Saturday, September 15, 2012

A little taste of the Colorado Trail

Today, I did a series of things that I don't ordinarily do. I carved out a couple of hours, donned some spandex, and went on a recreational mountain bike ride. I didn't have my backpack office with me, nor did I have a kid or dog in accompaniment. It was just me, 52 ounces of water, a tool kit and a bike.

The venue was Waterton Canyon, gateway to the Colorado Trail. Waterton Canyon is a popular non-motorized recreation area southwest of the city, near Chatfield Reservoir, and is at the nexus of two trails. The Highline Canal Trail begins here and meanders toward the city. The Colorado Trail also begins here, rambling off road some 500 miles, over mountains, valleys and streams before reaching Durango at the other end.

The pastoral character of the Highline Canal Trail is shared by the first six miles of the Colorado Trail (otherwise known as the CT). The CT starts as a well maintained, gently upward sloping gravel road, very lightly trafficked by a few maintenance trucks, and much more frequented by runners, walkers, fishers, photographers, and bicyclists of all types. The scenery in the canyon is rugged yet serene, and picturesque in any direction.

During this initial section, the CT route runs parallel to the South Platte River, which, along with the reservoirs it feeds, is one of the major sources of water for the Denver metro area. Denver Water maintains the gravel road and the canyon itself, at least until it reaches the Strontia Springs reservoir.

Within the first couple of miles, the CT enters the Pike National Forest. Earlier this summer, a number of forest fires appeared in many places in Colorado, including in the vicinity of Waterton Canyon. The acute heat and drought this year has desiccated much of this already fairly arid region. However, the day's temperatures in the low 70s F, coupled with heavy rains earlier this week, have given the canyon and surrounding hillsides a comfortably damp feel.

The terrain would seem to be a perfect place to bring a dog for a walk or a ride, but they are not allowed. The reason why is here:

Bighorn Sheep and other wild animals inhabit the area, and they have a hard enough time as it is without having to worry about being herded by errant dogs. Tough luck, Scout.

Encountering wild animals larger than squirrels seems a little foreign in modern life, yet there's nothing quite like it. Perhaps excitement at being close to a large, wild animal remains hardwired into our brains after thousands of generations. Seeking out animals for food and/or muscle power was a necessary survival skill. In any case, riding past a docile bighorn sheep is memorable, though I am not dumb enough to attempt to get any closer.

Past the sheep, the trail continued to slowly climb up the canyon. I paused to take a photo of myself using a convex mirror posted at the apex of a sharp turn. I'm wearing a 15-year old Voodoo Cycles jersey and bibs that were torn on a ride in Moab 9 years ago and later repaired, because they were the first items I could find. Like I said before, I don't wear spandex bike-specific clothing all that much anymore.

In short order, the Strontia Springs Dam came into view. Just off the trail here is an area equipped with nice picnic facilities for those who mark this as their turn around point. Nearby is the tidy house and lawn of a lucky caretaker of the area. In all, it's a very pleasant spot, but my objective lies ahead.

Past Strontia Springs Dam, the gravel road gives way to single track, and the character of the CT changes considerably. The upward angle increases, and the surface becomes more uneven. This is also where the real fun starts.

The first mile or so past the dam is loaded with switchbacks, winding through dense trees and scattered boulders up the side of a mountain. This was the first real mountain bike ride that I've taken in quite a while, and I felt it. Within minutes, I was sweating out the gravy of my decadent suburban lifestyle. Droplets rolled off my head and streamed down the lenses of my glasses, stinging my eyes as I labored up the hill.

For those of you who are still reading this and are somewhat familiar with my blog, you may have noticed that for this ride, I'm on an unfamiliar bike. You may have even been keeping track in your head. Let's see... It's got fat tubes; too fat to be steel. It has not only front, but rear suspension, and count 'em 7...8...9 gears on the cassette. Hold on, those don't look like top-mount thumbshifters in friction mode. Oh, and where's the bell? Hey, what gives?!?

