Colorado has been high on my list of places to go for a while. When my buddy Scott asked me if I wanted to travel for the Great American Beer Festival, it was difficult to turn down the opportunity. I knew that I couldn’t just spend 4 straight days drinking beer though. There was so much more that I wanted to experience in Denver and the Rocky Mountains.
The First Night
We reached our hotel around 8pm on Wednesday and went to the Lowdown Brewery + Kitchen in Denver for dinner and a beer or two. I had plans to wake up and go mountain biking with Chad Braunbeck, who had moved to Colorado from Ohio, so I wanted to wake up early and feel refreshed. After a Lowdown IPA and some pizza (Recomendo!), I was the first one to Uber home and go to bed. It was the night before my first ride in the Rockies and it was filled with the excitement and anticipation that a kid feels on Christmas Eve. I could barely sleep …but mostly because I was sharing a bed with Scott and he rolled over and punched me in his sleep twice and tried to snuggle once.
My First IMBA Epic Trail
My alarm was set for 6am, but my eyes popped open at 5. The time change wouldn’t let me sleep any longer. Our hotel room was full. 5 other guys were sleeping soundly. I quietly showered and slipped out early to go have breakfast and meet up with Chad.
I found an awesome breakfast joint in Golden, Colorado called J.C.’s Cafe. It was a diner with an artsy twist, and there was graffiti all over the walls. I had the huevos rancheros and it hit the spot – a good base of calories for my singletrack adventures. Breakfast on a budget. Recomendo! (“Recomendo” is my Dirt Rag tribute)
Chad and I met at the Subaru dealership that he works at and loaded up a sweet Crosstrek that was perfect for transporting our bikes through the mountains. We headed to Pine, Colorado to tackle the trails at Buffalo Creek – my first-ever IMBA EPIC RIDE! Heck Yeah!
Chad and I had raced together in the OMBC series several years ago, so I knew that he was a strong rider. He hasn’t been racing in Colorado, but he continues to be an avid mountain biker. I had heard so much about how the altitude affects performance that, despite my good fitness, I was worried about keeping up with him.
We started up the first slope on the trail and my breathing was labored, but not too bad. We were both on a sweet bike – the Yeti SB4.5c. Yeti had hooked us up with two demo bikes. These were plush, full-travel stallions and much different from my regular ride. They were carbon-fiber, 29”-inch, full-suspension bikes with large tires, 1×11 set-ups, huge 42-tooth gears in the back and dropper posts. I felt like I was on a cloud floating across the terrain.
That first climb was crazy – we tackled 1200 vertical feet in the first 5 miles. To put it in perspective, I’m lucky to get 600 feet of climbing on any 30-mile ride around my local community in Ohio.
After that first climb, there was an amazing downhill that went on for miles. I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole time. This place was freakin’ fun! …and the views were amazing. Mountains peaks towered over the horizon.
Riding here was much different than riding in Ohio. The Buffalo Creek trail was probably less technical and twisted than the East Coast singletrack that I am used to. There weren’t nearly as many roots to ride over or trees to avoid. The curves of the path were more gentle and flowy. The crushed stone on the trail drains precipitation well and the arid land showed no signs of mud. Some of the corners get sandy and my biggest adjustment was that I couldn’t corner as sharply because my tires wanted to wash out in the loose soil.
At the end of the day we had travelled 34 miles with 4200 feet of climbing. We got as high as 8000 feet above sea-level and this was the highest elevation that I had ever ridden at. We only touched a fraction of the trails that were available to us. We could have gone two or three times as far without ever touching the same trail twice – amazing. These people have it so easy. Their biggest dilemma is not how far they need to trek to find a great trail, it’s deciding which amazing trail to conquer in their backyard.
One of the best parts of this trail is the post-race buffet that we found at the trail head. The locals leave coolers full of gatorade and snacks for riders to partake in after they ride – which was perfect because I had run out of water in the final miles of our adventure and needed some sustenance to refuel. The cookies were some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Recomendo!
What an amazing day. Thanks to Chad for hooking me up with the bike, the ride and everything else. I truly appreciate it. Not sure that I would have been able to pull it off without him.
But… the day wasn’t over. I still had to go to the Great American Beer Festival to hang out with Scott and his friends.
Great American Beer Festival
By the time I got back to Denver and showered I was completely depleted. I filled up on Chipotle and Diet Coke and tried to rest up for the big evening. I would have preferred some local cuisine, but I needed something quick that would fill my empty stomach. Our hotel was right across the street from the convention center where the event was being held. Friday and Saturday nights are the crazy nights for the festival. Thursday is considered the “light” night at the beer festival, but when we walked in it was still an endless sea of taps and beer drinkers. It was hard to know where to start, so I picked a random beer from a random brewery and let the fun begin.
