The Dirty Roads Horizontal Logo White

While I have ridden the majority of the Colorado Route before in bits and pieces over the years dating back to my first ever bike tour in 1992, I had never attempted to ride the whole route in one go before until this year. Riding the route all at once has given me a deeper perspective on the route itself with its highs and lows, the cycles of civilization and isolation, as well as the points that are difficult to navigate and the shock of a busy highway after so many miles of solitude. I have also learned more about bicycle touring, and how little I require and even more about myself and how many days and miles I can go until I begin to require some rest.

The Route itself is going to be a work in progress. I can already see room for improvement after this first run through. I would like to eliminate as much pavement from the route as I can while still connecting all of the great dirty roads that I have discovered over the years. The remote stretches of rural pavement are okay but the highway miles need to go. There is nothing that bad about burning some miles on the side of the highway provided that it has some shoulder and maybe even some rumble strip next to you, but after experiencing the remoteness of the backcountry roads with next to no traffic on them it is a little traumatic to end up on the side of the highway with weekend traffic buzzing by endlessly.

Starting out is always hard. Preparing is relatively easy with plenty of time to make important decisions. Packing is a mere formality, taking everything that you have already decided on and putting it on the bike. Taking the bike downstairs and throwing a leg over it to roll out is a hard moment. From the time you’ve finished packing until you are underway and up to speed it is an anxious series of second guesses. It is a little like going skydiving, the parachute is packed and you are on the plane, but at some point you are going to have to step up to the open door and jump out. Once I’m under way everything goes according to plan. No last minute realizations about what I forgot, no need to stop and adjust the bike or the baggage and unlike my attempt on the Colorado Route last year my rear rack does not snap off and dump all of my stuff on the ground, so I’m off to a good start.

Ripple Creek Pass
Ready to Roll
Ripple Creek Pass
The ride up and over Ripple Creek pass is a long grueling climb but the descent down into the White River valley is fast and scenic. Right on cue it starts to rain on me and I realize that it has rained on me every time I have ridden down this road. This rain is just a light refreshing mist and doesn’t even require a rain jacket unlike the last time I rode through here and was cowering from a pounding deluge. Everything is still going according to plan until I reach the New Castle Buford road and it is closed. There is a county road worker sitting there in his truck and he tells me about the forest fire that has closed the road. I’m a little lost for a moment, I know that road so well and was looking forward to another journey along its 40 miles of smooth gravel, I knew where I was going to get water and where I was going to camp and how those 3000 ft. of climbing were going to kick my ass. I may feel a little lost, but I’m not, I know the backroads of this state as well as anyone and it’s off to Meeker and then county road 13 where eventually I pull over and lay down in the grass for the night, no shelter need, just the stars and the setting moon above me.

I wanted to get an early start in the morning but my favorite fleece hat has just enough material to pull down over my eyes in the morning when it starts to get light out and I can sleep in later when I’m out camping than I do when I’m at home. The day rolls on nicely, past the Rifle Gap reservoir, back on the Route, down though Silt, across I-70 and the Colorado river.  Climbing up out of the Grand Valley I ride through one of the impassable when wet sections that has turned me around before and just getting past that feels like an accomplishment. Before I reach the Buzzard Divide I run out of water, but since I’m climbing up into the mountains I believe there will be water somewhere along the way, but I’m wrong. When I see the sign that say Owens Creek 6 miles I feel reassured, but when I reach Owens Creek and it is just a pile of dry rocks I have a whole new perspective on my trip. After such a hot dry summer my trip is going to be as much about finding water as it is about mountains and milage. When I do find water it has a faintly bovine flavor to it and I have to cover it up with some electrolyte tablets, but I’m just happy to have it. I end up stopping early for the night just because of the spectacular creek running across the road in front of me. After a day of running dry it looks and sounds like heaven.

First Night’s Camp
Buzzard Divide
Buzzard Divide
Starting off on day three into a light rain I realize another theme for my trip is going to be my pursuit of solar power, with no other way to charge my phone or my GPS I needed to stop and pull out the panel quick whenever the sun decides to make another appearance. My first stop for the day is below a very unstable hillside, but I’m so happy to have the sun charging my GPS and warming my face that I completely ignored the occasional rocks tumbling off the hill and onto the road. The third theme for the trip made itself apparent soon as well. In addition to water and sun my trip will be ruled by my lack of time. I ride down into downtown Paonia and I really don’t have the time to stop and check it out. It has been 20+ years since I’ve been through Paonia and the place has changed a lot. There are quaint cafes, art galleries and little mom and pop businesses up and down mainstreet. When I was last through here in about 1994 it was looking a little rundown but now it looked delicious. I wanted to spend a whole day, or maybe two, just eating my way through town but I had no time to spare and kept rolling on to Crawford where I bought 8 snickers bars and bottle of Jim Beam at a convenience store called “The Desperado” while I charged my phone in a brief moment of sun.

