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Adventure, Cycle / January 29, 2016

Adventures on Bikes: The Credit Card Tour

Written by: Betsy Welch

Adventures on bikes tend to lead to conversation about other adventures on bikes. So it was on a mountain biking hut trip, while I was pedaling along the dusty Forest Service roads of the Uncompaghre Plateau in southwestern Colorado, when I first learned of the “credit card tour.” 

As we rolled along, shoulders sore and sweaty from fully-loaded hydration packs and bikes sluggish with the weight of frame bags, my friend described a multi-day bike trip where you tote nothing but a change of clothes in a tiny backpack and spend the night in hostels or motels you find along the way. This, I thought–while still fully enjoying the more masochistic experience of the current trip–sounded like a very good idea. Without needing to know much more, I recruited an up-for-anything partner-in-crime, mapped out a route I’d always wanted to ride, and my first credit card tour was born. The formula is as follows:

First, you choose a route. In Colorado, we’ve got 26 “Scenic and Historic” byways, most of which include as much fascinating human history as they do jaw-dropping scenery. I chose the West Elk Loop for a few reasons: one, Mimi’s (partner-in-crime) friend was rehabbing a place in Crested Butte and said we could sleep there the night before the ride if we didn’t mind camping in a minefield of nails, screws, and off-cuts under a glimmering sky of asbestos (we didn’t). Two, the route was a loop–which is always awesome–and the distance was just right for two big days of riding (around 100 miles one day and 80 the next). Finally, there was a place to stay roughly in the middle of the route, and we’d be passing through two quaint Colorado towns, Gunnison and Paonia, were we to need any “supplies” (ie. fun socks, espresso, jewelry, booze, pastries, etc.) along the way.

Next, you dial in the gear, which in this case is a bicycle and a backpack (sorry if you were hoping for gadgets and an excuse to go to REI).  You select two outfits: one for on the bike and one for off the bike. We opted to ride in Western shirts with pearl snaps over our bibs for both fun and function: the fun part having to do with the fact that what you wear can affect how you think, and we were decidedly embracing the “tour” mentality by stopping to read interpretive signs, chatting with locals, and buying snacks from farmers markets. When we departed Crested Butte, it was 9 a.m. and 42 degrees, so we were also wearing arm warmers, lightweight windbreakers and knee high socks in addition to our smart-looking Western shirts and cycling chamois.

The off-the-bike outfit should be as lightweight as possible for the weather. Late September in Colorado meant I packed a sundress, flannel shirt and flip-flops. Mimi brought yoga pants and a lightweight fleece top.  The apres-riding outfits can be carried in a backpack or pannier. We took the hydration bladders out of our Osprey packs, stuffed our clothes and a few snacks inside, and carried two water bottles on our bikes. Tools, tubes, and CO2 rode snugly under the saddles.


“ I recruited an up-for-anything partner-in-crime, mapped out a route I’d always wanted to ride, and my first credit card tour was born ”

Then, you ride, and the real fun begins. You stop at funky markets like the Sapinero Village Store, where you let the local proprietress tell you about the history of the place while you look at newspaper clippings and drink a cold Coke from a bottle. You snap photos in front of dilapidated buildings, hop back on your bike, and bliss out at the cerulean waters of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. You spend half an hour on the phone with Ranger Grady at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, trying to figure out if the road to the North Rim is rideable on skinny tires. He strongly discourages it but vehemently encourages you to go to Skooter’s and Shooter’s for jalepeño poppers when you get to Crawford.

Which brings us to accommodation.  Since you’re not schlepping camping gear, it’s best to plan your lodgding ahead of time. In our case, that meant booking a room at the Hitching Post Hotel and Feed Store. Tammy at the front desk assured me that if we got in after 4:30 p.m., we could pick up our key down the road at the Desperado General Store. We rolled up at 4:32, right at mile 100 (this was after taking Ranger Grady’s advice and skipping the North Rim), and Tammy handed us a heavy door key and hand-written receipt. She concurred that Skooter’s and Shooter’s was decent for dinner and gave us directions before hopping in her pick-up to head home.


Bikes stowed in the room, hair damp from the shower, and feet luxuriating in flops, we headed towards the bar (tip: make sure they take credit cards!).  A few beers, burgers, and jalepeño poppers later, we hitched a ride (and were not given a choice–the bartender didn’t want us walking back alone in the dark) to the Hitching Post, where a lonely farm boy loitering in his truck invited us out for a game of pool.

The next morning, we woke at first light, wandered over to the Mad Dog Cafe. We drank countless cups of weak coffee while we peppered the owners with questions about town and Joe Cocker, whose castle in the valley was listed for a pretty penny. By the time we pedaled out of town, it was already warm and we stopped to shed layers in the shadows of breadloaf-shaped haybales. In Paonia, we found a sweet little harvest festival and stronger coffee and a strange gathering of Ferrari enthusiasts. I dragged Mimi to my favorite orchard, where we sampled hard ciders at 10 a.m. and bought a few for the road (not knowing they would become lifesaving hydration when we ran out of water with many miles left to climb up Kebler Pass).


When we got back to the car on Sunday afternoon, we were blissfully beat. We’d just ridden 180 miles of Colorado’s finest tarmac and dirt, enjoyed heart-to-hearts with hipsters slinging espresso and tatted bikers pouring Bud. We remembered what it was like to not have technology at our fingertips. We flatted, we ran out of water, and we let our Western shirttails fly when it got hot.

So bust out the plastic and plan a trip! Let adventure rack up your credit score.

about the author

Betsy Welch

Betsy lives in Colorado where she spends most of her time riding bikes or in the kitchen. She's a writer and a public health RN who follows a self-prescribed diet of singletrack, road trips, strong coffee and hoppy beer, pirate radio, homegrown veg, and the occasional salt-water sunburn.

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