Juliana Bicycles

Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail

Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail

Juli 24 — 2019 | Durango, CO

Lee Craigie and five other Scots take on the Colorado Trail

 

“It sounds AMAZING but I’m not sure I want to race it.  530 miles of self-supported singletrack at altitude through the rocky mountains? Yes, yes I agree it would be an incredible adventure but there are the bears to consider. And the lightning. AND the lack of oxygen. And...hang on, has Colorado not just had unprecedented levels of snowfall this Spring? Nah. Racing it would be just brutal. Uh huh. We could just tour it as a bunch of mates. Skip the snow plugged areas. Stop in bars. Good idea. I’m in.”

 

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Lee Craigie

Jenny knows me well. My good friend and Adventure Syndicate co-director has an uncanny ability to circumnavigate my love-hate relationship with racing. She will entice me on far flung bikepacking adventures with promises of laughter-filled, fun, flowing mountain bike riding punctuated with beautiful chilled out camp spots and then, just as I relax enough to appreciate my surroundings and feel grateful for my functioning body, she’ll plant that little race seed again and watch as it germinates in the darker part of my soul. 

We are in Durango. We have spent more than two weeks journeying here on the Colorado Trail from Denver with four of our friends from Scotland. In 6 days time, I will race it back again. I’m not sure how this happened. I sometimes suspect Jenny Graham of witchcraft. 

The truth is, deep down, I’ve always wanted to race the CTR. Riding bikes hard and fast through challenging, wild terrain on a loaded bike while sleeping in the dirt ticks all my boxes (a bit odd?). The feeling of growing feral and shaking off any constraints, including the simple ability to socially interact or make any kind of decision, is something I weirdly enjoy. Once I’ve let go, I revel in being so stripped back physically and emotionally that every smell, sound, and colour seems so much more vibrant. In the mundanity of everyday life, I crave what throwing myself to fate might deliver. At the same time, I dread it. Sleeping for 2 hours a night and riding/pushing more than 100 mountain miles in a day hurts. It really hurts. 

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Juliana Bicycles Image
Lee Craigie

We left Denver on July 4th. Six friends from Scotland with a plan to ride sedately for around 40 miles a day carrying enough food and gear to allow us to stop when and where we liked. No pressure. No agenda. Just a journey in the high country on bikes with mates to Durango. Somewhere in the dark workings of my subconscious, I knew I would be taking in the trail with the race in mind (the resupply points, the possible shelter options) and storing them in a folder marked “Colorado Trail Race- Durango to Denver” but I wasn’t yet ready to accept that was happening. 

 

Huw, Annie, Scott, DJ, Jenny and I were used to travelling this way and have many shared experiences already stored in our memories from Scottish based adventures together. Countless hours spent pushing or carrying our bikes over high cols in sideways driving rain to find a glimmer of singletrack on the other side had prepared us for what the mountains can throw at us. We have poured over many maps together, pooling our shared knowledge of the Scottish Highlands in order to plan routes through remote glens or round impenetrable bog. Yet we had absolutely no idea what lay in store once we reached the trailhead at Waterton Canyon outside Denver. If we had, I suspect we would have found ourselves visiting the U.S. a lot sooner. 

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Juliana Bicycles Image
Lee Craigie

After riding a few miles on dirt road the trail began rising on perfectly pitched, smooth singletrack that then dropped down to the Platte River. We joked with one another (using the small amount of breath we had to spare) that it would be incredible if the quality of riding continued like this all the way to Durango! Ha ha!! 

Then it did.

For the next week we woke at 5.30am and were riding sweet singletrack by 7am. We’d usually sleep at a marked trailhead which was usually idyllic, usually by water and usually serviced by an immaculate composting toilet (or a Tour Divide Hilton as we got used to calling them on our 2017 race attempt from Canada to Mexico).

Mornings would be spent inching up just rideable switchbacks to gain spectacular traversing high singletrack that we’d appreciate while ignoring the vague but persistent knowledge that the world lay dramatically below us just slightly to our left. Around lunchtime (which, incidentally, is at 10.30am if you’ve been up since 5am) we’d drop into the next section of jaw-dropping, floaty trail. It really was as good as that. I’ve never before experienced such consistently well built trail anywhere else in the world and I felt such gratitude every day for the vision and determination of Gudy Gaskill, the pioneering woman who began The Colorado Trail Foundation back in the 1970s. 

