Saturday, July 18, 2009

Northern Colorado

The first real heat of the trip soaked into my skin as I rolled out of Rawlins at 12:30 p.m. The late hour felt like a huge setback, and I was grumpy about the fact that Steamboat Springs - 130 miles away - was now at an impossible distance to reach in a day. I was going to have to spend a night out with my bandaged freewheel and jerry-rigged brakes before I could hit up a "real" bike shop for the extensive repairs I needed. The last climbs out of Wyoming were huge and the hours moved too quickly. I resolved to ride late into the night to put myself as close to Steamboat as possible, but my heart wasn't in it. The 18-hour stop in Rawlins had initiated some kind of shutdown.

Divide racing is a fascinating example of humans turning themselves into machines by separating themselves from their own humanity. We ignore biological pleadings and powerful emotions for the simple, almost inhumane act of forward motion. Turning pedals becomes a mindless act and our bodies shift into automatic mode. I could out my head down and power up climbs without even making a decision to do so, all day long, but at the end of the night, faced with the chores of eating dinner, choosing my calories for the next day, washing my clothes and brushing my teeth, I'd be completely bewildered by the complexity of it all. Shifting back into "normal person" mode was becoming harder every day. But after 18 hours in Rawlins, with three big meals, 10 hours of sleep and several hours of intellectual collaboration with other humans, I had already started to adjust back to life on the other side. And, leaving Rawlins, I didn't want to be a Divide racer any more. I wanted to be a normal human.

The instant consequence of this desire was a powerful loneliness. I crossed the border into Slater, Colorado, and began climbing up the impossibly loose gravel of a ranch road right at sunset. My back wheel spun out every time I stood up from the saddle. The steeper pitches forced me to walk, and as I walked, the silence was maddening. I could see clouds building in the dusky sky, and sprinkles of rain were starting to fall. "Man, screw getting close to Steamboat," I thought. "I'm just going to camp."But all of the trees surrounding me were peppered with "No trespassing" signs. A sign at a cattle guard warned that private property continued for at least six miles. I looked out across the canyon, almost desperate just to see a porch light, just some evidence of humanity in the distance, but all I could see were the silhouettes of tree tops and the dim glow of my headlamp fading into a black expanse.

I churned up the hill for several more miles when I finally did see the warm glow of artificial light. I rounded a bend and saw a several log buildings; it looked like a lodge. Lights were on inside the largest building, intensely warm and inviting against the rainy, lonely night. I stopped pedaling and lingered for a few minutes, debating whether I wanted to bother whoever was inside for shelter I didn't really need. It was 10:30 at night. I shook my head and started up the road. I had pedaled about 50 yards when I head a voice say, "Jill?"

I turned my bike around and approached a woman standing at the door. "You hungry?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Are you hungry?" she repeated, but before I had a chance to answer, said, "Of course you're hungry. What kind of question is that? Come in!"

Wide-eyed and confused, I parked my bike and stumbled in the door as the woman beckoned me toward the kitchen. She placed a huge bowl of fruit in front of me - grapes, cherries, watermelon and mango. "I just cut that for you," she said of the mango. "It's a little soft, but they're better that way."

"How do you know who I am?" I finally asked.

The woman looked at me with a smirk as though she were both surprised at my ignorance and happy about her surprise. "Tour Divide!" she said. "I've been watching you all day. I thought you were never going to leave Rawlins."

"Neither did I," I said.

"I almost missed you, too," she said. "I just updated the site and saw your dot right on top of here, and I looked out the window and saw your headlight."

"Wow," I said. "I'm glad you did."

The woman told me her name was Kirsten. She ran the Brush Mountain Lodge and she was a huge fan of the race. She had helped out other racers in front of me, providing them with fresh fruit, meals and a bed if they needed it. She whipped up a quesedilla and chips to go with the fruit, a big glass of water and hot tea. We sat down to check out the Tour Divide standings.

"Did you know Michael Jackson died?" she asked.

I smiled. "No. No I did not."

She shook her head. "That must be so cool, really being out there like that."

She set me up in a room and asked me what time I wanted breakfast. "Um, maybe 7 a.m.?" I said.

"That sounds great to me. Those other guys all wanted breakfast at 4," she said.

I laughed. "Welcome to mid-pack! It only gets better from here."

Kirsten, just as promised, greeted me at 7 a.m. with a huge veggie omelet, toast, and coffee to my heart's desire. I was never in the mood to make morning stops, so that was actually the only hot breakfast I ate in my entire trip. It was amazing. I set out in light rain for the first pass of the day and my first foray over 10,000 feet, the Watershed Divide.

The fog thickened and the rain grew heavier as I climbed. I crested the pass in a near gray-out and started down the steep descent, where rivers of mud flowed between basketball-sized boulders. It was a hard descent to pick a good line, made even harder by the wheel-sucking mud that would have stopped my bike altogether if I wasn't plummeting down a 15-percent grade. The mud scared me more than gravity and I took it fast, pressing my butt deep into my seatpost bag, bouncing my tires of rocks and generally hanging on faith to get me down. I applied the brakes hard on a regular basis, until, at a pivotal moment as I was bouncing over a particularly gnarly rock garden, I pulled the brake levers all the way down and absolutely nothing happened.

