By 8 a.m. Wednesday, the first trickle of Ride the Rockies cyclists arrived at the western edge of Frisco, a mere three hours after the first light hits the sky to illuminate the road route.
The six-day tour started Saturday in Gunnison, with riders heading to Hotchkiss before cycling over McClure Pass to Carbondale, Independence Pass to Leadville and Fremont Pass to Summit County. After stopping into the aid stations at the west end of Frisco and the north side of Silverthorne, the approximately 2,500 cyclists rode north on Highway 9 before turning off on Ute Pass Road in the direction of Granby. Part of Wednesday's ride was on a dirt road, which isn't the most ideal surface for road bikers. However, the section is relatively short, considering cyclists covered 94 miles Wednesday and will total about 450 miles.
The goal is to finish the race at Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, but the High Park fire may cause some rerouting. The last leg stretches from Estes Park to Fort Collins - over the highest continuously paved road in the United States, Trail Ridge Road - and includes routes along Horsetooth Dam and through LaPorte and Bellvue, areas currently in or near the fire zone.
Cyclists gather for the tour from all parts of the state and beyond. It's been going for 27 years, with many riders returning year after year.
One group, who call themselves Mike's Maniacs, met while unloading bags from the three semi trucks that haul them between host towns. Mike Kosel, from Littleton, has been in the tour for 21 years. Over time, he's picked up riders who like to leave as early as the day shines its light, meeting the aid trucks in time to help them set up and arriving at camp in time to unload the bags of 2,500 riders who arrive throughout the afternoon and evening.
"It's a good week of fun and a lot of camaraderie with other people," Kosel said. "It's a great way to see the state."
Highlands Ranch's Phil Chavez, who befriended Kosel roughly seven years ago, "got hooked on unloading" when his bag was nestled in the front of the trailer. To get it, he had to help unload.
Mike's Maniacs are a small group among many who take to the road for the tour, which changes routes each year.
"It doesn't matter your riding style or when you like to ride, you'll meet people who like that style," Kosel said.
This year, the 2,500 riders is more than usual. There were few no-shows or cancellations. On the bright side, that meant more registration fees that turn into charitable donations for the host communities. Leadville, for instance, was fed about $250,000 through lodging, dining and grant money for local organizations.
"It's a rolling community," route organizer Rick "The Worm" Charbonneau said. He works with 83 volunteers to make the tour as seamless as possible. The average volunteer has served for nearly eight-and-a-half years, he said. He sets up aid stations consisting of Gatorade, water and fruit, and various vendors come along to provide pancakes, fajitas, energy wraps, pasta and more.
"It's a shared sense of accomplishment," Charbonneau said.