Bicycles Prohibited signs used to rub me the wrong way but they exist for very good reasons. As per ‘Me’ I had to learn this the hard way. I have no excuse to offer here, I just wanted to share my experience and own up to something stupid I did.
I had just ridden across Utah and Colorado zig zagging up and down a whole bunch of mountain passes people had suggested I avoid. I didn’t really have a destination I just wanted to climb passes, breathe the mountain air, and camp out. My path was slowly taking me toward the Summit Ski area of Colorado. An area I knew quite well and that was very special to me.
I had spent a solid chunk of my weekends in and around Leadville Colorado in 1990 with two friends from High School. I was living in Denver and would arrive in Leadville early Friday afternoon with a car full of beer and food and we would spend the next three days and nights on the back and front sides of Copper Mountain trying to kill ourselves. On full moons we would drive up the fire roads and ski virgin ungroomed and uncharted swaths of powder. Looking back it was a magical time and place. At the time I didn’t understand how special this type of backcountry experience was. I surely didn’t realize how absurdly dangerous it was. I pointed my tire in the direction of Leadville full of nostalgia and hoped to find some magic left.
Arriving in Leadville was nice. I was happy to see that the attitude toward outsiders had not changed. I was kicked out of an empty restaurant for wearing cycling shoes. I ate and grabbed a beer on the porch of a new ‘craft brewery’. I rode by the Mountain Peaks Motel and snapped a photo to send to my friends. I took in what is a really nice mountain town and admonished myself for not buying a cabin way back when they were cheap. I relaxed and enjoyed myself and everything felt good.
I jumped back on the bike and headed south to Copper Mountain. I got to see the Copper Lake and a brand new Climax Molybdenum mine that had reopened. At Copper Mountain I entered an impressive system of bicycle paths that would take me down through Frisco, Co and around Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas spitting me out onto the road to climb Loveland Pass. Toward the top I called it a day and camped adjacent to what were my old stomping grounds: Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
I ended up at the junction of Rt 119 and Rt 6 after a really nice downhill bike path that runs adjacent to Route 70. BlackHawk, CO had recently banned cycling in the city proper and it was being enforced by local police. Route 6 was through a canyon, only 14 miles, all down hill, and would put me in Golden, Co. This was exactly where I wanted to be. I could probably cover the distance in less than 30 minutes making it tempting. The only issue was bicycling is clearly prohibited on Route 6.
Perhaps it was bravado summoned up from the memories of my ‘absurdly dangerous’ backcountry skiing on the backside of a mountain. Maybe I was too tired to reason things out correctly. Maybe I’m just plain dumb. What I did next I would never in a million years repeat.
Clear Creek Canyon Road is a 14 mile stretch that connects Golden Colorado to Route 70. It’s how you would drive to the ski areas if you were heading out from Boulder, Co. It is a great alternative to the traffic and boredom that is I-70…if you should be so fortunate to be in a motor vehicle. In what can be described as ‘poor judgement’ I decided to ignore the bicycles prohibited signs and take Route 6.
I eyeballed the bicycles prohibited sign looming over the entry with scrutiny one last time and took a short break to gobble down a clif bar and make sure my I had two full water bottles available. I adjusted my bags and gear making sure everything was in place, checked my tire pressure and took a deep breath to calm myself. It was as if I was about to ride the prologue time trial in Le Tour. I was ready…or so I thought.
I set out and the first mile and a half were no problem. I was in a high gear, riding a nice wide shoulder, marveling at the scenery of the canyon with it’s creek undulating back and forth from the left side to the right side of the highway, spinning my brains out, hauling ass when I came upon the first tunnel. I used to love driving through tunnels as a boy, in a car, but on a bicycle a tunnel is really not fun.
As I drew closer the shoulder began to disappear until right before the entryway when the sheer cliff wall angled in and merged into the tunnel wall. The tunnel was pitch black and the change in lighting made it difficult to see the road. I continued to drop the hammer through the tunnel hoping to emerge and find a new shoulder growing larger as quickly as the last had disappeared. I was about three quarters of the way through the tunnel when I heard the horn.
