The Rockies

Oh Colorado. How truly amazing you are. This. This was the reward for all those bleak miles that came before.

On the second, 80-mile day of the Boston to Montreal ride way back in the Spring, there was a steep 600-foot hill that several people were worried about. I was one of them because I kept hearing about it, and at the time, I had never done even 50 miles two days in a row, so that big hill loomed in my thoughts all day even though it wasn’t unusual by Bay Area standards. It’s definitely still tough, but it only lasted ten to fifteen minutes. After it was over, I could only conclude that I’d rather not have known about it so that it would not have dominated my day with fear. The Rockies were a looming fear factor like this from well before I even started. “Yeah, but the Rockies” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot from people trying to empathise with my plans. My reaction was to look forward to the mountains all the more strongly because, yeah, the Rockies… but I knew I’d get through them eventually, and maybe it would hurt less if it’s pretty. I got that one right!

Nine days from Denver to Dolores, Colorado—528 miles and 34,766 feet climbed, and the Rockies are officially vanquished. I’m not sure how else to describe how hard parts of this were. Or how exhilarating. But I can say that my time here has been far and away the best of the trip. Whatever it is I came here for, I’m sure I got it.

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Each day was priceless, so it seems to warrant a chronology …and cool graphs from my Ride with GPS app.

Aug 7: Front Range

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My first big day back on the bike was hard! I needed to get to Pueblo to meet the Adventure Cycling Association’s Western Express route that would take me straight to my new home. So 120 miles south, skirting the mountains, right? Wrong. That first day alone rivals all of the other days in the Rockies in terms of distance and climb. The route was beautiful, but the weather was awful. With still 40 miles to go, the rain started, I got soaked, and the temperature dropped to 55°F. I shivered for hours as I peddled, and eventually I felt like I needed to vomit from being so tired of shivering. The last 25 miles were all on a gravel and dirt bike path that got muddy, then dark (ahh, bears!). I missed getting to Colorado Springs before sunset because I had to wait out some lightning in the afternoon. Then 10 miles before the hotel I had booked, my newly tuned-up brakes both all but gave out, though luckily just as I was passing the first crop of hotels I had seen into all day. Safety first: I had to book a second room for the night and stop. It’s a good thing this was the first day, before my tolerance for ridiculousness had a chance to start eroding with the miles.

Aug 8: Pueblo

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In the morning, with a clearer head, I took a look at those brakes because I wouldn’t be going anywhere without ’em. The pads were indeed replaced as I had paid for, but the screws that clamp the cables to the brakes were both loose and the cables had slipped. Easily fixed. Good to know.

Also, lesson learned from the day before: don’t plan to need to go the usual 80 miles before getting used to the high altitude or during Colorado’s “monsoon season.” So I took it much easier this day. More rain and lightening, but I was less rushed, so I waited it out by finishing that last blog post. I got stuck in mud once on a bike path, and I had to drag my heavy bike through it for a quarter mile. Then I rode around through puddles for a while to clean off the bike.

Aug 9: Intro to the Rockies

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Woo! The Front Range of the Rockies is intimidating when you approach it head-on. I stared at a mountain that towered 4K feet above me for thirty miles before I even got to the base. It was my first all-day climb. It’s brutal. I found myself questioning if it would ever end after just the first hour. Once you’re in the lowest gear, the only option is to work harder when it gets steeper. I found that playing music helps with long, hard climbs.

You get a lot less oxygen per breath as you go up, and it’s obvious when you’re exerting yourself. Somewhere on that first big hill, I gave up trying to ram that much air through my nose, and I’ve been a proud mouth-breather in the mountains ever since.

Aug 10: Approach to the Great Divide

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I had my first long downhill, about a third of the way through the day. Otherwise I quite peacefully spent the day climbing on one side or the other of the Arkansas River. I stopped for a while in the town of Salida (Sah-LIE-da), which was hard to leave because I was just not feeling that big climb that was waiting for me after.

That night I stayed at a mountain lodge 5 miles short of the continental divide at about 10K feet above sea level. Just before I was about to turn left into the parking lot, a car passed me very closely. They were turning left too, and they were probably preparing to take that left by going slightly to the right first like many drivers do. As I pulled into the parking lot behind them, the driver stepped out and right away apologized for passing me so closely. I said thank you and that I appreciate that. It also, at the time, made me feel better that probably a good number of the close calls I’ve had weren’t intentional. The group checked in at the front desk ahead of me, and there was enough time that we started chatting. The gentleman, the driver, asked where I was headed, and then he told me all about each climb I would encounter. So of course it turns out that he’s a cyclist too. And the younger woman in the group, perhaps his daughter, lives in Boston.

