Canon City to Westcliffe
4,281-foot elevation gain
Song of the Day: The Mountains by Haik Naltchayan
Boy, does the tiny town of Westcliffe know how to party! I am still in awe of what those people pulled off for us!
I've now done 6 Ride the Rockies tours, 11 Elephant Rocks, 14 MS-150s, 1 Tour de Lavender, 1 Santa Fe Century and a handful of other organized rides, and never in my life have I personally experienced a bicycle homecoming so intensely overwhelming and enthusiasm-charged. What a way to end the 30th anniversary of Ride the Rockies! Westcliffe (and Sliver Cliff) have set the bar high. I'm not sure any other venue will ever top what this little town full of big hearts did! They raised $30,000 in less than eight months to pull off this incredible show!
I knew this would be a hot day with lots of climbing, and I don't climb well in heat. The Lizard had me a little intimidated with his 2013 description of Hardscrabble Pass. I didn't get to ride it that year because of the smoke from rampant forest fires.
Yesterday, trying to calm my fears, he'd told me Hardscrabble isn't more difficult than the Grand Mesa. I asked him if it was like going up Deer Creek Canyon twice.
"Not that hard," he said.
That did it. That's all I needed. I knew I could do it.
I took off into the twilight and missed a three-way highway/frontage road/railroad tracks turn. I realized after not being passed by other cyclists and passing through several un-RtR-marked intersections I must have missed a turn and looped back, not knowing where I'd gone wrong, not knowing how I would find the right path in the dark without going back to the start. Soon I spied twinkling tail lights, which helped me get back on the right road.
Unfortunately, the two cyclists I followed missed another turn just a couple of blocks further. One of them told me that's what we get for leaving so early in the morning, before the volunteers are on the course to help us find the way.
Once again on the right path, a service station came into view. I stopped and bought a bottle of apple juice and a bottle of orange juice to help fuel me up the Pass.
Off I pedaled again, this time alone, and no one else passed me until the sun began peeking over a great rock formation. I pulled over to snap a photo, but my phone began ringing. I was shocked! I couldn't believe I had signal!
It was The Lizard, convinced I must have taken a wrong turn because he hadn't passed me yet. I told him I had indeed taken two wrong turns, as well as stopping at three different stores (two not yet open) for juice. We both assumed he was miles ahead of me, and he offered to wait for me at the summit. I assured him I'd be fine and encouraged him to not wait for me anywhere along the course, to just have the ride of his life.
I had totally missed the sunrise moment, but I got to witness it. I began pedaling again, this time being passed by waves of riders. Ten minutes later, The Lizard caught me and pedaled along with me to the next rest stop, where we enjoyed hotcakes together. He kept offering to ride with me the whole day, but I knew my turtle pace would be miserable for him.
We both look forward to these rides because we enjoy everything about each ride... the exercise, the wildflowers, the climbs, the scenery, the trickling, or in this year's case, crashing of rivers, leaves rustling in the breeze, birds chirping, cows mooing. I wanted his ride to be enjoyable. So once again I urged him to go his own speed. He instructed me to call him before I reached the finish line (assuming I'd have signal), and he'd ride through the finish line again with me. We've done that several times in the past, and the official photos have been worth buying, so that was good enough for me.
Little did I know this finish line was one I wish I'd been able to video in its entirety. Oh, my heavens! But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
As I began climbing after the tiny village of Florence, I wondered if this was the route we'd taken when we drove in the dark to Westcliffe in 2008 after work on an autumn Friday to climb Humboldt with the very same friends who would be taking us home after we cross the finish line today. We returned home after our climb of Humboldt in twilight, so I didn't have any visual memories from that trip.
As I rolled through the gorgeous rock formations towering above the road, I remembered another trip to this same destination on this very same road, and tears began streaming down my cheeks.
In 1993, I drove this very same road, way back before I knew the Sangre de Cristos existed, way before I knew any of the 14ers in this part of the state. I drove with my adopted son to Silver Cliff to pick up a 7-year-old Wednesday's Child from her foster grandmother.
