Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bracing for summer

Before leaving Utah, I noticed a bunch of 90s in Boulder's weather forecast and considered extending the road trip to escape north to Montana. If I was brave, that's what I would have done, but I also snagged some extra work for the week and knew it would be tough to hit my deadlines on road. Also, even though Beat was in Zurich on business all week, I wistfully just wanted to be at home, sip my morning quart of coffee while watching hummingbirds on the porch, go for sunset runs on familiar trails. Clearly I'm old, but this is as close to nesting instinct as I'll ever achieve, and I'm enjoying it. 

But summer, ugh. Even though most people expect Colorado to burn after our dry winter, fire season has launched with distressing fierceness. Near my neighborhood, there were three wildfires reported this week alone — small, but large enough to involve a hefty response from multiple agencies. Now when I see a smoke report on the Nextdoor site, I think about just heading to town, rather than staring out the window with anxieties I can do nothing about. 

Heat is its own energy drain. I do love our forest home, but it's almost impossible to keep cool, so the indoor temps generally match outdoor temps. When it hits 85 degrees inside, I move to my "cellar office," which is a camp chair in our dim but naturally temperature-controlled underground bomb shelter. I'm glad the previous homeowner included this strange space. Still, sitting in a sweaty stupor amid midday darkness is not the most inspiring environment.

By Wednesday afternoon I needed to run errands in town, and thought I could squeeze in a 50-mile ride on the cross bike around a new-to-me gravel and pavement loop. Driving slowly down winding Flagstaff Road, I heard a loud noise followed by ker-thunk, ker-thunk, ker-thunk. I pulled over at a precarious hairpin to find the front passenger-side tire in shreds. I did what I tend to do with almost every major bike mechanical I experience — brief panic, followed by fleeting fantasies about whether I could just abandon the bike (car) and walk (ride) to wherever I needed to go. Then I called someone in no position to help me — in this case, Beat in Switzerland. Finally — similar to all of my mechanical upsets — reality sets in, I remember that I am capable of dealing with this myself, and it probably won't even be so hard. Beat gave me helpful tips (location of a lock bolt, where to affix the jack, wedging rocks under the rear tires because I was parked on an incline), and I got it done relatively quickly. I was rather pleased with myself. Despite understanding how easy it is to change a spare tire, I celebrate all of my mechanical victories. 

Anyway, by the time I pulled into the parking lot where I planned to start my ride, it was 4:30 p.m. It's fully dusk by 8:30, and I had no lights with me. Could I finish my 50-mile ride with 5,000 feet of climbing in that time limit? I was going to try! I used all of the adrenaline and irritability left over from my flat tire debacle to mash pedals, and enjoyed settling into peaceful rhythm as I descended amid beautiful evening light through a canyon I hadn't before visited (no pictures, unfortunately.) When it was clear I was going to make it before dark, I didn't push as hard across the flat return, but still finished in 3:36. Most of my rides with their requisite climbing and careful descending rarely break 10mph average, and this was nearly 14mph. Again I was rather pleased ... but not as much as I'd been about successfully swapping out a spare tire on my car. 

By Friday afternoon I'd finished my project, so I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park to ride Old Fall River Road — another ride with 5,000 feet of climbing, this time in 40 miles at higher altitudes. For a person not training for anything in particular right now, I've indulged in several weeks full of big rides, and I was beginning to feel a bit rough around the edges. I blamed the green clouds of pine pollen choking the atmosphere, along with oppressive heat and general ugh-summer sentiment, for not feeling as strong. I also need to accept that I may be having a small lapse in my thyroid health; a few other symptoms are there as well. But no matter ... it was a beautiful afternoon, and there was no one on the road. 

 No one except for these elk bros, and also a red fox that slipped away before I could snap a photo.

 So beautiful, watching them gallop up the road. They didn't seem to care too much about me and trotted at my speed for several minutes while I shadowed them.

RMNP is such a nice place to be. I felt better as I climbed and indulged in fantasies about the Tour Divide — this year's race had just launched that morning. The act of just jumping on a bike and pointing it toward a place thousands of miles away is so appealing — to just breathe, and pedal, and briefly imagine there's no loaded past, no anxious future ... just individual moments and the immediate landscape. I am now thinking fairly seriously about lining up for that coveted 20-day finish in 2019, which is somewhat baffling to me — given my recent health and fitness struggles, aversions to summer things such as heat and pollen, and haunting memories of racing sick in 2015, which was mostly terrible and not something I want to relive. But I still have the incredible experiences of 2009, a 10-year anniversary and my 40th birthday to celebrate, and a joy that still resides there, buried now, but eager to resurface.

