Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ride Report - Mount Evans with Teenager - 14,270’ Summit!


During my Colorado vacation a week or so ago, and two days after my disastrous attempt at an epic mountain ride there, I tackled an even more ambitious effort:  biking to the summit of Mount Evans, the highest paved road in North America.  I’ve reached this summit four times before, but this time I threw in something extra:  I brought along my 14-year-old daughter.  This would certainly be the toughest ride she’d ever attempted.

Did we make the summit?  I’ve decided to thwart the rules of journalism and not tell you right away.  If you want to find out, you’re just going to have to read on, or at least skim all this text and look at the photos.  (Note:  if you don’t have the stamina to read 3,000 words on this lofty topic, whereas a 14-year-old attempted to bike up a 14,270-foot mountain under her own steam, do you think it’s time for some soul-searching?)

About Mount Evans

The road up Mount Evans is, in local parlance, “hyper-gnar-gnar.”  It climbs almost 7,000 feet from its base in Idaho Springs to a blasted summit that looks positively lunar, if there were cold winds on the moon.  According to Wikipedia, the highest temperature ever recorded on the Evans summit was 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can freeze at any time of year.  The average wind speed up there is 28 to 35 mph.  The summit is way above tree line (the point at which conditions are too harsh for trees to survive).  In fact, a 2012 tornado touched down near the summit but didn’t cause any damage because there was nothing to damage.  What was the tornado gonna do … move some fricking rocks around?  (There was once a building containing a gift shop and restaurant, but it burned down in 1979 “and was not rebuilt, but remains as a place of contemplation today.”  Here’s a jumping-off point for your contemplation:  “What the hell are you doing up here?!”)

How does Mount Evans compare to the famous peaks reached in the Tour de France?  Well, Mount Ventoux is even windier, but its summit is a paltry 6,273 feet … that is, 1,267 feet lower than the base of Mount Evans.  The Col du Galibier is the highest mountain that the Tour de France ever climbs, but at 8,678 feet it’s still a dwarf by Mount Evans standards.  The Galibier climb, by itself, lasts only 11 miles—far less than the Evans climb, which goes on for more than 28—but the Galibier taken together with the Col du Télégraphe is 21.6 miles and gains almost as much vertical as Evans.  Does this make it as hard?  Well, the Galibier is steeper, but it also features way more available oxygen.  Thus, I think Mount Evans is harder, especially for somebody only acclimated to sea level.  (Full disclosure:  I’ve raced up Mount Evans and the Col du Galibier twice each, and the worst suffering I endured was on the Galibier.  But there were extenuating circumstances.)


While I was foolhardy enough as a teen to take on pretty difficult rides (particularly this one), I didn’t attempt Mount Evans until I was 17.  Frankly, teenagers aren’t very good with logistics—at least, I wasn’t and my teenage friends weren’t, and my kids aren’t, nor are their friends.  Teens don’t think about things like the wind chill factor being 20 degrees on Mount Evans on a typical day in August.  I don’t remember what I wore in 1986 when I first did this climb but it was probably just shorts and a short-sleeved jersey. 

I well remember two things about that day.  First, when I started I was freezing my ass off while warming up—despite Idaho Springs typically being 20-25 degrees warmer than the Mount Evans summit.  (I was warming up because it was a race and could be fast from the gun; more on this in a moment.)  Second, I remember crossing the finish line and hearing this guy we called The Yeller yelling, “Get this rider into a warm van—now!”  This wasn’t special treatment, but standard operating procedure.  Somebody caught me, and another person took my bike away, and I was thrown into the back of a van—engine running and heater jacked up—with a bunch of other racers.  After lying there dazed for a dozen or two minutes, I came to and started chatting with the others, mostly about how bad that sucked, etc.  Then we were all driven down the mountain to Idaho Springs and reunited with our bicycles.

(About the race starting out fast:  the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb is a huge, prestigious event and records are kept of the fastest times up it.  There is (or at least was) a special prize for the first Junior to finish, even though—as was common in those days—we had to race with the Senior Category 3 riders.  The first couple miles are almost flat, and the normal custom of the peloton was to take that part easy and chitchat.  So it was in 1986, to the dismay of my friend John Smathers who felt he could get the new Junior record if we went out fast enough.  I remember him looking back at all us slackers, and saying, “Oh well, I guess we won’t be getting a record today.”  But he actually did, winning the race more than five minutes ahead of my teammate Peter and me, and the record John set that day, thirty years ago, still stands!)

As a 14-year-old, I was fairly reckless and thought, for example, that it was kind of cool to get stuck in a thunderstorm at way over 10,000 feet elevation and get treated for hypothermia.  As a parent, I think it would be incredibly lame to subject my 14-year-old to that sort of ordeal.  So for this trek I arranged to have my dad drive up as our sag wagon.  I also picked a day with a favorable weather forecast (and when that forecast changed for the worse, I rescheduled the ride).

There’s one more thing I did as a hedge against the ride being a nightmare:  I tried to set my daughter’s expectations appropriately.  “I never made the summit at your age—I did the race at 14 but it was only to the halfway point at Echo Lake,” I told her.  “Let’s shoot for that, and anything we make beyond it is gravy.” 

She was having none of that.  “There’s no way I’m not making the summit,” she declared. “I’d never be able to live with the failure.”  Okay, kid—but that’s your decree, not mine.  (Not that I was surprised at her position, and I’ll concede that acknowledging the existence of a summit was tantamount to entrapment.)

The ride

We got up at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Boulder to Idaho Springs and try to get on the bikes by 7; no matter what the weather forecast says, high mountains in Colorado always carry an afternoon thunderstorm risk.  We got rolling a bit after 7:30.  Here’s the “before” shot.  Of note:  I was a bit anxious and couldn’t be bothered to frame the shot very well, and Alexa’s smile seems a bit forced. 