That little girl went on to become my adopted daughter a year later. Yes, indeed, I had been this way before.
The grade became steeper as the temperature climbed faster than my bike. Soon I was stopping every quarter mile or so, or whenever I could find a spot of shade. Hundreds of cyclists were passing me, but some were joining me in every shady spot, too.
I was trying to mentally keep notes about the ride as I climbed, and I thought my opening paragraph would be about the wildflowers (which, by the way, were sensational): From henceforth and forever shall this road be known as Sunflower Boulevard, a nod to the wild sunflowers growing in nearly every pavement crack along the shoulder.
I didn't pull my camera out of my pack to take pictures of two varieties of wildflowers I'd never seen before. I mistakenly thought we might be able to find them again on the way home, when I was clean and refreshed, and I didn't want to get out of the saddle because it was too painful to get back in when done. After we got home, I looked them up on wildflowersofcolorado.com and discovered one is simple campion (valerian... I'm going to need to plant some in my garden), and the other, which I'm determined to turn into a flower flake, is western spiderwort. It's blue!!! My garden definitely needs some of that!
Climb, climb, climb. The uphill seemed endless, even though it wasn't as difficult as the Grand Mesa.
The favorite view of a slow cyclist just might be distant cyclists disappearing beneath the horizon ahead, from the bottom up, like the setting sun. That means a downhill is due. Oh, those downhills were heavenly!
Occasionally I would see the tip of Humboldt and the Crestones or the summit of Kit Carson peek over the green meadows of Hardscrabble, but reaching the extensive flat top of the Pass brought the entire Sangre de Cristo Range into glorious view. A blanket of white covered with crystal blue and rooted in lush, verdant green formed the backdrop for the finish line far below.
I dismounted at the rest stop, filled my water bottles and checked my phone to find, astonishingly, I did indeed have signal! Unbelievable!
I called The Lizard and told him I was atop the Pass. He said I still had a good 15 to 20 minutes to go, but that if I'd call him again once I got through the town to the emergency lights and barriers, he'd ride out and cross the finish line with me.
I calculated how many miles were left to go; about ten to eleven. I chuckled as I shook my head, knowing there was no way I could match his descent speed. He can ride 40 mph down a mountain with skill and ease. Not me! I'm not comfortable with much over 27 mph. It would take me a bit longer.
He'd told me to relax for a bit and to try to win a commemorative T-shirt, as I'd done atop Independence Pass in 2012. I was standing near the DJ, so I decided to wait for the next contest. The only one I'd heard yesterday had no appeal whatsoever... anyone willing to do a raw egg shampoo. No T-shirt is worth that in 93-degree heat with a big climb to come!
I pulled out my credit card and driver's license, just in case. At the end of the song, the DJ announced it was time for another math contest. Pull out your dollar bills, and be the first to bring him a dollar with serial number digits adding up to 40. I got on my bike and pedaled away. If you think I can do math after five hours of climbing in high 80s heat, you don't know me very well! Sometimes I can't even count crochet stitches in calm, cool and comfortable settings!
Down, down, down. Oh, did that breeze feel awesome! I was chilling out, and I was feeling better by the mile. Moments later, I had to pull over so abruptly, other cyclists thought I had a mechanical problem. When they saw me aiming my camera across the highway at a bicycle built of hay bales, they did double-takes and stared at the artistic creation in awe. They'd have missed it had I not stopped.
Next thing I knew, there were lawn chairs full of farmers and ranchers at every driveway along the highway. Everyone had come out to the highway to clap, cheer and ring cowbells as we passed by. Riders likely had been cruising by for three hours, and these people were still cheering! For miles, I was cheered every mile or so. I've never experienced anything like that on any of my rides, and it was amazing and so motivating!
As I got close to town, I noticed first a decorated bicycle along a fence here or hanging from a sign there, one after another. As I crossed into Silver Cliff, it was a parade of bicycles on both sides of the street, decorating the road nearly completely lined with residents of all ages, cheering, clapping and ringing cowbells. Tears were running down my cheeks again. I'd almost finished the hardest tour I've ever done, and everyone was cheering for me! (For each and every rider, but when you're riding solo, and there are no other cyclists immediately ahead of or behind you, this feels so personal and so rewarding!)
