by Brian Maslach
South Park, Colorado is an area most people drive through to reach ritzy ski resorts and other mountain destinations. It's the size of Delaware, yet only has a few paved roads (the 2-lane highways intersecting it). And while I don't have official numbers, I'm fairly certain bison outnumber human residents.
One of South Park's main roads.
Catching up to one of the locals.
I've driven through this area hundreds of times but had never ridden a bike there until this past weekend's Go4Graham South Park Gravel test event, organized by Zeke Hersh. While scrolling my Strava feed a few weeks ago I noticed Zeke had completed a big ride between the town's of Hartsel, Fairplay, and Como in preparation for Unbound Gravel. I was intrigued that he had put together a century, appropriately titled "Hard Park," in an area where I'd rarely heard of anyone riding, so I brought it up when I ran into him at a local weeknight race in Frisco.
The Man with the Plan - Zeke Hersh.
Zeke let me know about an informal test event he was putting together in a few weeks, ahead of an official ride this fall, and I jumped at the chance to ride "new-to-me" roads while building fitness for events I want to do this summer. Having the ride on my schedule gave my training purpose and a concrete reason to do some big gravel rides leading up to it.
It also gave me a reason to learn more about Go4Graham -- a mental health advocacy movement which resonated with me due to my own personal struggles this past winter. If you're like me, you may have seen people wearing their kits and never realized what the organization was about. Go check out their webpage and show them some support.
Anyway, back to the ride. We've been having record rainfall, and regular hail, in Colorado lately. The forecast as of the day prior to the ride called for an 80 percent chance of significant moisture in South Park. My car-pool partner, Daniel Matheny, questioned whether I still wanted to go. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I said 'lets do it.'
Our drive to the start was an adventure in itself. Google Maps sent us on a wild goose chase across dirt roads (some of which were barely "roads") that initially took us to a point far from where we requested to go. We finally reached an area with data service to re-map our route to the start, and drove it without further incident.
Unfortunately, our unplanned tour of South Park meant we didn't arrive until 90 minutes after the scheduled start time. Daniel commented that we might not see anyone else over the course of our ride since we were beginning so late. Nevertheless, we kitted up and got rolling.
The first thing we noticed was the shortness of breath that comes with riding at high elevation. While it didn't seem like we'd climbed that high while driving to the start, our bike computers showed we were at 9,500 feet.
Thankfully, and somewhat incredibly, Daniel plotted a slightly different start that allowed us to catch the group 15-20 miles into the ride while covering close to the same distance.
Catching the group eased my mind since Zeke and Kyle Stamp were familiar with the vast area we'd be covering and it seemed as though it would be easy to get off track on some of the faint cow paths and double track despite GPS assistance.
It was a good thing we were following locals at this point.
Male model, firefighter, gravel rider, and giver of local knowledge -- Kyle Stamp
Riding with the group over the next approximately 20 miles gave me a chance to meet and get to know other riders while enjoying the vast open space.
The views and dirt roads in South Park, certainly don’t suck.
Trying to beat the storm to the 40-mile aid station.
It also gave the forecasted thunderstorm a chance to develop! Light rain gradually increased in intensity and we arrived at the 40-mile aid station (Zeke's well-stocked truck) just as it began to hail. Our timing was perfect. Bikes were dropped to the ground. Seven people crowded into the cab, four of us jumped into the covered truck bed, and Kyle initially sought refuge under the truck. While not nearly as comfortable, all the food and water was in the bed and I consumed at least 2,000 calories of Enduro Bites, PB&J sandwiches, and other assorted goodies.
Waiting out the storm.
In case you’ve wondered what a hail storm looks like from under a truck.
The drop in temperature had me shivering and doubting whether to continue. Watching cars struggle to drive by on the now thoroughly muddy dirt road reinforced these thoughts. Once the rain and hail stopped, Zeke and Kyle came up with a new route to keep us off the roads likely to be the muddiest. At this point I was still doubting whether to continue. I wrapped myself in a tattered, old blanket to fight the chill from the damp, cold wind as I contemplated my immediate future.
I was ready to be done riding, but I also hated the thought of being driven back to the start. While everyone else was still milling about, or staying warm in the truck cab, I noticed Kyle was already on his bike and starting up the road. On a whim I grabbed my bike and followed. Luckily we began climbing immediately. The climb seemed to shelter us from the wind and gave us a much-needed chance to warm up.
To my surprise, a total of six of us had decided to continue. Misery definitely loves company. The roads had become soft from all the rain and hail. It felt as though my rear tire was sinking into the ground. Riding out of the saddle resulted in wheel spin and I'd fishtail even while seated. The sky was dark with periodic lightening. I began questioning my choice to leave the truck.
Enthusiasm may have begun waining by this point.
We reached a high point and stopped to regroup and refuel. I was apprehensive about being caught in heavier rain and hail, but otherwise felt okay. The following descent was technical enough to distract me from the weather, and by the time we regrouped at the bottom, the sky had become clearer. Unfortunately, my legs soon began to give out and the last several miles became a death march.
Daniel and I finished with approximately 70 miles and 5,700 feet of elevation gain. Not the biggest ride I've logged this year, but definitely the hardest due to the conditions.
I was pleasantly surprised to find access to a warm shower and an abundance of great food at the finish! Zeke even made 2 tasty pies which were greatly appreciated.
Having the chance to clean up and refuel became even more appreciated shortly after departing for home as an intense hail storm resulted in Hwy 24 being closed for an extended period. We were eventually diverted to Lake George via Eleven Mile Reservoir, but had to cross an area where deep hail and flooding remained on the road.
That's a lot of hail on the horizon!
The drive home got worse from here.
All told, it was an eventful and drama-filled day, and I can't wait to do it again!
Thanks to Zeke, Kyle, Troy, Jason, and Daniel for the images.
I hope to see you at the inaugural Go4Graham South Park Gravel September 23, 2023!