When we planned our cycle tour in Colorado we checked out the weather. It seemed to be good from mid May to mid June – warm days, cool nights and lots of sunshine. We carefully planned our route; no heroic steep mountain climbs over 12,000 feet, lots of attractive country, quiet roads and the minimum of city biking. Then we set off, hoping for the best and knowing we could make changes to suit the circumstances as we went.
We had a bad start! We flew into Denver International Airport (DIA) on the evening the area was hit with rainstorms, hail and, not too far away in the plains to the east, eighteen tornadoes! It was still pouring with rain as we set off with our laden tandem to bike six miles to the nearest hotel. We were soon soaking wet and icy cold. Then, when we arrived at the hotel, our derailleur snapped off. What else would the fates have in store for us?
The answer was some great days of biking in wonderful scenery. For two days we travelled on the edge of the plains with the Rockies a dim mass on our left. At Fort Collins we enjoyed staying in the historic and lovingly restored Edwards House. We also visited one of the many microbreweries and sampled the excellent beers. Then, believing we were ready for high altitude biking, we set of up the Cache le Poudre River valley into the Rockies. It was a Sunday and at first we had hardly any traffic as we climbed steadily up through the Ponderosa Pine, Aspen and Juniper forests. We were close to the river that chattered and bubbled as its ale brown waters hurried past us. The Sunday traffic started and the river became busy with canoes and rafts. We were passed by a group of cyclists on tour with a sag wagon and later that day shared our campsite with them.
By the middle of the second day we were climbing in earnest towards Cameron Pass bemoaning the fact that we were still not really acclimatized to the altitude. The pines and aspens disappeared and were replaced by Douglas furs and spruce. The road climbed ever upwards and suddenly the summit appeared and with it close up views of the snow-covered Rockies.
On the other side we spent two days in one of Colorado’s many high valleys where the air was crisp and clear and temperatures dropped suddenly when the sun went down. The views would have made a wonderful water colour painting: broad horizontal washes of colour: first a brilliant blue sky, then the white of snow covered peaks on every horizon, khaki coloured hills, pale green pastures and a foreground of olive and oranges patches of bare leafless bushes. Spring comes slowly at 8000 feet.
The climb out of the valley was over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs. The top of the pass, the continental divide, was still deep in snow and so putting on our jackets we biked awhile in a wintery landscape before beginning our descent straight into a heavy downpour of rain which petered out as we arrived in Steamboat Springs in another high valley. This one was much more green and lush with fat cows in damp meadows, masses of spring flowers and imitation Swiss chalets on the hillsides. At our campsite that night we met an Englishman who was waiting for the snow to melt so he could continue his long-distance hike along the length of the North American continental divide!
West of Steamboat the country slowly changed and became drier. We were now on the Western slopes of the Rockies: the beginning of the true West with its recent colonial history and special breed of people. It got hotter everyday and the smart young things, forecasting the weather on the TV every evening, pointed with glee to the vast areas on their wall maps which were coloured a lurid yellow, orange and red.
We had rain once more as we crossed into the White River valley to spend the weekend in the town of Meeker. The history of the area was vividly alive in the small town. We stayed in the turn of the century Meeker Hotel now beautifully renovated with an astonishing collection of elk racks in the lobby.
The White River museum in town was the most wonderful hodgepodge of artifacts donated by the proud residents of the area. It housed everything imaginable from period clothes to farm implements, from a mounted two-headed lamb to a dog tread mill! It was the pride of the residents who often came in to admire great grandmother’s beautiful wooden high chair stroller, which came from Germany and great grandfather’s coach from England. Standing proudly in a corner was the safe robbed by local youth after hearing the escapades of Butch Cassidy. His boasting in the local bar had fired them to make their fortunes from the local bank. They were caught!
South of Meeker on the road to Rifle we travelled through dry hillsides among small and scruffy juniper bushes. The wind blew hotter and hotter into our faces and by midday the sun was merciless. The fenced lots outside small dusty towns were full of broken down trucks and rusty farm implements and the distances between towns greater. We had a spell of biking on Interstate 70 when the frontage road petered out. The shoulder was good but the constant roar of the giant trucks wore us out. Sometimes this kind of biking cannot be avoided. As soon as we could, close to Grand Junction, we got onto the frontage road again. In this hot narrow valley the Colorado River was being utilized and all round us the cherry and peach trees were ready to be harvested by migrant Mexicans who were moving into the area.
Outside Grand Junction a brief ride on Highway 50 took us to the beginning of another one of the many Colorado scenic byways signposted with the state flower, the blue columbine. The road from Whitewater to Gateway was narrow and quiet. The exotically named Unaweep/Tabguache Byway had a tremendous variety of scenery. The climb up to the 7000 feet Unaweep Divide was in a narrow arid gorge. As we biked higher the gorge widened out and the countryside became greener, with a patchwork of smallholdings.
The road then snaked down alongside a scurrying creek to Gateway where we joined the Dolores River Canyon. It now wound with the river through the canyon cut into the red sandstone. We biked for two hours in idyllic conditions. There was no traffic, the road was flat, the air cool. We were alone among fantastically shaped red walls below a brilliant blue sky.
Then we had a puncture, and another and then, to our horror, a third. We spent three hours at the side of the road with limited shade. The sun rose higher in the sky and heat shimmered around us, draining us of energy and dehydrating us. When we finally got going again the road began to climb steadily and our water ran out! After an hour or so of biking we waved down a passing motorist for water, ate lunch and tried to rest in the meager shade of a stunted blue juniper little knowing that that small twisted tree was home to a myriad mites which the locals call ‘no seeums’. We saw and felt the results of their ferocious pin prick attacks on us for many itching days afterwards.