Having never set foot on US soil before my ‘American Dream’ was, for now, resigned to contemplation of high alpine single track, blooming flower meadows, and tall aspen trees. Gliding into land above the glow of downtown Denver late at night did little in the way of realising those dreams, we began to snake our way into the mountains in a tired blur of headlights and road signs.
Stumbling out of bed with the grace of a gorilla, I have no idea what the time, or even the date is for that matter… Rubbing at my eyes I am treated to a view across the EWS pits in the heart of Snowmass village. After a brief pitstop to catch up with the Yeti crew we fuel up on a breakfast burrito and get stuck into what we had travelled across the Atlantic for; the long list of bucket list worthy trails in the state of Colorado. Geared up with our local guide ‘Stucki’ we hit the road in our trusty white van companion. First stop, Fruita.
For someone that had never been to the US, let alone Colorado, I knew the Colorado river in a ridiculous amount of detail having been subject to my intense scrutiny in a geography case study back in high school. For a brief moment as I stare down onto its meanders I feel like I’m on a school field trip, before snapping to and refocusing my attention back on the red slick rock and sand rollercoaster ride through the desert. Which, coming from a very wet Scotland, is a whole other ball game. The trails roll hair-raisingly quicker than anything I’ve set my wheels upon before, an addictive feeling which causes you to go full bore. The sun is yet to really surface, casting massive shadows on the canyons and overhanging cliffs as we dance in and out of the light and dark. We begin to climb again, “this is Dead Cow Canyon” announces Stucki… I ask where the name came from, but admittedly I could probably have worked out the very literal name for myself. Thankfully, there was no sign of the animal in question. With the Kelvin beginning to spike as the sun sits higher and higher the shade of the van and the contents of its cooler begin to lure us home, not before a final Fruita fling on the aptly named ‘more fun’. One of those trails that leaves your heart racing, and you staring open mouthed back up towards the hill you’ve just left behind… Not allowing the heat soak to take hold we dive into the cool of the air conditioned van and hit the highway, Crested Butte bound.
The seed for Crested Butte had been planted in my mind for a while, I’d read about the 401 trail a while ago whilst flicking through the pages of a mtb magazine, then the town resurfaced to my attention when the EWS rolled through a few years ago. A soggy morning let us explore and enjoy the relaxed pace of the old mountain town, sampling the shops and cafes whilst allowing the trails to dry out before a hoped afternoon assault of the 401 trail. We met up with friend and Yeti ambassador Nichole, her boyfriend Matt (unconfirmed the tallest man in the world), and another Matt – a local guide who knows the hills here like the back of his hand. Setting off from the trail head, we plod along the valley floor and follow a creak before it gives way to a lake, we then ditch the forest road and hit the single track climb. By the time we exit the tree line the clouds have bubbled up, the inevitable rain drops begin to bounce off our helmets, before long we are engulfed in a deluge. Bombing through the handlebar high meadow flowers you have to trust the trail is somewhere below the streaks of yellow and purple… All the while an involuntary and unavoidable fist fight between knuckles and water saturated flower heads ensure we were soaked to the bone. We had hoped for an epic descent under a fiery sunset, but the storm had quite literally put a dampener on that… Our grins hadn’t been wider all week, quite possibly the most memorable few hours I’ve had on a bike! After a waist deep river crossing we are back at the van and turning its interior into the world’s worst laundrette before setting our compass for the warmer and drier surroundings of the ‘Secret Stash’ pizzeria in town.
Although yesterday turned into unintentional gold we were relieved to see blue skies on show over the rolling hills either side of town. On the menu today was ‘Doctor Park’, an EWS stage in years gone by and a favourite of the Colorado locals we were with, a decent pedigree to whet the appetite on! In these parts it doesn’t take long before you feel well and truly in the back country, I resist temptation to try and stick with the wheels of the residents used to the thin mountain air… my fitness is questionable at sea level let alone at altitude! Back in the flower meadows the air is clean and clear after yesterday’s rain, snow lingers in the hollows of neighbouring mountains which seem to stretch off in every direction. The gradient begins to tail off with the sound of free hubs and motionless legs signalling the start of the downhill, darting straight as an arrow we are through the meadow in next to no time, now surrounded in the depths of the towering evergreens. The smooth tacky dirt of the meadows is but a distant memory, rock and roots are strewn where ever you look. Suddenly we are in the white of an aspen grove, a surrounding that perhaps locals take little notice of, but I found the aspens and their eye like markings a pretty mesmerising place to pass through on two wheels.
