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On Top of the World

Now 30 years old, the Colorado 500 is America’s greatest trail ride

by James Holter

We slowly guide our machines down a narrow, rocky section of the trail from Black Bear Pass.

About two handlebars wide, the path descends over a series of steps that lead around a 180-degree corner. To the left is a rock wall. To the right is a drop-off that disappears in the dizzying distance. Ahead, in a valley a half-mile down, is the town of Telluride, Colorado.

It has all the makings of an epic dirtbike ride except one: sound. The muted thump of idling four-strokes is drowned out by the crashing of a waterfall just a few dozen feet off the trail.

Welcome to the 30th Annual Colorado 500 Invitational Charity Dirt Bike Ride—one of the most spectacular, and exclusive, rides in America. Here, there’s only one word to describe the Colorado scenery and the Rocky Mountain heights: breathtaking.

And all you have to do to enjoy it is ride through some of the most rugged terrain many of us will ever see.

This is day three, which began with a ride up Poughkeepsie Gulch, a 300-yard climb through a brutal rock garden without even a hint of traction-rich soil. Every rock is free to roll, shift and turn, and only a few riders make the ascent without error.

But getting it to the top pays off in a big way. You’re rewarded with a sweeping climb across snow-covered basins and above-the-treeline moonscapes along the rim of Como Lake, then up to the 13,184-foot crossing of California Pass.

Impressive? You bet.

From 9 to 300

The Colorado 500 is the brainchild of one man, and every year, the ride starts at his ranch in Basalt, Colorado.

The man is Wally Dallenbach Sr., former Indy car racer and CART competition director who dreamed up the concept of a multi-day ride over the roof of America 30 years ago as a way to share his long-time affection for motorcycles and his newly found fondness for the Rocky Mountains.

Like 300 other riders, I’m feeling nervous anticipation as we gather in a field at Dallenbach’s for the 2005 edition of the ride.

It’s registration day, and riders, guests and workers have taken over the ranch, preparing for the biggest Colorado 500 ever. Dallenbach is a busy man, but after some cajoling, he takes a few minutes to discuss how it began.

“I moved here from New Jersey in 1974. I was so excited about the mountains that I wanted to share it with my good friend, Sherm Cooper,” Dallenbach says.

Cooper and Dallenbach began exploring the mountains on bikes—but not necessarily the right bikes. Cooper remembers their first serious ascent, riding fully loaded Triumph 750s up some rocky two-track.

“We stopped at a restaurant and asked if a motorcycle could go up there, and the waitress said that Jeeps do,” Cooper says. “So, being a bigshot motorcycle rider, I said, ‘We can do it, Wally.’ And we did it.”

The next year, seven more riders joined Dallenbach and Cooper for the first running of what they would term the Colorado 500. (The “500” is a throwback to Dallenbach’s car racing roots, although it’s also the minimum number of trail miles a rider can expect over five days.)

That first group also included famed racers Ed Kretz Jr., and Al and Bobby Unser, plus Dick Singer, Lon Bromley, Art Lamey and Del Garner. More racing legends would join in later years: Malcolm Smith, Parnelli Jones, Dave Mungenast Sr., Don Emde, Dennis Firestone and Roger Penske among them.

This year, 300 riders from the U.S., Canada and Australia have been invited to the ride. While some are names you recognize, most are just enthusiasts. This egalitarian nature of the Colorado 500 is something that makes Dallenbach proud.

“They all love motorcycles, and on the trails, nothing matters but the camaraderie that comes from that,” Dallenbach says.

Talk to the riders, and that passion is clear.

Bruce Wilcox, a 58-year-old contractor from East Sandwich, Massachusetts, has been riding the event annually for well over a decade.

“Every year, I think I’m going to slow down,” Wilcox says. “Guys like me, we play golf—that’s what we do, right? No, I love dirtbikes too much. I just want to ride dirtbikes, and I’ll never stop. Never.”

Highlight Reel

Our breath is visible in the chill of the next morning’s start. Rain looks possible, but considering the nature of mountain weather, we’re probably equally likely to get snow, hail or glorious sunshine.

With the rider meetings, run by Ben Cheatwood and trail boss Don Riggle, over, it’s time to roll.

Long-time Colorado 500 rider Stan Simpson plays traffic cop for the start, sending us off in manageable waves. We head southeast on Colorado Route 82 for the short highway leg to Aspen, where we reach the turn-off for Taylor Pass.

The climb up to 11,925-foot Taylor Pass is a flowing rocky trail that opens into a breathtaking view of forests and mountain tops. Here, we form smaller groups, each led by an experienced guide, and set out on routes of varying difficulty through the mountain towns of Crested Butte and Ouray, before returning to Snowmass, just outside of Aspen.

This climb has opened the Colorado 500 for years. And it’s here that Dallenbach says the ride really begins.

“Everyone gets up here and takes a deep breath and realizes what they have left behind—then they realize that there’s a week yet to go,” he says.

The ride down the opposite side leads over slick rocks and sharp ledges that threaten tubes and engine cases. Rookies learn fast that if you want to ride to the top of the world, you have to earn it.

