01 March 2010

The Challenge

Columbine on the Grand Mesa20 June 2005
Ride the Rockies, Day 2
Grand Mesa
66.5 miles

I'm sweaty and sticky, and my hand is sticking to the paper as I write. I'm in Delta, sitting beneath the rain fly while it's about 96 degrees. I'm burned and spent. My back hurts. My knee hurts. But I did it. I climbed the Grand Mesa.

While I was riding yesterday, I came up with a workable plan for today. I knew I couldn't do 91 miles, no matter what. I'd be lucky to pull 70.

So I decided to ask the Lizard if he would drop me off at the second rest stop, at Mile 26, at the start of the climb. I'd miss out on the interstate and Orchard Mesa, but I can do Orchard Mesa with the Lizard anytime. He said it's pretty in the fall.

If I shaved off the flats, I would have a better chance of finishing the ride. I'd hopefully avoid the humiliation and discouragement of sagging on the climb, sagging on the second day, of giving up a goal I've maintained for a long, long time.

I wanted this mountain. Don't get me wrong. I want to finish the entire ride. But today was the only day I wasn't sure I could finish.

Monarch Pass could be difficult. But if I stop to stretch and rejuvenate, I know I can make it. I had no such confidence in today's climb, even starting at the bottom.

I also have wanted to do this very ride since the Lizard and I first began dating. He's been priming me for this ride since about May of last year. He wanted to stash a car in Delta, then start from the I-70 turnoff, leaving a car there. We'd ride up and over, then collect the second car afterward.

We never got to do it. I ride too slow for us to safely complete such an endeavor during the monsoon season, and by the time thunder had rolled for the last time, I was on a collision course with eminent surgery and couldn't pedal around the block, much less up a mountain.

When this year's RtR route was announced, it seemed the perfect way to accomplish the climb, plus get myself literally back in the saddle.

So, the Lizard dropped me, armed with my 2005 RTR jersey and US Postal shorts (my rabbit's foot), off at Aid Station #2 at 6 a.m. Three other riders were doing the same thing, so I deduced my idea is brilliant.

The other riders were taking a while to get ready, and I was antsy to get moving, so I took off alone. I didn't see another soul (on a bike) until the next rest stop, where another group of riders was preparing to start their ride.

Before the sun began painting the crest of the canyon walls radiant gold, three cattle trucks passed me. Nothing wakes you up quite like the aroma of pastures first thing in the morning!

Later, while I was inside the white line in an attempt to avoid rumble strips, an old rusty white pickup swept around the curve ahead of me, just slightly straddling the striped yellow line. I pointed my bike toward the rumble strips and looked briefly for the line of least resistance but had to suddenly dive into the rough shoulder like a kid cherry bombing into a pool when a compact car swung around the curve in the act of passing the slow-moving truck, coming straight at me in "my" lane. I didn't mean for it to happen, but a naughty word escaped my lips.

Climb Away!I was passed several times during the stretch between the third and fourth rest stops. I also saw quite a few more people starting their rides at various pullouts and intersections. No more berating myself for "cheating." THIS was cheating! Unless these riders had surgery after about December.

Actually, I realize we all have our own personal goals. Mine was the climb. For these people, it may have been half the climb, it may have been to show off their jerseys, it may have been 45 mph on the 36-mile descent. I wish them tailwinds and success in their endeavors.

The Lizard wasn't kidding when he described 19 of the miles as "relentless." I'd top what looked like a hill, expecting to coast or spin for a minute or two, but I couldn't get the speedometer up above 6 mph. I was moving slow enough to identify wildflowers, dead animals and discarded beverage bottles along the way. Even at my worst, on the switchbacks, my 3.2 mph was better than my daughter's 2.4 mph during the Buena Vista Bike Fest. The switchbacks got lots of riders. The SAG vehicles were full every time they went by.

Ride literature instructed us to find a comfortable gear and stay in it. Ha! There is no such gear!!!

At the fourth rest stop, I sipped my melted chocolate caramel Triple Threat Power Bar. No complaints. I didn't have the energy to chew.

Near the fifth rest stop, a whole three miles later, indicative of the grade on that portion of the ride, I was bordering exuberance because I finally knew I could make it. I had two miles of climb to go. Success was within my reach!

Then I overheard a couple of other riders discussing the remaining seven miles. SEVEN miles?!?!? I looked at the map. Where did I get 26 miles??? This was indeed a 31-mile climb.

I had paced myself very carefully. Mount Evans from Idaho Springs is 28 miles. I have not been able to do that ride since my surgery. But I knew I could do 28 miles of climb at altitude because I have done it numerous times. I took this ride the same way I would have taken Mount Evans, and the elevation wasn't as high. This was two miles less than Evans, or so I mistakenly thought. I had done all but two miles, and I knew I could finish.

Now I felt as though all the air had been released from my bubble of joy, as well as my lungs. I sat down to cry. I popped Advil and cried some more. I ate a banana, and I cried some more.

I felt like a limp, wet washcloth. I didn't have anything left inside me to make another seven miles. I would have to SAG. I had failed.

A volunteer riding medic took the seat next to me to determine if I was okay. I told him I thought I had only two miles to go, but it was actually seven more miles.

"So take it two miles at a time," he said. He told me he doesn't ride often, he wasn't prepared for this kind of effort, and he was quite discouraged, too. He said when he got back on his bike, he was going to pretend like he was starting from Mile 1.

As I digested that thought, the Lizard appeared. His smile tickled my insides, but also made the tears gush again. He'd gone back to the start and pedaled all the way up, and now he'd caught me, and I was in no mental state to continue. He was working on a personal speed ascent record, but he abandoned his design in order to coach and coax me up that final seven miles. He encouraged me, tried to make me laugh, pointed out how many people had given up, massaged my back and even rode alongside me to give me a gentle push on the remaining steep parts.

The Lizard atop the Grand MesaAt the top, he hugged me, took my picture, posed for me and bought me a turkey croissant and a slice of homemade pumpkin bread. After making sure I'd be able to proceed on my own, he motored off to enjoy the screaming downhill.

We later heard that tour director Paul Balaguer received many "tattletale" calls that day when riders detoured at Highway 50 instead of ascending the Grand Mesa.

"You're big boys and girls," he said. "You don't need my permission to go off route."

We also learned the SAG vehicles picked up a record 500 riders on the Mesa. That doesn't include the people with private SAG vehicles. Or the ones who didn't try at all.

Me atop the Grand MesaI averaged 5.6 miles on the way up and 11.1 for the day. My fastest speed was 37.5. I gained 6,100 feet in elevation. And then lost it on the descent! I completed 66.5 miles in 6.5 hours.

The Lizard’s first question when he found me in Delta was if I'd seen Mounts Lamborn and Gunnison.

"Yeah, Babe! You bet! At 35 mph on rough roads with cattleguards to negotiate, yes, I drank in the beauty of your prominence favorites!"

Of course, the Lizard descended a heck of a lot faster than me and managed to soak up the view of the surrounding landscape. Animal!

That was one mean climb.


  1. That columbine/biking photo took my breath away! Good for you doing this very tough ride. I'd be lost without my bike. :)

  2. I am SO excited to hear we have cycling in common, too! Just ten more days, and I can begin riding to work again at least a couple of times a week!


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