Whenever I visit my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I do an epic ride with my friend Peter. He plans out a suitably difficult route and I follow along, suffering. Last month I visited, and we rode, and I’ve only now recovered sufficiently to write about it.
Here is the view of the Flatirons visible from most parts of Boulder:
Who is Peter?
Peter is a lot like me, only better. I met him at a bike race back in 1985 when we got in a breakaway together. At the finish he outsprinted me by such a huge margin it appeared he’d actually soloed to victory. Ever since that day, he’s been stronger than I every time we’ve ridden, with one notable exception: the Colorado State Road Championship road race in 1987. Peter, the reigning state champion, got hooked by another rider and crashed with 300 meters to go. As I approached the finish, I looked back to see him bearing down on me. I just nipped him at the line. Afterward I discovered that the crash had bent his front brake bolt, mashing one of the pads into his rim. You couldn’t even turn the wheel by hand.
That was the one time I got the better of Peter. It’s been Bambi vs. Godzilla ever since.
How does one prepare for a brutal ride like this? Well, if you’re lucky you have access to a really nice stationary bike like this one:
That bike actually has some tangible benefits over what you see at the gym. It’s fully adjustable, for one thing. And I’ll be that flywheel really helps smooth out your pedal stroke. Plus, the thing weighs like a gazillion pounds so you could do curls with it, at least if you’re as strong as my brother Max (shown here).
But actually, instead of preparing for this ride, I prepared with it, for the upcoming Everest Challenge. Some say training at altitude is a great idea; others say you shouldn’t train at altitude but rather just hang around there. Well, I’ve done both. I’ve even drunk beer and eaten big pasta at altitude. I’m covering all my bases.
Finding a bike
My Boulder trip was short so it wasn’t worth spending $100 each way to bring my bike. (For details on the travesty of bike fees on airlines, see Appendix A below.) I tried to line up a loaner bike, but largely in vain. A friend of a friend—a guy I’d never met—was nice enough to loan me a cool old Cilo, and I did ride it a fair bit during my trip, but it was too small to do an epic ride on. (The guy even gave me the go-ahead to move the saddle all around, but the seat binder bolt looked like it had rusted back in the Reagan years and might snap if I so much as looked at it wrong.)
It was tempting to do the epic ride on my brother’s rickshaw-wheeled cruiser, Big Red:
You might assume that Big Red is a one-speed, but it’s not. As detailed here, it’s got a 7-speed internal gearing système. But the gears aren’t really low enough and the bike is too valuable, and too cool, to risk on a guy like me.
So I figured I’d just do a “Performance Road Rental”—i.e., rent a $6,000 full Dura-Ace Serotta from University Bikes, the über-cool bike shop in Boulder. I went there the evening before the ride, with my shoes, tape measure, and pedals, to make sure I got the fit just right. Alas, some portly stockbroker beat me to the Serotta by a matter of hours, just so he could have a better bike for his little 30-mile muffin ride. (Okay, for all I know he was a total badass doing an ever harder ride than I.) I had to settle for a “standard road rental,” which meant a cheap Cannondale, with mismatched wheels, a triple crankset, and a front reflector.
For me to use such a bike on the epic ride seemed like a punishment of some kind. Front reflectors are for people who ride on the wrong side of the road at night without a light, and elsewhere these pages I’ve made clear my feelings about triple cranksets. As for Cannondales, they’re perfectly fine bikes, but as detailed in Appendix B below, I’ve just never liked them much.
The bike did fit well, thanks largely to the nice folks at uBikes who swapped out the stem for me. But man, it was amazingly heavy. I think it’s the heaviest road bike I’ve ridden since my 1981 Miyata 310. I didn’t realize anybody still made such a heavy road bike. I didn’t even think the current state of the art was capable of producing such a heavy bike. Maybe they fill the frame up with buckshot, to make sure the low-end bikes don’t cut into sales of the pricier ones.
The other issue was the saddle, which was one of these giant sofa-like things with the big ravine down the middle. How much padding could a guy need? There’s room in that foam for Magic Fingers. I call this the “prostate intimidation” saddle, because it’s designed to capitalize on vague fears men have about their prostates, much in the way that, back in the ‘70s, that one laundry detergent fear-mongered about the nonexistent bane of “ring around the collar,” or that one shampoo made dandruff seem like a love-life-threatening global epidemic. On principal alone I couldn’t ride the prostate-friendly saddle, so I borrowed Max’s tiny, rock-hard saddle, a Selle Italia SLR or some such. There’s probably a whole range of SLRs, and this is the smallest, lightest, and hardest (the “SLR Nano,” perhaps). It’s also pretty old, and by far the hardest saddle I’ve ever sat on, including those all-plastic BMX saddles. It was like sitting on a 2x4.
Here is the requisite “before” photo. You can tell I’m a bit worried about the ride. Pete, meanwhile, looks like he’s pre-savoring his schadenfreude.
