It was an innocuous-looking corner, the fourth in a series of 15-mph switchbacks climbing uphill on U.S. Highway 550. And it would have been innocuous if it wasn't for the trucks that cut across the apron and tracked dirt onto the pavement. So when I leaned into the hairpin and dialed on the throttle, the rear tire stepped out, the right saddlebag touched down and the bike spun around, depositing me unceremoniously on my rump.
At first, the bike looked to be unscathed-some road rash on the saddlebag and a slightly bent handlebar. It was only when I lifted it back onto its wheels that I discovered the horrible truth: The front brake lever had snapped off. And the nearest dealer was hundreds of miles away.
I knew this was going to be one of those trips as soon as I spied the quality control tag inside the Moto Guzzi Breva 1100's tank-bag map window: "Inspected by #13." That was milliseconds before the zipper came off in my hand. It was all downhill from there.
And uphill, too, for four days and 1500-plus miles, on this, the inaugural Colorado Centopassi. I'd call it the "first annual," but my bipolar editor at Cycle News, Dr. Jack/Mr. Mangus, discouraged the use of that phrase in the event there wasn't a second such event. Which, as often as not, there wasn't.
The ride was the brainchild of Paul DiMarchi, owner of Northern Colorado BMW/Ducati, and his friend and riding companion John Metzger. Having read about the annual Centopassi Rally in Italy (the name means 100 passes in Italian), they thought, "We've got bikes, we've got passes-why not do a similar ride here?" I met the pair through my younger brother Paul, who after a painful divorce a few years ago moved from New Jersey to Colorado and took up motorcycling. Call it late-onset puberty.
We convened for a Tuesday evening rider's meeting at Lady Kramer's place, an expansive ranch (by suburban standards) on the north side of Boulder. I wondered what kind of redneck royalty went by Lady until I learned that's her real name. In a ritual that would be repeated every night of the trip, we consumed mass quantities of beer, wine and pizza and pored over maps dutifully highlighted by John, who knows the Rocky Mountains like Paris Hilton knows Rodeo Drive. John's stated goal for our outing was to ride every pass in the Colorado Rockies. And while there weren't 100, he had devised a route that would take us over no fewer than 50.
On Wednesday morning, we assembled at the shop in Loveland. There were nine of us in total, the balance made up of friends Deb Conroy, Brett Sawyer and Jon Simisky, plus Michael Lock of Ducati North America (DNA to insiders) and Photo Joe Bonnello on the Notorious CGC (Cagiva Gran Canyon). Everyone was astride either a BMW or a Ducati (or, in Bonnello's case, a Cagiva with a Ducati motor), except yours truly. I chose a Moto Guzzi Breva 1100 on the grounds that its transverse 90-degree V-twin was sort of halfway between a BMW boxer and a Ducati. So you could say I had a foot in each camp. Unbiased, non-partisan, that's me.
The group's enthusiasm was palpable as three shop employees led us north out of town through Fort Collins, where we passed the store's former location, now a Biker's Dream chopper shop. Sign of the times. We then headed west into the Roosevelt National Forest and up the Poudre River Canyon, sheer rock walls flanking a narrow valley, the sky and water bluer, the grass greener than I'd seen in...maybe ever.
We paused for a photo op atop our first summit, Cameron Pass (elevation 10,276 feet), after which we bade farewell to the shop guys and continued on to Walden. While the rest of us topped off our tanks, Deb shot ahead on her BMW R1100S and earned the first speeding ticket of the trip. Barely a half-hour later, as we threw snowballs at each other atop Rabbit Ears Pass (elev. 9426 ft.), Bonnello put his John Hancock on the second. If it continued at this rate, we'd all be signing autographs by day's end.
Between Rabbit Ears and Muddy Pass (elev. 8710 ft.), we crossed the Continental Divide for the first time. For those who didn't pay attention in science class, this means rain or snow falling on the eastern slope will eventually make its way to the Atlantic Ocean, while that falling on the western slope will flow to the Pacific. From there we headed south, making a brief detour up and down Gore Pass (elev. 9527 ft.), where fresh chip-seal had us riding on the wrong side of the road for miles. We continued on through Kremmling to Silverthorne, then veered southwest over Fremont Pass (elev. 11,318 ft.) en route to Leadville, whose welcome sign proclaims, "Great Living at 10,700 feet." For a while in the 1870s, this silver-mining town was the largest west of the Mississippi. All I could think was how cold it must be in winter.
