There are two trail systems in the foothills above Boulder that make me smile more than riding anywhere else in the area. These are not the popular trails that everyone else crowds onto on evenings and weekends. They’re not the buff, fast singletrack trails most folks enjoy. And they’re certainly not places you want to find yourself when your legs are tired. Here’s a glimpse at one of these areas.
Boulder is known for harboring its fair share of athletes with elitist attitudes, residents who don’t want to share their hiking trails with anyone other than fellow hikers, and city officials that repeatedly give the mountain biking community very little consideration in planning decisions. But as soon as I ride up into the foothills to these particular trails, that’s all out of my mind. These trails are official, showing up on every National Forest map, but I seldom see any other bike tracks.
However, there’s often plenty of activity in this area, whether it’s guys shooting at targets like World War III is beginning tomorrow, motos blasting uphill through a cloud of dust, jeepers trying to avoid destroying the undersides of their machines, the dog man taking his herd of twenty canines for a hike, or the cheerful woman collecting spent shell casings from the shooting range. Unlike other local trails, everyone here is friendly and doing what they love to do. Everyone smiles, moves over (or stops shooting) when others want to pass by, and asks, “How’s it going?” with a sincere curiosity. Although this all makes for a pleasant experience, it’s the riding that brings me back week after week.
I spend plenty of hours in the saddle training and racing on dirt roads and fast trails, but some days I succumb to the urge of challenging my technical skills and the influence of gravity. Climbing 1800 feet in two miles is never easy, but when almost every single pedal stroke also involves struggling to find traction, you don’t have time to think about anything other than the next ten feet of the climb. Such intense focus completely clears my mind. Sometimes I race up, getting in a solid 33-minute near-anaerobic effort. Other times I pedal up as leisurely as possible, taking lines I might not attempt if sped was the primary goal.
The view from the summit takes in the Flatirons to the south, the expansive plains to the east, and a rugged, fire-scarred canyon to the north. I usually spend a few minutes here, recovering, watching the tiny cars crawl along the skinny highways far below, eating a snack, and depending on my ambitions for the trip back down, put on some pads. Then I drop my saddle, soften up the suspension, take a deep breath, and let the wheels begin rolling through the soft gravel.
When I moved from Wisconsin to Colorado, my descending skills were utterly unimpressive. Everything frightened me. Rock drops meant it was time to walk, loose rocks put me on edge, and I’d overheat my brakes far more often than I’d like to admit. Riding these descents has changed all that, and now I relish this sort of riding. Like on the climb up, tires continuously search for traction, and the 3” of travel on my Spearfish tries in vain to tame the roughest sections on which a downhill bike would be far more suitable. I grin while banking off a rock wall along the edge of the trail before letting my bike launch unimpeded off a lip to clear the next section of shark’s teeth. The trail drops out of sight ahead of me, so I shift my weight as far back as it goes and let the tires dance through the steep, loose rubble. Suddenly my front wheel is jolted sideways and I’m sent soaring through the air, wondering how far I’ll make it before I crash to the ground. Oops. After grinding to a stop, I glance back and instinctively put up my hands to catch my bike as it comes tumbling down toward me. Deep breath. Everything still moves. No pain. Oh, wait, there’s a little. I lift my shoulder off a cactus and climb to my feet. Dang prickly pear. I chuckle at my lousy line choice, point my bike back downhill, and quickly settle back into my rhythm.
After what feels like an eternity of descending, I find myself back at the bottom with burning arms and a disappointment that the trail has once again come to an end. I reluctantly take off the pads, raise my saddle, and begin the ride back home to pull all the cactus spines out of my shoulder.