A Case for Suffering: Zinn and the art of connection
In search of the perfect dirt-road link-up, Chris Case celebrates the Zinn Fondo with 20,000 feet of climbing, many of them on back roads
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Cake and ice cream. Pony rides. Excessive amounts of alcohol. These are the traditional ingredients of many a birthday celebration. But sometimes a little torment and challenge is called for on your anniversary, especially when you have friends who are keen to make you suffer — if only to remind you of how old you are.
For the past 25 years, Lennard Zinn, longtime tech writer and guru for VeloNews (and author of Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance), has been celebrating in the best way he knows how: with a giant bike ride, of course. The Zinn Fondo, as it is affectionately known, usually takes place around the Summer Solstice, right around his birthday … which is good, because the days are at their longest … which works out because anyone who joins the ride will surely be riding for a good long while — about as long as it takes the Earth to spin half way around its axis.
It started on his 30th birthday, in 1988, with one friend. They tackled the Grand Loop, a 200-mile trek with more than 14,000 feet of climbing that goes from Boulder to Lyons to Estes Park over Trail Ridge Road to Granby to Winter Park over Berthoud Pass to Idaho Springs over Floyd Hill over Lookout Mountain to Golden and, finally, back to Boulder. It continued every year with a ride of 200-plus miles. But in recent years, the mileage has dropped ever so slightly.
“Now it’s basically an all-day ride with friends that’s a challenge to get done,” he said, nonchalantly. Other past excursions have included the 140-plus-mile jaunt from Boulder, up the highest paved road in North America to the top of 14,265-foot Mount Evans, and back.
If anything offered up enjoyable suffering (to remind you, the very premise of my rides nowadays, and the fodder for this column), it was the Zinn Fondo. Big views. Long day. Great people. Suffering by bike.
Lennard told me that he was a bit tired of riding to the top of Mount Evans from Boulder. “Do you have any routes in mind?” he asked. Well, yes, in fact, I had something in mind. Birthdays are, after all, time to celebrate with the finer things in life.
Connect the dirts
With my New England roots and my love of exploration, I’ve always been inspired by rides like the D2R2. The Deerfield Dirt-Road Randonnee was conceived by Sandy Whittlesey in the 1990s as, simply, a favorite dirt-road loop in the hill towns of Franklin County, Massachusetts. In 2005, it became an “event,” and has since been described by many as one of the hardest, most beautiful, most fun, most traffic-free, most unique rides that they’ve ever done. And it remains true to its original character as just a bike ride, because it takes advantage of what that part of the world has to offer: the narrowest, oldest, twistiest, quietest, and most scenic roads available.
I’ve been exploring dirt roads and back roads in Colorado since I moved here in 2006, but it’s an altogether different prospect here, however, because there just isn’t the same type of haphazard cobweb like there is in the colonial states. There are only so many canyons that serve as mountain corridors, and only so many former mining roads that remain, or lead anywhere. Still, what fun would it be if you didn’t get to spend years exploring an area, taking countless trips down abandoned double tracks, and pedaling miles of rattily surfaced lanes in order to find a road that connected point A to B without returning to civilization? I’ll tell you: it would be too easy.
So it was that I started daydreaming, studying maps, and riding roads, wandering while piecing it all together, using my mind’s eye to create version after version of connected haphazardness. Then I’d turn to the computer to draft each iteration, to see how ludicrously long and voluminous in its elevation gain the rides I concocted had gotten. It was an obsessive process, though incredibly rewarding, like untangling a truckload of Christmas tree lights.
Whittlesey compares it to another craft.
“Course design is a lot like furniture building because you learn to work with the raw material in front of you,” he said. “When people remark on how beautiful a new furniture piece is, I deflect the compliment because at least 80 percent of the beauty comes from the natural color and grain of the wood. If I made the same table or chair out of plastic, it would probably look like shit. In the same vein, D2R2 is a fantastic ride primarily because of the areas they run through. I don’t take credit for that!”
