Sunday, May 20, 2012

Gravel with Altitude: South Park Dirty Fondo

The South Park dirty Fondo (SPDF) was new this year and run by Brian Behn. It's a great route with some serious climbs and a lot of time over 9000ft, but you're rewarded with amazing views and some very cool towns (? towns might be a bit generous) that you go though.

Salida, CO
I rolled into Salida early to check out the town, the local bike shop and Amica's. Absolute Bikes was first on the list. They're a full service shop with pretty much everything you might need last minute. There even have a few things from Relevate Designs just in case you need a frame bag. Downtown Salida is a great little place to wander - you won't need more than an hour though as it's not that big. However, I did manage to find Subculture Cyclery, Salida Bike Company and the local hostel. Of course I stopped in Cafe Dawn (the meeting place for the start of the race) for a quick hour before a pizza dinner at Amica's.

Race time!
The morning came bright and early and Brian and I headed over to Cafe Dawn for a breakfast burrito and some hot bean juice before the race. I have to say I loved Cafe Dawn. Even if you don't start a race there the coffee, food and ambiance are all fantastic. Everyone I met that worked there was also pretty friendly and interested in the event. When I came in Sunday morning they even asked how the race went. Good peeps - go see em. Just remember to brig cash as they don't do plastic.

As the small crowd of racers rolled in Brian gave the course preview and description of some critical points of the course. He was kind enough to distribute maps of the course, but like any route this remote and this length a one page printed map is only a rough guide. Mounted on our respective steeds we rolled out to a neutral start - all ten of us - on the far side of the one and only bridge in Salida that crosses the Arkansas River. I lagged back to take a picture so began back o the pack.

Aspen Ridge
Weather predictions had shown we might have a high anywhere from 50 to 65 and might even see snow somewhere in the day. Te race began bright, sunny and warmer than expected. The first leg is a major ascent of nearly 4000 feet in 15 miles up Aspen Ridge.  I stowed my shell after about three miles and kept on rolling. I'd need it later though as it rained near Hartsel where the wind also picked up and the temperature dropped to around 40.

I knew I had passed a couple folks in the back, but had no idea how many people were ahead of me. Somewhere around mile 5 I caught up with Drew and we rode together for about five miles. Drew was in his full Chamois Butt'r kit and I found out that we'll meet again at DK200 in two weeks. I broke off at around mile 10 to go at my own pace and kept heading up. In those first 15 miles the road goes from paved to gravel to double track to rather rough double. Nothing ever gets so bad that you'll need more than a CX bike however. (No pix of the bumpy stuff - I needed both hands on the hoods.) The scenery also changes as you head up from the arid canyon bottom to the Aspen covered ridge passing quarries and many rocky crags along the way. It's a fantastic segment and you'll feel great when you realize you've done nearly 40% of the elevation gain for the entire course in the first 15 miles.

Gang of four
Gasping, puffing, wheezing and generally doing my Darth Vader impression I gained the high point at a bit over 10k feet. I arrived just in time to see two other riders begin the drop off the back side. I was so excited to see other people I didn't stop to take in the scene, and instead began the chase. It took me another 11 miles to catch up, but I finally managed to connect with Aaron and Eric. Within 10 minutes Drew joined us. We were all rolling about the same pace and ended up essentially riding the rest of the route together.

The descent off Aspen Ridge is a fun downhill heading north. After a very brief stretch on the highway we were rolling on some fun and smooth double track headed towards Antero Reservoir. This portion of the route is wide open and the wind easily found us. We only had rain for a brief spell but the temps dropped and the wind howled from the reservoir all the way into Hartsel.

Hartsel, Colorado is your first refueling option and it appears at about mile 50. We only made a brief stop long enough to get water, use the restroom and roll on. We stopped int the first (only?) convenience store gas station. At the end of the 6 building town it looked like the old Mercantile was closed. Continuing down the plains we had fantastic expansive views, some of which included pretty ominous looking dark grey clouds. Fortunately we never caught any of those clouds and the wind even died down as well.

Guffey and Rita's
The route from Hartsel winds south of Eleven Mile State Park and over Thirty Nine Mile Road to get to Guffey at 83 miles.  Thirty Nine Mile Road is  decent climb but you get to enjoy a brief high speed drop into town. Most of this is pretty mellow before the climb so I was able to take more pictures.

Riders on the storm

The road to Thunderdome

Apparently what looks like a fist there is Eric providing a one finger salute. Not sure why I have that look on my face... 

Guffey is an interesting place. I wish I could have spent more time taking pictures there as we passed all sorts of weird stuff including the skeletal prison wagon (image below) and a tribute to Elvira, which I missed. The main attraction in Guffey, however was Rita's. Rita's is a haven. I walked in not knowing what to expect and was shocked to see an offer of not only pastries such as chocolate raspberry bunt cake and rhubarb pie, but also espresso! With three more big "rollers" and 5000ft of climbing to go I elected for the espresso. While we were inside feeding ourselves the rains came - hard. For about 15 minutes we had a little deluge. Once that was done we mounted back up and headed out.