Our second “before” shot shows that the road is open.  This is no small thing … it doesn’t open until June, and two or three times the race (typically held in July) has been canceled due to snow.  In fact, the last time I rode Evans, with my brother Bryan and my new bride in June of 1994, there were snow flurries at the top.

It was 44 degrees F when we started.  The first hour slid by, the day warming up slightly despite the increase in altitude.  At 9,000 feet the temperature was 45.5.  Alexa was in fine spirits.

Before 90 minutes had elapsed we made the 10-mile marker.  I’m curious whether the abundance of trees offset the gradual diminishment of oxygen as we climbed.

By 10,000 feet the temperature had climbed to 53 degrees.  We’d brought full-finger gloves and were too hot for them as we toiled along.

Echo Lake is at mile 14 and I dimly remembered my race finishing there in 1983.  My main recollections of that race:  a) there was one girl in our group, who deliberately dropped back when one racer called another a very vulgar and profane name, and b) I got absolutely shelled and was miserable.  The next time round (1986), when Echo Lake was our halfway point, somebody attacked here and blew the Junior/Cat 3 field to bits.  Things were a lot mellower this time around.

We stopped at the Echo Lake Lodge to use the restroom.  It’s kind of amazing how much souvenir paraphernalia is available there:  commemorative keychains, license plates, and even pocketknives with the altitude and your name engraved on them (unless your name is Alexa, which they don’t have).  Tourists are encouraged to believe they’ve really accomplished something by making it all the way up there in a car.

Here’s the sign pointing to the summit.  You can tell we’ve had a rest because our gloves are back on and Alexa has tugged her sleeves back down.  By the way, she was supposed to wear either her East Bay Velo Club jersey or her Albany High School mountain bike team jersey.  But she forgot to pack them, along with cycling socks (which we had to go buy in Boulder).  Did I mention teens aren’t good with logistics?

It was a perfect day to ride up this mountain, but not a perfect mountain to ride up because a) it’s too tall, and b) our planet is too large.  A lower mountain on a smaller planet (i.e., with less gravity) would be easier to take.  The effort began to take its toll.  My daughter isn’t exactly Mary Lou Retton to begin with (I mean, who is?) and though she didn’t become surly, her manner drifted in the direction of, say, Alf.  Fortunately, about 2 ½ hours into the journey, our sag wagon showed up.  That’s my dad behind the wheel and his friend Judy riding shotgun.

We stopped for a tasty hot beverage (tea? coffee? cocoa?—I don’t know, I didn’t have any) and fig neutrons.  I was carrying thousands of calories of Clif shots and bars in my pockets but normal food is always welcome.

Unfortunately, my dad hadn’t remembered sunscreen either, but had a large bandanna I fastened under my helmet and draped around my ears and neck like a Bedouin.  I figured I was wearing enough Lycra to avoid being misidentified by some redneck and shot on site.  You’ll sees a photo of this headgear later.

Eventually we approached the tree line.  The timber began to recede, not unlike my hairline.  (The metaphor, I now realize, is rich:  as I slowly climb the mountain of age, there’s a trend toward less of everything … less abundance, less luxuriance, less vigor, less speed, less oxygen, and—it must be said—less assurance.)  By now our conversation had totally dried up.  Was Alexa fighting an internal battle, or had her respiration crossed over the Peak Conversational Threshold?

We made a painful descent to the wrongly, cruelly name Summit Lake.  This lake is not at the summit—not even close—and the descent to it undoes some of the important climbing work you’ve done.  Moreover, from this point on, large cracks across the road transmit right through the bike painfully into your hands and butt.  These cracks don’t look like much, but everything already hurts.  Here, we’ve gone past the falsely named lake and resumed our long climb toward the actual summit.  Note the tree line, now just below us.

By now my poor kid was well and truly suffering.  Neither my wife nor I has a very high hematocrit (i.e., my last measurement was 37%, which is below-average even for a non-athlete) and Alexa has probably inherited that.  On the plus side, she seems to have inherited my ability to recover within a ride or race; we benefit hugely from just taking a breather by hiding from the wind for a bit.  This doesn’t help on Mount Evans, though.  It’s just a continuous effort for 28+ miles.  It’s hard to tell from this photo because Alexa’s form is so good, but she was dying.  Perhaps the way she’s staring at her front wheel, refusing to look ahead, is a bit of a tell.

Maybe it’s a bit more obvious in this photo.  In any case you can see my silly headgear.

I’m not a proponent of rest stops during bike rides.  I have always held that getting going again is just too hard.  On this particular ride I was especially loathe to stop because I’d twisted my ankle on a hike the day before and could barely unclip my foot from the pedal.  But of course when Alexa asked for a break I granted it immediately.  We sat down in some huge overstuffed La-Z-Boy chairs and geishas came around to give us a soothing footbath.  Wait … I’m remembering it wrong.  We actually just stood on the side of the road along the blasted landscape for a spell.

I gave Alexa a fig neutron and said, “There’s more where that came from if you’ll go with me to prom.”  Without missing a beat she replied, “I like your sleeves.”  So there was still a sense of humor lurking in that tortured soul, even if she couldn’t make herself smile for the camera.  Then it was more slogging along.

It’s scenic up there, in a blasted kind of way.

A couple of years ago, in my Everest Challenge race report, I wrote, “It’s kind of funny how I train hard for like ten weeks for this [race], and my reward is abject misery.”  So it was with Alexa:  we rode all summer with this ride as our carrot, and now here it was and it was like, “Who the hell wants to eat a carrot for four wretched hours?” (or more to the point, “Who wants to stab himself in the legs and lungs with a carrot for four hours?”).  The training, it turns out, is the fun part; the “reward” is the kind of awful suffering you just wish would be over with already.  Look at Alexa here, at another rest stop.  Man, she is pissed! 

