It's Always As Challenging As You Hoped It Wouldn't Be
Numbers never tell the whole story. Except in baseball and in war, where boxscores, players’ stats, and casualty lists can sometimes graze more than just the surface.
Here are some numbers from a single-day bicycle ride:
15 hours 3 minutes ride time
17 hours 45 minutes total time (5 a.m. to 10:45 p.m.)
14,000 ft. of vertical elevation
12,200 ft. ASL max. altitude
15.0 mph ave. speed
45 mph max. speed
While these numbers might mean something to an avid and experience bicyclist, raising eyebrows and inspiring curiosity, they still come up short in telling the story. WAAAAAAY short.
So here’s a story:
There comes a moment in every epic and challenging ride when one wonders, “Why the hell am I doing this?” This particular ride on this particular day was filled with such moments, culminating in this exchange:
Deadhead laughed, partly because I’m a big whiner on tough rides, and also because he always laughs. I’ve always liked that about him. In that regard, he reminds me of my dad, although Deadhead is only three years older than I am. Deadhead is a delightful riding companion because he’s an expert at keeping spirits light and always seeing the bright side of every situation.
Only this time, I wanted there to be no doubt.
The smile on Deadhead’s face went away.
How did we get to this point, and how was it resolved? Let’s begin at the beginning.
After a miserable night lacking any good sleep, I laid in bed at 3:30 a.m., finally getting up at 3:45 a.m., quickly showering, dressing, and eating some oatmeal. Loading the bike and my gear, which was already organized and ready to go, I drove to Loveland to meet Deadhead at 4:45 a.m. for our 5 a.m. start. His wife, BikePrincess, saw us off.
Deadhead and I have climbed Trail Ridge Road together from Loveland at 5,000 ft. altitude to the summit of the highest pass in North America at 12,300 ft. two times before. And both times, it kicked my butt. Climbing for 60 miles is torture for a 205 lb. behemoth like myself. But at least I would get to turn around and descend those 60 miles to end the ride.
Not this time. We had only done about half of the climbing and a quarter of the miles for this particular day.
We bundled up as much as we could for the descent down the west side of Trail Ridge, but I had failed to bring full-fingered gloves and leg covers or tights, so the descent was especially cold for me.
Still, it was enjoyable, as we stopped at the Continental Divide at Milner Pass (10,059 ft.) and at a gorgeous overlook before reaching Grand Lake (also gorgeous.)
We stopped in Granby for lunch and then headed south towards Winter Park and Berthoud Pass, but on the flats, we could only go 14 mph. I began to worry about even finishing the ride if all I could muster was 14 mph on level ground.
Later, I realized that it must have been a false flat – to both of us it looked as flat as could be for miles and miles, but was actually a slight climb, imperceptible to the Hypoxian mind.
But the thought of bailing began to invade my thinking at that point.
In Winter Park, there was a McDonald's. I asked if we should stop there and wait it out, if the other option was get caught on the 10-mile climb in a deluge.
Deadhead said, “Maybe we should give it 30 minutes before deciding what to do.”
I thought he was voting that we should keep riding, with the hope of outrunning the storm. I thought to myself, “okay, we’ll do that.” But after we passed the McDonald's, I realized that he might have meant to stop there for half-an-hour instead. Asking him, he confirmed that he was suggesting we stop, which is what he knew I wanted to do. Laughing about it, we decided to just keep going, with the option of turning around and scooting back to Winter Park if it got nasty.
We lucked out as we outran the storm to our right. The highway was busy with traffic, though, there was little or no shoulder, and too many drivers were impatient to move over a bit to the left, making it a very stressful climb.
The first five or six miles went quickly as the grade was fairly moderate. I had my jacket on, but Deadhead said he needed to stop to put his on as well, but I should keep going, and he would catch me. So I stood up on my pedals and sped up to make it extra challenging for him.
That’s when things became really nasty on Berthoud Pass. I came up to a switchback/hairpin turn that became a 7% grade. Being the behemoth that I am, I slowed waaaaay down. Looking at the road below me, I saw Deadhead closing in. I was helpless as I was too big to go any faster. Halfway up the first pitch, Deadhead caught me.
He said the cue sheet we got from Rocky Mountain Cycling Club for the Grand Loop indicated the climb from Winter Park to the summit was 10 miles. We’d already gone eight with two tough miles to go. But those two miles became FIVE miles! We were both very dissappointed and exhausted when we finally reached the top.
And we were now getting quite wet. It was raining… only this storm was coming from our left. We bypassed the first one on our right, but it didn’t matter. Wait around a few minutes in Colorado and the weather will change.
This meant that we got to do another huge descent in the cold… AND the rain!
