At the risk of blowing the most closely guarded secret in the Front Range, we send a former Nederland resident back to his old stomping grounds to uncover the truth about the riding scene, local politics, all those hidden trails and what the future has in store for a community that still rides for the joy of suffering.
We pursue our shadows through the late-afternoon light in a meadow outside of Nederland. Randy is on point, followed by Chad, me and Robert. We’re locked in tight formation, 10 feet separating our wheels, tires humming and spitting pebbles. Randy barrels into the S-turn at full speed, side lugs biting into gravel as he lays his bike to one side, then the other, and rockets down the trail. The rest of us step on our pedals, digging hard to catch him.
We’re engaged in a game familiar to many Nederland mountain bikers. It’s called Chasing Randy. The goal is to go balls-to-the-wall fast down technical singletrack—carving turns, jumping rocks, weaving trees, ducking branches—while trying to stick with Randy. It’s no easy task. Randy is not only fast; he has ridden these trails for nearly two decades and knows every twist, turn and log-hop. To chase him down the trails around Nederland is to witness a man in his element.
I played this game often before moving to the coast three years ago. Now I have returned to re-join the chase and ride with my old posse. There’s only one problem: I’m dead exhausted. It’s Day 7, the last of my visit, and this is my eighth hard ride. Last night I cramped up so badly that I had to lie down on the floor for 15 minutes, unable to lift myself. But that hardly matters now. Randy and Chad are pulling away, and I need to step on it. So I ignore the pain, pedal hard, and fly back to Chad’s wheel, who is hot on Randy’s, Robert glued to mine.
The Nedhead Dirt Club has reunited.
Robert and Chad picked me up curbside at Denver International Airport (DIA) a week earlier, and after a quick man-hug we sped off for Ned.
“Chug it,” Robert said, handing me a jug of water. “You don’t want to dehydrate.”
I came from sea level. A smarter individual would take a few days to acclimatize, but there’s no time to waste. We pulled up to Robert’s house, suited up, and banged out a ride on a loop called the Hot Lap—a favorite after-work ripper when I lived here. The guys showed mercy by granny-gearing the climbs to avoid exploding my heart on my first day at altitude.
There will be time to destroy me later.
Nederland has defied gentrification despite a visually stunning location on a reservoir with the Continental Divide just 9 miles west. The town is equal parts corndog and tofu, mountain hillbilly and Boulder yuppie. There’s a liquor store and supermarket, natural foods co-op, smoke shop and gas station. Eldora Ski Area is nearby and a new half-million-dollar skatepark was recently dedicated by Tony Hawk. And there are trails. Mile after mile of steep, rocky, root-crossed, sandy, sketchy, hammer-fest trails. For my money, it’s the best-kept secret in Colorado. Sure, Crested Butte and other resort towns have better riding, but who can afford to live there? Ned is the working man’s mountain bike Mecca.
I first came here in 2000, hot on the trail of a beautiful mountain biker chick. We bought a jalopy house downtown and I set about learning to ride. My previous cycling experience consisted of commuting to work. To say I sucked is an insult to sucked. But I was an eager student, and Nederland is the school of rock.
There were hard lessons. While riding alone one afternoon I bashed a pedal against a babyhead on the down-stroke, causing my cleat to come unclicked and my foot to shoot forward. My crotch landed on the top tube, and my front tire spun perpendicular, catapulting me. I slammed to the ground chest-first, knocked out my breath and bruised my ribs. As I lay there, clutching my privates and gasping, it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to have some wingmen.
A year later, Ledge bought the dump next door, and soon we rode together. Ledge is a multisport athlete who can telemark, skateboard, paddle and climb, and does them all well. He talks nonstop, even on steep climbs (I nicknamed him Verbal). Robert moved into town a year later, and I had another riding partner. Robert is a Georgia boy, carpenter, smack-talker and former BMXer who bunny-hops with style and laughs like a maniac. Robert introduced me to Chad, a former racer and downhiller. Chad smiles a lot, says little, eats sprouted grains, drinks only filtered alkaline water and is built like a tank mechanic. Aside from Randy, he’s the fastest mofo I’ve ever met. Then there’s Randy: the Godfather. He owns Happy Trails coffee and bike shop and practically invented Nederland mountain biking. He wears body armor and a full-face mask and is wiry and lean. Meeting him for the first time, in civilian clothes, you would never suspect he’s a sex machine on wheels. Robert calls him the world’s fastest 47-year-old.