Nah, just kidding. I was going for an artsy shot with my reflection in her sunglasses but couldn’t get the angle right.  She was very patient about this.  Since she happened to look pissed in this photo (in the American, not British, sense) I figured I’d throw it in.

Alexa got a flat tire a bit later which gave her a nice, long break and the opportunity to watch 15 or 20 Model-T Fords drive by while enjoying the spectacle of her father trying to pump up a tire with his feeble T-Rex arms.

We got higher and higher up, to where even the lichen on the rocks started to become sparse.  Did the road start to get steeper, or were our legs just running out of juice?

Oh my god, the road sign lies!  You saw that sign yourself:  14 miles from Echo Lake to the summit.  But the magic 14 mile marker came and went, and still no summit.  The actual mileage is more like 14.5, and that extra half-mile is huge.  It’s the longest half-mile on the planet.  My dad and his friend had stopped here and there along their drive but now reconnected with us and drove behind Alexa for moral support for this last bit. 

Suddenly Alexa called out, “Dad!”  I wondered if she had another flat tire.  But actually, she’d stopped to look at a marmot that was, due no doubt to utter unfamiliarity, unafraid of humans.  By the time I got there it had moved on, but she got a nice long look.  (That’s right, my daughter is never too tired out to appreciate nature.  She saw several pikas on the mountain and tried to point them out, but I’m too blinded by adulthood to notice such things.)  Here’s a photo my dad snapped a bit later on:

Alas, after the marmot stop Alexa had a really hard time continuing on.  After a couple hundred meters she needed to stop again.  How close can you get to the top without making it?  I thought I might find out:  she really didn’t seem to have enough air to start back up again.  You know, cars have to be tuned for high altitude—the carburetor or fuel injection system is adjusted to mix more air with the fuel, to offset the lack of oxygen.  Humans can tune themselves this way, but it takes 4 to 6 weeks to produce the necessary extra hemoglobin.  If you don’t have 4 to 6 weeks to hang out at altitude (or a World Tour team-issue blood bag), you just have to dig deep.  Alexa had been digging deep the whole way.  Now she was experiencing something like panic, because her brain rightly recognized that her system wasn’t getting what it needed.  Could it be that we would have to abort, a quarter mile from the summit?  I don’t think we seriously considered this.  We did some relaxation exercises and set off again.

Have you ever noticed that batteries can seem completely dead, so that your flashlight doesn’t turn on at all, but then the next day you try again and get like five seconds of weak orange light?  Well, that’s about what we got after this last break.  And it was enough, because we bloody well made it to the summit!

My dad arrived after a few minutes (traffic was a bitch near the top) and Alexa climbed into his warm car.  Here she is having some solid food and a giant mug of hot, strong cocoa.  Poor thing has obviously had the stuffing knocked out of her.

While Alexa warmed up, my dad lashed her bike to the back of his car.  When he was done, I dragged her out for a couple of photos at the summit sign, just to make it official.

Can you tell it’s a bit cold up there?  We  didn’t dally—she got back in the car and I began my descent.  As luck would have it, I happened upon a mountain goat who was cooperative enough for a sweet photo-op.  (Alexa got to see it too, from the car, a bit later.)

Alexa had been conflicted about whether to accept a ride down the mountain—after all, she’d earned that descent!—so we arranged to meet at Echo Lake so she could do the bottom half of the descent, where it’s warmer and the road isn’t like a medieval torture device.  While I waited for the others, I popped into the lodge for some souvenir stickers.

We had a nice (late) lunch in Idaho Springs:  fried chicken for me and chicken and dumplings for Alexa.  She asked for some of my potato salad and I forked over the whole serving, no questions asked.

So was the ride fun?  Well, yeah, in that strange, warped, kind of un-fun way.  One thing is beyond doubt:  it was fricking epic.  Anyone can do fun; Disneyland is “fun.”  It takes a pretty special kid to do epic.  I think as time goes on, our memory of this ride will get all the sweeter, and I’m sure Alexa has forged, in her soul, a new capacity for perseverance.  (And did she have fun?  I’m not sure ... I’ll have to wait for her ride report.)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2016 Quasi-Epic Colorado Mountain Ride


If you’re looking for a report about an epic Colorado mountain ride (like this one, this one, or this one), think again:  the only thing epic about my recent ride was how badly my friend Peter and I got our asses kicked.  Just now I was recounting to my wife the stats of our 2014 effort—146 miles with over 11,000 feet of climbing, including a 12,400-foot pass—and comparing it to the paltry stats we piled up this time (less than half the distance, with a 25% lower average speed).  “What’s going on?” my wife asked.  “Menopause?”

If you hate me, and/or enjoy reality TV and/or other glaring depictions of human frailty and misery, this may be the ride report you’ve been waiting for.

Executive summary

“We got what we deserved.”

Short version

After not training properly in like a year, Pete and I went into this ride woefully unprepared, and I suffered terribly on a series of brutally steep dirt climbs.  We decided to change the route due to rainstorms, but then reversed this decision in an act of hubris.  I completely ran out of steam by the end of the longest climb, just in time for a 90-minute drenching downpour that washed away the rest of my resolve, along with my dignity, my circulation, and my humanity.  Unable and unwilling to recover from the severe chill, we cut the ride short and descended home with our tails between our legs.

