Much like the swallows of Capistrano or the Monarchs of Pacific Grove, I’ve been migrating between California and Colorado during the summer months for the better part of the past 25 years. I wasn’t following seasonal or mating patterns but rather the bike racing circuit, specifically the NORBA series, which in the early 2000s was in the waning days of its former glory. Those years of car travel nurtured an appreciation and love for the Rocky Mountain landscape. And now it’s work that’s taken me to Leadville, CO for Lifetime’s Leadville Trail 100 MTB for the past ten years. Like John Denver said in his famous song, Rocky Mountain High, “He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below; He saw everything as far as you can see.” If you know Leadville, CO, which sits at 10,152 ft., then you know that while it’s short on oxygen, it’s big on other-worldly views, which are just one of the many reasons I’ve been flocking here for work for the past decade.
My migratory path to Colorado over the years has traced a very similar route, following the faster Hwy 80, but in the last seven or so years I’ve veered from my usual trajectory and taken the Loneliest Highway in America, Hwy 50. I pick up the route, which originates in Sacramento, in Fallon, NV, and within miles I’m lost in the high desert beauty of the western edge of the Great Basin. Maybe it’s because I have gypsy genes and an affinity for van living, but I feel at home on the road, even when it’s the “loneliest” highway in America. If you have a hankering for adventure this route has got them. From forgotten ghost towns to Great Basin National Park and Shoe Tree to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the Hwy 50 corridor is a gold mine (pun intended) of adventure opportunities. It’s also the route of the short lived, and ill fated, Pony Express, so it’s very fitting that I chose to hop on my carbon steed just outside Ely to explore some scenic gravel roads that lead to Belmont Mill, one of the more intact ghost towns that dot the Central Nevada landscape. After my ride I saddled up and pointed my van eastward, pushing well into the UT desert on my way to Leadville, CO.
I came up the more scenic Hwy 24 out of Minturn, CO, gaining over two thousand vertical in the approach, and was shocked by a rather large home development on the edge of Leadville, a clear signal that this sleepy, gritty little mining town that time forgot has been officially discovered, again. The days leading up to the main event were spent setting up the expo booth, orchestrating a Salty the Yeti scavenger hunt, working the booth, and joining a shakeout ride. It was warmer at the top of the world than I remember from past years and while there were fewer daily monsoons, we did get a few magical sunsets where, as John Denver said, “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”
Sun's out at Yuri's Columbine "aid station." Good vibes for all!
While I have never done the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, I have been on course for the past eight years supporting riders at the base of the infamous Columbine climb with an oasis of hydration, high fives, snacks, shouts of encouragement, pushes, heckling, cold sodas; you name it, I’ve doled it out at this same spot. I admire the tenacity and grit of the racers, so it fills me with tremendous satisfaction to know that I’ve helped some folks in some way over the years which has, hopefully, led them to a good day on the bike. After my day at the base of Columbine, I hustled back to the GU house with all the booth gear, unloaded it, and packed my van for the trip up to Steamboat, CO, to get a taste of their “Champagne” gravel.
In just its third year, SBT GRVL, hosted in beautiful Steamboat, CO, once again raised the bar on event production, this year investing in being more inclusive by adding non-binary and paracyclist categories. Like the race directors of Unbound and Gravel Worlds, Amy Charity of SBT GRVL also really invested in attracting more female riders and more than 1,000 came to ride. In the lead up to the main event on Sunday, SBT had rides that celebrated women, trans, and non-binary riders, as well as a ride for racial justice. I can tell you that I saw more shapes, sizes, genders, and colors than I can remember at a gravel event.
Speaking of rides, here are a few ways you could describe me when I crossed the finish line some nine hours after departing on Sunday: nuked, shelled, cratered, imploded, destroyed, cooked, dehydrated, knackered. Call it what you will, but the SBT GRVL Black course exacted a pound of flesh from me; however, considering I’m coming back from a broken leg, I was really proud of this finish. While no land speed records were set, no PRs had, and my effort wasn’t pretty at times, I was able to pedal the 142-mile course without any leg pain and for that I was really thankful. After a nine-hour effort on the bike that had left me in a deep caloric hole and a bit dehydrated, driving home was more of a challenge than I remember, so I only made it a few hours before I pulled over for the evening at a rest stop in Rifle, CO.
In keeping with my migratory traditions, and because I’m a creature of habit, I returned via Hwy 50 except this time I made a stop in Salina, UT, at The Hot Spot, a burger and shake shack that’s a favorite with the locals. After sucking down a strawberry shake, I pushed into Central Nevada and spent the night at a remote hot spring just outside Austin, NV. I went to bed under an inky sky filled with twinkling, bright stars while being serenaded by braying wild donkeys. After a surprisingly good breakfast the next morning in Fallon, NV, I put my head down and pushed it home, landing in Petaluma just in time to take my wife out to dinner, the perfect conclusion to a ten-day trip in the Rocky Mountains.