Left or right? Paved or dirt?
We went left and took the old ranch road through the easy valley in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The town, tucked in the northwest corner of the state, is now known for its skiing and cycling, but a large part of its cultural legacy is in ranching.
Farms blanket the Yampa River valley in every direction, and the horses are content to watch the riders pass by from their fence lines. Dirt connects the ranches and neighbouring valleys; enormous squares and circles of hay bales offer up relief upon the blankets of green. In some places, the big trucks of farmers and tiny machines of cyclists appear at odds with one another, though not here. Riders are a part of the community now, and the ranchers don’t seem to mind — a man waves from his tractor as we pass.
We turn left on the ranch road, and on to the course of the opening stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, which tends to amount to a tour of Colorado’s mountain towns. It started on Monday in Steamboat. We note how it takes a rough road to truly appreciate a smooth one once we’re on the pavement.
We venture to the King of the Mountains point and join a few hundred or so others on the rural road outside of Oak Creek. The peloton is about 45 minutes behind, so there is time for a quick road picnic before the futile breakaway reaches us. They go by, the jesters of the larger court to come a few minutes later.
Up in the valley we can see the cars of the race coming, and they look like a long train in the distance. It is remarkable how many machines it takes to make a professional bike race work. The peloton comes by on lap one of two, and eventual stage winner Taylor Phinney gives a shout to a fan nearby.
Once the peloton slithers by it is back to the bikes and on to town to catch the finish. New blacktop has replaced some of the patchwork pavement on the way back to town and the dark asphalt is a river coursing through the rolling hills and farms. The race has come and gone once, but out here among the pastures it is as if nothing has happened in 50 years.
That all changes once we make the right into town and see the barriers and fans. The race is back now, though the empty ranch roads remain, waiting for nothing but the passing of time.