40 Pearls Later

Albert Maunz, Bob Starr, Jim Cloud and a local Crested Butte woman arriving at Cumberland Basin Camp, in September of 1978.

40 Pearls Later The Legacy of the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour

Only one paved road connects Crested Butte, CO to the outside world, and that’s the way the locals like it.

Since its days as a mining base camp, the town has had a closer alignment with the mountains that surround it than with anything cosmopolitan. As late as the 1970s, the town found little need for sophistication or intrusion. So when a group of motorcyclists from Aspen roared into Crested Butte one summer day in 1976, boasting of their daring trip over Pearl Pass, a rugged and little-used wagon road that connects the two towns, the locals were galvanized. Out of this spirit, the Crested Butte-to-Aspen Pearl Pass Klunker Tour was born. 

Crested Buttians love a challenge. Sure, the Aspenites had motorcycles, but the Crested Butte crew had bicycles. Built in the 1940s and ’50s and salvaged from the Denver dump, their 50-pound, balloon-tired bikes were perfect for Crested Butte’s flat, gridded dirt streets. Locals had even raced their “klunkers” criterium-style the previous winter. Why not take them over the pass?

It would be an astonishing feat. At the time, few people had considered riding a bicycle on rugged terrain, let alone over one of the highest routes in the United States. The thrill of doing the impossible can be powerful motivation. But the thrill of doing the impossible while showing up their rivals, the Aspen elites? That was enough to get 15 Crested Butte men and women to take their bicycles over 12,705-foot Pearl Pass, covering 39 miles over two days. When the group triumphantly reached the Hotel Jerome in downtown Aspen, they were battered from a “horrifying” downhill, but amazed by the good times they’d had––and eager to do it again the next year. “We’re trying to get a grant from the National Geographic Society to go over to the Andes,” rider Bob Starr said to the local press, completely straight-faced. 

Although the 1977 repeat was cancelled––riders were busy fighting forest fires––the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour has taken place every year since, making it the world’s oldest annual mountain bike tour. I attended my first tour this past September, its 40th edition. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I did know I was following in a long tradition of starry-eyed mountain bikers who have headed to Crested Butte, and personally uncharted territory, in search of an extraordinary cycling experience.

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