Boulder to Crested Butte: Backcountry Pass Ride

a mountain biker carrying his bike while hiking on some rocky trail above treeline
Hiking up and over the Needle Eye Tunnel on one of the first passes of the journey.

This summer, we have all been forced to ask the question, “Why do I ride?”. Having been a professional mountain biker for six years, I’ve never really had to ask this question. It’s been my job. Of course, I know why I got into the sport and why I love it, but each day waking up and doing the hard training has been fueled by a desire to do well in races.

The past months have felt different. With no races or events, I had to find a new reason to jump on my bike each day. I initially began riding for transportation as a kid but fell in love with the sense of freedom and adventure.

Every obstacle is an opportunity to do something new, and when a trip to Crested Butte came up, I knew I wanted to ride my bike there. A four-plus hour drive through the mountains, or there are endless possibilities to get there by bike. Colorado has so many old mining passes that I’ve been researching. So, the idea came to me to build a route that used these passes to get from A to B. Or from Boulder to CB more specifically. I jumped on Strava and began looking for routes that would allow me to use some of the highest, most challenging, most historical passes in the state.

Once I had the route planned and my friend and training partner Alexey Vermeulen on board, I began thinking about logistics. When would we leave? Where would we stay? How do we get back from Crested Butte? Where would we get water? Food? What clothing would we need? There are many factors to consider on a ride like this, but to me, that’s one fun aspects.

For this ride, I knew I didn’t want to bike pack and bring camping gear, so I made sure we could get to a major town at the end of the first and second day so we could stay in a cheap hotel, shower, clean clothes, charge things, restock on ride food and get a solid meal. Georgetown and Leadville fell at the right mileage and time, so I booked rooms for the two nights. I packed a bag for my wife to drive up to Crested Butte, so I could enjoy a few days in the beautiful mountain town.

Equipment is the next consideration. Bike, tires, clothing, etc. Each ride demands different choices, and it’s a delicate balance of bringing enough to be prepared, but not so much that you are weighed down. I researched the forecast and terrain and made sacrifices where possible that would not prevent me from finishing the ride. For example, I didn’t bring shoes and instead walked around in my X-Alp Elevate shoes after the days. Also, I didn’t get a puffy jacket because I didn’t see cold/rainy weather in the forecast, and I knew that with a rain jacket, I could stay warm enough to get me off a mountain and to shelter. Rides like this are great reminders of need vs. want.

a wooden train trestle and a rock cut from early gold miners.
The famous abandoned train trestles near the top of Rollins Pass, also called Corona Pass.
Just because you're not riding doesn't mean it's not an interesting ride.

Here is everything I brought:

An arrangement of various items to accomplish the ride including PEARL iZUMi apparel.
The gear I packed on the route. We used a credit card for shelter.

Over the three days, we climbed up and over Rollins Pass, Argentine Pass, Webster Pass, Mosquito Pass, and Pearl Pass. Each of these passes had unique challenges and rewards from the famous railroad trestles on Rollins, the extremely rough terrain descending above 13,000ft on Argentine, and seemingly endless rocky hiking on Mosquito and Pearl. The views were absolutely incredible, but absolutely there were times where I would have loved to take a nap under a tree and wake up in my own bed.

Alexey and I talked many times about how a ride like this is so different than anything else and much we enjoyed point to point rides. Most rides are a known route where we end up in the same place at the start and finish. We plan our day around a ride and expect to be home after a certain amount of time. With this, it felt much more primitive. We didn’t have any planned effort or arrival time. Instead, it was about moving through the mountains as efficiently as possible. Getting caught up on distance or time would only weigh us down. I think setting this mindset of “Just keep pedaling” before we began helped us to enjoy the experience and move through the tough, rocky, slow times without shedding tears.

Rides like this are best when you balance planning and preparation with the right mental attitude of expecting the unexpected. So much of the joy comes from seeing things for the first time, overcoming obstacles, and finding yourself on the other side. This was one of the best rides I have been on in my life, but it has taken learning from past rides on gear to bring, logistics to cover, and setting that positive mindset beforehand. In the end, we covered 275 miles and climbed 33,500ft in just over 24 hours of pedaling time. There is so much to explore if you look outside the box. Start dreaming, plan a route, do a little research, pack the essentials, find a positive mindset, and get after it!

Ryan riding his mountain bike on a trail of scree on Argentine Pass.
It's a bit rocky up around 13,000 feet above sea level.
Ryan using a water filter to fill up a bottle
Gotta stay hydrated, luckily there are lots of mountain creeks and streams to help out and to keep the load light on the bike.
Ryan pushing his bike up a steep section
Sometimes you have to push your bike to get over some of these alpine passes in Colorado.
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