Kevin wakes up at 4:30 in the morning without an alarm. He’s the kind of guy who can do that. The anticipation of the day’s ride is enough to spur him out of bed. He makes an espresso and downs it. Then he makes another. He’s going to need it, because today, he’s going to ride one of the highest paved roads in the country: Trail Ridge Road. It’s a beautiful 48-mile tarmac ribbon that climbs its way through Rocky Mountain National Park, with about eleven of those miles being above treeline.
From the small mountain town of Estes Park you climb about 4000 feet to the summit at 12,183 feet. It’s a bucket list ride for any motivated Coloradan, but for Kevin, it’s just another day on the bike. The plan is to add even more mileage by leaving from his house here in Boulder, riding up the foothills for 37 miles into Estes Park, then going all the way to the top of Trail Ridge Road, then riding back. Yeah, it’s just another day on the bike.
I get to his house around 5:30 am and he’s already waiting outside. He’s leaning against his new Specialized Epic. Of course, he’s got to ride his mountain bike. There’s no better way to sandbag a guy than to drop him on a mountain bike. But there’s actually a good reason for it. This summer Kevin plans to race the Colorado Trail Race, a multi-day singletrack epic through the mountains. So he’s trying to get as much time on his race bike as he can. The only change he’s made today is a set of slick tires.
By 5:40 we’re off. It’s a beautiful, early May morning, a bit chilly, but perfect once we’re warmed up. The miles rolling toward Estes Park feel just like a normal training ride, humming along roads we’ve ridden a hundred times on lunch rides from the shop. I can see the peaks that mark our destination in the distance, snow-capped and towering above the plains. It’s hard to believe that in four hours we’ll be on top of them, that the human body is even capable of conquering such magnificence. It’s rides like this that remind me why I love my bicycle.
After 2300 feet of climbing and 30 miles we’re in Estes Park. We roll through town to the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. There are no lines, no cars, and no tourists. For about a month every year, Trail Ridge Road is open to cyclists but closed to motorists. This means you can ride without the danger or distraction of cars full of tourists buzzing you, tapping their brakes so they can rubberneck and watch as you suffer up the climb.
Kevin has a season pass to enter the park, which conveniently also covers me and up to two additional cyclists. Otherwise, purchasing a day-pass is required to enter the park. It’s worth it, in my opinion, for what you’ll eventually experience. As we begin climbing Kevin tells me about how he saw a family of moose roaming along the road the year before. This year, we’re treated to big gangs of elk, lazily grazing just feet away in patches of knee-high grass.
We leave the elk behind and immediately the road starts climbing, and it doesn’t stop. There were a few other riders and hikers at the bottom, but soon we're alone. It’s almost eerie how quiet it becomes. There’s nothing but the sound of tires against the pavement and your own breathing. Occasionally, we hear the distinctive trill of a marmot perched on a rock nearby. You can feel in your lungs how the air gets noticeably thinner. Even for us adjusted Colorado folk the attitude begins to take its toll. Every breath is a struggle.
Perhaps the most memorable moment comes near the top, a small stretch of road that still has snow along it. The snow has been plowed clear, leaving epic walls of ice that form a channel for you to pass. Riding through it you feel like some sort of cycling Moses, parting the frosts of winter before you, pedaling your weary bike ahead toward the freedom of summer. It’s one of the iconic images of Trail Ridge Road and a mandatory stop for photos.
Once you climb above tree line the view is spectacular. My ears pop, and my breathing gets shallower, but when I look out at the mountains and valleys, the small glacial lakes, and the trees far beneath the road, I can’t help but feel at peace. I can’t stare for too long though, because the climb demands my attention again. We’re teased and mocked by what feels like endless false summits. When I finally see the actual top I can’t help but feel re-energized. We both kick, but Kevin drops me in a sprint to the finish. I come up behind him, gasping, dripping in sweat.
We lean our bikes against a guardrail and look out at the world below us. We’re alone at the top and it’s a Lion King moment for me. We’ve conquered Trail Ridge Road, one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. Here at the summit, we are kings, and everything the light touches is our kingdom. I savor the moment as long as I can.
For the ride back down, we put on jackets stowed in our frame bags and eat the last of our food. We go back the way we came, legs fried and our day only half done.
Then begins one of the longest and fastest descents I’ve ever experienced. Pure joy. Coming down Trail Ridge Road is easily the best part of climbing it. We go from cold to warm very quickly as we drop in elevation. We roll into Estes Park and stop for a breakfast burrito at a local cafe. With full stomachs, we then make the trek back to Boulder.
When we get back to Kevin’s house the ride clocks in at eight hours, 107 miles, and a touch under 10,000 feet of climbing. In the end, I feel immensely accomplished but completely beat and ready to roll straight off the bike into bed. I get home and do just that. Yeah, just another day on the bike.
Bruce is a writer who loves getting his bikes dirty, trying new tech, and riding tough trails that make him suffer for hours at a time.