Insane to the Airplane: The Ride to DIA

Its one of the routes in Denver that feels like an afterthought. A route so miserable and unfinished that the destination has disowned it from their media .

The bicycle ride along Pena is a route I wouldn’t recommend to my greatest enemy. I felt worse along that stretch of road than I have felt during any thunderstorm, any busy summery day, and a blizzard. Instead, I would like to talk to the “Official” route that DIA recommends, a challenge in and of itself. This ride was taken on February 28th of this year.

The Route

The Approach

As I started to go along 56th Avenue from Rocky Mountain Arsenal, I was struck by the industrial elements I was passing through, with what appeared to be large plants to the right of me. The traffic along 56th was moderate, comparing to midday traffic on a Sunday in central Denver. Once I got closer to the northernmost part of Montbello, there was a decent series of trails that acted as a sort of buffer from the traffic. Police were along 56th for some unidentified incident. The trails disappear on the approach to the intersection of Buckley, with ongoing construction to the right acting as something that puts you in the worst of the airport traffic. The Pena underpass feels like the unofficial “beginning” of this route, a beginning that reminds you that you are on your own.

56th to Picadilly

I encountered the last bicycle rider along this stretch: a man heading westbound with his cruiser en route to Denver. A pathway appears again here, the last goodbye before the world that is all too familiar to bicycle riders in Denver, a world of intense loneliness and an acute sense that a wrong move, a wrong turn, could make you another statistic.

Picadilly to Jackson Gap

This stretch is the ultimate no man’s land, a visual complement to the plains mentioned in “America, the Beautiful”. The beauty from the song disappears, however, as the stretch from Picadilly to E470 feels congested, unaccommodating, and downright scary. With temperatures in the mid teens, I was beginning to feel the cold of the late winter day along this stretch, turning to the music of Daft Punk to distract from the misery.

Passing E470 felt like a breath of fresh air. While the rolling nature of the hills felt a little scary, the lack of traffic beside a handful of cars and a sketchy pickup put me at ease. Rather than turning at the suggested road by DIA, I turned at Jackson Gap, which fundamentally had the same route as the recommended route.

Jackson Gap to TSA

A winding road with little more than business and larger truck traffic, Jackson Gap was the last bit before the main entrance to the airport. Ending at the eastmost part of the Pena route, it was less than a mile towards the main stretch, the most congested mile. A “Spot” bus passed by me as I rode through an old piece of ice and made my way past the terminals cutting through the TSA as a shortcut to the elevations. I carried my bike down to the RTD station, and boarded for Union Station.

Stopping along 71st Ave for a quick picture with Blucifer

Final Thoughts

Even though Denver International Airport boasts about its bicycle friendliness on its website, experiencing even their most traveled route makes you out to be an intruder of sorts. The half done job along Pena, the route that still takes you through dangerous sections, and the final ascent that sparks confusion rather than relief are all concerning. In many different ways, the path is reminiscent of the greater issues of pedestrian and bike infrastructure in Denver. From the incomplete streets along federal amounting to a death trap, to the recent opening of City Park to car traffic, the hard fought victories of advocates result in things like an airport that advertises accessibility but routes in spire terror. Unlike the Pena route, however, I could see a more experienced rider doing well on the detour. Overall, much like the story of cycling in Denver, approach with intense caution and skepticism of what lies ahead of you.

Rolling Through the Snow Part 2: Riding.

Check out part one here.

As you can see by the cover photo of this article, you roll through a lot of interesting things in the snow. From ice, to patches of hardened snow, to the sandy mix that accumulates days after the storm, snow riding is a varied and unique thing. Here are some tips I have gathered over the years from riding in unique situations.

Slow Ride, Take it Easy

This is most important for riding in a storm/riding shortly after a storm. Ride at a slow but consistent pace, being wary of what materials lie beneath your bike at any given time. Remember that it may take a little longer for you to reach your destination, and budget time in regards to that.

Know your route/challenges you face during the winter

The biggest threat to a cyclist is the unknown during the winter. Whether its a snag of ice underneath thin snow (more on that later) a car that is unaware of your presence, wind, or wildlife, wintertime will bring things that summer does not. Keep that in mind as you ride around the city.

Wonder what is plowed or not? While they are currently transitioning to a new GPS tracking system, Denver’s Plow Tracker is helpful in locating where plows have already been. Can’t access the plow tracker? Here’s a good rule of thumb for the order of operations when plowing:

  1. Major Streets/Trails go first

This includes streets such as Santa Fe, Broadway, Colfax, and Federal and trails such as Cherry Creek Trail and South Platte River. While the major roads are not necessarily the most desirable for bicycle commuting, major thoroughfares and protected bike lanes are also plowed consistently. For instance, a plow designed specifically for the 13th Ave protected bike lane is deployed fairly early in the day after a big snow

2. Minor Streets and minor trails

Think Sanderson Gulch, 16th avenue, and the streets adjacent to major streets. My biggest suggestion for areas like this is to keep lights aimed at the snow and ride incredibly slow

3. Areas that never get paved

These are the areas that will, regardless of temperature fluctuation, have a trace amount of snow on them. Think alleyways that are north facing, incredibly low trafficked streets with buildings that cast shadows throughout the day, and unincorporated parts of surrounding counties. My general gut instinct and advice to newer riders is to avoid these stretches at all costs, as they may never get paved.

Snow after the large late-November snow from 2019

The Eternal Issue of Ice

When I talk to people that don’t ride regularly, the biggest problem that they usually cite besides temperature is ice being a large issue. I am not going to disguise it as all: falling on ice is scary as hell, and is still a thing I am always wary of after four years of riding in the metro area.

How to Approach Ice

  1. Don’t make any sudden movements.

Treat ice as if you just discovered that a bear was tracking you. The biggest mistake that many cyclists make is flinching when they feel terrain changing rapidly. Roll over ice slowly, and concentrate on getting past it.

2. If you fall.

This has happened to me a couple of times in my life. Here are some general best practice tips I would suggest when falling, loosely adapted from this article.

a. Don’t brace yourself for the impact

Falling on an elbow, hand, or arm will do a bad number on it. Keep hands on handlebars if possible and try and tighten them close to your elbows.

b. Pick a good landing spot

Picking a good landing spot is like picking a good war to serve in. My general gut advice is to try and fall away from traffic and into an area that is a lot more comfortable, especially thinly packed snow.

That’s part 2 for you! In part 3, we will talk about maintenance during the winter.

Stay Tuned!

Check out Part 3 here