I can’t remember the first time I saw Climb Dance – that awe-inspiring short film known to everyone who knows about Pikes Peak. Can’t have been much more than a decade ago, thanks to YouTube. But it feels like longer, such has been the draw I’ve felt ever since to visit the set where it was made.
Arriving in Colorado Springs after dark last night, after 15 hours of flying, didn’t deliver much in the way of immediate fulfillment. But this morning – being on The Mountain before the sun came up, and getting the sights, sounds, smells and amazing sense of occasion – felt like something very special indeed.
It’s 33 degrees out in the afternoon heat at the moment. That fact, plus the altitude - plus the necessity to avoid too much disruption to the only road up and down Pikes Peak mountain itself – explains why you have to get up at 4am and drive to the hillclimb paddock for qualifying. They like to get the cars through early.
So you end up standing in a fragrant forest of pine and spruce before dawn when, just as the sun rises, the open-wheelers start warming through their fluids. The rumble of Detroit iron, highly strung, shatters the peace and quiet like a hammer through mirrored glass. The unburnt high-octane fuel doesn’t just hang in the air – it burns your eyes. That’s how close you can get to the competitors as they get ready to go.
The field is split up for practice and qualifying, using different sections of the hill each on different mornings. No driver gets to run the course in its entirety until Sunday – which somehow builds the anticipation.
As it stands, with one more day of practice to go, those at the head of the field – Dumas, Pagenaud, Millen, Dallenbach, Tajima, Masuoka, Tracy et al – are all delivering serious times. The bloke right at the head of them all, however – Loeb – is in a class of one.
After 9am, the Pikes Peak toll road is reopened to the public and you can drive to the summit. Which, of course, I did. Eye-opening isn’t the word. Up until you pass what the locals call the Timberline, the road isn’t too dissimilar to plenty of European passes. But after the trees around you disappear, the road only gets steeper. And the drops – still unguarded by Armco for long stretches. Dear God.
I stood at the summit for about 10 minutes, staring at several different states all at once. And then the act of walking at 14,000 feet started to make me feel dizzy, nauseous; keen to descend. I'm just staggered how those drivers and riders manage to get their breath back after a flat-out dice with the unthinkable up there, where you can hardly breathe for standing still.