Riding a borrowed bike, with borrowed bags, and borrowed camping gear on a 200-mile route you’ve never done before, in a state 1,500 miles away from home and thousands of feet higher in elevation, certainly has the potential to turn into an unmitigated shit show of magnificent proportions. But, I’m happy to say, this isn’t a story about major mechanicals, broken equipment, or barely making it out alive. In fact, when I first sat down to write about the Steamboat Ramble I struggled with how to tackle it. How does a perfect ride with perfect weather and fantastic company make for a good read?
What the hell is a Ramble anyway?
Peter Discoe has been involved in cycling for nearly his entire life, including a stint as owner of the Swobo bike and apparel brand. After getting out of the product side of cycling, Peter wanted to do something that would bring riders together and remind them of why they began riding in the first place: because it’s fun. The Ramble Ride — a supported bikepacking trip — was his solution. It’s a fairly simple recipe, even if it’s a challenge to gather all the proper ingredients:
- Lay out a killer, multi-day route
- Have on-course support with food and water
- Get a backcountry chef to cook breakfast and dinner each day
- Embrace a “come as you are” ethos
- Keep the ride small enough to be intimate and manageable from a logistics perspective
- Oh yeah, get some beer too. Lots and lots of beer.
Fort Collins to Steamboat Springs was the first official Ramble in 2016. In 2017, two new Rambles were added to the calendar: one in Central Oregon and one in Asheville, North Carolina, where New Belgium just opened a new brewery. Peter is looking to add a couple more Rambles in the near future, so be on the lookout for new locations in 2018.
There’s plenty of talk about “building community” and creating “authentic experiences” in and around cycling, so if you’ve been reading the first few paragraphs in between eye rolls, you’re forgiven. After being inundated for years with marketing speak touting the latest bestest thing since the last bestest thing, it’s easy to become jaded and even cynical about cycling as a whole. I should know, I used to write the shit.
However the Ramble, I found, is different, is special, is a community — albeit for a short time. Over the course of a few long days I met many interesting new people, made some new friends, rode the longest climbs I ever have, and experienced Colorado in a new way.
Dafuq is “supported bikepacking”?
Now, “supported bikepacking” might sound like an oxymoron, but as the Ramble website points out, this ain’t no Gran Fondo. Riders are expected to carry their own camping gear, tools, spares, etc. Basically, everything you’d need to make it through the night alone in case shit hits the fan and you’re unable make it to the group campsite. The Ramble takes care of your food, water, and beer, significantly lightening the physical and mental load. At the end of the day, once you set up camp, you’re free to relax, crack a cold New Belgium, and wait for dinner to be served.
Logistics are also largely handled by the Ramble. In addition to sending out GPX files of the route in advance, the course is physically marked, making it difficult to get lost. Campsites for three nights are included, as well as a return shuttle from Steamboat back to Fort Collins on Sunday. Every rider is allowed a small bag that gets shuttled to camp each night, in case you want to bring a warm jacket, jeans, shoes, etc., but don’t want to carry those bulky items on your bike.
Some salty purists may protest, “That’s not real bikepacking!” But, whatever, they can still come and I bet they’d have a blast, too. Besides, cyclists on the whole need to spend less time telling others how they should ride — it’s not helpful.
The Ramble isn’t a race — something Peter emphasizes — it’s supposed to be a fun ride. There’s no pretense. You can certainly ride it fast if you’d like, but your only prize will be first pick from the beer cooler. If that’s important to you, have at it. Just do you.
The trip kicked off with a visit to the New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins — the title sponsor of the Ramble Ride series. I’ve visited my fair share of breweries over the years, and New Belgium is among the most impressive. Maybe “campus” is a better term for what New Belgium has going on, as their facility is much more than a brewery and tasting room. After a quick tour, it was time for the ride orientation with Rambler-in-Chief, Peter Discoe.