But the trails smooth out as we continue to Steve Widener’s cabin for the day’s first food break. Hosted for 20 years by Steve and his wife, Lyndi, this stop provides a rest break and lunch for riders in the middle of the first day’s challenges.

The rest of the ride into Crested Butte is a highlight reel that includes Italian Mountain’s jagged climb and American Flag Mountain’s startling 360-degree view.

“I lived in Newport Beach, California,” says Jerry Jardine, who started Jardine Exhausts and has been a Colorado 500 rider since 1977. “We had mountains, but the access is so controlled. To come up here and see these vistas, it will pull some tears out of your eyes.”

Next, we take the Reno Divide loop of high-mountain canyons before descending through a rich forest to the road into Crested Butte. We call it a night, while Dallenbach and his crew continue their job for the week, which involves handing out rather large sums of money.

Giving Back

The charity element of the Colorado 500 began in 1981, when Dallenbach decided the ride should give something back to the community.

Since then, the ride has distributed $1.263 million dollars, mostly to local charitable organizations. The 2005 event adds $125,000 to the charity fund.

“There are always groups trying to shut us down,” Riggle says. “But we make a real economic impact, in terms of donating to the schools and the money we inject into the local economy, and that means a lot to keeping this going.”

Most of the money comes from the riders. While the $1,000 entry fee covers expenses, such as food and hotel bills, donations are made at the beginning, end and during the ride, often in exchange for a hot lunch or water from a volunteer.

But corporate sponsors also are involved. Toyota, Penske Racing, Dunlop Tires, Kawasaki Team Green, and others all donate to the cause. Another supporter is Rev-Loc, the automatic clutch company. Rev-Loc owner Doug Drussel has been riding the Colorado 500 for 23 years. His mechanic, Dave Vlasicak, is why many riders finish the event on their motorcycles instead of in the back of a chase truck.

Local institutions get most of the money, distributed in presentations as the riders make their way through each town. In recent years, though, there’s been a gift of an individual nature: the Colorado 500 Scholarship.

Shawn Stevenson won the first scholarship. Stevenson, who earned a master’s degree and is now a social services worker in Basalt, says she wouldn’t have gone to college without the generosity of the Colorado 500 riders.

Dallenbach says that generosity grew from the fun they had riding motorcycles in these mountains.

“The motorcycle was a tool that we used to see in four days what would take two weeks in a Jeep,” he says. “We felt guilty about having so much fun, so we started leaving a tip wherever we went.”

Those “tips” have grown into quite a legacy, changing lives and making memories, 30 years strong.

The Road to Ouray

After a night in Crested Butte, we wake to an overcast, cool morning as we set out on the longest leg of the ride.

The road to Ouray begins with a trip over 10,093-foot Ohio Pass, continues along rolling hills on Antelope Trail, then follows singletrack through the Beaver Pond area. Next, we glide over high desert trails, and eventually crest 11,360-foot Slumgullion Pass.

Throughout the ride, there are plenty of ways to get where you’re going. The adventurous can tackle the 100 rocky switchbacks of Alpine Trail and rugged Green Lake singletrack. Those looking to keep some color in their knuckles can opt for easier—and still scenic—jeep trails.

Our group rides a good mix, but some hold-ups have me worrying about time. The day is getting short as we head up 12,800-foot Engineer Pass, but we just beat the sunset as we descend into Ouray for the second night of the ride.

We’ll spend the next day exploring the trails around the area—Poughkeepsie Gulch, Black Bear Pass, California Pass and Hurricane Pass, among others—before spending another night in Ouray.

Circling Back

The next day, we’re nearing Little Mill on the way back to Crested Butte when the sky lets loose with a torrent of rain.

I break off with trail guide Mark Woodward, as we test our skills for 20 miles through a relentless downpour. I keep Woodward in sight on a seemingly endless descent over icy slick mud and through blinding splashes.

These are tough conditions, for sure, but our spirits hold, and before warming up in Crested Butte, we tackle the rocky side hills and tight single track of Green Lake Trail. It takes us 45 minutes to complete the 11-mile trail.

It’s been a tough—and magical—day. Even at the end of 160 miles, with my arms turning to jelly and Woodward’s KX500 slipping a little farther ahead with every turn, I’d like to do more.

On to Snowmass

As the sun comes up on the last day, we’re looking at a short 70 miles back into Snowmass.

We wake up to rain, but that passes as we make our morning fuel stop in Crested Butte, and the sun peeks through the clouds as we head back to Taylor Pass, which is the last—as well as the first—challenge of the Colorado 500.

This time, we’re heading up the rock gardens and sharp ledges that we rode down the first day. At the top, many dawdle, talking with other riders and enjoying a final view before wrapping up another Colorado 500.

One by one, the other riders head off down the mountain, until just Lloyd Liebetrau and I remain.

There are two ways back from here. We could take the shorter route that we followed up the first day, or tackle the much longer Midnight Mine jeep road that rises above the pass before winding several more miles down into Aspen.

Lloyd and I consider the quicker route, then survey the weather moving in, highlighted by massive sheets of rain tracking in our direction.

Any normal person would bail out. But Lloyd, a long-time Colorado 500 rider, and I apparently are not normal.

We follow one more rocky, granite trail over one more mountain.

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