As I write this, the town of South Fork has been emptied of its 400 residents, the wildfire is approaching fast, and officials say there is little hope of saving the town. By the time you read it, the town may well be gone.
Just a week ago, all of us rode our bikes through South Fork. We were sailing down U.S. Highway 160, enjoying our hard-earned descent from Wolf Creek Pass. Today, U.S. Highway 160 is closed. It runs right through what is now called the West Fork Fire Complex.
A week ago, fire in the Royal Gorge forced us to abandon plans to visit the gorge, and instead to ride a 94-mile detour around the blaze. Some of us grumbled. I know I did. Of all the bad luck!
Well. Had RTR somehow been scheduled for the week of June 16-22 instead of June 9-15, all of us would have been handed new Day-4 route sheets in Pagosa Springs. Given the size of this fire and how the smoke is blowing across the San Luis Valley and onward to Colorado Springs — essentially the remainder of the tour route — maybe the whole ride would have been scrubbed at Pagosa.
Wildfire has forced RTR to go off-script two years in a row now. Anyone willing to bet next year will be any different?
This may be the new normal. RTR is traditionally scheduled during the first half of June, which technically is late spring, not even summer yet. But our big fires — Hayman 11 years ago; last year’s route-changing Hugh Park fire near Fort Collins and the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs; and now the fires in the Royal Gorge, Black Forest and South Fork — have been hitting in June.
We cyclists heard about all the hard, last-minute work that RTR tour director Chandler Smith, his staff and the volunteers did to create an alternate route for us last Friday, and bravo. Maybe it’s time to start building alternate routes into the RTR map books from the beginning.
Even when forests aren’t burning and the weather is pleasant, riding a bicycle across the near-full breadth of Colorado’s extreme topography is a fragile existence. Steep grades, thin air, wide temperature ranges, sudden snow, skinny tires, hard saddles, baking sun, long miles — RTR is an intimate and extensive encounter with the elements. And this is why in the future, RTR riders may be able to take wildfires in stride.
The destruction of the fires is ghastly, and they don’t do the marketing folks at RTR or the chambers of commerce across Colorado any favors. But RTR riders, maybe more than most folks, come to appreciate the fragile state of our forests, mainly because they spend so much time in close contact with them. News footage of burning forests might turn away the Griswolds of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” who camped in South Fork. I’d like to think RTR cyclists will love Colorado all the more for participating in its cycle of destruction and rebirth.
Banner photo: An Army helicopter drops water on the Black Forest fire north of Colorado Springs on June 12, 2013. Army photo; used under Creative Commons License