Mash the pedals and enjoy the suffer
As my ego dissolves with my thigh muscles, I look through my sunglasses above the next switchback and make out a hunched shape pushing ever forward through the trees. It’s my older brother Luke — pumping, grimacing, and progressing his lime green, fully-loaded Kona to our next destination 1500ft and 5 miles above.
I wipe sweat from my brow with unnecessarily warm riding gloves as the sun beats down on my forearms and exposed knees. Unlatching a magnetic clip across my chest, I fumble for a drink from the bladder in my backpack, which tastes vaguely like fermented limes and macha tea, residue from an electrolyte mix I didn’t clean after a recent training session. I push on.
The dirt road is a nice break from grueling singletrack, and despite it’s grade and distance my competitive streak kicks in. I mash my pedals to catch up to my brother, who has been pushing me to be stronger since our first trip to the woods.
I’m physically tired, but I’m filled with joy and abundant energy — the kind that only comes when you’re doing something you love.
We’re about 65 miles into our 100 mile 3-day bikepacking tour, and nearing the end of a 35 mile and 5300ft day, full of river crossings, hike-a-bikes, technical descents, glorious views, and curse-inducing climbs.
We’re not here to break any records and the five guys with me aren’t going to make it into the next Dirt Rag. But we’re all dads, with full time jobs, Instagram feeds to fill, and families to feed — and, well, that’s something.
More than a year ago, my brother-in-law Ian set a goal to bikepack the entire Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, which would take roughly two (whole) weeks.
Ever the idealist, he sent out emails to a bunch of guys, who all likely said “I’m in!” to ourselves and “crazy idea” to our wives. The big plan didn’t stick, but Ian did manage to wrangle a decent team for a light 7 day suffer-fest in Colorado.
Our plan was to do a variation on the Vapor Trail route, a 125mi invite-only mountain bike race outside of Salida. It’s a legendary ride in Colorado, given its mix of altitude, technicality, flowy singletrack, and sheer beauty — 14000ft peaks rising in every direction. Not to mention much of the riding is done at night, though again, we’re riding it under el sol because Outside Mag didn’t come knocking.
The team included Derek, an ENT doc from Virginia, my brother Luke (a PA) from Georgia, Nick, a leader with the Navigators in Tennessee, our fearless captain Ian who manages a cardiac floor at a Denver hospital, Bryon, an owner of an accounting and program management firm, and myself. All 30-something dads attempting to avoid dad bods through suffer-adventure (because, well, gyms suck).
A note on shakedown days
On our first day, we said goodbye to children and wives and set out to Buffalo Creek, home of arguably the best riding on the front range for our “shakedown” day. The goal, much like companies in Silicon Valley, was to move fast and break sh*t on a 25mi, 3000ft loop from car-to-car. We succeeded at least in the latter.
Within an hour, my brother’s rear cassette broke under the sheer power of his legs, an artifact of his days as a pararescueman in the Air Force. Later, his chain snapped. The cable on my seat dropper post split, presumably under the sheer power of my left thumb, trained every day on the spacebar of my Dell laptop at work. This left me with my knees in my chest on ascents, which was infuriating often, and painful the rest of the time. In any case, the day was a complete success.
After a celebration beer for completing our first day, we headed down highway 285 to the Salida area, where we set up tents, ate burritos, and drank mountain whiskey before retiring to our sleeping bags. It was as beautiful and simple as camping should be.
The next day, we drank copious amounts of coffee and visited the superheroes at Absolute Bikes, who fixed up our steeds and sent us back on our way to conquer Cottonwood Canyon, a flowy, perma-smile-inducing joyfest just outside of Salida. It is brilliant purpose-built singletrack, with just the right mix of climb and descent.
In a fairly dicey and rocky section towards the end of the ride, a non-threatening and otherwise docile rock angrily snipped the sidewall of my rear tire, so I was forced to throw in a new tube. A full five minutes later, I pinch-flatted and added another ring of rubber in what was amounting to be a collection of mechanical embarrassments for the brothers Williams.
But alas, we finished, and celebrated in Colorado fashion with another (hoppy craft) beer at the bottom. It’s a good idea on these trips to have a day or two on the front end to make sure your bikes are ride-ready as possible, as you most certainly want to avoid any mechanicals you can shake out in advance.
