Denver's Trails Stretch From Urban Chic To Rockies Peaks

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

"On your left."

Truthfully, there wasn't anyone on my right, but let's just say I was practicing. This was urban biking, after all -- in the middle of Denver, where cars and people throng the streets and sidewalks. Yet the Mile High City's bike paths were hardly a traffic jam of spokes and wheels. In fact, at times it felt more like the New Frontier -- if the pioneers rode hybrids with aluminum frames and 21 speeds.

In annual rankings by national publications, Denver (population 2.6 million) has repeatedly topped the charts as the healthiest city in the country, and an American Cancer Society study recently called Denver the thinnest city, due to its muscle-flexing lifestyle. Of course, the Colorado capital also knows how to cut loose: It's known as one of the best places in the country for singles, as well as one of the most inebriated towns around. But Denver is, without question, a proactive, anti-slothful city. And it has 650 miles of urban bike trails to prove it.

As many cyclists know, to bike in a city you must be as alert and agile as a gazelle in the Serengeti. Hazards pop up on every street corner: potholes, parked cars with doors flinging open without warning, oblivious taxis. Even Rock Creek Parkway is a slalom course of runners, bikers, strollers and wayward dogs. Denver, though, is a different kind of Tour de Colorado. With its widespread bike routes that fan out for miles, you can travel almost anywhere in and around the city on two wheels -- safely. "We don't have a subway, but we do have bike paths," said Meredith Arndt, an outdoor enthusiast and spokeswoman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The city was designed with bike paths in mind."

And therein lies the Denver Challenge: Can a weekend visitor tool around solely by bicycle? Though I didn't bring my bike (I rented one on arrival), I was happy to see that I could have cycled straight from the airport terminal to town if I'd so desired: Apparently Pena Boulevard has a shoulder lane for bicyclists. How appropriate.

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Since the days of the Wild West, Denver has had a reputation as a pass-through city. In the mid-19th century, many pioneers in wagons crossed Colorado on their trek to California; they set down roots only after getting swept up in the gold rush. In more recent times, vacationers with powder on the brain fly into Denver International Airport before scattering to the ski mountains to the north and west. When out-of-towners do stick around Denver, most wander over to the 16th Street Mall, a 16-block pedestrian strip that runs through downtown and is lined with such national staples as Hard Rock Cafe, NikeTown and multiple Starbucks. Besides shoppers with credit cards to burn, the area attracts the riffraff of Denver, from poser hip-hoppers jamming to a boom box to lost souls napping on benches.

"When tourists come, they often think the only place to go is the 16th Street Mall. It's kind of a tourist trap, though," says Leslie Chadwick, 27, a Denver inhabitant who works for an organic food company. "But if you go left or right, there's quite a bounty of shops and restaurants."

Even more telling, the 16th Street Mall bans bikes. There is, however, a free shuttle that cruises the length of the mall, but in Denver parlance, that's lazy.

Though downtown has its merits, a variety of new neighborhoods have sprouted up around Denver's urban center. Each has its own personality and scene -- and, true to the city's outdoorsy nature, all are connected by bike paths. To be sure, I picked up the Cherry Creek Trail right outside my hotel's front door, in the Cherry Creek neighborhood, where I rented my hybrid for the entire weekend. (The hotel even stashed it for me in the luggage room.)

Armed with a bike map covered in tiny grid marks and interlocking colored lines, I hopped on my hybrid and headed for the D-12, the Massachusetts Avenue of Denver bike paths (albeit without the death-defying traffic). The route altered from smooth bike lanes overlooking enviable homes to a pastoral path through Cheesman Park. Sixteenth Street led to 17th, then to Uptown, a formerly seedy section that is now a Restaurant Row of sorts. Old mixes with new (or new in old) in the blocks-long neighborhood: For example, Steuben's diner moved into a car mechanics shop this summer, while the nearby Bump & Grind Cafe remains a classic -- among the RuPaul set. Some of B&G's waiters, who during the Petticoat Bruncheon prance around in bad drag (5 o'clock shadow with cherry-red lipstick), date to the Bush I era, but others are just babes.

The biggest proof that Uptown is on the rise is the relocation of the legendary Tattered Cover Book Store. In July, the indie bookstore -- one of the country's largest -- migrated from the hoity-toity Cherry Creek area to the former Lowenstein Theatre. No neighborhood is complete without paperbacks, biscotti and a reading room with no limits on loitering.

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