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Colorado

Last summer, Rapha took three riders on a ten day road trip to explore the best of the state's cycling, from the iconic Independence Pass to hidden gems on the far side of the Rockies.

17 January 2019

With an average elevation of just under 7,000 feet – over two thousand metres for those more au fait with the metric system – Colorado is the highest state of all. Even its lowest point, on the border with Kansas, is more than a kilometre above sea level. Even if the mountain scenery is not immediately apparent, the altitude is.

Of our three riders, former professional racer and Boulder resident Gus Morton is most accustomed to the altitude. “You definitely notice it to begin with, but over time the body acclimatises,” he says while preparing his bike ahead of our first ride.

He is joined by Idahoan Gus Engelhardt and Sami Sauri, a fixed gear crit racer and ‘sea leveller’ from Barcelona who needs more convincing about the body’s ability to adapt to altitude. “I’m feeling it a little even when I climb the stairs,” she notes.

Denver

A fortnight of riding began in the state capital, Denver, where many visitors expect to be greeted by a typical high altitude scene – it is nicknamed the Mile High City after all. The vast, flat expanses of surrounding grassland may come as a surprise but don’t be fooled, even a casual spin around the city’s historic centre can seem a little more tiring than it should.

If the altitude takes a little getting used to here, cyclists will immediately feel at home on Denver’s comprehensive network of traffic-free cycling trails. “Exploring the heart of the city around Grand Union station is a much calmer experience than most European cities,” says Sauri, “you can tell cycling is a priority here.”

Denver’s proximity to some spectacular riding is uncommon for a city of its size, as the organisers of the revamped Colorado Classic race were keen to emphasise. As well as a circuit race around the city centre, the 2018 edition of the race featured an undulating stage that started and finished in Denver but took in the striking red rock canyons of the Rocky Mountains’ Front Range.

Beyond the foothills, the towering peaks and sprawling pine forests for which Colorado is known are not far away. Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Denver, Boulder is situated on the topographical border line between the endless flat of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains proper. A hub for many top endurance athletes, it was a natural first stop on our trip

Boulder

Boasting an almost limitless choice of routes, the town proved to be the perfect place for our trio to find their climbing legs. “The advantage of riding here is the variety,” says Engelhardt. “A single loop can take in iconic climbs like Flagstaff Road and completely flat stretches mixing asphalt with hard-packed dirt sections.”

The city’s proximity to the mountains also means that riding spectacular routes – free from traffic – does not require retreating into the mountain wilderness. The town’s main thoroughfare, Pearl Street, is bordered by cafes that are perfect for a pre-ride coffee and several bike shops ready to assist should you have a mechanical issue. In the evening, the town’s lively central district offers plenty of options for dinner to replace the calories burned on your ride. The scene of a secluded training camp this town is not.

Though Boulder may be Colorado’s best known destination among cyclists, some of the state’s winter resorts, transformed in the summer months, are equally deserving of a cyclist’s attentions. With over a week to explore the state, we would visit a further three towns in search of the best roads Colorado has to offer.

Vail

Better known among skiers for its myriad trails and world class back-bowls, Vail is increasingly a hit with cyclists during the summer months. Our visit to the town was perfectly timed, coinciding with Colorado Classic race, whose second stage saw riders tackle a time trial course that climbed steadily out of town and up Vail Pass. A classic route used on previous editions of the race as far back as the 1980s, the course showcased the area’s high alpine scenery and its network of dedicated bike trails.

Before the race, we rode the course, which finished part way up Vail Pass, then continued to the top on a great little trail before descending to join the fans who had assembled either side of the road. “Riding the race course ahead of the pros was really cool, but it was the dedicated bike trails I enjoyed most,” Sami recalls. “They are much narrower than roads so you really get a feeling of speed, but it’s also safe and traffic-free.”

Aspen

After taking inspiration from the professionals, we continued westward and onto another town more famous for powder snow than pedal strokes. Aspen shares many things in common with Vail, but has a more European feel. In the place of American football fields, there are rugby pitches. The standard road intersections are replaced, here and there, with roundabouts. The town is comparable to the cycling meccas dotted throughout the Alps and Pyrenees of France with several long climbs within a ten-minute ride from the centre. One ascent stands out among the rest however.

Independence Pass is a climb deserving of its iconic status. It straddles the Continental Divide, reaches a lung-busting altitude of nearly 3700 metres and is over 25 kilometres in length. An average gradient of only 4% may seem benign but, given that the climb starts at 2500 metres above sea level, cyclists are wise to pace their effort.

The pass is also steeped in cycling history. The last time Gus rode it was on a stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which frequently included the climb. “It was much nicer this time around,” he jokes. “Independence is too long and too high to race up really. If you go too hard on to rolling lower slopes out of Aspen, you may well run out of steam on the steeper sections near the summit. You’re much better off just drinking in the scenery.”

Climbing the pass in the early evening sun we were treated to spectacular views of Mount Shimer across the valley, interrupted intermittently by darker, enclosed sections of road as deciduous woodland gives way to pine forest at higher elevations. Around five kilometres from the top, we passed the tree line and continued to climb into an altogether harsher, more open environment. Up here, only small shrubs can grow so it’s surprising to find the ruins of the Independence ghost town, a gold mining outpost abandoned in 1912. “The upper slopes of Independence are beautiful,” says Gus, “but you also get the sense that it’s not a place to mess around in – I can’t believe people used to live up here.”

For those looking for a more relaxed route out of Aspen, the neighbouring climb to Maroon Bells is the pick of the bunch. Much shorter in length at 17 kilometres, the route quickly whisks you away from town and into a national forest reserve on a silky smooth road surface. For less effort, the climb delivers you to one of the most photographed views in the country: the bright blue of Crater Lake, framed beautifully against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Maroon Bells range.

Grand Junction

From iconic climbs in Aspen, the final leg of the Colorado road trip took us to a monument. Not a man made one but rather a natural wonder, the Colorado National Monument is formed of sheer-walled canyons that rise suddenly above high desert plateau around the city of Grand Junction. Over millennia, wind and water have cut deep, red-rock canyons through the high plateau, forming towering monoliths of stone and impossibly balanced rock formations. Though we’ve travelled westwards for only three hours, the landscape feels a world away from the high alpine environments of the Rockies. We have entered the American West.

Happily for visitors on two wheels, the best way to see this unique landscape is via the twists and turns of Rim Rock Drive. A short ride from the suburbs of Grand Junction, the road climbs high above the desert plotting a route designed purely to showcase the landscape at its finest. “That was my favourite thing about the National Monument”, Sami recalls, “the road exists only to allow people to experience the canyon landscape.” Spectacular scenery aside, keen-eyed riders might also catch a glimpse of rare bighorn sheep or a soaring eagle. After twenty minutes of gradual climbing the road flattens out and tracks the constantly curving cliff edge. Eventually the road descends again to form an amazing 60 kilometre loop and a fitting conclusion to a tour of our own private Colorado.

Routes to Ride in Colorado

FLAGSTAFF ROAD


Mix it with the professionals on a 95km loop, taking in Boulder’s most popular climb and some gravel sections, before grabbing a well earned coffee at Rapha Boulder. See what’s going on at our Clubhouse on Pearl Street.

Download the GPX Route

INDEPENDENCE PASS


A 70 kilometre ride that takes you up an iconic climb to the Continental Divide and back.

Download the GPX Route

COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT

 

Ride a road built purely to showcase one of the most spectacular landscapes in the American West on this 72-kilometre loop.

Download the GPX Route

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