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Fort Collins Steers Forward, Beyond Boulder

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Over 200 miles of bike trails and paths connect the city of Fort Collins, Colorado. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

“We bike and drink beer. And that’s pretty much it.”

A barista in Fort Collins, Colorado, is describing local life here as she readies a hand-pour cup of an Ethiopian bean she calls “delicate, like a flower” (with a wink). We’re at Bean Cycle, a downtown café/printing press on a block of late 19th-century buildings that inspired Disneyland’s Main Street.

“Oh, maybe you should try yoga.”

Fifty-fives miles north of its acclaimed rival college town Boulder, Fort Collins has quietly remade its “aggie town” rep over the past several years. Around its leafy downtown, you’ll see some of its 14 microbreweries, a “speakeasy” bar reached by a faux subway entrance, the sporty new MAX public buses, and local designers’ boutiques stocked with “Fortlandia” t-shirts.

And biking.

FoCo, as some actually call it, has over 200 miles of bike trails and paths, and last year it joined three other U.S. cities as a “platinum status” bike-friendly town (the other three are Portland, Oregon; Davis, California; and, naturally, Boulder).

Biking makes sense here. It’s mostly flat, set on prairie steppes slouching eastward from the Front Range. Early roads were made wide so horse buggies could make U-turns, which gives ample space for adding bike lanes. And yet the trails are stunners. The Poudre River Trail, for one, heads toward the foothills alongside the Cache la Poudre River, a clear mountain waterway that sees locals drift down in tubes on hot days.

All this sounds perfect to me. I can get used to the altitude with some (relatively) light exercise—and a beer or two—before hitting the mountains.

I start by dropping by the Fort Collins Bike Library to “check out” one of their 160 bikes for free.

“We’re the only bike library we know about,” says Mikheil Moucharrafie, who is the library’s director and T-shirt designer. “It’s essentially become a symbol of how awesome Fort Collins has become.”

Another library worker, John Dodenhoff, a New England transplant, suggests I ride a series of trails to the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area, a few miles away. “It’s a raptor park basically; you can go watch raptors dive-bombing prairie dogs—it’s a lot of fun.”

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CSU’s Flower Trial Garden (Photograph by Robert Reid)

I hop on a cruiser and follow Mason Street south, stopping at a couple of traffic lights, before joining a separate bike lane at the Colorado State University campus. After passing a block’s worth of CSU buildings, I detour, following a bike trail under College Avenue and emerging at a wide lawn lined with hundreds of potted plants sporting bright flowers.

A middle-aged man dressed like a fly fisherman and stooping over a pot with a clipboard tells me it’s CSU’s Flower Trial Garden. “We’re testing new breeds of petunias.”

I venture off to look and find myself fancying the “Peppy Cerise,” a thickly striped cream-and-watermelon flower that looks like peppermint candy.

After ten minutes’ ride farther along Mason Street, I turn off onto the Spring Creek Trail—and everything changes. The path rises and falls gently and bends around meadows and horse ranches and runs over a reedy creek on wooden bridges. Most of the joggers and bikers I meet volunteer hellos or a smile. Ahead are higher foothills, but after a few miles, the route swerves seamlessly onto the Fossil Creek Trail and dips unexpectedly onto a wide meadow of prairie grass the color of wheat ale, with a lone copse of cottonwoods hugging the far end. This is the Cathy Fromme Prairie Natural Area.

A “Be Snake Awake” sign warns of rattlers near a short trail. I park, then jump as a rabbit scurries by me in the thick grass as I head to a bunker-style observatory set into the hillside. Early and late in the day, you can watch hawks and eagles diving for prairie dogs. But it’s noon, hot and sunny. No birds.

Time for beer.

Fort Collins’s beers—the ambers, wheat ales, IPAs, dunkels, saisons, stouts— are very good. And its beer scene radiates from the bike-friendly energy of New Belgium, one of the country’s biggest microbrews and founder of Tour de Fat, a beer/bike festival that tours the country. New Belgium, famed for its Fat Tire amber, pours half a dozen varieties during its popular free 90-minute tours. (Staff get free cruiser bikes after working there a year. My guide, a local farmer, even teared up when she relayed how she got a job there.)

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Pateros Creek Brewing Co. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

I have a printout of the Bike Library’s downloadable Brewery Bike Tour. I go to a couple, like CooperSmith’s downtown and the Odell Brewing Company, where I find a sausage food stand serving beer-drinkers on a sunny patio. But soon I put it away and find a tiny brewery on my own, Pateros Creek, which is set off of College Avenue in a nondescript building by a parking lot. Compared to New Belgium, it’s a pocket nanobrewery. Sampler tastings come with hand-drawn cards. The new canner in back—the “crushinator”—could fit in my backseat.

It’s smaller, but it’s also the World Capital of Steve.

Every September it hosts “Stevetoberfest” in the parking lot, something the staff and wife of founder Steve Jones made him do. (The event includes bands, free beer for Steves and Stephanies, and obligatory callouts like “Show Me Your Steve.”)

“I don’t know why,” Steve says, as we sit in the parking lot patio with a Howes It Hanging IPA, named for a local who killed his wife in 1888, and was then lynched for his actions by locals. “Steve is just a funny name right now. Kevin’s another one.”

Things change, notes Steve, who’s wearing a Colorado flag shirt and a brown Colorado baseball cap. He grew up here and is amazed by the changes he’s seen in town.

“Basically it’s gone from an aggie, cowboy town to something of a hipster, bike-and-beer town. It’s great,” he says, then starts shaking his head. “But there have been some complaints that we’re becoming too Boulder.”

Maybe someday. But not yet. The parking lot is half-filled with gleaming, four-door pickup trucks.

TO DO THIS TRIP

Get a bike. The Fort Collins Bike Library currently checks out 160 bikes from the Downtown Transit Center; it’s best to reserve a bike in advance online.

Smell the petunias. Colorado State’s Flower Trial Garden is a public display from May through October.

Take DIY bike tours. Download these bike tours of nature, historical spots, and breweries.

Stay at the Armstrong. This restored historic hotel is set on College Avenue downtown, within walking distance of the bike library, MAX station, and many breweries.


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