I didn’t even turn to look. It was deafening. I didn’t just hear it I felt it. I was taking up the whole lane and traveling at 35-40 miles per hour with a semi behind me honking excitedly. Accelerating was the only way to go. I picked up the pace and brought myself into the light of the tunnel exit bouncing over a considerable number of potholes and debris. My eyes were now trying to adjust to the bright sun. Again I couldn’t see anything. I kept it upright and looked for the relief of a shoulder and accompanying white line.
Tunnel 1 after ignoring bicycles prohibited signs
I got a brief two foot shoulder to ride in and let the truck past. I caught a speed limit sign and saw that the speed limit was 45 and briefly considered trying to draft the truck the whole way down. I glanced behind me and didn’t see any traffic and I slowed a bit to catch my breath. Again no shoulder. The traffic traveling up the canyon was picking up and every single person who passed me made sure to let me know of their disapproval. Someone threw a sandwich at me. I felt my best option was to continue so I dialed up my inner ‘Paul Pisani’, shifted gears and hit it as hard as I could.
If the tunnels weren’t bad enough the sheer rock face and the shadows that they cast also made visibility a nightmare. There were times where I was sprinting on the white line with no more than a foot or two separating me from either a rock face or a 15 foot drop into a river on one side, and a passing vehicle on the other. This roadway was neither constructed nor maintained for bicycles and that is what the ‘Bicycles Prohibited’ sign was there to tell me. I didn’t listen and was paying the price.
Shadow visibility and a rock face
Entering tunnel number two was a religious experience for me. I quickly reasoned out that there were going to be ‘many’ tunnels if they were numbering them. No one would number the tunnels if there were only two. This time I was expecting the instant blindness and the poor road conditions. My intensity level rose and I checked for traffic behind me. Nothing. I shifted into a higher gear and plunged into the darkness. Upon my exit I took a brief second to recover, gain my bearing and find what little shoulder existed. As I found it a pickup truck whizzed past me from behind. “Where could it have come from?” I thought to myself, “There was nothing behind me.” I pedaled forward and put it together that I was in a twisty canyon and I have no real idea what’s behind me outside of 50-150 meters.
Tunnel 2 after ignoring bicycles prohibited signs
It got to a point where even people who were rock climbing in the canyon were calling out expletives to me. I would face a total of five tunnels that day and a good 10 of the 14 miles with absolutely no shoulder. Any common cycling problem [like a flat tire] could have resulted in being catapulted off a cliff, driven into a sheer rock face, or being run over by a truck. I remember the exit from the canyon onto Route 93 toward Boulder when a nice old couple in a 70’s LTD slowed down to tell me what an ass I was and how fortunate I felt to be there to hear the all too accurate appraisal.
I will never forget the entry and exit into each of the five tunnels with no shoulder, no visibility, no idea what was sneaking up behind me, and how fast it was going. I will never forget the complete lack of road upkeep for any tire that wasn’t at least 6 inches wide. I will never forget the time it took my eyes to adjust to the light changes upon entering and exiting the tunnels. There were times where I wanted to stop but didn’t. I will never forget ignoring the ‘Bicycles Prohibited’ sign. I will never forget how it was 100% my fault and as I kept at it it got worse and worse.
What really ties it all together for me is the world class bonk that the 25-30 minutes of all out cycling, worry, and angst caused me as I exited Clear Creek Canyon. I was a mess. I rode into Golden, Co. and stopped at a something like a Dairy Queen. As I ate item after item off the menu I truly realized that that road was never intended to be cycled down. A beautiful canyon but not from the perspective of a cyclist. I put myself in great danger and put some people who were following the laws in a position of danger also. I deserved to be hit by more than a sandwich.
Now I don’t cop an attitude when I see a bicycles prohibited signs. It was an error in judgement that cannot be accepted. I promote my site with the tagline “The Art of Bicycle Touring” yet I commit a breach in thinking that makes me sound like a hack. An inexperienced newbie with no ability to make reasoned decisions. There were alternative routes I could have taken. I don’t want to be that guy.
The experience has made me a better, more respectable, reasoned decision maker these days. I follow the rules of the road as they are written. I put more effort into being safe and have more respect for others on the road. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone.
At least I had a helmet on.