Day 1 of Ride the Rockies dawned clear and sunny in Grand Junction, Colorado, with the temperature headed to a crispy 88 degrees. I had met up with my friends from Chicago the night before and enjoyed a fun night, hoisting several beers to our new adventure. It all seemed quite promising.
Our first day was a 47-mile ride through the Colorado National Monument, with gentle switchbacks and stunning views galore. It was scenic! It was easy! I stopped to take pictures! We had a hearty breakfast mid-ride and still got back to Grand Junction with plenty of time to shower, relax, drink beer and grab an early dinner. If every day was like that, RTR was going to be a breeze.
Then came day 2:
The ride started out easy enough, a flat bike bath along a river and then gorgeous country roads snaking through wine country. (Who knew Colorado had a wine country? Put Grand Junction on the travel list.)
Then we turned right onto the entrance ramp to I-70. Yes, the interstate highway with the 75 mph speed limit. And no, the highway was not closed. Fortunately, there were plenty of RTR and state police vehicles to encourage drivers to get out of the right lane, away from us poor souls schlepping up the shoulder. But every now and then, a truck would fly by in the right lane, several feet away from us, complete with a vortex that threatened to suck us under it’s wheels. Thankfully, the stretch on I-70 was only a few miles, and we soon left the highway for a scenic spin along a river heading to Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded impressive.
As soon as we began the 20-mile climb, however, it became a ride of attrition as the sun rose higher and hotter and riders pulled off to the side. Some merely needed to catch their breath and hydrate, others waited for the SAG wagon to transport them to the top.
As a New Englander, I’m used to rolling hills – that is, hills with changing grades, including some flat areas and maybe even brief downhills along the way. Grand Mesa, however, was nothing like that. It was more like the hypotenuse of a right triangle – a steady incline. No level areas. I wanted to stop, rest, maybe eat a snack, but with that grade, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start again. I kept an eye on my Garmin and watched my speed drop from a slow but respectable 15 mph to 5 mph. Then 4 mph. I wondered at what speed I would simply topple over due to lack of forward motion. As I dipped into the 3 mph range, I started doing the math and realized that it would take me all day to do the 20-mile climb up Grand Mesa. Maybe even more than one day. I had visions of myself camped on the side of the road overnight, using my cycling jacket as a makeshift tent, creating a camp stove, MacGyver-like, from the contents of my bike bag. How many days could I survive on energy gels? At 3 miles per hour, I’d be lucky to get to the top of Grand Mesa before Thanksgiving.
I had lost all the friends I was riding with – some ahead, some behind – so I was left to plug along alone, one pedal stroke after another. I think I set a record for how slow one can go without falling over (2.7 mph!). I passed very few people, but lots of people passed me. A 70-year-old passed me, and then a 7-year-old passed me. People riding beach cruisers and mountain bikes passed me. A woman wearing flip-flops passed me. I was going so slowly that flies were able to land on me. There may have been vultures circling overhead, but I didn’t see them; I was unable to look more than three feet in front of my wheel.
After what seemed like several months, I finally made it to the top and was happy to reunite with my friend Holly, who had dropped me hours earlier. I scarfed down whatever food I could get my hands on, and then we rode down the other side of Grand Mesa, enjoying the scenery and the downhill grade. But the ride up had taken its toll. By the time we got to the finish at Hotchkiss, it was so late that even the beer tent had closed for the night. I took a shuttle to my hotel, grabbed some food and tumbled into bed, dreading the next day:
It turns out that the climb up Grand Mesa pretty much sums up my RTR experience – slow, hot, painful, exhausting, and long. By the end of Day 3, my butt was so sore I thought I’d never be able to sit in a bike saddle again. By the beginning of Day 4, I was wondering if it was possible to get my butt amputated. I resorted to wearing two pairs of shorts to get the double padding effect – helpful, but only to an extent. I’m sure I looked fabulous. Perhaps I’ll set a new bubble-butt fashion trend??
But while I was inflicting damage to my backside, the scenery in front of me was spectacular. I saw areas of Colorado I had never been to before. I passed through the widest alpine valley in the world. I inadvertently steered into the path of an oncoming tumbleweed. I saw pristine mountain lakes and rugged wilderness. I rode 13 miles on a dirt road up Cottonwood pass, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. I biked across the second-highest bridge in the world. The highlight of the ride came, appropriately enough, on the last day. We had to endure a 29-mile climb (I was cruising along at a speedy 3 mph! Woohoo!), but were rewarded with a spectacular view of the snow-capped Sangre De Cristo mountains in front of us, followed by an easy glide into the scenic town of Westcliff. As I approached the finish line, what must have been the entire population of the town was lining the street, applauding all the riders as we came in.
I had managed to ride the whole thing, every mile (even when, in retrospect, walking would have faster). 465 miles. 31,000 feet of climbing. Think of that the next time your pilot says, “We have leveled off at our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet.”
Although I was miserable for some of the ride – ok, much of the ride – I was glad to have done it. But, as I stated emphatically in the car on the way back from Westcliffe, I had no desire to do it again. Now that the weather has turned colder, though, and the heat and dehydration and exhaustion and butt pain are fading into the background, I find myself wondering what this year’s route will be and when lottery registration opens. Because I’m stupid like that.