Aspen’s iconic Ride for the Pass returns to raise funds for Independence Pass Foundation
May 18, 2017
Right at the hairpin turn at Upper Lost Man it hits you. Highway 82 doesn't look that steep but when you stand out of the saddle it feels like you are propped on planks of rubber.
You'll get over it quick enough. You have to. The road just gets steeper as you claw your way along the "upper cut" and hit 11,500 feet above sea level. The view west provides a shot of adrenaline as you see the valley far below. You realize what you've already accomplished. It supplies the kick needed to negotiate the last mile and reach the top of Independence Pass at 12,095 feet.
For road bikers living in or visiting Aspen, no summer is really complete without a ride up Independence Pass. The route is about 20 miles. The elevation gain is just over 4,000 feet. The views are stunning.
"For locals being in town, it's the Pass. It's right there," said Tom Hayles, an accomplished cyclist who now competes in international cyclocross races. He first rode Independence Pass when he moved to Aspen in the mid-1970s.
“I think it’s one of the greatest backyards in the world.”
— Karin Teague, Independence Pass Foundation
"You had to ride the Pass," he said.
There's a special feeling, particularly on the last part of the ride, when a rider can gaze out over the landscape in every direction and see the tops of surrounding high peaks. When riders top out, it hits them — they're on the Continental Divide.
"It's got that spiritual connection," Hayles said.
For cyclists who cannot get to Europe to ride some of the classic route used in the Tour de France and other grand tours, rides such as Independence Pass are the next best thing, Hayles said.
There are steeper and longer passes and mountain rides in Colorado. There are trickier descents. But there's nothing that quite offers a complete package like Independence Pass, Hayles said.
"There are other passes, but they don't descend into a town," he said.
Christian VandeValde has raced Independence Pass both as a professional cyclist and at a more leisurely pace. For the past three Septembers, he's led the Clip in with Christian riding camps presented by Little Nell Hotel.
His first impression of the Pass wasn't all that favorable. He didn't know the route well while competing on a cold, rainy afternoon during the inaugural USA Pro Challenge in August 2011. He lost valuable time on the descent into Aspen. George Hincapie won the stage. VandeValde placed second overall that year.
The following year the pros got a double dose of Independence Pass. They repeated the queen stage, a grueling 131-mile route from Gunnison to Aspen, first over Cottonwood Pass, then over Independence Pass and into Aspen.
The next morning they reversed course and climbed the tougher west side of the pass en route to Beaver Creek.
"You're starting in the cold in Aspen and ripping up it," VandeValde said.
He didn't win either stage entering or exiting Aspen in the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, but he took the overall title.
As an American, VandeValde would always make sure he came back to the States a couple of weeks before the race to acclimate. But some of the top cyclists in the world came straight over from Europe and battled jet lag as well the high elevation. Independence Pass is about twice as high as the summits of many of the classic routes in the Tour de France. That's what made it different for the pros.
"You'd see very accomplished riders down on their knees," VandeValde said.
He said he was in awe the first year of the Pro Challenge by how many spectators made the effort to get to the top of the passes, especially Cottonwood because it is so isolated. As a rider, he got into the scene because it was obvious there were so many racing fans.
With his racing days behind him, VandeValde is able to appreciate Independence Pass. Clip in with Christian will take riders up the Pass again in September.
"It's just a no-brainer," he said.
Like Hayles, VandeValde said the gradient isn't that steep and there are breaks such as the straightaway along the Lincoln Creek stretch.
But the elevation makes riders fight for breath and the grade sucks the air out of them for short stretches. The west approach from Aspen to the summit has 9.4 miles where the grade is 5 percent or greater, according to "The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) in Colorado" by John Summerson. The steepest mile has a gradient of 6.3 percent, according to Summerson.
That creates enough of a challenge to keep riders on their toes. VandeValde said he stresses in his camps that riders just have to keep mashing down the pedals and keep making progress.
Many of the riders attending his camp are return guests. They are well-aware of their times to climb the pass in the past. They try to beat the clock the following year.
"I appreciate that," he said.
Local riders' gratitude for Independence Pass is evident each spring. For 23 years, hundreds of riders have participated in the Ride for the Pass, the signature fundraiser for the Independence Pass Foundation. The nonprofit fights to preserve the ecosystem of the pass and repair scars left by the hands of man.
The ride is a rite of spring, held the Saturday prior to Memorial Day weekend — while Independence Pass is still closed to vehicles.
"What a treat to start the season like that," said Karin Teague, executive director of Independence Pass Foundation.
Beyond being able to ride without fear of traffic, Teague believes the popularity of the fundraiser reflects the true connection many Roaring Fork Valley residents feel with the pass.
It's got about 300 species of native wild flowers, 'incredible geography," a "rich and fascinating history," and creates a sense of awe at the Continental Divide.
"It's one of the greatest backyards in the world," Teague said.