The Million-Dollar road trip
Today was all about one road – the Million Dollar Highway. With a name like that, how could I not want to ride it? It’s one of Colorado’s most-famous roads and several people have recommended it… though after the disappointment of Pikes Peak, I adjusted my expectations downward. I didn't need to.
It’s certainly a name to conjure with: the Million Dollar Highway. Mr Wikipedia let me dig into the origins of the name, but says it’s unclear: either it cost a million dollars a mile to build when the original road was upgraded in the 1920s or the rock used to pack and build up some sections contains a million dollars’ worth of gold ore. What’s certain is the original road was built by a chap called Otto Mears in the 1880s, to connect the town of Ouray with the mining areas high in the mountains.
I set off to ride this legendary road from Montrose, after an interesting shopping expedition: I go to Walmart, where my fellow customers are as friendly as everyone else in America, but seem to be part of some kind of care-in-the-community experiment. It’s a brilliant shop – but it's still a bit of a relief to get back on the bike with all my marbles… A few miles down the road I see a sign saying “Espresso”, then ride past the La Zona Colona coffee shop, which looks so good that I quickly U-turn and go in. A good decision: the double espresso is the best coffee I’ve had in America; on a par with the best I’ve had in Italy. I sit out back and chat with a couple of the locals. “Have you met any crazy Americans yet?” one asks. I say: I’ve just been to Walmart… and they all fall about laughing.
Carrying on south, I’m heading into the mountains. Proper mountains, with patches of snow glistening on the peaks. This is high country and slightly cloudy. I stop to set up my GoPro to take some onboard photos (rather than video) as this is a landscape you’d have to see to believe… ahem. If it had worked. I’m quite annoyed that it didn’t. So, painting pictures with words, I come over one crest to see a lake below me, glinting like dull metal; the road snakes round and carries on along a broad valley towards the peaks – and I chase after it, eager to see what lies ahead.
Soon the landscape closes in: the horizon rises as the foothills press closer to the road, trees shading the tarmac. There are high walls of red rock on one side, a river on the other. Ahead, grey peaks – seen only when raising my head from the road. And all the time I’m climbing. It’s not a steep gradient, but it is relentless. I can see the temperature on the dash dropping steadily: I left Montrose in 23C sunshine but by the time I’ve ascended to Ouray, it’s a relatively chilly 16C.
I instantly fall for Ouray (pronounced You-Ray, apparently). There doesn’t seem to a chain outlet in sight. The shiny-plastic colour-by-numbers franchises that appear in towns across America are refreshingly absent. The main street is crazily cambered, with perhaps a 5ft difference between one side of the road and the other in places, so finding a spot to park the bike, where it doesn’t look like it’ll fall over, is surprisingly challenging.
I know it’s a tourist trap – from the “Photos of Ouray” shop to the nice little boutiques selling local art and the micro-breweries and the independent restaurants… but this is great. So much of the main street has the evocative look of the old frontier because that's what it is... it's just been carefully and sympathetically preserved. You can imagine horses tied up where now there are rows of neatly parked pickup trucks and SUVs. But it doesn’t feel artificial, as if it’s some kind of dress-up-to-take-money-from-tourists exercise; this is just an historic town that has managed to keep its character while adapting to modern life.
Still, I’m too tight-fisted to stop for lunch here. They clearly know how to charge the tourists in Ouray. So I head out of town, climbing two huge, sweeping hairpins. I stop to take a picture at the second one and on the next corner I find a turn for picnic area – where I eat the $4 packaged salad I bought in Walmart…
This really is the start of the Million Dollar Highway: from Ouray to Silverton. It’s fantastic, twisting its way into the Uncompahgre Gorge. At the start of the gorge is a fabulous scenic viewpoint, with waterfalls on two sides and the river ahead, with a slightly vertigo-inducing metal platform projecting out over the valley. It’s stunning, but for me the best bit is what fallows: the steep climb up the side of the gorge. Going in this direction, I’m on the side of the drop – so lining up left-handers means having my tyres beside the white line with only an inch or two of ground on the other side of it… then a healthy plunge. I know it’s the kind of thing some riders hate, but I take a perverse pleasure in this kind of riding – literally riding on the edge.
There are two problems, though. The first is what I’d half expected after Pikes Peak: a ludicrous 25mph speed limit. This isn’t a road you’d want to fly down, but 50-60 would be safe and easy. The second problem is, of course, that the heavens have opened. I manage to get the waterproofs on just before the heavy rain arrives, but the surface is sufficiently polished that I don’t feel like so much of a wimp for sticking to the speed limit. The tyres still seem to have loads of grip, but nobody likes a shiny wet road, do they?
The rain packs up before the fantastically twisty climb to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. I stop halfway up to get the waterpoofs off before I melt, so the last bit of the climb and the descent to Silverton are a joy. Keeping strictly to the speed limit, naturally…
Being an idiot, I’d thought that was the end of things: the 24-ish miles from Ouray to Silverton was all there was to get excited about. I didn’t know that Highway 550 had more fireworks in store before reaching the town of Durango – in the form of Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass. That makes this one very serious road. All three passes are higher than anything in the Alps: Coal Bank is 3240m; Molas is 3340m; and Red Mountain Pass is 3358m. Col de l’Iseran – the highest actual pass in Europe – is a mere 2770m…
The riding here is quite different to the Alps, though. Not just because (a) there’s a low speed limit, flitting from 35mph to 50mph and (b) I actually stick to it, more or less, which I’m afraid I’ve never bothered with in Europe… The nature of the roads is very different: they’re more sweeping, with longer straights and gentler corners; even the hairpins are broad and forgiving compared with some of the steeply cambered first-gear beasts you have to battle round at the top of many European passes. This is relaxed riding with huge views and (apart from the gorge) none of the massive drops. All the best bits of mountain riding with – pretty much – none of the tough bits.
From Durango I swing south-west, heading out of the mountains. Distant peaks do rise on the horizon, but on either side of the road is an ocean of sage grass. This is another American landscape I’m used to from the movies – the kind where the US cavalry races to the rescue as settlers are menaced by Apache raiding parties with face-paint and feathers in their hair. So it seems appropriate that I’m stopping in the Tomahawk Lodge tonight… It’s in the town of Cortez on the edge of Colorado and it feels like a different world to Ouray. There's a real sense that I’m heading into a totally different kind of land again. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.