Two years ago I stepped into Colorado unsure of what lie ahead. I had my Spearfish with me and I was signed up for a cycling event called the Vapor Trail 125. I purposely do not call this epic ride a race, because technically it's not. On paper this is a group ride that covers a 125-mile loop around Salida, Colorado. This loop drags riders up and over the Continental Divide multiple times, has them dancing in the shadows of several 14'ers, and keeps them above 10,000 feet in elevation throughout at least 90% of the route. Some participants choose to approach this event in a manner that resembles any other race; I chose to jump into it for my second time earlier this month treating it like the adventure it really is.
Hailing from northern Minnesota I identify with pine trees and water. Lakes are a part of me; in fact I can't go out my door without seeing the biggest of the Great Lakes looming off in the distance. When I'm away from the big water of Lake Superior I feel that something is missing, but when I'm in the mountains I feel that void being filled. It might sound weird, but every time I'm in the presence of a mountain I feel myself wanting to be on top of it. I don't know why, but recently I felt that feeling again, and I wanted to drag my bike up there with me.
In order to acclimate to the altitude, my wife Amy and I chose to plan a two-week vacation to Colorado, strategically placing the Vapor Trail at the end. We'd experience as my things as we could while playing tourists in that great state, but the Vapor Trail stuck with me like a monkey on my back. Soon enough the time to line up for the 10 PM start would come, but this time I would know what to expect.
I lightened my kit considerably this time around dumping unnecessary food and extra clothing, but also decided to race on my 120mm-travel Horsethief. I knew from my previous run that the aid stations were top notch, as well as the volunteers. As far as food was concerned I would only need to take what I deemed emergency calories. The forecast was questionable in the days leading up to the event so it was very hard for me to leave the rain gear behind, especially when I knew that I would be topping out at a high point of 12,600 feet. Although the forecast called for clear skies I was taking my rain gear with. Embarrassingly, I would also err on the side of caution when it came to tools. I was prepared to fix my bike and keep moving no matter what. The only thing that could stop me would be something catastrophic, such as a broken frame or destroyed wheel. For example, I threw a chain tensioner in my frame bag in order to convert my Horsethief to singlespeed in the event of a blown rear derailleur. I was willing to carry the weight of those extra parts if it meant I’d be able to get myself out of the deep backcountry. Also, I'm not too proud to tell you that I was quite intimidated by the vastness and ruggedness of the terrain around me. By regular race standards my load was heavy, but it mattered little to me, I was prepared and that’s what mattered.
Two years ago I asked fellow Salsa sponsored rider and Vapor Trail veteran Kurt Refsnider for some tips on the race and I used both of them again this time around. He suggested I duct tape the vents of my shoes and bring winter gloves. I must admit I felt a little silly shoving some department store Thinsulate gloves into my hydration pack before the start, but when I pulled them out as the temperatures plummeted to 32-degrees Fahrenheit I was the cat that ate the canary.
The start was uneventful, other than the excessive nervous energy bounding through my body. It helped to have a friend from the gravel races, Mike Johnson from Iowa, riding near me. I tried to pace myself on the initial climb out of Salida as some of Colorado’s finest shot off the front of the race, their lights disappearing in the night. 'Let them all go', I told myself. I knew the event would unfold slowly over the coming hours. It felt good to recognize sections of the course, rather than feeling hopelessly lost. The ruggedness of the Colorado trail didn't scare me like it did before as its microwave size boulders came to life under the beam of my headlight. The extra suspension my Horsethief (my previous race I’d ridden a Spearfish) offered me made navigating the hazardous trail much easier as I quickly abandoned avoiding every obstacle and let the bike do what it was made to do.
I moved through the night alone for huge sections of trail. Sometimes a rider would come upon me only to move on leaving me alone in the cool mountain air with the stars above. My first pass up and over the Divide had me stopping to take in the view. Once again I felt so close to the sky that it seemed unnatural. I chose not to linger, because this year I had one simple goal…to hustle! I wasn't drilling it by any stretch, but was definitely concentrating on moving forward and applying a sense of urgency to every situation. Time began to pass quickly and soon I was deep into the night and cascading down a brilliant piece of trail. The section felt like it might have once been a railroad grade cut into the side of a mountain. A sheer cliff on my left, 12-foot bench cut trail, and then a sharp drop to my right. The path was fast and contained softball-sized rocks strewn about in random fashion. I did my best to stay upright as I focused on two sets of lights about a mile ahead and down below me. I wanted to catch those riders, not in the spirit of racing, but more to be in the company of others.
