There is a rhythm to life on Ride the Rockies, and on Saturday, June 14th, it takes me little time to fall into that rhythm once again. This really should not be so surprising, since this is my seventh consecutive annual bicycle trek through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Still, it amazes me how quickly this moving village of over 2500 people feels like home.
The rhythm of camp life begins in mid-afternoon today, as on each subsequent day, with choosing a campsite and setting up the tent, always on school grounds or in a public park. This is easy camping – soft grass for a mattress every night – and the things that go into finding the perfect spot are easy to quantify: shade, no overhead lights, and proximity to bathrooms. The last item of importance is almost impossible to scope out in advance: a lack of noisy neighbors. Today, in Durango, I find a perfect shady spot. This is important, since Durango is in the southwest corner of the state: a region of high desert, where the warm, furnace-like temperatures are a welcome relief from the cold and wet spring we’ve had in Denver. After I pitch the tent, I figure that maybe I’ve made a mistake, based on the obnoxious rowdiness of a bunch of guys nearby. But they are a friendly group, and we soon become friends – they invite me to go to the beer garden with them before Mick arrives – and I know that this is the right way to start the week.
After setting up camp, the next step is always – always! – the very important task of finding food. It takes a lot of calories to fuel a ride of 427 miles, and by the end of the week, it will feel like ferreting out and eating all that food takes a ton of energy. For dinner, the choices are typically a community dinner (of varying quality – the best is the southwest feast of grilled chicken and veggies and tortillas and Anasazi beans in Cortez) or a local restaurant, where the challenge is finding one of good quality without a long line. On this Ride the Rockies, my favorite restaurant is a pizza place in Crested Butte that offers a wide selection of beers (I have a new organic brew from the Deschutes brewery - yum) and the best French fries this side of the Atlantic. On the first night, in Durango, we find a good Italian eatery with no waiting line. In a typical day, we eat and eat and eat. On a long day, the eating seems to know no bounds. On the longest day of RTR 2008, I run into Joe, my seatmate from the bus ride down to Durango, at the final aid station of the day. Joe is a stocky, yet fit guy, and he’s eating a banana. He looks at me and says, “I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually tired of eating”. That about sums it up.
Every afternoon at 4:30, we seek out the cycling seminars. Sometimes we go to the seminars to escape the weather (this year, it’s always the brutal heat outside), sometimes just to try to win some schwag (Mick scores a pair of $169 sunglasses for a wrong answer to a trivia question this year), and sometimes we go because the topic of the day is interesting. This year, in Cortez, the cycling seminar has a record attendance – and it’s all due to the speaker: Bob Roll. Bobke does not disappoint. We get there early and snag front row seats, and Bobke keeps us all laughing for a good 30 or 40 minutes with his tales of life as a professional cyclist and TV commentator. How can you not love that?
Lights out at Ride the Rockies comes early, when the sun goes down. My personal approach is to have my morning stuff – bike clothes, cold weather gear, fleece, toiletries, etc. – all within easy reach of my sleeping bag before I go lights-out. The noise level in camp varies as the week wears on. Early, there is pent-up energy, nervousness, excitement, and it seems that every night there are loud talkers outside of our tent. What is it with men and cell phones in tents? They don’t seem to get it that everyone within a one mile radius can hear their conversations. By mid-week, though, everyone is dead tired by the time it gets dark, and silence falls across the campsite like a blanket. On the last full night, there is a blip of noise again – people partying, celebrating the long miles covered. Who can blame them? As for me, I always plan to read at bedtime, but with the exception of the first day – before we’ve done any riding – I’m almost always too tired to stay up late.
Which is not a bad thing, since the camp comes to life early – way too early for me, some days – on Ride the Rockies. There are crazies who get up and on the road by 5 a.m. Not me. But when there are long days of riding – lots of miles and/or lots of vertical to scale – an early start is the only way to survive the day. Our earliest start this week is 6:30, on the day we ride from Montrose to Crested Butte, a distance of 92 miles with 6100 feet of vertical. Our latest start is in Crested Butte, where it is quite literally freezing (there is frost on the tent when we get up) and we don’t start riding until 8:30.
