Up and down days
Mechanical problems, congestion, frustration, saturation - not to mention a brush with the law... It's been a tough few days. But then, not everything on a trip like this will live up to expectations or go according to plan - that’s pretty much a given. The personal-growth aspect of a trip like this is to learn to roll with the punches, accept the setbacks or disappointments, and keep smiling.
So, Pikes Peak, then... I got up on Tuesday to a morning of fabulous blue skies. Perfect mountain-riding weather, I thought. It was a few miles up highway 24 to the foot of the mountain - famous for the hill climb (America’s second-oldest race, after the Indianapolis 500). The 2019 event had been held three weeks before my visit - overshadowed by tragedy as four-time winner Carlin Dunne suffered a fatal crash within sight of the finish line.
I rolled past a couple of shops and a closed-down diner... then found a queue of traffic. Ordinarily I’d just filter past but something stopped me. I assumed it was for roadworks and traffic lights, so if I set off I’d suddenly find a huge pickup or SUV coming at me. But no - the traffic inched forward until I could see we were all queuing to pay the toll to go onto Pikes Peak.
Now, I’ve sat in lots of queues and paid a lot of tolls in my time. I’ve been paying them in almost every country in Europe, off and on, for more than 30 years. I’ve been stuck in traffic everywhere from Athens to Zarautz, never mind the Paris Peripherique or despatch riding in London - I’m a connoisseur of congestion, the king of the queues. I have never seen the like of this. How the process of taking money and giving out tickets here took so long is beyond me. I was stewing in the heat for more than half an hour before finally getting past the toll booth and onto the road – to find the road had a posted 25mph speed limit. Not that the traffic appeared to be going that fast... I realised this ride would not resemble those YouTube clips of the hill climb. Not in any way at all...
I stopped at the first lay-by I found and set up the GoPro to take a time-lapse of the climb, waiting for a good long gap in the traffic before setting off at the speed limit. It’s very hard to ride a Z1000SX at 25mph - especially on a road that clearly deserves to be ridden properly. Because the Pikes Peak road is fantastic, with brilliant sweeping turns and epic views.
Eventually the speed limit was raised to 30... and still I was catching cars that couldn’t even manage that. I cheekily passed a couple but, as the road climbed higher and the views got more spectacular, I caught a column going uphill at barely 15mph. I stopped, admired the view, caught them again (doing 30!), so stopped and did it again...
At the 16-mile point, I had to stop completely: serious construction at the summit meant no private vehicles could go to the top and this was the last place with enough space for visitors’ cars. So I parked the bike and got on a minibus for the final nine miles to the top. I think it was actually slightly less frustrating than the ride up had been. The views were spectacular and the corners suggested it would be fabulous - if you could ride it.
The summit looked like the set of The Terminator - the future segments with rubble and machines everywhere. There was a compact visitor centre and, behind it, another world. A jumble of rocks cascaded down towards huge drops. On three sides, epic panoramas of rumpled hills and distant peaks. Dotted through this alien landscape were visitors, many choosing points for vertigo-inducing selfies... me included. What a truly amazing place - it really was well worth visiting. Turning back to the visitor centre, I crossed the notched tracks for the funicular railway that climbs to the peak. I should have let the train take the strain...
I queued for another shuttle to return to the bike. Picking my moment, I got a pretty good run downhill, despite the strange feeling you get when going artificially slowly. Even at 30, the tighter turns were fun to ride - though it was second-gear-and-no-brakes all the way.
In so many ways Pikes Peak reminds me of the climb up the Sierra Nevada outside Granada in Southern Spain - similar cocktails of corners, similar levels of traffic and similar elevation (that’s Europe’s highest road, though you can only ride it to just past 2600m - I’d guess about the same height as I rode to on Pikes Peak). The difference is that on the Sierra Nevada, traffic flows at normal speeds, you can overtake normally and you can have a great ride. Which, to put it bluntly, you can’t on Pikes Peak - it’s a beautiful road that’s had the joy stamped out of it.
