About a month before the start of the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) I got word that most of the top racers from last year were not participating this year due to a number of respectable reasons. I was however a bit upset, why you ask? Because competition is good, hearing about Jefe and Jesse up front last year made me excited to play my cards in their position this year. If anything it would give me some company, someone to give me a kick in the butt. In any event, I would be the only top 5 finisher from last year. A few weeks in advance I was ready to take on the beast of the Colorado Trail, I had been riding with some variation of a loaded rig for roughly 3 weeks before the CTR, and I felt confident with my set up, which is very important to me. That is half the battle, if you’re off your bike all the time it takes you out of your groove and sucks up time. After more waiting than the previous year, Sunday, August 10th arrived. The storms from the previous week had subsided and conditions were nice. However, rain was in the forecast again, it would prove to play a very large roll not only for me but many other racers. Roughly 54 racers lined up at Waterton Canyon to listen to Stefan Griebel’s simple rules…Do.It.Yourself! The clock struck 6:00am and a bunch of us crazies set off to Durango.

Day 1: Waterton Canyon – Copper Mountain

The neutral rollout was great as always, catching up with fellow bikepackers, chatting about life, rigs, and the important “how ya feelin” questions. Once the singletrack hit, I was off and so was my stomach – it was unsettled for the switchbacky climb out of Waterton Canyon, maybe nerves, maybe the beer from the night before. I soon found my groove, and quickly got through the first 3 segments and on to the Tarryall Detour. After filling up on water at the Wellington Lake Campground I was off to Stoney Pass #1 and the wide open Hayman Fire burn zone. Temperatures quickly rose as they often do in the area. I zoned into road riding, trying to take advantage as best as I could. I made my way down to the paved Tarryall Road as some ominous clouds inched closer. Before I knew it I was getting hammered with hail while riding my bike at a relatively fast pace on the road…ouch! It quickly stopped, but round two was even stronger. I neglected to put on any extra layers as I knew the Stagestop Saloon was not too far away (100 miles into the race). Far enough however to arrive shivering, shaking, and soaked to the bone. Colorado weather continues to amaze, even after experiencing it for almost 7 years. My goal for the day was to make it past Copper Mountain Resort, I wanted to camp where Jefe and Ethan did in 2012, that way I could hopefully keep up with their pace. In order to attempt this, I would need to pack enough food to Leadville. I started with plenty so I was in good shape. At the Stagestop I only purchased a few items and ordered a burger while I put my warm clothes on. I was there a bit longer then I would have liked, but it was good for me to rest and warm up. I left the Stagestop and moved on towards Kenosha Pass, followed by Georgia Pass. After missing another storm just as the sun set, I summited at Georgia Pass. I turned on my lights and started my first night on the CT. I chugged down some Tailwind Nutrition Raspberry Buzz, and mowed down some Honey Stinger Energy Chews, I was focused and ready for the long push up the 10 mile range. I crested the range around 2:30, made my way back down and across hwy 91 before finding a dry bivy spot around 4:00am on Copper Mt, 162 miles in to the race. Although I did not make it to Janet’s Cabin, my goal for that night,  I set myself up to pass Searl and Kokomo in the morning, a nice change from last year when Travis and I flirted with lightning on that section. I did not feel the need to rest, but knew it was a good idea. I set my alarm for 5:00am, just an hour of sleep.

Day 2: Copper Mountain – Past Princeton Hot Springs

I woke up just before my alarm feeling great, I had a big day ahead reaching Leadville and Buena Vista. It would start with Searle Pass, and then Kokomo Pass. The Colorado Trail Foundation has done a great job fixing trail that is rutted, but this section is just as frustrating as I remembered it, hitting my pedal every few strokes ensuring zero rhythm. The small creeks were frozen as the sun poked over the eastern mountains. After making it to Kokomo, I started the bone crushing descent to Camp Hale. The sun was out, and things were good, although a little low on food and water, I knew I was almost to Leadville, and a light rig was nice to have at the moment. I bypassed Leadville but detoured to Saturday Discount for some water and food before heading towards Twin Lakes. After some difficult climbing where I was questioning my decision to run a 28tooth front chainring, I descended down to Clear Creek Reservoir and on to detour #3 towards Buena Vista.
Colorado Trail Race
Photo Courtesy of Joe Polk at MTB Cast
I arrived in Buena Vista (BV) a bit flustered. BV would be the last resupply until Silverton, so I needed to make sure I had enough food to make it there. I stopped at Boneshaker Cycles (awesome guys) for a quick check of my derailleur hanger, City Market for food, and then Pancho’s for a burger and fries. All in all I think I spent 45 minutes in BV, far too long for a resupply. The climb up Cottonwood was tough especially with a loaded rig and stomach. I arrived to the remainder of segment 13, and it  just about laid the smack down on me, rugged terrain, hike-a-bike, rain, followed by a sunset, I was not particularly in good spirits at that point. I eventually slogged into Princeton Hot Springs and continued on as the store was closed, I knew it would be. What turned into a great day ended a bit on the low side, caffeine nor my eyes were functioning properly so I decided to put down for the night at 11pm. I set my alarm for 1:00am, a good two hours should set me straight.

