How To: Ride the Colorado Trail Race
The Colorado Trail will break you.
And the Colorado Trail will elevate you.
The Colorado Trail will humble you.
And the Colorado Trail will empower you.
You’ve heard about the Colorado Trail Race. And you’ve thought, “I should try that.” And then you talked yourself out of trying it over and over. And over. But the lingering desire to ride across Colorado won’t leave you alone. What to do? Ride the CTR, of course!
It will be the best week you’ll ever spend on a bike. It will also be the worst week you’ll ever spend on a bike.
The CTR is grueling. Get in shape.
That doesn’t mean you need to become something you are not. Riders of all sorts of fitness levels have been successful on the Colorado Trail. Ride your bike. A lot. Hike up rocky trails with your loaded bike. A lot. Make sure your knees, hamstrings, achilles, arms, and every other part of your body can handle pushing a heavy bike up a mountain.
Oh, and if possible, get high. Like, 12,000 feet high. The Colorado Trail has an average elevation of over 10,000 feet. A little acclimatization will go a long way. Get CTR ready with Lynda’s 12-week CTR training plan.
Bikepacking gear is in the middle of a revolution. It’s glorious. There are many options for sleep systems, bags, lights, and navigation. Get into your gear early. Test it, tweak it, refine it. Having a system that is dialed in before race day will save you time and frustration on the trail.
The mountain bike you already have will work for the CTR. Especially if the bike you already have is a full suspension 29er.
Riders have ridden bikes that are rigid, singlespeed, have big wheels, small wheels, that are carbon, steel, and aluminum. Make sure that you are comfortable on the bike you choose to ride and that it is in great working order. The CT is rough. It will beat you and your bike up.
Every bikepacking set up has bags at its core: frame, seat, handlebar.
Make sure your bags are water-resistant, light, and durable. There are many different options to choose from. If you have a full suspension bike, you may need to order a custom frame bag. In addition to the primary bags, there are many accessory bags, such as the Revelate Jerry Can and Gas Tank that are superb.
I have multiple custom bags from local sewer Josh Van Jura/Broadfork Bags. They’ve held up very well through much abuse. Order a custom bag from Broadfork Bags.
How uncomfortable are you willing to be?
A basic bikepacking system uses a bivy, bag, and pad. An adequate combination can weigh as little as 3lbs. But such a light set-up won’t provide much protection in torrential rain or against unexpected cold weather.
A system with more protection will weigh more. What trade-offs will you make? The only way to know for certain is to test different gear on pre-race trips. If you are new to bikepacking, err on the side of comfort. But if you have spent several nights on the trail, and have a good understanding of your own tolerance for cold, sleepless nights, you might find that a lightweight kit suits your needs.
The good news is that there are now shelter options that are light and comfortable.
The Borah Gear Snowyside bivy is light, comfortable, and affordable. The Mountain Laurel Designs FKT eVent bivy is also light and comfortable–but not on the wallet. Both of these bivvies are self-contained–no need for a tarp or stakes.
It will rain.
It will rain every day. Sometimes it will rain all day.
Don’t skimp on your rain gear. Get a breathable jacket and a pair of pants, preferably a pair that is designed for bike riding. It’s a good idea to have some waterproof gloves and socks. In the late summer, monsoon thunderstorms are unavoidable.
Be thoughtful about the terrain you are riding through. Plan (as best as possible) to be off the high ridges later in the day.
If you are new to bikepacking, it’s a good idea to schedule your CTR a year or two in advance. In the meantime, get your gear, and start doing mini-trips. A 1-night trip can be super valuable. In less than 24-hours, a bad system will be exposed, and a good system can be refined.
Hike-a-bike. Load your bike, and find a long, rocky trail to push up. You will be hiking anywhere between 80 and 100 miles on the CT. Yeah, really.
Singlespeeders will hike about 540 of the 550 miles. (OK, not really).
Expect to hike for a few hours every day on the Colorado Trail. That’s just the nature of the trail. It’s a rugged, beautiful route. To get to those places though, there’s hike-a-bike.
Don’t bring your ultra-stiff racing shoes. Find a shoe that you can comfortably hike in for hours. Which shoe is that? Tough to say. My feet are not your feet. But I used an older version of the Pearl Izumi X-ALP Launch and they worked well for me. When I head back to the CTR I’ll probably wear them again.
Learn the route. The Colorado Trail Foundation has produced an excellent pocket guide. With this book, a GPS is not needed to ride the route. Of course, a GPS, with the track loaded, saves time while pedaling. I recommend carrying both on the trail. Learn about the Wilderness detours, resupply towns, water sources, and trail character along the route.
A GPS track is provided for all CTR racers. Make sure that the file you have is the current file.
Read blogs, books, and forum posts from CTR vets. There’s a lot of great information about the route, and what it’s like to race it. Start with the official information page, bikepacking.net, Bikepacker Magazine, and Bikepacking.com
And of course, you can read my story from the 2013 race.
Having a good time is the whole point.
The Colorado Trail Race was one of the best weeks I’ve had on a bike. But the first few days were terrible. Truly, terrible. I wanted to quit. And not just quit the race. I wanted to quit bike riding forever. I never wanted to be in the mountains ever again. I wanted to quit everything.
But then something changed. And everything was awesome. What changed? I don’t know. But after day 3, I was human again. I could eat. I could rest at night. And I enjoyed being on the trail.
The first 3 days I was just surviving. During the second half of the race, I was a bike rider again.
The Colorado Trail will change you. It will make you stronger and smarter. It will make you humble. Riding the CT will help you appreciate the scale of the mountains, and our small, but significant place in them.
You will curse, and thank, the people from the CTF who spent years making the dream of a long-distance singletrack trail into a reality.
The Colorado Trail is wonderful and terrible.
The Colorado Trail is Heaven on Earth.