I nearly collided with another rider at an intersection while ripping a flowy single track in Durango, Colorado’s Horse Gulch. We were both dropping into a rutted draw. While I rode down the draw, the other rider caught a kicker and cleanly gapped it on his hardtail.
This is remarkable because on a busy day I might see only a half-dozen riders in several hours of riding. To encounter another cyclist at that exact place and time was a rather chance meeting.
What was unremarkable about this sighting, was that it was U23 World Champion Silver Medalist Chris Blevins. On any given day, you can run into Olympians, world champions, and national champions on Durango’s trails. Chris is among the new generation of cycling stars that continues to make Durango a world class mountain bike destination for recreational and pro riders. As local Ed Zink of Durango’s Mountain Bike Specialists put it, “Durango was not put ‘on’ the cycling map, the cycling map was built around Durango.”
Hyperbole? Let’s examine.
Durango: The Incubator
If ever there was a ringleader for cycling in Durango, it is Ed Zink. Among other accolades, he was on the organizing committee for the 1986 and 1987 NORBA Nationals, and helped bring the 1990 UCI World Championships to Durango. According to Ed, “The Iron Horse Bicycle Classic has hosted over 100,000 riders from around the world. The 1990 UCI sanctioned World Mountain Bike Championships hosted approximately 1,000 international athletes and generated a media tsunami about mountain biking in Durango. These two competitive events have been part of the catalyst for world class cycling athletes to call Durango home.”
The list of world class cycling athletes is extensive. It has included John Tomac, Greg Herbold, Bob Roll, and Juli Furtado. The new generation of Todd Wells, Howard Grotts, Chris Blevins, Sepp Kuss, and 16-year-old phenomenon Ruth Holcomb are keeping the fire stoked, and raising the bar for everyone. Of course, the spiritual leader of the group, and point of inspiration for many, is Ned Overend.
The folks at Durango DEVO are feeding the incubator of world-class talent. DEVO is a youth development program, with 900 young shredders and a host of coaches. Many of those coaches are retired world-class athletes. Fort Lewis College sits on a mesa overlooking town, where student cycling athletes have in the neighborhood of twenty-something national championship titles.
So what is the secret sauce of Durango’s place in mountain bike infamy? According to Ed Zink, “It really is all of this being located in a friendly town with a cycling culture surrounded by millions of public acres of high desert and alpine mountain terrain. Cycling can occur all year round.” With city and county leadership members who are strong cycling advocates, and with the bomber trail advocacy organization Trails 2000, Durango has built over 300 miles of dedicated singletrack. Couple that with hundreds of miles of forest service road, pack trails, and ORV trails, and you have a lifetime of riding.
It would be entirely possible to come to Durango, park your car for the week, and hit a different trail system each day – if you have the gas for it.
From downtown you have immediate access to 15 named trails and trail systems on the Trail 2000 interactive map. Staying in downtown Durango allows you to hit all major trail systems. You can loop and connect town trails to high alpine rides like Missionary Ridge or the Colorado Trail, which has its southern terminus in Durango.
For trail riding, you want to single out the trails below. Some of the other trails like the Animas River Trail can be a great connector, and allow a cooling dip on a hot day in the Animas River. To give you a bit of flavor, we asked Trails 2000 executive director Mary Monroe for a brief descriptive of each.
Horse Gulch: The main trailhead in Durango connecting area BLM, private and City open space. Contains a variety of blue trails, mixed with expert Hyper Extended Ridge and a series of progressive trails (SnakeCharmer, Medicine, Down N Out).
Overend Mountain Park (as in world champion Ned Overend): Aerobic climbs up Ned’s Hill, Hidden Valley, and to the Hogsback. Overend Mountain Park. This area provides a great mix of terrain and skills required. The trail system is also known as “Test Tracks” since many mountain bike innovations were tested, and are still tested, by major manufacturers here.
Animas Mountain: 6.2 miles of trail, with a long climb to the top with stunning views of the Animas Valley. Several expert downhill options, including Merv and Swerv.
Dalla Mountain Park: 10 miles of trail traversing in and out of trees, roots, and rocks alongside a road.
Spurline Trails at Three Springs: A beginner level pump track with 12 miles of trail connecting into BLM, and Horse Gulch.
Colorado Trail at Junction Creek: This is the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail, which travels 500 miles to Denver. The trail offers great climbing, ascending over 5,000 feet within 20 miles. Trails 2000 adopts the longest section of the CT in the entire state.
