The season’s organized rides are kicking into gear, filling the roads around Colorado with huge masses of cyclists and support staff. As I’ve picked up my own training efforts and mileage, often joining some of these groups, I’ve been reminded why I love some organized rides…and why they also make me crazy. You get to experience the best of the cycling community — the appreciation of beautiful surroundings, the strength we all use to get up and over the mountains, and inherent helpful nature of many cyclists. But you also get a reminder of the ugly — irritable traffic, rude riders, nasty weather spells and the everpresent portajohns.
During Ride The Rockies, all of these qualities get stretched over a week instead of a weekend day; the 75-mile day tour becomes a 500-plus-mile week of riding. We get to see beautiful and awe-inspiring parts of the Rockies while pushing ourselves over mountain passes, sometimes in driving rain and even snow. Each of the seven tours I’ve done, I’ve felt relieved, proud and ecstatic as I’ve crossed the finish line. I’ve also vowed that I’d never do it again, and yet each year I come back, drawn by the good and strangely amnesiatic about the ugly stuff. But it’s all there, and the only thing to remember is that the awesome ALWAYS eclipses the icky.
So here are some highlights, lowlights and a smattering odd instances from previous tours.
In 2005, Grand Mesa introduced me to many of the extremes we encounter — blazing heat, never-ending climbs, the internal struggle about whether to give up or not. That year, we had record temperatures when we left Grand Junction for the climb, and cyclists began falling off the sides of the road as the climb steepened, overtaxing the already large SAG/support vehicles patrolling the route. Heat exhaustion was the chief culprit, and organizers ended up bringing chartered buses up the mountain to cart off sick, sunburned and exhausted riders. I was sorely tempted to join them, but my addictive nature won out; coming up over the top of the Mesa, which was covered in SNOW, of all things, was a surreal experience. The only picture I have of that day was this accompanying shot by the professional photographers on the route. I was too afraid that if I got off my bike to snap my own shots, I would never get back on. Returning to Grand Mesa in 2010, however, we were treated to cool, rainy weather the entire ride up the mountain. Anything goes.
A note about SAGs: I know it’s popular to swear off support vehicles on these rides. We’re supposed to tough it out — the roads are even marked up with slogans like “Bury me with my bike before I SAG.” Some cyclists consider it a sign of shame or failure if we do. I must call major BS on that one. A little bit of ego and adrenaline are great to get you up a mountain, but if you are sick, injured, or so exhausted that you become a danger to yourself, other cyclists or vehicles, GET OFF YOUR BIKE and wait for some support. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not shameful, it’s responsible. After seven of these tours, I’ve witnessed heart attacks, crashes due to carelessness and fatigue, people throwing up on the side of the road or frantically drinking from Giardia-laden nearby streams so they can avoid calling it quits for the day. There’s a difference between a show of strength and a display of stupidity, so pay attention to your body and bike and do the right thing by both, whatever that may be.
Here is what I have learned about weather on Ride The Rockies: Anything goes, so be prepared. You can leave in the morning and it will be bright sunshine and 80 degrees, and end up being snowed on and freezing at 12,000 feet later in the day. In 2011, a ride up Berthoud Pass started in driving rain and fog, which turned to snow during the climb. At the top, cyclists were being treated for hypothermia or just trying to get their frozen hands unclenched from the handlebars. By the time I started the descent, it was sunny and the roads were dry. I’ve also ridden into Leadville soaked to the skin by scary, intense thunderstorms — and there’s nowhere to shelter or hide on that long, flat road. I’ve also found Montrose to be a massive wind magnet in the morning, and Independence Pass to be a completely bipolar weather experience in general. Carry gear to handle any extreme, and acquaint yourself with riding in wind, rain and snow before the ride, if possible.
AMAZING, GENEROUS PEOPLE
From the volunteers who staff the crowded aid stations and drive the SAG vehicles, to the cyclists who stop to help each other and lend gear when needed; the riders who have overcome great health obstacles or are riding well into their 70s and 80s — the people are the main highlight of this ride. I’ve met so many interesting, strong, determined, wacky people on these rides, and they’re probably why I forget the pain of each ride and come back for more. Some people highlights:
The man in his 70s who hauls his camping gear with him on an aging bike, steadfastly climbing mountain passes that best people less than half his age.
The families who ride together. From the father who pushes his daughter up and over the climbs on a modified tandem, to the Sandoval family who return each year with their generosity and good cheer (two of the brothers jumped off their bikes and changed out one of my bike tubes after I was flatted by a tack in 2011. It took all of two minutes) to the multiple generations riding together. It’s inspiring and gratifying to see.
Cyclists on modified bikes like hand-crank recumbents. These athletes may live with partial paralysis or amputations, and seeing them literally haul themselves over the mountain passes, day after day, is awesome — plain and simple. My own grumbling and whining about my body’s limitations seems completely childish.
