The Highs (and Lows) of Colorado Mountain Biking - Page 2

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A couple hundred feet from our start on Marble's FR315 Road, the reason for the route’s acclaim became obvious. A temperate breeze off the Crystal River kept us cool as we wound our way down a road littered with softball-sized rocks, through ghost towns and pine forests, past cascading springs, and finally onto the flat, alpine expanses of the Devil’s Punchbowl—a sweeping valley filled with rolling, wide-open meadows hanging at about 10,000 feet. The trail was smoother here, and we rode in total silence and solitude except for the steady hum of our knobbies on the soft-packed dirt and the occasional chink of chains finding the right gear. A few hundred feet higher and the lush vegetation gave way to barren, gray rock faces and the snowy flanks of Crystal Peak.

The Punchbowl continues for a slight distance, looping back into the treed notch of Schofield Pass. From there, you can follow the road for a blazing, 15-mile descent past the Crested Butte Ski Resort and into downtown Crested Butte. But after all that climbing, Jeremy and I wanted more of a reward than a long cruise back to town on a graded road. Near the summit of the pass is the 401 Trail—a route famous for its sinewy singletrack. The trail starts near Emerald Lake on the Marble side of the Schofield Pass, climbing through the snow in places for another 600 feet on the flanks of Mount Bellview to a sharp ridge with breathtaking views of Maroon Bells and the jagged peaks of the Elk Range. Then it starts a winding, precipitous descent for some 20-plus miles through the aspens, crossing rocky streambeds before spilling out onto Gothic Road about eight miles outside of Crested Butte. The 401 crosses the graded road in a couple of places, so riding just a partial section of the singletrack is an easy option—but we would not take the easy option; riding the 401 was half the impetus for the trip, and it was pure heaven.

The descent wound fast and furious through head-high grasses and wildflowers, around dirt-banked corners, through turbulent streams, and into the woods. I picked a line and threaded my front wheel through a narrow gap between two chalk-white aspen trunks. All I could see of Jeremy was his jersey flitting between the trees as he expertly steered through the terrain, letting out the front calipers and slipping into high-speed cruising mode. This was mountain bike Zen.

A jeep might make the entire 65-mile off-road portion of our two-day tour—both Schofield and Pearl Passes—in about six hours. But under pedal power, it took us that much time in the saddle just to climb the 2,500 vertical feet from Marble, find the 401, and reach Crested Butte. We did so—tired and haggard and eager for a tasty meal and a long soak in our hotel’s hot tub. We knew we had it good. Until the next morning.

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