Copper Triangle – A Plan to Ride

Vail Pass

Living in Florida has many advantages.  We are able to use our bicycles year round.  While we may need to bundle up a bit during the winter season or endure the heat of July and August, we are able to get out and enjoy cycling whenever we choose.  During the warmest times of the year, it’s possible to escape to other parts of the county to get some relief from the heat and enjoy different scenery.  The Rocky Mountains in Colorado are about as “opposite” as you can find.  They present some amazing cycling opportunities and challenges.

Lauren Hunt (DPF Victory Crew Program Manager); and Polly Dawkins (DPF Executive Director)

This summer I attended the Colorado Cyclist Copper Triangle Ride.  It was held on August 4, 2012.  The route started at Copper Mountain, located about 75 miles west of Denver.  The course is a spectacular 78-mile loop cresting three Colorado Mountain passes – Fremont Pass (elevation 11,318’), Tennessee Pass (elevation 10,424’) and Vail Pass (elevation 10,666’). The course passes three ski areas and is littered with historic mining outposts and camp Hale, the training ground for the famous 10th Mountain Division. The total elevation gain for the course is 5,981 ft.

It is important to note that I said “attended” rather than “rode in.”  The Davis Phinney Foundation had extended an invitation to me to attend its top fundraiser dinner the night prior to the ride.  A ticket to ride was included in the packet.  I mentioned this to some cycling friends and they told me “don’t even think about doing that ride.”  Good advice for this stage in my “cycling career.”  I am recording some decent miles –about 1,000 per year, but I have not trained for the climbs or descents that would occur in that type of event.  So, I declined and offered to take photos for the group instead.  The morning of the ride, as I was taking pictures of my friends who were riding, I felt so guilty and jealous.  It was the strongest “put me in Coach” moment that you can imagine.  If I’d found any unclaimed bike available, I would have been dashing after all of them – and quite likely “bonking” half way up the Fremont Pass.

The same people, who talked me out of riding this year, also told me afterwards that there is no reason that I couldn’t set Copper Triangle as a “goal” for next year.  The difference is time, preparation, and training.  I learned a great deal by witnessing the event in person.  It will be helpful to me if I do “lock in” this objective or to you if you decide to take part in a major ride in the mountains.

There are three areas to address before attempting a ride as unique and strenuous as the Copper Triangle – equipment, fitness, and altitude.

Equipment – I certainly saw a full range of road bikes in use for the event; no doubt some very expensive models.  Riders carried that bare minimum amount of additional accessories – nothing that would add weight.  In fact, not a single rider had a headlight in spite of the fact that the first wave left before the crack of dawn.  The temperature was about 48 degrees in the morning, so most riders had on windbreakers and a few even wore mittens or full gloves.  Since this was a fully supported ride, no one had to carry a large amount of water or snacks.

I did see about four couples riding tandem bikes and one gentleman on a Bike Friday folding bike.  It was “odd” that I didn’t see anyone riding my bike, an Electra Townie.  I ride that bike because it is stable, comfortable, and allows me to sit more upright and not put as much pressure on my hands and shoulders.  If I want to take on the “Triangle,” I’m going to have to rethink that and get a legitimate road bike.  I know that a good bike shop is capable of making adjustments to accommodate my needs.  I’ll have to do that early in my “one year plan.”


Cheering on the riders

Training – People do cycle as a way to increase their fitness, but when taking on a major ride, it’s important to review your overall approach to physical development.  Get clearance from your doctor before taking on any serious training program.  There are many resources available to point you in the right direction, from an abundance of articles stressing cross-training, weight training, strengthening your core, and improving your on-bike performance to programs offered at your local gym.

One of the sponsors of the Copper Triangle was Optimize Endurance Services, a company which offers services to improve the physiological, mental and nutritional aspects of sport performance.  There are similar companies in your area who are available to assess your current capability and help you train for special events.

The key is to start training early, build your core, replicate climbing in spin classes or on stationery bikes with programmable options for simulating hills, or simply tackle as many genuine hills as you can in your area – even if they are simply “blips on the landscape” compared to mountain passes.  Of course, if you are really serious – and have a spare $ 1,500 laying around – you could always purchase the PRO-FORM Tour de France Training Bike with all the bells and whistles to replicate just about any type of terrain.

It’s equally important to prepare for descending on a steep road after a successful climb.  One article offers the following key tips – maintain proper tire pressure, pay attention to the road to avoid obstructions that could cause you to fall, don’t ride the brakes, do all your BRAKING before you start the turn, position your body properly, and look where you want to go and your bike will follow.  Lots to remember, and practice, before you head to the Rockies.

Altitude – High altitude can pose serious problems for anyone.  For those coming from a state like Florida which is basically at sea level, it’s a significant physiological change to your system.  Most people adjust well, but Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) can affect anyone.  A few symptoms of AMS are: headache, mild dizziness, nausea, insomnia, and irritability. These can indicate the onset of AMS and should not be ignored.  This can come on very quickly and is serious.  Prompt medical treatment including an IV and being placed on oxygen generally reverse the symptoms quite quickly.

