Bicycle tours through Colorado
By Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan
I was only about five miles away from Maybell when the headwind blew in. The day had been challenging from the start—a 5 a.m. wake-up call, quads unaccustomed to pedaling up and down western Colorado’s bumpy topography—but overall, I was pleasantly surprised at how well things were going. It was my first bike ride of any distance, and I was still on pace to meet my goal of finishing the 30-mile trip within two hours. The early summer air was invigorating, the fields dotted with sage and antelope—altogether, a lovely morning. Until that damn wind.
It blew me to an almost-complete halt. Teeth clenched, legs straining, I pumped the pedals on my roommate’s borrowed hybrid bike with hilarious slowness. Other cyclists—the ones wearing jerseys and actual bike shorts—whizzed by me. Cows raised their heads to watch my struggle with amusement in their eyes. But still I rode. The clock was ticking, and anyway, there was a pancake breakfast waiting for me in Maybell.
This was the annual “Where the Hell is Maybell?” ride, the beloved Moffat County event that draws both bumbling amateurs(like me) and serious cyclists in droves. Yawning, we gathered at the starting line in western Craig just as the sun was rising; the whistle blew, and off we went through the scrubby, wide-open landscape. It didn’t take long to notice how different everything looked along the highway. Instead of whizzing along Route 40 with tunnel-vision eyes trained on my destination, I was seeing— and feeling—every bump in the landscape. Even gasping up and over the biggest of the rolling hills was amazing.
The wind put a damper on things, I’ll admit. But as frustrating as it was, I was still having too much fun to stop. Finding a slow but regular rhythm, I forced myself to spin forward. The tiny town of Maybell appeared ahead—and was that the sweet, sweet scent of maple syrup in the air? Suddenly, I was there. I’d done it—conquered a stretch of highway that had until today only been a route from point A to point B. But the bike had changed all that. I finally knew Route 40 (well, 30 miles of it), and it was strikingly beautiful.
But enough with the musings. I hopped off of the bike, my legs strangely strong, and followed my growling stomach over to the pancake booth. Small pods of cyclists were already spread all over the grass, shoveling down big bites and grinning. I knew I was smiling to match. What a day.
Pancakes, sagebrush, and rolling hills sound appealing? Taste it yourself at this year’s “Where the Hell is Maybell?” ride in May. Visit ci.craig.co.us
Trail Ridge Road
Just another reason to thank your lucky stars you live in Colorado—above and beyond the stunning mountain vistas, world-class skiing, and potent microbrews, we’ve got one of the country’s most amazing—and difficult—road rides. This 50-mile epic from Estes Park up the U.S.’s highest continuous paved road and back down delivers unbelievable views of Rocky Mountain National Park’s dramatic peaks and elk-packed valleys. “Basically, it feels like you are biking to the top of the world,” says Mark Harrison, assistant map editor for Bicycling.com.
There are several options to access the mighty Trail Ridge, but taking US 34 to Fall River Road is just as scenic, provides the best warm-up for the climb ahead, and is much less crowded (warning: This is a popular weekend ride!). Enter the park at the Fall River Visitor Center, then wind through the glacially carved valley of Horseshoe Park. “Even in the height of the season, you can feel as if you have the park to yourself,” Harrison notes. Turn right at Deer Ridge Junction to officially join Trail Ridge Road.
Keep pushing until you break above treeline, where you’ll be treated to a panorama of peaks in every direction. You’ll enjoy a downhill roll to Iceberg Pass, but climb again to the road’s gasp-inducing high point at just over 12,000 feet. From there, head to the Alpine Visitor Center—where you can grab a snack, stretch your legs, and soak in the one-of-a-kind views of snowy mountaintops and steeply plunging valleys of Colorado’s premier park. But don’t get too comfortable: You’ve still got a stretch of roller-coaster road to conquer on the way back. Take Trail Ridge the entire way back to town, breathing deeply and enjoying the descent—you’ve just earned one hell of a cycling merit badge.
Not quite ready for such an intense trip? Try cycling the 9 easy-to-moderate miles to Bear Lake on Bear Lake Road (pick it up just past the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center and the main park entrance). With just about 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this roll through more classic Rocky Mountain scenery is great for beginners.
OUT YOU GO
Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park
Start Estes Park
Turnaround Alpine Visitor Center
Mileage 25, one-way
Elevation change 6,628 feet
Best post-ride refreshment Estes Park is stuffed with touristy burger joints and fudge shops—but in-the-know locals skip it and head 20 miles southwest to Oskar Blues in Lyons, where you’ll find some of the state’s best beers, southern-style fuel (think jambalaya and catfish) and live blues(oskarblues.com).
Tip Make sure to slip some cash into your shorts: Cyclists pay a (discounted)
$10 entry fee to the park.
