Universal Cyclist

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Cycling the Pikes Peak Highway

Stats
Distance: 23.4 miles (one way)
Elevation gain: 7,858 ft.
Average grade: 6.4%
Date ridden: April 28, 2018

Overview

As far as I know there are only two places in North America where you can reach an elevation of 14,000 feet by way of a paved road, both in Colorado: Mt. Evans (14,264 ft.) and Pikes Peak (14,115 ft.). Both should certainly be included on any Western States alpine road cycling bucket list, but if I had to choose my favorite of the two it would have to be Pikes Peak.  It isn’t quite as tall as Evans, but when ridden from Manitou Springs the Pikes climb climbs 7,858 ft. over 23.4 miles. The Evans summit from Idaho Springs requires 6,949 ft. of climbing over 27.5 miles. I prefer Pikes mainly due to the quality of the road surface. As a private toll road it was designed and built better and receives far better maintenance than our tax dollars provide for the Mt. Evans road.

Cycling Pikes Peak is definitely strenuous as it is basically 100% uphill at an average grade of 6.4%, but while there were a few short sections with up to a 13% slope, the majority of the climb was consistently graded with very manageable and well placed switchbacks. As mentioned already, the road surface is immaculate, something riders will appreciate, especially when flying down the mountain at a chilly 30+ mph.

As could be suspected, the views on this ride are stunning with montane and sub-alpine forest leading up to an otherworldly landscape of red boulders and snowfields (in late April) above tree line. From the higher elevations you can see expansive views of Mt. Evans to the North, the Continental Divide to the West, the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the South and Colorado Springs and the Great Plains to the East. Apparently the vista from the summit was so impressive to Katharine Lee Bates in 1895 that it inspired her to write the lyrics for “America the Beautiful”.

Navigation

I checked Strava before starting my ride and saw that the Pike’s Peak segment begins at the traffic circle on the west side of Manitou Springs. I opted to start here, but the roughly 5 mile ride along highway 24 was not very enjoyable with a lot of fast moving traffic on a curvy road with a narrow and debris filled shoulder. If you aren’t too concerned about completing this Strava segment I’d recommend starting from the town of Cascade or the Pikes Peak Highway entry gate about a mile out of Cascade.

Entry gate for the Pikes Peak Highway (19 miles to go)

From here, the road begins to climb pretty much immediately, admittedly not a great opportunity for a warm up if you start from here.

You catch your first glimpse of the summit at around mile 3 near the Crowe Gulch picnic area (8,540 ft).

First glimpse of the Pikes Peak summit

Something I really enjoyed about this ride was the mile markers along the way, most of which featured elevation in feet and meters as well as depictions of local flora and fauna.

 

 

At mile 6 you reach Crystal reservoir. There is a visitor center here with restrooms and a cafe. The views of Pikes Peak from here are superb.

Pikes Peak from Crystal Reservoir Dam

Mile 9.5 marks the halfway point of the climb. There is a picnic spot here with restrooms. From here you get into the meat of the climb as you approach timberline and the serpentine switchbacks leading up to 14,000 feet.

Glen Cove Lodge just below timberline at 11,440 ft.

Photo: thepeakmind.com

Above the trees the real “fun” begins as you start the switchbacks and the air gets noticeably thinner. I’m a Colorado guy and I was definitely not immune to the effects of exerting myself at this elevation. I was aware of a somewhat surreal out of body feeling that was actually pretty pleasant if you’re into that sort of thing.

From mile 16 on, you are in a different world of high alpine landscape. The road grade is manageable, but the scarce oxygen and miles of climbing behind makes it quite challenging.

At the summit house there is a gift shop (yay!) and a cafeteria. My Clif bar wasn’t looking so good compared to the greasy, overpriced cheeseburgers, so I gobbled one down with a soft drink before heading down.

Photo: pikes-peak.com

The above is not my photo: there were no Sherpas when I was up there.

The descent was awesome! The smooth pavement and courteous drivers made it super fun and fast. I was a bit underdressed, but managed to keep the high-speed shiver wobbles to a minimum and didn’t have any close calls. Back at the truck in Manitou Springs I celebrated with a cold beer and made my way to Amanda’s Fonda for some decent Mexican food. It was a good day.

Summary

All in all, the Pikes Peak highway was one of my favorite hill climbs of all time. I did this ride at the end of April and I wouldn’t recommend doing it any earlier as spring snow storms are common. Here’s my ride on Strava.

*IMPORTANT*

There is a three year summit house construction project slated to begin in May of 2018. According to the Pike’s Peak rangers the road will only be open up to mile 16 during construction. It was unclear whether or not cyclist will still be allowed to summit, but best to check before heading down.

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