I’m scratching my way up a trail, about 3000 metres above sea level. Down on the beach the air is richly stuffed with oxygen. Up here the molecules have a lot of room to rattle around in. The climb has rockgardens and roots, and steep pitches of varying length and intensity. The steady uphill gradient is not too bad, but at this elevation any extra effort results in a heartbeat I can hear in my head. The payoff is a short sit-down at the top of the mountain, something nice to eat, and a singletrack descent that is immediately on my five best rides of all time list. No argument. No dithering. Lock it in.
That was the third day in on my trip to Colorado and Utah with mates, to sample some of the trails lacing the mountains and high desert. We were on a fully supported tour, a new experience for most of us, and even this early in the adventure we were already sold on the concept.
Travel is defined by the unknown – all that figuring-out you have to do in a new environment is part of the journey. First, you research the things you want to do, then you organise all the details required to make it happen and then you cross your fingers and take that plunge into the unknown. But this trip was about riding our bikes, and the luxury of having somebody else sort out the details seemed worth the investment.
All of us are long-term mountain bikers and we all live in Rotorua – for the riding as much as anything else. We are lucky to have a great trail network on our doorstep, but the flipside of that is the risk of the local patch coming to define mountain biking for us. Some friends had taken the Singletrack Colorado Tour in 2011 and we had seen the pictures. It looked like a good way to ride something very different and a plan was hatched.
Eight of us found ourselves heading to America in late July. There should have been 10 but Leonie took a bad fall only a week before we were due to depart, and the damage to her ribs was too great to allow travel. That counted her husband Mike out as well.
Jamming in Boulder, Colorado
The trip to Denver was uneventful until we tried to board the shuttle van to Boulder. The van was big, but it had no trailer. There were eight of us plus the driver, eight bike boxes, eight large bags and assorted small bags. There was no way it was all going to fit. But the driver, who did not believe that a vehicle’s holding capacity is finite, started loading anyway. So we helped. The bikes went in, the bags went in, and then strategic loading dictated that people had to be inserted into some people- shaped spaces that would become difficult to access with the addition of more bikes. When the van was full, there were still three bike boxes, three or four bags and four people still on the sidewalk. We all thought it was a hopeless situation, that another van or at least another trip would be required. But that is not how drivers like ours do things. So bike boxes were moved, bags were rotated, people were inserted into ever tighter gaps, and with Eugene in the front nursing a large bag on his lap, and Mike, Neil and Fiona supporting a bike box on their heads, our driver was able to close all the doors at the same time.
Luckily, the drive to Boulder was only an hour. A quick kip in the van got us jet-lagged Kiwis back on an even keel. The excitement of knowing we were going to be riding some in new places in a couple of days was only tempered by the fact that we have to wait a couple of days to hit the trails.
In the land of bigger and better
When we got to Boulder, Carl and Brian collected us in an enormous van with a box trailer that swallowed all our stuff with no bother at all. Then we connected up with Nick, another guide who is also one of the Rotorua gang, and went out for the ‘getting started’ dinner. That was the first occasion we were exposed to the largesse of the American kitchen – it didn’t matter what was ordered, there was a huge pile of it on the plate. After I’d inhaled a Special Burrito I felt a bit like a boa constrictor with a freshly-swallowed rabbit on board – probably not ideal preparation for my first go at pedalling uphill in rarefied air.
After our first day on the bikes I rashly slotted the experience into my top three rides of all time. The guides looked amused. After the second day Brian asked me how I felt about my top three now we had ridden the Peaks Trail. I told him I would have to think about it. As I have already said, the third day was stellar, but by then I had expanded the list to five. A day later the whole idea of a list of top rides was looking pretty stupid.
The fourth day had three rides in one, and they could all qualify for prime billing on that list I’d just discarded. From the carpark, at 3400 metres, we climbed up to Monarch Crest in brilliant sunshine and took in views of most of North America. Narrow singletrack made long traverses high above tree line, vantage points showed forest covered mountains and bald peaks to a distant horizon. The trail would drop though rock-strewn sections into the trees then clamber out on to the ridgeline again, for mile after mile. After several hours we were caught in a violent thunderstorm. So we ate lunch in various hideouts along the trail, with hail bouncing off our helmets. The lightning was so close that Jason reckoned he could smell it.
The long descent was done in pouring rain with water running down a trail of loose rocks. After half an hour of slithering downhill, bouncing off wet stone and cannoning through standing water, we hit the Rainbow Trail. Dry and dusty, the Rainbow Trail was such a contrast it was hard to believe. This last part of the day’s journey was smooth dirt, flowing along a valley wall through aspen and pine. Every day we looked at the clear sky and rising temperatures and then hefted our substantial backpacks, jammed full of the stuff our guides had said we must bring. The warmers and base layers and jackets seemed like overkill until that day, when the mountain weather showed its teeth.
Carl has been riding these parts for more than two decades, first as a racer in the early 90s, then as a guide, and now with his own company. The schedule, the trails, the travel and the accommodation are all worked out carefully, drawing on those years of experience. The rides early on were great, but they were fairly easy by comparison with later days on the trail. The way we moved from town to town was choreographed so that the longer drives were done when we were well cooked after a big day out. The two days that had no riding planned looked positively lame when we were sitting at home looking forward to it all, but nobody was trying sneak in an extra ride when the rest days rolled around.
