Biking Vail Pass

When you’re not a semi-pro athlete like everyone else in Colorado, what do you do?

Courtesy Annie Murlowski

When you first introduce yourself as someone born and raised in Colorado, people typically assume you’re an avid outdoors enthusiast, spending every free moment in the mountains, that you learned how to ski as soon as you could walk. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, that’s just not the case. I love spending an hour or two wandering through REI pretending I have even the smallest ambition to use the carabiner I picked up as something other than a keychain. Despite our close proximity to the outdoors, I’ve always found myself a bit more at home in front of a fire with a book than rappelling down a rock face.

It’s not that I don’t want to spend my time seeking adventure between the Maroon Bells’ aspens and the Indian Peaks’ spruce. Honestly, I’m simply a textbook over-committer. When I decided I wanted to snowboard, I purchased an entire set of gear and used it approximately four times before the assortment found a nice warm home in my garage. I do enjoy hiking and have an entire bookshelf dedicated to the day hikes of Colorado, but honestly I haven’t actually gone hiking in over a year. Things get busy, the roads are packed, and getting up at 6 a.m. to beat the crowds is just not my forte.

Here’s my idea of a great mountain day: Drive up for a long weekend in the Vail or Breckenridge area, check into a cabin and sit with a microbrew in hand and the fresh mountain air out my window. Nothing’s better than the sweet forest smell wafting from the trees, especially when enjoyed from a porch while wrapped in a blanket.

The thing is, building a habit of adventuring is hard, but I’m realizing there are plenty of ways to enjoy everyday adventures without checking off an entire list of 14ers. I’ve been slowly putting my toe in the water toward adventuring over the last few months, researching hiking trails near me and trying out more outdoor activities on vacations. My last big trip I went surfing in Maui and felt so free and alive that I knew I needed to bring that adventurous spirit back home with me.

On a recent trip to Vail, I discovered that Charter Sports has a guided bike tour that drops you off at the top of Vail Pass and allows you to coast the 17 miles and 3,000-foot descent back toward Lionshead Village, the far west side of Vail town square. I’ve always been interested in biking in the mountains, but if snowboarding was any indication, I knew I couldn’t buy a whole kit just for it to sit in the garage. Booking bikes for the day with the promise of an easy ride ahead sounded like the perfect opportunity to try things out, and traveling with a guide gave me a safety net that ensured there was no chance of getting lost on the journey. With only the power of my legs to pursue the trail, I’d have help, but still be responsible for making it back to town on my own. Once out in the mountains, calling for a Lyft wasn’t going to be an option. 

“Here’s my idea of a great mountain day: Drive up for a long weekend in the Vail or Breckenridge area, check into a cabin and sit on the porch with a microbrew in hand and the fresh mountain air out my window.” Courtesy Annie Murlowski

We started off in the shop where Tom, my guide for the day, helped fit me with a proper helmet and an appropriately sized bike. Within minutes we were in a van and on the road up the pass, ears popping every few minutes. As Tom pointed out some of the guideposts we’d be watching for as we made our way back toward Vail, I was tired still from the drive up from the metro area the day before and wishing I was spending my Sunday morning snuggled into blankets instead of wondering how painful biking down a mountain was going to be. The farther we got from town, I felt confident that if I somehow lost Tom, at least the brown totem poles marked with trail names would create an easy breadcrumb-like path all the way back to my afternoon nap.

Vail Pass begins at an elevation of 10,662 feet, making sunscreen and water a necessity on a hot day. The warm 70 degrees in town hard-changed to a brisk 50 at the summit. At the Black Lakes Picnic Site, just off I-70, we jumped out of the van and listened to a brief tutorial on biking safety. When biking it’s important to stay single-file, so that there’s plenty of room for faster bikers to pass along the narrow pathways. Stopping for a scenic view means you and your bike should move off the roadway, and make sure to hydrate while at a higher altitude. 

The last time I actually rode a bicycle was to and from campus in Fort Collins nearly a decade ago, so getting acclimated to the gears took time. Before starting off, Tom reminded me how the gears function and made sure I was set up to easily transition without getting stuck on any uphill climbs. The logic to shifting is backwards to what you might initially expect. To go up a hill with momentum you shift down, and to pick up speed in a descent you shift up. The well-paved uphill path alongside the Black Lakes was the perfect space for relearning how to balance appropriately while testing out which gears took the burn off my calves. Then downhill, shifting into a higher gear made my legs work, so that each pedal forward was propelling the bike faster rather than just coasting along with the help of gravity.

Past the lakes, a brief segment of the trail took us alongside I-70. There’s plenty of shoulder in between bikers and the speeding cars, but the wind that whips off the highway forced me to pump my legs harder and maintain enough core strength for balance. Just a few minutes into the ride we popped under a bridge and the mountains filled the horizon. We had entered a new world, where time was irrelevant.