I woke up constantly all night long gasping for breath. I get that I have to breathe more deeply here, but my sleeping self hadn’t gotten the memo yet.

The next morning I saw the same group at breakfast. The gentleman came over to sit with me for a while, and he introduce himself as Roger. He said he’s cycled many of the roads in Colorado but not all. He added that it’s rare to see someone cycling alone cross-country going the direction I was headed. I can imagine why! Then Roger gave me his phone number and offered that if I’m ever in any trouble in Colorado, I should call him and he’d come get me; he’s retired and he wouldn’t mind! So shout out to the amazing cyclist Roger. It made my day to talk with you.

Aug 11: Great Divide and Down the Other Side

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I crossed the continental divide at Monarch Pass on US-50. At 11,312 feet, it’s one of the highest paved roads in the U.S. Great view too. And man that felt good to get there. At the top, I met several hikers who were also passing through going north or south along the Great Divide trail. I enjoyed talking to one older gentleman who has hiked 10K miles with his wife and dog over the past four years. He has diabetes, and he felt his body deteriorating, so, he thought, now’s the time! And his wife was up for it too.

The downhill from the Divide was epic. Too long, actually. My eyes were burning from the wind as if I had been cutting onions, despite wearing sunglasses. But fun! Just before I got to Gunnison, CO, I passed a group of three middle-aged guys who were clearly on their own cross-country trek going East. That’s always a thrill: “Other crazy people!” One shouted to me that I did a great job packing light 🙂

Aug 12: Black Canyon

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The Black Canyon of the Gunnison has to be among the most impressive of the western canyons. It’s crazy deep and crazy narrow. From some parts of the rim, I remember from visiting with my parents in 2003, you can’t always see the river at the bottom because the tall walls undulate and seem almost to touch. I got to spend the day riding along side it, with a brief stop in the canyon at about the 50-mile mark. (You can tell when that happened in the graph above.) The rocks are a billion years old, likely older than multi-cellular life itself. The canyon is just 2 million years young.

At a gas station that hadn’t been updated in 50 years—creaking rusted signs blowing in the wind and all—I met two motorcyclists who thought what I was doing was awesome. It was awesome for me too because mostly the two kinds of bikers consider each other separate species. Not here!

Aug 13: Hot Springs!

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I was looking forward to this for weeks. I made an appointment to stay at Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, Colorado as a kind of rest day. I started that morning in Montrose, Colorado, and I only had to go 30 miles and uphill about 1K feet. But one of my gear-shifting cables snapped. You can still ride a bike like that, but with the tension in the line gone, the derailleur reverts to the smallest (highest) gear. There was no way I could climb 10 feet like that without blowing out my knees. I was lucky I was in a town, but it was Sunday, so the two bike shops were closed. I really didn’t want to pay for that hot springs twice, so I had to get there. I found a replacement kit at Walmart, and, whelp, I figured it out. We definitely did not cover that part in the bike class I took. The tools I had with me are crude, but after about an hour in the Walmart parking lot cutting braided stainless steel wires with a rather blunt instrument, I made it work, or at least enough to get me to where I needed to go that day, and I got it professionally fixed at the next bike shop I found. That was my greatest bad-ass moment so far.

The same force that caused the Rockies to rise 70-or-so million years ago caused a magma chamber to rise below it, which has the effect of dotting the landscape with hot springs. I stayed , which is like a garden full of differently-heated ponds of water directly from the bowels of the earth. I got my first massage too, which was awesome. I met some nice people there too, some locals and some travelers like me trying new things. The handful of people who stay the night there have the hot springs to themselves all night. I had a giant hot spring-filled pond to myself for an hour under the starriest of skies.

Aug 14: “To-Hell-U-Ride”

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Telluride is really beautiful. Dripping with money, really. There are gondolas that run all summer so you can take your mountain bike to the top of some of the ski runs and ride down, free from the pain of climbing and free of charge. I’m not sure how I feel about that from a purist standpoint, but if I could take a gondola wherever I wanted to go, I’m sure I would.

A bartender told me that a 24-year-old man was struck by lightening and killed by lighting while mountain biking near Lizzard Head pass the day before, which is of course where I was headed next. So I’m glad I’ve been sticking to the policy of waiting out lightening storms. It’s a reminder that the number of dangers are quite high.

Aug 15: Lizzard Head Pass

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This was my last Rocky Mountain. Really nice day too. At the top I met a couple who were taking a break for lunch. The guy said he did his cross-country ride in ’84, but that he was carrying a lot more than I was. It was interesting to compare stories. I’m using a lot of tech on this trip: GPS, lightweight tent, probably a better bike, and it only makes me think how much harder any of this was just 10 years ago.

So with that, I’m off to Utah. Plenty more mountains to climb; they’re just not officially part of the Rockies.

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