Come September in Telluride, there is a small window of time when the aspens are just beginning their annual display of technicolor and the snap of fall gives a bite to the air. It’s a lovely and fleeting period, marked by crystalline blue skies, bursts of gold in the forest, and an annual fall classic: the Mountains to the Desert Ride.
The charity road ride, which travels from the mountains of Telluride to the deserts of Gateway, is beloved both for its gorgeous route and its worthy cause. The fully supported ride draws the gamut of cyclists—from off-the-couch amateurs all the way to seasoned pros—who hit the pavement to raise money for local children’s organizations and take a scenic tour of the San Miguel River watershed.
The 2015 M2D Ride is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26, and will begin, as always, with a 7 am rollout from Telluride’s main street. The ride, which offers several distance options, still has spots open. Interested in riding or watching? Here's what you should know about M2D.
Mountains to the Desert offers five distance options, the easiest being a rolling, mostly-downhill 72-mile ride from Norwood to Gateway and the hardest a 150-mile route from Telluride to Gateway complete with speedy descents and hill-climb add-ons.
The most popular is the 104-mile Telluride to Gateway ride, a route that's "literally from the mountains to the desert,” event director Heidi Lauterbach says. “There aren’t a lot of rides out there where you start at the beginning of a watershed and then ride through it all the way to the desert.”
It begins in the box canyon before the morning sun has spilled in, with participants cycling en mass out of town before hitting the curvaceous descent to San Miguel Canyon. From the bottom of the canyon, riders climb the steep turns of Norwood Hill up to Wright’s Mesa, where the mountains give way to a wide-open high desert landscape dotted with cottonwoods and ranches. The highway winds through the small towns of Norwood and Naturita before tucking into the soaring redrock walls of Gateway Canyon, following the Dolores River beneath ancient sandstone to the race conclusion in downtown Gateway. Support vehicles, aid stations, and a post-ride party sweeten the pot.
M2D is the sole annual fundraiser for the Just for Kids Foundation, which grants money to organizations that serve kids across the San Miguel River Watershed, from Telluride all the way to the rural outpost of Paradox. All money raised is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Carstens Family Fund at the Denver Foundation before being funneled to initiatives like mentoring programs, community libraries, ski clubs, juvenile diversion, scholarships, and science nonprofits. “Whatever money we raise goes directly to kids programming,” says Eric Saunders, president of the Just for Kids board.
Over the past decade, Just for Kids has awarded more than $2 million to organizations benefitting thousands of underprivileged children. This year’s goal: $125,000.
There are several gorgeous spots to watch friends and family on ride day. If you are an early bird, don’t miss the start at 7 am in Telluride. But bring your puffy—it’s cold that early at 8,750 feet. For those who prefer open skies and warmer temps, main street in Norwood offers good spectating—cyclists starting from Norwood will take off at 8 am from Main Street, and the fastest of the Telluride riders will begin trickling through right around that time.
To take in some magnificent desert views along with the spectating, meanwhile, pull over in Gateway Canyon downstream of the confluence of the Dolores and San Miguel Rivers. Here, redrock walls tower overhead, the Dolores River burbles past, and, if you’re lucky, you might spot a falcon soaring overhead. And finally, there’s the finish line, where you can cheer riders on as they cross.
The Post-Ride Party
The ride wraps up at the community center in Gateway, where beer and meals catered by Telluride chef Lucas Price await tired cyclists. Telluride musician Mike Pale and the Paradox School bluegrass band will entertain the crowd, and awards and raffle prizes will be given out, including the coveted grant prize: a custom-built Moots road or mountain bike. M2D offers shuttle service and has secured a group campsite for people who would like to stay the night.
September weather, plentiful aid stations, changing aspens, and stunning canyons, not to mention that rocking after-party, all keep riders coming back to M2D year after year. “There’s such a great social component to this ride," says Saunders, a seven-time rider. “It just has a really fun, grassroots kind of vibe to it. A lot of locals look forward to it.”
Plus, the ride can be tailored to be more forgiving for beginner riders or challenging for experts. “Anybody can get exactly what they are looking for out of it,” Lauterbach says. “If you run out of energy, hop on the Sag wagon. It’s for such a good cause that you may as well.”