Breakfast is critical, especially on those long days, and my favorite stops on Ride the Rockies are in the towns that have active organizations like Kiwanis (Montrose) or Optimist Club (Buena Vista): these folks know how to do breakfast for the masses. These are the all-you-can-eat feasts of pancakes and scrambled eggs and oatmeal and fruit and OJ and coffee. I’ll get up a little earlier any day of the (RTR) week for these breakfasts. On the other days – days of breakfast burritos and cold fare and school groups that can’t handle the crowds – I make a practice of finding the guy in the coffee van and paying the two bucks for a big cup of joe. It ain’t Starbucks, but it sure makes my day.
After breakfast, it’s a scramble to finish packing up camp and load all of our gear onto the trucks. There are three semis that transport gear from town to town on Ride the Rockies, and Mick and I are nearly always on the Late Truck. It’s a kind of badge of honor. (Really, what is with all those people who start riding in the cold and dark? It makes no sense to me. Isn’t this vacation?) I think that maybe the best part of every day on Ride the Rockies is the moment you dump your big, over-stuffed, hugely heavy bag onto the truck, and you’re suddenly free – almost weightless. Just you and your bike and whatever you have stuffed into your jersey pockets and your Bento box. Freedom on two wheels. The road as life.
Or maybe the best part of each day is when you finish your ride, and - assuming you get into camp early enough – you can park your bike and head to the showers (Mobil shower trucks with propane tanks that mean you never run out of hot water) after setting up camp all over again, and then – on those oh-so-perfect days – you have time to find a spot of shade and read a book for a few minutes before starting the whole process over again. The only thing awaiting you is the waiting in lines.
Waiting in lines is a part of the culture of Ride the Rockies. We wait in line for breakfast, and we wait in line for the community dinners. We wait to get into restaurants. At the aid stations, we stand in line for the free bananas and oranges and water and Gatorade (hallelujah for purple Gatorade at every aid station this year). We wait for the port-a-potties and the Mobil showers, and we wait at the aid stations to buy our PB&J sandwiches and cookies and smoothies. If you are not a patient person, you might be miserable on Ride the Rockies. But then again, it’s in the lines where we run into friends, so how bad can it be, really?
Some of our friends on Ride the Rockies are like the couple in “Same Time, Next Year”: people we only see once a year, but then they are our best friends all week long, and we keep an eye out for each other. This year, some of the friends I see over and over again through the week include Joe (my seatmate on the bus from Breckenridge to Durango at the start of the week), Barb (Ariel’s friend from California who is doing her third RTR), Chandra (the young woman from Boulder whom Mick and I met several years back doing a training ride up to Ward a week or two before RTR, and we’ve seen every year on the tour since then), Jim (a system administrator who works for my client – but I only see him on Ride the Rockies), and Judy (my personal clone, another Judy from Denver who wears the exact same Colorado state flag jersey as me on the first day). We’re introduced to Judy by our RTR friend Jill, who is from Aspen, but whom we rarely see except on RTR every year. This year, we run into Jill on the first day, just as we’re all loading stuff onto the Late Truck in Durango, and so we all ride together for the first part of the day. It feels good to connect with friends this early in the week, but it doesn’t last long: Jill has a bout of bad luck coming out of the second aid station, losing control of her bike as she comes across the rumble strips, and taking a bad fall. It turns out that she has broken her hip, requiring surgery at the hospital back in Durango. Her week ends before it’s really begun.
It’s a dangerous business, riding all these miles, but we count ourselves lucky to survive all the miles with only minor complaints. Since I have done so little training (appendectomy, seven weeks ago), I’m especially worried about surviving this ride, but I do. It helps to have a massage tent with a big staff of massage therapists to help work out the kinks. I take advantage of the service just twice this week, but I’m convinced those two sessions help me finish the ride. In addition, Mick and I both visit the medical van almost every day, getting bags of ice for our knees (me) and feet (Mick), along with cadging some samples of Advil. If you pay enough attention throughout the week, you’ll hear about the road rash, the broken bones, the heart attacks, and all the other maladies that riders suffer. If you’re lucky enough, none of these things will happen to you.