 Between all my big rides this week, I did get out for one five-mile run, which brings my June run total to three (counting the hike in Bryce Canyon that turned into a partial run.) Yup, I've been slow to get off the couch since my broken toe healed, and I can feel it. My running fitness has withered like a drought-parched flower; every step feels ridiculously fragile. It's clear I'm not remotely a natural runner, because even brief periods of time off usher me back to an awkward start. Sometimes I think back to my running heyday (2012) and how I breezed through 50Ks almost every weekend, and marvel. I thought I was just getting started in the sport, but I now see how I burned through my few available matches in a blazing bonfire. It was worth it.

Anyway, this was a short run, but eventful. I crossed paths with a black bear just beyond my neighbor's driveway. He was reluctant to step off the road, so I just stood there for nearly a minute, both of us unperturbed as I talked about my run plan and the fact I had bear spray, which I was actually carrying for the first time in Colorado. The whole time he had his back to me, looking sideways, when finally he lifted his snout as though rolling his head back in an exasperated motion, the sauntered into the grass. 

 It sure was a beautiful evening. Temps hit the high 80s at home, so I worked in my cellar office during the day and put off starting the run until 7:30 p.m. Nearly nixed it altogether, but I'm glad I didn't.

 On Sunday, temperatures in Boulder were forecast to hit 98 degrees. I decided to escape the heat by riding to 12,000 feet at Rollins Pass. I started at a dry and dusty Moffat Tunnel, where it was 86 degrees at 10:30 a.m. Four-wheeler traffic was thick for the first six miles, and then the rocky road funneled through a narrow passage that was still filled with snow. Trucks and four-wheelers were stacked up behind it in a bizarre backcountry traffic jam. Stuck in the drift was a small SUV that somehow became buried to the sideview mirrors. The driver was chopping at snow with his ice scraper. It looked quite hopeless. "That's a bummer," was all I could think to say as I sidled past with my bike hanging off my shoulder.

"Looks like you have the right tool for the job," the driver replied.

"Sometimes it pays to go with a lighter vehicle," I said. "Good luck to you."

Beyond there, Rollins Pass Road was as quiet as can be. This climb is lovely, but I tend to forget how tedious it is — a continuous surface of loose rubble and babyheads, on a meandering railroad grade that climbs interminably. Even in good conditions, the effort is always much harder than it seems on paper, perhaps because I am not that adept at balancing and efficiently turning wheels over loose surfaces. So I was already cooked when I encountered another cyclist at the iced-over lake near mile 10. He told me, "there's a lot of hiking past here. If I can do it, anyone can. But good luck following the road."

 The transition from dry, dusty chunder to frequent snowfields was abrupt. The snow was rotten underneath, and hiking was difficult. With every other step, I punched knee- and sometimes hip-deep holes into slushy puddles. The bike balked and sank and repeatedly smashed my shin and calves with its wayward pedals. After a mile, the other cyclist's tracks faded. Then I hit the snowfields that entirely buried the road, requiring me to cross laterally on a steep slope. Each time, I checked the runout and deemed it safe, but traversing the snow was another matter, psychologically. The bike was difficult to manage and my shoes slipped constantly. The snow was rotten slush in spots, and hard ice in others. In the middle of the last big snowfield, I slipped on a patch of ice and lost my balance to my knees. The bike served as a decent ice ax with pedals and handlebars digging in, but my nerves were shaken. I would do almost anything to avoid crossing that snowfield again. (I did not take any pictures of this snowfield. Suffice to say it is probably not that bad.)

 Surprisingly the last half mile to Needle's Eye Tunnel, along with the bypass, were mostly clear. The north-facing trestle corridor was almost completely filled with snow, but above that, a doubletrack climbing to the ridge also was clear. This also meant more steep hiking at 11,500 feet. After four hours of spinning through chunder, bouncing over babyheads, wrestling with my bike, punching through snow, flailing in mud bogs, burning up all of my adrenaline on a scary snowfield, then hiking some more, I reached Rollins Pass. I'd traveled 15 miles, and felt spent. But I wasn't thrilled about doing all of that again in reverse. I looked toward Winter Park on the western side of the Continental Divide and thought, "I could loop this."

