Alexey Vermeulen grew up as a road racer, having spent three years on the BMC Development Team followed by two years at the World Tour level on Lotto-Jumbo. He then decided to change course and hit the dirt full time. This year’s racing hasn’t exactly panned out the way he anticipated, but how Alexey sees it, there’s now more time in his schedule for amazing adventures.
Written by Alexey Vermeulen
For those of you who don’t know, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, from Michigan recently, going from 840 feet above sea level to about 5,430 feet above. About three days after arriving I was riding with a buddy, Ryan Petry, and he brought up this epic adventure ride he wanted to do: three days, 275 miles, and 34,000 feet of climbing – from Boulder to Crested Butte. He had planned it on Strava but was looking for someone crazy enough to be interested in riding it with him. Needless to say, it took less than a day of convincing and I was in. Is there a better way to acclimate to the altitude? Probably not.
Day 1: We’re Not In Michigan Anymore
Leaving Boulder 11 minutes late, we started up Flagstaff Mountain. It is comical how quickly you realize the “extra” stuff you did not need to bring (this was my first multi-day adventure ride). For me, that was socks, an external battery charger (we were staying at hotels), and a hat. Each day we would ride about 100 miles and climb 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Our goal was in no means to go from point A to Point B as quickly as possible, but to connect as many of the old Colorado mining passes as we could. These mountains see fewer than 20 cyclists a year. The types of places that it really doesn’t make sense to go by bike, but when you get there you realize it’s what you were missing.
We were both on full suspension bikes with ‘fast rolling’, but tough tires. Adjusting tire pressures constantly with the ever-changing elevation (your pressure goes up the higher you go), and rocky backcountry passes, became a common theme. We packed light, as we planned to stay the night in hotels and need only carry food for a maximum of five hours. I carried a small bar bag with a rain jacket and a small long sleeve and a Hydrapak with my t-shirt, shorts, chargers, and extra socks.
The first day brought us from Boulder, up and over Rollins pass before dropping us into Winter Park for lunch. A quick stop at Rudi’s Deli was a nice place to check in with family and stretch out the body. I was struggling a bit with a headache and focused on doing all the right things for the rest of the days to come. One day without eating or drinking consistently can really derail a ride like this. We filled up on water and headed over Berthoud Pass before descending down to Georgetown to spend the night. After washing our clothes in the shower and doing our best to expedite the drying process we headed out to dinner and then to find some breakfast for the morning. Walking through the local gas station with enough ‘high calorie’ food to warrant a basket or cart, we checked out and headed back toward the hotel. Tomorrow would be an early morning and the day with the most unknown territory.
Day 2: Pop-Tarts And Mountain Passes
After waking up around 6:00am and stuffing our mouths with muffins and bananas we headed out. Today would take us to Leadville, over three mountain passes: Argentine, Webster, and Mosquito. Argentine was unique because while you could climb up from Georgetown, the other side was only accessible to bikes, not even motorbikes can make it. The road had been washed away by rocks leaving only a slim ‘trail’ of scree to follow with what some would call nauseating exposure. With the descent leaving us speechless we meandered our way down, being sure to check around each corner that the rock hadn’t fallen away. One pass down. We rode through Montezuma before having a small picnic on the side of the road, consisting of Pop-Tarts and cookies. No time or place for a real lunch today, we had passes to get over. From Montezuma we climbed over Webster Pass and then descended down to the 285. With I70 closed because of the wildfires, this 25-mile stretch of asphalt seemed never-ending. Finally, after what felt like 6 hours, we made it to Alma, the bottom of our last pass.
We had heard crazy things about Mosquito and wanted to make sure we were there in time with plenty of light. After stocking up on food, water, and sunscreen, off we went. At this point, we were both a bit tired. Today had taken us up and over 13,000 feet and we would have to get there again before descending down to Leadville for the night. About five miles in, Mosquito becomes pretty much unrideable. At times it was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other while pushing and inching our bikes closer to the peak. It is crazy how deceivingly far away the top can look at altitude. Finally, we made it, and the blissful, albeit chunky descent down into Leadville was special. We kept to the tradition by showering and doing our laundry before heading out for dinner and then gas station breakfast. Tomorrow would be the last day of our trip and we just happened to be in Leadville on the morning that Leadville 100 would have started.
Day 3: A Zen Moment On Pearl
With the final day looming, we started off on the Leadville course with some friends we saw at the start. It was really cool to see so many people who had still made the trip to Leadville, lining up and taking the ‘start’ without there actually being a race. After descending down to Twin Lakes, we started our road climb up and over Independence Pass. The sun was shining, and we were both in great moods. We snagged some quick pictures on top before descending down into Aspen for lunch. A nice 22-mile descent dropping nearly 4000 feet is always fun to descend, but today that meant we had about 4500 feet to climb back up before we could finish our ride.
We had lunch in the Aspen shade with lots of weird looks coming our way before getting back on to our bikes. It was a surreal feeling knowing that we were so close to the destination, yet still hours away. The first 12 miles of the climb were on the road, leading us toward Ashcroft (a ghost town from the 1800s) before dead-ending into the bottom of Pearl Pass. Pearl was our final climb before getting to Crested Butte. It was interesting riding toward the bottom of the pass seeing only “cars and trucks prepared for war” passing us. As we got to the bottom and started our way up, I felt happy and excited. Pearl Pass was gorgeous and so different from the other passes we had done. It was green and had rivers crisscrossing down it. We filled up with water from the river using a filter before continuing up. We hiked, we biked, and we hiked some more. Somehow there was never a struggle moment for me today; knowing we were close to finishing this epic adventure pushed me forward. We got to the top and took it in for a moment…we could almost see CB and all that stood in the way was a 20-mile, 3000-foot descent.
The descent, 100% dropper down territory was full of big and chunky rock fields leading to flowy sand switchbacks before changing back again. As we got closer to the bottom, we left the sand and rocks behind, blending into river crossings and single track with the sun shining through the trees. It was easy to remember why we fell in love with the bikes: the freedom, and the feeling you get from powering over places yet to be conquered, and immense pride and connection with being on top of the world, less than 5000 feet below Everest Base Camp. Over three, 8ish hour days, it felt liberating to only look at my computer for directions and the time of day. Hours passed quickly and there was no rush to get anywhere, we had all day- just keep moving. It might have taken a pandemic and lack of racing to show me the beauty of a true adventure ride.