Shuttling Pikes Peak: Descending An Iconic Colorado 14er on Mountain Bikes

Pikes Peak. Photo by Hogs555 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pikes Peak. Photo by Hogs555 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
I once spent four years staring at Pikes Peak in Colorado. Living in Colorado Springs, not a day went by that I wasn’t aware of the mountain’s presence. Every real estate listing in town boasts views of the iconic 14er because, well, it’s freaking massive and visible pretty much everywhere. More than a decade after leaving Colorado Springs, I returned this summer to ride my mountain bike down “America’s Mountain,” and it felt just like reuniting with a distant friend.

On the early morning drive into Colorado Springs, the overcast skies cast serious doubts on our descent. The thing is, if it’s raining or even just overcast in town, chances are good that the weather is complete shit on top of Pikes Peak at 14,100 feet. The plan was to get dropped off at the summit as early as possible, since afternoon thunderstorms tend to hit with railroad company regularity in the summer months. But that also meant cold temperatures–in late August, the low is just below freezing most days.

John reassured us that the weather wouldn’t be a problem, but even in town and with the sun all but blocked by high clouds, I was struggling to keep the shivers away. We met up with John’s friend Robert, an ex-Army guy who looked as though he could jog up Pikes Peak carrying his bike without breaking a sweat. He would be one of our shuttle drivers, and was joining us on our descent down the Barr Trail. We chose to make our attempt on a Monday–this trail is completely overrun with hikers on weekends and we wanted to avoid any potential conflicts.

Robert follows John up the mountain. Photo: Aaron Chamberlain.
Robert follows John up the mountain. Photo: Aaron Chamberlain.

The road up Pikes Peak is a paved, private toll road, and for ten bucks a person, anyone can drive to the top. The ascent starts innocently enough, but once the roadway leaves treeline, it’s a slow-speed, white-knuckle ride filled with endless switchbacks and a severe lack of guardrails. I was riding with Robert, who talks exactly like you’d expect an Army soldier would, and he kept saying how much the drive up freaked him out. Seriously, this is a guy who told us he once threw his mountain bike into an Blackhawk helicopter for a shuttle run, and he’s nervous about the drive UP the mountain.

Admittedly I was feeling queasy myself, partly due to all the switchbacks, but mostly because I was scared to death about our descent. Over the years I had seen plenty of photos from the upper portions of Pikes Peak, so I knew the terrain was boulder-filled and steep.  Not only that, the weather report we checked before heading up listed wind chills in the 20s, and all I brought were shorts and a few lightweight layers.

As soon as we reached the summit parking area, I dashed into the restroom at the summit house and put on ALL the clothes I had with me: jersey, arm warmers, a long sleeve poly layer, vest, and GoreTex rain shell. As I emerged from the building I noticed something I hadn’t expected: there wasn’t really any wind. As far as I know, at 14,100 feet it’s rare to have calm conditions; the upshot: I wouldn’t freeze to death before the ride even began.

From left to right: Greg, Aaron, Robert, Jeff, and John.
From left to right: Greg, Aaron, Robert, Jeff, and John.

Still, it always feels a bit unnatural to me to be above tree line, almost as if mother nature doesn’t want me to be there. I was anxious to get to a lower elevation, but nervous about just how I would get there. We walked our bikes across the cog railway tracks and began the descent rather unceremoniously, picking our way between boulders along the decomposed granite path.

Photo: Aaron Chamberlain.
Photo: Aaron Chamberlain.

I was prepared to walk much of the above tree line section–anything just to get lower–but I found that much of the trail was rideable. Well, rideable in the sense that I could coast for about 100 yards, walk 10 yards, then repeat the process again and again. For the first 1,000 feet of our descent, the views were unlike any I’ve ever seen on a mountain bike. It’s hard to get a sense of scale when you’re up that high and the only reference points are pink granite rocks, some the size of houses, others the size of baseballs, and everything in between.

You can just make out Aaron in the lower right.
You can just make out Aaron in the lower right. The summit house is just left of center at the top.

It took me about an hour and fifteen minutes to get below tree line, a drop of about 2,000 feet in just 3 miles or so. As I approached tree cover, the trail really opened up in places, and I was really able to fly for extended sections. This was perhaps the most exciting part of the ride: the sight lines were incredible, and even though it was mostly loose-over-hardpack, I felt my confidence surge with each turn.

photo: Singletracks member shane_anthony77.
photo: Singletracks member shane_anthony77.

And then things got tricky again. At this point in the ride there were trees dotting the landscape but most were barely clinging to life, nearly weathered to death. The trail tightened, and the tricky rock sections came more frequently. I assumed the trail would mellow as we descended the mountain, but this section made me realize otherwise.

photo: Singletracks member mike_d_1583
photo: Singletracks member mike_d_1583

After bashing my crankarms through narrow rock slots for what felt like hours (it was actually more like 30 minutes), I made it to Barr Camp where John was waiting for me. All the others had continued on, and a light drizzle was slowly infiltrating the pines. My brakes squealed in protest as I tried my best to keep both wheels inside the rutted, rooty singletrack. Despite the rain, it was warmer now, and I peeled a couple layers off.

For some reason I had it in my head that we would be in for at least one short ascent at some point during the ride, but the climb never came. In fact, we would climb a total of 35 feet and descend nearly 6,700, making this easily one of the most monolithic descents I had ever experienced. There was one section where the trail sorta flattened out a bit, but it couldn’t have been completely flat because I absolutely flew through that section.

Soon I was feeling tired, and when I’m at the back of the group by myself like I was at that point, I can turn into a bit of a bike-o-chondriac. First, I thought my rear derailleur wasn’t working (it was). Then I felt like my front brake was fading. It was definitely making some noise, so I started favoring the rear brake. After a mile or so, it too was making noise and felt like it was starting to fade. When would I make it off this damn mountain?

By now the rain was coming down pretty steadily, and as I rounded the corner in an aspen-filled gully, I saw Aaron stopped at a faint intersection. Had I seen anyone else? Nope, I was bringing up the rear as far as I knew. Were we still on the right trail? Oh please say we were.

I let Aaron lead and before long, the sun was back out and the temperatures were really starting to heat up. The trail remained moderately challenging but at this point, we were both getting the hang of slowing down through the rocks and picking good lines. We started seeing more and more hikers on the trail, and my bell came in super handy. Of course we were more than willing to dismount to let the hikers by, but all went out of their way to give us room.

photo: Singletracks member telemarkdude.
photo: Singletracks member telemarkdude.

Toward the bottom of the descent, the trail got steeper, the switchbacks tighter, and the hikers more frequent. At this point I was sure that my brakes pads were completely gone in the front (and fading fast in the rear). We dropped down a set of water bars / stairs and out of the corner of my eye I could see a parking lot below–we had made it!

Greg, John, and Robert were sitting in the shade waiting for us at the lower trailhead. I’m pretty sure Greg didn’t stop the whole way down and truthfully, neither did I–I was just much slower than he was.

Descending Pikes Peak on a mountain bike is easily one of my favorite rides of all time, and it’s crazy to think that I lived at the base of this mountain for all those years and never attempted this ride.

We coasted into town and stopped at Rudy’s for some BBQ brisket, then pedaled back on singletrack to John’s house, where I promptly collapsed in the driveway. John’s delicious homemade Navaho chili was the perfect cap to our epic ride!

Your turn: Have you ever ridden down (or up!) a 14er? 

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