Far more than just a mountain biking mecca; Fort Collins is a thriving college town where art, the outdoors and brewing culture collide.
Nick Markiewicz is your quintessential mountain biker. Dressed in a flat peaked baseball cap, checkered shirt and long black shorts, he somehow still manages to exude a certain ''tough guy" persona despite wearing luminous striped socks and riding gloves adorned with hot pink flamingos.
Standing in a car park on the outskirts of a trail network in Lory State Park, he serves up a few last words of advice (slamming on your front brake in sudden panic equals bad, raising the family jewels off the saddle while careening downhill equals good), and then we're off, making our way to the first trailhead.
I'm in Fort Collins, a college town of about 165,000 people situated some 100 kilometres north of Denver along the Colorado Front Range. Having spent a few days in the state capital, I've come here to shift gears, literally and metaphorically, with a view to exploring the town's two primary obsessions; biking and brewing.
We kick off at the West Valley Trail, following a meandering single-track slicing through semi-arid, alpine country. Flanked by rugged amber rock shelves and dense yellow scrub, it's an appealing hotchpotch of countryside, something like Utah and the wheat fields of Washington State rolled into one.
Having not biked in months, I'm seriously rusty. My throat burns and my heart thumps, but mercifully, the state-of-the-art dual suspension bikes make navigating the ubiquitous rocks and tree roots practically effortless.
Markiewicz started his company, Front Range Ride Guides, about eight years ago after moving to Fort Collins from Boulder. His passion for the sport is obvious. Growing up in an active household, his brother became a professional snowboarder, but he always gravitated towards bikes.
Heading deeper into the bush, we take turns leading, navigating a series of trails from West Valley to a clockwise South Valley Loop then back towards the East Valley Trail.
"There's such variety of terrain here, from beginner style to trails that can really test you; plus, the people and bike-centric vibe are pretty awesome too," says Markiewicz when I ask what makes this region such a mountain biking hotspot.
"It's also the proximity; we can access good riding from town on the ridge (foothills trail) or a 15-minute drive takes you to another world with great elevation, terrain, and spectacular views. Horsetooth Mountain and Lory State Parks offer something for riders of all abilities."
For the final burn home, we take a steeper line, swerving round rocky bends, kicking up plumes of dust, my confidence soaring in the space of a single morning's expert guidance.
At the car park, Markiewicz fishes a couple of ice-cold beers out of the esky and we sit drinking them in the back of his pick-up reflecting on the ride. I'm dusty, my legs are cut, and I'm caked in mud and dried sweat. I've never been happier.
I explore more of Fort Collins over the next few days.
Built on a grid system, the town is compact, centred around the nucleus of College Avenue and Mountain Avenue (aka Main and Main) with leafy tree-lined avenues and low-rise buildings. It has a pleasant, unhurried air, striking a winning balance between a small thriving university city and outdoors gateway, yet still rough around the edges enough not to feel overly contrived.
As if to emphasise the point, the town's old grain mill still dominates the skyline, freight trains rumble past, yet there are enough craft breweries here to give your average Byron hacky-sack-obsessed millennial a conniption.
The size and scope of this brewing scene is eclectic, to say the least. At Equinox Brewing, head brewer Jared Lydon leads me through a cosy pub-style front room towards a shady courtyard where local bands frequently sandwich themselves between fermentation tanks to play live gigs on weekend afternoons.
At the other end of the scale, New Belgium Brewing is a slick multimillion-dollar facility and business with nearly 800 employees scattered throughout the country.
I meet Jesse Claeys here for a tour. Chewing a toothpick, his baseball cap slightly askew, he is the consummate beer aficionado and his love of the business transcends the usual platitudes.
"There's a strong spirit of entrepreneurialism, sharing, education and a genuine love of beer here," he says when I ask why the brewing culture is so inherent.
"Back in the 1980s, The Boulder and Fort Collins areas had a very strong homebrewing culture. You'd see people from all walks of life brewing batches in basements and garages. These homebrewers would share tips and tricks with each other and the quality of the beer quickly became on par with or better than the beers available commercially. It really just took off from there," he says.
There are, of course, other, more urbane options around Fort Collins beyond the beer and bikes.
With my wife threatening divorce should I drag her to any more of the 20 or so brewpubs around town, we head to the city's newest restaurant, Union Bar & Soda Fountain. Putting a playful spin on traditional American comfort food, we chow down on dishes such as Coney fries with Motown chili, braised beef brisket on toast and spicy Bucktown fried chicken in a diner setting that's packed to the rafters.
Rounding the night off at The Magic Rat, a slick live music venue attached to the Elizabeth Hotel, I feel genuinely bummed to be flying home the next morning.
Fort Collins is a gem of a town. Small enough not to feel hopelessly generic but sufficiently sized to have its own distinct culture, it's a place where –not unlike a finely balanced IPA – all the elements seem to have aligned to create a very special brew.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN FORT COLLINS
1 GRAB BRUNCH AT THE EMPORIUM KITCHEN AND WINE MARKET
Situated inside The Elizabeth Hotel, this beautifully curated space is the ideal spot to grab coffee (or mimosas) and brunch or a bottle of wine and dinner from one of the many independent purveyors located in the one space. See the elizabethcolorado.com
2 EXPLORE MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES
Fort Collins has a thriving arts scene, from live theatre and music to curated exhibits and museums. Check out the Enigma Escape Rooms, Museum of Art, Centre of Fine Art Photography and more. See visitfortcollins.com
3 GO FAT BIKING
As an alternative to mountain biking, fat biking is not only easier to pick up due to increased stability but also affords you the opportunity to bike in winter conditions and on types of terrain not normally considered possible on a bike. See fat-bike.com
4 ENJOY OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
Beyond biking, the city has 450 kilometres of hiking trails, 50 parks, four recreation centres and swimming pools, golf courses, a skateboard park, ice skating rink and more. See visitfortcollins.com
5 GO WHITE WATER RAFTING
From May through September, the Cache la Poudre River offers stunning white water rafting opportunities, with guided tours available from Class I to Class V rapids. See raftmw.com
Front Range Ride Guides offer a host of guided mountain biking and fat biking excursions throughout Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver and beyond. A half-day custom bike tour for two people starts at $US169 a person. Full day tours start from $US229 a person. Tours include high-end equipment, certified professional guides (the only trained guides along the front range), trail snacks and more. See frontrangerideguides.com
Qantas flies frequently from Sydney to Denver via LA. Fort Collins is about a one-hour 15-minute drive from Denver. See qantas.com
The Elizabeth Hotel is a stylish 164-guestroom hotel situated in the heart of Fort Collins Old Town. Double rooms start at $US175 per night. See theelizabethcolorado.com