I was very aware that my body was trying to recover from my “epic” ride and the heat, so I was drinking with caution. I tried to stick to low alcohol options and drank plenty of water. Some of the highlights that I got to try were a peanut butter coffee stout and peach habanero ale. I was also excited to find the Pizza Port taps from San Diego because I can’t get that in Ohio and I know they make quality beer. Honestly though, the best part of the festival for me was not which beers I got to try, it was watching Scott and his buddies exploring the festival. They were like kids in a candy store, walking from booth to booth in search of epic ales that they can’t normally get. I loaded up with lots of beer swag and tried my darnedest to look like your stereotypical beerfest nerd – gotta look the part.
Overall, the beerfest was fun, but I definitely didn’t get my $100 worth of beer out of it. I was too cautious and held back. I didn’t want to wake up and feel bad. But, that’s probably a good thing. I headed back to the hotel early and went to bed by 9pm while the other guys went out. Call me Captain Lame-O.
Walking Around Denver
Once again I woke up early at 5am, refreshed from a full night of sleep. I quietly showered, got dressed and left the hotel to find breakfast in the dark streets of Denver.
I stumbled on the Denver Diner, which had that classic diner look and some decent reviews on Yelp, but when I walked in there were no other customers and the entire staff turned to look at me. Why did this feel so weird? It was 6am. Maybe they weren’t open?
“Are you open?” I asked.
“Right this way.” A waitress escorted me to a booth by the window. “Today is our soft opening. Your breakfast is free.”
“Say what?” Free breakfast?!? This is the best trip ever! Pancakes, eggs, ham and coffee – FREE! …my favorite price.
It turns out that the restaurant had burned down and I was the first customer to walk in after they had rebuilt it. Cool.
The sun was starting to rise as I left the diner and I knew the guys were still passed out in the hotel room so I decided to go on a walk around the city.
I saw the Denver Botanic Gardens on the map and decided to walk in that direction toward the Cheesman Park neighborhood. It was Friday morning and I was amazed at the number of commuters that I saw biking to work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in any city I’ve been in. One theme that I heard over and over is how healthy the residents of Denver are and this was living proof.
The neighborhoods I passed through were full of quaint, historic homes. I cut over to Colfax Avenue, which is one of the main drags in the area. It was fun checking out some of the businesses that are in Colorado but not Ohio.
One that stuck out was The Colfax Potshot. Colorado is one of the few states in the country that has legalized recreational marijuana and I was definitely curious at how that was affecting the state since we will be voting on marijuana soon in Ohio. Throughout my time in Colorado, I came across about a dozen dispensaries – some in the city, some in the mountains. I never saw anyone smoking a joint, but I know it was happening because the scent came wafting through the air every once in a while. It was too early in the morning to know whether The Colfax Potshop was attracting a large clientele. The shop was closed until 11am. The botanical garden was closed as well, so I decided to walk to the zoo.
The Denver Zoo
The Denver Zoo was really nice. There were plenty of animals that can’t be found at the Columbus Zoo like Hyenas, Harbor Seals and Hippos. The animal habitats are closer together, so it would be easy for small kids to walk from exhibit to exhibit. (…that’s the stay-at-home dad in me coming out.) Without kids to slow me down, I was able to knock out almost the whole zoo in less than 2 hours.
By this time, I had logged 6 to 8 miles of walking and was starting to get hungry. I met up with my friends at Freshcraft in the LoDo neighborhood downtown (Recomendo!). They had a large assortment of craft beer and I was in an IPA mood. The meal set the stage for a relaxing afternoon in Denver.
After lunch I visited a marijuana dispensary to see what all the fuss was about. They had an assortment of buds that you could smoke, cookies and candies that you could eat, and paraphernalia and souvenirs to help you live the marijuana lifestyle. It was interesting to see. I’m glad I went, but I probably wouldn’t go back. I’ll stick to craft beer.
Pick Your Poison …I mean Beer
Speaking of which, our next stop was a pretty unique craft beer bar. First Draft (Recomendo!) had a whole wall of craft beer taps and you poured your own beer and paid by the ounce. Each customer, wore a bracelet with a sensor that tracked how much beer you poured. I really liked this set up. I was able to pour just 2 or 3 ounces at a time and taste several beers without committing to a full pour. Each tap had the beer name, brewery name, ABV and price per ounce, so you had plenty of information to make an informed purchase. I would definitely go back to this place.
After that, we played corn hole on the patio (a very Ohio thing to do) of a place that served craft cocktails. Then we went to a shop that sold delicious brats for dinner before heading to our (at least my) final destination of the day – Coors Field for a Rockie’s game.
