Top of the Rockies Rally 50th Anniversary

By Mike Ostrom


The Rocky Mountains are arguably one of the best places to ride a motorcycle.  I try to get up there at least once a year and this year I’ve been up there twice and it’s only July!  One of the perks of not having to manage PTO any more.  In June Debbie and I trailered the Indian Vintage to the Sky Ute Casino for the Durango Rendezvous and on July 19th Bob Gardner and I rode to Gallup and then Paonia, Colorado for the 50th BMW MOA Top of the Rockies Rally.

Bob waited patiently aside his Yamaha Super Tenere at our Catalina meetup Tuesday morning, as I struggled to unlock an open bag on my 1996 BMW R1100RT.  Yes, you read that right.  The plan was to hit high country before the heat of the day so being 20 minutes late didn’t help.  Bob was running Dunlop 50-50 tires that had not been tested at extreme lean angles so I led the charge around slower traffic through the Salt River Canyon on our way to Persnikkity’s Café in Show Low for lunch.  Lewie had turned us on to the joint a week earlier.  We avoided I-40 by taking AZ 61 and NM 53 to Zuni and then NM 602 north to Gallup.  It was the first time on that last leg for both of us and thoroughly enjoyable.

The real fun started on Wednesday after a long slug up US 491 to Cortez, CO., where we grabbed CO 145 to Mountain Village in the Rockies.  Such a gorgeous and curvy route!  We took the free Gondola into Telluride for lunch at the Telluride Brewing CO.  They have a great burger and fries for only $24, but it was awesome sitting on the shaded deck watching the tourists and residents stroll the resort town.

After making our way through rush-hour in Montrose, we checked into our suite at the Rocky Mountain Inn in Paonia.   Unlike the tents scattered about the city park, it had two king beds, a bathroom, full kitchen and air conditioning!  High temps were in the 90’s all week in the not-so-top of the Rockies town at 5600 feet.  Right across the street was the town’s only liquor store.  How convenient!  Dining options within walking distance were limited, but we found mediocre Mexican at Rio Bravo on Main Street and then walked by Louie’s Pizza’s patio, where every Wednesday they have live a Blues Jam, and the place was packed with locals.  We talked awhile to the sound guy who was squeezed out to the sidewalk to make room for paying customers!  He told us the place had open mic night on Thursday and had live music on Friday.  We tentatively put it on the agenda for Friday.  At the hotel we enjoyed a night cap with a couple of neighbors and I fired up a cigar as we swapped motorcycle stories.

Before the rally, Bob and I had scoped out several ride loops from our home base in Paonia.  On Thursday we headed further north on CO 133 through Redstone Canyon, along the Crystal River to Carbondale for breakfast.  We stopped a couple of times along the way for pictures and white-water video but failed to capture the splendor that is the Rocky Mountains.  We found a great little diner called Honey Butter, that features the World’s best Pastrami hash!  From there we rode south on CO 82 through a congested Aspen up to Independence Pass at over 12k feet.  I was pleasantly surprised to see they finally installed one-lane traffic lights where the road narrows to a lane and a half in some places with steep drop offs.  It used to be a game of chicken when you went around a blind curve and found an oncoming minivan using the whole road!

After the requisite photos at Independence Pass, Bob retraced our route back to Paonia and I continued south on scenic US 24 and 385, then west on US 50 to Gunnison.  The original route included a trek up CO 135 to Crested Butte and back, but the three-hour loop back to Gunnison would put me back in Paonia around 8 PM, so I skipped it and continued west, pass the Blue Mesa Dam to technical CO 92 north.  By the time I got back I was ready for a cold one and some Crown Royal Black that Bob had brought.  Ahhh!  The one Italian restaurant in town, The Flying Fork Café, came highly recommended and there were a few groups waiting outside, but Bob and I got seated right away and had a great, albeit pricey, meal.

Friday, Bob joined me for a ride back south on CO 92 and across the Blue Mesa Dam to the Silver Thread, CO 149.  My friend, Karl Patterson, used to live in Colorado and responded to an earlier post, recommending 149.  Full of sweepers, it requires less concentration than CO 92 and before we knew it, we landed at the Lake City Café for a forgettable breakfast sandwich on their covered patio at 8600 feet.  A local guy was camped out there with his dog and said they get mild winters compared to Wolf Creek Pass, down the Road.  Mild is a relative term.  When Mark Grosvenor and I stopped at Wolf Creek Pass the last week in May, he was able to make a snow angel in the frosty remnants of their winter.

