My favorite rides: Hill Country 600k

The Hill Country 600k is an ultracycling race put on by RAO and RAAM race director, George Thomas in March. The start is in Helotes, TX, west of San Antonio. All but a few miles are on quiet, rural roads with beautiful scenery. There’s a shocking (for those not familiar with the Texas Hill Country) amount of climbing. Best of all you can still get in on the fun for 2011.

Dist: 375 mi / 600 km
Ascent: 13422 ft / 4081 m

Pros:

  • rural roads
  • great scenery
  • challenging climbs
  • well organized, fun event

Cons:

  • heavy traffic along 4-lane road for about 16 miles near the end of the ride
  • road construction near Sisterdale in 2010 (surely this is finished now)
  • waterway crosses OVER roadway in many locations

Vist the Hill Country 600 website for map, profile and more information about the race.

My favorite rides: Sangre de Cristo 600k

The Sangre de Cristo 600k starts and ends in Taos, New Mexico. It’s long, but you don’t have to do the entire thing at once. As I said near the end of the ride, I think this is ten of the best rides I’ve ever done all strung together!

Dist: ~375 mi / 600 km (the map is a little off)
Ascent: 16800 ft / 5100m (per MapMyRide)
(Note: MapMyRide.com tends to underestimate ascent and steepness of climbs. The longer the ride, the more it underestimates. I think this ride could have 1.5-2 times that much elevation gain, based on shorter rides I’ve done that were reported to have 15,000-18,000 feet. My HRM, which also usually underestimates elevation, reported about 19,000 ft.)

Pros:

  • Beautiful desert and mountain scenery and quaint rural New Mexican villages.
  • Mostly rural route.
  • Considerate drivers.
  • Friendly people.
  • Clean bathrooms. (Well, a couple weren’t so nice, but there were some very nice bathrooms at places I never would have expected.)
  • Long climbs.

Cons:

  • There are some LONG stretches between water stops out-and-back from Sapello. I had to resort to knocking on a farmhouse door when my bottles were nearly dry. When no one answered I filled up from their hose bibb.
  • While riding 522 was not nearly as bad as I expected, (It was actually beautiful on Sunday morning riding from Arroyo Hondo to Wild Rivers Park) the ride from Costilla back to Questa was flat and hot and boring. Thank goodness for those considerate drivers, and friendly people at water stops, or it could have been even more unpleasant.
  • I would probably skip Sapello if I didn’t have a good reason to visit.
  • Going over mountain passes early or late in the day can be very cold even in the middle of summer. Be prepared!
  • If you’re vegan you should probably plan to carry all your own food. ; )
     

The MapMyRide map above gives an idea of the route, but is a little off from the cue sheet.

Great rides within this ride:

  • Costilla to Amalia, out-and-back.
  • Wild Rivers Park spur from 522. Not the most scenic. It’s nice, but the best part of this ride is the smooth pavement and little traffic.
  • Taos to Taos Ski Area to Arroyo Seco to Questa to Red River.
  • Red River to Eagles Nest to Cimmaron to Eagles Nest
  • Eagles Nest to Taos.
  • Taos to Angel Fire. (Yes, it’s pretty much the same as the one above, but backwards.)
  • Eagles Nest to Angel Fire to Mora.
  • Out-and-back on either part of the loop between Mora and Sapello, but not all the way to Sapello.
  • Mora to Taos.

There are so many beautiful sections of this route, it’s hard to pick a few as my favorites. Between Angel Fire and Mora the ride passes through through Coyote Creek State Park for few miles. It was a very fun, windy, tree-lined descent, along a creek, that reminded me a little of the Old San Antonio Road on the Hill Country 600k. The climb from Mora, towards Sapello is very, steep and challenging. My favorite climb was probably the seemingly endless one that goes west of Mora towards Taos. The out-and-back from Eagles Nest to Cimmaron is memorable too, though if I was just out for a short ride I might turn around at the end of the new pavement in Cimmaron Canyon State Park. The ride from Taos Ski Valley through Arroyo Seco to 522 was very beautiful in the morning light.

