Little Epic on the Prairie

by Zach September 07, 2013

Somewhere outside of Boulder, it was noticed that the trip odometer on the Sprinter resets every 1000 miles. Flicked open the Kershaw and started scratching hash marks into the plastic on the dashboard. One mark. And another. Our destination of interest was deep in the state of Kansas, nearly 10 hours from our weekend in Colorado, and barely at the halfway point of the trip.

“Switchgrass? Never heard of it.” “Sure, there’s riding in Kansas, but an IMBA Epic?”

We found it hard to believe as well, but were determined to seek out what IMBA had recognized, yet no one had heard of.

Long and straight, Interstate 70 falls out of Colorado, off the last bastion of familiarity in the Front Range and into the wind-swept prairie of Western Kansas. It was very late when we finally left the highway — one exit before Sylvan Grove where we turned the van north and into darkness. As we followed signs pointing towards the Wilson Lake State Park, every five seconds or so, the horizon would light up with a long string of red lights — a distant wind farm blinking in unison a reminder that civilization in these parts was not entirely a foregone conclusion.

For several weeks we had been trying to raise someone at the Kansas Trails Council — the local IMBA chapter to put together a Labor Day trailbuilding or group ride on Switchgrass. When morning came, we knew why. As the sun came up, we were greeted by a lush field, rolling lazily in the center, before dropping into the surrounding reservoir (called “the clearest lake in Kansas”) in dramatic cliffs of standstone. It looked like the perfect place for a densely coiled network of singletrack — and in reality, it was, but the empty parking lot at the trailhead told a different story.

All told, there are 22 miles of trail wound into the relatively small acreage around Wilson Lake. Equally impressive is that the whole network of trail can be ridden in its entirety simply by turning ‘left’ at every marked fork in the Mountain bike trail, or as a series of consecutive loops tailored to your skill level by mixing in a few right turns. This is an intuitive system, and one tailored perfectly for the passing traveler, or for that catastrophic mechanical. But the problem is that no one rides it. The trail was in terrible disrepair; many switchbacks were rutted and totally washed-out, and many other sections so badly overgrown that the path completely disappeared from view, taking with it any passing semblance of flow that the trail once had. Even a massive hay bale lay across it at one point — a seemingly poignant indicator that time wasn’t the only thing swallowing up the great potential of this once-Epic.

We chatted in the parking lot with another cyclist who arrived shortly after the Sprinter, offhandedly mentioning that “this was a busy day,” waving his hand across the three other vehicles in the parking lot. Hard to believe, but maybe Switchgrass used to be busier. It was named as an ‘epic’ as recently as 2012, but at some point since then, the punchy rollers and technical sandstone gardens were reclaimed by rocks and weeds — like a forgotten amusement park on some distant plain. Sure it’s convenient for road-weary travelers and the immediate locals, but the biggest strike against Switchgrass is its far-from-prime location. It falls two hours from Witcheta, three to Topeka, and another four to Kansas City. In the opposite direction, is Denver — a solid six, and already home to spectacular riding of its own. Furthermore, the majority of Wilson Lake’s pleasure-seeking traffic comes to the lake for camping and boating, not for riding.

It’s hard to imagine a Kansas ridership large or dedicated enough to regularly make the such a long trip for maintenance or club rides to keep the trails in tip-top shape. On one hand, it’s baffling for IMBA to grant a trail ‘epic’ status if there weren’t already a strong infrastructure in place to fully support it, but then again, we understand why Switchgrass was such a compelling choice: quite simply, this is as ambitious and well-laid a network of trail as we’ve yet to see in such a unique location. So should you ride Switchgrass on your way through? We think the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’ — always take a chance to sample the local delicacies, especially before they become extinct.

As we get set to make a strong push towards the Atlantic, remember you can stay abreast of all our updates from this tour by following us on Twitter, or liking our Facebook page. See you down the road. [zp]

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