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Get out and ride! Mountain bikers take their tires off the pavement

Local mountain biking enthusiast Ben Witting says of the sport, “All mountain biking really is, is not riding on pavement.”

This simple statement may shatter stereotypical images of mountain bikers riding $5,000 bicycles with front and rear shocks on severely steep and narrow terrain. Although there are indeed extreme riders who thrive on that sort of thing, many of the locals in Pagosa Springs who mountain bike are out to have a pleasant ride with friends or family, to exercise, and to enjoy the scenic beauty of the area by riding their bikes.

According to Ben, mountain biking can take place on dirt roads, graded roads, double tracks like those for ATVs, or single track trails. In fact, local riders agree that the key for beginners is to start out on roads rather than on more difficult trails. Ben recalled the story of how he began to mountain bike by riding up and down the road to Chimney Rock for exercise. “At first, I could only get about half way up before I had to turn around,” he says. Over time, however, he built up the strength to make it to the top and then moved on to other trails that were more challenging.

For Courtney King and her husband, Mike Musgrove, mountain biking is as convenient as riding the two blocks from their downtown home to the trailhead at Reservoir Hill Mountain Park. Once they leave the pavement on San Juan Street, they are mountain biking in a trail system within shouting distance of Town Park and the Post Office. Described by many as the most under-utilized resource in Pagosa Springs, Reservoir Hill boasts several miles of maintained trails for non-motorized use. Bikers, hikers and even horses use the trails that are marked with color coding: green, easy; blue, difficult; red, most difficult. There is a large map at the parking area that lays out the trails and mileage, with estimated time of completion on a bike to help first-time users. Various trails can be combined to make loops for different rides each time.

Courtney and Mike say they don’t usually have a set trail they follow and after 10 years of riding on Reservoir Hill, Mike doesn’t need to use the map anymore. Courtney uses the map for reference to make sure she knows the route they’re taking. The couple both work in the downtown area and use the trail system whenever they have time and when it’s not raining.

“We’ll take a ride before work, after work, sometimes during work,” Mike adds with a grin.

For heading up the trail, the duo both ride with plenty of water. Rather than a bottle, a common way to carry water is in a hydration pack worn on the back. The pack has a plastic bladder full of water with a long hose that acts like a straw with a bite valve at the tip. The end of the valve hangs at the shoulder so getting a drink of water is a simple task of turning one’s head to bite the valve and take a sip. Although the sun is high overhead and the air temperature is approaching 80 degrees, both riders have on long sleeves. “Sunscreen and water is a necessity,” Mike notes. “And long sleeves help with sun protection.”

When asked if their bikes are anything special, or if any particular gear is needed for mountain bike riding, they both glance down at the suspension on the front column of their bikes. The suspension is modest compared to many high-end bikes on the market that boast dual front and back shocks, as well as other high-tech upgrades that can put a big dent in a wallet. Mike and Courtney both agree that the biggest factor to having a good riding experience is the weight of the bicycle. Although a suspension or shock system is helpful, it is not necessarily the main consideration when getting a bike.

Jody Ellis at Pedal and Powder agrees that you don’t need anything fancy to have a good mountain bike ride. His main recommendation is to make sure the bike you are going to take out is tuned up and functioning correctly.

“You don’t want to get out in the back country with gear that doesn’t work,” Jody explains. A thorough check of gears, brakes and tires is necessary when riding a bike that has been sitting for a while. Jody also suggests bringing at least one extra tube with a pump or CO2 air cartridge on a ride. Punctured tires can be common when riding on gravel or dirt. And although the temperature might be sweltering hot, it is a good idea to always take a light jacket. “The weather around here can be rather volatile,” Jody adds.

Having lived in the area for five years, Jody is familiar with many of the trails and their degree of difficulty. As riders, Mike and Courtney have also discovered, if there is a negative to riding in Pagosa Springs, it is the lack of downhill, or freeriding in the area. Jody says his shop gets calls all the time for that type of riding and, unfortunately, there are very few developed trails that don’t lead to wilderness areas where bikes are not allowed.

“Our area is really limited by wilderness,” he explains. “You have to be careful how deep you get and not encroach on areas where you’re not supposed to be.”

After passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, mountain bikes were included as “mechanized transport” and are banned from all designated wilderness areas.

Another factor that limits mountain bike trails in the Pagosa Springs area is the lack of riders who get out and maintain the trails.

“We live in a fantastic area to mountain bike,” Witting says, “Hopefully enough people will keep getting out there to ride and keep the trails maintained. The best thing you can do for a trail is to ride it. They’re made to be used.”

As an example, Ben remarks on the arguably best downhill track in the area, Treasure Mountain, that is currently unrideable due to fallen trees on the trail. The trail is accessed near Wolf Creek Ski Area at the top of the Continental Divide and when passable, riders drop into the East Fork valley for a pickup. To clear the route would require bikers to get out on the trail with equipment to remove the debris.

The good news is that although Pagosa Springs may be lacking in downhill trails, there is still plenty of terrain to ride for both experts and beginners. Local enthusiasts say that the joy of mountain biking is that you can find rides that are adaptable to people’s own riding pleasure and can be as easy or as difficult as a rider wants. Matt Schwarz at Pagosa Outside sends visitors not only to Reservoir Hill for rides, but to several other locations as well. His business offers tours of varying difficulty, from a road ride above the Quartz Lake trailhead near Nipple Mountain with a van following along, to a single track, guided tour for advanced riders at Turkey Springs. “You can take a basic scenic cruise or a highly technical ride,” Matt notes. “There are trails everywhere.”

The Turkey Springs area is one of the most recommended places to ride. Located about 8 miles out on Piedra road, riders turn left on Forest Service Road 629, Turkey Springs Road, and can park at the junction with Newt Jack Road. From there, the possibilities are endless: relatively flat gravel roads for beginners and double track ATV trails and single track trails for all skill levels.

Mike and Courtney recommend that beginners don’t even bother with single track or double track when starting, but should ride on roads instead. “Roads are easier, less intimidating, and not as technical,” Courtney says. She adds that riding on roads is a good way to build up leg strength to prepare for some of the climbs that can be encountered on the backcountry trails.

With regard to gear, riders recommend wearing helmets. “I’ve broken two of them myself,” Ellis exclaims. Both helmets were damaged during crashes. The broken helmet could have been his head. Another unanimous piece of advice is that mountain bike riders should never go too far into the backcountry alone on a mountain bike. Although many riders enjoy the solitude of being solo on a trail, they may still have a check-in buddy who knows where they are and can send help if they do not get a confirmation phone call by a certain time.

For those without a ride of their own, shops in town have mountain bikes for rent. Mountain bikers interested in riding with a group are encouraged to attend the Thursday Night Rides, a weekly mountain bike ride that takes place on trails in Turkey Springs. The ride is sponsored by the Pagosa Wheel Club and interested mountain bikers can inquire at local shops for weekly meeting locations.

Whether riding in the backcountry on an isolated mountain trail, or on Reservoir Hill just minutes from town, mountain biking is a sport that anyone can enjoy. In the words of the local enthusiasts: “Just get out and ride.”