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Juliana Bicycles Image
Lee Craigie

While it’s true there are several wilderness detours that bike riders have to take on the CT, these also offer something special. The wide dirt road detours open up the landscape in very welcome ways. Wide valley floors narrow as they start climbing the tree covered hillsides, allowing us to take in the changes that altitude has on the flora and fauna here. It also meant that we could ride side by side and talk to each other which, in case you are wondering, we were still pretty much managing to do after a week in. 

Travelling this way for long periods of time in a large group is not easy. We all have our different rhythms and we all place varying levels of importance on tiny factors such as personal hygiene. So when we’d arrive into town, we found our team would split itself down the middle. Three of us would be keen to wash, eat, resupply and get back on the trail. The other three thought it a wasted opportunity to not visit the many diverse microbreweries along the way and throw themselves open to experiencing some top live music and mind expanding conversations with locals. I shall leave it to you to decide which category Jenny and I fell into. 

Our favourite stop was in Buena Vista. Disappointed that we had to reroute around our second snow impasse, we landed in this one street town in need of solace. We got it by way of the local bike shop, a common story for bike travellers the world over. Boneshaker Bike Shop was generous with their local knowledge. They tweaked our bikes and then summoned the owner’s wife, Elayna Caldwell, a legend in the bike industry who also happens to be the General Manager for Juliana. What followed was a lovely connection of like-minded souls over a couple of beers which resulted in plans to continue conversations back in Scotland. Bikes unite. As does beer to be fair. 

 

With over half the journey complete now, we reluctantly left town, pausing at the Princeton Hot Springs for a much needed wash before pressing on to negotiate the tricky Sargents Mesa section. For six people who live at sea level, this boulder strewn plateau sits above 11,000ft and with no resupply options for three days, it really kicked our butts. By the time we dropped to Lake City, we were tired, wild eyed and ready to eat our own arms off. 

It was at this point we had to plan how we were going to finish the route to Durango. All the high passes between here and our endpoint were still locked with snow and we fell in with a substantial gathering of bikepackers and hikers in town all trying to figure out the same logical challenge. Eventually, by sharing our combined knowledge all of us decided to push on over Engineers Pass then wiggle our way through the only dirt roads cleared of avalanche debris to land at our group’s endpoint in Silverton, still 50 miles shy of Durango. 

 

It was in Silverton that Team Scotland went their separate ways. After another night of essential sampling at the Avalanche brewery, Huw, Annie, and Scott hitched out of town. Jenny took to the road, and DJ and I jumped on the magical narrow gauge historic steam train that chugged its way through the San Juan’s to our final destination - Durango. 


Nearly 20 years ago, my much younger self had worked for Colorado Outward Bound on their 30 day technical mountaineering programmes and had been resupplied by this very train. That young woman had no idea that her older self would one day whisk through this impressive river valley to the end of a life-affirming bikepacking adventure with friends to ready herself to begin the daunting race back again. As I trundled south to Durango I called on the spirit of that 20-year-old to help me out. I found I needed her self-assured optimism that this next part of the adventure was going to be ok. I know so much more than she did back then, but she would have been more up for blindly accepting the risks and hardship of this race back to Denver. I looked out at the intimidating snow covered peaks and tried to quell the rising fear and excitement growing in my chest. No one knows what’s going to happen next. But it’s going to be interesting to find out. 

You can follow the Colorado Trail Race here from 4am on Sunday July 28th.

 

More About Lee:

Lee Craigie trained as an outdoor instructor then a child and adolescent psychotherapist before turning to full time mountain bike racing. She became the British Mountain Bike champion in 2013 representing GB at World and European Championships and Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Lee founded The Adventure Syndicate; a not-for-profit that inspires and enables more women and girls to challenge themselves on bikes by making award-winning films and podcasts and by running training camps and events. She is also an independent commissioner for the Scottish Government encouraging active lifestyles. Lee lives in the Highlands of Scotland. 

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