Long version

I should have prepared for this ride by doing lots of long, hard road rides, with gobs of climbing, in the company of the superior athletes on my bike club.  Instead, I spent most of the last year doing short, easy rides with my young daughter while (unadvisedly) continuing to eat like a real athlete.  (At least, this is my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

My friend Peter, a former professional road racer, prepared in pretty much the same way—he’s been riding with his son, who’s even younger than my daughter.  One day these kids will kick our butts, but for now they’re just giving us an excuse to loaf our way through rides.  (This is well worth it, of course, because these kids improve every time they ride and are achieving the gradual apotheosis from regular human to elite athlete, as opposed to their wretched fathers who are trying, mostly in vain, just to slow the ravages of age.)

In an act of craven capitulation, Pete and I set out to ride a mere 100 miles, albeit with more than 10,000 feet of climbing.  We got a late start because I’d spent the previous day in the car, returning from a road trip to Telluride, and got to bed after midnight. 

Breakfast was cheese omelet, toast, braised tomatoes, toast, cruelty-free local sausages, and toast.  (I inherit a lot of my kids’ toast.  See how this blaming thing works?)

Here is the “before” shot.  That’s my brother Max with us, who came for breakfast but wisely opted out of the ride.

My  family was staying at a lodge at the base of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder.  This meant only half a mile of warm-up before the climbing began.  Due mainly to poor fitness but also to the altitude, right away I was huffing and puffing like the Little Train That Could.  I was able to smile for this early photo because of muscle memory in my face.

Note that all that white on my face isn’t salt from dried sweat—it wasn’t that hot out.  Nor is that white beard stubble—I’m not (quite) that old.  It’s this new-fangled sunscreen that’s as viscous as toothpaste.  My family opted not to tell me I hadn’t rubbed it in well enough, because (just like you) they prefer to laugh at me behind my back.

Instead of turning and heading over to the Flagstaff “summit” (i.e., the place where the flag pole is), we went straight, to tackle the climb that locals call “Superflag.”  This is always a brutal one, but especially so this time around.  I had to weave a lot even though I was using shamefully low gearing (27-tooth rear cog plus a compact crank).  At the summit my hands were shaking too badly to snap a photo; fortunately a couple of tourists helped us out.  The treeless hump in the background left of me is Sugarloaf Mountain (just under 9,000 feet elevation) and the pale peak behind that (with the snow) is Mount Audubon (just over 13,000 feet).

We  did a nice dirt descent to Gross Reservoir. 

From here we proceeded south and west, and I lost track of geography somewhat because Peter—who is a fricking madman—had designed a route over a number of grotesquely steep dirt climbs that essentially shut down my normal brain function.  There was a lot of washboard—that is, stretches of dirt warped like corrugated steel by car tires braking or accelerating too hard—which is almost impossible to ride on; it feels like riding over the rumble strip on the edge of a highway.  The steepest sections (~16%) didn’t offer enough traction for me to ride out of the saddle, nor to take photos.  Here’s a shallower section where I could do both (though not simultaneously—duh!). 

This shit went on and on, as if designed to completely wear me down in every way.  Meanwhile, the sky darkened and threatened the kind of downpour that, though not forecast on this day, is always a possibility in these parts.

Our original route had us riding the Peak to Peak Highway north for many dozens of miles, taking us well north of Boulder over a number of serious climbs.  But we could see a big storm in that direction and really didn’t feel like getting caught out.  So we rerouted, figuring we’d tool around near Idaho Springs and Golden.  We started yet another dirt climb, toward Ely Hill, and had made some good (but hard-fought) progress before seeing the skies clearing in the distance over the Peak to Peak.  Now we had to decide if the detour was really necessary.

“Maybe it’s clearing up over there,” Pete said.  “We could play it safe and stay south, or go back and do the original ride.”  We hemmed and hawed before he said, “The ▒▒▒▒▒ thing to do would be to stay south, but the manly thing would be to head north.”  (I’ve omitted a word there because I’m not sure Pete would want to go on record having used it.)

Well, that pretty much settled it.  As I’ve explained before, it’s hard to resist choosing the harder route because it’s so easy to just point your bike in that direction and suffer the consequences later.  And so that’s what we did.  “If we get rained on, we’ll be getting what we deserve,” Pete declared.

I thought I knew right away what he meant—that we’d pay the price for the last year of slacking off and letting ourselves get so out of shape.  But he went on to tell a bike race tale that put his comment in a more specific context.  “It was the Tour of Somerville, a big box-shaped criterium where the last corner is more like a curve so you can sprint through it if you’re at the front, but it’s really dangerous if you’re mid-pack.  Kent Bostick and I led out Jamie Carney, who won.  There were all these guys sprinting for like 50th place, which caused a huge crash.  I was ahead of it, but Kent—who’d started the lead-out—was behind it, and he said to us later, ‘When I went by those [crashing] guys, I yelled, ‘You’re getting what you deserve!’”

We hit a steep dirt descent with lots of ruts, bumps, and more washboard, and it was a bit muddy from a recent rain.  Soon enough I got a rear flat.  I didn’t think I’d hit anything hard enough to get a pinch-flat, but when I practically burned myself on my rim—which was red-hot from all the braking—I wondered if my tube had melted.  (Pete was riding tubeless.)  I got that fixed, and then two minutes later got a front flat.  In case my melting-tube theory was correct, I tried to brake a lot less after that, which was a little hairy … I was glad when the descent was over.

We headed through Blackhawk, where legend has it a woman once married her motorcycle, toward Central City, a gambling mecca.  Traffic kind of sucked here, plus we had a pretty serious headwind and the longest single climb of the ride, from Central City to where Highway 119 hits Highway 46 (look at the map at the end of this post).  The average grade is only 4% and it’s only 5 miles, so it’s pretty sad how badly it kicked my ass.

