Firecracker 5k

After a great opening day in and around Durango, the 2021 Ride the Rockies ventured west to Cortez Monday, traveling 69 miles and climbing approximately 3,600 feet. But instead of the traditional humdrum, straight shot route along US160, the 2,000-plus riders taking on this year’s tour got to spend extended time on the (scenic) road less traveled.

The ride’s first 44 miles traced what local Durango cyclists call the Cheery Creek Loop, which kicked off with the testing, 3-mile climb away from the Animas River and up to the shores of Lake Nighthorse. The ensuing 20 miles were a rolling affair along the quiet farm and ranching roads southwest of Durango.

Then the route took a sharp turn to the north for the first packed dirt road section of this year’s tour. (There are 3 more to come.) This well-maintained, 17-mile stretch of rural road trended gradually uphill, lessening the impact of the non-paved surface. And outside of a few event staff cars, there was almost no vehicle traffic to contend with. Indeed, instead of worrying about distracted drivers and rumble strips, the RTR peloton could peacefully pedal while taking in the spectacular bucolic scenery. Sure there were a few bumpy sections along the way, but as one rider put it, it was never worse than the potholes in downtown Denver. And the final 6 miles of dirt road were among the smoothest of the day.

At mile 44 the route returned to tarmac, turning west on US160, and climbing to the day’s highpoint atop Mancos Hill, elevation 7,940 feet. From there it was primarily downhill or flat to the finish, save one last stinger up to the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park about 10 miles from Cortez. After that is was easy sailing to the finish line at the city rec center where showers, food and cold beer awaited. The route’s front-loaded climbing was especially welcome, as once again daytime temperatures soared into the high 90s on what’s become one of the warmest Ride the Rockies on record. Congrats to all who survived and thrived on yet another challenging day in Southwest Colorado.

Next up is arguably the toughest day of the 2021 Ride the Rockies—and easily the longest—as riders take on the northerly trek from Cortez to Norwood via the stunning San Juan Mountains. That, of course, means lots of climbing; there’s 4,000 feet of elevation difference between the start and the route’s high point atop Lizard Head Pass, elevation 10,222. The good news is that heart of the climb is never overly steep, typically hovering in the 3-4 percent range as you roll through the small towns of Delores and Rico on your way into the alpine. And the higher you go, the cooler it will be, with a predicted daytime high atop Lizard Head of just 75 degrees (or more than 20 degrees less than what riders experienced Monday).

From the Lizard Head summit it’s mostly downhill or flat to the finish, save for the final 2-mile grind up punchy Norwood Hill (where it will be hot once again). In between, the route includes an 8-mile packed dirt road section that gets riders away from the traffic around Telluride and avails a bevy of breathtaking views along the banks of the San Miguel River.