Destination: Pikes Peak International Hill Climb

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Nearly every motorcyclist has gotten lost while browsing a magazine. Suddenly, we are transported to high altitude destinations, riding up and down the Stelvio Pass in the Alps or Paso Internacional Los Libertadores in Chile. Roads like these must actually be ridden to be truly understood. Though one may fantasize of pushing the limits on a rented Ducati Multistrada, the reality of facing an onslaught of rubber-necked “Walter Mittys” on BMWs speeding head-on, or tour busses occupying the full road at every hairpin, is reason enough to rethink the hotshot approach.

The U.S. offers many similar challenging roads—Deals Gap, The Three Sisters, and the Million Dollar Highway to name but a few. Although these are all exhilarating and regularly listed as some of the “Best Motorcycle Roads,” only three of them rank among the best-paved roads in the U.S. They are Trail Ridge Road (continuous), Mount Evans, and Pikes Peak (both one-way) in Colorado. Of these three, only Pikes Peak is legally race-able, and that by invitation only.

Built in 1915, the Pikes Peak Scenic Hwy begins at an elevation of 7,400 feet and climbs all the way to 14,115 feet at the summit. It is home to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC), the closest thing American motorcyclists and fans have to the Isle of Man TT Road Race. Or rather, it was until 2019. In 2020, motorcycles were banned, along with spectators.

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Few guardrails and little margin for error means competitors must focus on the road ahead rather than the view beyond.

The Race and the Legend

The entrance is right off US 24, just west of Colorado Springs. Anyone can ride or drive to the summit of America’s Mountain, assuming the road is open and you buy a ticket. There you begin to truly understand the words of America The Beautiful, written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. It was the view from this very spot, looking east over the Great Plains, that served as her inspiration.

The road from US 24 to the peak covers 19 miles. It is not recommended for those who experience even mild symptoms of acrophobia or altitude sickness. They would be better off exploring rock formations in the Garden of the Gods or beers at one of Colorado Springs’ many microbreweries. The PPIHC race itself begins a third of the way up and covers 12.42 miles in 156 turns.

Carlin Dunne will always be remembered as a champion and brand ambassador for PPIHC. He was a friend and mentor to nearly every competitor. In 2011, he was awarded the Rookie of the Year prize for smashing the previous motorcycle record of 12:12.92 with his winning time of 11:11.32. He was the first to break the 10-minute mark the next year with 9:52.819. Carlin’s teammate, Greg Tracy, finished right behind him with a time of 9:58.

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Over the years, PPIHC has featured many different vehicles, from vintage motorcycles and cars to quads and even a freightliner truck. Sidecar duo Wade Boyd and Christine Block await their turn in the upper section. 

What began as an all-dirt event ended in 2011. Paving of the last section was completed just weeks after the 89th running of the race. The road from base to summit was entirely dirt until the 1950s. Then, the first six miles of the highway were paved, up to about a mile below the current starting gate of the hill climb. In 1998, a local chapter of the Sierra Club claimed that gravel pollution caused by the rest of the unpaved road violated the Clean Water Act and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the City of Colorado Springs and National Forest Service. Pavement changed everything—motorcycles, riding style, tires, and speed. Suddenly race times were dropping 10% year over year with risk doubling.

Two riders died in the next four years.

In 2016, PPIHC responded by partnering with Ducati and forming the Squadra Alpina Safety Team and the Race Smart Program, designed to mentor both veteran and rookie competitors. Carlin and Greg were enlisted. Then, in 2019 Carlin returned to “the hill” on a new Ducati Streetfighter V4 prototype. He was within view of the checkered flag when the unthinkable happened. His death, along with the loss of fellow motorcyclists Bobby Goodin in 2014 and Carl Sorenson in 2015, impacted the entire organization and brought the motorcycle racing program to an indefinite end.

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Isle of Man legend Guy Martin corners near the summit in 2014 on his hand-built Martek. He overcame altitude related problems to win the exhibition class.

A Challenging Road

PPIHC is the second oldest race in America, with only the Indianapolis 500 running longer. It is one of the most intimate from a spectator’s point of view. Here you can wander through the pits and talk to the racers on the starting line. It is also one of the most difficult from both an organizer’s and competitor’s perspective. So many factors can make it difficult and seem unfair. Most riders are satisfied with just making it through race day and crossing the finish line.

First off, the course is divided into three sections—lower, middle, and upper. No one gets to practice the whole course on any one day. Monday is tech-inspection, Tuesday through Thursday are practice and qualifying sessions from first light until 9 a.m. Afterward, the road is reopened to the public. Classes are assigned to one of the three sections. Friday is assigned as well but listed as an optional practice day. After Friday, wind, rain, sleet, snow, and ice typically change the condition of the road. Competitors rely on memorizing hours of YouTube videos, but many of those 156 turns appear similar on entry. Most have very different outcomes on the exit. The officials do their best to communicate road condition and weather changes, but that means very little to anyone trying to break a record.