Thunder rumbled all around us.  Actually, this had been happening for most of the day.  I really love thunder, but my excitement is greater when I have a house to retreat to.  On this day I was trying to forget it each time.  I wanted to ignore what it might obviously portend.

God, the climbing went on and on.  I can’t remember where all the worst bits were but I was just grinding myself down, my speed dropping along with my morale, my legs getting progressively more sluggish like I was a wind-up toy reaching the end of its spring.  I stood on the pedals, I sat back down, I kept trying to shift only to find I was already in my lowest gear … it was like a nightmare, only boring.  Pete kept accidentally dropping me (having only a 25-tooth cog to my 27).  I have no more action photos of this ride because I was no longer capable of, nor interested in, snapping photos.

I’d known full well this ride would suck—no, actually, that the ride would be fine but I would suck—but that didn’t make the reality any easier to take.  Of course this was a comeuppance for Pete and me, attempting an epic ride without actually training for it, but I’d somehow hoped muscle memory and finesse would carry the day.  Instead we got Mother Nature bitch-slapping us continuously as a warning not to trifle with her.  We were getting what we deserved.

My psyche began trending toward despondence.  I hadn’t felt this awful in the bike in almost two years.  I had no idea how many miles still lay ahead, or how many passes, or how long Pete’s patience with my especial feebleness would last.  I wondered:  could I just stop?  Obviously that wouldn’t help anything; resting just erodes the morale when it’s time to pedal again.  And my legs weren’t completely spent—the problem was psychological in that I just didn’t want to do this anymore.  Could I just pull over and say screw it?  Go on strike?  “Occupy Road Shoulder”?  The cycling equivalent of a hunger strike?  No, of course not.  How would I get home?  How would I tolerate Pete giving me shit over this for the rest of my life?  And how would I live with myself?  Cripes, we’d only gone like 45 miles!  This was shaping up to be, possibly, the most pathetic bike ride of my life.

I looked down at my legs.  Amazingly, they just kept pedaling, as though my crankset was attached to some external power source and was turning the legs rather than the other way around.  Sheer inertia was keeping them going.  My legs were just stupidly pumping away because they simply didn’t know what else to do.  And my brain?  Other than registering misery, it wasn’t doing anything.  It wasn’t in charge.  From the legs up I was just a wretched human payload.  And my arms?  They could barely hold me up.  My back was also trashed, probably from all the low-cadence in-the-saddle grinding I’d been doing on the dirt climbs.  I was pretty much screwed from head to toe.

The road, though straight, disappeared up ahead:  could be a summit, but possibly just a fake one.  I yelled up to Pete, “I’m stopping up here whether it’s the top or not.”  It ended up being the top—for now.  I even had an excuse to stop:  it was raining.  Had I noticed this already?  I can’t remember.  I put on my jacket, knowing it would be soaked through and useless within minutes, but appreciating the vague sense of doing something useful.  We started to descend, at long last.

Mother Nature wasn’t done with us, though.  The rain picked up until it was just hammering us.  My bike computer said it was 45 degrees now, but it felt a lot colder.  Maybe the raindrops were colder than that.  In fact, they felt like hail.  Each drop striking my body felt like a needle stabbing me, and my entire epidermis felt like your mouth does after a bite of too-spicy food.

Oddly, throughout this the whole experience I felt something like relief.  After worrying about being rained on for so long, I didn’t have to worry anymore—it was happening.  And at least the climbing was over for now.  I just sat on my bike, coasting, letting the rain wash over me.  And I felt this strange sense of airy spiritual lightness, deriving perhaps from the knowledge that a) things couldn’t get much worse, and yet b) this wouldn’t go on forever, and moreover c) at some point, in the next several hours, after a hot shower, I would return to a life that itself is not miserable.  This ride was not a microcosm of my overall experience in this world; for all its crushing reality this experience was an anomaly, a self-inflicted punishment for an existence that has become all too comfortable.  I am not, I reflected, a miserable person:  I’m just having a miserable time.  (And actually, looking back, it wasn’t pure misery ... it was kind of fun in a way.  I seem to have a fondness for this kind of suffering, and the memory of this ride will surely get sweeter over time.)

My hands became useless flippers due to the cold.  More accurately they were like lobster claws; I could work the brakes, and even shift the gears here and there if I really worked at it.  As we descended toward Nederland, I started to worry about another flat tire, because the road was flooding and all kinds of gravel and little stones were washing into the road.  The descent wasn’t technical so we took it pretty fast, perhaps instinctively saving some brake pad for later.

We got to the same convenience store in Nederland we always stop at.  I was hoping it’d be warm in there, but either the cashier has no control over the thermostat, or was keeping the AC jacked up to serve the dry and better insulated customers.  We filled large foam cups with hot cocoa and warmed our hands on them.  I grabbed a Hostess fruit pie (420 calories).  I gazed dreamily at the hot dog case:  not at the oily, endlessly rotating dogs but at the bun warmer below, wondering if Pete and I could pool our cash and buy the whole stock of buns, just to press them against our frigid, aching limbs.

It took a long time to pay because our hands wouldn’t work.  My arms were almost too weak to reach my jersey pockets.  Pete was just standing there shaking from head to toe … I’ve never seen him so cold.  My teeth were chattering so hard I couldn’t stop them—my jaw wouldn’t respond.  We looked at the clock:  quarter to five.  “If we freakin’ hammer down Boulder Canyon—I mean, hammer—we could be done by 5:30,” Pete said.  I stared at him.  He must be insane, I thought.  Pedaling a bicycle at all—in fact, doing anything at all—seemed almost impossible … how could I possibly hammer?

