Colorado Border-to-Border Tour

July 25 - August 1, 1999

Mountain passes, continental divides, and state borders all invite a crossing, and the Colorado HeartCycle Border-to-Border Tour responded with an eight-day, 1200-mile loop through the heart of Colorado, flanked by slices of New Mexico and Wyoming. Our group of nine cyclists and two support crew covered distances of 99 to 183 miles per day at elevations of 5000 to 12000 ft and sampled a colorful panorama of alpine ridges, mountain parks, abandoned mines, black-walled canyons, and sagebrush mesas. Drama was enhanced by a bicycle-seeking "monsoonal disturbance" that dogged our route, engulfing the climbs ahead and closing the roads behind us.

Our volunteer sag drivers, Jim Corbitt and Irv Sether deserve special thanks for working dawn-to-dusk days, staking out memorable lunch spots, and shepherding weary cyclists through the rain. Our tour leader, Vernon Smith, claimed that he volunteered to lead the ride because he "wanted to do the route, but didn't want to do it alone." He is gratefully commended for an excellent choice of route and for constructing elevation profiles that don't show all the hills, a ploy that may have bolstered participation, but resulted in the unmapped details becoming known rather unaffectionately as "Vern Hills."

117 miles, 8632 ft climbing

Into Thin Air (Loveland to Winter Park)

An early morning escape from Loveland wastes no time in testing our aptitude for long climbs and high altitude. After a "Climb to Safety" up Thompson Canyon, site of a disastrous 1976 flood, we bypass the town of Estes Park on the invigorating Devil's Gulch climb and enter the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. Trail Ridge Road claims top honors as the "highest continuous paved road in the conterminous United States", and from the high point at 12,183 ft, the remainder of our route lies below us. Threatening storm clouds chase us over Iceberg Pass, across the Continental Divide at Milner Pass, down the headwaters of the Colorado River, and up into the ski resort town of Winter Park. Arrival coincides with the first claps of thunder and televising of the emotional final laps on the Champs-Elysees. "You can do things you thought were impossible...."

131 miles, 8355 ft

Ridin' High (Winter Park to Buena Vista)

We head south and straddle the Continental Divide, climbing to over 11,000 ft on Berthoud, Loveland, and Fremont Passes. The Colorado mountain goats in our group claim their domain in the high country, though the California and Minnesota contingents put up a good chase. "Nice easy grades you have here." A comment about the lazy switchbacks sparks a debate on the merits, ranking, and appropriate gear ratios for Colorado vs. California hills.

"In Colorado, we keep our passes open all winter -- they're graded for snow removal." "Well, in California we like to do double-digit grades straight up the slope and can go from nearly sea level to over 9000 ft!"

"Harrumph...we live at 9000 ft and train above that!" Clouds that have been cumulating throughout the day finally catch all but the fastest moving targets on the descent to Buena Vista. I finish the day splashing through the moat around the motel and stomping triumphantly through the mud puddles in the parking lot.

175 miles, 4449 ft

Enchantment (Buena Vista to Chama, New Mexico)

"The telephone poles are disappearing like those perspective drawings you do in third grade." The pavement stretches out before our paceline, mileposts tick by, and passing semis shrink to pinpoints on the horizon.

After a warm-up climb over Poncha Pass, we are heading south through the ever-widening San Luis Valley on the longest, flattest, straightest road I've ever been on. The heat-seeking thunderstorms lock in on us early today. At Antonito we hole up in a nearly deserted market until a "sucker hole" lures us out for the big climb of the day, up 10,000-ft La Manga Pass. Aspens line the river course, wildflowers color the roadside, cows and cabins dot the green pastures in a pastoral scene is reminiscent of Switzerland. We wind up the day with three crossings: the Continental Divide, the historic Antonito-to-Chama railroad, and our first state border into New Mexico.

183 miles, 7465 ft

Bonanza (Chama to Ouray)

"You're doing our route today, plus our route tomorrow, plus fifty miles!"

Near Durango, we meet up with another HeartCycle tour, undertaking a much more sane and sensible ride. I'm envious. We're only 110 miles into our 183-mile day and still face three major mountain passes. There's no time for prospecting in the colorful bonanza mining towns of the San Juan Mountains. Heat, shoulderless highway, and the roaring traffic of Durango sap fluid and energy. I pedal ever more slowly past the aptly named Purgatory ski area and over the first two passes. It's getting late, Red Mountain Pass is gray with clouds, and the highway to Ouray is blocked by a slide. After a chilly descent into Silverton, I declare it a day. Three hardy riders in our group make it over the final pass, and I'm disappointed to miss one of the most spectacular climbs of the route. Sagging spirits are revived by a take-out meal of hot coffee, burritos, and funnel cake, eagerly consumed while waiting for value-added slide removal on the Million Dollar Highway.

