November 08, 2021
Meg and I returned to day touring this weekend with a jam-packed exploration of Fort Collins, Colorado: the land of bike lanes, howling cows, and horse teeth. Why such a long gap since our last post? Well, over the last couple of months, we:
... plus a slew of bike rides to breweries, virtual game nights, and bicycle slash coffee experiments. Also working, I guess.
Needless to say, the time was ripe for a personal weekend outside of the Denver area. We've also been eying a move to a smaller town, since Denver is an enormous megalopalis that we only lived in because Meg used to want to commute to a physical office.
This weekend, we managed to kill two birds with one stone: we had a relaxing time outside of Denver, and we just might have found where we'd like to live next.
Before we jump into our most recent ride, a smattering of some recent happenings in our lives:
The day began with a long, annoying drive up the Front Range. There's no escaping it: I25 sucks. It's the major route up and down the population-booming Front Range, and it's crazy busy at pretty much all times. The only thing that makes I25 look good? I70, which winds through the mountains and grinds to a complete halt every weekend all year round.
So because the highways in our state were built in the 1960s and haven't really been improved or supplemented since, we migrated over to a not-highway, 287, as soon as we could. It's far from my favorite road, but it gets the job done, unlike I25. The journey on 287 took us through Loveland, a Boulder suburb I'd heard of, but never visited before. It was exactly the kind of strip-mall filled suburban hellscape I was afraid of -- all the fast food, big box stores, and car lanes you can imagine. No room for people. So we got out of there pretty quick too.
Soon enough, we arrived in Fort Collins. And to be honest, I was not initially impressed. I mean, it's another small-but-sprawling Front Range city. It has slightly more bike lanes painted on the roads. What's the big deal?
Meg and I hopped on our bikes and started down the Poudre River Trail, and soon caught a glimpse of how special Fort Collins really is.
The Poudre River Trail turned out to be just the kind of scenic greenway we've come to love in Colorado: rocky rapids, cute bridges, isolation from noisy cars, and in early November, the last bits of fall foliage making their way from branches to the ground. But since we hopped on the trail close to the end, it wasn't long before we graduated to a mixture of on-road and next-to-road paths. An unusual design choice placed both directions of bicycle traffic on a single side of the road... allowing us the unusual experience of riding toward oncoming traffic. Not a choice I would make, but hey -- at least traffic was light. And it helps that the sky was utterly and completely blue, and a faint November morning chill clung to the air, keeping it crisp and fresh.
As expected, after a couple of miles, the trail petered out entirely. Fortunately, the end of the trail coincided with a popular nature preserve and fishing spot encircled by a dirt road. Since the preserve stretched almost all of the way to our destination, we decided to test out a potential shortcut, and appreciate a nice park even if the shortcut didn't work out.
The park turned out to be far prettier than I'd hoped. Sapphire blue water, a rugged red ridge rising up into the sky, and some washboardy-but-fun dirt roads made for a fun ride around the lake. The only company we had was fishermen, and the obligatory fisherman companion: lazy, medium-large dogs.
We reached the north end of the park, and I was slightly disappointed to discover that our destination, Pleasant Valley Farms, maintained a rather tall and intimidating fence between their land and the park. We would have to take the longer, car-trafficked way around. Oh well. We opted to finish our loop around the park, exploring the other half of the park across the lake from where we'd already ridden. But it wasn't long before we reached... another impassible fence. And somehow we were on the "no trespassing" side of it. Curious, when you haven't hopped any fences to get there.
The problem was easily solved with a bit of balance: the fence extended to the edge of the lake, but no further, for obvious reasons. So we just passed the bikes around the fence, then jumped around ourselves. So much for padlocks and barbed wire!
After the no-trespassing excitement, our ride mellowed out considerably. We finished our ride around the park, hopped on the road, and whizzed over a couple miles of rolling hills to reach our goal: The Howling Cow Cafe.
There's nothing like a well-run cafe to get your bike ride off to a good start. The Howling Cow didn't disappoint, with well executed coffees, two particularly fresh sandwiches, and, for some reason, one gloriously creamy milkshake. I suppose you'd expect a dairy farm to make a great milkshake, but this one was even better than I'd expected.
We took in our sandwiches, coffee, and milkshake on the expansive lawn, and enjoyed a day that was just breaking 70 degrees. Dozens of cyclists rode by in the time it took for us to eat and drink, and a healthy chunk of those cyclists swung by the Howling Cow for a bite to eat. Fortunately, they've got an entire dedicated bicycle parking lot. It was nice to visit someplace within a 20 minute ride of a major city where nobody bothers to lock their bike -- another major difference from Denver, where even if you lock your bike in your own garage, you're never really certain it'll be there when you come back to it.
After relaxing for a bit on the lawn and remarking on just how pleasant Pleasant Valley Farms really was, we set out on the bikes again. This time, we didn't really have a destination in mind.
Our plan for the day mostly revolved around exploring the city: checking out the bike paths, trying some beers, and investigating the local food truck scene. But fate took over when we left the Howling Cow. We found ourselves right behind another group of cyclists, and just before we arrived back at the Poudre River Trail, we noticed that the other cyclists deviated down a side road. That road looked like it headed straight for the reservoir on the edge of town, which has lots of trails and great views, so Meg and I decided to check it out.
The ride started out with roads much like those we'd already ridden by Pleasant Valley: rolling hills, wide shoulders, polite drivers. I'm sure those rolling hills are beautiful the 30 days a year that they're actually green, mostly in May. But we soon hit our first big obstacle: a very tall, very steep, very long hill right next to a dam for the reservoir.
