Stage 3 Wrap: Buena Vista to Snowmass via Independence Pass

Kim Sharp-LeybaJason Sumner

Apparently Aeolus is angry. Greek mythology’s Keeper of the Winds unleashed his full fury on the Ride the Rockies peloton Tuesday, making the already testing 73-mile trek from Buena Vista to Snowmass significantly more difficult.

Indeed, a stiff headwind greeted the event’s 1750 riders as soon as they turned out of downtown Buena Vista and onto U.S. Highway 24 northbound. And with just a few exceptions, it never let up during an otherwise perfect weather day punctuated by the hors categorie Independence Pass ascent — and 5779 feet of total climbing.

The key, of course, was turning challenge into opportunity, making friends and then sharing the load of breaking the wind. All day alliances were formed, with riders familiar and unfamiliar joining in groups, then taking turns at the front. This whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts strategy was a perfect representation of the Ride the Rockies ethos, which focuses on camaraderie over competition.

But even with help, stage 3 was a beast. After slogging through the wind up Highway 24, then refueling at the Twin Lakes aid station, riders faced the daunting 16-mile upward journey to the summit of Independence Pass. The trek to the tour’s second Continental Divide crossing gains 2800 feet, topping out at an oxygen starved 12,095 feet. Fast climb times were in the 70-minute range. Others took several hours — or more.

Along the way, the true power of Mother Nature was on full display. The wind whipped. Rivers and creeks churned with wild whitewater. And riders spun past the remnants of at least a half dozen historic avalanches, where runaway snow carved football-field-wide paths of destruction, snapping hundreds of trees and pushing debris onto and even over roadways. Huge props to the Colorado Department of Transportation, which worked tirelessly to get the highway cleared and open in time for this year’s event.

Near the top, where the road pushes above treeline into the alpine tundra, towering snowbanks lined the route and backcountry ski tourers farmed turns on the still snow-covered mountains. It looked more like January than June.

At the summit, riders refueled, bundled up, and then plunged to Aspen 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. At the base of the pass, the route twisted through Aspen, then turned onto Owl Creek Road for one final uphill grunt to the finish in Snowmass and a well-deserved post-ride beer.

Following what was arguably this year’s hardest day is likely the easiest. Stage 4 of the 2019 Ride the Rockies is a mostly tranquil 33-mile spin from Snowmass to Carbondale that has just 1211 feet of climbing. Much of the route traces the Rio Grande Trail, a 42-mile multi-use rec path that connects Aspen and Glenwood Springs. The day’s lone climb of significance comes around the 21-mile mark, when riders diverge from the rec path to tackle the short but steep Upper Cattle Creek Road ascent, which gains around 800 feet in just two miles and has multiple ramps above 8 percent. Once again the forecast calls ample sunshine — but there’s also a chance for more wind.

~ Jason Sumner