96° in full sun). Pouring in sweat, I literally looked for a place to dump my extra clothes.

I looked for a solution. So I jumped off my bike at Vail and stashed my excess warm clothes behind a giant rock! I removed my winter gloves too and cycled with naked hands. The temperature dropped back into the 60s a few miles later when I climbed thru 10,000 feet again. I was fascinated meteorologically by the micro climates! 

After the ride I drove back to the rock to reclaim them like a treasure hunt. Found them! They were still there!

Random thoughts about the Copper Triangle:

-Superbly well organized ride: police managing traffic, organized parking, lots of volunteers at intersections and rest stops, safety signs marking that a cycling event was in progress, one mile ahead rest stop signs.

-Locals call this one of the top cycling events in Colorado.

-As over 3,000 cyclists participated, a rolling start allowed you to begin when you wanted without huge cycling congestion. Leaving at 7am seemed like a popular time.

-Don't overdress for the cold (like I did!)-- you immediately begin your ride with a 1,500 foot climb. You warm up in a hurry.

-You are riding with auto traffic along curvy highways. This wasn't a problem as the road was shouldered and most cars avoided driving the route-- had no issues.

-Rest stops were usually positioned just after climbs.

-Never seen so many "porta johns" at a cycling event... no waiting.

-The ride says you pass thru three mountain passes, but it's really four climbs (see Cyclemeter elevation graph below).  I would also count Battle Mountain (the third climb of four.) 

-The climbs at Fremont, Tennessee Pass and Battle Mountain aren't as difficult as the grade stays under 7%.

-Downhills can last 5 to 10 minutes! I held speeds of 35-40 mph for most descents. The roads were banked so I was able to lean into the turns. A few turns were a bit bumpy, but I never felt unsafe.

-The first 60ish miles of the course are along shouldered highways. The last section after mile 60 are forested bicycle trails.

-The Vail climb after mile 60 was easily the toughest. It was the longest at about 2,500 feet. The course steered along a cycling trail between Vail and Copper-- most of climb averaged around 7%. Two steep rises in the 12% range made me jump off the bike and gasp for air, especially as I had already climbed for what felt like an hour to get there!

Below: Pics from my Copper Triangle bicycle ride:

Oooh! My name is on the sticker! Below is the obligatory selfie at pre-ride on a 32 degree Summer morning.

ABOVE: My Cyclemeter at rest stop #1. I climbed 1,600 feet in the first 10 miles!  BELOW: notice the snow at the mountain tops. And a shadow selfie. :)

ABOVE: limited support for bicycle mechanic issues. BELOW: My status at rest stop #2.

ABOVE and BELOW: Rest stop at Tennessee Pass. Mile 31. I've stashed away my wind breaker and ear warmers.

ABOVE: the hills are alive?

ABOVE: Doesn't show up well here, but mountain river rapids are at the bottom of the canyon after the third climb. BELOW: sunscreen provided at rest stop #3.. an alluring selfie.

ABOVE: Rest stop #4. Climbing Vail... a rear end kicker! I caught my breath sitting on a pink thing. BELOW: The evergreens along the bike path between Vail and Copper provided gorgeous scenery during the steepest climbs-- notice several cyclists are walking up the trail. This section was near 12% incline.

ABOVE: I was melting... so I hid my warm cycling clothes behind this big ol' rock! I retrieved them after the ride.

ABOVE and BELOW: Finish line at Copper Mountain Resort, Cyclemeter results and lasagna dinner. Notice the biggest climb (Vail) began near mile 60. Last few miles were all down hill.

ABOVE: For about $25, you can purchase professional pics of your ride. Here are my proofs, courtesy of Sundance Images. BELOW: I earned the jersey!


  1. I Love Colorado but I always see it from my car. Good for you George.
    Carolyn Canida

  2. Impressive climbs for not being used to the altitude. It took me a couple of weeks to acclimate in Guatemala.

  3. I was one of those vehicles on the road with you, going the opposite direction. It was fun to see so many cyclists! Great job George!

  4. Vivien Flickinger HubbardAugust 7, 2014 at 9:07 PM

    It is awesome to read about your cycling events. Great day and place to be on a bike! A virtual ride!!! Love you!! So happy for you.

  5. Very entertaining description of the ride. Made you feel like you were there, and I wish I had been.
    Good for you, George. I can see why your Julie Andrews depiction never made it into the film...the hills might be dead, rather than alive. Good job!