Monday, September 06, 2010

Hiking is harder with a bike

"Are you sure you don't want to join us?" I said to Danni after she dropped us off at the trailhead. "I bet you could beat us." Danni looked up as she gave the notion serious thought. Brad, Dave and I planned to ride our mountain bikes from Six-Mile to Broken Leg along the Alpine 7 trail in the Swan Mountains, a one-way route that traveled about 24 miles of hikers' singletrack. Danni hasn't ridden a mountain bike since high school, and doesn't own one, so she planned to go for a run. She finally shook her head. "No, I'll just do an out and back from the other side. I'll try to finish just before you."

The initial climb was right at the limit of granny-gear bikeability, gaining 3,000 feet in four miles on a narrow, side-sloped trail. I red-lined early and lost my steam. With 13 difficult hours already behind me on the weekend, I didn't have a lot of steam to start with. When I can only muster 3 miles an hour in the saddle, I feel no shame in walking at 3 mph with half the energy expenditure. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that sometimes I think wheels are downright silly.

We crested Six-Mile Pass and began the descent into the next canyon. The trail conditions in this section ranged from faint to almost entirely overgrown. The boys attempted intermittent riding and walking, mostly blind as late-summer brush whipped their faces. I kept tripping over unseen obstacles and decided that the silly wheels were just getting in the way, so I picked up my bicycle, balanced it on my shoulder, and walked almost the entire downhill, with a silly bicycle on my shoulder. One pass down. Three thousand feet climbed and dropped. Total riding on the day: Negligible.

Crossing a stream can only mean one thing - time to climb again.

As my engine sputtered and choked, the boys waited for me to work my way up the steep slope, mostly with the silly bicycle still dangling from my shoulder. Brad was kind enough to pick huckleberries and offer me handfuls. The invigorating rush of tarty sweetness should have alerted me to the fact I was bonking, and hard. But it is hard to refuel when carrying a 25-pound bicycle on one shoulder. My downward spiral continued as we worked our way up.

As we neared another 7,000-foot pass, it started to snow. It snowed hard. Wet white powder accumulated on the ground at a rate of 2 inches in an hour. The air was probably cold, too, but I didn't really notice because I felt increasingly more dizzy and nauseated. I really, really wanted to curl up in a patch of that oh-so-soft-looking white stuff and fall asleep. But I knew I couldn't stop because the boys would probably freeze to death while they waited for me to wake up, and I couldn't be responsible for anyone freezing to death. The absurdity of the situation finally woke me up to my obvious bonk, and I stopped long enough to grab a Power Bar out of my pack, which I ate as I trudged to the top with a silly bike still dangling from my shoulder.

The perk-up was slow but it started to happen. I first knew I was coming back to life because the chill sank in hard. I put on my gloves and balaclava and pulled up my hood. The snow was really slippery and I have a 2" bald tire on my rear wheel, so I continued walking downhill.

Finally we made it to Broken Leg Ridge. I ate a little more food and felt increasingly like a real person. I even attempted riding the bicycle that I had carried all the way up there, but the rocky trail bounced me around like a pinball, and I was still feeling more sleepy than alert. Gradually, I descended to stretches of trail that actually contained more dirt than rocks, where I could pick a real line and stick with it for more than 50 feet. Soon I was flying, weaving tight curves through the woods, giggling involuntarily. Holy cow, I was riding my bike! I had almost forgotten what this feels like! The feeling was frequently interrupted by rock slide paths, downed trees, and bear scat. Then Brad got a flat in his tubeless tire, and my rotor started rubbing, which caused my bike to moan like a demon bumble bee.

Finally at the bottom, Danni came running toward us. "What happened to you guys?" she said with a tinge of panic in her voice.

"Um, we went for a bike ride."

"How far did you ride?"

We consulted the GPS. "24 miles, with 6,500 feet of climbing."

She looked confused. "I just ran 21 miles, and I started an hour after you, and I finished more than two hours before you."

I just shrugged. What could I say?

Later, while we were driving home, she blurted out, "For the record, that ride took you guys more than nine hours. Nine hours!"

I shrugged again. What could I say? Hour for hour, it was the toughest workout I'd had in a while. Maybe all summer. And sure, we had just proved to Danni what she suspected anyway - that running is far superior to mountain biking. But she can't disprove the fact we had a ton of fun.