Cycling Three Cities of Colorado’s Front Range

Colorado offers a wealth of options for cyclists. Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins are increasingly cycle-friendly.

By Michael Lloyd

Coloradans on the Front Range live in the heart of a geographic playground. The snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains hovering in the distance attract outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers and athletes – a spirit reflected in the people who live in their midst. The most populated region of Colorado, the Front Range is nestled along the eastern foothills of the Front Range mountains and west of the Great Plains – offering a veritable smorgasbord of hiking, skiing and biking opportunities. Where else in the United States can you ski in the morning and wear shorts and flip-flops out for a casual cruiser ride in the evening?

In Front Range country, which includes the cities of Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver, locals have a plethora of cycling options. Mountain biking here is world-famous and the area offers some of the most challenging road riding in the US. Another option that is gaining force is everyday functional riding. Fueled by two-wheeled freedom, the state of the economy, the environment and health consciousness, cycling is a big deal in Colorado.

Boulder: Ahead of the Pack

Boulder is at the top of the list of cycle-forward cities on the Front Range and has been for decades. In this community of just under 100,000 residents, you’ll find over 200 miles (322 kilometers) of bike lanes and paths, along with the social and political will to develop cycling-friendly streets.

Tim Graczyk is a free-spirited rider who, until recently, had seven bikes in his possession. Having finally settled on just one, a Surly Big Dummy, Graczyk plans to tour around the Northwest and participate in the desert dance party, art fest and cycling bonanza that is Burning Man, which, this year, will take place from August 30 to September 6 in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. His Big Dummy’s huge wheelbase and equally enormous panniers will enable him to take everything but the kitchen sink with him for the ride.

Graczyk pedals a 10-mile (16-km) commute to work each day, which isn’t bad, although the unpredictable weather along the foothills of Boulder can be challenging. Taking the caprices of Mother Nature in stride, Graczyk views Boulder’s sometimes wacky weather as part of the fun. “It’s really not that hard [to bike in bad weather],” he said, noting that it’s a cinch compared to contending with local auto traffic: “driving a car in Boulder can be a pain in the ass.” The greater challenge is accustoming motorists and cyclists alike to the increased popularity of cycling in the city.

With so many cyclists on the road, tensions have risen between novice and experienced riders, particularly when you add automobiles into the urban commuting mix. Community Cycles, a non-profit organization that supports local transportation cycling and runs bike repair and maintenance classes, is trying to alleviate some of that tension through their Boulder Bike Ambassador program. The program teaches specific skills, such as bike helmet fit, bike handling skills, fixing a flat, rules of the road, etc., to encourage the safe and effective use of Boulder’s roadways, paths and transit routes.

Community-run initiatives and government funding have both contributed to the growing popularity of two-wheeled travel in Boulder. The local Mountainbike Alliance’s Partnership Initiative Program funds locally-accessible mountain bike trails in order to help riders get out of the city and onto a trailhead without stepping into their cars. City Hall has played a huge role. Fifteen percent of its yearly transportation budget is devoted to cycling-focused projects, making Boulder the standout cycling community on the Front Range. And their support is paying off. Already, 9.9 percent of trips to work are made by bicycle in the city of Boulder.

Doug Emerson, from University Bicycles, sums up why the bike has become the vehicle of choice for many residents: “A bicycle is your transportation, exercise and psychiatrist all wrapped into one perfect machine.”

Path to Pedal from the Ground Up

Flat open boulevards and wide open skies fill the backdrop for some of the most pastoral urban riding in the state of Colorado. Fort Collins’ 280 miles (450 kms) of bike lanes and 35 miles (56 km) of dedicated bike paths allow cyclists unfettered access to this high plains college town of 136,000 people.

Molly North rides her Trek 1,000 – adorned with stickers – to get around Fort Collins and participate in Bike and Build rides (bikeandbuild.org) that raise money to fund affordable housing groups.

Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, North’s desire to be on a bike has grown since moving to Colorado. A daily commuter, she bikes year-round to get to meetings and wherever else she has to be. “Cycling has become my normal; a pattern that is tough to break.” For North, Fort Collins is an ideal place to be a cyclist because of its rider-friendly streets and large cycling community.

Fort Collins’ bicycle coordinator, Dave “DK” Kemp, has played a central role in planning for current and future bicycle facilities, including five on-street bike racks, each installed in a car parking stall. The city’s transportation planning department has also received funding to purchase additional bike racks ($40,000) and install the city’s first bike box near the Colorado State University campus ($75,000). Approximately 15,000 cyclists ride to and from campus on a daily basis, according to Kemp. More are likely to join in, as the city is planning to expand its bike routes and there is no reason to believe that funding for bicycle infrastructure will dry up any time soon.