Day 3: Past Princeton Hot Springs to La Garita Campground

I wake up at 2:05am confused… my watch alarm failed to go off. I quickly packed up and got back on the bike, feeling relatively strong. Making it to hwy 50 as the sun rose was a big milestone, I had put behind half of the Colorado Trail in 2 days, I was please with my progress, and spirits were high.  The climb up Fooses Creek was exactly how I remembered it – tough. Eventually making it to the top for a fun descent down to Marshall Pass where I would get ready for the Chocatopa Hills and Sargent’s Mesa. After filling up water at the cow shit infested Tank Seven Creek, I started the climb up to the mesa all while having fun chatting to the cows. I would be on and off my bike for the majority of the day walking through some of the most rugged terrain the CT has to offer, but when I could I would always be on my bike. That was the goal, the more riding, the more ground you will cover. Usually segments 16 and 17 are hell, and although it was not a fun experience, I felt like it didn’t beat me up like is usually does. Colorado Trail Race I finally hit 114 and eventually Apple’s camp where there were a few through hikers. I hug out for a while, it felt great to chat with people. Apple stated he usually never sees the leaders of this race as they typically never stop, I was happy to. At sunset I took off, on the long La Garita Wilderness detour. After avoiding a huge storm to the north all afternoon. Although brief, I finally got my serving of wetness. I was happy I did not have to waste the daylight on this particular detour, although its beautiful in its own right I think its rather boring, and I couldn’t think of a better section to ride under the moonlight. My goal that night turned into setting myself up for a quick summit of the Coneys section in the morning. Although I wanted to get further I decided to stop at 1:00am, filled up on water and  napped at Spruce Campground, 8 miles northeast of Slumgullion Pass.

Day 4: La Garita Campground to Blackhawk Pass

I woke up shivering, and by far the most tired I had been yet, I set my phone alarm this time as my watch was broken. I quickly downed a coke some food, and got on the saddle…Ouch! At this point my ass was raw, with chamois cream lasting 30 minutes max, but thats part of the game. I made my way up to Slumgullion then down and then back up to Spring Creek Pass just as the sun was rising. I started segment 22 a bit nervous, clouds were already starting to move in, soon after, mist and rain would follow. I had a little panic attack as I thought I would have to hold out until the storm would pass. Luckily for me the lightning never presented itself, and for that I am forever grateful. At tree line I ran into Karlos Bernhart and a few others, They were enjoying themselves next to a fire after deciding they would hold out another day. I. was. jealous. After dealing with gusty winds and fog, I descended my way off the Coneys section and started my climb up towards Cataract Lake. The clouds had cleared and what I call ‘mars’ showcased itself. I love this section because there is not a tree in sight, just high alpine tundra, primitive singletrack and you. On again, off again rain followed me all the way to Stony Pass # 2. Already beaten down, the descent into Silverton on Stony Pass may be the most physically demanding descent on the trail. Stopping every so often to give your hands, wrists, arms and shoulders a break from the steep rocky grade. IMG_4943 Silverton arrived and so did another storm. I raced to the grocery store and hunkered down on the deck, assessing my needs. My hunger and cravings purchased a lot of food including a large turkey sandwich and Fritos that I ate while relaxing on the covered porch. After a much needed rest, I hopped back on the bike up 550, I could smell the pizza and beer waiting for me, little did I know the Colorado Trail wanted nothing to do with me those last 70 or so miles. After I turned off of 550 I started feeling some knee pain, usually I feel plenty of pains along a ride like this, and usually they either fade or are subtle enough to just ride through them. This time was different. I stepped off my bike to stretch my right knee that felt a little funky, I crossed my right leg over my left knee to stretch my IT band.  Instantly I felt a sharp and centralized pain on the right side of my knee. My worry quickly rose as I attempted to pedal. It would come and go the next few hours with a steady pain of 5, but reaching as high as 8. To top it all off, the sun had set and a storm had moved in. Cold, foggy, and wet, I would be engulfed in the cloud all night. By the time I got to Bolam Pass, roots, rocks, and the dirt had all been saturated from the soggy conditions.  I set a new goal, get up and over Blackhawk Pass and take a nap. Trying to keep every single negative thought out was proving to be difficult at this point. Once I got up and over Blackhawk, I found a relatively dry spot and laid down for an hour in hopes that my knee would quit yelling at me.  