We stopped for lunch at Twin Lakes, a site so idyllic I briefly considered becoming a professional fisherman. The caf was closed, so we strolled a block farther to the saloon, where the barmaid was serving fish tacos-and only fish tacos. "Fish tacos, then," we said, and were dismayed to learn the trout wasn't caught in either lake. Serving locally caught fish in restaurants is apparently a breach of health standards. Better to fly it in sealed in Styrofoam containers, eh?
After lunch, we rode over the breathtaking Independence Pass (elev. 12,093 ft.), which, contrary to popular belief, is named for a nearby mining town, not the fact the road is closed till around July Fourth each year. We then passed through the famed ski town of Aspen, where we encountered the only real traffic of the trip-though compared to L.A.'s, it was nothing.
Our destination that evening was Hotchkiss, a rural town on the fringes of the Gunnison National Forest in Colorado's wine country. We spent two nights at the charming Leroux Creek Inn, a bed and breakfast owned by the equally charming Joanna and Yvon, the former an expat New Yorker like me, the latter a chef trained in France. Come for the wine, stay for the muffins.
Thursday's itinerary started with a spirited sprint up and back over Grand Mesa (elev. 10,839 ft.), during which I diced with Paul D. on his ST4S and Jon on his Multistrada S. Both are exceptional riders, and Jon's a racer, too, having competed in the BMW Boxer Cup at Daytona the year after I did. Despite having maxed out the hydraulic shock spring preload adjuster on the Breva, I clanged its centerstand down a number of times in left-handers, and at the bottom of the hill Jon warned me the right saddlebag was getting dangerously close to the ground, too.
Not long after, on Highway 550 south of Ouray, I proved him right. Really, I couldn't have picked a better place to fall (as if I'd picked it), because most of this so-called Million Dollar Highway (it'd be a Billion now) is lined with dizzying drop-offs unprotected by guardrails. And now I had to ride it with no front brakes! Guzzi cruisers have traditionally been equipped with linked brakes, and boy how I wished the Breva had that setup now. But my luck could have been a lot worse: That same day, an artist who'd spent 13 years sculpting a 32-foot-tall rearing mustang for Denver International Airport had part of his work break off and crush him. Talk about a bad day at the office.
Riding with just a rear brake proved less sketchy than I thought it would, and I didn't fall too far behind the group. They stopped to wait for me in Silverton, and when I pulled up behind them, a cop pulled up behind me and told me he'd caught me speeding on radar. It was less than 10 mph over the limit, though, and when I told him I thought that was pretty good for a guy with no brakes, he let me go with a warning: "You'd better get that fixed."
I would have if I could have. As soon as I had cell service, I called Josh Cain at the Moto Guzzi fleet center in L.A. and left a message explaining I needed a brake lever and a handlebar. But he didn't get it before the close of business, and given my rural location he couldn't have shipped the parts to me overnight anyway. The best he could do was Saturday delivery to the shop in Loveland, which meant I wouldn't get the parts until after the ride was over.
Mine weren't the only mechanical issues. John had opted to ride his vintage BMW R90S because his Honda VTR1000 had limited fuel range, and the Beemer had developed a leaky oil-pressure sensor that threatened to lube the rear tire. This forced him to abandon the tour for a day and trek westward to Grand Junction, where the BMW/Honda dealer had a replacement part. I decided to accompany him on the off chance there was a European bike dealer with a brake lever in stock. And there was one, but it had recently closed its doors, ironically due to pressure from other dealers who complained there were too many Ducati franchises in Colorado. The shop-Action Cycles-was still there, and according to the answering-machine message was holding a half-off sale. Only when we got there, the place was closed up tight. Even more ironically, displayed on a table just inside the front window was an assortment of brake levers, though these looked to be generic parts made for Japanese bikes. If I'd seen a Brembo package, I swear I'd have broken the glass!