Next day, I set off to go west. In theory, it was just going to be a transit day - though on good-looking roads rather than interstates. They turn out to be great roads... the two I get to ride. I start with the flowing dual-carriageway of Highway 24 getting me to highway 67. Which is simply brilliant. It’s the kind of road I was hoping to ride - the kind of ride I’d hoped Pikes Peak would be. It flows from corner to corner, the SX dancing from entry to apex effortlessly. The views are pretty spectacular too as the road climbs up through pine forests. Eventually, I reach the top of Tenderfoot Pass and stop to take a pic… And that’s where things go wrong.
When I start the bike, the engine-management light is on, the F/L (power level) display on the dash is flashing and the traction control is off. Turn it off, turn it on... no change. Damn.
I coast downhill to the next town - ironically called Cripple Creek. I find a coffee shop (at last - a half-decent espresso!) and establish that the nearest Kawasaki dealer is the Rocky Mountain Cycle Plaza back in Colorado Springs. Basically where I just came from. I call and explain my predicament: if I can get the bike there, they’ll have a look.
I slowly retrace my steps along highway 67 and then the 24. I get to the dealer, RMCP, and remove all the luggage (not a quick job). They get the bike in and run the diagnostics: the secondary injectors (or one of them) is sticky. They get it moving and clear the error code. It’s a significant fault as the ECU uses the secondary injector when the traction-control wants to intervene. What’s the problem? Probably fuel - which all contains ethanol over here. I always fed the bike the highest octane, ethanol-free fuel in Europe and the UK.
But the good news is, it’s fixed. I’ll have to keep an eye on it, but the journey continues. So I go back to a different campsite and pitch my tent. But within minutes, it’s raining. So I can’t get my stove out - I’m not sitting outside to cook in the rain. Dinner is crisps, chocolate and pork jerky from the campsite shop. Not a perfect end to the day. I’ll reset in the morning, try my route again as if today didn’t happen - and I’ll roll with the punches and keep on smiling.
So today I got up early and set off again, retracing my route up the epic Highway 67, stopping for another coffee in Cripple Creek. It's a wonderful-looking town, old-style buildings and murals (and lots of casinos for some reason). Better still, it turns out to be the gateway to some even more amazing riding. I head north past Red Mountain, picking up highway 11... which in itself is a fabulously scenic, flowing road through a widescreen landscape of grassy meadows and pine-clad hills. This in turn leads to the fast and smooth Highway 9 and then the main event: Highway 50.
Now, Highway 50 is a road I picked at random just because it looked good on the map. It's a technique that doesn't normally let me down but rarely does it come up trumps quite so spectacularly as this. Oh. My. God. What a road... It has everything, changing character several times in the 175 miles I ride it. There's the rock-walled canyon run, shuttling left and right with cliffs on one side and the Arkansas River on the other. There's the rural rollercoaster, buzzing over cattle grids as it swoops through undulating grassland. There's the truly majestic climb over Monarch Pass - like Col du Galibier on steroids. There's the broad swoops beside the Gunnison River with a spectacular rocky backdrop, on the final leg towards my overnight stop in Montrose. Though I ride that absolutely nailed to the speed limit, after being stopped by the cops in Gunnison town.
I was lucky. But also ignorant and stupid. When I arrived in Canada, I asked my Uber driver (those well-known fonts of reliable information) whether filtering was legal. He said it was. I assumed (a) this was true and (b) it would therefore be true in the US as well. Oh no.
So I filtered up to the lights in Gunnison, then pulled away… and the sheriff I'd just filtered past put his lights on and pulled me over. "Care to tell me why you were riding between the lanes of traffic?" he asked. I went all BoJo and stammered "Well, where I come from it's legal and a man in Canada said it was legal there so I thought it was legal here too." The sheriff looked disappointed: "Not even close," he told me.
After checking my licence and my International Driving Permit, he gives me a warning ticket - for which I thanked him profusely - and sends me on my way. Lesson learnt - and I can't plead ignorance again. But then, now I know, I won't do it again. Frankly, I'm lucky. I'd been meaning to check this stuff but somehow never got round to it... Stupidity of the highest order. But I know now. I also know that Colorado has some of the finest riding imaginable. And tomorrow I'll continue enjoying it... hopefully without breaking any more laws.