NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.
This post is a sequel. If you start reading from here, chances are you’ll figure it out, like with those endless superhero movie franchises. But if you want to understand why my friend Pete and I did this super-long bike ride in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, click here for part one.
Here’s a little-known truth: real bike racers—I mean the Euro pros—actually starve themselves. As I learned from a tell-all memoir, one coach even recommended that his riders make a practice of doing a six-hour training ride, drinking a couple liters of carbonated water, and then trying to sleep through dinner. I wish these riders and coaches hadn’t figured out that the human body is capable of normal power output even when half-starved, because the modern dietary strategy has made all the pro racers look like stick figures or extraterrestrials.
For us amateurs, the old rules still apply: ride big, eat big. I don’t mess around when it comes to fueling up for a big ride, and I enjoy the privilege of unconstrained gorging. So on the evening before the second leg of our epic Colorado mountain ride, Pete and I went to a little family-owned Italian joint in Fraser. The owner said, “Sit anywhere you want, make yourselves comfortable. I got a real good-looking waitress I’ll send over … if she ever wakes up.” Sure enough, we looked over to see the waitress in the middle of a giant yawn. (I’m pretty sure this was the owner’s daughter.)
We pored over the menus and figured out our strategy. “This might cause a raised eyebrow,” I told the waitress, “but in addition to the lasagne, I’d like to order an extra-large supreme pizza. I’m on a special diet.” She looked surprised, and Pete said, “Hey, didn’t he warn you about the raised eyebrow?”
Our soup and salad arrived, and the bread that came with the soup, and a basket of rolls. Then the pizza. Then the entrees. You know, the term “18-inch” is actually just an approximation. This pizza seemed as big round as a bike wheel. And it was good, other than having canned mushrooms on it (?!). We did some serious damage to this spread, polishing off all of our entrees and sides and all but two slices of the ‘za. The waitress came by to check on us, saw this, and said, “Holy shit!”
Breakfast the next morning, at about 5:30 a.m., was a cup of strong coffee and (duh!) the leftover pizza.
Freezing in Fraser
I forgot to mention, we took a day off between the two legs of this ride, and during that day it rained on and off the whole time—except when we were walking to breakfast and doing a one-hour spin-the-legs ride. Now, on day three, the rain still seemed at bay, and it’s a good thing, because it was unseasonably cold: 45 degrees. And it got colder as we went. As we approached Fraser, which is like a big basin, I noted all the fog collecting there. Pete casually mentioned (and I’ve now ascertained) that because of this chronic fog, Fraser frequently boasts the coldest temperatures in the contiguous U.S.
Down, down, down the temperature plunged, to a low of 36 degrees. In Boulder we would always qualify a remarkable temperature with “But it’s a dry [heat/cold]!” but that didn’t apply here. Oh, and I’m a Californian, accustomed to perfect weather, so this was especially harsh for me. We started to gradually climb out of the basin, and the slight increase in temperature caused moisture to condense all over our gear: my bike computer, my helmet (so dew dripped down in front of my face), and my bike.
Pete said, “Hey, this is weird, my legs aren’t cold anymore!” I noticed the same thing. The explanation? Condensation had formed on our leg hairs. It seemed like every hair had its own big droplet. Together, they seemed to form a complete barrier to the cold, insulating our legs! So if you’re looking for an excuse not to bother shaving (other than “my wife says my leg hair is the only masculine thing about me”), there you have it.
The major climb
The big event of the day? Climbing over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous auto highway (in other words, the highest pass) in North America. It’s about a twenty mile climb, to over 12,000 feet. It’s not very hard, unless oxygen is important to you. The scenery is pretty impressive. There are also some serious drop-offs, which never really bothered me, but it sure scared some Dutch relatives of mine who drove over Trail Ridge with me and my family back in the ‘90s. The first time I ever rode this pass was the summer I turned 14; you can read about my trials (thunderstorm, hunger knock, being a stupid kid) here. But on this day, the weather was fine, we paced ourselves, and other than the climb being really fricking long it didn’t give us too much trouble. Here’s Pete indicating his okay-ness.