But no matter all of that. Ride the Rockies, at its core, in its soul, is about riding.
On Day One, we ride from Durango to Cortez, just 48 miles with a net elevation loss. We rode this route in reverse a few years ago, so I am mentally prepared for the route. Kind of. Sort of. Our Sunday morning is just about perfect, with a little downhill out of Durango before we cross the idyllic Animas River, passing the Durango-Silverton Train as it starts its morning journey up into the mountains while we ride out of town in the other direction. Then we have a healthy little climb (there’s a total of 2,900’ feet of climbing today, despite the net elevation loss) before we hit the high elevation point of the day and start our long gradual descent into Cortez. Too bad that we have stiff headwinds for the trip; it makes this long downhill feel like work, a lot of work. Although it’s a short day for RTR, I feel like my effort is way out of proportion with the numbers that go into my log. I start to have serious doubts about my ability to ride the entire route this year.
The Day Two ride is Cortez to Telluride, a 77 mile route that takes us up a long gradual climb over Lizard Head Pass (10,222’) before we descend down into Telluride. Every time I’ve ever been to Telluride, it has rained, so today I am prepared for cold and wet. But it turns out to be a beautiful, perfectly clear day. While it’s a long, gradual uphill – about 5,900 feet of climbing – the only steep parts are at the top of Lizard Head Pass and a second summit just a few miles past Lizard Head. The descent into Telluride would be great fun if not for the road damage. Still, I hit my fastest mileage of the week on this stretch of road – 45 mph - and figure that’s quite fast enough for me.
Day Three is another ride we’ve done before, and I’ve had plenty of rotten weather on this stretch, too. We start out heading downhill out of Telluride with some pretty heavy traffic and narrow roads that have no shoulder. But we survive, and then we have a nice gradual climb up Dallas Divide (8,970’). The weather couldn’t be more perfect. The normal headwind into Montrose is barely a breeze today, and Mick paces me into town with miles and miles averaging 21-22 mph, which is extremely fast compared to my normal riding speed. It feels like we’re flying; it’s almost disorienting to get off the bike in Montrose. Including the climb up Dallas Divide, we cover 65 miles in just under 4 hours with 2,100’ of vertical; for me, that’s a great day.
I’ve been dreading Day Four. We’ve ridden most of this route before – the part from Montrose to Gunnison – multiple times, and it has never been easy. Normally, this ride ends in Gunnison – a 65 mile day. For this RTR, they’ve tacked on the climb up to Crested Butte at the end of the day, making a 92 mile day with 6100’ of climbing. That’s just one long day.
The climb out of Montrose up Cerro Summit (just 7,950’) is not steep, but there is a notorious headwind going up that mountain pass, and there’s just no getting around it. Mick paces me out today, so that part of the ride – while obnoxious – is no surprise. Mick paces me frequently on most of our Ride the Rockies adventures, but even moreso this year. He keeps things light and fun by watching the mile markers along the side of the road, and yells back to me, “Thirteen (or twelve or nine or …) more sMiles to go!” counting down into the next aid station or the next town.
A few years ago, we did this climb, but the descent side of the pass was a road under construction, and it completely sucked – riding down a steep road that was dirt and gravel and tar. Today, we get the benefit of that road construction from the earlier year: the descent is on a new, smooth, beautiful road, and it’s the most fun I think I’ve ever had on a descent. There’s a second climb – Blue Mesa Summit (9,288’) – that is steeper, but by the time we hit this climb, the winds have died some. I actually like this climb a lot, especially the short descent into a canyon and the second little push to the top before descending down to Blue Mesa Reservoir.