Both of my knees were aching, and riding fast through a freezing rainstorm without pedaling was going to just kill my knees. So even though Deadhead went flying down the mountainside, I kept my speed at around 25 mph for the 12-mile descent, gripping my brakes tightly while I continued to pedal lightly to save my knees.
I have to say the Berthoud Pass descent on the south side is the BEST DESCENT I'VE EVER SEEN! Steep stretches where I could have gone well over 40 mph for miles at a time, long straight sections that went on forever, broken up with fun switchbacks, and the hugest most generous shoulders I've ever seen. We're going to go back there and climb up it from Empire (on the south side) just to do that descent again someday.
Halfway down the descent, I thought I heard Deadhead yell my name. WHAT? Had he stopped because of the rain? I looked around and didn’t see him. For the next five miles, I kept looking back wondering if he would catch me.
But nope, when I got to the town of Empire, there he was waiting for me. He had waited at least five minutes – that’s how fast he’d gone… and how slow I’d gone. I was enthusiastic about the descent, but lamented that we hadn’t been able to enjoy it because of the rain and cold. Also, I was soaked and frozen to the bone and ready to call it quits. That’s when the conversation occurred…
“I don’t think I can finish the ride.”
Deadhead laughed, partly because I’m a big whiner on tough rides, and also because he always laughs.
But this time, I wanted there to be no doubt.
“I’m serious. When we get to Idaho Springs, I want to find a McDonald’s, where I’m going to reevaluate this ride.”
The smile on Deadhead’s face went away.
What I hadn't noticed was it wasn’t raining anymore. Empire was dry, even though we were still soaked.
Continuing on to Idaho Springs -- ten more miles of less steep descent on side roads, frontage roads, and neglected bike paths strewn with pinecones and pine needles -- we dried out and our spirits lifted. Spinning easily though Idaho Springs, we were feeling back to our usual selves again.
We ate delicious fast food and I warmed up my drenched and heavy bike shoes in the hand dryer in the bathroom, which made my feet feel so much better, though still wet.
Looking at the time, I told Deadhead that I had been worried about descending Lookout Mountain’s steep and twisting road in the dark, entirely dependent on miserable headlamps to keep from pitching off into the void. We had two hours before it got real dark out. Looking at the cue sheet, Deadhead and I saw that we only had 20 miles to go to get to the bottom of Lookout Mountain. Piece of cake, right?
Riiiiight. As it turned out, the steepest miles we climbed that day were along a small country road paralleling Interstate 70. UGH! More 5 and 6 mph drudgery with painful knees and bad attitudes.
But finally we made it to the top of Lookout Mountain. It was 7 p.m. and it was starting to get dark, but not too dark to fly down the mountainside. I said we should stop, put our lights back on, eat and drink and take some Enduralytes.
While we were doing that, a couple a cyclists rode past us asking if we were okay. I said we were fine and that we were headed back to Loveland… still 60 miles away! They looked at us kind of funny. I said to nobody as they rode away, “If only they knew where we’ve ridden just to get here!” Another barely noticed cyclist was standing nearby and began to ask us questions. Telling him our route, he asked, “Are you doing the Grand Loop?” It turns out that this rider was the stud racing champion of RMCC, Mark Lowe, who had won the 1-2-3 Challenge earlier in the summer (Deadhead finished merely 4th) and had ridden the Grand Loop in early August. He asked when we started and complimented us on how quickly we had gone so far.
Then we headed north towards Boulder. Stopping at a 7-11, I grabbed a pint of chocolate milk and replenished my Gatorade supply for the 55-mile ride home. Deadhead called BikePrincess and told her to expect us in about 3 hours. This pint of chocolate milk was my 5th for the day as I’ve learned that it is the greatest endurance fuel I’ve ever drunk. Protein, sugar, chocolate, and a pint of liquid. Mmmmm.
Even though we were now on familiar “flat lands”, they were far from flat and not so familiar in the darkness. We took turns pulling way too fast and still slowed to 8 mph on the rollers. But as we got down to the final five miles our pace picked up to 20-23 mph!
At 10:45 p.m. and half a block from Deadhead’s house we heard cowbells, hahaha! BikePrincess had been waiting for us (after buying some New Belgium beer and making some popcorn) to give us a champion’s welcome. It took a while to drink our beers because we were so busy talking about the epic day… and about how we almost didn’t make it. Deadhead confessed that he wouldn’t have made it back from Golden without me, as since I was considering calling BalticTiger to come rescue me at Idaho Springs, Deadhead was also ready to call BikePrincess for a rescue from Golden.
Yup, the Grand Loop is the kind of ride that makes you question "Why the hell am I doing this?" But when you have a partner or friends, it makes all the difference.