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.

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