So, when preparing to ride the Colorado National Monument, I thought, who better to do it with than Grand Junction resident Scott Mercier and his wife, Mandie? Not only do they live at the base of the Monument and ride it regularly, but also both are ensconced in the local biking community, and in Scott’s case, international biking world.
Scott was raised in Telluride and then went to UC Berkeley and began cycling competitively. Freakishly gifted and determined, his career took off and for seven years he raced professionally for the United States Postal Service and Saturn teams. He also wore the USA jersey in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. If I could keep up, I had found my locals.
The Monument loop is about 33 miles (give or take a few miles, depending where you start), with the bulk of those miles in Monument National Park on Rim Rock Road. Two gates flank Rim Rock – one at the eastern entrance, one at the western entrance. From gate to gate the ride is 23 miles, with an aggregate of 2,300 vertical feet of climbing. Add the extra miles outside the park to complete the loop; you’ve got about a 33-mile ride.
I meet Scott and Mandie and we decide to ride east to west (Mandie’s choice). We approach the eastern gate via Monument Road, passing sun-bleached rock formations reminiscent of forgotten sandcastles. The Monument itself is a colossal butte of red rock, the area’s steadfast backdrop. As we draw near, it looks like a huge shark (or more apropos for the area, a carnivorous dinosaur) took a bite out of the butte leaving a craggy vacuous hole edged by sandstone walls – Monument Canyon.
We pay the park fee and immediately begin to climb. The road steadily ascends, our chatter slows and I focus on my cadence. Juniper and pinion trees resiliently grow among the arid yellow rock. Purple desert flowers, known as four o’clocks, speckle the roadside. The road climbs more aggressively, cutting back and forth across the side of the canyon. After the third switchback, we see the black zigzags we just climbed below us. An instant sense of accomplishment.
During these first four miles, the pavement is rough. Trucks frequent this section to access East Glade Park Road, a left turn out of National Monument. After they bow out, Rim Rock Road becomes visibly blacker and smoother. But, it’s not until we reach the highest point of the climb at 6640 feet (1710 vertical feet from the east gate) that we reap the benefits. Here the road flattens. As if in chorus, we click our gears and build speed.
Our tires effortlessly pick up momentum and I comment on the smooth texture of the road.
“Like your silk pajamas,” Scott replies, then explains that they used a special chip and seal, some kind of “slurry,” to make it smoother for cyclists.
We bank from turn to turn at the top of the canyon, as our wheels noiselessly spin over the silky, slurried road. I ask Scott for some pointers so I can better hold my speed around the corners. He exaggerates pushing his bike and body inside, while simultaneously steering his handlebars the opposite way – counter-steering, he explains.
Our cadence settles, and the road turns due west. Scott looks ahead and signals to stop. We pull off and he gestures over the road’s edge; I look down…all the way down. A free-fall to the bottom of the canyon. A good place to stay on the road; I make a mental note.
Scott has ridden leisurely with nothing to prove. It isn’t until the road descends, and the meandering corners change to hairpin turns, that a glimpse of the ex-Olympian subtly starts to show. He accelerates around the turns, leaning his body and bike into them, confident his tires will hold. He catches up to a pickup truck, and can’t pass. With nothing else to do, he nonchalantly sits up and rides the next straightaway, down the canyon, with no hands. When the turns come at him again, he gets back in his lowers and arches his bike fluidly around each bend.
We quickly come upon the western gate and exit, leaving the park and its perfect pavement behind. Mandie comments that she wants a cheeseburger and a massage as we weave through high desert terrain at the Monument’s base. Magically we pass little oases with lush fields. They look out of place in this rocky landscape. Farmhouses are tucked between old growth cottonwoods, and elm trees stand side by side, stretching their branches over the road. We ride in the shade, under their canopy.
We approach our cars and finalize the plan for that cheeseburger. The Monument looms in the distance. Always the steadfast backdrop. Clearly, it wasn’t essential to ride the Monument with locals like Scott and Mandie. But it sure was fun.
If You Go:
- Best place to park is at the Tabeguache Trailhead, also known as the Lunch Loop on Monument Drive about 4 miles from the east gate.
- All cyclists must have a back and front light to be used when going through the three tunnels, one on the East side and two on the West side.
- Cyclist must pay $5/day to enter the Monument or buy a $25 annual pass. The National Parks, America the Beautiful pass, is valid for entrance.
- Cyclists must ride in a single file line and obey all traffic laws.
- To make the ride longer, add the East Glade Park Road extension. Ten miles there and back, or double back through the Monument instead of connecting the loop using the surface streets.
- This year is the Monument’s centennial celebration.
Check their website, for more information: www.nps.gov/colm/planyourvisit/bicycling.htm