Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Riding the passes - Coal Bank

For those of you who love the high altitude, Durango’s Coal Bank pass is it! Yesterday was my second journey in a row to Coal Bank’s 10,640 feet. Granted, the riding was all road, all the time. But, the training, the views and the bonking come complete at the top.

Yesterday’s ride to Coal Bank pass began in downtown Durango, near my house. It was one of those Colorado spring days when the mountains bring cooler air into the valley. Actually, the air was northern and a bit cooler than I was expected. The ride into the Animas valley was somewhat slow, as I needed a lot of warm-up time following an hour and a half mountain bike ride in the morning. The Animas valley is not to be overlooked. It is very deceiving especially when the winds pick up or you’re riding in a fast group of pros. At 15 miles, roughly, the Animas valley, or flat portion of my ride, ended. I turned onto 550 and headed up Shalona hill.

For those of you who don’t know Shalona, it is the widow maker, the lung-buster, the beginning of the end, the separator, the toughness factor all in one. What I mean is during the group rides, Shalona can crush even the strongest rider, and separate the rest of the pack. If you’re riding alone, Shalona is the beginning of the 3,000 ft climb to Coal Bank. My goal was to keep a steady pace up – I didn’t want to blow my leg power. At the end of Shalona, the road flattens for a disappointing 30 yards. It was time to take it slow, recover and prepare for what, in Durango, we call new Shalona.

If you’ve ridden the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge steam engine, then you’re aware that it stops roughly halfway to Silverton at Rockwood. The little town (about three houses strong) supplies the train with additional water for the journey through the passes to Silverton, CO. It is also the end of the new Shalona climb. This climbing section is fairly steep, but not as long as the first Shalona section. It is just enough to get your legs pumped for the rest of the journey.

My next stop was at the Needles country store. This stop, following a short climb from Tamarron resort to Haviland recreation area, constituted a well-deserved bathroom break. I was out of the general store quickly, as I wanted to take in the views for a moment before heading off for Durango Mountain Resort and then Coal Bank pass.

The beginning of Coal Bank is a heart-wrenching 10-15 degree hill, depending on how you’re measuring it. In other words, the beginning of the climb is very steep. You don’t just ease into the climb – like you want too. The climbing gets fierce as you push through switchback after switchback. However, the views are almost 360-degrees. The mountains tower above you, like skyscrapers. You’re so close to the top of the world that your lungs almost burst. It is magical scenery to experience.

At the top, I pull back the reigns of my Colnago and bust out the Gu. It is time for a recovery snack. My break it quick and to the point. My plan was to ride up to Coal Bank and finish the day at Durango Mountain Resort where Christina, my Fiancé, will meet me with a bottle of wine, crackers and cheese – yesterday was a date night, because she is leaving for New York City. I point my wheels downhill and begin my descent.

If you haven’t experienced 50 miles per hour on your bike then mark it on your to do list. The same goes for passing cars. I was cruising. I passed cars with Texas license plates, easily. The once difficult switchbacks became speed whips, as I gathered momentum on each turn. I tucked to gain even more speed. The fun mounted as I reached the steepest part of Coal Bank. 51 mph, 52 – my speed quickened, however, naturally, like all good things, the speed came to an end as I turned the last hairpin corner. I moseyed on to Durango Mountain Resort and found my Christina waiting patiently. Ahhh, the after ride wine – what could be finer.

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