Tuesday, July 26, 2016

IM Boulder Bike Course Preview

I debated whether or not to even write this post but since the information is still fresh in my mind and itmight be of some value, I figured why not.

Not long after seeing that my Sunday workout last week would involve a long bike ride, it seemed logical to do it in Boulder using most of the Ironman course. I had done a similar but much shorter ride in June and not only would this now be a chance to gauge my performance against what is needed for race day, it would also be a chance to get a firsthand look at the terrain I’ll be riding in less than two weeks.

A lot can happen in that time frame and I don’t expect to be back before that but as of July 24, this is what I see.

Early Stages

There was actually a triathlon going on the day I showed up to train so driving up to and parking near the reservoir seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I parked near the condo I lived in way back when I was a sophomore in college. From there, it was a fairly short ride to the course proper. So while I did not actually ride 51st Street out of the Reservoir area, I think it’s safe to say it’s probably not changed.

Just south of Jay Road on the Diagonal Highway (aka 119) the shoulder of the road has been milled (i.e.: ground up into a bunch of grooves). It’s not a long stretch, maybe half a mile and I didn’t have any issues, but this is early in the course and if it’s not fixed and there is no detour around it in the right lane of the highway, I could see problems on race day.

The bike trail that passes under the highway is a clever way to get racers turned around heading back toward Longmont. However, it’s at about mile 3 of the course which means big crowds and large potential for accidents. The path can really only comfortably support racers two-a-breast and my guess is that they’ll force folks into possible single file. Be ready to slow way down and just take it easy. There’s lots of race ahead still.

After heading back out of Boulder on 119, things get better. There are some large orange, diamond shaped construction signs in the shoulder but I trust those will be moved aside. Much of the road is fresh, smooth asphalt which is good, but there are also some small bumps in that asphalt. This may be a warning to cars drifting off the road but it caused one of my water bottles to loosen and then eject when I went over a large bump turning onto Highway 52.

The Big Hills

As intimidating as the hills running up Highway 52 and Lookout Road are, they seemed much better on fresh legs and before the real heat had set in. Indeed, a steady spin saw me to the top of the first hill without much difficulty or pain. Personally, I found the Lookout Road hills (yes plural) to be more difficult.

The first hill is steep but short and starts just west of 95th Avenue. The second hill is almost two hills with a flatter (but not totally flat section) between two steeper parts. Finally, the third hill seemed comparable to the first. Once you crest it, you’ll benefit from some free speed going not only the rest of the way down Lookout, but also as you turn south on 75th Street.

Back to the Loops

The right turn onto Jay Road sees the course flatten out a bit and perhaps there is even a slight rise. It’s not especially difficult this early in the race but I did see my power increase while my speed dropped off. Once you turn left and head down 57thyou’ll get a nice downhill before a steep uphill (comparable to those on Lookout) and then you’ll be headed west on Independence Road going by the airport. Back to 47th street and out to Jay Road and then you’re starting the two main loops that make up the majority of the course.

The Climb to Broadway

Jay Road is definitely a false flat. You’ll only ride about half of it the first time you hit it but it’s the steeper half and I saw my speed drop off notably in this section. That’s just the beginning however because the ride northwest on 28th Street/Highway 36 is neither false nor flat.

It does not feel like an especially big hill, but it steeper than most realize. I ran a gauntlet of barrel shaped objects soon after turning onto the road but I again trust this will be removed. I spun this section all the way until Broadway. In fact, when you see the large barn—shaped flooring store you’ll more or less have crested the gradual but consistent hill.

Rolling Along to Neva Road

There’s a nice steep downhill after passing Broadway which most will find a pleasant respite after the climb. I enjoy the free speed as well but there are a lot of fast moving cars through this area and things have often felt tight and a little dangerous in this section. Hopefully the presence of law enforcement and lots of racers will slow drivers down, but I suggest caution.

Once you go up an equally steep hill (hopefully with some of the speed you’ve garnered from going down) you’ll pass Longhorn Road and then be out on the open section of Highway 36 as it heads toward Lyons. This is a good place to open up a little but wind could be a factor, particularly on the second lap. I had no particular problems but it did slow me down the second time I was there.

Neva to 63rd Street

This has to be the fastest, sustained part of the course. While there are a couple of hills on the early part of Neva Road, you can hit them with some speed and still keep your momentum. After making an “S” turn where Neva turns into Niwot Road, you’ve got a steady slope down. It’s a good place to pick up speed or just recover depending on your own personal race strategy.

The 63rd Street Rollers

That sounds like a street gang, but this peaceful section of road just undulates gently proving ample opportunity to gain some speed but not too much as couple of the hills are short but steep. Once you pas Ryssby Church (a famous old Scandinavian church on the east side of the road) you’ll get a pretty steep downhill before the left turn onto Nelson Road.

The Nelson Climb

I suspect many a rider has seen their plans go awry when they head west on Nelson Road. It starts off with a long shallow climb but soon after it gets steep. From the point where the first big hill starts to its crest after making the curving turn around Table Mountain is 3.8% by my calculations. I’m sure certain sections are steeper. There’s a flatter section after that but then as you turn more westerly you’ll not only experience a net climb but also hit a rather steep hill. On the second loop, this comes not long before the special needs area so there may be some rest for you afterward. Technically, the climb continues after you turn right back onto Highway 36 but I’ve found that it feels easier.

