Nearly two decades ago, Rob Lucas was getting ready for a 24-hour mountain bike race that included climbing 14,278-foot Grays Peak with his bike on his back. The Colorado Springs native knew he needed a place to train that seriously tested his aerobic fitness and ability to adjust to altitude.
He chose The Incline, a former cable-car route that heads straight up the side of Mount Manitou above Manitou Springs, CO and looks like a broken zipper when viewed from downtown Colorado Springs. Known among runners and other athletes for its challenges, the Incline wasn’t actually an official trail until February 2013.
Since then, the Colorado Springs native known as “Ultrarob” (the name of his website and blog ), has developed a relationship with the Incline that is more than just a man and a trail. The Manitou Incline has become a destination with an almost cult-like following, with a master plan and a non-profit dedicated to its future. And Lucas has become a trail advocate and unstoppable outdoor fanatic, who has competed in plenty of events, including the grueling Race Across America (RAAM, a non-stop, coast-to-coast bike race), and ridden in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race nearly a dozen times.
To prepare for these adventures, he has climbed the Incline hundreds of times. Each time, he says, is a unique experience. Each time tests him physically, but also offers something else. Lucas says the workout offered by the Incline never gets easier, and the views that he documents with his camera never get old. With the city sparkling below, the clouds hanging on the horizon, and the way the trees frame the trail… it's all mesmerizing. Lucas has started a website dedicated to the trail and has published a relative calendar. This year Lucas is offering T-shirts with a portion of the proceeds going to Incline Friends , a group formed to make the Incline sustainable.
When Lucas first tackled the Incline in 1998, he didn’t have a lot of company. “That was before the first no-trespassing sign was put up,” he says. A year earlier, local running legend, Matt Carpenter, had formed the Incline Club, a running group that trained on the railroad ties each Thursday. But the more fans the Incline gained, the more contentious it became, and in 2000, signs were put up in an attempt to keep people away. The Incline Club moved their runs elsewhere but the Incline wasn’t any less busy.
In its heyday, the actual Incline was known for its 16-minute ride and corny jokes (“Don’t worry if the cables break – there are two springs at the bottom – Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs”). But in 1990, a rockslide took out some of the train tracks, and the Incline was disassembled.
That’s when runners and hikers stepped in. The fact that the Incline was partly on private land and partly on national forest land didn’t stop them once they realized what they had– an easy-to-access trail with a lung-busting altitude gain of 2,000 feet and an average grade of 41 percent (reaching a ridiculous 68 percent at its steepest point, a false summit).
The fight between land managers and Incline fanatics raged on, and it continued until the Incline was legally opened as a trail on Feb. 3, 2013 after intervention and action by local, state and national government officials. (It even required President Obama signing a bill that allowed the forest service to accept the railway’s relinquishment of its right-of-way).
Today, it's more popular than ever. According to the Manitou Springs site development and management plan, the Incline generates at least 350,000 trips to the top of Mount Manitou each year. That’s closing in on a million pairs of feet. A unique online counter shows nearly 200,000 trips since July 2013.
Among all those climbers are soldiers from local military bases doing unofficial training with heavy packs, Olympic athletes who marvel at the old-school out-of-the-gym simplicity of the workout, world-class runners and cyclists, mountaineers training for the world’s tallest peaks, record-keepers hoping for a personal best… and, of course, the unstoppable Rob Lucas and his ever-present camera. “Some days, I just want to share the beauty,” he says. “Some days, I climb just so I can take pictures.”
Join the Incline Friends
The 2014 membership drive for Incline Friends, a group formed to support sustainability projects on the Incline, is 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Manitou Brewing Company, 725 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs. For more information, check out the Incline Friends page on Facebook or the Incline Friends website, inclinefriends.ning.com