Amazingly, though the sun never came out, the rain had stopped when we stepped back outside, and as we cranked down Boulder Canyon in too low a gear—so as to spin the highest cadence we could—we started to warm up.  Eventually the blood in our legs got to circulating properly, and we actually did find ourselves hammering somewhat.  At about 5:40 p.m., our painful, humiliating ordeal finally came to an end. 

Sure, I’m managing to fake a smile in the above photo, but look at how tired and baggy and red my eyes are (red from the grit that had been sprayed into my contact lenses since the rain had made sunglasses impossible): 

And though Pete is mugging for the camera, look at his eyes … you can see the suffering there.  It cannot be hidden.

My  hot shower wasn’t as delightful as I’d hoped, because my skin just felt so thoroughly messed with and irritated, nothing could return it to normal.  Still, it was good to rinse off all that road grime:

Speaking of grime, our bikes’ drivetrains took a beating.  Check it out:  absolutely nothing left on this chain:

And Pete’s brake pads were worn to the point of near-uselessness:

Dinner #1 was a whole box of pasta with an indifferent marinara sauce from a jar.  This had no effect whatsoever on our appetites.  My stomach no more registered the three plates than had I eaten a single cracker. 

Then we limped down to the dining hall and had a beer (Odell IPA, from nearby Fort Collins), which hit the spot, along with a couple big glasses of water the bartender must have sensed we needed.

While my wife conjured up Dinner #2, I sat in bed, doing nothing other than feeling stunned by the whole ordeal.  My brother Max, who had come for dinner, looked at me aghast:  “You really don’t look so good.”  He turned to my daughter Alexa and said, “Look at him!  Look at his eyes!”  Alexa, not missing a beat, said, “Yes, he’s got that dead look in his eyes, ‘cause he’s seen so many horrors that he’s sort of immune to them.”

Dinner #2 was grass-fed beef marinara (without pasta—Pete and I had eaten it all), a cobbled-together tartiflette, and—shoot, what was the third thing?  I don’t recall, but I well remember the ice cream cone Max made.  He stuffed two flavors—dulche de leche and chocolate-chocolate-chip—in alternating layers all the way down the cone, then over the top.

I asked my wife and kids if they’d had a good day.  “Yeah, we got our toenails done!” they replied.

Stats and maps

Unfortunately, Pete is on Strava so I can’t make excuses about my bike computer getting reset, and am honor-bound to share the dismal stats of our Ride of Shame: 
  • 74.4 miles
  • 7:34:58 elapsed time (could we have spent an hour in that convenience store??)
  • 6:02:31 ride time
  • 12.3 mph average speed (!)
  • 9,918 feet cumulative elevation gain
Pretty sad, eh?  But I’ll tell you what:  age and sloth may have deprived us of speed, power, endurance, and verve, but they haven’t robbed us of character.  I think we might have actually shored that up a bit with this ride.  And one thing is for certain:  we got what we deserved.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Train Travel Is Better

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and subtle insinuations of mild sensuality.


 Six years ago I blogged (here, here, and here) about my family’s trip on Amtrak from the Bay Area to Chicago.  Well, we’re at it again.  I’m typing away from the observation car as the train makes its way through the mountains east of Grand Junction, Colorado.  Our destination this time is Denver.

(As far as you know I posted this after the fact and/or we’re flying straight home from there so by the time you read this it will be too late to burglarize our home.  Or maybe not … maybe this is the beginning of a long vacation, in which case you’re welcome to try to steal our sentimentally valuable but commercially useless family heirlooms, though you’ll have to deal with our psychotic gun-nut house-sitter and his meth-fueled pit bull, who never knew his father.)

Having tackled the overall train travel experience in my previous posts, today I’m going to give you the top 10 reasons why train travel is the best way to go. 

Reason #1:  Train travel is novel

Train travel is novel.  Flying has become as routine as taking a bus, more so actually, as has driving, and both activities get old pretty quickly (unless you’re driving on a cool highway like US 50).  And on the train if you get tired of your coach seat or sleeper car berth, you can mosey on up to the observation deck, or down to the lounge, and at mealtime you get to sit in the dining car (and actually, the Amtrak food is pretty darn good).  At bedtime if you’re in a sleeper you fold down one bed from above and turn the seats into another bed, which is really fun for kids (I think this gave my younger daughter goose bumps the first time).

The train stops from time to time, in places more rustic and less bland than the convenience stores along an interstate.  You can step off the train for a little fresh air.

Reason #2:  Flashers

Also, if you take the California Zephyr route you’ll cruise along the Truckee and Colorado rivers, where there are lots of rafters, and your chances of being mooned or flashed are very high.  It’s a long-standing tradition, apparently, for young men to moon the train, or young women to pull up their shirts or bikini tops for the benefit of Amtrak sightseers.  When my brother took his kids on this train back in ’05 they were flashed by rafters, as was my wife in ’06 (while my head was, alas, turned the wrong way).  And while I was sitting here peering into my laptop just now, a rafter flashed the passengers to my right.  I’m so bummed to have missed that.  Serves me right for writing this instead of just gazing out the window and watching life go by.  I hope you’re happy.

Reason #3:  Better for the planet

Wikipedia reckons that “a train seems to be on average 20 times more efficient than automobile for transportation of passengers, if we consider energy spent per passenger-km.”  They base this on an assumption of the car getting 39 mpg, which is far better than most cars get, especially with a bunch of luggage and/or bikes fastened to the roof rack.  In contrast, Wikipedia estimates that a passenger train gets 468 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel.