Fortunately, it comes with a built-in rest stop: the road at the top of the dam, halfway up the hill (the rest of the road continues up, up and away into the ridge between the reservoir and town). We gritted our teeth, and tackled the hill. By the time we made it to the top of the dam, I was happy to shed a layer of jacket and sip some water. But I didn't expect the view: a breathtaking vista of rocky ridge, reservoir, and just the faint outlines of high peaks peeking from behind the foothills.
And the views at the top of the ridge were even better, providing a view of the reservoir in addition to sweeping views of the entire Fort Collins area. Damn, those guys have it nice. The ridge is literally right on the edge of town!
We continued down the ridgeline roadway for a few miles, taking in the views. I was impressed at the road etiquette of (nearly) all drivers: pretty much everyone gave me a full lane's passing distance, instead of squeezing by within inches. But after a few miles, I was content with the view, and ready to get off the road.
As I've mentioned in previous posts, Meg rides a relatively new steel touring bike, and I ride a 1990s steel mountain bike that's been (semi-professionally) converted into a touring bike. In this episode, Meg and I try to take Mandarb and Sully (those are the names of our bikes) on some mountain bike trails.
As we rode down the ridgeline roadway, I noticed that there were a fair number of trails weaving their way through the park land on either side of the road. By the time we were ready to leave the road, I'd spotted a perfect alternative: a singletrack trail snaking its way down the mountain, with only a few dogs and mountain bikes to dodge.
Meg was (reasonably) skeptical at first, but eventually gave into the temptation of adventure. The trail turned out to be chock full of rocks. And hairpin turns. And more rocks. And more dogs and bikes than I expected. Frankly, it was a bit much with a pannier full of water, snacks, bicycle repair equipment, and layers mounted on Mandarb. But we took it slow, let faster travelers pass us, and in the end we had an absolutely brilliant time. Nothing quite like sailing down a mountain bike trail right into the bike lanes of town.
From the mountain bike adventure, Meg and I decided to tour a bit around town. We really wanted to check out CSU and Fort Collins' supposed best-in-country bike infrastructure. While Fort Collins isn't exactly Amsterdam, it's a step above anything I've ever experienced in the US for bicycling. It's so freeing and carefree to ride around town, because you don't have to think about which roads are built to accommodate your bike. They pretty much all are. Because there are so many bikes around, cars seem to have a natural (and healthy) respect for cyclists, instead of zooming past you just to wait for you when they have to turn in a block. On the CSU campus, the signage is awesome: there's dedicated lanes for bikes, separate from the dedicated lanes for pedestrians. Even better: in the densest parts of campus, there just isn't a dedicated lane for cars at all. Take that, car-industrial complex.
We were also impressed by the sheer number of bike racks and parked bikes around town, especially on campus. It's clear that a huge proportion of residents and college students use bikes to get around everywhere. In Denver, Meg and I travel around on bikes all the time, because things are generally too far to want to walk all the time. But finding an open and safe bike rack is no easy feat. In Fort Collins, it feels like every business has multiple bike racks. And they're all in use. I assume that any business that tries to not have a bike rack would be run out of town.
After CSU, we headed over to the first brewery we could find that looked cute -- not exactly a difficult task in Fort Collins. We ended up picking Stodgy Brewing, whose employees are far from the cantankerous misers the name implies. The beer selection was small but competent. The outdoor space was sprawling and cute. The bike rack was... many bike racks. The bathrooms were individual non-gendered toilet rooms with shared sinks. The food truck was a simple but well-executed prosciutto and artichoke heart flatbread. And it was super easy to get to Stodgy, because all of the roads have bike lanes.
After our pit stop at Stodgy, it was time for some more exploration around town. This time, Meg and I tried out the north-south bike-and-bus-only thoroughfare up the center of town, the Mason Street Transitway. As you'd expect, riding quickly north-south through the heart of the city, hardly dealing with cars at all is a very pleasant way to ride your bicycle. It goes to show that it is, in fact, possible to create north-south bike routes through town. Looking at you, Denver.
We eventually ended up right in the heart of Fort Collins: Old Town. A super walkable stretch of restaurants, bars, shops, and a guest taproom for every major Colorado brewery who isn't originally from Fort Collins. Plus it has nice lights, pavers, and weird terminator statues. I don't really care much for that kind of bumpin' downtown atmosphere, but it's nice to know that it exists in a town for impressing visitors and preventing your town from rotting into another Gary.
After exploring downtown, Meg and I headed over to Snowbank Brewing, which has:
On our way over to Snowbank, we swung past two of the most famous Colorado breweries, who both call Fort Collins home: Odell, and New Belgium. New Belgium seemed to be hosting some kind of bicycle race, and we had the pleasure of seeing one of the competitors ride two bicycles at once down a bike lane to his truck. Only in Fort Collins, I guess.
After Snowbank, Meg and I headed back up the conveniently-close Poudre River Trail back to Clem. The sun was just setting as we packed up the bikes, but after such a fun day, it wasn't hard to motivate ourselves for the ride back to Denver. Plus, we stopped at another local favorite brewery, 4 Noses, in Broomfield, for another beverage and a burrito bowl each. We took advantage of the empty Saturday night suburban grocery stores to load up on supplies for the week, and headed home.
Fort Collins opened my eyes to just how good city bicycling can be. I didn't bike back when I lived in Rochester because my bike was stolen. I didn't bike back when I lived in New York City because I didn't want to die. I started biking in Denver because the weather here is perfect for it, the city is flat as a pancake, and places I want to go are too far to walk. But I want to live someplace where I can walk, bike, and (hopefully not too much!) drive around safely. And now that Meg and I can both work fully remote, it might just be the time to try.