Pete Hubbel and Melissa Watson who I recruited from the annual Storming of Thunder Ridge century ride, and Renee Lockey, recruited by Claire at WBR. Another team member had to bail at the last second but still did a great job fundraising. This year we broke $20,000 – enough to buy over 135 bicycles for people in Africa.
In reassembling my bike for the ride, I discover that the TSA had lost my left cycling shoe during an inspection of my bike box. When riding at this level, cycling shoes are critical pieces of equipment. Moreover, because of my on-going knee issues, the cleats on bottom of my shoes were celebrated with millimeter precision. All this was out the window and it looked like I would miss at least the first day. And even if I did get new shoes, the adjustments would not be the same. My emotions were cycling between anger, fear, and panic.
With the ride starting at sunrise the following morning, things were looking bleak but then a hero arose. I called Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa and got Eric Burt (the owner) who had one pair of shoes left and with a few adjustments, they fit. Eric worked late, drove to pick me up, even offered to lend his own shoes if the ones he had didn’t fit. For the full story of Eric’s awesomeness, read my Yelp! review.
So now I had new cycling shoes with cleats, but without the adjustments made with my bike fitter, would my knees be okay for the ride? My story now had a monster.
Team WBR did indoor camping (i.e. sleeping on gym floors with a few hundred of your best friends) but I slept horribly. Between several lights being left on, to a freezing wind blowing in the gym through an open door, to fretting over my shoes, it was impossible for me to rest.
Bob, Pete, Rob, and I started as a group. The uninspiring 60-mile a gradual uphill route to the base of Wolf Creek Pass lent itself to riding in a pace line and we averaged 22 MPH to Aid Station 1. If this was any indication of the day ahead, we were up for something awesome. Unfortunately, this was was not to be. Shortly after the first aid station, we hit a stiff head wind that continued to grow stronger. By the base of the climb, the headwinds were blowing at 15-20 MPH.
Despite the wind, the trip up Wolf Creek Pass was awe-inspiring. Among the inhospitable rocky ledges of the canyon, fir trees grew tall and narrow. Each turn relieved a different beautiful landscape – each looking like a Bob Ross painting. The wind was unrelenting coming in from 45 degrees in the front – so pace lining provided no shelter.
We briefly stopped at Aid Station 4 ( mile 61) before moving onto the summit. Only seven more miles. But any experience with Ride the Rockies will tell you that when there is a short distance between aid stations, it invariably means that you are about to suffer. And we did.
The wind grew stronger as to test our resolve. Dozens of cyclists were either walking their bikes uphill or pulled over to take a break. It was tempting to rest but we kept pushing. Each year, it is not uncommon to have a day when I ask myself, “Why in the world did I sign up for this?” When this falls on Day 1, it can be a challenge to quickly bounce back. While I pushed on, I thought of all the first-time riders, hoping this wasn’t going to tarnish their overall experience. Everyone was hurting and probably wondering why they signed up too. This was a day that required a certain level of grit.
Near the summit it got even steeper but as the road twisted, we got a small but merciful tailwind. We kept climbing. Our legs were tired. Our shoulders were tight as the wind required us to hold our handle bars tighter than usual. We were not smiling. And then we heard cowbells. This amazingly awesome couple were at the last bend cheering us on and this gave us the strength to keep going.
It may have been a mixture of exhaustion and a sense of deep accomplishment, but I experienced something like a “runner’s high” at the top and all the uncomfortableness was replaced with a sense of elation.
At one bend, there was a beautiful overlook – I remembered it from my 1996 ride when we climbed the west face of the Pass. So I jammed on my brakes, took in the beauty of the mountains and valley below and took some pictures. Bob and I continued our descent as the cold mountain air gave way to the warmer temperatures of the valley. The final 18 miles had a stiff but manageable headwind.