Well, I have to admit to to you, diligent and sharp-eyed reader, that I have once again fallen off the wagon and secretly acquired another bike. It's a 2006 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR. I've actually had this bike for a few months now, but I couldn't quite face up to it to you, my loyal followers.
2006 Stumpjumper FSR
As it happened, this new bike found me during the time after which I'd ordered my Pugsley, but before it arrived. I say it found me, because it did. One day on the way to work, I rode down a street that I don't ordinarily take, and there it was, leaning against a tree at a yard sale. Now, I don't ordinarily even stop at yard sales, but this one had a couple of bikes, various tools, fishing equipment, and even some competition type go-carts. Most of the items were very testosterone laden, if you will.

The short story is that the husband of the woman who was running the yard sale had passed away a couple of years ago, and she was finally cleaning out the garage. Much of the other items were selling briskly, but there was not much interest in the Stumpjumper, a higher dollar item than typical yard sale bike fare. Another reason for minimal interest was that the tires were low, the front wheel was installed slightly askew making the brake rotor squawk if it was moved, and there was a little play in the rear shock. I made the assessment that none of the problems were serious, and that it might be fun to have a full-suspension mountain bike again. Shortly thereafter, I was towing it home on the Big Dummy, along with a nearly new Bell helmet and Pearl Izumi riding shoes that fit me well. I also ended up with a cheap one-person tent and a bench grinder.

As you might image, I had to engage in all sorts of wrangling of logic in order to justify the arrival of two bikes into the fold within the space of a week. I soon had the mechanical issues squared away, and started to rediscover suspension-enhanced riding, albeit on urban trails.

Back to the main story. This was my first real off road ride on the Stumpjumper, and once the going got more challenging, it was easy to see the advantages inherent in its design and construction.
The Stumpjumper has lockout mechanisms front and rear, which I had engaged for most of the time on the gravel road. I kept the lockout engaged for a while climbing the rocky single track, but found that I could actually climb better with the fork set to active and the rear suspension set to 'Propedal', which enables the suspension action, but at a firm compression rate.

This version of the Stumpjumper was a fairly modest model in 2006, but it's a good quality and well designed bike, and I'll have to say that I'm very impressed with the ride. I own several mountain bikes, but most are 20 or more years old, and none of them have any suspension. Even judging by what was available in 2006, a lot had changed since my first experiences with nascent Rock Shox and Manitou forks in the early '90s, and my early generation Specialized Ground Control FSR that I bought in 1997.

This full-suspension Stumpjumper not only weighs about the same as my much vaunted and rigid 1990 Bridgestone MB-1, but it is a much more capable machine for the purpose of trail riding. Even in my short experience with the bike, I have ridden surfaces and grades that I wouldn't have been able to before. I don't yet know if this bike will be with me for the long term, but riding it is a valuable rediscovery for me that the best mountain bikes are not necessarily just those from the increasingly distant past.
The fork lockout is the blue ring on the right stanchion. 
The rear lockout is the blue lever on the bottom of the shock.
The bike has 120 mm of travel, front and rear.
This rough section at the corner of a switchback is steeper than it looks. I rode it a few times, primarily in the astonishment that I actually could. 
There must be something to these newfangled suspension bikes. When I was on the single track segment of the CT, I saw three other bicyclists, of which two were riding full-suspension Stumpjumpers. However, all three were on 29-inch wheels, so it would appear that I'm still lagging in that department. I don't know that I'll become a strong convert to suspended mountain biking, but it is a lot of fun.

Eventually my efforts paid off, as the sun radiantly emerged from the trees at the top of the climb, at a place known as Lenny's Rest, in remembrance of a young hiker. Reading the plaque on the bench made me think about how the bike that I was riding, as well as the helmet and shoes I was wearing, were previously piloted by someone who is no longer with us. Although I knew neither Lenny, nor the original owner of the Stumpjumper, it doesn't take much to realize that life is fleeting and we should appreciate what time we get. I'm satisfied to know that it is likely my bikes may someday be ridden by someone else in much the same manner.