Bombing Down 36 into Lyons

All that goes up must come down and that’s quite true of this section. Being as I was training and not racing, I did take a moment to enjoy the panoramic views from high on the course. Even if you don’t get to enjoy that, the ride down is fast and rewarding. Aggressive riders will no doubt push things in the big ring, but all riders will experience some of their most sustained faster speeds all the way to Highway 66. It’s a nice section of the course with a wide shoulder that allows plenty of room to pass and be passed.

Head East

While not nearly as steep as the preceding section, the ride along Highway 66 is a net decline and I’ve found I can maintain decent speed as I make my way down it. There are some flat sections and one slight uphill before making the turn back north on 75th Street near Hygiene, but overall you’ll probably be able to increase your average speed through this section.

Hygiene Run

For those not familiar, Hygiene is a very small town through which the course passes. It has a famous reputation as a popular stop for cyclists and indeed, during both of my training rides through the area I’ve stopped into the Purple Door Market to replenish my water supplies. If you find yourself in the area, I highly recommend patronizing this establishment. They’ve done a great deal to welcome the cycling community and are deserving of all the support they can get.

You obviously won’t be stopping in your race, but you will enjoy a downhill section as you move back toward the center of the loop. One word of caution I do have is regarding the train tracks that run across 75th Street just south of the market. It’s a water bottle grave yard. Last year, I ejected one of mine adding it to probably a hundred others. I don’t think anyone was getting a penalty, but losing a bottle is a penalty in and of itself.

Twists and Turns

A right turn onto St. Vrain Road will probably slow you some as you go west. A general rule is that if the mountains are in front of you, you’re going up. It’s not that bad and it’s quick before a left turn onto 65th Street which is a net decline and a good place to make up some speed. At the end the road, you’ll hit a “T” intersection with Nelson Road just a couple of blocks east of where you started the big climb earlier. Heading east on Nelson is decidedly easier, even if you begin by going up a slight hill. It’s also fairly quick and then you find yourself back on 75thStreet, south of Hygiene and headed back toward the northeastern side of the course.

The 75th Stretch

The southward trip on 75th Street is not the longest section of road on the course, but at a little over four miles, it is up there. You’ll actually be on 73rdStreet after a gentle curve about 1.5 miles in but the whole section feels pretty straight with no sharp lefts or rights. There’s even a nice downhill section ahead of Niwot Road. The leg has a net positive grade of 0.1% but it’s really a flat with on short up and one longer down.

Back to 119

Upon reaching Monarch Road, you climb very gently for about a mile and then turn left on 63rdStreet. There’s one big hump on 63rd Street just before you go down again and rejoin the Diagonal Highway heading back toward Boulder. This is a fairly unremarkable section of course but if memory serves, there is an aid station on or near that big hump. I found another large orange construction sign in the shoulder here, but again, I expect it to be gone on race day.

Finishing the Loop

The distance between 63rd Street and Jay Road on the Diagonal Highway is a little over two miles and while it’s not a steep climb (like Nelson) it is still a climb and on your second loop, you may also be feeling more pain. I also have found that wind can be a factor through here and while it might be behind you, it very likely could be right in your face as afternoon thunderstorms build. Fortunately, two miles goes by quickly on a bike and soon you’re climbing back up Jay Road.

To the Finish

If you’ve finished the loop for the first time, you’ll do all of this again. For me personally, the climb up Nelson a second time is the biggest challenge. Fortunately, there’s a nice recovery section right after.

If you’ve completed two loops, things change once you get back to the intersection of Jay Road and 28th Street. At this point you cross 28th and continue a couple of blocks west to 26th Streetwhere you turn left.

On my training ride, this was near the end but in the race you’ll still have a few miles to go. It’s a nice downhill ride all the way to Iris Avenue at which point 26th Street becomes Folsom Street. This will also be mostly downhill with the notable exception of a small climb at Valmont Road. It’s over fast however.

By the time you’re running down Folsom to Arapahoe Avenue, you’ll be very close to the finish. Though not personally experienced with it, I’m told the cruise down Arapahoe is pretty fun with that section of the street closed to traffic and barricades lining the sides. 


This is another long post, but it takes a lot describe a course with so many twists and turns. The overall condition is good with no potholes, or extended rough sections to speak of. Where this is chip seal work, it’s fairly smooth and not even that noticeable.

The biggest external factors to the rider are likely to be weather in the form of heat and possibly wind (rain is also possible but likely not until after the bike discipline) and traffic which has always been well managed by the officers from Boulder Police and Sheriffs and the Colorado State Patrol.

Having the big hills at the start of the course will definitely be beneficial but it comes at the cost of a probably log jam during the Highway 119 underpass. Otherwise, I think this is a good course (albeit on the short side of 112 miles). 

If you’re racing in Boulder on August 7, best of luck to you and thanks for reading!

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