Next, consider the complexity of race order. In a normal year, the motorcycles run first. The green flag drops at 8 a.m. In 2020, six inches of snow fell at the summit on an August Saturday night. At 8 a.m., officials were reporting ice an inch thick covering much of the top section, which delayed the start of the race by two hours.

A typical summer day at Pikes Peak begins with a clear sunrise and cobalt blue skies. By 11 a.m., a racer who sees the summit against a blue-sky backdrop may pass through three different seasons before reaching Glen Cove or Devil’s Playground eight minutes later. Many times, crashes and weather-related delays have forced the officials to shorten the course for the last third of the competitors, making it tough to score the race fairly.

Traffic is one way uphill and, after crossing the finish line as a motorcyclist at 8:30 a.m., you just lean your bike there against a rock and watch the race in your leathers, hoping and praying that it won’t turn to winter. By the time the race is over at 5 p.m. or so, you are dehydrated and exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
A fully paved course in 2012 ushered in the first sub 10-minute times for motorcycles. Carlin Dunne and Greg Tracy celebrate with Dunne's Livingston Spider Grips-prepped Ducati Multistrada.

Getting in on the Excitement

In 2012, I accepted a rare offer of a credentialed media summit parking pass from one of the race organizers. With my wife on the back of a borrowed Ducati, we covered the race from the finish line. We came through the gate at 3 a.m., arrived at the summit an hour later, and ate doughnuts at the visitor center, waiting on the sun. After covering a long and windy race with multiple severe crashes, the skies grew dark and sleet and ice started falling. We suffered along with the rest of the field, revving our bikes for 45 minutes until the flagman got confirmation to let us go.

It was a feeling of terrified elation. From there, all the way down to Glen Cove, we skidded around nearly every corner. The ones without guardrails had a single hay bale perched on the edge. I assumed we were supposed to grab it on the way over to cushion our fall. The supermoto and flat track guys had a foot down in every corner, some two. The knee draggers squirmed. I was the only motorcycle in the field carrying a passenger. The riders gave my wife and I a nod of approval for staying on two wheels, many of them claiming the descent was more nerve-wracking than the race itself. Even though we were only media, the crowd still cheered and high-fived us, as we made our way through a mile-long spectator gauntlet to the starting gate.

Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
Simply taking the checkered flag is a victory for most. Spectators are not allowed at the summit.

More than Just a Race

Will motorcycles return to the PPIHC starting line? No one is certain at this point. On September 23, 2020, the Board of Directors of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb announced that “the decision of whether or not to include motorcycle competition in future years will be postponed until after the 2021 race.”

There are a lot of suggestions. One option being proposed is to define a “Colorado Class,” perhaps 450cc supermotos. Another suggestion is to extend the race to Saturday for the motorcycles and quads and Sunday for everything else, but insurance and the fact that the road is privately owned complicates or prohibits adding another day.

Regardless, PPIHC is a summer ride destination that must be experienced. To say that riding up the mountain in the dark of dawn is a surreal experience is to grossly understate it. Rounding the corners near Devil’s Playground and seeing the sky turn from black with a billion stars to that red-orange sunrise over the carpet of light that makes up Colorado Springs is an unforgettable experience. The crack and boom of horsepower piercing the darkness and the smell of racing fuel are a dichotomy of everything natural you are seeing. Watching that first rider or driver launch the upper section on a cold dawn’s-early-light practice session still gives me goosebumps.

If you do come for the race, leave some time for a taste of touring Colorado. A three-day loop will change your life. Head west and grab lunch in Buena Vista at Eddyline Brewery or spend the night and dine at the Surf Hotel. From there, ride over Cottonwood Pass. Recently paved, it is quite possibly one of the most perfect stretches of tarmac in the state. Descend along the Taylor River and plan on stopping if you are one who really understands the word “trout,” for you will witness perfection. You can then proceed either north to Crested Butte or south to Gunnison. Farther along on the Million Dollar Hwy, you’ll cross Red Mountain, Coal Bank, and Molasses Passes.

If you continue on to Lake City, you’ll pass the old cabin of the famous cannibal, Alfred Packer. Choose your return route from there. Take SR 50 along the Arkansas River to Royal Gorge or Hwy 285 north through Salida and back to Buena Vista with Collegiate Range there on your left and Brown’s Canyon on the right.

Like the song says: “Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.”