Courtesy Annie Murlowski

Without cell service, no buzzing alerts were there to distract me from the journey ahead, and I felt like I could spend the entire day looping around the mountains. The crisp air and the wind in my face woke up my senses to the world around us. Just as my mind felt fully awake, a deer appeared on the side of the path, watching us as we slowed down to avoid frightening it. If I could have reached out without spooking it, my fingers would have brushed across its fur. This is what adventure is all about.

The paved trail followed the path of what used to be U.S. 6, before I-70 was carved through the mountain. The original path through the Gore Range was cut by Charlie Vail, a highway engineer who had no idea that the town would eventually bear his name. After we broke through the trees, we rested at a small stream before turning onto the speed portion of the trail. Breathing in the thin air and enjoying cool water gave a fresh perspective on what it would have been like to traverse through the rugged landscape before the ease of modern transportation.

It’s easy to take for granted all the beauty of the mountains that is just a quick drive away. Today I can enjoy a path cut hundreds of years ago with nothing but a helmet and a bottle of water. Whether on the trail or in my personal journey at home, it’s a reminder that no matter how hard the road is ahead, there are trailblazers who have forged a much more difficult path before me. I am forever grateful for the experiences I get to have.

After the stream, the trail opened up to panoramic views of the town of Vail to the west. I-70 is far off to the left and the rugged terrain of the mountains is a natural barrier to the right. The well-maintained trail ahead declined at 8 percent, promising to make the ride back into town a brisk one. The descent made my heart race as I picked up speed heading faster and faster toward civilization. I almost wanted to slow time down so I could enjoy the simplicity of the mountains without the pulls of technology and noise of the city. But it was too late. Life happens so quickly, and there is no fighting gravity.

A few riders passed going the opposite direction, but Tom assured me that after a few runs, the climb uphill isn’t nearly as daunting as it sounds. Decades-old cyclist names emblazon the trail, guiding the uphill path, acknowledging racers from the Coors Classic who braved Colorado’s mountain landscapes in the ’80s. Originally a three-day race, the Coors Classic has grown to a two-week-long journey, spread across the country. The historic names, so easy to pass over, changed the face of cycling and paved the way for contemporary variations of the sport.

Tom pointed out another notable point of interest across the valley. The intimidating rock face above the trees is a favorite of ice climbers during the winter months. The direct vertical descent leaves climbers hanging, literally, off the edge of the earth. I think I’ll stick to biking as my adventure for now.

Courtesy Annie Murlowski

Another bridge takes us under I-70, and the trail starts to feel more like a town path, crisscrossing through neighborhoods full of unique architecture and landscaping. The path continues, winding past the Betty Ford Alpine Garden and then the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater. These landmarks would be easy to miss if I was racing back into town, but a leisurely pace allowed for a brisk walk through the internationally acclaimed gardens.

When starting out on an adventure, there’s no reason to take a fast pace. Life is best enjoyed as a marathon, and taking that approach to experiencing the mountains gave me time to enjoy the beauty of the gardens and learn about what the Fords brought to the area.

Past the gardens, the ride began to change, each pedal forward making my calves burn, reminding me that biking in the mountains on level or uphill ground is a lot more work than coasting on a descent. The cost of the easy downhill portion is the challenging final mile back toward Lionshead Village.

Once in Vail again, we hopped off to amble through the busy weekend foot traffic, people-watching as the farmers market overtook most of the town streets. The real world came rushing back with cell phones ringing, music playing and the buzz of technology palpable in the air. The atmosphere felt almost too fast-paced, too vibrant. Through the bulk of traffic, easy-to-navigate city streets led us back toward our initial departure point, bringing the morning to an end. I get it now, that no matter how busy the world feels, an escape into nature is just a few minutes away.

The ride wasn’t difficult, but there were parts of the trail that were challenging, forcing me to test my acclimation to a higher altitude and imploring my muscles to work harder to journey up the steep hills. Just like in life, sometimes the best rewards are at the top of the hill. From my vantage point at the top of the pass, I was able to understand what it means to have the freedom to enjoy the outdoors, to come face-to-face with wildlife and to gain a fresh perspective on the pace of life around me. Despite my uneasiness of the initial journey, it was worth it, and I learned that not only am I capable of biking, I really enjoyed it.

I’m not ready yet to tackle Capitol Peak, but I can sense now what it means to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors. There are outdoor adventures for any skill level, and with time and practice, I’ll be confident enough that I can head out on the road with only the mountain air to guide me. In the meantime, I’ll head into the garage, dust off that snowboard set and head out on the mountain this winter, ready to tackle a new adventure, even if I stay on the green trails.

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