19 June 2012

King of the Mountain

Day Three
Independence Pass
Carbondale to Leadville
88 miles, 14.5 hours
13 June 2012

Independence Pass

King of the Mountains Day. Today is one of two huge reasons The Lizard and I wanted to do this year's Ride the Rockies, the other being Trail Ridge Road. Both are huge climbs, and both are safer in a tour, with law enforcement monitoring riders and motorists alike and with 2,500 fellow and lady cyclists seeking the same goal.

My plan today was to start extremely early because I knew it would be a long day for me. The forecast didn't include a chance of showers, but in the mountains, storms aren't always predictable. It would be in my best interest to get up and over Independence Pass as quickly as possible, which isn't very fast at my pedaling speed. I would have about 50 miles of climbing before the day was through. I was in for a very long day.

This led me to be in the women's restroom inside the school at about 4:30, while most riders were still snoozing. A man came into the two-stall restroom while I was in there.


He went directly into the other stall and then kept calling out a woman's name. I was so shocked and alarmed, I was just trying to hurry and get out of there, but I finally answered, "I think this is the women's restroom." That silenced him. I wish my speed in exiting the facility could have transferred to my climb…

Just how cold was it in Aspen?

I began my slow ascent from Carbondale to Aspen in the dark. Signs point out the route along the way each day, but either someone thought it would be funny to change some signs around, or the wind played games with riders by removing a sign or two. The Lizard later reported to me many early riders had difficulty finding the proper route at the beginning.

Daly and Capitol

I wound up going off-route and traveling up Highway 82 nearly all the way to Basalt, completely alone in the dark with pre-rush hour traffic because I couldn't find the Rio Grande Bike Path where I was supposed to be riding.

Last week, on a crowded elevator, one of my co-workers had asked how far we would be pedaling in this year's Ride the Rockies.

"442 miles," I replied.

"There is a shortcut, isn't there?!?" he asked, incredulous, igniting a hearty round of laughter throughout the elevator.

Little did I know I'd find the shortcut and turn it into a longcut! I did an extra five miles today.

The extra mileage did not put me behind the pack, however. Once I found my way back onto the right route, it was nearly 20 minutes before another rider passed me. As always, within minutes, I was about 500th again and quickly falling in placement. But this is no race. There is no cut-off. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how many times I got passed. Only that I passed the Pass before lightning could make a pancake out of me.

I did worry immensely I may have missed the first rest stop, which features hotcakes. I would need those babies to get up and over Independence Pass. Then when I did reach the first rest stop, I don't know what came over me. I opted for two bananas and a handful of grapes instead of hotcakes.

sandy Rio Grande bike path

The Lizard caught up to me on the sandy section of the bike path, which proved a challenge for many riders. Later in the day, we were told the SAG drivers had to scrape a lot of riders up out of the sand. The SAG wagons were full throughout the day each time they passed me. My only frustration with the deep sand was hitting a partially buried grate. I didn't go down, but I struggled to stay upright.

Seeing The Lizard lifted my spirits immensely. He rode with me through most of the sand before taking off in breathtaking form. Watching him pedal away is like watching the Tour de France race up a mountain. Even on deep sand, he whipped his bike right up that hill!

Past Aspen, Agent Orange left the gem of the day: "Dig Deep. Death Before SAG." I would verbally echo that sentiment two times much, much later in the day when SAG drivers offered to relieve my misery.

where I came from

I've trained on the other side of Independence Pass more times than I can count, but I'd never been to the top. I'd pedaled this side just a few days after getting permission to get back on my bike after my March 23 wrist cast was removed, but again, I didn't make it to the top. (The top wasn't the goal that day; the goal was high elevation training, which I obtained, and I climbed three miles higher than I thought I could.)

One of my top tools of the day was knowing precisely how many miles I had to go to get to the top. I'd mastered the mind-over-absence-of-air determination during the previous two days of climbing. I had come to the realization that I can't make it up Pikes Peak in three hours, so I don't have to try to go non-stop anymore. I can stop as often and as long as I need to, as long as clouds don't build, because I'm doing this for fun now. Not to prepare me for Pikes Peak. Each time I stopped to breathe, I could look at my odometer and know exactly how many more miles of climb remained, and it allowed me to pace myself without running low on energy or drive. This gave me my second most important tool: positive attitude.

