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Colorado's new bicycling beast

Bicycle RacingSundance Film Festival

BOULDER, Colo. — They sweep down steep, rugged valleys and whip up the other side, flying into the mountain splendor. They build up speed, then force their way across a 100-foot-long sand pit, pumping desperately to reach the other side. They dismount, grab their dual-wheeled vehicles and wheeze up a staircase a mile above sea level.

And they bring their kids — sometimes little kids who are just learning to stay upright on flat streets — who can try their young skills on these arduous challenges.

Boulder, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies 40 minutes northwest of Denver, is home to the year-old Valmont Bike Park, one of the few cyclo-cross parks in the country and the only one in the U.S. purposely built as such. It's for world-class experts as well as the whole family and already is in line to host the 2014 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships.

Valmont was born in 1996, when the question of what to do with newly purchased city acreage along Valmont Road was answered by the passion of Boulder bicycle enthusiasts, including the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance advocacy group. Bike park manager Mike Eubank teamed with international racing champ Pete Webber, "the king of cyclo-cross." The 40-acre course was based on Webber's extensive experience competing on European courses.

The popularity of cycling in Boulder is partly why it was built, Eubanks said. It was designed according to International Cycling Union specifications and includes single-track trails, pump tracks, obstacle paths and stunt features, including the 5280 Run-Up Staircase, which is a mile above sea level. Cyclists can ride on or around more than 35 elements, including boulders, logs and plank bridges on narrow, tree-lined trails.

I was introduced to the track when visiting an old friend, Steve Foehr, author and avid cyclist, who takes almost weekly rides into the mountains above his home near Boulder.

"I've been involved in cycling in Boulder for 30 years," Foehr said. "I'm a serious recreational rider and consider myself one step below competitive." The bikes used are astounding in quality, he said, costing from $3,000 to $16,000. The average has 10 speeds, is very light and costs $4,000 to $5,000.

Beyond Valmont, he rides with seniors 60 and older, many of whom are former athletes. There also are several clubs that have regular rides into the mountains, gathering at specific spots such as Amante Coffee (amantecoffee.com). There are three or four destinations that Foehr likes: One favorite finds him pushing up 17 miles, often with a grade of 12 to 15 degrees while dodging automobiles, to the small town of Ward. There also is Jamestown, not as long or demanding; Estes Park, 35 miles and four to five hours; and Elkhorn Canyon, with "scenery quintessential to the Old West."

Some cyclists head into Nederland and stop a mile south of town for a late breakfast and magnificent view at 1960s-era Sundance Lodge and Cafe (303-258-3797, sundance-lodge.com). One of the toughest rides, which Foehr has not done and says he isn't about to, is up Mount Evans, the only 14,000-foot peak with a road to the top (known as the highest paved road in North America).

Boulder is a platinum-level, bike-friendly community, one of only three in the country given that highest rating by the League of American Bicyclists, said Marni Ratzel, bicycle/pedestrian transportation planner for Boulder. It offers an extensive bike system of internal paths with underpasses and well-marked street corridors. Commuting by bike is encouraged, buses are equipped for bikes, and there is a healthy relationship between cars and bikes. A mere swipe of your credit card at several rental stations or bike shops will provide a riding experience for the bikeless.

But it was due to the desire of many riders to avoid not-always-observant motorists — and a passion for competition on the highest level — that Valmont was built. And now it's ready for the best competitors in the world.

The sport of cyclo-cross dates to the early 1900s in France as a way to stay in shape over the winter months, steeple chasing from town to town, slogging through fields and scrambling over fences.

And Valmont will be open all winter, conditions permitting.

"The messier and muckier, the better for the racer and spectator," Eubank said with a laugh. "I have done it. It's extremely difficult unless one is passionate about it. Mud plus snow combine with a challenge on different levels. It's not just the bike riding itself. And spectators can get really close."

Now, Valmont will take its place in this century-old sport. America's newest course is a work in progress as it continues to add new runs and challenges in preparation for the highly-sought-after USA Cycling National Championships, which it will host over five days in January 2014.

For those not wanting to wait, the next cyclo-cross competition will be in Madison, Wis., Jan. 9-13.

If you go

For a map and information on the Valmont Bike Park, which is at the corner of Valmont and Airport roads, visit bouldercolorado.gov. The park is open during daylights hours.

The USA Cycling website is usacycling.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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