Me? I’m C-Level, and I’m out of breath but rising.
“Let’s go big,” Randy says as we gather at Happy Trails on Saturday, Day 4 of my Nederland ride-a-thon. Yesterday, we slogged uphill for nearly an hour, gaining 1,600 feet of elevation, and then ripped down a steep descent whose name shall remain secret. Unfortunately, I dropped my $200 sunglasses on the climb, requiring a second, brutal, solo ride to retrieve them as night fell. The day before we grunted uphill through West Mag, then sheltered under trees to wait out a downpour before descending through dense lodgepoles, ripping across a plank above a slop zone and careening past a decrepit school bus.
Happy Trails bustles with customers as we prepare for our big ride, a weekend ritual. Two cheese-dogs are flirting with a cute barista working the counter, and Boulder cyclists cover the porch out front, having taken the RTD bus up. “The Trails” is the epicenter of Ned mountain biking—the gathering spot and HQ where maps are studied and missions planned. Sometimes, Randy plots big group rides, but today we want to travel fast and light, with no stragglers.
Misty rain falls as we work our way to the top of Eldora, then plunge down toward Jenny Creek, banging over embedded rock. The creek is raging with spring snowmelt, forcing us to shoulder our bikes and plunge through icy water to continue the ride on the other side. After another climb, we scream downhill, launching over rock and root drops and high-siding turns to avoid slippery black batter. Hours later we emerge again near the ski area and duck into an expert trail that swoops through aspen stands and wildflower rock gardens. There is no good line down this trail, only worse and worst. Glacially deposited boulders, rounded and slick with mist, must be ridden at speed. Go slow, and your front tire stops hard. I once saw my buddy Tom’s feet go up over his head here, his bike somersaulting down the cold stone.
But there are no wipeouts today, and after a five-hour ride we return to Happy Trails to hose off. Randy founded Happy Trails in 1994, when mountain biking was still a niche sport. Randy was an early devotee, and he began riding here in the mid-80s, fully rigid. With a core group of Ned cycling pioneers, he explored the old mining grades, Forest Service roads and social trails. In 1997, Chad and Robert arrived. “That’s when it went to the next level,” Randy says. “They not only wanted to ride every day, they were skilled riders.”
Randy’s bikes got beefier and beefier to deal with the brutal conditions. He rides a 27-pound, 6-inch travel Intense that’s both meaty and nimble, with a burly 2.5-inch tire in front for surfing crumbly decomposing granite, and a 2.35 in the back for traction on merciless uphill grunts. Randy has a secret weapon on climbs: a 20-tooth chain ring. The extra-small ring provides a superlow granny gear that allows Randy—a master of the uphill slow-ride—to clear steep grades when everyone else blows up or spins out. It’s as if his bike goes to 11.
Randy is not only the world’s fastest 47-year-old; he’s also the slowest.
“Nederland has some of the most technically challenging long cross-country riding in Colorado,” he says. “You have to be able to climb.” There’s just one problem: nobody but locals can find the trails, which are mostly unmarked. Nederland’s economy is hurting and could use the boost more mountain bikers would bring. “Nederland is a hidden jewel of Front Range mountain biking,” Randy says. “Instead of driving to Fruita or Moab or Winter Park, cyclists could come here. Some already are. Look around town at the number of cars with bikes on the roof. Mountain biking is becoming an economic driver for this town. It could be moreso.”
We’re sitting outside Robert’s garage, sipping beers during a post-ride barbecue. “It would be nice for out-of-town riders to have a marked trail system to follow, so they could do a two- to three-hour ride and not get lost,” Randy says. “That would be huge.”
