If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Colorado by bike, a Ride The Rockies tour may be the ticket to dreams come true. Every year over 6,000 hopefuls apply for a chance to ride and of those applicants, 2,000 are rewarded entry by lottery selection. But filling out the online info and plunking down a credit card payment in full is the easy part. Next you’ve got a few months of training to do. RTR generously provides training tips and a helpful schedule to follow, starting slowly and gradually building time in the saddle. Finally, mid-June arrives, you’re toned and trained, you’ve packed you’re gear, you’re bike is dialed in, and you’re ready for a week of riding to the sky!
Routes change each year and this year the course wound through the southern portion of Colorado while hitting all the highlights – out of the way small towns, verdant farmland, dense pine forests, shimmering aspen groves, expansive ranch land, twisting canyons, searing deserts, and of course the mammoth passes. Strung like pearls on a necklace, the towns of Alamosa, Pagosa Springs, Durango, Ouray, Ridgway, Montrose, Gunnison, and Salida stretched before us as we rode along Highways 160, 550, and 50. A portion of the entry fee proceeds is donated to each hosting community to be used for improvement projects like children’s enrichment programs, urban trail development, kid’s mountain bike skills program, expansion of recreation opportunities, mountain trail creation and maintenance, and Boys & Girls Club support.
For seven days the whole roving, cycling circus moves from town to town as each town opens it’s welcoming arms and shows off it’s western hospitality. Headquarters is usually set up at the local high school where RTR creates it’s own town within a town – gear tents, demo tents, massage tent, info tent, afternoon cycling seminars, yoga classes, entertainment/beer garden, and food trucks and/or community meals.
The community meals vary at each location when the locals treat riders to their ‘house specialties’ like country-style pork ribs, Frito pies, spaghetti with meatballs, grilled chicken, burgers, BBQ pork sandwiches, and baked potatoes. Food trucks also follow along so there is never a wait or lack of variety for hungry riders after a long day. Of course the local restaurants are also very happy to fill their tables with riders and some of the most memorable moments come from finding that out of the way, little mom and pop joint that serves the most amazing dinner like… Mutu’s in Durango (Italian), Buen Tiempo in Ouray (burritos), or Ol’ Miner Steakhouse in Gunnison (burgers).
Ride The Rockies offers full support for all riders. They provide: bus service to/from the ride from DIA and Denver, transport one bag (75lbs limit) for each rider, showers and bathrooms (local high school gyms or a shower truck), indoor camping (local high school gym), or outdoor camping (local high school football field), and secure bike corral at each location. Depending on how much adventure you want in your life and how much group activity you seek, you can choose your level of involvement in ‘the scene.’
Additionally, Sherpa Packer offers an amazing camp experience for the ride. They provide a tent, pad, sleeping bag, and towel every day. They have your tent set up upon arrival and tear it down each day. Sherpa Packer takes the hassle out of camping and makes life a lot easier.
But for those who aren’t so into to camping, RTR also partnered with Summit Cycle Solutions this year for a more personal and nearly seamless answer to accommodation and transport needs. SCS’s online order system allowed riders to select hotels, bus transport, bike transport, and daily luggage shuttle from hotel to hotel. Being a ‘veteran’ rider, I selected the SCS option – there’s just something about sleeping in a bed at the end of a long day of cycling… NOTE: if you think this option is for you, jump on it the minute registration opens. This year it sold out in 4 hours!
The Mountain Passes:
The mountain passes are the main event and probably the reason you chose this ride! (Did you know that Colorado has 78 asphalt or gravel passes? I think that would be a worthy list to conquer:) Like raising a challenging child, each pass will test your resolve and dedication in ways you can’t imagine but in the end you’ll love them all the more.
Wolf Creek Pass (10,850 ft), known as the “bear-cat” of mountain passes, was a brute and after riding a consistent uphill grade against headwind for 60 miles we finally reached the base and were ready to begin the climb! (When this road was first built it took a Model-T Ford 2 days to traverse!) Highlights were the views and the tunnel (!) but most of all the local Colorado Potato Administrative Committee hosted a baked potato bar at the top which was heavenly! The Bootjack Ranch, located at the western base of Wolf Creek, was a 3,000 acre beauty; look for the split rail fence that runs for miles along HWY 160 and you’ll know you’ve found it.
Yellowjacket Pass (7,785 ft), not as high as most but with a long, steady approach, it’s still a climb. A couple of the riders were so happy to reach the top they were swing dancing while the DJ blasted John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’
Coal Bank Pass (10,640 ft), Molas Pass (10.910 ft), and Red Mountain Pass (11,018 ft), this mighty trio plus Shalona Hill added up to a 7,800 ft day of climbing and was the biggest day of the tour. The ‘hill’ proved to be a long, steady 25 mile grind up to Purgatory Ski Resort, Coal Bank Pass was the the steepest 10 mile pitch of the day, Molas Pass was fairly quick because it was right next door and after a screaming descent we landed in the little hardscrabble mining town of Silverton.
On the top of Molas Pass we ran across a couple of cyclists from Israel who wanted to see the United States. They had flown to San Francisco, rented touring bicycles and were camping along the way. Not only were they riding across the U.S., but they also stopped to snowboard in Tahoe, gamble in Las Vegas, and were heading to Durango to mountain bike. From there, they planned to turn east and head towards Florida where their 3 month tour will end. I was pleasantly dumbfounded by their get up and go!
Every spring for the past 47 years, the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic races the historic narrow gauge train from Durango to Silverton. 100% coal-fired and steam powered, the train is powered by vintage 1923-25 locomotives and in it’s heyday hauled over $300 million in gold and silver from the San Juan mountains. The train makes the trip in 3 1/2 hours, this year’s men’s pro did it in 2h 21m and a local high school kid finished in 2h 45m. Shortly after we rode into Silverton, we heard the train whistle announcing it’s arrival – we had beat the train… but we had also started out an hour before it got underway!
The last leg from Silverton to Ouray was only 22 miles but Red Mountain Pass stood in the way and we rode through the San Juan Mountain Range and the Uncompaghre Gorge on the ‘Million Dollar Highway’ to get there. Several versions of the highway’s name origin exist such as: (1) the road cost a million dollars a mile to build, (2) the land was purchased for a million dollars, (3) the fill dirt used to build the highway contains over a million dollars worth of gold ore, or (4) a favorite (stated by a unsuspecting little old lady who had no idea what she was in for) was that she wouldn’t drive that road again in the winter for a million dollars! However the road got it’s name, the Million Dollar Highway’s sharp hairpins, steep grade, and no guardrails make it a nail biter you won’t forget!
Cerro Summit (8,042 ft) and Blue Mesa Summit (8,717 ft), not the tallest of passes but they were still notable climbs for total elevation gain of 6,700 ft. Memorable sections of this ride included ranches, canyons, and mesas ending with the crystal clear blue waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir. A tailwind from the west shot us down to Gunnison in no time for a stellar finish to the day.
Monarch Pass (11,312 ft), the final behemoth to conquer! A steady 35 mile uphill grade brought us to the little berg of Sargents at the western base of Monarch Pass. From there it was 10 miles of unrelenting 6% grade to the top. Monarch was a behemoth, plan on 1 1/2 to 2 hours to gain the summit. The mood at the top was unbridled ebullience and sheer joy – we had ridden the last of the passes and it was all downhill to the finish line!
By the end of the ride we had ridden 7 days, 450 miles, gained 32,000 ft of elevation, and seen the entire southern portion of Colorado – it was one of the best week’s of my life!