My favorite? Ride up Horse Gulch’s main trail from downtown. Loop the beginner Meadow Loop and Stacy’s for a warm up. Head up Telegraph, which is a local mountain bike time trail for our competitive riders. Crest the saddle, drop into Sidewinder, ride South Rim for as long as you wish, and descend to the Animas River Trail, which will take you back to town. Jump in the Animas River on a hot day.
In reality, the above is just one favorite. There are too many to mention. Others that come to mind are riding the high alpine Colorado Trail off of Molas Pass, Endlick Mesa Road, Missionary Ridge Trail, and more. Many of these are marked routes that are intertwined with lesser known pack trails, used by horse packers tending to cattle and sheep in the high alpine.
Post ride, hit Carver Brew Company. Do damage to their excellent smoked chicken wings and Cajun mac & cheese, or hit Eolus promptly at 5:00PM for happy hour, and feast on one of the best $10 burgers around. Top off any meal, or any ride, with ice cream at Cream Bean Berry. For a 5-pound-brick-style burrito, hit up the cycling supporters at Zia Taquaria. Do you prefer elegant dining? Primus may serve up the best meal that you’ll ever experience. Feeling wasted? Hit Amaya for a hot tub, ice dip and massage. All are a pleasant walk in downtown.
Riding seasons in Durango
When we have high output house guests coming from the East Coast we universally recommend April. In a normal to epic snow year it is entirely possible to enjoy a day of spring skiing at Purgatory Ski Resort, 30 minutes and 2,000 feet up the road, and then go mountain biking. If you snow slide in winter, and if you are not burned out by April, that could be your game.
Sometime in July through August, we experience “Monsoon Season.” That weather pattern will typically bring 15 minutes of torrential rain in the afternoon. If you aspire to ride above timberline, the accompanying lightning storms can make your day very, very sporty.
My favorite time of year is from the end of Monsoon, until snow the hits. The days are universally warm, and nights crisp. Starting in September the aspens turn golden yellow. As fall progresses the oaks of the town trails turn to copper. Tourists have gone home, and it feels like you just may have landed in the most perfect mountain bike destination that exists.
Durango as a destination
Which brings us to the end, or really the beginning. Why isn’t Durango better known as a cycling destination?
It could be that our local visitor’s agency does a great job of communicating with Durangatans (as locals are sometimes known), but can’t seem to crack into a wider audience. While other destinations attend consumer and trade events to spread their gospel, representation of Durango is conspicuously absent.
It could also be that locals like it that way. With 25 percent of the team that represented America at the Mountain Bike World Championships coming from this town of 18,000, perhaps they prefer to let results speak for themselves. These athletes travel all over the world and can live wherever they want. They keep coming back to bed down in Durango.
Finally, Durango is a long way from anywhere. Our nearest interstate highway is hours away, and flights are limited but improving. You don’t end up here by accident – either as a visitor, or as a resident. However, once you are here, from the mountain bike trails, to the Animas River, to the 1.8 million acres San Juan National Forest, there is no lack of stuff to keep you engaged.
Like the porridge in the fable of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, some cycling towns can be too hot, or too cold. Or they can lack authenticity and can be pretentious. Durango, as a cycling destination, is just right regardless if you are rocking enduro mountain bikes, pro-level road bikes, or something in between. No matter what flavor or domain of cycling, all trails lead to Durango.
Durango, Colorado: Cycling Valhalla
When my wife and I were searching for cycling Valhalla our criteria probably matched that of any cyclist. We wanted a diversity of cycling opportunities from mountain, to gravel, to road. Regardless of what the calendar read we wanted to choose our season with changes in elevation. Finally, we wanted the location to be the real deal. We wanted a town with a deep-rooted cycling culture. All trails led to Durango, Colorado.
Topographically Durango is perfectly suited for cycling. The broad Animas River valley stretches north and south of town, providing multiple flat road routes. Turn east or west and you have climbs in the 4,000 vertical foot range, and within 30 miles of town, there are 300 miles of singletrack. To the north are the rugged San Juan Mountains with peaks over 14,000’ in elevation, to the south is desert, and to the west are Canyonlands.
As a League of American Wheelmen Gold Award winner, you are never far from your route — mountain, gravel or road — in downtown Durango. There are more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, so riders are never far from a beverage and meal at the end of a ride.
Durango was not always a cycling destination. According to Ed Zink of Durango’s Mountain Bike Specialists, “In the early 1970’s Durango started to promote itself as a cycling destination. The primary attraction was the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. The Classic quickly grew from 36 riders to thousands and by the 1980’s word spread that Durango was the top cycling destination west of the Mississippi.”