We had tickets that let us get into the rooftop bar overlooking the field. By this point, I was done drinking beer, so I had a water and some of the best stadium nachos I’ve ever had. I tried to watch the game, but my early morning wake-up call was catching up with me. At the 5th inning I decided to head back to the hotel to sleep.
Downhill Mountain Biking in Winter Park
For the third day in a row, my eyes opened up at 5am. I was so stoked. The whole reason I went to bed early was so I could feel refreshed for my first day of downhill mountain biking.
Downhilling wasn’t in my original plan. I thought it might take too much time to get to the mountains and back and still be able to hang with my friends in Denver. But, then I talked to some random dude in a bar and he convinced me that it was a workable option.
I headed to Winter Park, Colorado to the Trestle Bike Park, which was a 90-minute drive from Denver. I got there early, so I had plenty of time for a delicious breakfast at the Rise and Shine Bakery. The green chili scramble was magnificent. Recomendo!
I was a little intimidated when I pulled into the parking garage and saw all the downhill bikes. These rugged beasts were no joke. Was I in over my head? I desperately wanted to try downhilling, but I had no interest in hurting myself. I usually think of downhilling as one of the more dangerous versions of this fine sport. All I could envision was the Red Bull Rampage and riders dropping off cliffs. I knew I wasn’t prepared for that. I wanted to ease into this.
I suited up in body armor and full-faced helmet and rented a sweet bike from Specialized. With the long-travel suspension, thick tires and low seat, it was much different than my XC hardtail. The trails are rated similarly to ski runs. Green is easy, blue is intermediate, black is advanced and double-black is for people who aren’t afraid to jump off cliffs.
I was more than happy to easy-style it and take the green trail, known as Green World, to start out. I was getting the lay of the land. The trail is gentle and over 6 freakin’ miles long. I was riding and riding and riding and I kept thinking, “Wow, this goes on forever!” I had never ridden downhill for that long at one time. When I was done though I knew that Green was way too easy for my skill-level.
I started looking for blue trails to ride. These were perfect for my first downhill experience. They were faster with banked turns and a few small jumps that you could easily roll over. I did three runs on blue and got gradually faster and more confident. By my fourth run of the day I was starting to throw in a few small jumps, while still staying well within my comfort zone.
I only purchased a half day pass, because I wanted to get back to Denver to hang out with Scott and the boys. Because each run was so long, I realized that I was only going to have one or two more trips down the mountain. I wanted to try black, but I was nervous. Two guys, a father/son duo, on the ski lift convinced me that I could handle it and gave me some advice on which one I should tackle – The Boulevard.
I had a good feel for my bike at this point and I went for it with gusto. It started with a rock garden leading into a straight, fast section with jumps. My eyes were watering from the speed. I feathered the brakes and hoped for the best. Wow!
That was fun. That run was where I started to feel the addiction. It was fast. I was getting small amounts of air. Man-made features twisted into dirt berms that led into boulder-covered descents in the trees. I was one with my bike, tucked low and flowing through gnarly features – one after the other after the other. I wasn’t pedaling much, but I was getting a workout. My body felt nimble, yet tense. I reached the bottom in one piece. I had survived. Let’s do it again.
I hurried back to the lift to get in one final run. I did Boulevard again – but this time faster and more aggressively. Some of the obstacles that I rolled before, I was now flying off of. My adrenaline was surging. I was hooked.
My time was up. I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I would be back. It was amazing. I feel like I’m already a better bike rider after just one morning of downhilling.
I turned in my armor and bike and hit the road.
While I was away, my friends went to a second 4-hour session at the Great American Beer Festival. I knew I didn’t have to hurry back, so I decided to stop at the Tommyknocker Brewery & Pub in Idaho Springs. I had a sampler of beer, a giant water to rehydrate and an amazing Elk burger with blueberry sauce on it. Recomendo! Idaho Springs seemed tiny, but this town was bustling. It was hard to find parking because so many people were there. It’s definitely worth a stop if you are driving through the mountains and need a break.
A (Mostly) Relaxing Evening
When I got back I met up with my friends for my final night in Denver. Once again we went out in the LoDo neighborhood because of it’s proximity to our hotel and our friend Lionel’s home. We hung out on a rooftop deck overlooking the stadium and shared our tales of adventure. I was excited to talk about everything I had experienced – the biking, the mountains, the tasty beer and amazing food. I’m sure I blabbered on too long, but I was full of stoke. I was built for Colorado.
I don’t think I could have squeezed more into my time there and I had barely scratched the surface. I can’t wait to go back and experience skiing, kayaking, hiking, visiting breweries, and losing myself in another adventure. If you can’t find me someday, then I’m probably lost in the Rockies with a smile on my face. Colorado… Recomendo!
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