And here we are at almost the top, in front of the giant visitor’s center, which is like a national embassy or something. You can see for miles and miles from their observation deck. Well, we could. See that little trail winding along in the background? That’s Fall River Road. You should mountain bike there sometime, or maybe I should. Somebody should.
They sell everything at that visitor’s center. Many years ago I bought my daughters these glorious stuffed bears there. Lindsay named hers “Lindsay Bear,” and it was her favorite stuffy until it was stolen—yes, actually stolen—by some friends whose dog had also fallen in love with it. So I’d warned Pete that if I could find a replacement bear, he’d have to carry it for me for the rest of the ride. Fortunately for him, the only bears they have now are these creepily smiling mother/offspring bears that are sewn together, which is just weird. Are you supposed to separate them, like Siamese twins, or just have this weird pair stuck in an infinite cuddle?
A guy asked us how far we’d be riding that day. “Around 150 miles,” Pete told him, to which the guy replied, “Holy shit!” How about that … our second “holy shit” in as many days!
We drank some cocoa, climbed back on our bikes, and rode to the actual summit. I was hoping for a big elevation sign for a photo-op, but the only one I saw was a small placard attached to a restroom. So you’ll have to settle for some more pictures of gorgeous scenery.
I was in pretty good spirits as we began the descent down the eastern side, but I wasn’t completely stoked. The problem was this: though we’d ridden for four hours and gone around sixty miles, we’d only climbed like 4,000 feet, and we had about 100 miles and 12,000 more feet of climbing still to come. It’s hard to enjoy an emotional high when you’ve only just scratched the surface of the suffering yet to come. Who came up with this crazy route, anyway? Oh, yeah. Pete. I couldn’t exactly complain to him though. He’d just mock me.
We had a sweet descent. It seemed like I could feel the reduced wind resistance of the thin air. At that altitude you can coast along at 40 mph down a 4% grade. The air got progressively hotter and we had to pull over and shed our jackets. We hit the outskirts of Estes Park and took a hard right (though it was tempting to go straight and descend for another ten miles.) We bought a gallon of water at a bait shop. (Was there even a lake? Must have been. It seemed like a bait shop, anyway.)
A narrow twisty steep road led us to the Peak to Peak highway, heading toward Allenspark. Now it was all up and down over the Peak to Peak for the next several hours. The descents were lovely but over way too soon, and the climbs went on and on. It was a lot like how the weekend goes by in a flash and then you’re back to slogging away. Here’s Pete possibly looking tired. Actually, I’m sure he’s just looking at his drive train or something.
We decided to shorten the ride from the original 170-mile loop, which would have taken us all the way to the end of the Peak to Peak highway. There was a closer cutoff—taking Coal Creek Canyon instead of Golden Gate Canyon—that would shave off about 20 miles and around 4,000 vertical feet. The rationale for this, in no particular order, were that a) Pete forgot to train this year, and b) I’m from California. If you’re in your mid-40s and have recently completed a 170-mile ride with 16,000 feet of climbing, feel free to give me a hard time about this capitulation.
It had been really hot coming out of Estes Park, but other than that we enjoyed perfect weather. All day we were looking out at thunderheads but they always seemed to be over some other vista—either the place we’d just been, or the place we were headed. It was like somebody took Murphy’s Law and stood it on its head.
We climbed to Ward, kept straight, and descended to Nederland. Why is it called Nederland when its elevation is over 8,000 feet? It’s because miners of nearby Caribou Hill, which is at over 10,000 feet, used to bring their ore down to this place for milling, and called it “the Netherlands,” and when the town was incorporated in 1874 they chose the name Nederland.