I’m not sure how Wikipedia gets their “20 times more efficient” figure because they don’t show their work.  My Volvo gets about 28 mpg on the highway, so with 4 passengers that’s 28*4 = 112 passenger-miles per gallon, which—compared to the train’s 468 passenger-miles/gallon—makes the train look only 4.2 times as efficient as a fully-loaded automobile.  I’m not going to ponder this disparity at length, because I’m more interested in comparing a train to a plane.

Wikipedia estimates that an Airbus 380 (the dumpy plane most of us tend to fly) gets 78 passenger-miles per gallon.  That means the train is 6 times more efficient (per passenger) than the plane. On top of that, the plane is polluting up in the atmosphere where the emissions do the most damage.  The so-called “climatic forcing” effect of jet aircraft means that although “per passenger a typical economy-class New York to Los Angeles round trip produces about 715 kg (1,574 lb) of CO2,” this is “equivalent to 1,917 kg (4,230 lb) of CO2.”  That is, the fact of the aircraft emissions being high in the atmosphere increases the environmental damage by a factor of 2.7.  So the train is actually about 16 times less bad for the environment than a plane.  In other words, for the environmental cost of one family vacation involving air travel, we could take 16 train trips of equal length.

If these numbers start to make your head swim or your eyes glaze over, here’s a more interesting way to express the efficiency of trains:  in 2007 a man dragged a 7-coach train weighing almost 300 tons along its track for more than 9 feet, using his teeth.  This is possible because the steel-on-steel interface between the train wheels and the track incurs so little friction.  (You think that guy could lift even a small single-engine aircraft off the ground with his teeth?)

A final environmental consideration:  the benefit of your choice doesn’t end with your train trip.  Amtrak pays freight train companies for the use of their tracks, so by supporting Amtrak you’re also supporting the railroad freight industry, which is far greener than long haul trucking.

Reason #4:  Can be cheaper

If you can tolerate coach class—where the seats are way bigger than an airplane’s, by the way, with far more legroom—Amtrak can be very inexpensive.  I’m sharing a table in this observation car with an lady who is traveling from Winnemucca, NV to some town just outside Chicago for under $280, round-trip.  The gal across the aisle is going from the Bay Area to Denver and the total tab, one-way, is $222 … which covers herself and her two kids.  (Full disclosure:  this was her original cost, but a couple days before her trip, Amtrak ran a special on the sleeper car so she upgraded for “not much money.”)

The sleeper car is generally a lot more expensive than coach, but I sprung for the sleeper car because this is our big vacation for the year.  It was worth paying extra just to be able to tell my kids, “We’re livin’ large as possible, posse unstoppable, style topical, vividly optical.”  I can’t make this boast with air travel because first class there is way too much money to even consider, and the seats are still smaller than even the coach seats on Amtrak.  (Each seat in the sleeper cabin is wide enough for two.)

Reason #5:  None of the airline bullshit!

I hate flying.  Going through the security check, and having to take off my shoes (even though the one guy who tried to smuggle explosives in his shoe got caught), and having to drink up or forfeit my water, and let some guy pat me down so closely I expect him to ask for my phone number afterward, and then having to take my bag over to some table where somebody runs a little cloth swab all over it to check for explosives—as if!—and then, once I’m finally on the plane, being deprived of legroom, food, even peanuts, and invariably being seated right above the wing with the jet engine shrieking in my ear, and having the baggage policy get ever stingier practically every time I fly, and being asked to pay—get this—$150 each way to bring my 17-pound bicycle on the plane … it’s all just such bullshit I can’t even describe it without the “-shit” part.  I tried to use “BS” but it just wasn’t enough.

On Amtrak, there is no security check.  None.  I mean, what are you going to do, hijack the train and make them take you to the Flagstaff, AZ station instead of Denver?  The Amtrak process is so simple:  you make your reservation, print out your single sheet of paper which serves as the boarding pass for your whole family, show up at the station 45 minutes in advance (no check-in required), and bring practically as many bags as you want, for free, and take them right to the train where you’ll have access to them the whole trip and never have to wait for them to come off the carousel.

And you know what?  If you’re not that organized, and you get a late start riding bikes to the station with your teenage daughter, and if Google Maps totally screws you by leading you not to the station but to a barren place across the tracks and more importantly across a giant fence from the station, so you have to spend an extra ten minutes racing around on surface streets, you can literally roll up with your bike less than 15 minutes before the train leaves.  At least, my daughter and I did, and incurred only a very mild, brief tongue-lashing at the ticket counter, where I paid $10 each to take our bikes on the train.  And the bikes, un-boxed (because Amtrak had run out of boxes), didn’t have to go through some system of conveyor belts like at an airport, which present some danger to the bikes, which danger the airlines—being dicks about this, like everything—accept no liability for.  I put the bikes on a luggage cart, and the conductor said they’d just be leaned on a wall and lashed down.  Simple.

Reason #6:  Less stressful than driving

Driving is a leading cause of accidental death.  Even if you’re the best driver ever, you’re sharing the road with drunks, and irresponsible young men who think driving fast is a game, and drivers who just plain suck.  And you have no control over the weather, which can turn your road trip into a nightmare.

With a train, you’re responsible for  getting yourself to the station and that’s about it.  Then you can read, sleep, look out the window, play a board game, blog, or take advantage of the seventh reason why trains are better.

Reason #7:  Friendly fellow passengers

It is technically possible to have a good conversation on an airplane with a fellow passenger, but highly unlikely.  First of all, your only opportunity is with the person in the next seat, vs. wandering around a train with the opportunity to chat up anybody who seems friendly.  Second, most air travelers are too angry, too tense, and/or (if they’re on business) too preoccupied to want to chat.  In my experience, everybody in the Amtrak observation car is there to soak up the view and relax.  I’ve conversed with several friendly passengers today.

