Chris has been grinding a lot of ledges on his big-wheeled fixed gear murder machine. I sure do miss t-shirts and dry ground in the wintertime...
Like any journey to glimpse enlightenment, this ride would not be easy. But we didn’t know that yet. Zippety-Do-Dah is a relatively short section of trail - only about 6 miles - so we thought that we’d add another section called Chutes and Ladders to stretch the ride out a bit. We climbed the gravel 18 Road up to the top of Chutes and Ladders, hooked a right, and got ready for what we thought would be a nice little descent. Most of what we received was super-technical descending on steep sidecuts and down rutted ridgesides all the way to the wash at the bottom,
Then back up on loose, abrupt climbs that had both of us pushing our bikes.
After we got down from the steeper slopes right at the foot of the cliffs, we got into some fun, smooth, rolling desert terrain with swooping lines of nicely hardpacked trail that we could really whiz down.
We made it back to the trailhead mostly unscathed, with lactic acid already eating our legs, and slightly humbled by the difficulty of the trail we just finished. But, we had come for Zippety-do-dah, and we weren’t done yet.
To get to the top of the trail, we had to climb back up to the high point of the trail area in order to descend back down Zippety. With our legs already tenderized by the viciously steep uphills on Chutes, we decided to take the “easy” way up and climb the doubletrack on the western edge of the trail area rather than climb up a section of windy singletrack. The climb wasn’t too painful, and we made the traverse across to the top of Zippety-do-dah, where we were greeted by a small wooden sign staked into the sandy ground with two black diamonds on it. “Advanced Experts ONLY,” read the warning printed on the sign. A little antsy, we rolled in. We soon found ourselves on the edge of the knife, on the top of a ridgeline so narrow that there was barely room for the trail, with sides so steep and loose that there was no way for even the most tenacious scrubby plant to cling to the slope.
The trail tread itself was fairly smooth with only the occasional loose rock, but the consequences of any misstep would be dire. After this point, there is no photographic record of the trail. I was in survival mode. Making sure my tires stayed on track was more important than snapping pictures. “Don’t look at it, look at the trail, look where you want to go,” I told myself. I had to keep reminding myself not to look off into the distance at the expanse of desert while riding the humped ridgetops, but all distractions were wiped away when the trail pointed downward. “Holy crap, is it too steep? Just a straight shot, you’ve got it. No turning back now, way too fast to stop, are my brake pads going to melt? Oh god, BUMP! Phew, made it. Lean back, here comes the bottom…” The speed and steepness of the drop-ins left my heart in my throat and it landed with a thud in my gut on the tight transitions at the bottom.
My arms were shaking with adrenaline and fatigue as I rolled the last few giant piles of desert to the trailhead. India navigated some of the trail, but the steep descents were a little too much and she was forced to walk her bike, which she later admitted may have been harder than actually riding on slopes that steep. She trooped on, held it together and made it back to the trailhead with no major hurts. In hindsight, she was probably the smart one. There were at least three times during the course of those six miles where I really thought that if I screwed up, lost focus for even a second, my life would have been on the line. It was awesome. I'm not sure if I glimpsed enlightenment or not, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, but an experience mountain biker with some nerve and confidence on steep slopes would love this trail.
We made it back to the trailhead and up the gravel road to our car and campsite and made dinner.
We were also treated to a beautiful double desert rainbow after a few sprinkles of rain.
I had never seen a rainbow inside a rainbow before and we sat and watched as its colors faded in and out of focus. The sun set soon after, and we crawled into our tent for a good night’s sleep.
So, off down the 18 Road and to the trailhead we went. We found the place without any trouble, out in the desert past the edge of town where the roads turned to dirt. There was plenty of camping right at the trailhead, so we parked the car, pulled the bikes off the roof, laid our plans for the ride, ate a quick bite and made ready to hit the trail.
and picked up the singletrack paralleling hwy 135, then picked up Brush Creek road. The road soon turned to dirt, but didn’t climb to the sky as steeply as Gothic had yesterday. We followed this road all the way up the side of Strand Hill until it turned into a jeep trail,
then split off on a steep, downhill piece of singletrack to a creek crossing. We shouldered our bikes and forded the shin-deep, freezing cold water to reach the trail on the other side.
We descended the Strand Hill Bonus trail for about 3 miles, through a tricky little rock section,
And down to the bottom of the Strand Hill trail itself. The hilltop at the crest of this trail was supposed to have a nice view of the surrounding mountains, and we would have climbed straight up it. Fortunately, we ran into a fellow rider at the bottom who advised us to continue on the Bonus trail and take a left on a forest doubletrack rather than ride up Strand. We heeded his advice, and even though the doubletrack turned out to be a mile-long slog over baseball-sized rolling rocks that my beat-to-death legs just couldn’t handle, the descent of Strand Hill was one of the best downhills I have ever ridden and was worth every second of suffering on the climb. Strand was fast, smooth, with naturally bermed corners formed of perfect hardpack, punctuated with occasional rooty sections or rock drops to keep you on your toes. The trail tightened up near the bottom, threw in a couple of quick switchbacks in between pump bumps and point-and-shoot rock sections where all you could do was point it straight, feather the brakes and hope for the best. Great fun. From the bottom of Strand Hill, we cruised ever downward on the Canal trail, a smooth, easy section that humped up and down over the hillside rollers on the way back down to the dirt road, and home. This ride was a good 2 hours shorter than our 5-hour day on 401, but didn’t allow for much of a recovery.
