The Colorado Trail Race runs from Durango to Denver, with racers covering 538 miles of challenging, high altitude terrain. The route roughly follows the Colorado Trail itself, with a few alternate segments that take cyclists around Wilderness sections where mechanized travel is not permitted. As a fabled race in the ultra distance and bikepacking community, its unsupported ethos dictates that racers be self sufficient from start to finish, with no help being taken that is not available to all other racers, ie. convenience stores and bike shops.
At 4am on Sunday, July 23rd, fifty seven racers gathered for an unceremonious start to the 2017 CTR (Colorado Trail Race), taking them through Durango to the western terminus of the Colorado Trail. First to the trail was none other than Kurt Refsnider, a former Tour Divide champion. A host of incredibly capable ultra racers would be hot on his heels for many miles to follow.
The trail was first conceived in 1974, and through a lengthy partnership with the US Forest Service, the non-profit Colorado Trail Foundation, and many volunteers, it was finally completed in 1987. Until 2013, the CTR had always started in Denver and finished in Durango, and now it alternates from year to year between the two cities. In years when it starts in Durango the attrition is severe, with the mighty San Juan mountains pummelling racers with their lofty peaks from the get-go. It's the equivalent of being thrown straight into the ring of fire.
For most this is a battle for completion, but Chris Plesko was one of the select few with victory on his mind from the onset of the race. Chris was aiming for the CTR record with a sub four day ride on his fully rigid single speed. That sounds like a ridiculous goal, but this is the same man who owns both
of the fastest Tour Divide singlespeed times.
This year there are quite a few incredibly fast racers in attendance, like Seth Michael and Kurt Refsnider. Seth was racing on a steel hard tail that he built himself (check out Lost Trail Cycle Co.). On the eve of the first day it was Kurt Refsnider leading the race. From there it was mostly a downhill coast on the highway into Silverton, where leading riders would race the clock to arrive at the general store for a re-supply before it closed. It was also the last time we saw Kurt in the lead, as he would later pull out due to knee pain that crippled his advancement.
The next two segments of trail would deliver a death blow to many of the racers' dreams of finishing the race. The weather on Blackhawk Pass was vicious, with pelting hail and lightening bolts booming down within fifteen feet of the trail. It would serve as one of the first true trials of determination for many racers. Despite the hail, rain, mud and cold that besieged racers on Blackhawk Pass, Greg Lewis would push on and ultimately take second place by the end of the race.
Chris Plesko dealt with water shortages due to a malfunctioning filter pump, but that wasn't the end of his struggles. He had ridden through the night, in the rain, through the supposedly haunted Cochetopa Hills leading up to Sargents Mesa, and then Marshall Pass. He was only sleeping about one or two hours per night, and in a fog of sleep deprivation he forgot to orient his bike in the direction he needed to proceed before falling asleep in his rain gear. It took him about twenty minutes to figure out which direction he needed to ride after waking up from his nap. With intermittent rain atop the 12,000 foot plus Kokomo Pass, Chris pushed on with the Ten Mile Range looming in the distance. He would ascend and descend that range in the fog and dark of night. At one point while still above treeline, he laid down and slept on the trail, only to be passed in the night by Seth Michael.
While Seth pushed on, Chris Plesko's race would end in disaster. The chronic fatigue of riding a rigid singlespeed coupled with an over-the-bars crash while descending Kokomo Pass resulted in his hand not being able to hold onto the bars any longer. Even with the finish less than a day's ride away, the dangers of pushing on were simply too great to risk further long term injuries.
And just like that, Seth Michael's steady pace would crown him the 2017 Colorado Trail Race Champion. There is no prize for winning, no televised finish, no podium. The finish is anti-climatic, but those who know will be awed by Seth's accomplishment in the face of utterly brutal conditions. Well done Seth, and congratulations to all the CTR finishers this year!