The last time we rode this route, we hit nasty rain along the reservoir, so I’m mentally prepared today. But the weather gods are smiling on us for this stretch of roadway, and we get a long gradual downhill with a healthy tailwind to push us through. It’s very sweet riding, all the way into Gunnison. But oh, what a nasty surprise awaits us there. The final 30 miles of our day are all uphill, all into a very gnarly headwind with temperatures that are furnace-like. No stretch of road on RTR has ever seemed so long, or so slow, or so painful to me. I swear like a sailor, and curse the wind (quoting Jimmy Buffet’s “Goddamn, son-of-a-bitchin’ fuckin’ wind!”), but in the end all there is to do is to keep riding. Although I’ve never been to Crested Butte before, as we approach the little mountain town, I decide that I hate the place, without reservation. I will never come back to this God-forsaken place again. As I get off my bike, I look around for cardboard and magic marker so that I can make a “Bike for Sale – Cheap!” sign. When I can’t find the supplies easily, I go with plan B, and head for food and beer.
For Day Five, we have a rest day in Crested Butte. We get to sleep in, and when we crawl out of the tent at 8 in the morning, it’s full sun and beautiful mountains all around. We go downtown for a leisurely breakfast, and stop in a funky little bookstore before making our way back out to our camp at the school. What a great little town. Have I mentioned how much I love it here? I look in the real estate office windows, thinking I might just have to move here.
Day Six starts out with frost on the tent. Brrrr! But it’s another long day with lots of climbing – 76 miles with 5,900’ of vertical – so we can’t really dawdle too long. Since I suffered so much coming into Crested Butte, I’m expecting a nice long downhill for starters, but we have a headwind leaving town, so we have to pedal downhill. Who designed this route anyway?
But I’ve been looking forward to the next part of the ride more than anything: along the Taylor River, up over Cottonwood Pass (12,126’) which is both literally and figuratively the highpoint of this year’s tour. We rode this route several years ago, but had thunderstorms, lightning, rain, mud, you name it, every variety of miserable weather possible. Today we have every variety of beautiful weather possible: sun, cloudless sky, no wind, beautiful roads. This pass has only been open for the summer these last eight days, and that – combined with the fact that the last 14 miles to the top of the pass are dirt and gravel – means that there is very light traffic. Even with the lousy weather last time we rode this, I knew that this was one of my favorite spots in Colorado. With today’s lovely weather, it’s a certainty: there just are not many more beautiful spots in this world. Although we climb non-stop for nearly 40 miles, I’m in great spirits; when people pass me and ask how I’m doing, I burst into song. Bizarre, yes. Spontaneous, yes. The funny thing is how many people actually sing to me in return. When you add the 20-some mile steep descent down the other side of Cottonwood Pass into the equation (this section, thankfully, is paved), you can hardly design a more perfect day on the bike.
Day Seven: well, I burnt myself out yesterday, and it’s a shame, since today’s ride is nearly as wonderful as yesterday’s. We start early again today, because we have 69 miles to ride with 4,400’ of climbing, and we want to be in Breckenridge for the closing ceremonies at 2 p.m. That means we have to work hard to summit Trout Creek Pass (9,346’) in the early miles of our ride, although I would love to stop continually to take pictures; it’s just that scenic. The descent off Trout Creek is not steep, and before you know it we’re working on the second climb of the day. I’m out of steam, so I crawl. Mick paces me for a while on the flatter parts of the climb to Hoosier Pass (11,542’), but when we get to the last aid station before the summit, I decide I will need extra time and I take off on my own while Mick grabs a smoothie. The traveling DJ is at this aid station today, and just before I take off, he plays John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High. It seems that I hear this song at this point of the week every year on RTR, and never has it seemed more fitting than today. This next stretch turns out to be one of the steepest climbs of the week, and it takes every thing I have to make it to the top, but it’s glorious when we get there. Mick and Chandra and Barb and other people I’ve seen off and on all week are there, too. It’s a beautiful summit to end the week with, and then there’s a lovely ten mile descent into Breckenridge to the Finish line. But who is in a hurry today? It’s sunny and beautiful; a great day to be on a bike.
It makes me long for next year already, and I start thinking about getting ready for Ride the Rockies 2009. That’s another element of the rhythm of life on Ride the Rockies: you can’t wait to finish each day’s ride, but then when the week rolls to a close it seems all too soon. Like every other year, I file away thoughts about how much better prepared I’ll be next year. Then I load the bike on top of the car, and retrieve my bag from the Late Truck once more, and head back home to Denver.