177 miles, 9718 ft

Castles in the Air (Ouray to Redstone)

I wake up feeling like a train wreck on the narrow-gauge railroad, but decline the "short-mileage option" and soon get on track with a fast paceline down to Montrose. We swing around the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and begin a long sprawling climb up to Hermit's Rest at over 9000 ft, gaining spectacular views of the grand mesas of western Colorado. We sneak around the mesa rim, hoping to elude the thunderstorms that today seem more intent on distant peaks, or perhaps another cycle tour. An exhilarating 30-mile descent drops us nearly 4000 ft to the farmlands of Hotchkiss. We escape the oppressive heat with a gentle climb up the north fork of the Gunnison, past the coal-mining town of Somerset, and over the ever-receding summit of McClure Pass. Red sandstone sentinels guard the secluded community of Redstone and usher us to the magnificent historic Redstone Inn.

99 miles, 2155 ft

Then Sings My Soul (Redstone to Meeker)

Today is the official Rest Day, and we look forward to easy pedaling, doing laundry, cleaning bikes, and leisurely dining. "I see the stars, I hear the roaring thunder..." The ever-attentive thunderstorms compensate for yesterday's reprieve by letting loose with a real downpour on the only climb of the day. Water streams down glasses, wheels spray a rooster tail of grit, passing vehicles slosh road debris at our legs. We're pedaling fast to keep warm, singing theatrically to buoy the spirits, energized by the exposure. On cresting the hill, desolate plateaus stretch out under dispersing clouds, and the distant rumble of thunder echoes a movement from the Grand Canyon Suite. Pungent sage spices the air. Everything is clear now, focused, connected. Life is reduced to the simple elements of rain, rocks, refrains, and riding. I feel as if we've tunneled through to the other side. The storm sputters out as we approach Meeker. There's still time for laundry, cleaning bikes, and a group pizza dinner.

144 miles, 4997 ft

Roamin' Wyoming (Meeker to Encampment, Wyoming)

Waking to a cool, overcast morning, we digest a nine-mile climb over Nine Mile Gap and roll through ranch country to Craig, a town stocked with saddles, boots, Levis, and buck knives. Forty miles further north, a cowboy astride a bucking bronco welcomes us to kick across the border into Wyoming. At Baggs we turn east towards the Medicine Bow Mountains and climb from desert sage at 6000 ft to subalpine meadow at nearly 10,000 ft.

On crossing the Continental Divide at Battle Pass, we enjoy vistas of alpine lakes, mountain meadows, and distant ridges. Most welcome, though, is the triangular yellow sign warning "7% for the next 6 miles, trucks use low gears." We click into high gear for the fast descent to Encampment.

"First time I can remember having a fire in the fireplace on July 31st."

Glenn presides over the hunting-lodge-turned-B & B that we take over for the night. Trophy mammal heads peer down on weary cyclists sprawled in front of the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, Carnacs drying on the hearth. The falling temperature and wafts of barbecue stoke our appetites for a hearty home-cooked meal of meat, potatoes, beans, salad, bread, and fruit. Real food is a welcome reprieve from the sandwich, cookie, and power-energy-hammer-goo diet of the last seven days. We sleep like overstuffed buffalo.

176 miles, 3283 ft

Ghost Riders (Encampment to Loveland)

Dawn is a chilly 44 degrees. Weary riders struggle out of bed to a cowboy's breakfast of pancakes, sausage, omelet, fruit, and coffee. Apparently last night's dinner hasn't seriously curbed our appetites.

We roll east out of Encampment through the sparsely populated ranches. Ground fog settles in the valleys, lending a ghostly edge to the sage-studded pastures. I'm absent-mindedly humming, "Home, home on the range, where the deer and the...ANTELOPE!" On my right, a pronghorn materializes out of the mist, racing along the road. Pegasus, my bike, takes up the downhill chase. We eye antelope, antelope eyes us, we're spinning out, he's bounding through the sagebrush, looking for a break. Winding up for the final sprint, he darts across the road in front of us and disappears into the fog, hooves raised in victory salute.

We rather unceremoniously cross the border into Colorado. The final climb on our itinerary is a gentle and scenic one through moose country up to Cameron Pass. Headwinds buffet the descent, and crazy weekend traffic inspires a detour from the busy highway through the scenic hills of Masonville. We savor the final miles of the trip -- an invigorating climb, a rushing stream, a view of the eastern plains. No big sprint for the Loveland city limits, the last border to be crossed. In coming full circle, the end of this epic adventure doesn't quite meet the beginning, as we've crossed more than geographical boundaries and inscribed more than the trace of our route. I'm looking forward to the next tangent.


Colorado HeartCycle is a non-profit volunteer organization originally formed to promote cycling as a means towards cardiovascular health and well-being. They have 600 members nationwide and lead reasonably priced supported tours throughout the United States and in select locations overseas.