Spanning Rollins Pass is the rugged spine of the Divide and a lot of wilderness. There is no quick way around with a bike. I knew this, but I'd never before descended into Winter Park. This was an intriguing prospect, and knew I could find a way back over Berthoud Pass and Idaho Springs. The western descent also was long, rocky and quite muddy, but at least it was clear of snow. Climbing busy Highway 40 on a hot Sunday in June is an experience I don't need to repeat, but there is a decent shoulder and the route is scenic enough. Idaho Springs was an inferno, and the lady at the gas station where I bought water and a sandwich chided me for coming into her store while I was covered in mud. The climb up Virginia Canyon Road was an oven but also lovely and quiet, and I was grateful to escape the highway corridor. From there I hoped to find a "shortcut" on jeep roads back to Tolland through Apex Valley, but private property signs and gates pushed me into the awful casino corridor of Central City at sunset. In Black Hawk, a cop pulled me over.

"Are you aware there's a city ordinance against cycling through downtown?" she asked.

"No, no I didn't know," I lied with an unintentional but possibly sympathy-inducing hoarseness in my voice. I did know about that law. I vowed I would always avoid the town and never give them my business because of it. But it was dusk on a quiet Sunday night, and I really just wanted to get through as quickly as possible. The police officer was nice enough, and let me go with a warning. Being a mud-covered solo woman on a mountain bike probably helped my cause. I can't blame her for the town's ordinance, but jeez.

I commenced the long climb to Rollinsville as dusk faded to night — luckily I was carrying good lights this time. It had been a long day — already 75 miles, and I figured I had 20 left. The first fifteen miles of the day almost broke me, but I kept going, all the same. After I turned onto Tolland Road, I lost myself in vivid memories about the night I pedaled into Koyukuk along the Yukon River during my 2016 Iditarod Trail ride. Somehow the white light on the road, the blackness of the surrounding forest, steep hillsides that resembled river bluffs, and other similarities put me viscerally back in the moment.

I love when this happens. The intensity and beauty of past experience stretched over the shadowy horizon, immediate difficulties faded into the background, and I was new again. I wanted to keep riding, but suddenly I was back at Moffat Tunnel and it was 10 p.m. Eleven and a half hours. 95 miles. 9,500 feet of climbing. A good day. I wished I'd planned it better, and found quieter corridors, but for a spur-of-the-moment decision, tacking on 70 miles and a bunch of engaging new scenery seemed like a wonderful way to avoid a snowfield. I felt wholly satisfied. I miss this feeling, when I take it easy for too long. 


  1. Killer ride. I thought the courts overturned Black Hawk's ban on bicycles?

  2. You never cease to amaze me; I'm ready to throw in the towel at 40 some miles. It must be funny, the excuses your friends come up with when you ask them to go for a hike/bike/run :)
    I think you should consider renaming your blog Jill Out of Bounds...Jill Off-Leash...Jill Non-stop. I can't keep up. I'm exhausted just reading this post...but I love that a few people still "get it," the Soul cleansing salvation of that follows a "good day" of introspection and exhaustion.
    Box Canyon

  3. A city ordinance against cycling? That's just wrong. I love how your outings turn into big adventures.

  4. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned Black Hawk's blanket ban on bicyclists in 2013, stipulating that state law requires that they provide an alternate route through town. The officer who pulled me over claimed there were signs pointing to this alternate route, but I did not see them. She said they still write tickets with a $150 fine to cyclists who stay on the main route through town, as I did.

    Anyway, it's all a lot of bulls*** . This is part of the "Peak to Peak" Highway that's popular with cyclists, especially bike tourists. Because of private property, I'm not sure it's possible to find a viable bypass around these towns. So Black Hawk created a shadowy alternative route and keeps raking in fines from cyclists.

  5. So much to love about this post! Calling Beat in Switzerland to help with a flat tire in Boulder! Elk and a bear in the road! A backcountry motorized traffic jam! Jill the lawbreaker! Keep keeping us entertained!


Feedback is always appreciated!