Biking the Back Roads
by Eric Ming
Jan 16, 2012 | 6589 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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The road up to the entrance on the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
Summer is long since over. Waves of rain that pelt my windows turn to snow, and I resign myself to pulling the bikes in for a weekend of rebuilding hubs, greasy rags and missing-tool maintenance indoors. But Colorado’s four-season climate is a trickster, and here at 38 degrees north latitude, three of those seasons can exhibit themselves in 24 hours – or less. By afternoon, the skies have cleared and the pavement has dried. The next day finds me wearing cool-weather togs, riding the road to the Black Canyon’s South Rim.

Winter can seem endless to a road cyclist when the season ropes in extra days of spring and autumn, but once you pinpoint the right elevation and exposure, road cyclists can find many opportunities to stretch their winter legs. For cyclists who’ve fallen in love with thin tires and pavement, the whole world starts just down the street. While the mountain biker is storing his-or-her rig away because mud season is in full swing, the road cyclist can still take advantage of sunny, dry days – no matter what season. Here are a few of the choicest places on the Western Slope to put your tires to the pavement, even in the coldest, soggiest times of year.

Lowland Rides: West of Montrose

The farm roads of the Gunnison Valley offer predominantly flat riding. This is where pavement stair-steps quietly out from the commerce and farm-implement centers of Montrose and Olathe to meander past homes where folks sell eggs from their porches and raise hogs for 4-H competitions. Ignore the horizon line that climbs towards Grand Mesa in the north and bends around to Lone Cone in the south, and you could be in the upper Midwest. You are more likely to see American flags than Buddhist prayer flags flying from porches around here.

This is not, historically, a place where people in Lycra cycling attire have been commonplace, but a growing tribe of riders is finding these roads. The last time I was out, I saw a half-dozen cyclists, probably retirees, sharing the asphalt with diesel pickups and John Deere tractors. Drivers are more likely to be heading out to shift irrigation for hayfields or feed their horses than hurrying to work (this is their work), and, as a result, the roads have a relaxed, wandering feel. People here usually don’t mind slowing down and giving you some space when they pass; drivers and cyclists alike tend to offer the rural one- or two-finger wave, indicating complicity and some understanding of why you are here.

Riders who are accustomed to riding the Dallas Divide or Highway 550 will be surprised at the change in temperament – of both traffic and culture.

The City of Montrose has produced a Bike Routes, Parks and Trails Map of seven favorite local rides to destinations including Oak Grove School, Hoovers Corner and Pea Green Corner. The roads wind from Montrose all the way to Delta, and the map does a good job of keeping you connected to pavement and linking you back to your point of origin. This is a favored area for cool-season rides, because the elevations are lower (Montrose is 3,100 feet below Telluride), and the roads are generally snow-free.

The Montrose riding map is available online at cityofmontrose.org; copies are also available at Cascade Bicycles, one block off Main St., on 21 North Cascade Ave. For more information about this type of riding and what it feels like (you can find similar roads around Hotchkiss, Cedaredge, western Grand Junction and Fruita), check out a DeLorme map or a Colorado Gazeteer for a good overview of these routes.

Upland Rides: Black Canyon South and Black Canyon North

These are two of the finest rides in a state filled with superlative cycling.

The Black Canyon South Rim route starts at the intersection of Highway 347 and Highway 50, seven miles east of Montrose. This venerable circuit has two approaches. The first starts at the corner park, immediately left after turning onto Highway 347 (at 6,580 feet, picnic tables and bathroom included). The advantage of taking this route is that it offers 5.5 extra miles of climbing up to the entrance of the National Park. The other approach skips the initial climb and starts on the rim (8,385 feet; park at the pullouts just past the entrance station).

Either way, along the top are 14 rolling round-trip miles that tag seven overlooks along the edge. The viewing arcs across a 2,000-foot drop and over to the canyon’s North Chasm View and Painted Walls. Even though it’s a canyon, the impression it leaves is more of a cleft-in-the-earth. Instead of a Grand Canyon-like expanse, your eyes are quickly pulled down deep, past pegmatite and quartz monzonite, straight to the river. With so many shocking views, this is a road that invites dallying, and you’ll likely find other cyclists puttering along, as well.

Riders who start at the bottom will climb through a mixture of farm country and south-facing piñon and juniper, with, barring a strong wind or cloud cover, a good chance of warmer riding. The beauty of this road is that it dead-ends in the National Park (access fees apply), which helps keep speedy through-drivers away (plus, folks visiting National Parks are likely to be respectful of cyclists).

There is an elective bonus section to this ride: the East Portal Road that turns right at the park entrance. The route entices you along for a mile or so, then drops with a vengeance down to the Gunnison River. The return offers a sinew-snapping 16 percent grade, if you decide your body and drive-train can make it back up. (One measure of how tough this climb is: Tour de France commentators describe mere 11 percent climbs in the Pyrenees as “difficult.”) It is worth doing a trial drop of a hundred yards and riding back up before committing to a full descent to the East Portal. As a point of reference, neither the summit road to 14,240-foot Mt. Evans, nor 12,126-foot Cottonwood Pass (one of the high points of this year’s USA Pro Cycling event) ever approaches the 16 percent gradient. This is an often-ignored, 15-mile round-trip extension of the South Rim ride.

Colorado Highway 92, on the North Rim of the Black Canyon, delivers pavement with a forgotten manifest destiny. Unlike the South Rim, this is a through-route (to Crawford), yet it’s so twisty and slow, it’s reminiscent of an Old World road in, say, Scotland or northern Italy. Both Highway 92 and its cousin on the South Rim are roads with Taoist intentions: They don’t force angles, but rather choose to follow the earth’s contour as it rises and falls through tangled scrub oak and aspen, in what writer Peter Shelton has described as “the monastery of pure landscape.”

From the west end of Blue Mesa Reservoir, Highway 92 branches off from Highway 50 and begins a long, slow ascent along the toe of the West Elk Mountains, climbing from a low of 7,400 feet in the east to 9,100 feet at Hermit’s Rest. With the water of the Gunnison Basin 2,000 feet below and the cracked teeth of the Wetterhorn Group hitting 14,000 feet on the southern horizon, you get a feeling of being suspended between chasm and sky.

The ride can be traveled as a whole from Blue Mesa Dam to Crawford (42 miles one way), but I prefer riding select sections, starting from Hermit’s Rest, or at the lower Blue Mesa Dam Overlook. Hardcore riders and through-cyclists may scoff at cherry-picking the best chunks of road for an out-and-back ride, but it does maximize the best riding with the expenditure of time, as well as reduce organizational problems like car shuttles and overloaded schedules, leaving riders free, in short, to chart their own top ride. For those who prefer to pedal the distance, the out-and-back from either the Dam Overlook or Hermit’s Rest is 34 miles, with a gain-and-loss total of 2,700 feet.

As John Jackson wrote in A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time, roads “become for many the last resort for privacy and solitude,” to such a degree that roads today “no longer merely lead to places, they are places.”

In the spirit of Jackson, or of John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, that chance of having a sense of the road as place and privacy is often greatest when you are out there alone. Although Steinbeck cheated: he brought a poodle.

If You Go

The Black Canyon National Park (www.nps.gov/blca) has a PDF map on its website that shows the South Rim Road and East Portal with overlooks, Visitor Center, campground, etc.

Also useful: the interactive website mapmyride.com, which allows you to create your own routes, and shows distances and elevations in whatever configuration you desire, so you can know in advance what kind of effort each ride requires. This is a good place to search riding routes in different regions throughout the country. For example, if you are visiting San Francisco, and want to get ideas for local cycling before you arrive, this website is invaluable.

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