Ask someone who’s never visited the state to picture a classic Colorado peak, and chances are good he’ll conjure images of the Maroon Bells. The jagged, knifeedge fourteeners are among the most famous—and most photographed—of all Colorado’s mountains. Sure, you can check them out by catching a bus from Aspen up to Maroon Lake—or you could earn your postcard view with the grueling 9-mile climb up Maroon Creek Road. “It’s a challenge; you’d better be in shape,” notes Mike Wampler, owner of Aspen Velo. “But the reward of doing the ride is absolutely fabulous.”
From Aspen High School, you’ll stretch your legs on a mellow 1-mile section before the burn truly begins. Head southwest, passing one of Colorado’s last working ranches, before beginning a steady 4 percent graded climb on the narrow, two-lane road. Maroon Lake is a very popular destination in the summer months, but the road remains closed to most vehicles from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., making for a pleasant ride. You’ll glimpse Loge and Highland Peaks on the way up and gasp for air on the last, steep 1.5-mile stretch. But an oh-my-God view awaits at the top: the twin Bells, framed perfectly in Maroon’s icy waters. Park your bike, stroll around the lake, and take plenty of photos for your album back home: This is one of Colorado’s most celebrated views, after all. Turn around and head back to Aspen, enjoying the descent. “Part of the reward for all the pain and suffering going uphill is the downhill,” says Wampler.
Stop in town for a well-deserved burger and brew, then rest up: The next day holds another classic Aspen climb on Castle Creek Road. The 13-mile ride isn’t as relentlessly quad-burning as yesterday’s spin, though it’s still challenging—but a gourmet lunch at the Pine Creek Cookhouse is your payoff at the top.
Prefer a more relaxing ride? Starting from Aspen Velo on Mill Street, hop on the town’s off-street bike path and cycle 6 easy miles to Woody’s Tavern for a bite.
OUT YOU GO
Maroon Creek Road, White River National Forest
Start Aspen High School parking lot
Turnaround Maroon Lake
Mileage 9, one-way
Elevation change 1,500 feet
Best post-ride refreshment Riders who buy a drink at the Sky Hotel can take a dip in the pool for a refreshing treat (theskyhotel.com). Best overnighting Stay downtown without breaking the bank at the Tyrolean Lodge (tyroleanlodge.com), or pitch a tent at Silver Bar, Silver Bell, or Silver Queen campgrounds along Maroon Creek Road ($10 vehicle pass required).
Tip Be prepared for cold weather above 8,000 feet, advises Wampler. Always pack knee warmers and lightweight gloves, even in the summer—and make sure you have plenty of water and snacks.
Grand Junction to Crested Butte
With 15 years of experience planning cycling routes across the state, the folks behind the annual Bicycle Tour of Colorado know their stuff—so trust their judgment, and sample a highlights reel of this year’s ride. The real tour runs from June 21-27, but you can enjoy the diverse route anytime: You’ll go from red-rock scenery to verdant fields to the classic peaks of Crested Butte on this moderate 154-mile pedal.
Day one is an easy 61-mile spin from Grand Junction to Montrose. Kick it all off by following US 50 southwest along the Gunnison River; total gain is just over 1,100 feet.
Not hardcore enough for you? Start the day with some serious quad-pumping action along Rim Rock Drive at Colorado National Monument, a difficult 30-mile loop that delivers killer vistas of classic Western Slope canyons.
On day two, stay on US 50 for the moderate 65-mile ride to Gunnison, passing meadows and rolling, sage-covered hills along the way. Today’s high point—literally—begins 9 miles in, when the road tilts up for a brisk 4-mile climb to 7,950-foot Cerro Summit. Drink in the panorama, then zoom down through the mellow towns of Cimarron, Pleasant Valley, and Sapinero. At mile 32, start climbing past aspen groves to lovely Blue Mesa Reservoir—the highlight of the ride, according to Kent Powell, director of the tour. Finish with a lovely stretch into Gunnison (the 2009 tour pushes all the way to the Butte in
one day, for what it’s worth).
The final day holds 28 easy miles of gentle hill riding on CO 135 up to Crested Butte. But you don’t have to leave the saddle just yet—you’ve just landed in one of Colorado’s mountain bike meccas. Rent some fat tires at The Alpineer or Flatiron Sports and hit the town’s excellent singletrack—or just toast your accomplishment at The Bacchanale. Who knows? Maybe next time you’ll be rocking the entire 7-day 2010 tour.
OUT YOU GO
Mini-Bicycle Tour of Colorado
Start Grand Junction
End Crested Butte
Mileage 154 one-way
Elevation change Day 1: 1,168 feet; Day 2: 1,900 feet; Day 3: 1,100 feet
Best post-ride refreshment Locals love the Firebrand Delicatessen in Gunnison for a custom sandwich, and Crested Butte’s best burger can be found at the Gas Cafe.
Best overnighting If you’ve got the juice to head a bit farther north from Gunnison, pitch a tent along the Taylor River at the North Bank Campground (www.fs.fed.us/r2/gmug).
Tip The must-have item, according to tour director Powell? “Rain gear. Cyclists don’t plan for rain,” he notes.
This article originally appeared in Spring 2009 Issue (1002) of Trail & Timberline.