There’s something about getting away from it all that brings people together. For the second year in a row, Gathering took place in the middle of nowhere, outside a town nobody’s heard of. This time home base was a nondescript field in Montezuma County, in the very southwest corner of Colorado.
With a population of just 1,200, Mancos is one of those places you can drive past without noticing but when given the opportunity, can be a real charmer. It doesn’t have the pizzaz of nearby Durango, 30 minutes to the east, but that’s why it’s worth turning off route 160 to cruise its charming main street.
Despite its proximity to some of the most well-known trails in the world such as Hermosa Creek and Phil’s World, as well as sitting smack dab between the hometowns of two of the biggest legends in the sport – Ned Overend and John Tomac – Mancos has managed to stay mostly off the radar.
Which, at least can be partly explained by the fact that the trails there are not for the faint of heart – and they’re remote. With two mandatory hike-a-bike sections and loose, rutted descents, this year’s ride was a proper backcountry alpine adventure. It was more about surviving the loop unscathed than ripping sculpted berms. But with a front row view of the towering San Juan mountains, these rugged trails were well worth the effort and a welcome reprieve from the expected.
After Friday’s welcome dinner, which included Yeti CEO, Chris Conroy starting a chorus of 400 singing happy birthday to a man who’s been coming to Gathering for nearly 15 years, riders mostly took it easy, choosing to turn in early in preparation for Saturday’s ride. Toasts were made but the real celebration would have to wait until the next evening.
Saturday’s ride began at 8,500 feet with an initial climb mellow enough to get the legs warmed up for the next almost eleven-mile ascent to the high point of 11,000 feet. Much of the climb was on moderate ATV-width trail, allowing for plenty of socializing to pass the time and filter out the pain.
The midway aid station, complete with Belgian waffles, Nutella, sizzling bacon, cold drinks, and a plethora of other snacks, fueled riders for the final torturous push to the top, where the climb went from social to straight up. Epic views and high fives were enjoyed at the high point, and riders settled in for “the descent.”
A ripping first downhill on West Mancos trail lit the adrenalin fuse just in time for riders to run headlong into the first hike-a-bike of the day – 17 miles into the ride. Nearly a mile of arduously steep and loose hiking stood in the way of the real crown jewell: Box Canyon trail. The final descent down into Box Canyon delivered all the goods. High-speed flow through the trees opened up to meadows with expansive views. Primitive sections bordering on bushwhacking, led into fast, loose, puckery-steep moments dropping into the narrow canyon.
Once on the valley floor, one final hike-a-bike separated riders from their reward back at camp. As weary riders rolled back into the Gathering village, cheered on by the welcoming committee, individual suffering transformed to a shared accomplishment that united the entire camp. Dusty faces made their way to the beverage tent, where exhaustion made the Hoogaritas taste that much sweeter.
Re-energized by a hearty meal and Ska Brewing’s finest, the celebration kicked off and events were underway. This year’s mini bike race was a gravity-fed slalom that saw more slams than the ride itself. Foot-down, limbo, and bike toss drew equal crowds, and as the sun was setting on Gathering, the evening’s celebration was just beginning.
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