Monday, July 20, 2009

Central Colorado

Steamboat Springs was shrouded in thick fog when I limped outside at 5:58 a.m. The thought of sitting on my bike and turning pedals still made me cringe, so I walked my bike over to the bagel shop two blocks away. I had scouted out its hours the night before, so I was bewildered to find it was still closed. Closer inspection of the sign revealed it opened at 6 on weekdays, but not until 6:3o on Saturdays. It was Saturday. I stared longingly inside the dark window, contemplating just waiting a half hour for warm carbohydrates and coffee. But the little voice of guilt inside my head told me that if I didn't leave Steamboat right then, I was never going to.

The first miles out of the sleepy city left me in tears. I was gnawing on a Snickers bar - an unsatisfying sugar breakfast to supplement my dangerously undercaffinated blood - and my left knee hurt, it just hurt. Warm droplets streamed down my face but it didn't matter because the fog covered my whole body in dew. At least the commuters wouldn't be able to tell I was crying. But I had resolved to at least try to make it out of Steamboat. I couldn't help but draw parallels to Geoff, my now-ex-boyfriend, who really struggled as he was leaving Steamboat Springs last year in the Great Divide Race. He went back to Steamboat that day, tried to leave again the next day, and then quit the next town over, in Kremmling. I did not want to quit in Kremmling. But I wondered if I would even make it there.

The first climb of the day, Lynx Pass, was gradual with a good road, but I had to soft-pedal or walk up the first couple of miles. Every time I tried to push hard, sharp streaks of pain would push back. But as I gained elevation, my stiff knee began to loosen. It felt like the bad blood, the fluid, or whatever was causing it to swell was beginning to flush away. And as I began the descent, the joint was still sore but not unworkably stiff. The chains had been removed.

With my body happy, and my bike finally happy, I felt a new rush of excitement as I descended to the highway crossing and set out for the next rolling climb. A half mile down the dirt road, I come upon Dave Nice, who was waiting for me with a camera and a can of Pepsi. He had been traveling the Great Divide south to north from New Mexico, and I thought he was still on the route. He told me he ended his ride several days before, but he was convalescing at his parents' house, who just happened to live a few miles away, right on the route. He said he had been meeting nearly everyone as they passed through. He offered to ride with me and we forded a deep creek. Dave actually knew about a nice shallow sandbar across it, but didn't tell me about it because that would constitute outside navigational help, which is against the race rules. So after I flailed around with my bike over my shoulder in the thigh-deep water, he crossed ankle deep, laughing the whole time. We slogged through multiple patches of unrideable mud and finally ended up at his parents' house, a little oasis of kindness, where his grandma gave me Spanish rice and brownies. I rubbed ointment on my knee and pronounced myself healed.

Shortly after leaving Dave's house, I dropped down an incredibly steep, scenic road to a remote crossing of the Colorado River. I lingered at the bridge for a few minutes, watching rafts float by and thinking that if I had a raft, I could just float all the way to Mexico. The thought made me laugh at loud. That would be way too easy. I began the next steep climb with surprisingly fresh knees, strengthened by my new perspective on pain.

I gained a couple thousand feet out of the valley and then dropped right back down to the river at the Kremmling cutoff. I had been listening to my iPod since I left Radium, random shuffle, and "Wake Up" by Arcade Fire was playing when I crossed the highway. That intersection is the point where racers must decide whether to continue straight, to Kremmling, or turn right and follow the Colorado River to points unknown. Without even hesitating, I hung a hard right just as Arcade Fire was belting out the lyrics, "We’re just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust. I guess we’ll just have to adjust." My adrenaline surged and my muscles swelled. Even if it was just by yards, I had surpassed the point where Geoff ended his race last year. And we've stayed on good terms since the breakup, but I couldn't help myself. With the exception of the final pedal strokes into the border, it was the most satisfying moment of my entire trip.


I pushed late into Silverthorne and left relatively late the next morning. I was caught off guard by the sheer human traffic of the area - solid I-70 mountain town territory - and tried to temper my culture shock among throngs of Sunday walkers, hikers and recreational cyclists on their way to quaint little coffee shops and book stores. The route all the way to Breckenridge follows mostly bike paths, and also appears to intersect a heavily used road-touring route. A German couple on bicycles bulging with four loaded panniers and a BOB trailer flagged me down and grilled me in broken English about the road into Silverthorne. I couldn't understand their barrage of questions and mumbled "bike path" before slipping away.

