Adventures in life and photography out West

Change in the Canyon

Estes Park sits just on the cusp of a potentially great summer. The economy is finally picking up. While gas prices are rising, it is because people are finally traveling again. Estes Park will see its usual influx of visitors looking for outdoor adventure, and the town will host a world-class professional bicycle race. Estes Park is a destination for people who not just want to get out of their homes, but want to get outside. This is especially true for road cyclists.

 Every year, hundreds, if not thousands of cyclists test themselves on the roads leading into Estes Park, and none more than the Big Thompson Canyon. It is such a popular and iconic climb that it is part of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge this August. The pros will enjoy a rolling road closure, but the average weekend road warrior has a bit more to worry about in the canyon. Something should be done to make the climb safer.

 While cyclists can often match motorists’ speed descending the sinuous road, climbing out of Loveland presents a precarious ride. A pro can maintain 15 miles an hour, which is still very slow by motorist standards. The canyon also has quite a few tight and blind curves, making both cyclists as well as motorists nervous. Some of this will change, just by law, but there are some things that could be done sooner, rather than later.

 Laws passed in this last legislative session require anytime a road is reconstructed, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists must be taken into account. This often means adding shoulders. This is evident in the bridge reconstruction between Estes Park and Drake, where a wide shoulder was added to the bridge. In the long run, the canyon will be safer to ride, by law. In much of the rest of the canyon, however, at the moment, there may still be tight spots.

 “Seventy-four to seventy-six percent of Colorado highways now have shoulders,” reports Dan Grunig, Executive Director of Bicycle Colorado, the state’s leading bicycling advocacy group. “The mountains and foothills are mostly where we’re missing that.”

 In the short term, there are some simple things state and local officials could do to make this corridor safer. To start, roads like US 34 tend to be 24 feet wide, from the white fog line on one side to the other. Grunig points out that this is a pretty wide travel lane. Signage could be placed on the sharp curves warning motorists to keep alert to cyclists. Next, the fog line on the uphill side could be moved inward about two feet, giving cyclists a wider shoulder on the slower side. Finally, chevrons and a cyclist symbol should be painted on the motorist lane, again on the uphill side, to also remind the drivers of the cyclists on the road. The slight narrowing of lanes will also cause drivers to take the curves a bit more slowly, keeping them in their lanes.

 Estes Park is right on the verge of becoming a major destination for cycling tourists. With our climbs, our scenery, restaurants and family-friendly focus, not to mention the upcoming world-wide exposure from the road race. If pressure can be applied to local and state transportation officials, the Big Thompson Canyon and its communities, Drake, Glen Haven, Loveland and Estes Park, can enjoy more cycling traffic. And with the bikes come their billfolds. It would be safer for drivers, safer for cyclists and invite more revenue to Estes Park. 

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