The West Elk Bicycle Classic showcases remote parts of the Rocky Mountains and treats riders to a nostalgic ride through Colorado history where the past lives of miners, ranchers and pioneers have transformed into a timeless lifestyle rare to many of the riders who traveled from Colorado’s populated Front Range cities such as Denver. At every turn and climb a “different” Colorado greeted us, unveiling a rich history giving way to modern prosperity and vibrancy sprinkled with doses of past isolation, tranquility and even desolation.
The West Elk Classic brings a timeless Colorado into full focus beginning with the end in Crested Butte, a storied mining town turned ski resort. I was immediately struck by its genuine charm with so many old buildings and homes seemingly unfazed by the 20th Century. Crested Butte is nestled in a Cul-de-sac of mountains feeding the Taylor River heading 28 miles south to the race start in Gunnison. The topography of the West Elk Bike Classic speaks for itself with 134 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing, but the map doesn’t tell the story of what makes this ride the best one I’ve ever done.
I had just ridden through the fruit orchards of the Palisade Valley eating peaches picked from a nearby tree at a rest stop in Paonia, when a scene unfolded that summed up the West Elk Bicycle Classic for me. A boy with a fishing rod over one shoulder and two trout half his size slung over his other, was walking his dog along the highway heading toward Kebler pass. As I was anticipating the final 30 miles of the day and a bit nervous about the dirt road climbing some 4,000 feet, he seemed to not have a care in the world. He was from a time long passed to us visiting city folks; a time when little boys fished the rivers and walked to their homes in small coal towns like Somerset that I had just passed through. I was riding in his movie of life, merely a spectator to the simplicity and hardship treasured by all and experienced by few. Here I was, on a space age bike wearing synthetic materials armed with computers that so contrasted my surroundings that it was simply a beautiful moment.
This lifestyle permeated the enthusiastic staff greeting us at every pit stop. The West Elk Classic is not a race but it’s timed. Some riders make it race and others like me, soaked it in and tried to absorb the energy and spirit of all that rode and those places we passed through.
The ride simply offers a chance to experience anything and everything any road cyclists can appreciate. It begins with a gunshot and a mass exit from the Western State Colorado University campus. The group shapes into an impressive Peloton that picks up speed heading west on Highway 50 to the Blue Mesa Reservoir. I felt like a rookie as a bump ejected my water bottle causing me to leave the protective confines of the peloton to retrieve it. 200 cyclists quickly faded from sight and I realized just how powerful the slipstream of a large peloton is as it took substantial effort to catch up.
The Peloton splintered about 10 miles in and for the rest of the ride small groups or solo cyclists rode some of the most spectacular and diverse routes that could possibly exist in Colorado. From the high mesa’s overlooking the black canyon of the Gunnison to the orchards and coal mining towns in the Palisade Valley capped off by an amazing climb through the state’s largest Aspen grove, each turn of the road and climb of a hill treated the riders to a unique Colorado experience and landscape. To finish, climbing Kebler pass, a mostly dirt road canopied in Aspen and rolling into one of the most picturesque towns in Colorado, Crested Butte, ended the day perfectly.
There is not one reason why this ride felt so epic. The ride itself challenged all. The support was amazing, not because of the tootsie rolls and freshly picked fruit and icy cold cokes that I so much enjoyed, but the energetic staff really made it fun.
By starting all together and knowing some riders were there to “get a time” and compete, made the atmosphere a little more edgy and electric, but it certainly didn’t make a compelling enough case for all to find the work, many simply let the vigor of the West Elk Loop find them as they enjoyed a day of riding.
The star of the show for me was Crested Butte and its authentic charm that gives away a storied and colorful past as a tough nosed mining town turned rustic but modern ski town. It spoke to the ride and riders and mirrored the flavor and uniqueness that I believe this ride tries to encompass.
The West Elk Bicycle Classic offers a true escape from the typical century ride offered in the front range of Colorado. It’s virtually free of car traffic and the tranquility of this remote area simply allowed me to let go of time and ride with my heart and not a care in the world.