Once properly oriented, it was time to load up that borrowed bike with all my borrowed gear. This process took a little longer than it should have, likely due to the fact that I had been hanging out at a brewery for several hours. Regardless, I eventually got all the Blackburn bags mounted on the brand-new Niner SIR 9 steel hardtail, stuffed them with Big Agnes camping gear, worried that I was forgetting something, and headed to the hotel for a night cap.
We returned to the brewery early the next morning to munch on tasty breakfast burritos, take a group photo, and hit the road. With nearly 100 riders on the Ramble, we were split into two groups, leaving a few minutes apart. My group took a paved path south and west through town, surprising early morning joggers and bike commuters along the way. Eventually we popped out on pavement and made our way to the Horsetooth Reservoir, which provides drinking water for the region around Fort Collins.
The first 27 miles of the Ramble were on paved roads that wound around horse farms and tested us with punchy, exposed climbs. If I looked up I could see tiny riders way off in the distance creeping their way toward the summit. At the turn off onto gravel we had our first sag stop, complete with a cooler full of ice-cold New Belgium. Riders took their time, enjoyed a beer or maybe some leftover breakfast burrito they had stashed in a bag.
From here the climbing began in earnest, although the grade was graciously mellow. We started in a deep canyon with jagged, rocky walls towering around us, but as we gained elevation things opened up and the views just kept coming. Some 15 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain later, we reached the high point of the day at Pennock Pass.
The ensuing descent didn’t provide much respite as pedaling was required to maintain good speed. There was another short stretch of pavement that took us to the aptly-named town of Rustic, where many riders stopped for a quick ice cream cone before the final 10-mile push to camp at Bellaire Lake. And those final 10 miles were brutal, featuring some of the steepest sustained climbs we faced the whole trip.
After a quick dip in the lake to rinse off, I went about setting up camp. I tried to read the instructions for setting up my tent, but my brain was too fried from the day’s effort to make sense of them. Finally, I just dumped the pieces out and immediately realized how easy it was to put together. Within a matter of minutes my tent was pitched, my mattress was aired up, and my clothes were hung on a nearby tree to dry.
As we dined on heaping portions of pasta and sausage, Peter gave us an overview of day two. Essentially, it was identical to day one — 70+ miles and 7,500 feet of elevation gain. There was an option on day two to do what Peter called the “OG route” though, which sounded intriguing, especially with how difficult Peter made it sound. There was a cut off — if you didn’t make it to the turn for the OG route by 2:30, you’d have to take the more sedate way to camp. I decided to play it by ear and see how I felt. Even at a leisurely pace, humping a loaded bike for over 70 miles is taxing, and I was coming from just 1,000 feet above sea level. Thoroughly waxed, I made my way back to my tent for bed. It was 7:30pm.
Before going to bed, I stupidly set my alarm and over the course of the night my phone worked its way underneath my sleeping pad. That meant when it started blaring at 5am, I couldn’t find it to shut it up quickly (sorry everybody). Faux pas aside, the campground was soon filled with the sounds of deflating air mattresses and the woosh of technical fabrics being stuffed into dry bags. After breakfast, riders left at their leisure to begin another long day in the saddle.
In a nice change of pace, we started the day with a few hundred feet of descending, but it wasn’t long before we were again gaining elevation. While the ride profile for day one was mostly one giant, gradual climb, day two was decidedly lumpier. Gain a thousand feet, lose a couple hundred. We repeated this process for the first 20 miles until we reached Deadman Hill at nearly 10,300 feet in elevation. Here we had our first sag stop of the day, complete with icy pops and mint juleps courtesy of Blackburn.
The descent down from Deadman’s was ripping fast — I covered the next seven miles in 20 minutes, and that’s including stopping for photos. We passed through aspen groves, eventually ending up in the Laramie River Valley, not far from the Wyoming border. Riding in the valley was beautiful but tough. Without cover from the trees we were buffeted by swirling winds and baked by the sun. I was all too happy to see the lunch stop at mile 35, as I needed a recharge.