Alternate transport. I occasionally see a few unicycles make their way up Independence Pass (top left photo), or cruisers outfitted with sound systems and everything but the kitchen sink attached to their panniers. (Note to people with sound systems: please don’t play ballads at high volume. It just doesn’t inspire on climbs.) Motorized bicycles also tend to elicit a few grumbles and calls of “Cheater!” My take: whatever gets you up and over is cool with me.
Volunteers. Many come back year after year, lending their time, their infinite patience and good cheer to the experience. From Gloria, a truly glorious woman you will find at most aid stations (pictured at top, second from left), to Frog, who is easily picked out by his clothing and car (you’ll see what I mean), these are special people who bring me back year after year. If I ever get to a point where I can’t ride for one reason or another, I’d like to think I could volunteer as well. I just don’t know if I have that infinite patience — it’s an art form.
The Pancake Couple (pictured at top, center). Flippin’ Flapjacks, baby — best legal way to fuel your climbs. My mood always turns for the better when I’ve got some pancakes and sausages in me, and that’s the one aid station ritual I will never give up.
THE OTHER KIND
Some riders are not so nice, and they’re thankfully in the extreme minority. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of not understanding cycling etiquette, which I get. Other times, it’s just being oblivious and childish. A few examples:
Cyclists who take over the roads as they travel through the host communities, snarling traffic and causing resentments among residents and other riders. People don’t realize we are guests in these communities, and the residents may take a dim view of inviting us back if we treat their roads and businesses with disrespect. Be a grown-up.
Inappropriate Guests. I remember being at an aid station in one of the towns, and seeing a cyclist pee in a neighboring yard because he didn’t want to deal with the long PortaJohn lines. Really? The lines are long for everyone; if you want a clear path to the bathroom, leave earlier in the morning. And be a grown-up.
Riders who are in such a hurry to keep their pace that they blast through stop signs, pass other cyclists on the right, and generally throw everyone into a panic around them. I recall an ambulance carrying a heart attack victim up Cottonwood Pass, but getting held up by cyclists who refused to alter their pace or route. One joked, “I can’t do it, captain! We must stay on course!” I wanted to chase him down and pound some sense into him, but — well, I was waiting on the side of the road for the ambulance to pass, like most everyone else. Be a grown-up.
Drivers who aren’t very happy to see us on their roads. There aren’t very many, thankfully, but it’s a good reason to be courteous and respectful when we ride. Some like to honk incessantly if they feel we’re holding them up; others get a little meaner, buzzing cyclists or — in an extreme case outside of Grand Junction, screaming at us while trying to push us off the road with a truck. (That particular driver was pulled over by cops, and they found she had a gun in the passenger seat and a really, really big chip on her shoulder.) Luckily, we have state troopers that accompany us from town to town, keeping us safe and helping navigate the route. If you are harassed by a driver, pull over and contact the police via the number we are given with our check-in materials. DON’T ENGAGE WITH ANGRY PEOPLE IN TWO-TON VEHICLES. You won’t win. Be a grown-up.
Inconsiderate Spitters. If you must spit, CHECK BEHIND YOU. Especially if there’s a head wind. And if you’re doing it to make a statement — like the cyclist at Elephant Rock this weekend who passed me on the right and then blew up when I called him on it — Be a grown-up.
THE SCENERY, THE SCENERY, THE SCENERY.
I have seen most of Colorado by bike (and very little by car) thanks to Ride The Rockies. And it never, ever gets old. There aren’t too many places in the world that are filled with such beautiful contrasts — from high desert with awesome red rock formations and desert flowers, to snow-covered mountain towns with gondolas and summer skiing; open farmland with Mennonite children selling fresh-made pies and breads, to the purple potatoes and sand dunes of the Alamosa area. I’ve ridden by foals being born, baby foxes chasing each other in turn-of-the-century barns, bears peeking out of the woods, cows blocking the roads; I’ve ridden by multiple wildfires, sometimes close enough that it seemed it would engulf us all (top, second from right); seen small avalanches roll off neighboring mountains; passed by a giant semi full of Dr. Pepper overturned and hanging off a steep mountain road; watched genuine cowboys rounding up their herds. There’s always something new, surprising, inspiring on this ride.
There’s also the human scenery — cyclists who wear everything from stuffed animals and shark fins on their helmets, to people riding in tutus, sequins and bikinis. The ride brings out a lot of interesting qualities in people. One of my favorite experiences was seeing a group of tired, sweaty, extremely strong women block a male cyclist from taking over one side of the women’s shower truck in the campgrounds. The shower truck, ladies, is the one place where our lines are shorter than the men’s because there are fewer of us taking part in the ride. And once we get a taste of shorter lines, we will not let it go, even if it means we have to take a few men down. And we will.
So when you make your way to Telluride next week, bring your gear, your strength, your camera, your wonder, your sense of humor and your generosity. And be prepared for the ride of your life.
— Ingrid Muller