Cotopaxi is the last stop before rolling back into Salida. We knew that the store there closed at 6pm. Now we leaving Rita's at 2:30 which gave us a lot of time to make it from mile 83 to 128, BUT the rollers stood between us and Cotopaxi. The 15 miles before Cotopxi are one long descent dropping around 3500 feet - big fun - but the rollers lead up to that descent. It's not really fair to call them rollers in the traditional sense that this means. You'll find rollers on the AntiEpic and I imagine on DK200 but there were three successive hills, fairly large steep hills. Hes they were a bear, but you get through them. Aaron was right, the segment was pretty gorgeous and while it doesn't completely distract from the pain, it does help... a little.

View from the top of the second roller.

We made it to Cotopaxi 20 minutes before the store closed. While I only needed water I indulged in a bag of chips as well. We only had 24 miles to go to the finish, but for some reason stayed at the store for nearly 20 minutes. Eric had been riding his single speed and of course spun out on the long drop. It'd didn't take him too long to catch up - perhaps 4 minutes - but he decided that the last flat bit along the river didn't sound like fun on the SS. Since a friend appeared at Cotopaxi Eric took the opportunity to exit stage left. The gang of four broke up and we were a trio to the end.

The road to the finish
While parts of this last leg were actually fun (enhanced by a mild tailwind) others were certainly not. There are two brief sections of perhaps 3-4 miles each where you must ride US 50. Some portions of which have no shoulder and nowhere to bail if two opposing tractor trailers are passing. Fortunately those segments are brief and easily forgotten. The canyon from Cotopaxi to Salida is quite nice and would be even more enjoyable fresh.

Between the two brief paved bits are two sections of gravel. This first is your standard well maintained gravel road. The second quickly becomes rocky double track which is quite rough at times including a crossing of Badger Creek. Since Drew was on a 29er and Arron riding wider 40c+ Schwalbe Marathons I had to slow quite a bit on my relatively delicate Small Block 8's. These two could smell the barn though and we raced into the finish. Ninety minutes after leaving Cotopaxi we were back at Cafe Dawn signing into the log book and posing for our Finish Photo. A three way tie for "first".

After a droppign off the bike and a quick change the real finish was perhaps at The Fritz. While the place was packed and a band was raging on the patio, I managed to get the last table, where Aaron Drew and I were able to quaf a tasty beverage, toast our outstanding day and enjoy a very tasty burger. Two thumbs up for the Fritz.

This is a great event. The route is pretty amazing with overall good roads and great scenery. I loved the fact that there are three places to refill food or water if you are so inclined. I highly recommend the event and the route, but you should be aware of the level of commitment this route brings before you go. There are very few places where you will have cell phone coverage on this route, so if the unexpected happens you might be walking for a long time. Additionally, while there is a bail out option it doesn't save a ton of time or mileage. The nature of this course just means that there are not a lot of roads in the middle of this loop where you can bail. Lastly, like all courses of this kind you need to be prepared for navigation. A GPS is probably your best option, but have a backup and realize that roads often don't have signs and mileages might be slightly off.

As a last caveat there is one major difference between this and most gravel grinders: altitude. An enormous portion of the course is at or above 9000ft. I moved from Portland (70 ft) to Boulder (5500 ft) about 7 months ago. I finished in good time but didn't realize the effect the altitude was having on me till later in the game. I didn't suffer from sickness or anything but I do think it led to more fatigue than I've experienced on similar rides such as the Buckhorn route. Just something to note.

Ok enough of that - it IS a fantastic route and I do recommend the SPDF. While I've done long solo rides and loved those it's a completely different experience doing the ride as an event. In the AntiEpic I rode with many different people for a dozen miles each. This time I rode with a group for over 100 miles. It's a completely different experience and I enjoy both for different reasons. Go out there and have fun.


  1. Shane

    Sorry I missed this one. I pulled myself from the roster about two weeks ago. I'm trying to be ready for my own SBFL on June 9. I just didn't think my fitness was ready for that many miles.

    I have ridden that bit from south park over into Cotopaxi several times. It is a very beautiful route!

    1. Indeed! After Dirty Kanza I'll be switching horses and getting back on the MTB. I'll definitely be back in Salida soon to sample the singletrack. Unfortunately, I'll be pretty spent after DK200 and I have a wedding to attend that weekend so I'll have to wait till next year or ITT the SBFL :D

  2. Contact me when you're going to be here to sample. SBFL course is very cool, but once it's later into the summer there are even better options. This area is the holy grail of gravel grinding. Great, great options for combining sections of singletrack with long remote gravel/jeep road.