Colorado National Monument Hosts the Ride the Rockies Bicycle Tour

Riders ascend a grade on Rim Rock Drive during the Denver Post Ride The Rockies bicycle tour. NPS photo.

The Denver Post Ride The Rockies bicycle tour is a noncompetitive fundraising event that takes several thousand cyclists on a week-long ride through the Colorado Rockies each June. There were over 4,000 applicants for the 2,000 spots in this year's RTR, the 25th in the series. The successful applicants included riders of all ages and skill levels from 48 states and 18 foreign countries. All cyclists are encouraged to ride at their own pace and enjoy the experience.

The first leg of this year's RTR showcased one of America's most popular mountain biking routes, Rim Rock Drive in Colorado National Monument. Rim Rock Drive was an apt choice for the first leg of the 523-mile tour. Constructed between 1931 and 1950, the 23-mile long, two lane road is widely considered to be one of America's most scenic paved routes and certainly one of the most challenging for cyclists. As it winds through red rock canyons, towering sandstone monoliths, and other eye popping terrain, Rim Rock climbs to 6,640 feet with the help of three tunnels and numerous steep switchbacks and curves (some with grades of nine percent). Noteworthy for its many steep dropoffs and general absence of guardrails, this is a road that compels caution.

None of this deters riders who appreciate the grandeur of the park and the mystique of its famous road. Indeed, Colorado National Monument has become a mecca for road cyclists from all over America and the world. Upwards of 16,000 cyclists now ride Rim Rock Drive in a typical year.

The Ride The Rockies tour brought more than 2,100 riders to Rim Rock on June 13, the first day of the tour. Among them were two National Park Service employees -- Becky Wiles, chief of interpretation at White Sands National Monument, and Janet Kelleher, a visitor use assistant at Colorado National Monument. These two and the other RTR riders not only toughed out the road, but also coped with weather conditions that at times brought heavy rain and even hail. No one was injured, not least because the park staff and volunteers who helped to coordinate various aspects of the event emphasized safety.

At the height of the storm, more than 500 shivering, weather-pounded cyclists took shelter at the park's visitor center and adjacent covered porch areas. These storm refugees got out their wallets, and soon the sweatshirts and fleeces were flying off the shelves at the gift store. The Colorado National Monument Association, which operates the store, ended up having the single biggest sales day in its history.

Money does matter, of course. Proceeds from the Ride the Rockies bicycle tour benefit Denver Post Charities (a McCormick Foundation Fund), with all proceeds matched at 50 cents on the dollar and returned directly to the community. The RTR also yields valuable publicity and tangible economic benefits to the host communities along the route -- including, of course, national park gateways. An eligible NGO in each host town gets a grant from the Denver Post Community, and a lot of money flows into the community coffers as well. In 2009, cyclists and their entourages spent an average of $250,000 a day in each host town for lodging, food and beverages, souvenirs, and other purchases. Host communities are encouraged to provide special services, such as alternative lodging, inexpensive community meals, and entertainment. These investments in the RTR pay long-lasting dividends. Many cyclists and their families later return as tourists.

Postscript: If you'd like to see what a bicycle race on Rim Rock Drive looks like, rent the 1985 film American Flyers. (I know you can get the DVD from Netflix, because I just did that last week.) This film, which features the pre-starhood Kevin Costner and some other fine actors (Rae Dawn Chong, David Marshall Grant, Alexandra Paul), has excellent racing footage, much of which was shot during the (now-defunct) three-stage Coors International Bicycle Classic. The middle stage of the Coors International -- the notoriously grueling Tour of the Moon -- was centered on the punishing grades, sharp curves, and terrifying dropoffs of Rim Rock Drive.