Colorado Trail Race

Day 5: Blackhawk Pass to Junction Creek Trailhead

I woke up shivering, It was so difficult to get out of my bivy but I had to. 45 miles were between me and the finish. I hopped on the bike and started descending the rest of Blackhawk Pass. In my attempts to pedal through the thick fog, I somehow really aggravated my knee nearly falling off my bike in pain. The knee pain had quickly turned into a 10 and all I could do was walk. I was really in the dumps, walking through freezing cold terrain, brushing against the wet lush vegetation only made things worse. I was walking the majority from Blackhawk Pass to Hotel Draw and Orphan Butte, hopping on my bike for any descent. My hope was my knee would appreciate the rest, I was also hoping the sun would pop out  to dry me off…wishful thinking. I broke down just outside of Orphan Butte, calling my girlfriend, Lindsay. I told her my status and asked if she thought it was realistic to walk the rest to the finish with the water and food I had. We chatted and I eventually told her to start heading to Cortez to come pick me up on one of the remaining forest roads off of 145. I sat under a tree contemplating my decision. It didn’t take long to realize that the trail devil would be winning if I bail now, not only that, but would I be able to live with my decision? I pop a hand full of Ibuprofen pills, and hop back on the bike, I ride hard, I ride with determination, I ride for a purpose. I called Lindsay back to tell her to stay put, “I’ll see you in Durango this afternoon” I told her. I think a little bit of me was so disappointed that I was setting a great pace, and now it would be for nothing. In all the chaos going through my head, I had seemed to forget my ultimate goal…finish! I started the major climb up towards Indian Ridge, my pain masked by a temporary remedy. I make sure not to put too much torque on my right leg, to prevent the worst… a tear. The raindrops became larger, and the singletrack turned into a river. I was not going to let anything hold me back. I was cruising through the “river” like I was a kid again. I reached the exposed ridge, forgetting how extremely exposed and difficult it was. Hiking with 35 mph winds, 40 degree temperatures, all while your hands were numb…you just can’t train for this. I was so close. I took my first fall of the ride on the ridge, after I was unable to unclip from my pedal. I fell directly into a bush face first, I laid there laughing, thinking to myself…..holy crap,  this is one hell of an adventure. After heaving my bike down rock drop after rock drop, ensuring my knee a safe descent I was finally greeted by Taylor Lake. The sun started to poke out. I could see Kennebec pass in the distance. I made my way up and over Kennebec, descended the loose scree as the sun full on graced me with it’s presence for the first time in about 15 hours. I ditched my rain jacket, down coat, arm warmers, fleece gloves, knickers, and hat. I reached the waterfall, the flooded river crossings, and the hike-a-bike all while my knee pain slowly comes back to light. I baby it, talk to it, even pet it, for I am too close to the finish for even a broken leg from keeping me from Junction Creek. I finally hit the switch backs, and knew then I was home free. I arrived at the Junction Creek Trailhead full of joy. Friends cheering me on, congratulating me on winning a race that I had prepared for all summer. An experience of a lifetime has ended, and it has made me stronger, believe in myself more, and has made me one happy man. Colorado Trail Race Thanks to everyone that has supported me , and thanks for all the positive vibes while I was out there. I felt them, and I knew finishing was the only option. For all of those who I met on the trail, I would like to thank you. I hope we can connect soon. I have already dissected what went right and wrong, and you can count on me lining up in 2016 at Waterton Canyon. In terms of my knee, it looks like I’ll be on the mend for a little while. Dr. Griggs, thinks it is a torn lateral meniscus. something he hopes can be healed with time and physical therapy. Other then that I’m feeling good and will be posting more about my gear/ rig tomorrow. Colorado Trail Race Happy Trails -Neil B. .

11 Comments

  1. Fuck yea Neil! That was a riveting read. I could feel the pain. Amazing account of human endurance. Makes me want to hike more 😛

  2. Chris Smith

    Strong work Neil! Way to be tough as shit! I’m the north bound thru rider who snuck up on you at South Fooses TH when you were getting water in the creek. Awesome new site too!

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Chris, It was nice meeting you out there. Sorry I was a little tired. How did the rest of your trip go, pass a lot of rider along the way?

  3. Great work Neil – Apart from anything else, I admire the way you dial in a couple of hours sleep and wake full of energy. Not my style!

    I think you had a look at my facebook page on the Monaro Cloudride 1000 in Australia earlier this year. I’m 56 and apart from a three day tune up beforehand, this was my first bikepacking experience. Would you be interested if a rewrote it for bikepacking magazine? 10 started 3 finished, the last of them being me. I thought I would call it ‘The Slow Cloudrider’. Anyways regardless of that, very well done and congratulations. Cheers, Neil C.

  4. Andrea Yetman

    Amazing Neil! Congrats on finishing….”what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” Gary has gotten in to some mountain biking. Maybe some summer or winter when Spencer is in town you’ll have to come visit us in our new place in Arrowhead. Best to you.

    P.S. So sorry to hear about Garrett.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Thanks Andrea,

      Its been a long time 🙂 I hear the riding out in the Eagle area is top notch!

      That would be great, just like the good ol days!

      Thanks again!

      Neil

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