Words: Mary Dishman
Photos: Adrian Marcoux
Trails are the basis of everything in mountain biking. They’re the arteries that flow life into every ride. They’re the blank canvas, the empty sheet. They’re the beginning, middle and end of every mountain bike story.
Whether beaten into submission by machines, carefully sculpted with blistered hands and simple tools, or worn into being by centuries of animal traffic, each trail is as varied as the people who ride it. The trail’s story changes with each passing rider — every one of them having their own distinct perspective and definition of speed, space, time, adventure, danger and awesome — and each is another “One of Many.”
The following is one in a collection of short stories from three different trips to three different trails. If presented as simple trail beta, these pieces might detail the dirt — and a turn here, a climb there, a drop after that. But seen through the eyes of each of these riders, these stories represent unique experiences — one of many stories that happen each day.
You are one of many. What is your story?
Every June, my trail map emerges from winter hibernation and finds its way back onto the coffee table, where it will live until the snow starts to fall again. And each time I unfold the accordion and focus in on the trip I’m planning, I start getting antsy. It has been three seasons since I last pedaled in these parts on the map, and my patience for snow melting has run out.
The San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado are a rugged, stunning and very high mountain range that is heavily concentrated in minerals. One hundred and fifty years ago, these mountains separated the booming mining metropolises of Telluride, Silverton, Ouray and Durango. Today we are able to access and ride in the San Juans because of the old mining infrastructure. The trails that used to connect these towns, which were simply carved into the sides of the mountains, are now popular scenic roads that take you deep into the backcountry. The old mule and horse paths have transformed into the most perfectly pitched, 18-inch-wide flowy singletrack that fluently contours the topography.
The trail that attracts the most mountain bikers to the San Juans is, without a doubt, the Colorado Trail. Completed in 1987, and connecting Denver to Durango, the Colorado Trail is 486 miles long and passes through eight mountain ranges. This long-distance trail provides easy access to miles and miles of some of the country’s best alpine singletrack.
I’ve lived in Durango for more than 10 years now and have found that the CT running through the San Juans to Durango acts as our highway, an artery that breathes seemingly unlimited riding possibilities into the area. When I say “highway” I literally mean high way. The CT winds through the region at elevations of between 11,000 and 12,500 feet above sea level for about 60 miles on a ribbon of singletrack that you can usually see for days in front of you. Our tree line is around 11,800 feet, so you might imagine the high alpine panoramic landscape.
Cascading off this main artery into the adjacent drainages below are dozens of trails that act as the veins in this equation. There is a lifetime’s worth of riding in this mountain range alone. But the window we get every year is short — three months, maybe. When it’s time, you motivate.
The cycling community in Durango is filled with a passion and history I have yet to see anywhere else. Among all the sport’s old legends is a mix of younger pros ranging from XC to Enduro riders. The local youth mountain bike development program, called Durango Devo, has grown from just 8 participants to over 700 in just 10 years. The program even offers a pushbike group that has more than 50 little munchkins per school year. The Explorers group is comprised of about 40 mini “Magellans” who tackle multiple-day bike-packing trips each spring, summer and fall. And alongside all of the kids and pros riding around town, there is a plethora of locals that just get after it.
Riding around on the local town trails with friends is always a hoot, but I feel there is something about riding in the high mountains that strengthens friendships. It could be the task at hand: It’s not always fun to pedal uphill for hours at a time, or to get caught in a lightning storm. Sometimes a little suffering can get the best of you, but your buddy’s contrasting attitude — and a bit of humor — can really pull you through. It could also be the dirt. The dirt you find in and around the Colorado Trail is some of the best I’ve pedaled on. It’s the icing on the cake. It makes those high-fives sting. Quality rides makes quality friends.
This summer, I had the chance to take some fine Canadian folks on some of the most quality riding I have ever found. I was a little scared, at first, because of the unusually wet spring and unknown trail conditions. I was feeling the pressure to show them our best rides because they were coming from the mountain bike meccas of Whistler and Squamish.
After scheming for endless hours with the map, I came up with a three-day itinerary. But there was still a problem with the plan: I had no idea exactly how much snow and debris we would find. The local consensus was that there would be a blanket of snow covering the trail. But the temperatures were rising rapidly and, as I mentioned earlier, my snow-melting patience was gone.
Downed trees, high creek-crossings and snow were to be expected in the early season obstacle course. The drifts and other snowy patches not only added a remarkable contrast to the scenery, they also gave us an awareness of our presence in this rugged vastness. Raging waterfalls now cascading off cliffs will be mere trickles by late summer, baby skunk cabbage that will soon be taller than your handlebars and the spastic, curious, chirping marmots that were just waking up: It all added to the vitality these mountains emanate.
Every June, the first big high-country ride brings me a boost of energy and ear-to-ear smiles, because it rekindles my passion for mountainous adventure. We were all feeling the electric mountain buzz as we pedaled in, around and through this main-artery trail, laying down fresh tracks in the dirt and snow.
We gathered, about ready to start a descent off the artery, dropping into one of its mind-melting veins. The anticipation was killing me. You could stare at this trail all day long on the map and understand that it drops down a steep ridgeline. You can see that it descends 2,500 feet in just under 4 miles. And I could talk about the most perfect aspen grove the trail winds through till I’m blue in the face. But to experience it again, with friends, and watch their expressions as they began to understand what I had been talking about, and showing them on the map, was like being there for first time all over again. Maybe even better.
Sometimes you just have to go to know.
More in this series: One Of Many – Della Creek Dog Fighting