Finding a flat on my bike, I asked the others to go ahead without me. The day immediately started with a 3-mile climb. The morning air was cold and crisp, requiring arm and leg warmers. The low sun bathed the countryside and distant mountains in a warm inviting light. As we started our initial climb, the I could see the weeds blowing to show that we had a slight but friendly tailwind.
I met up with Renee and Claire at Aid Station 1 (12 miles in). We pushed for about 13 miles but as we ascended Yellowjacket Pass, the back of my knee started bothering me so I dropped off and took it a little easier. The climb was not too easy or hard, and except for the Chimney Rock mountain, it wasn’t overly memorable.
When I rolled out, the sun was low and while the dawn’s sunlight painted the distant mountains with a warm welcoming light, we were still riding in the night’s shadows. The mountains were rocky and covered with trees, with edges so steep that they could qualify as cliffs.
Steve was skipping the 10 mile climb, so we parted ways and off we went. The climb was not too terribly difficult or inspiring, it was just a grind. After taking a quick rest at the aid station at the top of the climb, we got on our bikes to head back down.
Rob and I raced down the entire 10-mile hill – it was steep, but not steep enough to coast in a race, It also lacked many turns. Often turns are what separate riders – the more skilled riders can take turns at speed, opening up gaps between them and their opponents. But on a relatively straight road like this, there was one thing that determined who was going to win – power. Rob had passed me and it took significant effort to catch up but I did, so I rode in his slipstream for a bit and then darted past him giving it all I had. Once I thought I had a comfortable lead, I let off a little to allow my oxygen-starved legs a rest. Then Rob flew past me on my left. and so it went, back and forth. near the end, I had built a significant lead so was again resting my legs when I saw his jersey in my mirror turn a corner at full speed. We were maybe 1-2 miles from the bottom and I had no option but to give it everything I had again. I questioned the wisdom of spending so much time anaerobic on Day 5 of 7 – would my muscles bounce back? But this was about pride so I pedaled through the pain and just barely eked out a win. It was well earned, Rob made me hurt. And on any other give day, he may have won. But win or lose, it was a fun competition.
“I wasn’t planning on coming back until I met you guys. I was thinking of selling my equipment but I had such a blast today that I decided that I am going to get fit and try to come back more powerful. Woot woot!”
Forget that we got a new team member, we inspired someone to stick with cycling and to get in shape! This was the best day.
As not to let us off easy, mother nature gave us a tenacious and furious headwind for the route’s initial 14-mile climb. While the pitch wasn’t nearly as steep as previous days, riders were in their easiest gear; each pedal stroke a deliberate action. We stopped to get pancakes at Aid Station 1 and take a rest. To me pancakes are nothing more than delivery vehicles for liquid sugar (a.k.a. syrup) and on this day, I made sure they were properly doused. The next 14 miles were a slog with a determined headwind. By this point, strength didn’t come as much from legs as from sheer determination and the will to carry on. Not every second of RTR is fun, and this was definitely not fun.
On any given day, today’s route would seem fairly average, and it was. But today was Day 7, the last day, and our legs were tired. The climb up Monarch Pass wouldn’t be easy with our accumulated fatigue, but the knowledge that we were almost finished gave many of us the strength to power through. Although the day’s course was 66 miles, broken down it didn’t seem so bad. The first 34 miles were a gradual up-hill but mostly flat. The next nine miles were the climb up Monarch Pass, and the final 23 miles were all downhill. On a day like this, I am only really focused on getting to the top since gravity could bring me home even if my legs were shot.
Bob, Claire, and I headed out for our last journey together of this ride. The day started off with another strong headwind, so we rode in a pace line to Aid Station 1 (16 miles in). In spite of the headwind, we averaged 19 MPH. An over-the-shoulder picture of Bob and Claire showed at one point that our pace line had picked up maybe 10 additional riders. We then hammered to the second aid station – still keeping good speed. At this point, we split up since Claire is a much faster climber. Bob and I made the ascent up Monarch Pass.