It’s a matter of working with the colors of paint on your palette, and, in my case, letting the painting that is Colorado come to light. We have mountains, grand vistas, mining roads, dirt roads, steep climbs, long climbs, forests, canyons, space. These are the ingredients of a fine ride.
Mostly, the back roads — and especially the dirt roads — are beautiful for what they are not. They are not fresh pavement. They are not well trod, nor do they lead to the nearest strip mall. They aren’t typically straight, and will often lead me to develop a new appreciation for the contours of the land. They aren’t necessarily smooth, and it can take skill to ride them. Back roads are beautiful because they aren’t known to everyone, it takes time to find them, and, as such, are much appreciated by the aficionado.
So, how do you find these gems? Patience. The plain, old hard work of riding — if getting out and exploring day after day could be called that. Whittlesey agrees.
“Maps — digital or otherwise — are still inaccurate and generally lean toward what best suits the automobile. But, more importantly, they convey none of the human senses of a ride: the smell of the wildflowers, the perspective of a long view, the sounds of a stream or tires on a wooden bridge, the piss-your-pants thrill of a wicked descent. You get those feelings by riding the roads!” he said.
He should know; it took him 12 years, all told, to assemble his Deerfield route. In my seven years in Colorado, I’ve lived in two towns, Golden and Boulder, both of which happen to sit on the Front Range, and both of which have ample amounts of dirt, copious opportunities for climbs, twists by nature of the topography, pockets of quietude, and gobs of mountain-scape scenery.
The trick was to link them all into a sinuous track that few travel, amid the crowds of two of the most densely populated counties in the state.
What seemed destined to be a two-man affair — Lennard and me — blossomed into a group of nine at its largest, with a variety of plans of attack, fitness, and fortitude at the ready. Maybe they didn’t know much about the route before them, or maybe they were just hardmen, the type of riders you would expect Lennard to know and hold court with. In any case, they were with us and ready to ride, and that was all they needed to be.
As we cruised along some of the early sections of dirt road, gazing at the snow-strewn Indian Peaks before us, talk turned to some of Lennard’s misadventures at assorted grand tours. There were the repeated run-ins with the carabinieri at the Giro, as he tried to outrun the riders as they made their way up Monte Zoncolan. He shared other tales from the Tour and Vuelta, all of them involving hijinks it seemed.
And we cruised on.
My goal for the route was much like Sandy’s: link the twistiest, quietest, most picturesque roads together, regardless of what that meant for the overall difficulty of the ride. Given the topography of the Front Range, it’s pretty easy to accumulate large quantities of elevation gain. Portions were thrown in for the gratuitous nature of their pitches. Could we have gone half the distance and a quarter of the pitch if we had turned left on the main road? Yes, but that’s why we turned right, onto the back road.
And so it was. The route yielded 145 miles of connected ribbons of placidity and fluidity, approximately half of that on dirt, and generally either up precipitously or down abruptly, for somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 feet of climbing, depending on whose GPS device you wanted to believe. Mine said I crested 20,000 feet, and then went 72 feet more for good measure. That’s what I believe.
The roads we chose made lyrics like that of a bluegrass band. We hit Twin Spruce, Gap Road, Mountain Base, Drew Hill, Crawford Gulch, stopped and had some food. Then we crushed Lookout Mountain, Kerr Gulch, Witter Gulch, and streamed down Little Bear and had a sandwich and a giant cookie. With swollen stomachs, we dragged ourselves to the top of Oh-My-God Road, through Apex Valley, over Hughsville climb, down to Nederland as dusk descended and raindrops pattered the cooling air.
The end of the ride came near dark, and we parted as we started — casually. We had shared a complete day together, and four of us remained together as we rolled into Boulder. A simple handshake as we coasted along was all that was needed to convey the message: thanks for being a part of the ride; fine job.
But the hard work starts again. Now that I’ve linked this special set of roads together, it’s time to figure out where I want to go for the Case Fondo. No pony rides.
Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing and riding a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to ride the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at email@example.com.