The stretch of the Colorado route from Paonia to the Blue Mesa Reservoir is all paved.  There isn’t much traffic out on this road but it still doesn’t make me happy. I tried to find another dirtier route but right here you are squeezed in between the West Elk Wilderness and the Black Canyon. Going west of the Black Canyon means going around Delta and Montrose while going east of the West Elks takes you down into Gunnison and all of these routes have the same problem; too much pavement. I chose what I thought would be the lesser of all evils and went with Hwy. 92 which is so winding that makes people car sick and is therefore ideal for bicycle riding. It even has water you can stop and filter along the way.

When I finally got to the Blue Mesa Road and was back on the dirt again it was euphoric. It had one of my favorite signs at the start “No Winter Maintenance” and then proceeded to climb up through some sacred Ute lands and on to a high mesa where I felt much more at home than on the side of a highway. There was still another stretch of highway on my day’s agenda but I only saw about 5 cars on my 8 miles of Hwy. 149 and it was the straight up and straight down nature of the road that was wearing on me. When I got to Powderhorn it was getting late and all I needed was a little patch of public land to lie down on but it took miles to ride out of the hay meadows and old ranch houses until I reached the BLM campground on the side of the road. I usually avoid campgrounds and generally refer to them as “cramped-grounds” but with no fees and no one else staying there it was perfect. I sat down at the picnic table with Jim Beam and watched the moon set behind the ridge.

Blue Mesa Road
Los Pinos Pass
Marshall Pass
The fourth day of my tour started with dark clouds looming to my west. While I remained optimistic and thought they were heading north I also got up early to get over Los Pinos Pass before it started to rain. While I made it over the top of the pass, which has a lot of aspen trees for a pass named “the pines”, the storm caught up quick and it went from a gentle mist to full downpour before I could grab my brake levers and bring the bike to stop. From here it was off and on with the rain as I rode into the Cochetopa basin, the heavy stuff waited until I completely exposed out in the middle of basin with nothing but knee high sagebrush around, well sagebrush and a Peterbilt tow truck parked off the side of the road. I pinned myself up against its grill, which now only said “Peter”, and the hail came pounding in sideways skipping just over my head. “Thanks Pete!” I shouted over the dim. The lightning strike right next to us made me rethink my friendship with Pete who was the biggest metal object for miles around but we had come this far together so I waited until it had stopped pouring. In typical Colorado fashion 15 minutes later it was blazing sunshine and I whipped out my solar panel quicker than an old west gunslinger and I dried out almost as quickly as I had gotten wet in the first place.

After the blissful solitude of the Cochetopa Basin US Highway 50 was a little traumatic, despite the fine shoulder and the gentle tailwind I couldn’t wait to get away from the traffic and back to the dirt which is why I have earmarked this section for a reroute even if it means some rough forest road with a bunch more vertical. I have designed this route to make myself happy and I decided that Highway 50 does not make me happy. Turning off the highway at the town of Sargents the Colorado route begins climbing the historic railroad grade of Marshall Pass which definitely makes me happy. I fell in love with railroad grades during the course of this tour. The perfectly engineered slopes of the pass provide a methodical and almost meditative path up through the mountains. There is nothing too steep, no sudden dips and no sharp corners for the whole pass and knowing that much of it was dug out by hand over 100 years ago adds a sense of awe and grandeur to it all. Climbing up such a perfect grade only required two gears on my bike which I came to refer to as the fine grind, middle chainring two cogs down from the top, and the medium grind, three cogs from the top. The top cog was called the turkish grind and it didn’t work so well because of my chainline and anything below the medium grind was just a coarse grind.

I rode over the top of Marshall Pass and made camp about halfway down the other side. It was the only campsite on the whole trip that had cell service so I made the most of it, answering texts and sending pictures as well as searching for info on Salida so I could resupply the next day.

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