Within this 600k route are lots of possibilities for a 20-50 mile ride or a multi-day tour.

Following the Tour de France

Carlos Sastre climbing Alpe d' Huez during the 2008 TDF
Carlos Sastre climbing Alpe d' Huez during the 2008 TDF
Last year I got to ride part of the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France. It was our sixth tandem ride and an airline workers’ strike start meant we got a very late start. We got to the 2k to go mark and the road was closed to cyclists. We had a long, increasingly cold, wait with little food and water. Bad planning on our part as we did not prepare for the possibility of not making it to the finish. Still it was exciting to experience the famous climb in person and see Carlos Sastre’s break that helped him win the 2008 Tour de France.
 

Ride near Castillonnès, France, July 2009
Ride near Castillonnès, France, July 2009
This year I spent a few days following the Tour with a group of six. Our base was Grindoux, just outside Castillonnès, France. We rented Merckx bikes from Apolo Cycles in Bergerac. The bikes are very nice; full carbon with Shimano 105 components. I brought my own saddle, and pedals.
 

Barcelona costume shop
Barcelona costume shop
A couple days before the Tour got to Spain, we drove from Castilllonnès to Barcelona and rented an apartment in the Gothic district for two nights and a day. I’d spent a few days in Barcelona with my family last summer and it was great to be there again without the pressure of needing to see all the famous sights. I spent a leisurely morning walking the Gothic District and La Rambla, watched the Tour on TV in the afternoon. Some people in our group did Barcelona-in-a-day and others Barcelona-in-an-afternoon (by bus). We met that evening for Paella.
 

Girona bakery welcomes TDF Stage
Girona bakery welcomes TDF Stage 6
The night before the Girona-to-Barcelona stage we stayed in Caldes de Malavella, Spain, and did a short ride near the beach at Palamos that afternoon and ate dinner in Girona. The morning of Stage 6 we rode about 14 miles to the start watched the start festivities, and rode back to our Caldes de Malavella, before a long, scenic drive through the Pyrenees to Encamp, Andorra.
 

Jumbotron at Andorre Arcalis
Jumbotron at Andorre Arcalis
We left Encamp by bicycle about 8:30 AM on Friday for Andorre Arcalis. I made it to the top and was very excited to see another person from our group come around the barricade just as I was heading down to meet her. There were lots of hats and samples given by sponsors near the finish line. With nearby refreshment stands and a good seat near the jumbotron, the wait for the caravan and race finish seemed short. The riders had to bike down Arcalis so we were passed by many, including Contador, Sastre, Armstrong, Leipheimer, et al on our way back to Encamp. It was really a great day, much less crowded than Alpe d’Huez had been. In my limited experience, a mountain top finish on a non-famous climb seems to be a great opportunity to see and ride a Tour stage.
 

The next day the race started in Andorre-la-Vieille and came right past our hotel. JB and I went for a short ride on the race route toward Envilira Pass. We had to get back before the road was closed for the caravan so we didn’t make it to the top of the Pass. After the riders passed Encamp we headed for Arreau, France, near the base of the Col d’Aspin.

Looking up at the Col du Tourmalet
Looking up at the Col du Tourmalet

Typical Info Sign on French Col
Typical Info Sign on French Col
On Sunday, four of us started from Arreau for the Col d’Aspin and Col du Tourmalet. One rider decided to stop at the top of the Col d’Aspin with a great view of the breakaway coming up many switchbacks of the Col and an easy descent back to Arreau. Three of us continued on toward the Col du Tourmalet. I got to the top of the Tourmalet about 11 AM. It was a difficult climb, but the hardest part was negotiating the sea of Basque demonstrators that emerged onto the route from the parking lot about 4km from the top. I emerged from the crowd about 2km from the top and enjoyed the rest of the climb in relative calm. At the top I took a few photos and headed back down, meeting my friends about 13km from the summit, near Gripp. We watched the caravan and race come through at a cafè local residents had set up in their garage. After the riders passed we had a good ride back over the Col d’ Aspin to Arreau and a 4 hour drive back to Castillonnès.
 

I’ve been riding here in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France since we returned. I’ll post more about that another day.