As cycling fans worldwide tune in to the USA Pro Challenge stage race each August, all eyes are on Colorado.
Fortunately, when it comes to one-of-a-kind cycling, the Centennial State has plenty to hold their interest.
“You have a huge variety of terrain and experiences,” said Dan Grunig, executive director of Bicycle Colorado, describing the sense of awe that Colorado inspires in road cyclists. Bicycle Colorado is a Denver-based nonprofit that promotes cycling across the state.
“Besides high mountain passes, we have events like Pedal the Plains that go out to Colorado’s agricultural lands. You have amazing parts of the Western Slope that are high desert. You’ve got fertile farmlands in South Park and Alamosa.”
Some of the state’s most challenging rides are on display during the USA Pro Challenge. Cyclists have climbed Vail Pass, Cottonwood Pass, Independence Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass. They’ve climbed Lefthand Canyon and Flagstaff Mountain and ridden up and over Monarch Pass – and then turned around and ridden up again.
It might look like torture to the uninitiated, but for cyclists seeing Colorado for the first time, it could be the lure they need to book a trip, said Rocky Mountain Cycling Club president Charles Henderson.
“The challenge is what draws you,” Henderson said. “It’s the tremendous challenge of our climbs.”
Of course, for every climb, there’s a descent, and watching the world’s pro cyclists whip down mountain roads at speeds cresting 70 mph adds to the sense of wonder, highlighting both the state’s natural beauty and cycling’s high-stakes appeal, Henderson said.
“If you can get your head up,” he said, “you can take a very nice look around.”
And it’s worth remembering that there’s a whole lot more out there than what’s featured in the race.
Here, we present the Seven Stages of Colorado – classic rides that provide a taste of what Colorado has to offer.
Just be ready to push.
- Length: About 19 miles one way
- Top elevation: 14,115 feet
- Overview: Perhaps the most challenging ride in Colorado.
- Begin at the tollgate, where riders pay $12 for a wristband to qualify for the punishment. The road is narrow for several miles at the start, with only a small shoulder to ride on. Riders are tested even as they dodge traffic moving along this sometimes congested route. Catch your breath at Crystal Reservoir, because the stretch near Glen Cove is taxing.
- The final 6 miles offer unreal vistas as the hope of reaching the summit begins to take shape. Prepare for rain, sleet and snow.
- How to get there: Take U.S. 24 to Cascade. The turn to the Pikes Peak Highway is at the stoplight.
- Length: 27.5 miles one way
- Top elevation: 14,130 feet
- Overview: Toughen up for the highest paved road in America.
- The trek begins in Idaho Springs with a few miles of nice warm-up. Enjoy the gentle grade because the climb – involving roughly 7,000 feet of vertical gain over more than 20 miles – begins at West Chicago Creek Campground. Compared to Pikes Peak, it’s a stiff but forgiving ride, done at a crawl. The views, beautiful throughout, turn dizzying as you approach the summit. The price is an unforgiving 5-mile push to the top in low oxygen on a bumpy, twisting section of road. This famous ride may be beyond the reach of beginners, but those who tackle it won’t soon forget it, and they’ll appreciate the lack of traffic.
- To get there: Head west from Denver on Interstate 70 to Idaho Springs and take the Mount Evans exit. Turn left, cross the bridge and a parking area is on the left.
TRAIL RIDGE ROAD (ESTES PARK ENTRANCE)
- Length: 48 miles one way
- Top elevation: 12,183 feet
- Overview: The road is smooth and the climbing is difficult on this classic ride. Watch out for traffic.
- Trail Ridge Road spans Rocky Mountain National Park from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Elk, deer, mountain goats, marmots and even moose or bear might be present. The grade tops out at 7 percent, but most of the steepest parts are above treeline, where oxygen is sparse.
- The weather may also be extreme. Afternoon storms are common, and a sunny start in Estes Park doesn’t guarantee fair skies at the finish. Seek shelter at the Alpine Visitors Center on the west side of the summit. Stretch out if you can on the long straightaways in the descent, but prepare to be frustrated by a line of RVs, buses and out-of-state cars sharing the road.
- To get there: To begin in Estes Park, take Interstate 25 north to Colorado 66 in Mead. Stay on 66 and follow signs to U.S. 36W. Pick up Trail Ridge Road – or U.S. 34 – in Estes Park.
- Length: 19 miles one way
- Top elevation: 12,095 feet
- Overview: The Pro Challenge racers have tackled Independence Pass more than once. The climb and descent will push any rider to his or her limits.
- For the fullest experience, begin in Aspen, where you’ll find a downtown parking garage in which to leave your vehicle. After a mild start, a sign marked “Difficult” heralds the challenge to come: several miles of punishing grade. When the climb relents, the road begins to narrow, and with no shoulder and no guard rail in places, cyclists should keep their focus on the road ahead. The final 3 miles are sure to sap your energy, robbing you of oxygen as you pass 11,000 feet. Expect wind and cold temperatures. Enjoy the view from the summit, because the descent will be a blur, rewarding you with speed and adrenaline for your labors.
- To get there: Pick up Colorado 63 in Aspen to traverse the pass.
VAIL PASS, FROM THE WEST
- Length: 15 miles one way
- Top elevation: 10,662
- Overview: A historic route in road cycling ridden by top pros and locals looking to boost their performance.
- Some of the biggest names in the sport have tested themselves on this daunting stretch, including five-time Tour de France champion Bernard Hinault and three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond. Riders begin on a gentle incline in the center of Vail Village. The grade picks up as you roll along beside Interstate 70 and eventually you reach a gate where the road becomes off-limits to motorized vehicles. Here you will enjoy an incredibly smooth ride thanks to a resurfacing.
- Just before the road ends, cyclists can continue their journey by joining a rec path on the right. This path is more narrow and more steep as it approaches the summit of Vail Pass. The ride down is thrilling, with the exception of a couple of hairpin turns on the rec path.
- How to get there: From Denver take Interstate 70 west to Eagle County. Take the second exit in Vail. There is a parking garage near the heart of Vail Village.
COLORADO NATIONAL MONUMENT
- Distance: 34-mile loop
- Top elevation: 6,640 feet
- Overview: An intermediate ride with advanced scenery.
- Enjoy a beautiful desert landscape on this challenging route through what National Geographic magazine has described as one of the most under-appreciated national parks in the country. Cyclists must push to get atop the rims, but once there, you will enjoy a rolling tour of eroded red rock cliffs and spires and a panoramic view of the region. This park was featured in the film “American Flyers,” a cycling cult classic starring a young Kevin Costner.
- To get there: Once you reach Grand Junction on Interstate 70, you’ll find ample parking near the park entrance on Monument Road just past Red Sands Road.
PEAK TO PEAK SCENIC AND HISTORIC BYWAY
- Distance: 55 miles one way
- Top elevation: 9,300 feet
- Overview: Colorado’s oldest scenic byway offers stunning views of the Indian Peaks and other ranges.
- Begin in Estes Park to savor views of the Indian Peaks and massive Longs Peak. The road was established in 1918, making it the oldest scenic road in the state. It packs plenty of challenge, with constant climbing and descending. Towns along the way offer plenty of opportunities for rest and refueling. The memorable ride ends in the gaming towns of Black Hawk and Central City, where you will want to arrange a shuttle to pick you up.
- To get there: From U.S. 36 in Estes Park, pick up Colorado 7 and 72 into Black Hawk and Central City.
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