I’m not a very strong climber, especially on my bike. But I endure the sweat, heavy breathing, and burning in my legs for the best part. The downhill!
My first time up to Guanella Pass was a few years ago, riding in a car with some friends. I remember telling myself, someday I’m going to ride up this road on my bike. Well, that someday happened last Sunday at the Westbound & Down Guanella Pass Hill Climb race. My teammate Amy talked me into signing up, plus we needed one more Cat 4 female (for a total of two) to score some club points for the Rocky Mountain Road Cup.
After registering, I read the course description. 11 miles, 3,050 ft in elevation gain with the starting elevation of ~8,500′ topping at ~11,670′. As I talked to other cyclists, I started to hear “that’s a really hard climb” along with grades averaging 8-11%. Oh boy. Then I thought to myself, I’ve ridden much worse…albeit shorter, but Olde Stage Road in Boulder tops off ~15% grade. I’ve got this!
Morning of the race, I was feeling nervous. Just spent the previous few days hanging out with my friends who were in town visiting from Wichita…and ate a lot of food…Asian food. Not exactly the healthiest, but it tasted sooooo good. I know I’m Asian, but my day-to-day eating is pretty American. Asian food just takes too long to prepare, requires too many obscure ingredients, and can be very caloric dense. After warming up, I could feel all that darn Asian food dragging me down up every little blip in the road…and in the climbing world, weight (and less of it) is everything. Rut roh.
Guanella Pass Start
The race organizers staged all the riders along this super narrow half-paved half-dirt road right at the start of Guanella Pass Rd on 2nd St & Rose St. There was this cute white Victorian-style house and the owner, or at least whoever was living there, was sitting on the porch smiling at all the commotion. It was such an insane and fun atmosphere all at the same time. You could feel the excitement and anxiety in the air. Fellow riders were laughing and wishing each other luck. I also saw a handful of my male teammates in the mix, who are some of the strongest and fastest cyclists I know.
Each category start was spaced one minute apart, so it went pretty quickly. I remembered at the last moment to get my bike into the easiest gear. Other riders weren’t so lucky. There was a lot of chaotic clipping into pedals going on the first few yards of the race with sounds of “whoas” behind me. I got dropped pretty early on and even passed (like I was standing still) by the junior riders that started behind me.
The entire ride up I had the Clear Creek County Sheriff on my ass. Well, he wasn’t really ON my ass, but following behind. As annoying this may have been for some, I welcomed it. The uphill lane was closed off for the race, so as long as he was there keeping cars from coming up I was happy to have him on my ass. It took about 5-10 minutes for me to settle in. My heart was racing like crazy from all the excitement as well as being up at a higher altitude. (Flatlander friends – yes the altitude affects us too, but we just get “used” to sucking wind)
About half-way through, the course flattens out a bit with some nice gentle rollers. A much needed break from the switchbacks that kept leading you up and up. I could see the line of cars following behind the sheriff. I bet those people were pissed, but I didn’t care. I was riding up Guanella Pass!!
The small “break” was much needed because the last 2 miles were really tough. I don’t know if the road was getting steeper or I was getting more tired…or a bit of both. On the downhill side, I was jealous seeing all the riders making their way back down from the Pass, but knew I’d be on that side of the fence soon. All of my teammates finished ahead of me and I could hear them scream my name and cheer me on as they rode by. Even though quitting was never in the plan that day, their encouragement kept me going as I kept having to dig deeper and deeper just to keep going.
As I reached the top, I remembered that car ride of my one and only trip up Guanella Pass. That day I had two goals. #1 – to finish…and #2 – to finish in the same time as last year’s “last” finisher in my category. With this being my first hill climb race and ride up Guanella Pass, I had no idea how long it was going to take me. I ran calculations based on my average climbing speed and then looked up last year’s race results. Last year’s Cat 4 final finisher came in at 1:51:01. I surprised myself coming in at 1:46:12. Looking at the results, there was one competitor that didn’t show up. Too bad for her, because it was a lovely ride.
After finishing, one of the paramedics offered to take a picture of me and another racer who came in a few minutes before me. She and I retrieved our gear bags with warmer riding gear for the descent (chilly chilly) back to town. We chatted for a bit, both of us in our first season of cycling racing. Apparently she too also looked up last year’s results to give her a time goal to shoot for.
On the ride back down, I took in the views of all the beauty around me. As a Colorado resident for the last 16.5 years, seeing snow capped mountains never gets old. Enjoying those views on a bike, makes it even more special.
With each cycling race I do, the people (racers, volunteers, and race officials), camaraderie, atmosphere, and fun keeps me wanting to come back for more. Not to mention, you get a great workout and I keep learning more and more about cycling racing. If you’re ever looking for a hill climb race to do, Guanella Pass needs to be on your list!