Bob and I didn’t make it all the way to Wolf Creek Pass this time.  As we looked back north, we could see dark clouds and showers falling along our route back to the ranch, so we headed back before it got worse.  I had put on my Klim jacket but Bob had left his Frog Tog in the bag so he got wet and cold when we hit about 15 minutes of light rain with only his mesh jacket as a barrier.  A herd of soggy sheep decided to fill the road at one point and became vocal as we inched our way through!  We saw a few more miles of curvy wet roads were we both followed the recommended speed for the first time all week, before enjoying dry roads and sun the rest of the day.

Friday night we had pizza and beer on the patio of Louie’s Pizza, while listening to Eric Richard Stone performing mostly their own music.  Our neighbor, Dave from Salt Lake City, joined us.  It was a beautiful night and we made friends with some of the locals who all seemed to know each other.

When you spend almost a week with a riding buddy, you get to know each other better and discuss a number of topics, including the day’s ride and experiences.  Riding tight, technical mountain roads at a sporting pace requires concentration, good technique and confidence in your bike and tires.  Bob had fresh 50-50 tires in which he grew more confident as the mountain miles rolled by.  We discuss proper cornering technique and lines, and by Saturday I was following his line up CO 133 at a pace that erased most of the remaining chicken strips on his tires!  WOW!  Bob still prefers a pace that doesn’t blur the scenery, but was happy to improve his skillset.

After another stop at the Honey Butter for Pastrami hash, we turned north on CO 82 towards Glenwood Springs for a 20-mile sprint east on I-40 through breathtaking Glenwood Canyon to CO 301.  For my money, it’s the best 20 miles of Interstate in the country!  Bob had found this northerly route option the night before and set his GPS with Burns, CO as our destination.  I was in the lead carving bumpy corners, when the pavement turned to a gravel/dirt road.  It seemed to be well groomed so I pushed my street tires on the RT to a comfortable 40 MPH.  I rode past the only building in Burns, a Post Office, and kept riding north a few miles, while Bob took pictures of the Post Office and waited.  After I did a U-turn, Bob rode up to join me at the top of a hill overlooking the Burns Valley.  As usual, dark clouds formed in the afternoon, and I especially did not want to be caught on a muddy offroad when the sky opened up.  Bob led the charge back to pavement and I hit 60 MPH in a couple of straight stretches trying to keep up!  Bob nodded in approval when I finally closed the gap without getting wet.

Saturday night is the big BBQ feast, if you paid the $50 rally registration fee.  Bob and I had not, so we walked down to the park to see if could just purchase meal tickets, but that ship had sailed.  Instead, we had cheeseburgers and chips at a lonely food truck and ran into fellow SEAT member Jim, before calling it a night.

Sunday morning, we retraced our route back to Gallup stopping at Kate’s Place in Ridgway for a delicious breakfast on their patio.  On the final 90-mile leg to Holbrook along I-40, more dark clouds loomed on the horizon.  As we got closer to our night’s destination, it looked like we were in for a good soaking.  We checked in to our hotel and parked our bikes in front of our room, just as the first big drops began to fall. About a half hour later, Jim pulled in on his R1200GSA.  He had planned on riding all the way back to Saddlebrook Ranch in one day, but asked his wife to book a room when the storm blew up from the south.  We had dinner at Sombrerito's Mexican restaurant after the sun came out and a night cap at the Empty Pockets Saloon across the street before calling it a night.

The next morning, we woke up to sunny skies and wet bikes.  By 6:30AM Bob was leading the three of us south on AZ 77 toward Show Low.  He looked like a pro as I followed his line through Salt River Canyon, never feeling the urge to pass.  I can’t remember the last time that happened!  A thousand miles in the Rockies and proper technique had transformed his sport riding.  It also helped us beat the heat and monsoon moisture back in Tucson.  I made it home from Holbrook cool and dry in less than four hours!

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