We stopped at a convenience store for some calories—the same convenience store we’d gone to during our last epic ride, three years ago. I well remembered getting a Hostess fruit pie last time, but Hostess has gone under, so all they had this time were Lil’ Debbies brand fruit pies. These ended up being even better because they were cheaper: $1.29 for 480 calories, putting to shame every energy bar in existence.
It’s funny: some people I know like to go on high-end vacations to fancy resorts where they eat Kobe beef and drink expensive wine, and maybe get luxurious spa treatments, but I don’t get that much pleasure from such things. All the fuss slightly embarrasses me. I’d rather tackle a bike ride that’s so difficult that just sitting on a bench feels like an extreme luxury, and a cheap fruit pie tastes exquisite. If the ride is long enough, my lukewarm energy drink starts to taste like a magic elixir, and a cold glass of water at the end is a small miracle.
Below, you can compare photos from the recent ride and the 2011 one. Do we look older? Frailer? I think the main difference is that my crow’s feet are more pronounced and my eyes are even smaller, collapsing into my face. Three years from now my eyes will just be slits, like on a drive-by car. The other noteworthy thing is that this time my lips are purple, as sometimes happens when I’m oxygen-deprived..
We rode south awhile longer, then departed the Peak to Peak highway for good, hooking a left and climbing Coal Creek Canyon. I guess I was pretty spent at the top because my hands were shaky and I couldn’t manage to take a useable narcie with Pete. (What? You’ve never heard of a narcie? It’s the more precise word for “selfie.”) I kept accidentally cropping one or another head, and couldn’t get enough of the background in there. So here’s a non-narcissistic photo of the gorgeous backdrop (and yes, more thunderheads). They don’t call it Wondervu for nothing.
At this point in the ride we had about twenty miles to go, virtually all of it downhill. Our average speed so far was 16.1 mph and the question was, how much could we increase that? The other question was, could we actually manage to avoid the rain? We could see it coming down hard out on the horizon, over Denver.
The descent was a blast, needless to say, and when we turned south on Highway 93 for the last few miles of the ride, we satisfied our schadenfreude centers by passing hundreds of cars trapped in rush hour traffic. We got to Pete’s house in Golden and could see it had rained there, and looked like it would rain again.
It did rain again, very hard, like ten minutes after we arrived. If you think we had amazing luck, well, yeah, we did. But the last time we’d tried to do an epic ride, in spring of 2012, there was so much snow all the passes were closed. So to me this felt like Mother Nature righting a wrong.
Upslope? What? You mean we had to ride up another hill? No, it’s this beer:
See how it says “limited release”? This isn’t just the BS you sometimes see, like my old “Limited Edition” Bruce Jenner Signature Edition AMF Roadmaster bicycle, where they “only” made 150,000 of them. This Belgian-style beer really was available for just a short period last spring, and Pete liked it so much he set aside a six-pack for four months so we could have it after this ride. Well, actually, his will power flagged a bit over the months and he only managed to hang on to three of them, but that ended up being plenty. We didn’t even get in a fistfight over the third beer, which we split.
My first dinner was pasta with chicken in a Madeira sauce, at Pete’s. Immediately following this I headed over to my brother Max’s house and we had pasta with marinara sauce and fried fish. Nobody thought anything of this; Pete’s wife knew that the meal she served was just a warm-up. Maybe that’s why I like this sport so much.
Stats and maps
Several of my biking pals have talked about doing an intervention and forcing me to join Strava. One guy even mentioned sneaking a GPS device on my bike so they could gather up some big data, figuring that once I saw all the pretty graphs, maps, and reports, I’d finally cave in. Well, until that happens you’ll have to make do with some bullet points and snapshots of Pete’s Strava pages. (And this blog, of course.)
- 146.1 miles
- 8:41:14 ride time
- 16.8 mph average speed
- 71 rpm average cadence
- 11,161 feet cumulative elevation gain
- 37.2 miles total climbing
- 13,747 feet cumulative elevation drop
- 61.7 miles total descending