GRAND JUNCTION — For the 2,000 cyclists pouring into Grand Junction from around the country and the world this weekend, 25 is the number to celebrate. And 542.5 is the number to fear.
The 25th anniversary of Ride the Rockies will take cyclists on the longest, hardest ride of that quarter century. Over 542.5 miles stretching from Grand Junction to Salida, riders will climb the legendarily tough Grand Mesa, grind up three San Juan Mountain passes in a day and cruise the Colorado National Monument's squiggle of blacktop that was immortalized in the cycling classic "American Flyers."
They will inch up the unrelenting incline of Wolf Creek Pass and, as a fitting finale to the week, top Poncha Pass before cruising into Salida to a bell-clanging, family-cheering celebration.
"Epic" is the word cycling journal VeloNews used to describe this year's week-long ride.
For the first time, a governor will pedal part of the route in a prologue ride today, before the masses start spinning Sunday. Gov. Bill Ritter, along with some other VIPs, former pro riders and avid cyclist Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, plan to ride over the Colorado National Monument to highlight the anniversary and help raise money for the Denver Post Charities that benefit from the annual ride.
"I just think this is a great event to showcase Colorado. I've long wanted to do Ride the Rockies. Now, I'll get to do some part of it," said Ritter, a longtime cyclist who has come back from a cycling crash that hospitalized him for several days earlier this year.
When the first ride was created in 1986 on the suggestion of Post reporter Claire Martin, paying to pedal from Grand Junction to Denver and donating the proceeds to charities sounded like a unique challenge.
That year, 1,500 riders climbed on their aluminum and stainless-steel 12-speeds and began a tradition that has now crisscrossed 9,828 miles, camped overnight in 41 towns and raised $419,000 for charities.
In the years since, the legions of cyclists have conquered the Rockies on three-speeds, antique big-wheel bikes, sit-down bikes, kick bikes and hand-crank bikes. A triple amputee has completed the ride. An 80-year-old grandmother has done it. A 6-year-old finished on the back of a tandem. Cancer survivors have made it part of their quest for renewed health. Couples have chosen to say their vows at rest stops. Families have used it as a rolling reunion.
The ride has pedaled on through torrential rains, brutal heat, snow and forest fires.
Along the way, it has been the impetus for countless young entrepreneurs' roadside lemonade stands. It has made legendary the homemade pie in Pleasant Valley and fresh- baked pastries in Pea Green. Riders have irreplaceable memories of dancing on aching feet to rock music outside Cortez's town kiva and soaking tired muscles in the hot pool at Glenwood Springs.
The age of riders has gradually inched upward. In the early years, young baby boomers came out to ride. Now, those cyclists are not so young, The median age for participants in this anniversary ride is 48.
The cyclists come from 48 states and 17 countries this year. The oldest rider is an 83-year-old from Littleton, and the youngest is a 9-year-old from Tulsa, Okla.
Rick "Worm" Charbonneau, a volunteer with the ride for all but one of those 25 years, said with the shifting of demographics, the drivers of the van that picks up tired or injured riders — the infamous "sag wagon" — have a little more work to do.
"Riding in the sag wagon used to be a stigma. Now it is an amenity," he said. "There are a lot more expectations from riders."
Ride the Rockies prepares for that with a cadre of 80 to 100 volunteers, who have become like family over the years. Thirty of those volunteers have helped with driving sag wagons, staffing information tents and setting up aid stations for at least a decade.
Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or email@example.com