Conversely, if you don’t feel like chatting, you don’t have to be rude to the person in the (assigned airline) seat next to you who keeps asking what you’re reading instead of letting you read.  On a train, you can just return to your seat, or into your sleeper car where you can close the curtain and/or door.

Now, if you’re sharing an automobile with your favorite people, of course you can chat with them, but only to a point.  If you’re the one driving, you shouldn’t get too caught up in the conversation or you’ll become that “distracted driver” that is such a menace to society.  (Once, at the end of a 6-hour drive, I missed the exit to my mom’s town because I was so caught up in reciting the poem “Kill My Landlord.”)  If you’re not driving, you need to take care to not distract the driver too much.  And you can’t have a good conversation with your kids because they’re too busy fighting in the backseat, and dispensing toilet paper out the window to make comets, and fussing, and squirming, and asking, “Are we there yet?”  On the train you can split them up, banish them to their sleeping room, or tell them to go pester the conductor about the ETA.

Reason #8:  Better scenery

The view from the tiny plastic airplane window is okay during takeoff and landing, but once you’re at cruising altitude you’re usually too far up to see much.  Occasionally the pilot will get on the PA and say, “Those of you on the right side of the aircraft can see the Grand Canyon down there … looks a little like a cracked lip.”  Often there’s cloud cover below the plane so you can’t see anything at all.

The view from an automobile is better, but you still don’t see as much.  Train tracks sometimes go through places that don’t have roads.  I’ve been looking out at the Colorado River and the gorge it winds through, and it’s pretty impressive.  The tracks go through less developed areas so the landscape is often especially impressive.

Right now the train is threading its way between Routt National Forest and Arapaho National Forest, near the towns of Kremmling, Heeny, and Sheephorn.  Have you heard of these places?  Of course not, and that’s the point.  (“I used to live in Kremmling,” a friendly fellow passenger just piped up, having perhaps read that over my shoulder.  “One saloon and one cabin.”)

Even familiar scenery can be completely changed by the unique vantage point of the train.  I’ve seen the Carquinez Bridge hundreds of times, but never from below, as I did yesterday.

There are even volunteer docents on some stretches, who will give you history about an area (such as the gold country or the gorge we’re going through now).  They don’t just drone on either; they’re pretty funny.  “Look at that white thing way up on the bank there—that’s a Suburban,” one just said.  “That’s a teenager’s driving lesson.”

You also get to see cooler animals via the train.  On this trip my family has seen antelope; prairie dogs; some strange animal we’re calling a desert badger; a jackrabbit; mule deer; and even a T-Rex scarfing baby Ewoks like they were croutons.  (I made that last bit up to see if you’re still awake.)  Some animals seem curious about the train whereas no living creature has any interest in cars (except certain humans).

On top of all this, you’re not going that fast on the train, so you get a better look at everything.  (And you still get where you’re going sooner than a car because the train doesn’t stop for the night.)

Reason #9:  Don’t have to look at people

There comes a time during a conventional voyage when you get so bored, you may be unable to resist looking at other people.  How often have you been on a 6-hour flight and you get so stir-crazy you decide to head over to the lavatory, even though you know there’ll be a line, and you stand there looking out over all the other bored, irritated people, packed in like cattle, and you just hate them all?  Or you’re so bored during a drive that you start to look at every driver you pass, and in every single case they’re looking back at you, and you’re both thinking, “What are you lookin’ it?!” and it’s just kind of creepy?

I guess if the answer to those (albeit rhetorical) questions is “No,” then you’re a better person than I am, and you can have your boring interstate highways and jam-packed airplanes.  For me, boredom just isn’t a problem on a train, and there’s so much to look at, and everybody looks better to me because, like them, I’m so much more cheerful.

Reason #10:  No deep vein thrombosis or perforated eardrums

Okay, I’ll concede that deep vein thrombosis isn’t exactly an epidemic.  It’s the rare person who, due to being too cramped and still for too long, suffers a blood clot that moves through his/her system and causes a pulmonary embolism.  But it can happen.  What if you got one and died on a plane or in your car?  Wouldn’t that be a rotten way to go?  (“He died as he lived … stuck in coach” or “He didn’t die alone … his car veered over several lanes and took out a school bus.”)

Meanwhile, train travel is easier on your ears.  The pressure changes on a train are very gradual.  As you cross the Continental Divide, you might notice the foil on a single-serving coffee creamer start to bulge, but you won’t feel much in your ears.  This train is at over 7,000 feet elevation right now and I’ve barely felt a thing.  Airplanes are different.  Cabin pressure is at cruising altitude is equivalent to 5,000 feet of elevation, and can decrease to zero in a matter of minutes when you land.  Once, I had a minor cold resulting in a clogged Eustachian tube, so when the plane descended I suffered a perforated eardrum.  This was absolutely excruciating and turned my ear into a geyser of blood and pus for several days, and required several follow-up visits with a doctor.

Bonus Reason:  Hand-to-hand combat

If you try to give somebody a real beat-down in the aisle of a passenger jet, you’ll probably get arrested when you land.  And an automobile is just too confined a space for a good fistfight—your elbows keep hitting things.  The sleeping cabin of a train, however, is private and spacious.  I could hear my daughters going at it from across the aisle.  They don’t pack a good punch, those girls, so neither was injured, but I think they had a good, satisfying tussle.

This was confirmed when I interviewed my daughters for this post.  Among the reasons my older daughter gave for preferring train travel was “Can finally fight it out with your sister once and for all.”  She even admitted that she was fantasizing a bit about being James Bond, who never boarded a train without having one final battle with this or that nemesis.  (And for the record, upon reading over my shoulder just now, she has assured me that she was pulling her punches and actually could have done serious damage.  Maybe on the way home?)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.