The Highs (and Lows) of Colorado Mountain Biking - Page 3

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Over 12,000 feet of mountain-biking history: Climbing the last stretch to the top of Pearl Pass  (Abrahm Lustgarten)
When cycling, it's best to follow the Boy Scout credo: be prepared: Witness the Crank Brothers' Multi-17 Tool ($22; As its name implies, it's got 17 clutch features in one lightweight package—including spoke and hex wrenches, a Philips and a flat-head, and a chain tool—essential for any rear derailer retrofitting. Everything you need to outta situations you never plan getting into.

The route from Crested Butte over Pearl Pass and into Aspen holds an undisputed place in the mythology of U.S. mountain biking. Back in September of 1976, well before there were such technological advances as full suspension or aluminum alloys, 15 or so Crested Butte cycling fiends decided to huff their way from the streets of downtown, straight up 12,705-foot Pearl Pass on their clunker town bikes for a mad descent at brake-burning speeds into the hemmed, high-class environs of Aspen. Ostensibly it was a more environmentally savvy response to the much louder (and considerably less challenging) feat performed earlier that year when a group of Aspen motorcyclists had cruised over Pearl, starting in Aspen and ending in Crested Butte. But whatever the reason for that inaugural ride, the first group to pedal over Pearl Pass succeeded in grinding their way into the sport's history. Today, Crested Butte is a testament to both the past and present state of mountain biking. It's home to the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, has over 800 miles of terrain in Gunnison National Forest within easy reach of town, and exhibits a progressively friendly attitude to fat-tire travelers. I felt right at home.

Well caffeinated and primed to test our mettle on this historic, 40-mile trip, we hitched a ride with our girlfriends south on Route 135, taking a left before the airport onto Brush Creek Road, following it along the creek and over the cattle guards to our trailhead at the bottom of an endless upward grade. The car departed in a lonely trail of dust and we started the push uphill. About an hour passed before the explosion.

Standing there on the trail we took turns staring at the busted derailleur and each other, not saying a word. The girls would already be halfway to Carbondale. We had no money, no cell phones, and only two light windbreakers. A closer look at Jeremy's Cannondale frame revealed a twisted and torn rear dropout. The derailleur had bent, gotten caught in the spokes of the rear wheel, and had been wrenched off the frame. Short of walking eight miles back to the highway and hitchhiking halfway across the state of Colorado, we had only one choice, and we knew we had no time to waste. We used a rock to pound against the frame and blunted the broken dropout so it wouldn’t grind into the spokes. Six links removed from the chain brought it taut into a single gear at the top of the freewheel. Jeremy would pedal uphill as far as that fixed gear would take him, walking when the trail was too steep, too rough, or too intermittent to ride. The Pearl Pass is known as one of the roughest in the state. He walked a lot.
Even with the hobbled bike, the ride was gorgeous. Rolling mostly skyward on a ragged jeep road, the route traces along East Creek, and then Middle Brush Creek, crossing it a dozen times though endless backcountry, a fly fisherman’s paradise. Jeremy walked as much as he rode, offering me the perfect excuse to hop out of the saddle and walk alongside him, breathing in the scenery. Hours passed, but the miles didn't. The sun shifted in the sky. The pain of climbing thousands of feet numbed my quads and my mind slipped back into the descent of 401. I knew rides like that lie within the Pearl Pass drainage. If only we had the time to take a little detour, forget this grueling ascent, and cruise back into Crested Butte on another wild singletrack. The famous Teocalli Ridge Trail shoots off to the north, and the revered 409 Trail cruises through lush aspens along Cement Creek just to the south. So many options, so little time. Our ambitious route from Crested Butte to Aspen seemed ideal during our giddy planning stage—hell, it was downright obligational given its historic significance. Now, with Jeremy's jury-rigged derailleur barely holding and the climb to Aspen growing even more extreme, it seemed woefully short-sighted. One thing was clear: we'd have to return to do this right…provided we got out of this spot in the first place.

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