On the other side of the mountain, the southern exposure made for an entirely different feel. It instantly became noticeably warmer and drier, and the shady canopy of trees was gone. The angle of the slope also favored my direction of travel, and in minutes I had traveled far down the trail. I had hoped to be able to make it to the creek lurking somewhere at the bottom, but I realized that all this descending only meant more ascending on the way back, and my available time was starting to run out. I made do without reaching the stream, even though I knew I had to be close. Next ride I hope to have more time and maybe even some camping equipment with me to capitalize on what Gypsy Nick says are some good camping spots nearby.

After I made my turnaround, I climbed back up to Lenny's Rest and began the descent back toward Waterton Canyon. Where I had crawled on the way up, I was now flying on the way down. The Stumpjumper's suspension ate up everything in its path. This bike is a true joy to ride at speed over rocks, roots, and ruts. Some sections of the trail, cushioned with pine needles and painted with sunbeams, were ethereal.

Back on the gravel, the world opened up again. I shifted into the big ring and the miles rolled by, as the landscape changed around every bend. Even before I made it to the bottom, I started planning for the next ride.


  1. Next time take the Pugs! I look forward to the compare and contrast between the bikes on this terrain.

  2. The Stumpjumper is nearly optimal for most of the Colorado trails that we've seen. It's a loose rocky state, and suspension not only helps with comfort and control, but with traction both uphill and downhill. That section of the CT is particularly mild, and the Pugs would be great once you dial the tire pressure, but I suspect you might still prefer the Stumpjumper.

    Yes! Take the Pugs sometime. Look forward to a CT overnight. Great ride, and awesome jersey.

  3. I definitely plan on taking the Pugsley next time, especially as I think of it as my bikepacking rig. During the ride, I was pondering how the Pugsley's fat tire pneumatic suspension would compare with the air/oil suspension of the Stumpjumper. During my little mountain biking jaunts in Wyoming and Utah a few weeks ago, I was impressed with how the Pugsley could simultaneously smooth out and grab a variety of terrain. The fat tires have ruined me for other mountain bikes, as I couldn't get over how skinny the Stumpy's tires looked and, at times, felt on the trail.

    So, what tire pressure are you running, Nick?

    I'm sorting out some equipment, but am hopeful for a CT overnighter before too long. I'll of course post any results here.

    I have several jerseys that would now be considered vintage, including a circa 1986 7-11 jersey from the Davis Phinney era. Hmm... Selling them could be a funding source for a fancy Mont-Bell bag.

  4. a. Great score on the Stumpjumper. Lots of great technical minds have been working passionately over the last several years to take MTB's and what can be done with them to a new level. Even if you're just dabbling, I thinks it's great to experience the technology. How can you not.

    b. The CT has just come onto my radar this past year. From the pictures and accounts, I'm pretty mesmerized. I guess I didn't realize it ran that close to Denver. So cool that you're doing some exploring.

    c. Most importantly, VERY COOL that you busted out and took a ride by yourself, for yourself.

  5. Thanks, Pat. Those dreamers, tinkerers, and enginerds who make bikes like this possible are a credit to the mountain biking. The integrated technological advancements make for some good fun. After checking the price tag on a new version, I would probably not have experienced this sort of riding without finding a well-priced used one.

    The CT is a bit legendary for its challenges, but I think only in the past few years have bikers begun to regularly ride it. In the past, it's apparently primarily been for hikers, although my brother and his friend rode the whole length back in 1990. If you haven't done so already, check out Nick's blog (gypsy by trade) on riding the CT.

    I'm going to make a conscious effort to try to do more rides on my own. I've gotten so used to being a bike-focused suburban Dad and working toward promoting bicycling in general that I sometimes lose sight of what a blast it is to get out alone for no particular reason.