Nevertheless, the day wasn't without grief. On one of the most narrow sections of the climb, a rider went around me calling out, "Car back," which lets riders know they need to stay as far right as possible so the vehicle can pass. The car never materialized, and after the rider got around me, he turned to look back to see what happened to the vehicle, and his steering followed. He overcorrected and hit the edge of the pavement, a good two- to three-inch drop, and down he went. Fortunately, we weren't on the edge of a cliff, so he wasn't in any danger, but going down is never pleasant, and the embarrassment is magnified significantly in direct relation to the number of people who see you go down and multiplied substantially when members of the opposite gender are among the watchers.

I know because I've been there, done that. The guy was able to get right back up on his bike and take off like a sling shot, but I still felt really bad for him.

Independence Pass

Up in the Sky

Less than a mile from the summit, a girl in a pink jersey who had been steady in front of me, even though gaining distance on me ever so slowly, pulled over to the opposite side of the road and took off her helmet, the universal signal for "I need a SAG." Within minutes, she was rescued, but it nearly brought me to tears because she was so, so close. She'd worked so hard. I know nothing of her circumstances; she may have felt light-headed, or she may have become nauseated. She may not have had a choice. But because I know exactly how it feels to be cut off so close to the goal, my heart went out to her. I wished she could have made it to the top.

All sadness was erased as the second USA Pro Cycling Challenge flags and logo came into view. The wind was ripping across the summit, but the sky was cloudless, and I'd made it. I climbed all the way to the top of Independence Pass, and I'd done it all the way from Carbondale!!! I stopped to take a ton of photos of the logo on the road.

At the fourth rest stop of each day, a disc jockey plays motivational music and offers special edition T-shirts for winners of various contests such as trivia, singing, orange-tossing, etc. I've often arrived at the fourth stop of the day every time I've done Ride the Rockies just as the DJ offers a shirt for anyone who can sing the national anthem, and I'm never there in time to be in line to try to sing. I've always wanted to win a T-shirt just to be able to say I won it, especially if it was a hard day and I was out of breath, and I am willing to sing for the prize.

Independence Pass

Because today's ride is featured in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, today's T-shirt wasn't the antler-festooned white shirt being given out the rest of the week. Today's T-shirt was a special edition special edition, a red shirt with red polka dots, symbolic of the climber's jersey in all the big pro tours. A King of the Mountain souvenir. I wanted one as much as I'd wanted the summit. I wanted to wear one of those shirts to show the whole world I climbed Independence Pass.

I was standing right next to the DJ, because he was right next to the elevation sign, and I was trying to get a shot of the sign, when he announced he was going to play a patriotic song. The thrill of singing the national anthem atop Independence Pass surged through me and brought tears to my eyes because I was right there! In the right place at the right time, to live out yet another dream!!!

"I have three T-shirts to give away to the first three riders to show me military IDs," he announced.

Oh, man!!!

I am so glad those guys got their shirts, and so were they. But my heart sank. This was my chance, and he offered the wrong contest!

Proud Climber

Mountain Boy Park from Independence Pass

King for the Day!!!

King of the Mountain

I turned to take my photo so I could jump back on my bike and ended up watching the line of riders trying to get pictures in front of the sign doing different poses, from holding their bikes up over their heads with one hand to planking… Each to their own…

Lee Greenwood's famous patriotic song ended, and it was time for another contest. And I was still standing right there, next to the DJ. Maybe he would want someone to sing the national anthem now. Fingers crossed. Hope, hope, hope. Tingling from my head down to my toes.

"I have three special edition King of the Mountain T-shirts for the first three riders to show me a credit card ending with…" he announced before drawing a number out of extremely thin air. Such thin air, I couldn't remember my memorized credit card number and had to look before I shoved it in his face.

I got my shirt. Yes, you saw that right. There are no exclamation points. I have what I wanted, and I did sing the national anthem on my bike while descending Independence Pass, but winning a T-shirt because of a random credit card number doesn't seem quite as big a buzz as doing something meaningful to earn the prize. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy to own that shirt, and I may even attach a skirt one day so I can wear it to work, but the thrill of victory isn't quite what it could have been.