“The parks planning department has secured millions of dollars to expand the network of bike trails throughout the city,” Kemp said in an email. “A majority of bike trail funding comes from grants obtained through GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado) lottery funds grants process.”

In addition, any new development in Fort Collins falls under the complete streets policy – adopted by only Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Boulder so far – which stipulates that a portion of the profits from any redevelopment must go towards cycling projects. This stipulation has funneled millions of dollars into cycling infrastructure, such as improved access to downtown Fort Collins through Share the Road signs, bike lane extensions and sharrows. The Traffic Operations Department has also installed 15 electromagnetic bike sensors in the pavement at intersections along major bicycling corridors.

Rolling Towards the Mark

Denver, the capital and most populous city of Colorado, has over 600,000 residents and a metro area population of 2.4 million. The Mile High City – so called because it sits exactly one mile above sea level – Denver has over 300 days of sunshine per year. This makes for some decent cycling conditions, both in the summer and during the snowy winter months. The city has also taken steps to make cycling safer and more accessible to local riders by constructing 60 miles (97 kms) of shared-use paths and striping 15 miles (24 kms) of surface street lanes. Still, Denver’s mode share sits at a small but encouraging 1.6 percent.

Part of that 1.6 percent is cycling commuter Carolyne Jansen who regularly rides her 17-year-old mountain bike to work. On weekends, she pedals to a greenhouse on the north end of Denver to relax and garden. A graphic artist by trade, Jansen said the quiet and solitude of being on the bike are what she finds the most appealing. Up until recently, she felt “invisible” to those getting around in automobiles. Now she feels less defensive about traveling on local streets because she believes drivers in Denver are becoming increasingly aware of cyclists on the road.

Occasionally a car might honk, but she said that she chooses to interpret this as “an expression of encouragement,” instead of a letting it get to her. “I feel a sense of happiness and accomplishment riding my bicycle instead of driving a car,” she said. Jansen’s route also includes some appealing features, such as watching birds and other animals that frequent the city’s bike paths and experiencing subtle changes in the attitudes of local residents whom she sees increasingly embracing cycling.

Piep van Heuven, executive director of BikeDenver, believes the city is undergoing a “revolution” in its approach to cycling. No longer is the bicycle an afterthought in transportation planning. The B-cycle bike sharing program – with 400 bicycles spread out over 40 stations throughout the city – is the largest bicycle sharing program in the US; a nice feather in Denver’s cap. There’s the annual VeloSwap held at the National Western Complex. The Bike Depot offers bike safety classes and runs an Earn-A-Bike program; the non-profit organization also accepts donated bikes, “whips them into shape and finds them new homes in the community.” Residents can also “Build-a-Bike if you need a bike” at the Derailer Bicycle Collective, a community-run non-profit. And many bike shops offer bike maintenance classes, such as the Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.

There is still a ways to go before trans-portation cycling becomes a mainstream practice in Denver, but van Heuven believes that “Denver has developed solid building blocks” to support the future growth and development of cycling in the city.

Racking it Up

Boulder is certainly leading the pack by having the cycling infrastructure needed to support a strong and vibrant commuter culture, an example that can be emulated by its Front Range neighbors. On the other hand, there is much to be said about the grassroots approach of Fort Collins and the enthusiasm of local Denver cyclists.

Despite their differences, one point is crystal clear; change is being cranked out on the Front Range and many people are behind the movement.

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VeloSwap – veloswap.com

The Bike Depot – thebikedepot.org

Derailer Bicycle Collective – derailerbicyclecollective.org

Salvagetti – salvagetti.com

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1 Comment

  • Kary

    “Where else in the United States can you ski in the morning and wear shorts and flip-flops out for a casual cruiser ride in the evening?” Actually, that would be Salt Lake City, not Colorado. I live in Fort Collins (for the past 30 years) and the closest ski hill of any quality is about 4 hours away. Hard to get there, ski, come home and bike in one day. In Salt Lake, however, my son would often go up and ski at a world-class resort after classes in the morning–skiing was less than 30 minutes from the city center. Maybe your author needs to travel a bit more (or at least, not believe all the tourist hype!). I love Colorado, but Utah is far better if you want to ski and have a regular life.

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