The Boulder Mountain Biking Alliance and its predecessor BOA have worked with the Forest Service to mark several West Mag trailheads, but more work is needed. The lack of an organized trail network has led to misuse. I witness this one afternoon, when two dirt bikes roar up a trail posted as nonmotorized. The second rider is a lard-ass, and he spins out and stalls while trying to negotiate large, slippery roots that we clear on our bikes. If not for the blue smoke, I could almost smell the shame as he stalls a second time.
Another impediment is the locals-only ethic of some. “Don’t ruin it,” one rider tells me when he learns I’m writing about Ned.
Nederland mountain biking needs a leader. The Forest Service is flush with cash for trail-building thanks to the federal stimulus bill. Better-organized communities across the West are gobbling up the cash and building sick trail networks. When I ask Randy why he hasn’t formed a local mountain biking group to lobby on behalf of Nederland trails, he demurs.
These are unhappy times at Happy Trails, which for 15 years has operated out of two iconic train cars downtown. This year, Randy was forced to move out of “the cars” when his landlord jacked up the rent. Repairing bikes and selling coffee is no get-rich-quick scheme. Randy has relocated across the street, and the new space is actually bigger and nicer than the cramped train cars, but Randy fears that tourists accustomed to stopping at the cars will not see his new shop.
Now, word on the street is that a competing coffee shop will open up in the cars. Local cyclists have vowed to boycott the new business and patronize Happy Trails, but the whole experience has left Randy emotionally battered. “I’m fighting to stay in business,” he confesses during a ride. “I don’t like to talk about it. It brings me down.”
Day 7 comes too soon. Everyone is shagged. After our go-big Saturday, we reconnect with Ledge and again go large on Sunday, hammering through the Hobbit Trail and banging out a hot lap around a Rollinsville meadow before working our way to a hilltop overlooking the Toland rail yard, where trains tunnel beneath the Divide. Everyone promises to go easy for my last ride. But as we drop into the trail in tight formation and build up a head of steam, all bets are off, and the chase is on.
Randy tears into a sharp turn that drops abruptly to the right and then up to the left. Chad rides too far up the high-side berm to avoid cross-wheeling Randy and skids into a bush, a rare flub for the big man. I come around him and hear Robert laughing behind me as I take off in pursuit of Randy, who has gained 20 feet in a few seconds.
The trail narrows and swoops through an aspen glade, requiring quick turns on the greasy soil. I see Randy’s silhouette ahead, through tall grass and aspen leaves, and I big-ring it hard, feeling my quads burn. The gap closes, but I fudge a rock jump and my rear tire lands hard on stone. In the instant it takes to regain control, Randy has gapped me again.
We shoot up and out of the aspen glade and emerge into bright light on a bunch-grass hill. Randy stops pedaling and coasts over the crest, allowing me to grab his wheel for the final fast section. We descend back into the aspens and Randy surges as trees whip by our shoulders and we duck decapitators. I pedal furiously, my legs spent, and close in. But I have run out of time. Randy coasts to a stop atop the final knoll. Game over.
“Aaaaand cut!” Robert says like a movie director, clicking off his helmet cam. Yes, cameras off please. I want to sit down in the grass and puke. I’ve ridden faster, but never harder and closer to the edge of destruction. Someday I may get lucky and catch Randy when he’s going full-out, but that’s not the point. Chasing him is thrill enough.
We coast down Stinky Gulch, avoiding the Hershey-squirt muck from a homeowner’s leaky leech field, and head for home. The next morning I leave town as I came, in the truck with Robert and Chad. They drop me curbside at the Boulder bus station, and after a couple back slaps, I board the Skyride to DIA.
Everyone has special places. Best of all are those that combine a strong sense of place with friendship. That’s why I will always return to Nederland. The Nedhead Dirt Club will ride again. •
Paul Tolme is an environmental and outdoors writer who rides six days a week along the NoCal coast. His work for publications including Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, Ski and National Wildlife can be seen at paultolme.com.