As I sat in the fantastic Belly Up Aspen concert venue in Colorado listening to a great performance by The Wallflowers, I did not imagine that “belly up” was a condition I was going to have to actively avoid the next day. You see, the following morning I was going to ride Independence Pass, one of my favorite stretches of pavement in the Southwest that I had taken some months previous in the fall.
That night in Aspen, Wallflowers front man Jakob Dylan was on top of his vocal game and filled the intimate venue with all of his best work. Ironically, the band’s song Angel on my Bike chronicles salvation from either a real or figurative motorcycle crash. Turns out I was going to need that angel on my pillion seat.
The crisp Colorado mountain air had me zipping up my jacket vents as I started the ascent out of Aspen. The early ride was just what I had hoped for. Smooth pavement traced through the evergreens, and traffic was light. I quickly fell into that perfect groove as I slalomed up toward the pass.
I was only a handful of miles into the climb when I got the first hint that this would not be a normal ride. Just after a blind curve, a mother moose and her offspring bounded in front of me. The mother was quick and agile as she leapt to safety. The little one was confused and halting, and I was forced into an abrupt evasive swerve. As my heart settled, the two disappeared into the forested depths.
As I continued my climb, that smooth blacktop transformed into recently applied chipseal. The tar-coated gravel began the telltale cacophony of sounds as it flung from my tires onto my fenders and bodywork – a far cry from the melodic offerings of The Wallflowers the night before. I cut my speed in half and made the requisite adjustments to my cornering technique.
I rode up to one of the two stop lights on the pass that control traffic in the one-lane Narrows sections of Independence Pass. The light was just changing to red, and I slowed to a stop in anticipation of the oncoming traffic taking its turn in the Narrows. In my mirrors, I saw an SUV barreling toward me. I was already planning my escape maneuver in what little room I had on the side of the road. Without any slowing, the Range Rover barreled into the oncoming lane and passed me, pelting me with gravel as he ran the red light and endangered me and all of the potential oncoming traffic. Close call No. 2, plus challenging riding conditions.
After continuing on when the light turned green, I came upon the crew applying the chipseal. At this point, the road became even more challenging as the surface was newly applied. One lane was gravel and the other was fresh tar. The combination of this variable surface with the twisty, guardrail-less pass made for tricky riding. Accelerating, braking, and turning all had to be muted and modulated. The road remained like this all the way to the 12,000-foot apex of the pass.
After stopping for the views – and the bathroom – at the top, I started the descent on the other side of the pass on established pavement with actual markings and no gravel or fresh tar. It was not, however, the end of the challenge.
It became clear that the prior winter had taken a toll on the pass, which had been much more intact only months before in the fall. While not as challenging as the way up, the frayed and crumbling margins of the tarmac and the potholes made the descent worthy of extreme vigilance.
In the end, I made it unscathed (other than tar on my boots and a few chips on my BMW bodywork). I did not end up belly up, maybe due in part to an angel on my bike. Now that I’m on the other side of this particular Colorado motorcycle trip, I highly recommend catching a concert at Belly Up Aspen, attending a show by The Wallflowers wherever they might be playing, and avoiding assumptions about a favorite road based on the last time you rode it.