At some point, almost all of us will have a period of time that we’re not able to mountain bike due to illness or injury. It was after an injury that I rediscovered road riding on the recommendation of my doctor and physiotherapist. Now I find road riding to be rather cathartic, especially if I’m able to find a place that feels like I’m still riding in nature and not on a road. Grand Junction, Colorado is one of those places.
This past fall, I was invited to take part in the Tour of the Moon, which takes riders on a loop from downtown Grand Junction and around the Colorado National Monument. This route became famous in the movie American Flyers with Kevin Costner—a classic movie that is worth watching if you haven’t seen it—and as part of the course for the Coors International Bicycle Classic, which ran from 1980 to 1988. There are two route options: a 62-mile (100 km) route which also takes you through the town of Fruita, or a 41-mile (66 km) loop. The Tour of the Moon is not a race by any means, it’s a recreation ride with some of the most scenic views in Colorado. This was the fifth year for the Tour of the Moon, and it was sold out with 2,000 cyclists taking part.
In the months leading up to the Tour of the Moon, our local downhill mountain bike park re-opened after a three year hiatus; and I have to confess that I spent more time riding chairlifts than I did riding my road bike. To say I was nervous about riding in the Tour of the Moon with my lack of training is an understatement. It has over 3,900 feet (1,188m) of climbing no matter which route you take. Lift-accessed mountain biking is definitely not the best way to prepare…although it was fun!
I arrived in Grand Junction a couple of days before the event which gave me time to see what I was in for. I had a rental car so I took a drive around the Colorado National Monument to get a better feel for the route, and to check out some of the hiking trails to get my lungs working at elevation. Grand Junction sits at 4,500 feet (1,397m) which doesn’t sound like a lot, but those of us coming from sea-level will feel its effects.
It was a rainy day and the drive around the Colorado National Monument was still gorgeous. And nerve-wracking. Not the actual drive, but seeing the hill that I had to climb with little training. I started to have some serious doubts about my abilities as I drove to the visitor centre at the top of the Monument. There was a short hike that I wanted to check out called the Canyon Rim Trail that started from there. It was only a mile (1.6 km) round trip and it takes you to a viewpoint to see the rock formations that they called the Praying Hands. From some angles they looked like a large sitting cats to me, but as I got closer the hands became more obvious. Several photos later I realized I needed to continue on.
The next hike on my list was called the Devil’s Kitchen. It’s another short hike at 1.5 miles (2.2 km) round trip. I had spent far too much time checking out the sights early on in my drive so I didn’t quite make it into the actual kitchen. I had a lunch date and I was already pushing it for time.
After lunch, I decided to check out the wineries. Grand Junction is well-known for its vineyards, which are in another cycling-friendly part of town. It was an hour pedal from my hotel to the wineries along fairly flat roads and all of the wineries are close together. It was hard deciding which two bottles of wine to bring home, and I cursed the Canadian import laws that placed that limit on me.
If wine isn’t your thing, several of the wineries have gift shops featuring local artisans, and the Rocky Mountain Meadery has several other honey-based items in its store. One of my favourite shops was Sprigs and Sprouts, which is a lavender shop with items that are produced locally along with infused balsamic vinegars and olive oils. Lavender is becoming a big part of Grand Junction, you can even find it infused in some of the wines.
The next morning I awoke to a beautiful sunny day. I had brought gear for every possible weather scenario with me and I was happy that I would just need a light jacket. It had been raining for a month at home so I was also looking forward to riding under clear blue skies! I loaded my bike into the back of my rental SUV, and set off towards the convention centre. There was more than enough parking for all 2,000 participants and I was one of the later ones to start.
The Tour of the Moon gives you the option of starting your ride any time between 7:30am and 9am. I chose to start at 8am to give myself six hours to complete the 42-mile course, and still give myself ample time to enjoy the festivities afterwards. It also gave me time to stop for photos and walk up hills. I was so sure I would be walking up hills that I chose to wear my lace-up mountain bike shoes with walking treads instead of the carbon-soled ones I normally wear road riding. (I ride with SPD pedals on my road and mountain bikes so I can easily swap out shoes, and so I don’t have to think about how to unclip.)
It was chilly when I first set out on the ride. Mountain weather meant that the overnight temperatures were close to freezing but it was due to warm up to 70F (20C) during the day. Luckily, the climb was near the beginning of the ride so I didn’t have to worry about going up that in the heat of the day. And as it turned out, my fears about the climb were unfounded! The 3% grade looked much worse when I drove the course. I was able to spin my way up with only a few hills being closer to a 9% grade. And the views were even more stunning from the seat of a bicycle.
After a while, it became obvious that I had found my pack as I started to see the same people over and over. It wasn’t long before I became known as “The Canadian” in the group. The Tour of the Moon attracts most of its riders from the Denver area and is only starting to attract people from places further away.
It wasn’t until I was closer to the peak of the Colorado National Monument that I started to feel the effects of elevation. The familiar sluggish feeling started to set in, and the elevation sign at the top was a welcome sight. It meant that it was mostly downhill from here on!
Downhill riding of any sort is my strong suit: I love the speed and the flow so I was really looking forward to the descent! There were a few cars on course since the route wasn’t closed to traffic—although they did recommend drivers visit the Colorado National Monument on a different day—and we got stuck behind a police car on the way down. We joked about it being our pace-car and I’m sure it did keep some of us from gaining too much speed… When it was able to pull over to allow us to pass, there were more than a few grins as we had an impromptu race down the hill! This was what I had been waiting for the entire ride.
I finished the Tour of the Moon with a smile on my face. I enjoyed every minute of it, and it was one of the most scenic road rides I have ever done. There was a buffet lunch near the finish line and several booths lined up in the plaza with goods for sale. I was back at my hotel well before 2pm, the time I originally thought I would be finishing the ride. It turns out I could have worn the carbon-soled shoes after all.