I reached the intersection where the streets had been closed off to all traffic to make room and safe passage for the cyclists. Sporadic LOUD cheers I'd been hearing from at least two blocks away erupted once again as I passed through the barriers and over the neon chalk welcome covering the entire street. People were yelling directly at me. "Good job!" "Way to go!" "You did it!" "Welcome to Westcliffe!" "Congratulations!"
I couldn't stop crying. I was glad I had sunglasses on; I didn't want them to think I was sad. I had to pull over to call The Lizard, and I couldn't even hear if the phone was ringing. As the cheers died down, I found his voice, then immediately I lost it again as the crowd began cheering the next rider, then another, and then a group. I couldn’t hear a thing The Lizard was saying.
"I can't hear anything you're saying," I said into the phone. "I hope you can hear where I am. I'm going to ride on through. I hope I can find you."
I hung up and put the phone back in my jersey pocket, then began slowly drifting through the crowd toward the real finish line two blocks away. Before I passed the first intersection, The Lizard came right up to me on his bike, and together we rode beneath the finish line banner and got our photo snapped by the official photographer. I was immediately surrounded by neon orange T-shirt-clad volunteers hugging me and congratulating me. One handed me my official pin.
Then I saw our friends Mike and Kim, who had made the pilgrimage to Westcliffe to bring us home. More hugs and tears; then a call for everyone to move out of the way to make room for incoming cyclists.
We stashed our bikes in the corral, found our baggage, pulled out the shower accoutrements and the clothes I planned to change into, then found the shower trucks, which had lines of male cyclists at least 25 individuals long and only two female cyclists. I jumped into the first women's truck shower room posthaste.
Within two minutes, the stalls were filled, and a line of about 15 women had formed. I was done in about 10 minutes, and by that time, the shower truck owners were directing women in the second truck shower room, now also full with a short line of waiting women, to hurry if already showering or move to the first shower room if waiting so the second women's shower room could be converted to a men's shower.
This had happened to me three times during the week. I'd been in the "hurry" room they wanted to convert, so my speedy showers had to be even speedier. I was so thankful I hadn't chosen the conversion shower this time! I still had to hurry so others could get their own showers; some cyclists have buses and planes to catch the day Ride the Rockies finishes, so it's no time to doddle if you have time to doddle.
And doddle we did; the party tents were bigger than any I'd seen at any previous cycling events except the lunch tents during the MS-150. Flash Cadillac was playing in the dining tent, and cyclists who weren't in a hurry to catch their ride home were dancing to good old rock and roll in their cycling kits, sweaty and all.
The food tent was filled with the most amazing selection of homemade offerings... homemade pies, ice cream, cookies and brownies, homemade pastabalaya (jambalaya with a cyclist twist), homemade quinoa salad (which was sold out by the time I got there), homemade burgers with grass-fed beef, homemade toppings for fully loaded baked potatoes, and homemade Navajo fry bread, billed there as Fry Bread Tacos. Being from the southwest, this menu item particularly appealed to me, especially since they offered a veggie option. But I started out with the loaded veggie baked potato to get some carbs into my depleted system right away.
Following a relaxed and shady lunch in the grass, I ordered a Navajo fry bread platter, and we began making our way to the car. After loading up our bikes, we hit the road. I ate my fry bread covered with brown and black beans, tomatoes, black olives, lettuce, cheese and sour cream in the car as we drove back up across Hardscrabble Pass. The backlit sun angle now didn't make for appealing Sangre de Cristo range photos, and I hadn't taken any scenic photos during the ride because I was afraid of getting out of the saddle. So, no photos of the amazing views.
Westcliffe wanted to put itself on the map and tempt riders and their families into return trips.
I've most definitely been snagged. I will be back. And I will have photos to prove it next time.
UPDATE: Check out this sweet story in the Wet Mountain Tribute (Westcliffe's newspaper).