The hot, windy, exposed flat section from before lunch turned into a hot, windy, exposed climb after. To mark progress, I’d pick some distant point way up ahead and try to guess how long it would take for me to make it there. “That little knob there? Probably… 30 minutes,” I’d think to myself. I continued this process until once again surrounded by trees. Here we followed along a ridgeline, which created a seemingly-endless series of rollers. This is the kind of riding I find most often back home, but after expending tons of energy crossing the Laramie River Valley, I wasn’t feeling my best. I made it to the cutoff for the OG route at 2:25pm, with just five minutes to spare.
I weighed the pros and cons of doing the OG route. On the one hand I felt like shit. On the other, when would I have the opportunity to be here again? Ultimately, I decided that if things did indeed end up going horribly, at least it would make for a good story, right? With that, I filled up my bottles, grabbed some snacks and a can of beer, and set off on the OG.
The road quickly turned chunky with signs advising that the route was passable only by 4×4 vehicles. There were some really steep sections as well, but I ended up riding everything apart from a quick, one-footed dab when I was getting passed by a four-wheeler going up a loose climb. I kept waiting for it to get as bad as Peter had made it out to be — I was envisioning pushing my bike through some heinous scree field for hours on end while simultaneously beating back coyotes — but it never came. That’s not to say the OG route wasn’t a challenge, it most definitely was. I just think it’s a case of Peter knowing that the riders on the Ramble are of all different skill levels, and the OG might be just beyond the capabilities of some.
Those that took the OG were rewarded with another ripping descent that was more technical than the others, along with some of the best views of the trip. I cracked my packed beer under the shade of aspens and waited for the rest of the group I started the OG with to make sure they made it down in one piece. From there we more or less rolled together into Walden, where we made camp for night two.
The final push into Steamboat was “only” 53 miles, so few were in a hurry to get started early. Two big, back-to-back days on the bike, and a night out in Walden had everyone moving a bit slower that morning. Once we were riding, we found terrain and conditions similar to that of the Laramie River Valley: rolling, exposed, and windy. I kept pace alongside some fast guys on cross bikes until the rollers got bigger and they pulled away thanks to their big chainrings.
Finally, around mile 25 we were in the woods once again, facing yet another long climb. This was the final climb of the Ramble: 10 miles up to Buffalo Pass. Knowing I was almost home free, I got all “Eye of the Tiger” and focused on getting to the top as fast as I could. At the top we found our lunch stop situated next to a small lake somewhere above 10,000 feet. With dark clouds looming and thunder audible, I kept my stop brief. When I heard a few folks talking about a singletrack descent option into Steamboat, I jumped on their train. I’ve really come to enjoy riding gravel roads, but mountain biking will always be my favorite. The chunky sections of the OG route from the day before had been the most mountain bike-y of the Ramble so far, and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to ride some legit trail.
After a couple quick miles of gravel descending, our group turned onto the freshly-built Flash of Gold trail. It presented us with buff, swooping singletrack that weaved through aspen groves, cut across fields of wildflowers, and plummeted nearly 1,000 feet in five berm-filled miles. At the end of Flash of Gold, I, along with a couple others, opted to keep the party going down the Spring Creek Trail, which provided us with another four miles of delectable singletrack. Eventually we were spat out into downtown Steamboat where we made a beeline for the nearest taco stand.
With full bellies, our small group rode the final couple miles to the KOA Campground where we’d be spending the night. I pitched my tent, soaked in the Yampa River, and took a much-needed hot shower. That evening, we all reconvened at Moots headquarters for the after party, which included a tour of their facility, a taco dinner, live music, and even more New Belgium brews. Permanent smiles were affixed to all our sunburnt faces as we celebrated the end of the perfect Ramble.
Thanks to Peter Discoe, Kevin Rouse, Robin Sansom, Chris McNally, and the whole crew at New Belgium for having me out for such an incredible event.
Additional photos from the trip are below: