Pikes Peak

There are certain 2 wheeled phenomenons in a biker’s life that unfortunately, can slide by without notice.  If you have not yet done at least 5 of the following 10 biker events or venues you are selling yourself short on true life altering biker experiences: (1) Daytona Bike week, (2) Sturgis, (3) Laconia, (4) The Isle of Man TT races, (5) Laughlin River Run, (6) Anything on Route 66, (7) Rolling Thunder (or any National ‘Group Ride’), (8) Bonneville Salt Flats Speed Week, (8) a pass up OR down the Pacific Coast Highway, (9) the “Dragon”, and last but certainly not least, (10) Pikes Peak (P.P.) International Time Trials.  Pikes Peak was ignored by me until 2011.  My pal and professional road racer Chris Carr calls and says “You want to go to Pikes Peak, I’m racing there this summer?”  You can guess my response.  Kind of like, “Hey, you want a sack of hundreds?” or “You want to borrow the Ferrari?” or on a hot July night after a long ride: “You want a cold one?”  Dumb questions, easy answers.  So I find myself on a flight from Atlanta to Colorado, home of the Rocky Mountains and medical marijuana.  Chris even dragged my old Bonneville out there in his truck the week before.  The annual Pikes Peak International Time Trials is a racing ritual steeped in legend.  Being the second oldest motorsports event in America it was started in 1916.  Only the Indy 500 is older (1911).  It’s been on my biker bucket list for years.  The race is a venerable cornucopia of internal combustion.  Cars, bikes and even trucks compete in a timed race UP this dangerous serpentine mountain road.  A ‘roadway park’ 364 days a year, it’s billed as the most challenging race in America.  That’s code for the most dangerous.  I counted dozens of ambulance trips off the mountain on race day and many medivac helicopter delivering errant riders/drivers to a hospital somewhere miles away.  Motorcycles of all sorts took part.  We saw vintage and modern, sidecar rigs, dual sports, factory racers, two stokes, four strokes, electric bikes, motard bikes, liter class super bikes, adventure touring bikes and that’s only the bikes.  As far as the cars are concerned, there were a myriad of automobiles screaming up the hill.  Anything goes from rally cars, to factory racers from Porsche to Audi to Acura and Ford.  Vintage Muscle cars (my favorite), antique British sports cars, ATV’s, quads, Rhinos, electric cars, and unbelievably, a purpose built 3,000 horsepower diesel Freightliner truck “drifting” UP the mountain!!!!  Although the big block, twin turbo, ’59 Cadillac was my personal favorite.  Especially since it wrecked right in the turn where I stood.  Lets face it, racing is cool, but the prospect of wrecks are what draw us in.

I flew out alone the night before race day and stepped off the plane in Colorado Springs into darkness with the Rockies 20 miles to the west.  A distant black backdrop reaching to the skies before me.  The only perception that there are distant mountains to the west at night is the black backdrop void of stars that otherwise wildly illuminate overhead on the rest of the horizon.  I am used to the 3 or 4 thousand foot mountains in the Northeast that rise as comparative “hills” to these “mountains” reaching four to five times that.  The exit to the airport sets me out upon a highway that is oddly flat as if I had landed in Kansas.  Am I actually in Colorado?  I drive 20 minutes and the road stays flat.  Little do I know that the topography of these mountains dictates that they were formed millions of years ago in a region otherwise flat, uplifting rock, glaciers, gravel, boulders and soil literally MILES into the sky.  I reach the foothills of the Rockies where Chris and his crew have rented a nice mountain home precipitously perched amongst the cliffs and ravines of the 8 or 9 thousand foot ‘base’ of the race course.

I get to ‘base camp’ and there’s no partying shenanigans.  The house is quiet and all are sleeping.  Missing a turn the next day doesn’t mean pea gravel like I’m used to.  It means hurdling thousands of feet over a roadside cliff unguarded by railings or run off fencing.  Sleep indeed.  I hit the sack around midnight.  The schedule is that the racers leave the house at 3:00 am and travel the 3 miles to the makeshift pits to set up their bikes for the formidable task at hand.  I go a couple hours later and when I get there I am fascinated by the menagerie of motorcycles and pit trucks scattered throughout the woods at the base of the mountain.  What appears to be organized confusion is evident everywhere.  There is clearly a learning curve to this experience and as everyone else scampers about with purpose I stumble around lost in the crowd without a real goal other than satisfaction of curiosity.  I rationalize my wandering aimlessly as inexperience compounded by oxygen deprivation.  I had awoken 10 times through the night gasping for air as oxygen levels are low and southerners like me take weeks to adjust.  Scattered about the makeshift pits are porta potties, generators, trucks, campers, spectators, bikes plugged into tire warmers, cars with greasy men perched above and below adjustments camber and preload.  There are burrito vendors and tire manufacturers and race officials all with laser focus to their particular task at hand.  Me, I have no idea what to do or where to go.  I am dizzy.  People yell and scream as my head spins.  I stumble over a pine cone.  Others dart about looking for support staff or an 11 millimeter socket.  Race officials rush to and fro bullhorns blasting announcements amidst a plethora of motorcycles and riders.  I am told we are currently at 9,000 feet above sea level and the air is noticeably thin.  A short walk brings breathless gasps.  Someone tells me the mountain road (race course) closes to non-racers at 7:30 a.m.  I look at my watch and it says 7:28.  “After 7:30 – no one on the course” blares from a crackly speaker in the pits.  After this, you are frozen wherever you are on the mountain; summit, pits, or somewhere in between on the 12.4 miles of blacktop ribbon and 5,000 vertical feet that connect the two.  An official announces it was 20 degrees at the top at 3:00 a.m.  A thirty degree difference top to bottom.  The 5,000 feet of elevation that separates start from finish makes huge differences in temps, weather condition, attitudes, mental focus, and the price of coffee.

