Rocks and Rain: 36 Hours of the 2021 Colorado Trail Race
Eszter Horanyi reports in from the first days of the 2021 Colorado Trail Race, high in the colorful San Juan Mountains, where dramatic weather sent riders scrambling and disrupted their race plans early on. Find her report from the field and a gallery of photos here…
Words and photos by Eszter Horanyi (@ez_gone_coddiwompling)
There was a dire weather forecast in the San Juan Mountains for the first day of the 2021 Colorado Trail Race. Dire in the sense of thunder, lightning, and heavy rain starting early and continuing on until late. It really wasn’t the forecast the 70 racers leaving Durango bound for Denver wanted to see.
With nearly 7,000 feet of climbing straight out of the gate, the trail gets high quickly and stays that way for the better part of 60 miles. Race leaders can often get over the feared Indian Trail Ridge, a highly exposed section of trail 20 miles in, before the afternoon monsoon clouds build. Others tend to get hit by storms. I’ve ridden backward on the trail in years past, observing completely clean, dry leaders and then seeing increasing levels of dishevelment, wetness, and mud as I worked my way through the pack.
This year’s race looked like it would be a good one on paper. Course record holder Neil Beltchenko was back. Jefe Branham, multi-time winner and race director, was ready to give it another crack. Then there was Scott Simmons, a Durango local known for his exploits in the San Juans; Aaron Thrasher, an Alaskan with big goals; and Will Bodewes, another Durango local with a fast goal time.
On the women’s side, there was the ever-consistent 2019 race winner Alexandra Houchin. Looking to challenge her were Leigh Bowe, Karin Potock, and Katie Strempke, all with impressive race resumes.
With grand plans of shooting photos up on Indian Trail Ridge, I headed out early for what would be a long approach involving several forms of transport, including car, bike, and eventually foot, because while riders would have to hike their bikes up the headwall to the ridge, I had no intentions of hauling a bike up onto the ridge itself. Walking was much more efficient.
After ditching my bike in the willows around Taylor Lake, in the relatively tropical weather of 11,500 feet, I headed up into a cloud. There was zero visibility and a cold wind blowing the fog over the ridge in sheets. I checked the tracker to see that the leaders were still 45 minutes out, so I hunkered down on the lee side of the ridge to wait and hope that the clouds would burn off. I have to admit, 30 minutes later, I was starting to lose faith.
But they did! The white blanket blew over the ridge, disappeared into the valley, and from around the corner emerged Scott Simmons, leading the race. Beltchenko was just minutes behind. Zach Guy came through in fifth riding a steep rocky descent that everyone before him, and everyone after him, would walk.
From there, it was a fun game of working my way up and down the ridge, heckling friends, encouraging the downtrodden, and assuring the skeptical that there really was good trail ahead. Thru-hikers would occasionally come by, and I’d warn them of the onslaught of mountain bikers they could expect. Two women bikepacking the trail from Denver to Durango stopped by my perch to apply sunscreen and shed layers for the day. I recruited them into the peanut gallery, and we had ourselves a grand old time encouraging riders up a steep hike-a-bike.
Jeff Kerkove came by on his seventh attempt at the race with a strong group that included Matt Acker, who was racing his first major bikepacking event. Jefe Branham rolled through with his normal conservative start on a single speed, the concerns of being a race director hopefully evaporating and being replaced by the joy of getting to ride a bike for 525 miles.
As the inevitable monsoon clouds started to build, I made my way down the ridge. Karin Potock led the women near the top of the headwall. By the time I made my way down the half-mile section of trail, I’d see Leigh Bowe, Katie Strempke, Kristen Tonsager, Cristina Avila, and Alexandra Houchin all bunched near each other.
I retreated to the warmth of low-land Durango and drove home to Silverton on Highway 550, paralleling the trail, constantly watching for clouds up high. Amazingly, nothing was building, nothing was booming. The sky remained friendly. “They’re all so lucky,” was all I could think about the mis-forecasted storms.
Then, around 5 p.m., the time when you really don’t want to get wet if you’re out bikepacking, the skies over Silverton unleashed. Molas Pass to the south looked the worst as I watched bolts of lightning strike the peaks just above the course. The tracker indicated that at least a dozen riders were making a mad dash for Silverton. The radar had a giant patch of orange over the last few miles of trail.
Beltchenko was the only one who’d made it in before the deluge, and he would be the only one to leave that evening. Throughout the next several hours, riders scattered around town as the rain continued to pound down. Tracking dots indicated that four found a cabin at an RV resort. Several ended up at the town park. A few seemed to get a first dinner at a restaurant, then potentially a second and third. Predictably, a handful of dots stopped at the outhouse at Little Molas Lake, unwilling to face the 2,000-foot descent into a town that had shut down for the night.
Meanwhile, Beltchenko was steadily climbing Stony Pass with the optimism that the storm would be less intense to the east. Based on his overnight traversal of the high treeless 30 miles of Sections 22 and 23 of the Colorado Trail, the weather cooperated enough to allow safe passage.
When the sun came up on Monday, most of the holed-up riders had left town, many opting for a 1 a.m. start to try to get through the high sections of trail before the next round of afternoon storms hit. Beltchenko already had a 30-mile lead. I wondered if he’d use his advantage to take a few extra naps along the way or if he’d try to break his own course record.
Meanwhile, I made my way to the first gas station in town where riders were starting to gather after getting off the pass early in the morning. Everyone arrived in full rain gear, muddy, and looking decidedly dejected. Stories of nearby lightning strikes, torrential rain in 40 degrees, and highly unpleasant sleeping conditions were traded. Multiple cups of coffee were consumed while the day’s forecast was contemplated. It predicted 100% chance of rain starting at noon, just as they’d be reaching the top of Stony Pass and embarking on the high traverse. Some of the early arrivals, like Houchin, who was leading the women’s race, had already decided to try their luck with the weather and had ridden out of town.
Some contemplated waiting until the afternoon to head out after the storms. Others pondered the possibility of calling it a race while sitting on the hard outdoor benches of the Silverton Conoco. Leigh Bowe rolled up, ate some food, looked at the sky, and headed down the road. She was going to try. Many others took heart in her optimism and followed in her tire tracks.
While the rains did briefly appear in the afternoon, the electricity stayed away. Overcast skies stayed quiet. Fortune favors the brave, and the dots that had chosen to gamble on the weather marched themselves through the high country toward Spring Creek Pass unimpeded.
Weather is always part of the Colorado Trail Race. And it’s always fascinating to see how people deal with it. Who will keep going, who makes strategic decisions to rest and wait it out, and who decides that riding at 13,000 feet in the rain just doesn’t sound like a good time at all and chooses to call it a day. It was a doozy of a first night, but with high pressure forecasted to roll into the area, it would hopefully be their worst.
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