Steamboat Springs Neill Redfern and Craig Russell are bicycling buddies, but the truth is one of the two men spends most of his summer on a road bike and the other trains regularly on a heavier mountain bike.
They found common ground July 12-13 riding cyclocross bikes on the "Zirkel Circle." Redfern and Russell completed a 155-mile circumnavigation of the Park Range, and the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area contained within in it, over the course of two long days of pedaling. Along the way, they traveled just 44 miles on paved roads.
"Neill and I did a 65-mile ride a weekend earlier and he said, 'Hey, I found a route around Zirkel. Let's do it!'" Russell said.
"Craig and I are already planning to do it again next year," Redfern said.
Of course, it's illegal to ride a bicycle of any kind in the wilderness area. And the two men didn't come close to crossing the wilderness boundary. They were able to stick to county and Forest Service roads while riding a loop that surrounded the 11,000-foot peaks of Zirkel. Along the way they swallowed some dust while enjoying unmarred views of mountains and meadows.
Mountain bikes have dominated cycling in Northwest Colorado for more than a decade. Now, even as road bikes are enjoying a comeback, a new hybrid bike is taking riders for extended jaunts on the region's seemingly endless network of unpaved roads.
Cyclocross bikes are beefed up road bikes with tires that sometimes split the difference between the rubber typically found on road bikes and mountain bikes. Slightly beefier tires help the bikes stand up to Northwest Colorado's rugged unpaved roads.
Redfern was competing in the Leadville 50 mountain bike race this weekend. But he doesn't feel like he needs to spend all of his time riding single-track in order to be prepared for major mountain bike races. Russell, on the other hand, has found that road biking is the best way to prepare himself for the fall season of competitive cyclocross racing.
The bike Russell chose for the Zirkel Circle was built on a Specialized road bike frame with parts he stripped off other bikes, including a set of mountain bike brakes.
"It was pretty much a road bike," Russell said. Both men's bikes featured the drop handlebars that are more typical of road riding.
Neither Russell nor Redfern drove the route before setting out on their bikes. They began riding at 8:30 a.m. Saturday from Redfern's home on Meadow lane, near Whistler Park, then headed straight for the foot of Buffalo Pass and the end of the pavement.
Redfern said he planned to climb Buffalo Pass from the west and ride a counterclockwise route around Zirkel for several reasons. First, by beginning the trip with the 13-mile climb up the pass, they would be able to confirm early in the trip whether lingering snowdrifts would be a problem (as it turned out, the road was clear all the way). Second, based on experience, he preferred to descend the east side of the pass.
"I'd much rather go down the east side," Redfern said. "It's really smooth, and it's really pretty. I wouldn't come down the west side on a cross bike."
Redfern explained that the narrower tires on a cyclocross bike aren't as well suited as mountain bike tires are to the washboards and rocky stretches of the west side of the pass.
The only gear the men carried besides repair kits were 100-ounce hydration packs and spare water bottles on their frames. They were able to travel lightly because Redfern's wife Christine, and another friend, Jammie Sabin, were planning to meet them at a predesignated campground with tents, sleeping bags and sandwiches.
After summiting Buffalo Pass, the two riders dropped into the 8,000-foot-high valley of North Park, from which the headwaters of the North Platte River rise.
They turned their bikes north on Jackson County Road 5, transitioning to CR 7 and subsequently CR 6W on their way to their appointed rendezvous at the Big Creek Lakes Campground.
The first day's ride encompassed 75 miles and the biggest climb of the circle. The campground was about five miles out of the way, but afforded the luxury of a picnic table, restrooms and unlimited drinking water.
"It was really hot and our average speed was really low," Russell said of the first day of the Zirkel Circle. "We averaged just 12.5 to 13 miles per hour. It was really hard keeping your butt on the saddle. We were really close to the end of our water when we got to the end."
As they neared their goal on the first day, they were rewarded with views of Red Elephant Mountain and a glimpse of Mount Zirkel.
When Sunday dawned, Redfern and Russell could feel the fatigue in their legs. They shook out the kinks pedaling through rolling cattle country that some Steamboat residents never witness.
"The second day nickled and dimed us with smaller hills," Redfern said.
The route leaves Colorado and enters "Big, Wonderful Wyoming" in the neighborhood of Hog Park, where Forest Road 80 crosses Encampment River. From there, the men encountered the worst section of washboard road of the trip as they climbed modest switchbacks to the "Pipeline Trailhead" on the Continental Divide Trail. Lacking the suspension of modern mountain bikes, they could feel every bump in the road through the handlebars.
Returning to Routt County, they enjoyed long downhills into Whiskey Park leading them into the relatively smooth gravel roads of Big Red Park and finally, the pavement of Routt County Road 129. Redfern and Russell spun their wheels past Columbine, sailed past Steamboat Lake State Park and stopped at the Clark Store to slam a quart of Gatorade.
From there, it was a familiar ride through the Elk River Valley and into Steamboat to the point where the ride began in Redfern's kitchen.
If Redfern has any advice for riders who want to pedal the Zirkel Circle themselves, it's to sample sections of the route before undertaking the whole enchilada.
"The maps don't reflect the reality of the ride at all," Redfern said.