Our route took us up out of town on the city bike path, a paved greenway type trail that took us about 3 miles up to the ski resort village of Mount Crested Butte and onto the lower slopes of the mountain itself. Even this relatively short, mild climb had our lungs working overtime to milk every bit of oxygen from the thin mountain air. Once we reached the ski town, we turned off the bike path onto a residential street that soon turned to dirt as it traversed the mountainside, then dead ended with a sliver of dusty trail the only way forward.
“This is our trail,” I said.
“Okay, let me get some water,” India said. We drank some water, ate some Shot Bloks and got ready to drop in for the first little descent. I rolled in first, down a short downhill with some loose rocks, into a an aspen grove, and heard a thud and a yell. I stopped, heard some moans from behind me, and quickly turned my bike around to find India tangled up in her bike off the downhill side of the trail. I helped her up and got her free from the bike, and asked her what happened. It was the classic mountain bike crash where you look directly at the obstacle (in this case, a rock in the middle of the trail) you want to avoid, and rather than neatly skirting around it, you plow directly into it. The rock bounce, combined with heavy front wheel braking and a soft outer edge of the sidecut trail, wound up pitching her over the side. A little shaken up, but undaunted, she duster herself off, took stock of her scrapes and bruises, and continued down the trail.
Sadly, we forgot to bring the camera along on this ride so we don’t have any pictures of our first ride in the real mountains, and I know that I don’t have the talent to do justice to the beauty of this place with words, so just use your imagination. The mountains all around look just like the towering slopes of the Alps that we see every July in the Tour de France, and the dusty dirt roads generate instant flashbacks to the tour of the 20’s and 30’s when dirt roads were more the rule than exception. However, even those hard-nosed tough-as-nails bike racers would have been horrified by the idea of riding their skinny-tired road bikes down this rocky and technical trail across the contours of Mount Crested Butte, through aspen groves, alpine meadows, and up and down steep slopes. It was a humbling ride for both of us. While surrouned by so much absolutely beautiful scenery that it is nearly impossible to keep your eyes on the trail ahead, these trails were also incredibly challenging. There wasn’t a great deal of sustained climbing on the Upper and Upper Upper trails, but even the short little grunts up rock and root strewn steeps were leaving me breathless. We took a little bit of a shortcut down the Whetstone Vista trail, a quick set of switchbacks that dropped us just southeast of town. After a quick jaunt on the road and down a little singletrack paralleling the highway back to Crested Butte, we were back in town, hungry and ready for a cold beer.
We stopped at ACME Liquor on the way into town and picked up some cans of Dale’s delicious Rocky Mountain Pale Ale (probably the best canned beer ever) and eagerly cracked it open when we got back to our room. We had a beer, showered off, and made for the hotel kitchen to make some spaghetti for dinner. We ate hungrily and discussed riding plans for the next two days. All we really knew was that Trailriders Trail #401 was a mandatory stage in our tour of Crested Butte. This is the slice of singletrack that put Crested Butte's star on the map of the Mountain Bike world, and is perennially listed as one of the best trails in North America. This is the trail that all other trails in the Rockies are measured against, the trail that lowlanders like ourselves can only dream about as we ride the Blue Ridge and Appalachians. As if all the hype and legend surrounding this trail wasn’t enough, all Greg (aka Giggles, former co-worker at Sunshine and everyone’s favorite Belgian bike mechanic) had to say when he found out we were going to Crested Butte was, “you’ve gotta ride the 401.” After some deliberation, we concluded that tomorrow was the day to take a stab at it, before we got too many more hard miles of Rocky Mountain climbing in our legs. We fell asleep quickly in the comfortable bed at the Elk Mountain Lodge, hoping for a good night’s sleep to fuel the big day ahead.