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Mountain bikers ride in the Aspen Snowmass area. (Provided by Aspen Snowmass)
Mountain bikers ride in the Aspen Snowmass area. (Provided by Aspen Snowmass)

While my bike coach, Piglet, rode ahead on the downhill mountain bike trail at the Snowmass Bike Park, I followed cautiously behind, trying to remember what she had said about not having a “death grip” on the handlebars.

Crouched in the neutral downhill stance she taught me earlier in the day, I traversed over rocks, cruised around turns and tried my best to look up from the trail every once in awhile to catch a glimpse of the lavender, yellow and white wildflowers among the groves of leggy aspen trunks.

When we neared the bottom of the mountain, she took me to the beginner skills park and explained how to safely ride over a small jump. Even though I didn’t catch any air, I let out a “Wheeee!” as I crested the small mound of dirt. Piglet was right: Going downhill on a mountain bike does make you feel like a kid again.

The Snowmass Bike Park is one of many reasons why the Roaring Fork Valley — home to the mountain communities of Aspen, Snowmass, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt — earned a coveted gold-medal designation from the Boulder-based International Mountain Bike Association earlier this year.

This Colorado valley is one of just seven regions in the world to earn the gold-medal title from IMBA’s cycling experts, who also judged the area’s bike shops, rental options, guides and instructors. What’s more, they considered what it would be like to spend a bike-centric vacation in the valley, taking into account the accessibility of other activities, entertainment options, bars, restaurants, lodging and shopping.

But perhaps most important, the region stood out as an award-worthy cycling destination because it’s friendly and accessible to beginners. Some of IMBA’s goals include breaking down barriers to entry into the sport and helping people at all ability levels improve their cycling skills.

News of the designation, coupled with the desire to spend more time outdoors because of the pandemic, has made the Roaring Fork Valley a popular destination for people who like to ride bikes this summer — or want to learn how.

“The trails, the roads, the instructors — the stoke level is huge here,” said Erik Skarvan, a longtime bike racer and owner and instructor at Aspen’s Sun Dog Athletics, which offers a whole host of outdoor experiences and lessons. “Just in terms of the vibe, cycling is the skiing of summer.”

As a beginner myself, I wanted to check it out and experience first-hand what the Roaring Fork Valley had to offer by spending a long (socially distanced) weekend here, mostly on two wheels.

Downhill mountain biking

I spent most of my time at the bike park (OK, if I’m being honest, all of my time) on the easiest trail on the mountain, Verde. Piglet (whose real name is Peggy Harris-Foster, and she’s a total badass) spent the entire day with me, starting with a lesson in how to use my bike’s brakes, how to turn a corner while going downhill, how to position my body on the bike and, importantly, how to get a huge mountain bike onto the gondola.

During the winter, Snowmass is covered with snow and teeming with skiers and snowboarders. But during the summer months, it’s lush and green, with a criss-cross of flowy mountain-bike trails designed with help from the pros at Gravity Logic, which specializes in building epic and intentional mountain bike trails.

The bike park first opened in 2011. Since then, Aspen Skiing Company (along with plenty of other partners) has been adding more and more trails to improve the park’s diversity. As with skiing, mountain bike trails are color-coded by difficulty — green is the easiest, blue is medium difficulty, black is the most difficult.

Today, you can tackle one green trail, six blue trails and four black trails, including one double-black diamond. Some are long, some are short. Some are super smooth and flowy, while others are more technically demanding. All told, there are more than 25 miles of terrain offering 2,893 feet of vertical descent here.

“We’re finally at a point where we have a really strong diversity of trail offerings both in terms of ability-appropriateness and in terms of the style,” said Tyler Lindsay, a longtime mountain biker who helps run competitive events put on by Aspen Skiing Company.

If you prefer to earn it, there are a handful of cross-country trails at the bike park. You can easily connect to the more than 300 miles of singletrack throughout the valley, without really having to get off your bike.

“You can start at the top of Elk Camp at almost 10,000 feet and ride continuous singletrack all the way down to the Rodeo Lot or even all the way down to Brush Creek some 4,500 feet beneath you, and that’s pretty unique,” said Lindsay. “One of the greatest parts (of the bike park) is the way it ties into the existing legacy network of singletrack.”

And if downhill mountain biking isn’t your thing, of course there are plenty of other opportunities to enjoy the mountain: hiking, a challenge course, a climbing wall, an alpine coaster or just general sightseeing and quality time with your dog.

Riding the Rio Grande

No visit to the Roaring Fork Valley is complete without a walk, jog or ride along the Rio Grande Trail, a 42-mile paved wonder that stretches from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. The trail is easy to access from downtown Aspen and can connect you to many singletrack networks if you’re itching for another day of mountain biking.