It was then that something strange caught my eye. I stole a glance across the gorge and noticed the mountain in view had its slope calved off leaving a huge rock wall. This wall soared up from the valley below and was lit in an awe inspiring yellow. My bike skitter scattered over the terrain as I dared to take another peek. ‘How could that be?’ I thought. Just then, a light shown brightly from behind me. I took a glance under my arm to acknowledge the approaching rider but there was no one! It was then that I grabbed two handfuls of brake, slowing to a near stop. A low-hanging harvest moon shone bright yellow above the treetops, casting its light on the mountain adjacent to me as if to show me the way. A perfectly round ball of yellow fire burned in the Colorado sky and I felt like it was burning for me. Stunned, I turned back to the task at hand and made the decision that there was no time for a photo. Instead, I took a deep breath and told myself, ‘Just breath in the Vapor’.
I'll never get the image of that moon out of my head. I've never seen anything like it before and I doubt I ever will again. Little did I know at that time that there would be many more images that would permanently get stored on my internal memory card during this ride.
The popular sections of the race came and went, but one monster section waited for me, the infamous hike-a-bike to the top of Granite Mountain. Granite Mountain is the high point of the race. The fastest riders are up and over it long before the sun rises, but for regular people like me, we get to see the sun rise from what feels like the top of the Rockies. The hike was much worse and much bigger than I remember. The rocks were loose and unforgiving, they rolled under my feet as I trusted them to hold my weight, and they shoved my front wheel backwards as I tried to push my rig over them. It seemed that the boulders were laughing at me, but it was really the Marmots chattering on about the folly that was me pushing a bike to the top of a mountain. The 45-minute struggle went on and on, but I knew like everything else it would end. I did my best to take in my surroundings as I placed one foot in front of the other up the impossible slope. As the final switchback disappeared behind me I noted the view and pondered all that I had done. I had been riding through some of the most rugged, majestic, and elevated singletrack of my life and now I stood atop a mountain. As I muttered to myself, “If they could only see me now,” it dawned on me that I didn't really need anyone to see me. I could see what I had done and all those peaks in the distance could see me. I was in their territory and I had earned all that I saw; it felt good.
Again, I chose not to linger. I asked a fellow rider to snap a quick photo, made some gear adjustments and steeled myself for the harrowing descent that I knew was in front of me. Well above tree line the trail descended off the mountain in grand sweeping turns through a bowl that reminded me of a spiraling wishing well that my mom used to let me roll a penny into as we left the grocery store. I'd watch that penny roll around and around, down the bowl to some unknown destination. This time I was the penny.
My brakes were heating up fast and I could smell the pads burning against what had to be white-hot discs. The rear lever was beginning to collapse into the grip despite my efforts to pump it in the hopes that it would get just a few seconds to cool. It wasn't long before I needed to throw a second finger up to the lever as my hand began to weaken. Doing my best to coddle the brakes I let the bike run at times, which pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Occasionally, I'd feel a one-pound rock ricochet off my shin, but I could not afford to acknowledge the pain, for I was over ten hours into the event and forcing myself to focus. The concentration was intense, as I knew that the smallest of mistakes could and most likely would be devastating. Just then it happened; I put the front wheel directly into a basketball-sized rock. In a Nano second I planned out my crash, ‘Just try to flip completely over and roll your body through it’ I thought. “Pssssst”, was the sound I heard as the front shock must have activated some type of blow-off valve while it bottomed out on the rock. My back wheel skimmed over the top of the rock and in the blink of an eye I was out of danger. I couldn't believe I was okay. The bike absorbed the hit while I must have been lucky enough to have my body weight positioned in such a way that kept me rolling. Minutes passed before the adrenaline from the near miss passed. I was well into the lower half of the descent now, some 30 to 40 minutes since I'd been on top of the mountain. My quads were burning from holding a crouched position because my saddle was dropper’d. Using my hips in a rudder like fashion I guided the bike through the sweeping turns and over the water bars, catching air from time to time.
The descent had taken approximately an hour before I found myself coasting into the aid station and checkpoint. Once there I was fed, welcomed, and reassured by a cast of outstanding volunteers. I wolfed down a couple pancakes and two sausages before thanking them and pushing on for the dreaded Old Monarch Pass.
Old Monarch Pass is a ten-mile gravel road climb that, as one volunteer put it, feels like 15. It just goes on and on, but what's worse is that it saps your will to live. I marked the mileage on my GPS and started the countdown, breaking the pass into sections. I knew that if I could make it to the halfway point of the climb without being absolutely shattered I'd have it in the bag. The miles wore on and my body ebbed and flowed with energy. I chose to listen to music for the first time in the race during this climb and it seemed to help as I mouthed the words to the music. As I reached the summit I felt completely exhausted and in bad spirits, but I knew that there was a good chance that Amy would be at the third aid station, which was a light at the end of the tunnel for me. The third checkpoint was on the highway version of Monarch Pass and here is where I'd be able to drop my nighttime gear and enjoy less weight as I tackled the rest of the course. There was just one glitch. I was way ahead of the schedule that I’d told her I'd be on. I knew she had planned to do a big hike in the area with the hopes of meeting me at the checkpoint afterward. I kept telling myself that maybe it would all work out.