Preventive strategies include allowing at least 2 days of acclimatization before engaging in strenuous exercise at high altitudes, avoiding alcohol, and increasing fluid intake. A high-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-salt diet may aid in preventing the onset of AMS.

Dehydration is the biggest reason AMS can become a problem for an athlete. Make sure to hydrate prior to coming to elevation and drink before you get thirsty while enjoying the scenery that mountains can provide. Proper training and nutrition practices will assist in an enjoyable event at altitude.

Back to Copper Mountain –

It was a thrill to see over 3,000 riders embark on their Copper Triangle adventure.  While they were out for the ride, my wife and I drove over to Vail to visit the Betty Ford Alpine Garden, a beautiful display of wildflowers at 8,200 ft.  As it turns out, the riders went directly past that same spot, so we were able to cheer them on.  Several volunteers rang cowbells as encouragement.  Driving back to Copper Mountain, we were able to view the riders as they sped down a bike trail which swept back and forth under the freeway.  They crossed a covered bridge just before reaching the finish line.

The Davis Phinney Foundation benefitted from a share of the registration fee for each registration and fundraising efforts conducted by some of the riders.   A check in excess of $ 135,000 was presented to the group to support its Parkinson’s Disease Research campaign and educational efforts to help people with Parkinson’s to Live Well Today.  Two members of the “Victory Crew” (supporters of the Foundation) who live with Parkinson’s completed the ride – Carl Ames and Doug Bahniuk.  Perhaps I’ll be able to join them next year.  How about you?







4 replies
  1. Khal Spencer
    Khal Spencer says:

    Good article, and you will definitely need something lighter than a Townie to do Copper Mountain. Plus, if someone wants to do some less extreme high altitude training, come on over for the Santa Fe (max about 7000 feet) or Red River (max 10000 feet) Century rides. I’m sure the tourist bureaus would love to see a few Floridians here!

    Having moved here from sea level (Honolulu), high altitude acclimation is definitely a bit of a challenge, and for any of these rides, good descending skills are critical. We lose a rider once in a while to overcooking a curve or even hitting a deer on a fast descent!

  2. Keri
    Keri says:

    More than weight, the Townie’s geometry doesn’t allow for efficient pedaling on hills. You don’t necessarily need a road bike, but you do need a pedal geometry more similar to a road bike.

    Some strategies for dealing with a ride at altitude: hydrate, take anti-oxidants for several weeks before and during, hydrate, arrive several days ahead of the ride to give your body time to adjust before stressing it, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (make sure you get a window seat on the airplane).

    I recommend taking a trip or two to a mountain location so you can get some experience with long climbs. One of my favorite training places is Asheville, NC. There are some long, moderate-grade climbs on the Parkway. Similar to what you’ll find in Colorado, but without the thin air.

    I love climbing mountains. It’s very different from hills. You want a good range of gears so you can settle into a sustainable pace and just enjoy the scenery. You learned some of the techniques you use for descending in your CyclingSavvy class. It’s important not to overcook curves, but it’s also important not to ride your brakes (especially if you have rim brakes).

    I think this is a great goal, John!

    • Khal Spencer
      Khal Spencer says:

      Keri is right. There is a Zen to long, sustained climbs. You can power through hills, but you have to negotiate with and reach an equilibrium with a sustained climb or a mountain or it will wear you out, esp. up in thin air where recovery is harder. In Los Alamos, I train for century rides by finishing with a climb that goes on for 12 miles, starts at about 6,000 and ends at about 9200 feet. It has a lot of changes in grade including a few flat spots and one pitch well over 10%, so it gives me a chance to ride at different tempos and a few places for recovery.

      I put on a special low cog for the Red River because at 10,000 feet, I noticed the thinner air compared to 9,000 feet. Having a range of gears that gives you a gear for every pitch on a four to eight mile climb, sometimes lasting 30-50 minutes or more, ensures that you will not struggle at a low cadence and burn out.

      You definitely don’t want to ride your brakes, and its a good idea to practice bike handling on some clear, smooth descents with switchbacks and hairpins. You need to look farther ahead at 40+ mph, pick your lines, watch for oncoming traffic on narrow roads, use body position to increase wind resistance (unless you want to go all out) and where I live, watch out for the squirrels and mule deer! One local motorcyclist went overland to avoid a deer and hit a tree head on instead.

      Hydration is a must as well. Its not just thin air, but dry air up here.

  3. Carl Ames
    Carl Ames says:

    Great report John of The 2012 Copper Triangle. It was indeed a challenging event and I was so grateful that I had the opportunity to do it with my son. It was great to meet you and all the others associated with the DPF.
    I hope to be there next year. Get training my friend!

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