Most trails have one flavour, but ‘Doctor Park’ continued to throw up fresh terrain. We now found ourselves tentatively releasing brake levers and entering what felt like warp speed as the trail became less technically challenging, but the sheer speed posed enough of a challenge – it would’ve been amazing to see the top EWS racers through here. Speaking of which, Matt pulls up and points back up to a boulder we’d all slowly rolled off. “At the EWS here Richie Rude gapped off that boulder, and landed down there between those two trees”… Our chins hit the floor in sickened astonishment as Matt’s finger points an in-comprehendible distance down the trail. Somewhat humbled, we continue down the final taste of trail; a gritty, sandy surface playground littered with rocks and lines. You go low, I go high, you go outside, I go inside… Leaving everyone in an excited raucous of shrieks, shouts and high fives. Sadly, that was the last dose of Crested Butte on our trip, a place I could spend a lot of time in exploring both the contents of its quaint streets and the trail secrets embedded in her mountains. Crested Butte, I’ll be back.
The final stop before we jumped back onto the germ tube across the ocean was another Colorado classic I’d heard plenty chatter about; the infamous ‘Monarch Crest’. The day got off to an easy start, munching up the vertical on a shuttle with the morning breeze flapping through the windows. We unload bikes and with a ‘thanks’ and thumbs up the driver leaves us to it, the idea of a point to point instead of a loop was quite refreshing. The high mountain air was on the nippy side but things quickly warmed as we settled into the climb, blue skies with cartoon like clouds drift lazily over us. I stop to take the vista in allowing Euan and Stucki to ride ahead, becoming small specks on a shoe string placed on the side of the hill. The sky and surroundings seem bigger than anywhere I’ve been before, there is no sign of human existence, and no noise apart from an occasional breeze. It’s both romantically lonely and humbling in your insignificance. The first brief section of downhill doesn’t exactly sneak up on us, but certainly slaps us in the face with how good it is. Wakey-wakey! Rolling banks and tumbling turns take us into the trees where we have to reign in our excitement and settle into the long game for the rest of the morning with nosey chipmunks keeping a watchful eye from the rocks littering the side of the trail.
The gradient allows us to make steady and consistent progress towards Poncha Springs, getting served a long and tantalising down which transferred us through various faces of Colorado; flower meadows; aspen groves; dense pines; gently flowing creaks… all with perfect ribbons of trail flowing through the heart of them. This is mountain biking in its purest and most unspoilt form. We begin to see more signs of human activity, hinting at us nearing our end destination, or so we thought. Euan and myself get over excited and try to rip each other’s legs off on the small descents and subsequent punchy climbs, Stucki the Colorado resident held back and the tourists soon understood why. After a solid 30 minutes in the red zone I was burst, slumped over the bars and looking for something to munch on that wasn’t a dry cereal bar. Slowly it began to dawn on me that we were still a fair distance from home. My dead legs scoop at the pedals as I become hangry, a deadly combination of temporary angriness brought on by severe hunger… It’s real and very dangerous! Crawling up the final climb at a snail’s pace I crest and hit the last rocky descent following the other’s tire tracks, chattering and bouncing between lines trying to find the smooth was a seemingly impossible task. My grin returns with a vengeance, dispelling any thoughts of food, for now! I rail a corner to find Euan and Stucki waiting patiently at the road ready to roll back into town. “Did you manage to untangle your dress from your chain then?” I stare back blankly, nearly humoured… Opting instead to initiate a speed tuck drag race back to the van!
We saunter into Salida and perch ourselves at a cafe by the cool of the river, restocking and refuelling in our own body weight of tacos and chilli before heading back towards Denver, allowing us one final view of this beautiful state and time to process the whirlwind week of unreal riding with great company. Colorado has a massive diversity in its trails that almost feel countries apart; travelling from the high alpine, through the stunning aspen groves and into the red of the desert uncovered a mountain bike paradise so great in depth it’s outrageous! Those high mountains have been calling me back ever since.
Photos: Ross Bell