The West Elk Bicycle Classic is an unsanctioned local race and fun ride to raise funds for the Western State Colorado University Cycling Team. The gran fondo skirts the West Elk Mountains from Gunnison to Crested Butte, Colorado with more than 9,000 feet of climbing, most of which is ascending formidable Kebler Pass that is a packed dirt surface road that begins at mile 105. For competitors, it is a mountain-top finish at the top of Kebler Pass, followed by a neutral downhill to Crested Butte. There were six aid stations offering local peaches and other fruit.
The ride commenced on the morning of September 2, 2012, when mountain bike hall of famer and Western State Colorado University Mountain Sports Team director Dave Wiens, set 70 hearty riders in motion by piercing the chilly morning air with the ceremonial shotgun blast, and the peloton—ranging from pros to recreational cyclists—accelerated from the university campus in Gunnison west toward Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The group stayed together on the flats and rolling hills along Blue Mesa Reservoir and the turn north along the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but on the tough climbs to the Hermits Rest overlook, which gains more than 3,000 feet in about 20 miles, the pace of the leaders shattered the peloton. A lead group of 10-12 riders pulled away and blasted down the 38-mile, 4,500-foot non-technical descent to the town of Paonia, on which riders reached speeds of more than 50 mph. Though several of the leaders were involved in crash at a railroad crossing just outside of Paonia, all the riders were able to continue with some quick flat repairs and bandages from the SAG vehicle. The lead group reformed at the aid station in Paonia sponsored by local Galaxy Bike shop, and fed on ripe Paonia peaches and other fruit, which made it hard for many riders to get back in the saddle and climb through canyons to the coal town of Somerset and the base of Kebler pass where the pavement ends and all the guns are out for the fight for the finish.
Kebler pass is at once beautiful and painful. It starts 105 miles into the race, and riders can view mountains in all directions and the largest aspen grove in the state, while pushing anoxia on 6-10% grades of hard-packed dirt and gravel that climb more than 5,500 vertical feet from Paonia, cresting out to just above 10,000 feet altitude.
On the climb, the lead group splintered, and Pete Dahle—undeterred by his sore shoulder from the crash near Paonia, pushed hard to take the win at the top of the Kebler Pass in a time of 6:23:25 followed by a neutral coast to Crested Butte. Pete Sedunov took second 3:24 back, and Alex Morgan third 15:10 in arrears. Two veteran women took the first two spots, as Kari Distefano (7:55:38) out-climbed Lauri Brandt who was 2:39 back.
Racers soaked in the sun and cheered riders as they finished at the post-ride party held by Donita’s Cantina and New Belgium in Crested Butte. Though some were scared away from this event by the long distances and long dirt climb over Kebler, when asked, racers had a great time with comments like the following from Rusty Wouters of Montrose, “What a great race! Awesome aids, great route, hard as hell!!” Another man in a “Triple Bypass” jersey when asked how the ride he just finished compared he said, “Much harder” and slipped into his car seat looking ready for a much earned rest.
Dave Wiens, who drove the sweep SAG vehicle commented, “This is just an amazing route: completely around the West Elk Mountains on some of the loneliest, most off the beaten path roads in Colorado. This is a great event for fit and adventurous riders looking to support a great cause and experience a rarely seen part of Colorado. Blue Mesa Lake, the Black Canyon, Crawford, Paonia, Kebler Pass and Crested Butte. Next year I'm riding it!”
Bryan Miller of Gunnison also said, “This is really a classic road course in the tradition of a major mountain stage in a Grand Tour. The U.S. Pro challenge has yet to ride anything remotely this difficult terrain-wise.” Maybe next year…