Monday, August 3, 2009

Dirt Road Randonneuring

On two Saturdays in the last month, Eric Althen and I ventured north to explore Will deRosset’s seasonal permanents, which traverse the hills west of Fort Collins. The Red Dirt Randonnée and the Manhattan Express each explore isolated areas of incredible beauty, their miles of dirt roads transporting us on a tour far removed from our usual routes.

Not far from home as the crow flies, but a whole different world.

The rides are structured similarly, each climbing to Red Feather Lakes before descending Red Feather Lakes Rd. (CR74E) back to Fort Collins. The roads taken along the way are very different, however.

We rode the Manhattan Express, a ride Will describes as “a two-climb route,” over the July 4th weekend. After crossing South Horsetooth to Masonville, we proceeded several miles towards Stove Prairie before turning onto the dirt road that wound its way through forest and alpine meadow to Box Prairie and ultimately over Pennock Pass.

A typical stretch of road on Will deRosset’s permanents: red dirt winding into the distance.

Miles of climbing were quickly undone by the steep, gravelly descent down to the Poudre, which we then followed upriver towards the day’s second significant climb. Climbing out of Glen Echo, we found ourselves looking for traction up a nasty 2.5 mile track averaging 9% grade, with substantial sections at 12-14%. Turning on to the ride’s namesake, Manhattan Road, we climbed at a milder 6% for several more miles before dropping into Red Feather Lakes. Refortified by ice cream and plenty of water, we finished the day with the rolling descent into Livermore and a final twenty miles of quiet red dirt roads back to town.

Looking back at where we’d been, late day north of Fort Collins.

Having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on the first of Will’s rides, this past weekend Eric and I returned for the Red Dirt Randonnée. Will made the ride sound milder than the Manhattan Express by promising that the climbing was broken into “smaller pieces,” which, in retrospect, was accurate: instead of the M-E’s two major climbs, one stretching over 25 miles, the RDR brought us five climbs of three to six miles, none as nasty, but cumulatively just as challenging as those we encountered on the M-E. Heading north from Fort Collins, we made our way to the Wyoming border, another beautiful climb over a succession of false summits through grassy fields rippling in the wind.

Eric at the Wyoming border.

We then turned to the winding, varied ascent through Prairie Divide to Red Feather Lakes. This road was as peaceful and isolated as any we had ridden, at times rising through open prairies, climbing through the woods, and following creeks through small canyons rimmed by fantastic, otherworldly rock formations.

An open expanse above near Prairie Divide.

Not only did these rides take us through areas of Colorado enjoyed by very few, far from the cars and reflected heat our usual paved routes, they also challenged us from start to finish. As a randonneur, these were my first experiences with having to watch the clock closely, as making the controles on the way up to Red Feather Lakes in time was by no means a given. Our efforts were easily exceeded by the reward each day, however, as we enjoyed truly epic rides.

- stephen whiteman


  1. What kind of tires and gearing did you use, Stephen? And what would you recommend? Thanks ...

  2. Dear Stephen,

    Congratulations on your successful rides, and strong efforts on these rides. I don't think I ever said the RDR was "easier", but I do prefer its pacing and scenic value to the Manhattan Express. The first section of climb out of the Poudre on the M-E seems to be the crux of the route for me.


    I use 28-622 (or wider) tires on the Manhattan Express along with a 34X25 (or lower) low gear ratio. No problems on the ascents, but one does need to take some care on the unpaved descents. I prefer 32mm or wider tires for that route due to the steep, unpaved descents from Pennock Pass to the Poudre Canyon. Knobbies aren't necessary.

    I've finished the Red Dirt Randonnee on 22mm tires, 25mm tires, 28mm tires, 30mm tires, and 35mm tires, and 42mm tires. I can't honestly recommend anything narrower than 28mm, though the big descents are paved on the Red Dirt Randonnee.

    A 39-26 low gear will get a rider up all the climbs with care (traction limited), but I prefer a 34-26 (or lower) low gear.

    Due to the sustained climbing on the M-E, RUSA has declared the control at Red Feather Lakes an "open" control--the time limit has been relaxed there. One still must meet the time limits for the full route.

    Stephen, congratulations again, and thank you for your thoughtful writeup. I need to start bringing a camera along on these routes.

    Best Regards,


    William M. deRosset
    RUSA 2401