In a split second I pulled one more time and then panicked, leaning hard to the left and bashing my left knee against a sharp rock as I skidded through a geyser of mud to a painful stop. My shoulder burned and my knee was screaming, so forcefully I was sure I could hear it, and I had to spend several minutes lying head down in the mud until I could hear something besides audible pain. When I finally stood up, the rain had resumed echoing loudly in my helmet and my knee had calmed down a bit. I tried bending it and realized it felt stiff but not broken. My rainpants had torn and I could see blood seeping through my leg warmers, but I didn't quite yet dare pull them up to inspect the damage.

I checked my brake pads. The brand new front pads that I had just barely installed the day before had worn to medal. The brake rotor and even hub were coated in a sticky black goo that I can only assume used to be the pads. They had completely disintegrated. The rear pads were worn to almost nothing, but there was a little life left in those. I adjusted the dials to their maximum setting and was able to get the back brakes to catch again, but the situation was precarious at best. I had at least six more miles of that nasty rocky descent followed by a dozen or so more miles of graded gravel descent before I finally hit pavement. I thought about walking. But the rain fell harder, the mud became stickier, my knee throbbed painfully, and I just wanted to be somewhere else. I decided to ride, said a little prayer, and held on.

By the time I reached the paved sanctuary of Clark, Colorado, I could add mild hypothermia to my list of ailments. I had been riding the back brake and inching down the route for nearly two hours, exerting almost no heat as driving rain soaked me to the bone. I stopped outside the Clark store and held a garden hose over my body like a showerhead, trying to wash away a thick, full-body layer of mud just so I could walk in the door. Inside, I ordered a big burrito and a bottomless cup of coffee, and huddled in the corner until I felt warm and brave enough to pull up my leg warmers. My knee cap was covered in road rash and fairly swollen, but not yet black and blue. It seemed like a goose egg of some sort - not horrible - but it still ached and seemed to stiffen even further as my body warmed. I could barely walk into the bathroom. "I'm totally toast," I thought. "I'll be lucky to make it to Steamboat."

Steamboat was only 20 miles away, mostly paved and mostly downhill. I couldn't face it. I just couldn't face it. It's hard to really describe how shattered I felt as I sat in the Clark store. I wasn't yet contemplating the logistics of quitting, but I couldn't fathom how I was going to ride into Steamboat. Finally, a woman came up to me with a towel and asked me if I wouldn't mind mopping up the puddles beneath me. I was terribly embarrassed, and - amusing to me now - couldn't face spending any more time in that store. Where courage fails, humiliation triumphs. I was finally back on the road, soft-pedaling into Steamboat.

By the time I reached town, it was 4 p.m. I hadn't realized how late it had gotten. I rushed to Orange Peel bike shop and asked them if they could help me. The mechanic asked if he could pencil me in for the following Wednesday. "Um," I said, my voice breaking, "I'm just passing through."

"Oh," he said. "Are you with the Tour Divide?" I nodded forlornly. He beckoned another mechanic over and they immediately lifted my bike onto a stand. Within minutes they were pulling off my bags as I filled out a form of the myriad of things I wanted done, in order of importance, knowing they only had until 6 p.m. to work on my bike: new brake caliper, rotor and pads, new freewheel, new cassette and chain, new chain rings, new cables and housing, and a new bike computer (my old one broke in the crash). I limped over to a natural foods store to stock up and assess whether I could continue on. I had only covered about 50 miles that day, but my bike was held up until at least 6 and my knee was throbbing. I finally decided it would be best just to call the day a loss and hope things improved in the morning.


  1. Ahhh, the fateful day. Well we know how this story ends though :).

    Wow, Kirsten is an awesome person.

    BTW, you've got some kick ass co-workers.

    BTW#2, Jill, you keep on calling it you freewheel whereby it really is your freehub. A freewheel is a cheapy version of your setup.

  2. Great post! After a day like that, how did you find the strength or motivation to go on?

  3. Amazing... and wonderfully recorded here. There's a special place in heaven for people like Kirsten, I'm thinking!

  4. Quoted from Jakub "BTW#2, Jill, you keep on calling it you freewheel whereby it really is your freehub. A freewheel is a cheapy version of your setup."

    Not one to nitpick, but it is actually a cassette body onto which the cassette mounts to. ;)

  5. right. freewheels are old school.

  6. Backwards Karma. Someone does something good for you and... you have to suffer for it later?

    Life is weird sometimes.

  7. Has been a great journey so far for me (in following you, Jill). For those who might be as dumb as I, I just today figured out you can click on the photos and they look even grander!

  8. Weird timing - I just had a smoothie in that natural foods market and walked right past the Orange Peel bike shop just this morning... Was in town for the Tour de Steamboat, which I rode yesterday.

  9. Wow, that rainbow (fogbow? mistbow?) shot is fantastic!

  10. This blog is outstanding. It's great to have such a strong writer actually chronicle experiences like this. I look forward to reading more.


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