While city leadership was busy at work on infrastructure, cyclists were making a mark of their own. In 1986 and 1987 NORBA held the Mountain Bike Nationals at what is now the Edgemont Ranch community. The event was won by local Ned Overend and Cindy Whitehead. While Ned was a Durango resident at the time, the cycling opportunities in Durango drew Cindy from California. Cindy now lives in the community where the NORBA Nationals were held.
It was during this period that mountain biking was exploding, and land managers were facing a changing paradigm in trail user groups. This spawned another Durango institution called Trails 2000. Mary Monroe, Executive director for Trails 2000, recounts the genesis of that organization, “Great ideas often grow into great movements. In the early 1980s, four Durango locals hatched the concept of a trails organization at Olde Tymer’s Café on Main Avenue when the conversation turned to the imminent growth and development of Durango. The four eventually shared the discussion with Durango native Ed Zink, who carried the idea up the ladder to the regional director of the Bureau of Land Management. Together, that group dreamed up an independent trails group which would interface with the local land agencies, and Trails 2000 was born.”
A great natural setting may have provided the raw material, but great cycling towns just don’t happen. They are built through the conscious efforts of citizens and elected officials who value quality of life. In this case, the City of Durango, collectively, recognized that what they had was worth protecting and fostering.
As I rode out my door and dropped into the Horse Gulch trail system I had to pinch myself. Durango’s cycling culture was built on the backs of national champions, world champions, Olympians, and the everyday enthusiast. There is an overwhelming sense that we are part of one big tribe, and enjoying a very special place.
Durango’s leadership stays committed to investing in the quality of life. Many streets within the city limit are going on a “Road Diet” according to Kevin Hall, assistant city manager. This will see traffic lanes reduced, and dedicated cycling lanes increased. Money is continually allocated to the expansion of city-owned trails and infrastructure. La Plata County is also a strong partner in fostering a safe cycling environment.
Trails 2000 continues its scope of work that includes City Open Space, County, Forest Service, and BLM area trails, and their strategic vision of connecting area communities via a “village to village” concept.
As a cyclist visiting Durango how does one tap into the local scene? PedalDurango is a comprehensive guide that is rich in content for all disciplines. For trail rides, the Trails 2000 website is an excellent resource. The Durango Wheel Club holds weekly group rides that depart from Durango’s iconic bakery, called Bread. There are also several spinoff groups that meet at Bread throughout the week. Some rides will demand world-class form. Others, such as the no-drop “C” ride and the Sunday Church of the High Pines are pleasant social rides. That is your start.
Peel back one more layer and hit one of Durango’s bike shops. With more shops than fast food restaurants, each store has their own unique culture. Stop in a few. When you feel that you are vibing with a particular establishment, start asking questions about rides. That person serving you lunch? Chances are they delayed adulthood to come to Durango and Live The Dream. They have likely been here long enough to discover a few hidden gems.
Finally, if you are out for a ride don’t hesitate to ask that person who is riding with authority – like they know exactly where they are going. They will likely help you strip back that final layer of magic. They will help you find that sublime climb that is always in the shade on a hot day, or always in the sun on a cool day.
Riding along Main Street with Durango Mayor Pro Tem Melissa Youssef and councilperson Dean Brookie, the future of cycling looks promising for Durango. The vast majority of residents have moved here as a conscious lifestyle decision, and that includes the town’s leadership. It is a town rooted in authenticity. As Ed Zink said, “It really is all of this being located in a friendly town with a cycling culture surrounded by millions of public acres of high desert and alpine mountain terrain. Cycling can occur all year round. Durango was not put “on” the cycling map, the cycling map was built around Durango and it expanded to towns like Crested Butte and Moab. Now Fruita, Cortez, Flagstaff, and Angel Fire are filling in the blank spaces that formerly surrounded the epicenter of cycling in Durango.” That authenticity leads to clarity when planning and executing for the future.
The future of cycling is clearly visible in Durango DEVO’s youth rides. DEVO was started in 2006. The mission of Durango DEVO is to develop each individual, in a traditional team setting, into life-long cyclists.
On any given day you can find toddlers on 12-inch-wheeled bikes at the side of the BMX track, or teens on pro-level bikes prepping for regional and national races. Currently, there are more than 900 kids in DEVO’s various programs, over 70 coaches, and a group for every age, ability level, and interest.