After nervously getting one more round of checks done on our bikes, we headed to our friend Matt’s house, who is living the dream in Salida. The plan was to load and dial-in our gear for the 3-day bikepacking adventure beginning the next day.
For food, Ian decided it was best that he purchase all the meals beforehand — that way it was consistent and we didn’t have to scramble at the last minute to fill our coffers. Highly recommended approach to have one person in charge of breakfast/lunch/dinner and accept some Venmo money afterwards.
Also, we had real meals — hot ones — because eating oat bars all day is the worst. Like I said, we weren’t in this to break any records, so make it light, but make it good. We all took care of our own snacks, electrolyte mixes, and Clif shots during the ride.
As far as the essentials, we made a Google doc that outlined who had what, then Ian highlighted what we all needed to bring to avoid overlapping gear. Here’s an example of what that spreadsheet and gear list looked like.
The bags we used were varied — I had a full Revelate setup, but others had a mix of bags they’d use on their bike. The idea is to get as much as possible in your center of gravity, and try not to pack needlessly in your backpack.
Half of us hadn’t done even a single overnight on our bikes, but this crew has some serious mountain cred, including summits of Cotopaxi, the Grand Teton, and Rainier, 10k ft biking days in Pisgah, big snowy backcountry ski days in Colorado and Utah, and other rough and rowdy adventures across the US and beyond.
We all had trained for this, but adventure sport is much more of a mental game than a physical one — and those who go the distance typically have been given the spiritual gift of suffering.
Looking around, I was less concerned about the mental and physical abilities of the team and more about potential mechanical failures.
But we did what we could, broke stuff early, and loaded up.
The Vapor 125 begins and ends in Salida. We wanted to do a variation because we’re not as badass as we once were, so we trimmed it up. Following is what the route looks like in it’s entirety:
Our route was as follows, beginning at Mt. Shavano and ending at Poncha Springs.
Vapor Trail Day 1 #dadlegstour
Distance: 29.4 miles
Duration: 7 hours, 14 minutes, and 16 seconds
Minimum Elevation: 8516 feet
Maximum Elevation: 11136 feet
Total climb: 4240 feet
Total descent: 2879 feet
The day began with some pretty rugged singletrack on the Colorado Trail, and all of us were wondering if this was actually a terrible idea. But no one said anything until day 2, obviously, because we’re all very brave (until someone says something).
As you can see from the stats above, we did about 30mi and climbed 4200ft…not the worst day ever, but tougher fully loaded with packs. We camped just outside the old ghost town of Hancock above the trail.
Vapor Trail Day 2 #dadlegstour
Distance: 35.0 miles
Duration: 8 hours, 52 minutes, and 36 seconds
Minimum Elevation: 8902 feet
Maximum Elevation: 12587 feet
Total climb: 5303 feet
After waking up and getting loaded, we headed out on what would be our biggest day of the three. This day followed the old Alpine Tunnel train route to a pass, with a moderate hike-a-bike, followed by some descents to a much longer (40 min) hike-a-bike. The views from the top were breathtaking.
We passed by the old Alpine Tunnel (fantastic history btw, if you’re into that thing) on our way down, then descended in some very rocky and terrifically fun singletrack along Canyon Creek. It was a bit washed out in spots from the recent rains, but we all made down without breaking our bikes or our bodies — win. The final part of the day is a 9mi and 2500ft climb to the top of Old Monarch Pass, where our buddy Matt, a real #TrailAngel, brought us beers and sausages. After a grueling climb, it was a perfect way to the end the day.
Vapor Trail Day 3 / Monarch Crest #dadlegstour
Distance: 35.6 miles
Duration: 4 hours, 39 minutes, and 10 seconds
Minimum Elevation: 7453 feet
Maximum Elevation: 11974 feet
Total climb: 2386 feet
Total descent: 5889 feet
The Monarch Crest is an IMBA Epic for good reason: it’s full of blissful singletrack, punchy climbs, and some of the best views in Colorado. It’s not as physically challenging as the other two days and we took our time enjoying the views and beautiful weather. Worth doing for everyone who likes to bike — and doable with moderate physical ability/endurance.
Wrapping it up
We finished, as usual, with beers.
Bikepacking, like anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and into a place of adventure, is worth every bead of sweat that drips down your face and the pains that ache your legs when you return. Mash the pedals and enjoy every piece — the suffer, the views, the friendships, the beers, the mechanical failures, the awe of it all.