Stage 2 Wrap: Gunnison to Buena Vista via Monarch Pass

Kim Sharp-LeybaJason Sumner

Monday morning, Ride the Rockies’ 1750 participants awoke on the Pacific side of the Continental Divide. Tonight, they sleep near water destined for the Atlantic. In between was the longest stage of the 2019 tour, an 83-mile northeasterly haul from Gunnison to Buena Vista that featured the grueling ascent of Monarch Pass, elevation 11,312 feet. Total climbing for the day was a leg smashing 5393 feet.

Good thing the weather was all but perfect, with just a few clouds interrupting another brilliant blue sky day. And unlike stage 1, where wind buffeted riders and stalled progress, Monday’s testing two-wheeled affair was blessed with calm conditions in the morning, and a helpful tailwind in the afternoon. It was just what weary riders needed at the end of the ride, as they spun north along an ever-rolling stretch of U.S. Highway 285 from Poncha Springs to the finish at Buena Vista’s Riverside Park.

Of course Monarch Pass was the star of the day. From the base of the climb, it’s 8.4 miles and 2750 vertical feet to the summit. Thankfully the grade averages a reasonable 6 percent, making it possible to sit and spin. Sadly oxygen is sparse above 10,000 feet, so riders had to be sure to measure their efforts, lest they end up too deep in the red zone.

Climb times ranged from sub-60-minutes for the speedy mountain goats, to double that and then some for those choosing a more leisurely pace. And in case you were wondering, French professional cyclist Clément Chevrier owns the ascent’s mind-blowing Strava KoM time of 35:44, which was set during stage 4 of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge that went from Gunnison to Salida and then partway back up Monarch Pass.

Among Monday’s other highlights was the rollicking descent down the east side of Monarch Pass, where the comparatively shallow grade and gently banked turns made braking optional. There were also a steady stream of stunning Collegiate Peaks views, and sporadic glimpses of the roiling Arkansas River, swollen to its banks thanks to a steady flush of snowmelt.

Next up is the Queen Stage of the 2019 Ride the Rockies, which features the famed ascent of Independence Pass. Riders will roll out of Buena Vista between 6 and 8 a.m., then head north on US Highway 24. Along the way are more majestic mountain views, including Mount Yale, Mount Harvard, and distant Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado at 14,439 feet.

Around mile 20, riders turn left onto State Highway 82 and begin the trek to the summit of Independence Pass, elevation 12,095 feet, the highest point on this year’s tour and the second highest paved though-road in all of the Centennial State. Initially the road rolls gently, passing through the small town of Twin Lakes and continuing to casually rise over the ensuing 13 miles.

But then things get serious. Following a mile-long straight stretch through a sprawling valley, the road takes an 180-degree left and up you go. The next 4.5 miles are a grueling 5 percent, with the final mile and half all above treeline, where oxygen is sparse and the weather can turn foul at any time. Fortunately, there’s a favorable forecast.

At the top, riders will snap keepsake photos in front of another Continental Divide sign, then plunge back to the Pacific side via a rapid (and occasionally technical) 16-mile, 8000-foot descent where at one point the road narrows to a single lane through several tight switchbacks. Once at the base of the pass, the route passes through Aspen, then turns left on Owl Creek Road for the final uphill grunt to the finish in Snowmass. No doubt it will be another great day.

~ Jason Sumner