Ride the Rockies has announced the route for their 2017 tour, and it’s a grand one. RTR will travel 447 miles and climb 37,337 feet in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado. The route includes some of the most stunning and legendary terrain the state has to offer, including the famous Iron Horse race route, Million Dollar Highway, Wolf Creek and Monarch passes.
If I seem excited, there’s a reason for it. In the ’90s, I had heard of the Iron Horse, a short and intense ride from Durango to Silverton, paralleling the narrow gauge railroad between the towns. I have dreamt of the climbs and descents for 25 years and so I’m very excited to see the route in person.
The ride begins in the San Luis Valley in Alamosa on June 10. If you can’t wait that long, you can bypass the lottery and sign up for the eighth annual Prologue, which begins with a VIP dinner on Friday, June 9, in Taos, New Mexico. The prologue ride, the next day, takes riders south from Taos, through stunning Southwestern landscapes to Rancho de Chimayo, where participants will enjoy a massage and dinner. It also includes a lift to the start line, back in Alamosa, on Sunday, June 11. Click here for more on registering and making a donation to the Denver Post Communities Foundation.
The ride, proper, starts with registration in Alamosa, on Saturday, June 10. Alamosa is surrounded by the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains, near the border with New Mexico. It features a short rail line that takes visitors into downtown from their community center, south of town. Just to the northeast of town sits the tallest sand dunes in North America in Great Sand Dunes National Park. Show up early and spend some time exploring the contrast of the dunes against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos. If you are lucky, you may see some of the park’s wildlife, including elk and bison, at Big Spring Creek.
The first day takes riders out of the valley, west over the formidable Wolf Creek Pass. The pass climbs to 10,856 feet, and comes late in the day, at around mile 68 in the 93-mile ride. Total climbing amounts to 4,296 feet, but the pay-off is the 25-mile descent into Pagosa Springs and a dip in the natural hot springs that flow into the San Juan River. The ride came through here, in the opposite direction, in 2013, and will be a welcome stop after the long-day’s ride.
Day Two is a relatively short affair from Pagosa, deeper into the San Juan Mountains to the cycling Mecca of Durango. The route is 68 miles with 4,048 feet of climbing, spread over three bigger climbs, including Yellowjacket Pass at 7,800 feet, and a few smaller challenges. The route takes riders away from the highway at Bayfield for the last stretch through farmland outside of Durango.
Durango is home to writer, commentator, former cycling pro and all-round funny guy, Bob Roll. Roll entertained crowds during RTR’s last stop in his hometown back in 2013. He is expected to return again this year, hopefully with some of the same stories and a few new ones about his travels and experiences with the professional peloton.
Day Three is the loop day, this year. Last year’s loop was the decidedly non-relaxing, 78-mile, Copper Triangle loop. This year will be a much shorter 38.7 miles into the Southern Ute reservation with one notable climb, the 8,212 foot Hesperus Hill. It’s relatively steep, with ramps of better than seven percent, but it comes about 11 miles into the ride. The rest is a descending stair step back to Durango.
The short loop day encourages riders to enjoy a little more time in the host city. Durango, founded in 1880 to serve the San Juan mining district, is home to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and Fort Lewis College, a cycling powerhouse, in their own right. The town boasts amazing mountain biking and has been home to such legends as 1990 mountain bike world champion, Ned “The Lung” Overhand and Missy “The Missile” Giove, world champion downhill mountain biker in 1994. The town hosted the first mountain bike world championships in 1990.
Durango is also a short drive from UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde is a collection of about 600 cliff dwellings that were stumbled-upon by a pair of brothers who were searching for lost cattle in the area in the late 1880’s. While photographer William Henry Jackson had noted the existence of the cliff dwellings, and the Ute tribe of the area were certainly knowledgeable, it took the Wetherills to bring attention to Cliff Palace, and subsequently the many archeological sites of the park.
Day Four is the beast! Eighty-three miles with 7,792 feet of climbing over three passes; Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes. The day starts with the route of the Iron Horse Classic bike race, following the narrow gauge railroad north to Silverton. Riders will continue over the Million Dollar Highway, through the state’s ice-climbing capitol of Ouray, on to first-time RTR host town, Ridgeway.
Day Five continues north out of the former mining town of Ridgeway, on a mercifully short 32.4-mile, 490 feet of climbing ride to Montrose. If the legs are still fresh, riders can opt for the Governor Springs out-and-back challenge, adding 18.9 miles and 1,875 feet of climbing. It’s not mandatory, however.
Montrose is the gateway to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the backdrop to Day Six of this year’s RTR. Sheer cliffs give way to the Blue Mesa Reservoir as riders head east, 65 miles, to Gunnison. The ride will take cyclists over 6,691 feet of climbing, jammed mostly into the first half of the day. At almost exactly halfway, cyclists will be done with the serious climbs and will get a descent and a relatively gentle, rolling ascent into Gunnison.
At 7,703 feet, Gunnison has the reputation as one of the coldest towns in Colorado. The stop will be a welcome cool down on the penultimate day. Gunnison has hosted Ride the Rockies two other times in the last six years, including 2015, most recently.
The final day will seem like a visit to an old friend as RTR heads to Salida, once more. Salida hosted stops in 2013 and 2015. This year the small arts and outdoors community hosts the finale. First, however, riders must negotiate the fearsome Monarch Pass.
While Day Seven is not the longest, at just under 66 miles between Gunnison and Salida, the bulk of the climbing involves the ascent of the highest pass in this year’s ride. Monarch Pass crests at 11,320 feet at around mile 43. The pass is also the jumping-off point of the famous Monarch Crest mountain bike trail.
Salida, the final destination of this year’s Ride the Rockies, is home to white water rafting on the Upper Arkansas River, near-by hot springs and 12 of Colorado’s famous 14’ers. It is a friendly, creative, outdoorsy community and a great little town to host the final party of this year’s RTR.
This year’s Ride the Rockies also marks the beginning of a new era, as Renee Wheelock takes the helm. Renee was an intern with the organization when I met her in Gunnison in 2012. She spent four years as Community Relations Manager, and now takes the job of the tour’s director. Congratulations, Renee! If this year’s Ride the Rockies is any indicator, the tour is in good hands and I look forward to many years of great rides.
To register and find out more about this year’s Ride the Rockies, click here! You will find information about the host towns, maps of the route, information about lodging and other logistics, and information about the sponsors and supporters. I hope to see you on this year’s Ride the Rockies!