Smile!  You're on Snowcatcher Camera!

Mount Elbert Surprise

At Twin Lakes, I expected to ride into Leadville via the highway, a ride I've done more times than I can count. It's a slow, gradual climb to 10,200 feet, hampered by the typical lack of air, length of ride already completed and traffic whizzing by at speeds unattainable on a bicycle. Instead, we were all treated to a huge surprise.

The route took a sharp left at the turnoff to the Mount Elbert trailhead and climbed upward at about 20%, forcing some weary riders, including me, to dismount and walk their bikes to the top of the hill. I'd driven up this very road when I climbed Elbert, the highest peak in the state, back in 2002, and even my 4Runner choked on this road!

Mount Elbert and Mount Elbert Forebay

Next came a photogenic reservoir I didn't know existed, but I was too tired to get off the bike again to take a picture. I was afraid if I got off the bike, I wouldn't be able to get back on it again.

Then came the biggest surprise of the day, even though I'd read the route updates a week earlier. THIS was the dirt road the ride organizer had warned us about. Our very own Paris-Roubaix, Colorado-style, he'd written. Followed by several miles of freeze crack road equal in bumpiness to Mount Evans. I spent the next hour attempting to steer with my left hand only to protect my still sensitive right wrist. One of the volunteers warning riders about a gravel curve coming up must have radioed the SAGs when she saw my face because it wasn't much longer before the SAG wagon pulled up alongside me and offered to end my misery.

death before SAG, death before SAG, death before SAG...

"Death before SAG," I told her. She smiled, laughed, then shook her head.

"That's the spirit!" she said. "You can do it! But we're here to help if you need us."

Finally I made it to the miserable highway and miserable traffic, followed by a huge miserable cardboard sign in a driveway about halfway between Leadville and Twin Lakes.

"Bikers, get off our highways until you pay your fair share of taxes! Stay off our highways!!!"

If I'd had an ounce of energy left, I'd have parked the bike, knocked on their front door and attempted to educate the resident in the philosophy of homeless, vehicleless cyclists. Not that I believe for even a moment I am capable of changing a hate-filled, angry mind. I'll save that rant for another day. Suffice it to say, that sign kept me stewing all the way into Leadville.

new and improved method of tent sleeping

The turn to get to the high school where we'd be staying for the night is uphill. I didn't have any climbing left in me. I looked at the hill, glanced at the police officer directing traffic and attempting to encourage me to make that one last climb, then looked up at the hill again. I got off my bike and started walking up the hill. Perfectly timed, another SAG wagon pulled up alongside me and offered a ride. I was so beat, I couldn't even respond. I just looked at the driver with a blank stare and kept pushing my bike up, up, up.

In the distance, I saw The Lizard making his way down the hill. When he reached me, he took my bike, and I asked if that counted as a SAG. He said I was still moving on my own, so I'd made it on my own, and he took my bike the rest of the way up the hill while I dragged my feet as best I could.

The shower trucks were closed for the night. The food vendors had all left. The showers in the school sported mountain cold stream water, which I could barely tolerate in even an underarm sponge bath. The iPhone needed to be charged. The only outlet we could find was right outside a restroom door, which was convenient in one respect, but not the most fun place to spend the next two hours. The Lizard had realized how miserable this would be for me, and he had bought me a salmon sandwich and salad, so I didn't have to go without food. But I was sweaty and grumpy. I fell asleep on the floor, leaning against the wall, while the phone charged.

our daily charge


  1. You have the most amazing adventures!

  2. so glad you got that t-shirt even if it was a random number that got it, and dandilions are my own favourite flower so I love the roadside bunch you snapped!

  3. You were meant to have that shirt. And you DESERVE it! What an epic post.

    20%? Seriously? Who could ride that? And that gravel trail looks awfully gnarly.

    Just think - you had 5 miles under your belt that many other riders didn't have that day. And you STILL made it up the pass. AND to the end of the stage. I can't tell you how much I admire your determination and persistence and attitude and courage.

    Good work!

  4. What an adventure. Thanks for sharing. You brought back memories of the week long Oklahoma Freewheel rides of years ago.


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