My bike hit the ground with a thud under the sign indicating the top of the pass. I noted the elevation carved into the wood as I took a nature break nearby. I had a short mile or so of singletrack before the aid station. There I'd take a significant break and try to recover from the leg-breaking climb I'd just done. As I rolled away from the summit and toward the singletrack I hallucinated my car was sitting on the side of the gravel road. I laughed to myself as I saw my beat-up bike rack on the back of Subaru. ‘Funny’, I thought...’you're having a hallucination of the car’. Wait! That IS our car!’ I rode over to it and touched it to make sure it was real. I didn't know what to do. I wondered if I should write a note on it with my finger in the dust. I thought about scraping a note in the dirt on the ground, but that seemed ridiculous. Then the reality hit me; I wouldn't be seeing my wife at the checkpoint, as she was out on her hike. I was demoralized, but quickly turned it around and hoped that she was having a good time in the mountains.
A volunteer jogged toward me as I came weaving into the checkpoint. I stiffly dismounted as she took the bike from me. My body landed in the chair with a weight I didn't know I had. A woman moved around me in a flurry of activity asking me, “What do you need? What can I do? How can I help?” I looked blankly at her, paused and slowly said, “I don't know.” She scurried away and came back with cookies, fruit and chips. I requested a Coke from a man near me as I soon found myself fixated on another rider sitting to my left who had just made the decision to abandon the race. He was extremely fit looking and tough. I wondered if he was going through what I was. His eyes darted in my direction from time to time. It was as if we were trying to read each other's thoughts. A voice in my head suddenly said, ‘I don't want to quit, I want to FINISH!’ At that moment I got up out of the chair, stripped my bike of its lights and the other unnecessary gear I'd been carrying. I thanked the woman and read the note from Amy that I’d discovered in my drop bag earlier. It simply said: If you're reading this, you're going to make it! I'll see you in Salida. I Love You.
I pushed my bike across the parking area to the base of the small climb that leads to the Monarch Crest Trail. A small group of mountain bikers out having a good time wished me luck and checked my pack at my request to make sure I was all zipped up. As I clipped in to leave one of the riders gently grabbed my arm stopping me, “Do you have it in you?” he asked. “Of course I do!” was all I said. I hoped I was right. As I rode away I could hear them cheering and encouraging me. A smile crept across my face as I entered the flow of the Crest. The mountain range across the valley swept off into the distance. My bike and I were on the spine of the Rockies and it felt right.
I knew I had one more extremely difficult section ahead called the Poncha Creek climb. This is a particularly heinous 5-mile four-wheel-drive climb that is late enough in the course to have even the heavy hitters of the event begging for mercy. I rode and I walked. I stayed true to my mission and I kept moving forward and eventually, like the other climbs, this one ended.
The hardest parts were over and some of the most enjoyable portions of the course were in front of me. My bike and I were now one. I felt at home aboard my machine and oddly didn't like being off of it. I dreaded the sections I had to push, because it was just more comfortable to be riding. The pull of Salida and the finish were upon me as I rode with increased speed. The final 15 miles had me thinking of my finishing time and position for the first time in the race. As I coursed through the last singletrack of the Rainbow Trail I recall breaking clear of the pines and into a mountain meadow. I knew it would all be over soon so I took a moment to slow the bike and take in my surroundings. I could see for miles and the scene seemed unreal to me. The brilliance of the blue sky and the silhouettes of the mountains might as well have been a screen pulled down on some Hollywood set. I needed to remember this moment just like all the others, so I let the air out of my lungs and one more time I took a long look around and breathed in the Vapor.
I made a lot of new friends out on that course. They may not have been mentioned here, but they know who they are and I'm not sure I could have made it through one of the most difficult events of my life if it weren't for them. So, to them I say: Thank You!
I also want to thank race director Tom Purvis and his wonderful crew. I've been to a lot of bike events in my day and this truly is one of the most professionally operated and rider orientated of them all. Also, I’d like to say thank you to Salsa Cycles for helping me with my last minute supplies and for always having my back as I continue my quest for new adventures. Thank you to Schwalbe Tires and Rudy Project as well, your products work as advertised and I’d use no other.
Finally, thank you to the Vapor Trail 125. I have images burned in my mind that will never fade…images that have changed me. Thank you for allowing me to breathe in the Vapor.
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com