Flatlander in the High Country
[Editor’s Note: This is the first in our series of Summer “Guest Blogs.” Please contact us if you’re interested in writing a blog yourself!]
They say as we get older we should keep challenging ourselves. Just don’t be stupid about it.
I was thinking I might have been stupid about it when I signed up for the Triple Bypass, a 120-mile ride from Evergreen to Vail, Colorado, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing. The mid-July sojourn covers three mountain passes, two at more than 10,000 ft., and one at just under 12,000 ft.
In the last year since moving to Florida I’ve ridden in probably two gears. In St. Petersburg, we don’t have hills. Well, except for Thrill Hill that rises about six inches over Booker Creek.
Last year, I was a volunteer for the 25th anniversary of this ride sponsored by Team Evergreen, the largest bicycling club in Colorado. The ride raises tens of thousands of dollars for charities by giving 3,500 riders a chance to say, “I did it.” The theater company on whose board my brother serves is one of the recipients. I was with him manning a sag stop.
It’s inspiring to see the phenomenally fit mass of humanity ride into the Easter Seal Campgrounds outside Idaho Springs to inhale peanut butter sandwiches, Clif Bars and bananas. In self-preservation, rodents and small dogs took cover. This was a hungry bunch.
Could I be one of them? I had the advantage of having ridden, until last year, in the small hills of northern Virginia for the past 24 years. I actually knew what those other cogs were for. But I learned after moving to St. Pete that, during those years of riding alone, I had never really learned to suffer. The first time I rode the “second loop” of the daily 8 a.m. group ride in St. Pete I knew I was about to be schooled.
So a year later I’m in better shape, though frequently re-schooled. But mountains are another matter.
Last September I decided to tackle Mt. Evans, which rises to 14,265 ft. with the highest paved road in North America, though I don’t think the last 14 miles have been re-paved since they laid the last sections in 1930. The 32-mile, 6,500 ft. climb is a rite of passage for Colorado cyclists. They even have an annual race up it. Riding solo, I made it up. Coming down was another story—enough of a story that makes me doubt the wisdom of my impending Triple By-Pass.
So last month, I decided I needed a week of work at altitude. Sure enough I learned the same lesson again: A wheel in front of you is power motivation. After a couple of days of 25 to 30- mile solo rides with 2,500 to 3,500 of climbing around Evergreen, I decided to join a Team Evergreen ride of 50+ miles and 5,000 ft. of hills. (Yes, they call 8,000 ft. peaks “hills” in Colorado.)
The ride begins along the Evergreen Parkway and then along I-70. (They ride on the Interstates in Colorado. I was beginning to doubt their sanity as much as mine.) But shortly we’re on the best part of mountain climbing—the descents. This one was about nine miles along Route 40 into Morrison before we moved to rolling hills and even a placid bike path.
After about 31 miles we turned on to Deer Canyon Road. Though I had previewed the route, I wasn’t sure where the climbing began. About then, someone said, “Now the fun begins.” If he wasn’t a cyclist, I would say he was lying.
He seemed like the strongest rider among the 15 or so of us, though he lamented earlier that he had weight to lose. So I got on his wheel—for about two minutes. I let him go. (OK, he dropped me.) And then one of the women passed me. Small and fit, I guessed she was in her 50’s. I “let her go,” too, since I could still use the excuse of age. She soon disappeared around the bend. I rode on for a couple of minutes before sensing someone behind me. Then that someone passed me. Gray and weathered, he had to be every bit of 70. I had no excuse.
I know it’s not safe to fixate on the wheel in front of you, but I was afraid if I looked up and saw no peak, no finish line, no rest for the weary, I would be calling my brother to rescue me. So remembering my schooling on the second loop, I would not let that wheel out of my sight. I wasn’t confident I could stay with him, especially when I was staring at his mountain rear derailleur and cog set. While I was in my last hope—a 34×27—he had three gears left.
Then we started to pass a few people. That was encouraging—or maybe my brother would be rescuing them, too. Still, I didn’t know how long this climb was. So I asked my craggy wheelman. “I don’t know,” he said. “I was following you.” It was his first time on the route, too.
We came to a fork in the road. He pulled over, perhaps to reassess our position. I didn’t. I was afraid I couldn’t start up again. My gray beard companion was soon on my wheel! He deserved a least a little help, and that’s about all I could give him. Another two or three minutes, and our positions were reversed.
I suffered, though by that point it wasn’t getting worse. So what’s the worst that could happen? I thought. I hoped that with my last breath I could tell my lead, “Spread my ashes here!”
Then we caught a young women rider. She was smiling. What could she be smiling about?
“There’s the barn,” she said.
“What’s the barn,” I asked.
At the top were the overweight hammer head, the small and fit “young” woman and one or two others who passed me unnoticed with my gaze stuck on that wheel. That climb was over, but at 8,000 ft., we flatlanders feel like we have a bag over our head. There’s just not enough air there.
We waited for the rest of our group. (Yes, St. Pete riders, there is such a thing as a “no-drop” ride.) The climbing wasn’t over. We still had Parmelee Gulch and the climb out of Evergreen to the parking lot where we started. But those were shorter and I knew where they ended. And first we had the long descent along S. Turkey Creek Road to recover beforehand.
Fifty-four miles and 5,100+ ft. of climbing are about half of that Triple By-Pass.
Maybe, just maybe…
Bob Griendling is a writer living and cycling in St. Petersburg. He is a member of FBA, and is on the board of the St. Petersburg Bike Club. He blogs on occasion here. He rides wherever and whenever he can.