31 August 2010

Lanterne Rouge

Start Line Nerves, photo by The Lizard
I was swept half a mile from the summit of Pikes Peak. This was the first time I've ever been the Lanterne Rouge. I didn't make the summit cutoff. I'm the only rider who got swept without reaching the summit.

The literal silver lining is that because I went down in the broom wagon, I didn't have to pay for the commercial summit shuttle. And yes, I'd planned to. I had absolutely no interest in contending with that wind on a descent.

Pikes Peak Sunrise from Garden of the GodsWe were told the tundra temperature was 40 degrees and the wind was 30 mph.

I had the right clothing. My legs got a little chilled twice, but I stayed pretty comfy most of the ride.

But that wind! That brutal enemy did me in.

On the bright side, we had no thunderstorms. The day was beautiful. Except for the wind. We also had no biting flies, which is what I remember best about the day I drove to the summit some 12 or so years ago. I guess flies can't stomach that kind of wind.

Riders had to reach Glen Cove by 12:30 to attempt the summit. So I set my goal for 11:30. I reached Glen Cove at 11:18. Making the summit wasn't a guarantee yet. I had only until 2:30. I calculated how many miles per hour I had to ride all the rest of the way to make it to the top by cutoff. I couldn't hold that speed in the headwind.

On one of our favorite movies, "Race Across the Sky," which tells the story of Lance Armstrong beating David Weins in the 2009 Leadville 100, narrator Bob Roll comments about riders pushing too hard in a really big ride. "When you blow to the moon," he says, "you never come back."

mule deer on Mount Evans tundraI pushed. I wanted this moon-like summit. Pikes Peak by bike was a ten-year goal, but bikes had not been allowed, and I wasn't sure I'd get another chance. I wasn't sure the ride would ever be offered again. Plus, there was this alluring nostalgic tickle. I climbed my first and most difficult 14er when I was 40. Now I'm 50. I was one of 48 women in the first Pikes Peak hill climb ever, and I wanted this special 14er to commemorate 10 years of peakbagging and half a century of keeping on keeping on. Even if I was the 48th woman to the top. Pikes Peak by bike would be the hardest ride I'd ever done in my life. If I could make it to the top.

I blew, in Bob Roll's terminology, about four miles from the summit. I had nothing left. But I kept going. I didn't turn back. I kept pushing, even though the clock was ticking and my chances were growing slimmer by the pedal stroke. Or by the gust. Gusts powerful enough to knock riders off their bikes.

At 2:20, I could see the end. One more switchback. About two and a half stories. I had it. I knew I could make it. I wondered if they would sweep me if I was that close.

ptarmigan on Mount Evans tundraYes.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to beg. The broom wagon driver said he'd already sent all the rest of the volunteers home. There were no more SAG wagons. There was no medical staff. There was no more food, oxygen or bike maintenance on the summit if I had a problem.

I've done enough volunteer work in my life that I know how it feels when you plan on giving a whole day and someone asks you to give more. Ride sweepers have the longest day of all ride volunteers, and this sweeper just happened to be the ride director. He'd done his time. He'd already had a long day. I was so close, but I couldn't ask him to give more than he'd already given. Later I learned he and his co-organizer invested their own funds in pulling off this ride because registration wasn't as successful as they had hoped. Closing Pikes Peak to automobiles on a summer weekend day is very, very expensive. Insuring an event like this is a bill I'd never want to have to cover.

He asked if I would call it a day. I briefly hesitated, then wordlessly surrendered my bike to put on the roof of the broom wagon. I could have melted right there on the road. I almost didn't have the strength to get into the vehicle. My emotions were absolutely shot.

I always cry during the cutoff scene in Race Across the Sky. Three men who gave it their best shot are shown getting their event armbands cut because they didn't make the first checkpoint in the allotted time. Their race was over. I've always been intimidated by races with time limits because it seemed like it would hurt so much to be cut off after training so hard. And coming so close.

marmot on Mount Evans tundraAnd now I've lived it in real life.

I'd known from the day I signed up for this ride I might not make it to the top. I wasn't sure I could make the checkpoints in time.

A lot of riders turned back when they hit the two-mile dirt section of the road. A lot of riders turned back at Glen Cove. I made the choice to keep going at Glen Cove because I believed I could make it. I even designed a snowflake in my head when I learned I was the Lanterne Rouge, or the last rider. Everyone behind me had turned back. They don't give badges for being last, but I could certainly make something special to show I'd made it up the mountain in my most difficult ride ever.

Even though the wind was battering me, I still kept hoping I would make it. I never stopped believing. I kept pushing, even when everything in my body was spent.

I may have to buy this Sundances Images picture.  Dig that smile!The blow was tremendously crushing. It's the only time I've ever been swept. And yet, I know I've done something Lance, Levi, Contador and the Schleck brothers have never done. I'm trying really hard to be proud. Or at least satisfied.

Even though I didn't make it all the way to the top, I did my best. I gave it my all. I didn't give up, and I didn't turn back.

I guess it's somewhat like raising troubled adoptive kids who run away before you finish trying to teach them the things they need to know. You spend a while feeling like a failure, and then one day, suddenly it feels good. You know from the deepest caverns within your heart you did your best. And you smile at the memories.

Here's to hoping my Pikes Peak memories will one day bring smiles.

PS: I was 50-60 vertical feet shy of Pikes Peak's 14,110 altitude. The following day, I climbed 60 flights of stairs (44 flights non-stop) for an altitude gain of approximately 730 feet. So I've climbed my 14er. I just didn't do it in 7.5 hours.tundra on Humboldt Peak


  1. ooooooooMG, so close. I did not understand everything, but keep smiling and your SISU :)

  2. You were awesome! You have unmatched perseverance! Cutoff, schmutoff... you now know you can make the summit. Next year will be a slam dunk. Sunday's demons were the time bandits, and I think they were in cahoots with the mountain gods.

  3. Adding wind to the climbing on a mountain like that one must have doubled or tripled how hard it was. I'm glad that you kept going. Quitting can be the easiest thing to do in a tough physical endeavor - but you didn't succumb to temptation!

    Oh my, I actually can't believe that the wagon didn't let you finish when you were so close. But, you showed your class by not fighting the director and looking at the long day from his perspective.

    Sometimes, much later, I think that the "failures" (or unplanned turns of events) shape me more than the successes. From your narrative, that may be the case for you when you look back at your ride.

    BTW, your photos are stunning.

  4. Oh I'm so sorry that you didn't quite make it and that you were so very close too. :( I'm so impressed with all you've done! And those pictures! Gorgeous!!!!

  5. We visited Colorado a few years ago and Pikes Peak was one of my favorite destinations. You should be SOOO proud of yourself - getting to the summit by car was difficult enough winding our way up the mountain, I cannot imagine trying to do it by bike. And the wind - enough said! :)

  6. OMG, I have goose bumps and tears for you. You are truly amazing and I am in total awe! Congratulations for making it as far as you did before they cut you off!!!

  7. Sending up prayer flags to the wind gods right now... you deserve a righteous tailwind, no bugs, bomber weather and a cheering squad this year.

    I'm still horrified at the 'missing hour'. Dig deep, Sistah. I'll be thinking of you. All freakin' day.


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