I fought may way through wildlife-viewing crowds in Frisco only to meet the backside of a large group of walkers. As I wove through the first several dozen, I noticed many of them were wearing pink and carrying signs in support of survivors. It was a breast cancer walk. "You guys rock," I shouted as I slipped by one group. "Way to go," I said to another. I was wearing a pink breast cancer jersey myself and felt like I fit right in. But then a mile went by. Then two. And the path-blocking crowds didn't abate, they got thicker. My "you rocks" turned into guiltily terse "on your lefts," which was a pointless thing to say because nobody ever actually moved. I bounced off curbs and over grassy patches as slowly as I could handle the bike, but usually I had to stop and jog around the walkers. I felt so frustrated but I couldn't let myself be grumpy about it because it was a breast cancer walk, and these people were doing good, and I was just a non-local riding a dumb bike and I didn't deserve to be there.

The breast cancer walk ended up stretching all the way to Breckenridge, more than eight miles clogged with people. It felt so strange to be locked in a population center, which, I guess if you're going to cross an entire country, you're probably eventually going to have to go through at least one. But it was such a different feeling from the quiet solitude of the rest of the route.

The crowds continued up Boreas Pass, but they were mountain bikers, most of whom were faster than me, so at least they weren't slowing me down. The climb was the perfect combination of long and gradual; I motored along the cliffside views of Breckenridge and alpine meadows, my mood lightening with the air. It was my first time in the race over 11,000 feet - 11,400 feet to be exact - and that felt huge, coming from a cycling background that usually sticks close to sea level.

The descent off Boreas was gravelly and rough and I stayed right behind two guys on souped-up full-suspension bikes. The strong climb and swift descent were fueling almost unprecedented energy levels. I was approaching that fleeting but ideal state of being that I like to call "untouchable."

Right on schedule, thunderstorms moved in during the afternoon. I did not care. I smiled, put on my rain jacket and pants, and pedaled along the open high country as hail pelted down.

Climbs couldn't slow me. Descents couldn't faze me. I stopped in Hartsel for "rocket fuel" (ice cream sandwich and Pepsi) that I didn't even need, almost out of habit. As I was cramming the calories through a sled-dog-like excitement to just go, go, go, a couple of cyclists approached me. They said they were with a vehicle-supported group that was touring cross country to raise money for affordable housing. As we talked about our respective trips, one told me, "I can understand the mileage you're doing, but what I can't understand is not taking any rest days. How can you survive on no rest?"

I just shrugged, because I didn't know how to answer that question. But the thing I had learned since leaving Rawlins is that rest demands more rest, and movement demands more movement, and balancing the two is how we mere mortals can conquer the Divide.

Since I left Silverthorne somewhat late in the morning, I had just assumed that I wouldn't reach Salida, 115 miles away, until well after dark. But by the final climb, my body was firing so efficiently that I motored up with time to spare. I crested 10,000 feet elevation, and proceeded to lose 3,000 feet on the most jaw-dropping descent of the entire trip. The narrow road wrapped around sandstone outcroppings and cut through red-sand slopes. Without even warning, Colorado had dropped me in the Southwest, but it was a Southwest I had never before experienced - with 14,000-foot monsters surrounding hills peppered with juniper and pinion. And above all that, streams of sunlight filtered through the rain, casting heavenly beams over the foothills. As for me, I was in near-freefall, letting sheer gravity pull me toward the glistening valley below. I was so glad I had pedaled fast enough to experience it at that moment, in that light.

I rolled into Salida, grabbed a super-cheap motel room (I love the Southwest), did my most efficient stock-up ever at the 7-11, and settled into a comfy booth at a Mexican restaurant, where the waiter brought me at least 2,500 calories worth of fajitas, chips, beans, rice and root beer. I perused my maps as I wolfed it down, marveling at how great I felt, how revved up I was to keep moving, how perfectly the whole day - despite minor people traffic setbacks - had come together. I had biked 115 miles and three passes and I didn't even feel tired. I was a Divide racer at last.

P.S. The Juneau Empire did a story on my Tour Divide ride (I didn't write it). You can read it here.