Peter had planned out a difficult route indeed. After just a couple miles of warm-up we went straight uphill, up Flagstaff, a road used many times as the prologue time trial for the Red Zinger and Coors Classic, which finished about halfway up the main climb near the Flagstaff House restaurant (where I had my wedding reception back in ’94). Here, you can see it’s still pretty early in the morning:
At the end of the main climb we took a trip up Summit Road to where there’s a little amphitheater, and then we went back to the main road and continued on up toward Kossler Lake, which turns the ride from “Flagstaff” to “Superflag.” According to mapmyride, this climb is a Category 1. (The categorization scheme is taken from the European pro bike race standard. Category 1 is considered the hardest climb, and Category 5 is the easiest, though really easy climbs aren’t categorized at all. Special climbs are regarded as “Hors Categorie,” aka HC, meaning “so hard they cannot be categorized”—kind of like the “evil whose name must not be spoken.”)
I really suffered on Superflag, even on the shallower sections where I could snap photos:
I was breathing really hard on the climb, despite my heart rate being down in the 140s. It was as though my heart were saying, “Look, I’ll beat faster if you give me some more air. My job is to oxygenate the blood but I have very little oxygen to push here.” Kind of like a contractor sitting around at the job site waiting for lumber to be delivered. Altitude really does matter—coming from sea level, I find that even climbing a flight of stairs in Boulder (at 5,400 feet) is a huffing-and-puffing affair. I don’t know how anybody could compete at the US Pro Cycling Challenge who didn’t acclimate to the altitude beforehand. (Max, who has lived his whole life in Boulder, complains that he still hasn’t acclimated.)
It was of course hard to tell how much of the difficulty was the bike, how much was lack of sleep, and how much was trying to keep up with Pete. My struggle to keep up continued when we turned off on a dirt road and began descending toward Gross Reservoir. I’m no slouch at descending but riding on the dirt on that foreign bike with its too-tight brakes and cheap tires was a little scary. It was a bit like in a job interview and knowing my fly is open and there’s nothing I can do about it.
It’s a very bumpy descent. I tried to do this ride back in 2005 with my brother Geoff but we had to abandon: between the two of us we had only one pump, and it fell off during this descent and was never found. We’d had to abandon the ride and head home because getting a flat on this desolate dirt road would be a real drag.
Here are Pete and I toward the end of the descent.
From there we took Coal Creek Canyon Road up to Wondervu, another Category 1 climb. Of this climb, oddly enough, I remember almost nothing. Then we headed up a freshly tarred-and-feathered road (a Category 2 climb) to the Lake Eldora ski resort. (No, the road wasn’t really feathered.)
By the time we made that summit and descended to Nederland, we’d ridden about 45 miles, but with all that climbing it felt like a lot more, and I was worrying about bonking (in the American, not British, sense). Dinner the night before had been a nice pork chop with a handful of fingerling potatoes: tasty, but decidedly lacking in precious carbohydrates. So when we stopped at a convenience store I went for the good stuff:
Not shown here are the Hostess fruit pies. In terms of calorie per dollar, and calorie per unit volume, they can’t be beat. I think Pete had cherry, which has a whopping 480 calories . As much as I adore the fruit-flavored varieties, I had to go with chocolate: 520 calories. These pies should be a controlled substance—there’s no reason on earth that anybody but a distance athlete should ever consume one.
After Nederland (strangely named for a town that sits at more than 8,000 feet above sea level) we headed up the Peak To Peak Highway over two more Category 2 climbs. I must confess I used the smallest chainring quite a bit. (My wife asked about this later, and suggested that perhaps the triple really was appropriate. “Yeah,” I told her, “but only because it was such a crappy bike. It’s like a really awful restaurant where they’re thoughtful enough to give you a barf bucket.”)
We were pretty low on beverages around our highest summit, at 10,400 feet. In this photo, the half-cropped mountain on the right is Mt. Audubon, elevation 13,223 feet.
I was so oxygen-deprived and tired, I completely forgot how ugly my rental bike was. We totally should have used Pete’s bike for this photo. Anyway, if you look closely at that picture, I’m sort of smiling but it’s really a lie. Look in my eyes. There’s a lot of suffering there. At no point in the ride had I been hammering, but the miles and elevation were piling up and taking their toll.
We searched in vain for water; it was all shut off. Fortunately, the next thirty miles of the ride were virtually all downhill. The day got progressively hotter as we lost elevation. We encountered about a dozen raindrops. Eventually we arrived in Lyons, a big player in the thriving sandstone industry, where it was good and hot and we drank giant Cokes. Then we headed south on Highway 36 toward Boulder.
It’s a long trip back to Boulder from Lyons. Kind of a Room 101 for many a Boulder cyclist: I know more guys—myself included—who have bonked on that stretch than any other I can think of, and on shorter rides than this one. We’d gone 90 miles, which meant we had another 20 to go.
