Four Bikes and One Big Adventure in Aspen

By Sarah Ripplinger

If you live in Aspen, CO, chances are you’re a cyclist. The number and variety of cycling activities in and around this city of about 6,000 people makes it easy.

For starters, Aspenites have access to a varied terrain. The inner-city is flat enough that you can travel around on a single-speed cruiser without much trouble. The Aspen Historical Society tour of the city was effortlessly accomplished from the seat of a sturdy Electra cruiser rented from the Limelight Lodge.

Aspen is pleasant to ride through because of the low traffic volumes and designated bicycle/ pedestrian roads. Along Hopkins Avenue, pylons are set up at intersections to prevent cars from traveling more than one block at a time. The advantage is that local car traffic still has access to the homes along the street, but cars cannot go zipping in a straight line over several blocks. This has a natural traffic-calming effect on the street and has resolved some of the traffic issues that formerly affected the neighborhood.

As you might expect, Aspen is a quiet mountain town. Sitting at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level, residents have breathtaking views of the central Rocky Mountain range, which includes the Aspen, Smuggler and Red mountains, and the White River National Forest. The city is a reflection of the many wealthy celebrities and individuals that call Aspen home. Luxury stores, such as Louis Vuitton and J.Crew, border the Mill Street Plaza, and the tidy enclave of street shopping and patio/ lounge areas in the Hyman Avenue Mall. There was a discretely positioned McDonald’s. Several black fire hydrants blended appealingly into their surroundings. And a free bus system with front ski/ bike racks carried young and old to and from areas of the city – where there is a relatively vibrant nightlife – and nearby communities.

Cyclists often ignore the available bike parking – and ski racks that double as bike racks – which means you see gorgeous unlocked cruiser bikes nestled between benches and under shady trees. For a big city-dweller, it was a shock to see unlocked bikes literally piled in the bushes outside the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival and the Woody Creek Tavern (famous for its margaritas, nachos and the infamous Hunter S. Thompson).

“Aren’t people concerned about getting their bikes stolen?” I naively inquired to our local tour guide. “Well, no,” she replied, “this is Aspen!”

Aside from being a great commuter town, the surrounding environs are a playground for mountain bikers and road riders alike.

I had my first long-distance-on-a-road bike experience traveling up to the Maroon Bells on an Orbea Onix road bike rented from the five star luxury hotel, The Little Nell, which, I must say, has a lovely menu at the Montagna restaurant, and exceptional service. Considering that my present and past bikes have all been either cruisers or mountain bikes, riding on a skinny-tire carbon fiber aerodynamic road eater like the Orbea was a bit nerve-racking at first. But, after a short distance, I got used to the forward position and dropdown handlebars.

The Maroon Bells ride up Maroon Creek Road is considered one of the more advanced rides, so I was surprised to find the climb quite manageable – although I did take a few breaks. The view from the top and chance to see Lance Armstrong – who was training along that same route that day and lives part-time in Aspen – whiz past me down the road made it worth the two-three-hour ride.

Possibly the most impressive part of my adventure was having the opportunity to try not one, but four bikes! Which brings me to the Kalkhoff electric bike rented from The Little Nell. I’m normally a fan of electric bikes, and the Kalkhoff didn’t disappoint. Having already ridden a similar model, but with a step-through design, it was like visiting an old friend. We got along swimmingly, and my Kalkhoff and I bounced along the Rio Grande Trail, one of the first rails-to-trails projects in the country, under a blue sky with nothing but the sound of my tires on the gravel trail and my riding companion to distract us.

For the more “dirt”-inclined, there is a plethora of mountain biking trails to explore.

Again, being the city commuter that I am, I wasn’t too sure how I would fare on a steep downhill slope through trees. So, I was happy to take the Mountain Biking 101 course that is operated out of the Aspen Snowmass Mountain ski resort.

Our instructor, Kevin, showed our group of around 10 people the proper “attack” riding position – where you stand up on the pedals and lean forward on your bike, elbows out – the correct way to brake when going downhill and how to maneuver around obstacles and angle into turns. Step number two was to test our newfound skills on a single track loop, one gondola stop up from the base of the mountain.

Then it was up to the top – where we also saw the area for a wilderness camping experience for beginners – for lunch and a brief repose before tackling the intermediate run (not the one soon to be completed specifically for the 101 course). Again, not having done this ever before in my life, I managed to dodge boulders, roll over roots and corner hairpin turns with relative ease (it was all downhill after all).

And what a sense of accomplishment at the end! Looking back at the elevation drop that I chewed up with the knobby tires of my Norco Fluid trail bike made me feel like, if I could tackle this, I could tackle the worst potholes, protruding manholes, loose gravel and miscellaneous garbage the streets of my city can muster.

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