When mountain biking started in California, another place was giving birth to a similar activity, modified by the terrain and the type of people involved. The place was Crested Butte. Back then it was an old mining town that wanted to become a ski town. Trails that had been used for mining, and some that are probably even older, became testing grounds for the new sport, as a hard core of cross country skiers worked the kinks out of bikes to handle the dirt. We got to ride a couple of the best of those trails.
One day was taken up by a series of trails that are shared with motorised back country adventurers. Yup, dirt bikes are allowed to take in the same trails we were riding, and that is actually a good thing. The moto riders prefer going uphill, and in two huge descents the trail we followed had been sculpted through the gravelly dirt by big, soft moto tyres – smoothly rounded whoops and natural berms railed every corner. The only downside is the two-stroke fumes, which don’t go anywhere near making up for the lack of oxygen at these elevations.
Reno Trail leads to Flag, and that leads to Bear. They meet at junctions with other trails heading off into the distance, in huge country that seems to get bigger the further you venture in it. The trails are reshaped by their users, but they follow lines laid down by traditional socio- geological forces: people travelling, animals moving with the day, mining gear going in or the spoils of the work coming out. It feels like we could turn that way instead of this way, and just keep going. Deadman’s Gulch follows on. It is a mad series of hairpins, too many to count. Too many to count if you are descending on a pushbike, anyway. There must have been over 30, nobody seemed sure.
The 401 is a mountain biking standard, a legendary trail I could have sworn I rode when I made the pilgrimage to Crested Butte in 1989. I genuinely believed I did, but it must have been some other trail because we went in a different direction to get to it, and the ride was not something I could forget. Starting with a big high-altitude climb to Schofield Pass, about 600 metres above the carpark, the steep and twisty trail climbed to a huge meadow with views in all directions. I looked back down the valley, where the trail must go. It looked a long way down – and it was.
A very fast dirt trail slipped away down the side of the valley through the summer foliage. The trail finished with another stiff climb, then another long fast descent. Brian was following me and he reckoned I almost ran over a snake. I didn’t even see it.
Silverton is a little mining town in the Rockies. The town we rolled in to is more or less as it was in the 1800s. If not for the steam train that comes in from Durango every day, Silverton might be a ghost town, like so many of the places nearby, but the tourists have kept Silverton alive. Jeep tours and motorcyclists call in for refreshments, and our tour was based there for the ride down Hermosa Creek. The hotel we stayed in was straight out of a western movie, completely furnished in a style befitting its origins as a gold rush bordello.
The day out of Silverton on Hermosa Creek was mountain biking perfection: a generally downhill trail with heaps of variety, a couple of stiff climbs, plenty of opportunities for serious injury. Mike, Gregg and Eugene all tested the firmness of the dirt (by falling on it), and found it satisfactory. Coming back into the main street after a day in the saddle and staggering up the red-carpeted stairs to the creaking floorboards and polished woodwork of the upstairs parlours was about as close to the real Wild West as any of us Antipodeans is likely to get.
Slickrock friction in Moab, Utah
A drive through the long views and hard country on the way to Moab, Utah gave us a car-window snapshot of middle America. The country has incredible economic power; every second vehicle on the busy interstate freeways was a truck full of stuff going somewhere. But life looks pretty rugged for some people – little clusters of mobile homes with the evidence of years of occupation gathered around them were a common sight on the two-lane highway we took to Moab.
A green oasis in a sea of fossilised sandstone, Moab is another mining town that now digs for gold in the pockets of adventurers. Moab got its start as a mountain biking destination because of a trail nearby called Slickrock. Marked out in the 1940s by the army as a trials course for motorbikes, it loops around a plateau of rounded rock formations and covers about 12 miles – that’s just under 20 kilometres. If that doesn’t sound far, you haven’t tried riding up a slope that is steeper than a flight of stairs. Repeatedly. Following a dotted line painted straight on to the rock, riders get otherworldly views of the surrounding country while experiencing the best traction they will ever find. The stiction available made us feel like flies with wheels. Climbing or traversing is hard to believe – it seems like anything is possible as long as you have enough power and nerve. On some of the climbs, going over backwards is a possibility, and that would be bad. This is rock, really hard rock.
Case in point was Porcupine Rim, it would hard to find a better example of a place you might not come back from. A long way from help, huge exposure, very technical riding and no way to have a harmless little tumble. The last half hour to the bottom of Jackass Canyon was following natural rock ledges with dozens of places where a poor line choice could be the last one you make. Which, in the end, was what made it so good.
We finished the tour where we had started, with another big climb in the high country of Colorado, and another descent that seemed endless, but sadly was not.
After two weeks of incredible variety there was general agreement that our bikes had been up for a lot more punishment than they would usually get back home. Everybody agreed that a well-guided tour is as good as it gets. Tired to the bone and fizzing at the bung, we headed back to the New Zealand winter with eyes opened to new possibilities – the whole bike riding thing was refreshed after complete immersion in new terrain.
The crew: Mike: seriously talented rider, owner of local bike shop, coming back for a second go at the tour Gregg: president of local club, owner of local pub, connoisseur of fine grub Neil: barefoot waterskier, race kart driver, plans to build his own lake Eugene: sculptor, art teacher, downhiller, recently discovered his inner-roadie Alice: rides bikes, motos, sailboards, kiteboards, snowboards, works as a GP in her spare time Fiona: travels to go snowboarding, runs as often as she rides Jason: has been riding forever, BMX, downhill, then trail riding – he’s fast up and down Carl, Brian and Nick: guides, drivers, a photographer Gaz: your reporter.