Big Fat Tire: Bad banjo, Wheeler Pass and Summit’s great mountain bike climbs
The Fourth of July has come and gone.
That means it’s high summer in the High Country, and, due to recent rains, green is the prominent color, from the alpine tundra to the grass in my front yard. Aspen groves offer cool shade and High Country wildflowers are at their most riotous, including columbines, wild roses and a whole bunch of other flowers I either can’t name or consistently misname — not that the flowers care much what we call them. But, trails through Mom Nature’s flower gardens are some of my favorite things: They give you (or at least me) that lucky-to-be-alive warm and fuzzy feeling.
For mountain biking, the Fourth means, of course, the Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge. The race started in 2001 with 109 riders, according to then co-promoter (and current promoter of the Breck Epic) Mike McCormack. Today, Jeff Westcott has a 750 rider limit and it always sells out.
This year, rather than heading out to ski as I’ve done the last two years, I revived an old tradition of schlepping my banjo up to the top of Little French Gulch to provide bad entertainment for riders at the top of one of Summit County’s most notorious climbs. I do this for one reason: to give some support to the racers and maybe get some of them to crack a smile. I also go to the top of Little French because, by the time they get to the top at a race pace, they are semi-delirious and don’t notice that I really suck at the banjo.
Like a lot of races, the Firecracker has a wide variety of riders in terms of talent, skill and fitness. The top riders, like local stud-chick Marlee Dixon (winner of the women’s Pro division) make it look easy. There are many, many riders who are not pro level, but who, nonetheless, push themselves to the limit. From my little perch at the creek crossing, I could see them all. A race like the Firecracker is full of individual stories of people pushing themselves to the edge and, often, beyond what they think are the limits of their capabilities. For some of them, as one competitor put it, “The check engine light came on and I threw a rod,” while others just grinded it out.
One thing that really struck me is the number of really young riders who were mixing it up at the front of their categories: local kids like Henry Boyd, who finished second in the under-29 expert division with a time of 4.5 hours, and he only just got his driver’s license. It just blows me away! How can kids that young be that fast?
Wheeler Pass and Summit’s great climbs
I was talking to friends about Little French and the conversation turned to Summit’s signature climbs. Now, I love it when the trail turns downhill. I’ve never been a particularly great climber, even in my prime. I was never a skinny little guy who flew uphill, but I do enjoy climbing. I see it as part of the whole picture of mountain biking.
So what are some of the great climbs of Summit? For me, my favorite climbs have a combination of pitch, technical challenge, length and scenery. It helps to have a great downhill on the other side as a reward for all the hard work, but for right now, I’ll just talk about the climb.
In the Breckenridge area, a classic from town is Wheeler Pass. The climb has it all: It starts with the ski area service road, which some folks might find boring — I’ve never understood how you could be bored on a bike, but whatever — and the scenery of the Upper Blue Valley as you climb higher and higher is stunning. Once you climb above the ski area and reach tree line, it turns to a tricky, babyhead Jeep road with sections that bring me to a standstill usually because I run out of climbing talent. I think I’ve cleaned the whole section once in 30 years of trying.
Then, you get to the Wheeler Trail. It might be my favorite piece of singletrack in the county: The trail rolls almost as much as it climbs, taking you into a magical world of alpine tundra with technical challenges and wildflowers that make you want to stop, get off the bike, roll around and breathe in the micro-world of delicate alpine wonderland (careful of the sharp rock while you’re rolling around).
Like all good alpine trails, there is often a snow crossing if you’re up there before late July. The very last section is steep, with five or six tight switchbacks. I’m sure some people have cleaned this section; I came close when I was younger and fitter, but most people will push at least part of it (did I mention that, for me, a great climb shouldn’t have too much pushing? A little is OK, but I’d much rather pedal than carry my bike). Once at the top of the pass, you are in a classic location, with views of Copper Mountain to the west, plus the Sawatch Range and even the Elk Mountains in the distance.
The best of the rest
That brings me to Little French Gulch. LFG has always been a tough climb, and it was made even harder by a flash flood about six years ago. This changed the course of the creek and took out sections of the old road, adding a a few loose gullies to cross.
The Colorado Trail in Summit also has some iconic sections. My favorite has to be the section from Copper Mountain to the top of Searle pass, or, for extra credit, to the top of Kokomo Pass. Guller Creek has to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Summit, with wildflowers and beaver ponds. There is just enough technical challenge to keep you focused, but not so much that you can’t stay on your bike, and the above-tree-line traverse from Searle to Kokomo is something every mountain biker should do.
Staying with the CT, the climb from the North Fork of the Swan River is a classic too. It’s one of those climbs where you just get into a rhythm and grind out, and it always feels so good when you get to the top for one of the best descents in the county.
The climb up the Peaks Trail from Frisco to the Miners/North Barton divide is a very satisfying climb to clean with its occasional steep, technical pitches, plus a couple beautiful meadows to keep your mind off your screaming legs.
Odds and ends
I wrote last year about dropper posts, saying that I wasn’t convinced they were must-have components. After riding with mine another year, my opinion is… about the same. I still think they are nice to have in really steep, technical terrain (places like Moab), but, around here, I’m not so sure they are worth the cost in terms of money, reliability and weight. I bring this up because, for the second time, mine blew a fuse and I had to send it off. And it’s supposed to be one of the better, more reliable droppers out there.
The town of Breckenridge’s annual trail-building collaboration with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado will be July 23-24. The goal is to extend the Galena Ditch trail to the South Fork of the Swan. This will be the final segment of the trail, and it will let folks bypass the entire stretch of Tiger Road with singletrack. VOC and town trail crew always organize a great weekend, and a good turnout from local mountain bikers shows we can and do contribute to the trails we love and use.
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