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Carbondale – a biking mecca

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart Aspen Times Weekly
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CARBONDALE – Aspen has skiing and Glenwood Springs has its whitewater park, but Carbondale may just emerge as the bicycling epicenter of the Roaring Fork Valley.

The town sits at the crossroads of what could easily become tourist destinations in their own right – the Rio Grande Trail, which already links the valley between Aspen and Glenwood, and the Crystal Trail, which will eventually allow bikers to pedal the 16 or so scenic miles between Carbondale and Redstone without venturing onto dicey Highway 133.

Someday, the town may also be the northern terminus of the Carbondale-Crested Butte Trail – a prospect that leaves bicycling enthusiasts drooling.

For those with a single-track mind, the town is sandwiched between Red Hill and The Crown, two areas within riding distance of the downtown watering holes that fat-tire enthusiasts might make their post-ride destination.

“It would be nice to see Carbondale become a Moab on a lesser level,” said Jeff Jackel, the town’s parks and recreation director, in reference to eastern Utah’s biking Mecca. “I think we need to capture some of the recreation people who are bypassing Carbondale on their way between Glenwood and Aspen – they don’t know what we have here.

“I think biking is going to be a big thing for Carbondale in the future,” he said.

In some respects, it already is.

Certainly, bicycling is expected to be front and center on Saturday, June 12, when the Rocky Mountain Omnium brings criterium-style bike racing to the streets of downtown Carbondale.

Held in Glenwood Springs last year, the Omnium is expected to draw 400 to 600 participants for a three-day series that includes a Friday night time trial from Carbondale to Ironbridge and back, Saturday’s criterium and a June 13 road race from Dotsero to Burns and back.

Jackel would like to see such events become an annual occurrence in Carbondale. A letter to businesses and homeowners affected by the street closures to accommodate the criterium apologizes for the inconvenience, but notes the race participants and spectators will boost revenues for local businesses.

Jo Ann Glassier, general manager of the 76-room Comfort Inn and Suites in Carbondale, expects to fill up for the criterium weekend and said biking in general is a boon to her business.

“People are doing things they can afford to do, which is biking, hiking,” she said.

“Carbondale is just perfectly positioned to take advantage of those opportunities,” added Mayor Stacey Patch Bernot. “Carbondale is prime for that.”

The town has already taken a “base camp” marketing approach, boasting its proximity to what the valley as a whole has to offer, as well as what visitors will find in Carbondale – fly fishing and paddling on the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers, cross-country skiing at Spring Gulch and backcountry opportunities on iconic Mount Sopris, to name a few. Bicycling – both road and mountain biking – could rise to the top of the list.

When Ajax Bike and Sports expanded beyond the location it leases in Aspen to a building of its own in Carbondale, the plans to complete the Rio Grande Trail with pavement between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs weren’t lost on the shop’s owners. The Carbondale store, on Highway 133, is a block away from the increasingly popular bike path.

The Rio Grande conveniently crosses the upper end of Carbondale’s Main Street as well, giving anyone traveling the trail an inviting glimpse of the historic downtown.

“It’s amazing how much of a draw it is,” said Ajax co-owner Ed Phillips. The Rio Grande not only lures bicyclists from beyond the valley, it has enticed local residents back onto a bicycle, he said.

People in their 50s and 60s who gave up bicycling because they didn’t want to ride on Highway 82 have returned to the sport because they can ride the car-free, relatively flat Rio Grande, a former railroad grade, according to Phillips. It’s also a draw for families with young, slow-riding children.

“The trail got a lot of people out because they don’t have to ride on the highway,” he said.

The Rio Grande has created other biking opportunities as well, providing a connection for bicyclists who now make the climb onto Missouri Heights in the midvalley and return to their starting point via the trail. The route was far less appealing when closing the loop meant riding a stretch of busy Highway 82.

“I used to never see road bikers in Missouri Heights,” said Heights resident Davis Farrar. “Now, it is a mecca for people on their road bikes.”

Local mountain biking opportunities are no longer a secret, either.

“Carbondale absolutely is a hotbed for mountain biking. We have some great trails,” said local rider Todd Fugate. “It certainly already is a destination for valley riders.”

Count Aspen resident Chris Everson among those getting in some spring leg work at Red Hill before Aspen’s epic routes are free of snow.

“It’s nice to come down here and get some early riding in,” he said, stopping to take a breather on a climb that, he admitted, was kicking his butt.

Dave Vogt of Grand Junction lives next to Lunch Loop, a popular Junction single-track ride, but made sure to bring his bike on a recent trip to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“I love coming up here and riding,” he said at the summit of Red Hill, with its commanding views of Mount Sopris and the valley floor. “It’s just absolutely gorgeous.”

“The mountain biking, as far as I’m concerned, is the best. I don’t even go to Moab anymore,” said Farrar, president of the Red Hill Council, the volunteer group that turned once-bandit trails on Bureau of Land Management property into a formal network. “If you’re a purist, you want undiluted single track.”

The Crown, another revered collection of single track created on BLM land by bikers, is evolving in much the same manner. The BLM is currently reviewing several options to manage uses there; one alternative under consideration would prioritize the area for mountain biking, just as the agency has done at Red Hill. That option would mean assessing the need for upgrades – to the parking, for example, according to Karl Mendonca, associate field manager for the BLM’s regional field office in Silt.

To some extent, Carbondale’s future as a biking destination may rely on such improvements. Red Hill already sees heavy use – 55,000 bicyclists and hikers in a year’s time, according to Farrar, and its parking area is not always sufficient. The parking situation is far worse at The Crown, where dozens of vehicles may line Prince Creek Road on a Saturday morning, impacting residents of the rural area.

“The challenge with Red Hill is people like it too much,” Farrar said. “The volume of use is huge. At this time of year, when a lot of the upper-elevation trails are still socked in, Red Hill gets heavy, heavy use.”

While the parking area for Red Hill isn’t constantly overwhelmed, the town’s Jackel is pursuing grant funds to study the feasibility of a Highway 82 underpass between Carbondale and Red Hill. Though bikers can cross 82 at a signalized intersection, some still find it daunting, he said. An underpass would theoretically reduce parking pressure on the Red Hill lot.

On the other side of town, the enticing Crystal Trail, which debuts in late June with a paved stretch between Carbondale and the BRB campground – a distance of roughly five miles – won’t be finished all the way to Redstone any time soon.

The route south of the BRB presents both engineering challenges and the need for potential land acquisition, said Dale Will, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program, one of several governmental entities that helped fund the first leg of trail construction.

“We haven’t started thinking about phase two,” he said. “It is a goal of the open space program to get it done. We’re just going to have to chip away at it.”

Even so, Farrar sees the potential for Carbondale to carve out a biking niche. The area will offer enough varied riding that a visitor won’t have to repeat the same rides. They can come, spend money in Carbondale, and go home thinking they can’t wait to return, he said.

“We don’t have chairlifts, but we’ve got a lot of opportunities,” Mayor Patch Bernot agreed.

janet@aspentimes.com


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