Singletrack stash: Pueblo becoming mountain bike hotbed

Dave Phillips
The Colorado Springs Gazette
Aspen, CO Colorado
The squiggly single track of Outer Limits hugs the shale cliffs above Pueblo Reservoir west of Pueblo, Colo., on Feb. 23, 2007. (AP Photo/The Gazette, Dave Philipps) ** MAGS OUT NO SALES **

PUEBLO ” In the warm desert sun, a pack of mountain bikers skips over shale ledges, pedals across narrow wood ramps and shoots down rocky gullies, finally skidding to a stop at a sunny overlook where a sandstone cliff drops 100 feet to the water.

Vance Hubersberger, the lead rider, wipes the sweat from his brow. “Welcome to Fruita,” he says. “I mean welcome to Moab, I mean …”

He means welcome to Pueblo, Colo. Yes, that Pueblo, south of Colorado Springs.

The Steel City, long known for blue collars and green chilies, is poised to become one of Colorado’s mountain bike hot spots. In the past several years, without fanfare, local bikers have built almost 50 miles of singletrack on a dry, sunny plateau west of town.

The 27,000 acres of sandstone cliffs and juniper-studded arroyos, nicknamed the South Shore because the area sits south of Pueblo Reservoir, feel more like the Utah desert than the edge of the plains.

The weather has a desert feel, too. Pueblo is, on average, 4 degrees warmer than Colorado Springs and the sunny, arid landscape keeps the trails dry when most of the state is still locked in ice.

But the mild climate is only part of the pull for riders traveling from as far as Boulder to hit what many are calling “the Fruita of the Front Range.”

Pueblo also has a top-notch trail system with everything from smooth cruisers to rock drops that make riders check their insurance coverage.

Miles of easy trails weave along the crest of sandstone cliffs along the lake shore. Signs made by volunteers direct riders down side trails with names such as Bones and Pin Ball that follow fast, jarring lines to the canyon floor.

“There are definitely some really tough sections,” Hubersberger said on a recent ride, “but we try to have something for everyone.”

Hubersberger grew up in Pueblo and owns Vance’s Bicycle World, a short ride from the trails. He always loved bikes. In the early 1980s, he held the world record for bunny hopping 941.5 inches. When he got into mountain biking in the late 1980s, the pickings were slim.

Pueblo’s small tribe of mountain bikers made do with local motorcycle trails for years. Finally they found an almost blank canvas at the South Shore.

“At first we’d go riding out there by just linking up old cow paths,” said Austin Clark who, like Hubersberger and a cadre of other local bikers, discovered the area about 17 years ago.

From there the South Shore evolved much like its more famous Western Slope kin, Fruita.

Ambitious bikers used spare time and shovels to make bigger and better trails on essentially overlooked scraps of public land.

In Fruita’s case, the land was a barren shale valley on Bureau of Land Management acreage west of Grand Junction, near the Utah border. In Pueblo’s case, it was rough, little-used prairie owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed by Colorado State Parks.

In both cases, volunteers quietly devised lavish systems that would have taken years of red tape to construct on more heavily regulated land.

For Fruita, the honeymoon of lax regulation ended when a flood of notoriety brought increased scrutiny by land managers in the late 1990s. A few locals were able to build dozens of trails in the early years. In the years that followed, the place has become an international biking destination, and the BLM has only allowed a few new trails.

Pueblo seems less far along on the same path. A tiny group of volunteers called the Southern Colorado Trail Builders Association constructed 48 miles of trail under what one volunteer called a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship with managers at the state park.

In the past few years, though, managers of Lake Pueblo State Park have brought the group into the official fold.

Lake Pueblo is putting together a trails master plan that will officially recognize the existing system and identify new trail opportunities.

“We’ve kind of done it backwards. Usually you have the plan before the trails, but that’s OK,” said park manager Mike Dowd. He said the park views bike volunteers as “a valuable asset.”

Legitimacy for the South Shore trails has its price.

“Working with all the government agencies is really slowing things down,” Clark said.

Every proposed trail is required to be designed by a professional and inspected for archaeological sites.

The waiting list for inspection by the state is more than a year long.

The kinds of trails that can be built are changing, too. Land managers presented with daring drops or bridges often bring up liability, Clark said.

Even so, the group has another 12-mile loop planned. Construction may begin this year.

“It’s a lot like Fruita,” said Hubersberger. “We got a lot done at first and now it’s slowed down. But what we got done is pretty awesome. I mean, it’s a gas, man.”

Word of the South Shore is starting to spread. Many in Pueblo still don’t know about it, but tales of trails rideable all winter have reached a growing number of avid riders in Colorado Springs and points north.

“I first heard about it last year and went down to check it out,” said Jim Schwerin, a member of the Colorado Springs-based bike advocacy group Medicine Wheel.

“It was described to me as a little Fruita, and that’s exactly what it is,” said Schwerin.

It lacks Fruita’s superlatives. The view isn’t quite as good. The trails aren’t quite as long. The steeps aren’t quite as rad. But the short drive makes it possible to make the trip once or twice a week, not once or twice a year.

And people are making the trip.

“Everyone I meet on the trail is from Colorado Springs. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Pueblo,” said Teresa Ingram, who drives down regularly to ride during winter.

In April, locals are holding the South Shore’s first race, as a sort of coming-out party for the longtime local secret.

“I hope someday we have 50 cars a weekend heading down here instead of to Fruita,” Clark said.

Until then, he carries photos of the trails with him when he visits other towns.

“Otherwise, I’ve found people don’t believe me when I say Pueblo has great biking.”