I’ll just come out and say it: my ass hurt. Real bad. I’d set the saddle a tad too high, and did I mention it was the iron maiden of bike saddles? My butt never used to hurt on long rides. I don’t know if it’s just ageing, or not enough training, or what. The modern cycling shorts don’t seem to help. They’re over-engineered these days, each chamois thicker than the last. It used to be that a pair of shorts cost $30 and had a single-ply pancake-thin chamois. Now they’re this thick puffy three-ply thing, like a short stack, and can cost upwards of $200. By this point in the ride my legs had turned more than 30,000 pedal revolutions—they should have hurt the most—and yet my ass, which had just been sitting there most of the time, was giving me the most trouble.
Even more alarming was the realization that we weren’t even heading straight back over the gently rolling hills of Highway 36. In the photo above, you see the purple mountains dead ahead on the horizon? We had those yet to climb. It was at this point in the ride that I toyed with the idea of despair, then immediately dismissed it. What good would despair do? Besides, I’d been on harder rides than this. To borrow from Faulkner, it may have killed me, but it hadn’t whupped me yet.
We took a right on Lefthand Canyon Drive. This is a pretty shallow one, but it goes along a right fur piece. After six miles we took a left on Lee Hill Drive, which is a real sumbitch of a climb. At least, that’s how I always thought of it when I lived in Boulder. The two sections together comprise a Category 2. Lee Hill Doesn’t look too steep in this photo, and yet you can tell Pete is working pretty hard—plus I’m pretty far behind.
The last climb, Wagonwheel Gap Road, was only a Category 3, but it’s dirt. I’m not sure mapmyride takes that into account. Nor could it have known how tired we were. (Or at least, how tired I was. As usual Pete showed no sign of strain. For him this may have been like an easy stroll.) I could barely keep enough traction to make the bike go, so I couldn’t take any more photos. Here’s a nice shot of clouds from earlier, anyway.
After that it was a short descent back to the house for some nice cold sugardrink. I forgot to take an “after” shot but here’s a picture of my salt-encrusted helmet.
This helmet is less than two months old (purchased after my recent crash). Note the board-stiff chin strap. Note also the little flowers, for which I’ve taken plenty of flak from my pals. But hey, I can handle it. I just did a big ride on a cheap bike with a triple crank and a front reflector!
Here are the map and elevation profile (click to zoom in).
Appendix A: Bikes on airlines
Our modern airline industry has done everything it can to make me hate them. Airlines are the number one offender in the pollution category; they’ve stopped serving meals; they charge for baggage; they impose useless security measures like putting toiletries in little plastic bags as an insult to our intelligence; they’re charging money for the privilege of sitting in an exit row; they charge for checked luggage; the frequent flier free flights are universally blacked out except certain red-eyes between Houston and Lubbock via Seattle; and they’ve made the pricing so crazily random it’s like day trading trying to book a flight. So I shoudn’t be surprised that the rate for carrying a bike has gone steadily up even as the weight of bikes has come steadily down.
A few people have told me Southwest will take bikes for free. Their website could lead the unsuspecting passenger to believe it: “Non-motorized bicycles, including Bike Friday and Co-Pilot, will be accepted in substitution of a free piece of checked baggage at no additional charge, provided the box containing the bicycle fits within the 62-inch sizing limit.” This is a bit like saying “Children eat free at Denny’s provided they are under 12 inches tall.” The smallest adult bicycle I’m aware of is a 44 cm, and it comes in a box whose overall size (length plus width plus height) is 80 inches. My bike frame alone would require a 78-inch bike. So, Southwest will take certain kids’ BMX bikes for free but beyond that, don’t get your hopes up.
Appendix B: Cannondales
Now, I realize what I’m about to say could alienate certain albertnet readers, so I’ll try to be careful. But I have to say it: Cannondales are not my favorite bikes. It’s probably totally unfair of me, and if you are a happy Cannondale owner you should really ignore me on this topic because I’m sure your bike is great. (A college teammate of mine won a ton of races on his Cannondale, and the Liquigas team rides them with vigor and aplomb.) But I’ve just had it in for those bikes for decades. Perhaps it’s because Cannondale stole Klein’s basic design back in the eighties (they were sued, but prevailed). Maybe it’s because Cannondale got their start with touring bags and a weird Velcro water bottle and so forth and I can’t shake the association. Maybe it’s because their early mountain bikes were so hard to build and service, due to their having (for gimmicky reasons) a smaller rear wheel, which fouled up the chain line and made the front derailleur hard to adjust. Or maybe it’s because every single new Cannondale to be assembled (when I worked at a Cannondale dealer) was badly scratched in the same place, and included a smashed bottle of touch-up paint. Whatever the case, I should put aside my distaste for them and be less judgmental, but I’m just not big enough. I’m sorry.
dana albert blog