Back in Crested Butte, we were ready for another late lunch/early dinner and walked to Teocalli Tamale for Mexican food and Margaritas. After a pitcher of margs, an enchilada plate for India and some delicious fish tacos for me, we cruised the strip in search of postcards, and found some good ones at the Crested Butte Mountain Museum and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. We decided to save the $3 entry fee into the museum for another trip, but came away with some good postcards. We walked down to the dirt jumps to see if anyone was riding. I really wanted to see someone airing out the big doubles on their BMX or mountain bike. The jumps were empty, but we had a good chunk of daylight left so we trekked back across town to the hotel and grabbed our bikes and lowered our saddles for a little session on the pump track. It didn’t take too long before our legs and lungs were howling for mercy, and by then the sun was starting to set. I aired out the jumps one last time for the crew of local kids that showed up, then we rolled back to the hotel for some well-deserved rest before our drive the next morning.
and the mythical singletrack to come, it would have seemed like pointless suffering. It was only a sense of pride that kept me from pushing my bike up some of the steeper sections. This brutal leg-smasher of a climb would take us from downtown Crested Butte at about 8,800 feet all the way up to Schofield Pass at about 10,100 feet.
We paused at the top for snacks and water, and chatted with a group of sightseers who had driven their truck to the top. While we rested, another group of riders rolled to the top of the pass, a crew of about eight from someplace in the Midwest, many of who were gearing up for the Leadville 100 on Saturday.
If you’re not familiar with Leadville, it’s a small town in Colorado that hosts an annual 100 mile mountain bike race with a something like 12,000 feet of climbing. It’s a brutal endurance event dominated by Dave Weins, a former pro mountain bike racer who is “retired” from racing, but has won Leadville for the last 6 years running. Floyd Landis tried to beat him and failed. Lance Armstrong tried to beat him and failed. Weins sets the bar ridiculously high, but the race is open to anybody crazy enough to register and fast enough to finish under the time cutoff.
Basically, these guys from the Midwest who just hit the top of Schofield pass with us were some grade-A mountain bike maniacs. We let them go ahead to start up the first section of trail, figuring that they would be much faster than us up the final climb to the very top of the 401. We started up not long after, and found that we had some sadistically steep singletrack to climb before the real reward for our efforts. I didn’t have much juice left in the legs to climb with anyway, but any chance I would have had to clear some of the steeper sections was foiled by the stragglers off the back of the Midwestern group. It’s pretty much impossible to stay on the bike when you’ve only got one gear and you’re stuck behind someone spinning up the steep stuff in the granny. I’m not saying I would have been able to ride all the way to the top, but it would have been nice to have a shot at it. Oh well, maybe on another trip… After a little over a mile of climbing, we finally topped out at the high point of the 401. Our Midwestern friends were stopping here to eat lunch, and we were still pretty well fueled from our stop at the top of the pass, so we downed a little water, posed for a picture,
and started down the swooping lines of dirt laid out across the hillsides. What a ride! There were a couple of tricky technical sections, some tight switchbacks and steep drop-offs to the side, but most of the next 5 miles was fast, smooth, rip-roaring trail through the wildflower-covered mountainsides.
We finally hit the low point of the 401 at a small creek where we paused for a breather. We splashed the dust off our faces with the icy cold water; a welcome relief from the unfiltered mountain sun and thin, dry air and headed back down the trail.
We wound around creek level for a while, then began a series of short ups-and-downs to get us around the corner of the mountain and back to the road. We were both already nearing the point of exhaustion, and had little left in the tank for climbing. Pride and determination were simply not enough to keep me on the bike for some of these climbs. It was then that I realized that my bike has two speeds: riding speed and walking speed. Walking speed turns out to be about the same as granny-gear speed, but without the pride and sense of accomplishment of being able to ride up the steepest sections of trail. As much as I love my Ol’ Burly Surly, a bike with about 5 inches of suspension travel and a whole bunch of gears might be in my future… We survived the final sections of trail and found our way back to Gothic Road and our final descent back into town. Just before we hit the ski town of Mount Crested Butte, we caught back up with our Midwestern friends who had passed us on the final uphill sections of trail. Most of them were going down the Snodgrass trail to add another few miles of singletrack. With almost 30 miles of riding already behind us, we thought that pizza and beer sounded like a better plan, so off down the road we went. On the way back into town on the bike path, I noticed some smaller bumps off to the side of the city dirt-jump park and decided to investigate. We found a nicely packed pump track of tight berms and 12-18 inch high rollers, almost like a concrete skatepark for mountain bikes. I pumped the humps for a few minutes, but didn’t have much energy left for playing. Maybe tomorrow…
We got back to the room thoroughly whipped, showered our tired bodies off, and made for the umbrella-shaded patio of the Brick Oven pizzeria. With pints and slices in our bellies, we were feeling pretty good. We wandered around downtown for a while, watched the people go by on their cruisers and marveled at the wonder and greatness of this place, this tiny mountain town that might just be the best place in the world if you love to ride trails. Before long, we shuffled back to the room to rest our tired bodies for a while before turning in for the night.