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Steamboat Springs - A Crossroads

camping on the bend of the Yampa River outside Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs marked my true arrival to the state of Colorado. While the Rocky Mountains divide the states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, the Centennial State is the real heart and soul of the American Rockies. The range is not only at its highest (4400ms) in this state but it is its international renown for the number and quality of its snow resorts that sets it apart. Every winter-sport enthusiast wants to visit Colorado to experience its 'champagne powder', arguably the finest snow in the world. Steamboat Springs is one such resort town receiving on average 165 inches of snow a year. During the winter of 2007 and 2008 it managed an unbelievable 500 inches. Naturally, Steamboat without snow is a different proposition but it still offers plenty of appeal for rafters, hikers and mountain-bikers around the famous Yampa River Valley. For the less adventurous there is the opportunity to experience the outdoors in the very elevated and natural setting of the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. The number of artists' galleries seeking to sell their wares suggests that Steamboat appeals to the affluent. There certainly appears to have been some trickle through from wealthy visitors as it has the most pleasant public library I have ever seen. It is always nice to experience a library where you want to take a book in to read as opposed to take a book out.

Steamboat represented a critical way-point on my trip through the Rockies. It marked my return to civilisation having passed through some very remote landscapes in the very sparsely populated states of Wyoming and Montana. Montana is the fourth biggest state in the US but it harbours less than a million people. Wyoming is the tenth largest state but it is the second least populous with only 565k people. Colorado is a lot more populous for its size with 5 million people. Getting supplies and having chats would no longer be a problem even if the higher climbs would force me to work for them.

Steamboat was not just a way-point but a metaphorical cross-roads for me. I started my trip in the North Americas on the west-coast in Portland, Oregon. 4,873kms later I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. While I took some time off in Seattle, Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops, Banff and Jackson, I was starting to feel the worse for my long journey. Not much of it had been easy considering I rode through the Cascade Range from Portland to Seattle and then I took the most mountainous route across BC from Vancouver to Banff. Of course, Banff represents the start of the Great Divide trail of which 90% is on gravel. Anyone who has ever checked the route page on this web-site knows that I have always been pointing my bike towards Denver on this round-the-world quest of mine. While I have not been 100% faithful to the initial route I conceived I have never deviated far from the plan. The reason Steamboat represented a cross-roads is that to reach Denver I would have to drop out of the mountains. Not necessarily a bad thing but if you descend from the mountains and you change your mind then you have to climb all the way back up again. The Great Divide trail had charmed me so much that I was always toying with the idea of finishing it at the Mexican border town of Juarez. As I have no job to return to running the trip as long as possible represented an interesting option. I was very much enjoying my time amongst the hospitable and laid-back mountain folk and of course, who wouldn't want to explore more of the Colorado Rockies and indeed the desert of New Mexico? While my body took a rest in Steamboat my mind was far from relaxed. I needed to work out which of my heart's desires I wished to follow.

I should mention that I was on the road a year at this point, bang on target in terms of arriving in Colorado's Front Range (the metro area to the east of the Colorado Rockies) and successful in my mission to avoid the snow. If I stayed true to the Great Divide route then I would have to back-track from the Mexican border to the Front Range as I was still keen to visit Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. The alternative was to drop out of the mountains to experience these towns and then continue south to visit Durango before reconnecting with the Great Divide trail and riding through New Mexico. That would allow me to cover my bases and still complete a north-south ride through America (and half a Trans-Continental). Of course, I had to take into account that I was pretty beaten up from the route and that Union Pass marked a seismic shift in my battle with these mountains and gravel roads. Up to that point I had been dominant but the debacle of Union Pass had allowed nature to regain the upper-hand and everything since then had been pretty harrowing. I surrendered something of myself to the Great Divide route on Union Pass and it was difficult not to acknowledge that my reserves were depleting. When a battle moves from the physical domain to the mental it is very hard to get it back to simply the physical challenge again. The risk is that it deteriorates to the realms of mental torture instead. While I never doubted my ability to soldier on I certainly didn't wish to find myself snowed-in in my tent somewhere.

Ultimately a few things forced my hand. Firstly, I still wanted to race my road-bike. While touring on a bike is good fun there is only so much of going circa 20kph one can take. Being on the road as long as I have I was starting to really miss the 700c wheels of a race bike. I generally like to cane it on a bike meaning that racing appeals more than touring even if racing is infinitely more painful. As the Front Range has the most hardcore cycling community in the US there was a large pull in terms of being back amongst my own. If I wished to have a successful racing season back in Ireland in 2011, then I'd have to take a month off and then start into a winter programme for optimum preparation. Continuing south would only reinforce my ability to ride slowly all day long. Racing requires not just the aerobic base that touring might provide but also the leg-speed (turn-over) and intensity (riding on the limit) that touring doesn't.

Secondly, I was tiring of not having any lasting human connections. I don't know how many hands I'd need to count the amount of people I have met on this trip. One of the hard parts of travelling is that you meet people you'd love to hang out with but not being in the same town long enough inevitably means that you are saying goodbye to good eggs as many times as you say hello. If I were to stop in the Front Range then I would have the possibility of lasting human connections. It would mean making new friends but at least I would be seeing the same people week to week as opposed to never again.

Finally, I still have the desire to be productive. If I continued the trip on the bike then I would struggle to organise my thoughts before coming home. In my head I planned to move for twelve months and then get off the road for six months by staying put in one spot, not Dublin. Ideally, a place along the way which had really gotten under my skin and that I wished to return to. When on the road it is difficult to think more than a couple of days ahead. This is especially true of the Great Divide route as it is very much a full-time job between camping, riding, exploring and securing supplies. It may be an adventure and even a holiday but it still requires as much energy, dedication, discipline and graft as any job. It is exhausting, albeit in a good way. If I stayed on the trail then I'd eat into the remaining time on my visa. While it would be possible to stay on the road outside of the US I do wish to reconnect with my family and friends. Hence why I only ever figured on 18 months. The idea behind appending a year's travel with a six month sojourn is that it allows me time to process the trip. I can come home on the front foot with plans and ideas as opposed to on the back foot overwhelmed by what has just past and fretting over the uncertainty of what is to come.

Thus, a plan was hatched. I would leave the Great Divide Mountain bike route behind and make my way to the Front Range to shop for towns for the winter. As I had yet to find somewhere I really wanted to return to I was going all-in by betting on the Front Range. If it did not appeal as a bolt-hole for the winter then I would continue south to explore the hippy and alternative vibe of New Mexico.

Makes sense?


this sign outside Steamboat portrays a scene straight from the mountains of the Tour de France - Johann tails Alberto in the team-car with a fan running alongside in a mankini ... what the?

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