The KTM dealer couldn't help me either (the Austrian bikes use totally different Brembo components), so I ended up buying a pair of vise grips from Home Depot. I was skeptical at first, but the fix worked so well I soon forgot all about them. They even felt like a brake lever.
The ride to and from Grand Junction was frankly boring. The only remarkable parts were watching firefighting planes drop retardant on a brushfire near Silt, and riding back over Independence Pass.
Meanwhile, other "hardships" thinned our ranks. Michael left to attend the grand opening of a new shop in Dallas. Joe left to photograph a truck race in Minnesota. And, talk about lame excuses, Brett left to take his wife to a Diana Krall concert. The Fates got him for that, as he suffered a puncture going over McClure Pass (elev. 8763 ft.) and had to have his ST4 trailered to a shop in Aspen to fix it. The fun didn't end there, either, as when we arrived at the dee-luxe Best Western Buena Vista, an elderly couple in a Chevy Suburban welcomed Jon by running over his helmet and saddlebags. We all pitched in and helped him drown his sorrows in Pinot Noir at the Mexican restaurant across the street.
Saturday started off splendidly, the remaining half-dozen of us sprinting up and down Cottonwood Pass (elev. 12,126 ft.), which reminded me of California Highway 33 above Ojai. I particularly enjoyed following my brother Paul on his BMW R1100GS; his riding skills have improved markedly since he acquired a Suzuki GSX-R750 and started racing. Two weeks before this ride, we'd teamed up for a WERA six-hour endurance race at the new Miller Motorsports Park in Utah. Family fun!
From Cottonwood we turned north to begin our trek home, heading through Fairplay to South Park, which as the cartoon's theme song attests really is "a quiet little redneck po-dunk white-trash mountain town." Or, rather, it was, when it was inhabited; it's a ghost town now.
We posed for one last group photo atop Loveland Pass (elev. 11,990 ft.) and then stopped for lunch in Winter Park, after which our ranks thinned even further. Jon gave in to spousal pressure and headed home. Deb said she didn't want to deal with weekend traffic. And John took one look at the darkening skies and decided he didn't want to ride his 30-year-old bike in the rain.
That left just the two Pauls and me, and we saved the best for last: Rocky Mountain National Park, which ranks as one of my favorite places on God's green earth. With its narrow road running well above timberline, Trail Ridge (elev. 12,183 ft.) reminds me of the Alps. Twice I've been up there in blazing sunshine looking down on raging storms, and one of those times snow was falling up. If there's a Heaven on Earth, this is it.
We stopped for a rejuvenating coffee break in Estes Park, and then bade farewell to my brother, who was heading back to the shop to fetch his truck and trailer. The other Paul and I then continued on to Boulder, where I planned to spend the night with my high-school buddy Bob Schaefer.
Weather in the Colorado Rockies is highly changeable, and so I'd been prepared with a waterproof suit, boots and gloves, and an electric vest. But I never needed any of it. The most I did was swap from a long-sleeved T-shirt to a short-sleeved one.
Ironically, it was only after we'd left the mountains and returned to civilization that we encountered foul weather. Paul opted to head south over twisty Route 7, and then turn east at Ward, "the town that time forgot," seemingly right out of Appalachia, the road lined by clunker cars and tumbledown shacks. At a stop sign, Paul told me the residents did this intentionally to keep property values low and prevent the dreaded spread of yuppies building shrines to their success.
Anyway, we soon rode into dense fog, which was rising from hail that had fallen in such mass, it looked like snow. It must have been one hell of a storm, too, because leaves and mud were everywhere, and folks at Boulder's Pearl Street Mall were clearing the sidewalks with shovels. This on June 24.
At an intersection, we high-fived each other and went our separate ways. And when I got back to the office in California a few days later, I had an e-mail message from John. In a desperate attempt to meet his quota, he'd resorted to counting passes the way mountain climbers do: by dividing and conquering, and counting each summit a party had topped, whether they were with the group or not. All tallied, it totaled 51. Success!
I didn't have the heart to tell him that when I did the real Centopassi, there were only 38.