“It’s pretty nice if you don’t have to get into a car to drive to a trailhead,” says Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association. “You’re not going to ride all 40-plus miles on your mountain bike, but more often than not, you can ride from home along that trail a couple of miles or a few miles in the middle of your ride. It really does connect everything.”

The Rio Grande is what’s known as a “rail-to-trails” project, since it replaced a train route of the Rio Grande Western Railroad. After trains stopped running in the mid-1990s, local governments, nonprofits and the Colorado Department of Transportation bought the corridor and created the Roaring Fork Transit Authority to help build and manage the multi-use trail.

RELATED: Ride your bike on these Colorado railroad routes without fear of being run over by a train

I opted to ride a cruiser bike to explore the Rio Grande trail, starting with a stop at the John Denver Sanctuary, a lovely little garden on the Roaring Fork River featuring the lyrics of some of Denver’s popular songs (and quotes from other noteworthy figures) etched into boulders. You’ll leave with “Rocky Mountain High” stuck in your head, but it’s so worth it for a moment of quiet reflection and to imagine Aspen through Denver’s eyes.

If you like having a destination in mind while riding, head out of Aspen and pedal for approximately 8  miles (mostly downhill) until you reach Woody Creek, a tiny town that’s best known for being the home of Hunter S. Thompson (and a handful of other celebrities, too).

Before you turn back, stop for a margarita at Woody Creek Tavern, a funky dive bar with parking for dozens of bikes out front. And maybe don’t have too many, since you’ll still need to ride back to Aspen — and this time you’ll be going uphill.

Cruising to the Maroon Bells

E-bikes, in particular, are also having a moment in the Roaring Fork Valley. These high-tech bikes are not new, but they’ve become exceedingly popular here since the start of the pandemic.

You still have to pedal, but you get some assistance from an electric motor, which makes them great for commuting around the valley.

RELATED: Popularity of e-bikes skyrocketing as people continue to head outdoors during the coronavirus outbreak

(Though the rules vary throughout Pitkin County and based upon the type of e-bike, these bikes are generally only allowed on roads, multi-use trails and paved trails — not on singletrack, sidewalks, pedestrian malls and non-paved trails. If you decide to rent an e-bike, make sure to educate yourself about where you can and cannot go with it.)

They’re also a popular choice for riding on the road up to the iconic Maroon Bells, a route that climbs more than 1,300 feet in 7 miles. Of course, if you’re up for a challenge, you can ride your regular road bike instead. (Go ahead and also plan a ride up Independence Pass while you’re at it.) Another option: Rent a bike and get a ride from Blazing Adventures, an outfitter with special permission to drive up to the Bells, then coast back down.

Because of COVID-19 and the wild popularity of these twin peaks, visitors need to make a reservation to access the Maroon Bells and the road is mostly closed to vehicle traffic between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., except for shuttles and certain exemptions.

The good news? This means there are very few cars on the road, which makes it safer for cyclists. Even so — and even on an e-bike — it’s important to understand your own physical limitations (remember: the air is very thin up here!) and take all the necessary safety precautions of riding a bike on the road.

Along the way, don’t forget to keep an eye out for wildlife, like bighorn sheep, deer, tons of birds, marmots and black bears (I was lucky enough to see one ambling across the road on my way up!).

Wondering how else to spend your time? Here are a few ideas.

  • Check out the cleverly named “Sculpturally Distanced” exhibit at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass. Here, you’ll see 17 sculptures from local, national and international artists.
    Take a tour of the art and grounds of the historic Aspen Institute, aka Aspen Meadows Resort, which was designed in the German Bauhaus style by architect and artist Herbert Bayer between 1953 and 1973.
  • Learn about the foraging exploits of Barclay Dodge, owner and chef at Bosq in downtown Aspen. Dodge, who grew up in Aspen and trained all over the world as a chef, regularly heads into the nearby wilderness to forage wild foods and utensils like watercress, pine needles and serviceberry branches. The restaurant’s menu highlights his foraged ingredients.
  • Wander through the Aspen Historical Society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum to learn about the region’s humble silver mining beginnings. Or, take a guided historic walking tour with one of the society’s docents.
  • Learn about the valley’s flora and fauna on an informative guided hike with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
  • Take a socially distanced yoga class among the wildflowers on the top of Aspen Mountain with Aspen Shakti yoga studio.

Wear your mask in the Roaring Fork Valley

Aspen, Snowmass and other communities in the valley are taking the coronavirus pandemic very seriously. If you’re planning a road trip, remember to respect and follow all local rules and guidelines related to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Most important, wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth at all times when you’re in public, especially when you’re in busy areas. Yes, that even includes wearing a mask when you’re hiking, cycling or otherwise hitting the trails in the valley and other people are around.

Since requirements can change, be sure to keep an eye on city and county government websites (or call before you visit).

The Aspen Chamber, for example, has put together a comprehensive COVID-19 visitor resource guide.

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