It is among America’s most rigorous institutions of higher learning. It takes high-achieving kids and turns them into premier leaders. It forms the backbone of the United States fighter-pilot corps.
But today, class, the lesson we will learn about the United States Air Force Academy is this: It is one sweet place to ride your bike.
For a roadie, there may be no better package of public cycling infrastructure anywhere. The roads are wide, smooth, clean, maintained asphalt. Motor traffic is generally light and almost always well-behaved. The terrain is a nicely spaced mix of challenging but not backbreaking climbs and satisfying descents. Overhead, the drama of the Rampart Range; below, sweeping vistas out to Kansas.
“USAFA is great for road biking because we have some of the best quality roads in town, many with wide shoulders and relatively low speed limits,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Len Cabrera, officer in charge of the academy’s cadet cycling sports club. “A lot of the ‘ridable’ county roads in the north part of town are ‘chip and seal’ roads, so they’re pretty rough for riding.”
How clean are the roads? “The best part is that USAFA does not use gravel in the winter,” Cabrera said. “The spray they put down will eat through your tires if you don’t wipe them down after rides, but it beats road rash from wiping out in a gravel-filled turn.” For the record, I’ve never wiped down my tires after riding AFA, and they remain intact.
Just north of Colorado Springs, the academy is a popular lunchtime ride for locals. For our family, it’s our go-to route whenever we want to get in a serious ride close to home. Stadium Boulevard is a 3-mile straight flat with wide shoulders, perfect for an out-and-back warmup. Heading west up North Gate Boulevard, the climb starts easy and gradually increases in pitch, followed by a nice bombing run down the backside. Riding the western edge of the base, on Academy Drive and Pine Drive, is a series of climbs and descents along the flank of the mountains. Parade Loop and Academy Drive offer some straight-up, grind-’em-out climbs — or high-speed downhills, depending on which way you take them. The combination of unfettered distances, 7,000-foot-elevation and varied terrain make AFA a prime RTR training ground.
“One of our team members joined Strava and went crazy setting all kinds of King of the Hill records on USAFA and the local area,” Cabrera said. “That would be my recommendation if you want a challenge.”
The quintessential ride through AFA is the grand loop, riding North Gate Boulevard from the academy gate to the west, then south along Academy Drive and Pine Drive to the southern end of Stadium Boulevard, then back north to North Gate. Take the loop clockwise, and you encounter a grueling 4-mile climb up Pine Drive. Take it counter-clockwise as described above, and you get a set of shorter, steeper climbs from north to south, capped by the exhilarating run down Pine. Either way, it’s a 13-mile beauty of a loop, the centerpiece of the annual Front Range Cycling Classic, which Cabrera organizes.
At least, that was the riding menu until a couple years ago, when U.S. military forces hunted down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Ever since, the southern, residential half of the base, including Pine Drive, has been largely off limits to anyone without military ID. But even half of AFA offers plenty of good riding. A moderate climb up North Gate, and a left on Parade Loop, swooping down to Stadium, and a flat sprint back to North Gate, is a sweet up-and-down circuit.
Academy Drive bisects the base from west to east and is open to the public, but Cabrera advises against using it because of the absence of shoulder and the amount of car traffic going to and from the base hospital. He keeps the cadet cycling team off that road.
One of the big benefits of riding the academy is that, even as you’re riding through pine forest, you’re never far from help if you need it. The visitor center, on the west side of the base, is open year-round and has water, bathrooms and a Subway sandwich shop, complete with outdoor patio and killer views. (Though, if there’s a line, be prepared to wait a while for your sandwich; I’ve never seen more than one person behind the Subway counter). If your bike breaks down, you’re never more than a few miles from your car if you have to hike it. The whole place is bathed in cell-phone signal.
While there are some stretches of road with wide shoulders, often those shoulders dump directly into some scary-looking drainage gutters. And, just as often, there is no shoulder at all, but in most of those places, you’re in almost no danger if you need to run off the road into the dirt.
If you happen to catch sight of the AFA cycling sports club (5th place nationally out of 53 Division II schools), Cabrera invites you to say hi and ride along. And he has some advice for civilians who ride the Academy:
- If you see the North Gate completely open with no security personnel, the base is using the “visitors’ cordon” for some special event. In that case, the checkpoints have been moved further north and there’s not much point to riding on base.
- During big events like football games and graduations, traffic can be heavy
- Helmets and ID are required
- In the morning, the entire base stops for reveille and the raising of the flag. In the evening, everything stops again for retreat and the retirement of the flag. If you hear the bugle, pull over, stop and pay due respect.
If you’re not military and you bring your bike for a ride, be sure to enter through the North Gate. The South Gate is almost always restricted to people with military ID.