In literally the last minute I decide to make a run for it.  To get up as high as I can go on my ‘76 Bonneville despite the impending cutoff.  I chose the ’76 Bonny for the cool as well as simple factor.  Elevation could be an issue with carbs but leaner jets I‘ve got in my pocket.  I kick the old iron to life to the bewilderment of those around me.  I am armed with 6 burritos, 8 bottles of water, 2 leaner jets, a camp chair and a bottle of Irish Whisky.  What else could a man need?   Toilet paper that’s what!  I make my way to the start line where things are already looking like a race is underway.  A GoPro camera on my helmet recording every errant move.  The flagman waves me back and yells that 7:30 has passed and it’s “too late, no more vehicles up”.  I expose my watch and politely argue it’s just now 7:30.  His partner points to the bike and garbles into a shoulder mounted radio.  They say something I can’t make out and the two argue between themselves.  I sense leadership weakness and spring my clutch lurching forward pretending to ignore the flag official who fruitlessly attempts a grip of my left arm.  I bolt from 1st to 2nd, then 3rd and 4th gears, testing the bounds of the old parallel twin.  I am the last vehicle “allowed” up before the pace car!  The bike growls into 5th and levels into a curvy pace at 85 or 90 MPH at the lowland straights.  This soon changes.  With little time before the official start people roadside since hours before dawn stand in breaking sunlight from folding chairs and cheer, fists pumping the thin air!  Do they think the race has started?  ‘Certainly not at my pace’ is my thought.  Some even leave their coveted positions and run forward to egg me on cheering like lunatics as I squint and race forward against the dawning sun.  It occurs to me they think I am a racer.  The bike draws cheers from crowds at every turn.  I have posted the video under my name of my ascent that day on YouTube.  Dramatic stuff.

I get to 12,000 feet before officials stop me arms flailing orange flags.  I’ve run out of time and luckily I am stopped before I reach what I’m told is the “tree line” at 12,500 feet.  That bizarre place beyond which neither plants nor trees grow nor animals roam as oxygen is too thin to support life beyond lichen.  The bike runs lean and sucks air losing power with each thousand feet ascended.  I motored first at top end at 90 MPH and then chug slovenly at 30 MPH around precipitous turns where I hear myself say “holy shit” aloud in my helmet.  I am 2,000 feet and several miles from the summit.  My personal race is over and I park in a gravel lot and find a large rock to perch atop at a turn named “George’s Curve”.  A popular 180 degree switchback that ascends 20 degrees with a mile long straightaway that spools up max speeds before the big left hander.  I spend the day perched atop my rock watching rider after rider defy my expectations.  Chris Carr himself roars by so quickly I hold my breath.  Mistakes are not punished with defeat or podium failure.  They are punished with death.  No guardrails just, drop offs.  Several cars launch over the side, bikes too.  Though death escapes this year with no victims.  First year in a long time.   Chris does well although factory Ducati takes the ribbon.  In the end a parade of bikes descends the mountain in darkness.  We toast and laugh and fill our lungs with thin air reminding ourselves that this race is more than just dangerous, it is history.  American history.  I am proud to have witnesses it.  I am proud to have slowly navigated its course upward.  As for Chris Carr and his competitors that screamed to the top testing the limits of internal combustion, radial tire traction, gravitational pull and all out balls, let’s just say they taste food differently than you and I.  They smell roses differently than you and I.  They sense fear differently than you and I.  For to risk one’s life in the beautiful dance of man and machine versus nature where winning means no more than saying so and loosing means death ones senses are sharpened beyond mere mortals like us!!  Kudos to them, the competitors.  The conquerors of Pikes Peak.  I will never forget their bravery.  I will savor the open road more honestly from that experience.  Go there.  You will too.  Well, signing off for now.  Remember, ride strong, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home.  Written by Steve Murrin, the ‘Original Biker Lawyer’

Written by Steve Murrin, the ‘Original Biker Lawyer’

Leave a Comment