BRECKENRIDGE — Their faces are pasted with salted sweat. They collapse onto the pavement. A few roll themselves into the frigid Blue River.
"That was the hardest bike ride ever. So much suffering," says Dave Thibodeau, co-founder of Durango's Ska Brewing Co., leaning over handlebars. "Where's my beer?"
As he covered more than 100 miles Monday, cresting Lookout Mountain and climbing Loveland Pass before pedaling into Breckenridge, Thibodeau questioned the sanity of a five-day, Boulder-to-Durango pedal. His colleagues — a dozen owners and beermakers from five other venerable Colorado breweries — also pondered the mission.
But with icy mugs of craft brew in hand, the nearly nine hours of pedaling up more than 10,000 vertical feet seemed to fade with each sip as the captains of Colorado craft beer relished a beery life with buddies on bikes. (And with this crew, it was a sudsy pedal. Cold bottles waited in the never-ridden sagwagon at the top and bottom of each climb.)
"Today we went all in, but it was fun," said Eric Wallace, the founder of Longmont's Left Hand Brewing, slapping his ravaged thighs. "The beer helps. I had six beers, I think. That's what, 1,000 calories? I probably burned 6,000. I needed each one of those beers."
It was six years ago that Adam Avery, the founder of Boulder's Avery Brewing Co. rang his pal Thibodeau, asking if the Durango brewer could have a keg ready when he and his team finished a 426-mile pedal from Boulder.
"I said, 'Sure, but I'm joining you,' " Thibodeau said.
Every year since, the rolling beer circus that is the Tour de BoulDurango has enlisted the state's craft-brewing bosses. In stinking Lycra, they hoist drafts with gathering pals at different brewpubs every night in Breckenridge, Buena Vista, Crested Butte, Ouray and Durango. All day they pedal, stopping only for beers atop the state's highest passes.
It's an unusual union of hopped-up competitors. They talk shop in the flats, comparing perspectives on brewing, expansions and the business of beer. Nothing is off the table.
"I've never heard anyone say, 'I can't really tell you that,' " said Jeff Brown, whose 35-year-old Boulder Beer is the oldest brewery on the tour.
None of the riders can imagine another industry that would unite competing business owners in such relentlessly physical confines.
Maybe there are a few hours on a golf course for some tycoons, but a week of grueling cycling and sodden nights? Talking for endless hours with fellow beer lovers is the beauty of the BoulDurango, Thibodeau said.
"It's enlightening, and a lot of good ideas are hatched," said the 47-year-old after a dip in the Blue River. "You have a good idea and you tell someone else and they expand on it and then you have to expand on that. It just raises the bar. That's why in Colorado our beer scene is so good. Everyone shares ideas and tries to do it even better."
Day One of the sixth Tour de BoulDurango was especially brutal. The riders typically stop in Idaho Springs before heading to Breckenridge the next day, but this year they married the first two days into a 103-mile beatdown. (In the parking lot of Breckenridge's Kenosha Steakhouse on Monday night, the riders surveyed one another's bike computers to come up with the official distance, which just happened to be the biggest number they found.)
Last year, Great Divide Brewing founder Brian Dunn signed up but was unable to make the trip. This year, he opted for 400-plus miles of pedaling over the relentless hazing from his peers.
As Dunn plans a $38 million expansion onto a five-acre lot in Denver's River North neighborhood, he appreciates insight from fellow 20-year brewery owners who are growing. Avery Brewing will finish a $28 million expansion by year's end. Ska built a new brewery in 2008. Left Hand is sculpting an expansion. And Lyon's Oskar Blues is exploding with restaurants and a brewery on the East Coast.
"Everyone here has known each other for 20 years or more. I'm asking a lot of questions," Dunn said. "There's a lot of expertise in this group."
That acumen includes a liver-calloused appreciation for beer.
"Nobody here is a slouch at drinking," said Dustin Lemoine, who heads national sales for Avery.
Adam Avery calls the crew "a bunch of brothers."
There is some sibling rivalry. No one ever rides the posh, cooler-laden sagwagon, Avery said. No one declines a cold beer. But the bond is familial. There's no business competition.
If anything, the craft brewers are allied against monoliths like SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev.
"Beer is our life," Avery said. "All our cash goes into new equipment and hiring a lot more people. I want everybody here to be successful. I want everybody who has been in the business for 20 years and put their lives on the line and put their families at risk — I want them to do well."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins