Saturday, October 12, 2019

Bikes won't love you forever

 Over the summer, thanks to limitations brought on by an MCL strain, I developed a solid base of cycling fitness. This came together for me in a satisfying way during the Summer Bear race, where I held on for a finish when 75 percent of the field didn't. I stepped off the bike that warm and sunny morning in early August, still feeling strong even with 200 miles and 38 hours behind me ... and then proceeded to stay off the bike for 11 weeks. Okay, there were a couple of casual hour-long rides in mid-August. But by then, my knee was mostly recovered and I redirected my focus toward hiking ambitions, which led into three bike-less weeks in Europe, where I injured my wrist, followed by three weeks of recovery. Just like that, two whole months drained away, along with all of my cycling fitness.

 I wasn't all that confident that my wrist had recovered when Betsy and Erika invited me on an overnight ride to a high-mountain hut above Leadville, but the trip sounded too fun to resist. Betsy's route came in at 80-90 miles with a jaunt through aspen groves on the Continental Divide Trail, followed by a long climb up to Weston Pass. The following day we'd tour around Turquoise Lake and ride back toward Twin Lakes on parts of the Leadville 100 course. It sounded fairly mellow, and a great way to see some autumn color that I'd chased the previous week without much success, and that would soon be gone.

I arranged my stay at the hut while I was still en route from Wyoming, and stayed up past midnight piecing together my long-neglected bike and bikepacking setup. Shameful confession: Few things irritate me more than bicycle maintenance, and I nearly backed out of the trip when I couldn't coax the rear tire to hold air ("I'm not going on a bikepacking trip with tubes," I moaned to myself.) But, finally, around 8 a.m. the following morning, I gained tentative confidence that the sealant was going to hold. The bike still had clunky shifting and an irritating squeal from the front brake rotor during slow climbs (it would squeak frequently whenever I was moving between 3 and 4 mph, but never at any other speed, including slower speeds.) But during my extensive test ride, which took place between 8:07 and 8:13 a.m., my sore wrist felt fine. I was ready!

We met up at 1 p.m. and started our trip on the far side of Twin Lakes, hitting the singletrack first. This was a rude awakening on a loaded bike. The trail isn't terribly technical, but there are just enough rocks, roots and steep dips in and out of drainages to disrupt any sort of flow, which in my rusty state would have been tough to achieve on pavement. So I bashed into tree branches, swerved, dabbed and hiked a fair amount, holding everyone back — although Erika admitted she was also struggling to find a good flow. It took us nearly two hours to cover the first seven miles, after which it had become rather late in afternoon. 

"Interlaken! It's just like the one in Switzerland!" Well no, not really, but it's fun to see some of the mountain tourism traditions that crossed over the Atlantic in the late 1800s.

 We faffed around some more looking for dirt routes to bypass the highway, and it was solidly early evening by the time we began the 10-mile, 3,500-foot climb to Weston Pass. The late-day light cast a lovely glow on golden leaves and auburn rock. Temperatures were still warm, and a reasonably stiff tailwind remained to whisk us up the pass. Ten-mile climbs are normally my kind of thing, so I was looking forward to kicking back and spinning easy while enjoying effortless views.

 But the views were not effortless. I don't think we'd even done two miles of the climb before my right quad muscles began cramping. Soon this required stepping off the bike to remove pressure from the leg so I could shake out the cramp. As soon as the cramps started, all of my power drained away. I began to wonder whether my quads had slept all through the past 11 weeks. I suppose hiking up mountains mostly demands strength from glutes and calves. You engage your quads to brake during steep descents, but it's not the same kind of strength required to pedal a loaded bicycle up ten miles of steady grades above 10,000 feet.

 I struggled, and walked a lot. Dignity drained away with the fading remnants of leg strength. Stupid quads. Stupid bike. I was fairly good at pushing my bike, though. I'll give myself that. I usually gained speed when I finally gave up the battle to turn pedals and commenced marching with purpose. Thank you, hamstrings that I've been working to strengthen recently. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

 We arrived at Weston Pass Hut just as the last hints of sunlight faded from the tips of the mountains, around 7 p.m. Positioned just a notch below 12,000 feet, the hut has lovely views of the surrounding Mosquito Range, as well as full exposure to the fearsome gales of this altitude. Although the air hadn't felt cold until the final half mile (of hiking), I was close to frozen by the time I wheeled my bike inside the spacious building.

 Being used to more rustic accommodations at BLM cabins in Alaska, I wasn't expecting the luxurious amenities offered here. There were four bedrooms with beds and sheets, two wood stoves, two propane cooking stoves hooked up to a main fuel line, solar-powered electric lights and even a USB charging station. We'd carried up all of our water for the overnight stay and cooking, believing we wouldn't find any on the pass. But then the kitchen contained a half-dozen five-gallon jugs full of water. There was a winter's worth of firewood chopped and stacked in the back. I'd brought my 0-degree sleeping bag and a whole bunch of winter clothing that I wouldn't need, either. Ah well. Good weight training? My quads just balked.

 We had a fun night, drinking hot chocolate and ginger tea, and telling Alaska stories as we warmed our bodies by the wood stove. We were eventually joined by another party of five people who drove up the road in two trucks, bringing a huge cooler full of food and beer. They warmed up delicious-smelling chili, brownies and other goodies that they didn't share with us (not that we hinted or asked), but it did cast a bit of a sad pall on our bagged backpacking meals.

Morning was a little rough, after spending a night at 12,000 feet. I slept reasonably well, but woke up with a throbbing headache that I could only partially tamp down with three cups of coffee. Having frozen myself so unsettlingly on Timpanogos a few days earlier, I came massively over-prepared for cold weather, knowing the low in Leadville that night was supposed to be 21 degrees, and we were starting 2,000 feet higher and riding into the wind, which raged through the night. I shouldn't have fretted so much about this. Even without much leisure to our morning, we didn't get out the door until close to 10 a.m. By then the wind had calmed substantially, and temps were probably above 40 degrees. I was embarrassingly overdressed, and had to strip layers all through the long descent.

 It was a lovely Saturday morning, though. The autumn color was past peak but still beautiful. I was glad I at least caught a glimpse of it this year. For various reasons I've mostly missed out on Colorado's famous golden groves for the past three seasons.

 During the descent I noted that my hand was only slightly achy, and should be fine for another day of riding. More concerning was my backside, which was already emanating sharp "sit-bone" pains if I planted my butt in the saddle for longer than three or four minutes at a time. For this trip I'd gone with my usual — baggy hiking pants and no chamois cream — because I normally don't need special considerations for my backside, and don't like to deal with the moisture management that those considerations necessitate. But after two months out of the saddle, I noted that this was the wrong decision.

We churned into the wind through the wide-open valley for several miles before turning toward Turquoise Lake, which was another lovely spot with rolling climbs and descents. Normally this is my favorite type of motion, but any enjoyment was overshadowed by a growing amount of pain, as well as continuing creaky annoyances from my neglected bicycle. I thought back to a few past rides with Beat, and some of his struggles during these increasingly infrequent outings. I always brushed off his complaints because he's so much stronger than me in most situations, so I never understood why he'd lag behind on a bike, or why he seemed so miserable at times. Now I get it. You need to ride bikes to enjoy riding bikes. Otherwise, they feel like mostly unnecessary torture machines. I could be running this trail ... why do I have this bum-battering hard-to-steer heavy wheeled thing with me ... and is this actually me thinking this ... who have I become?

This was a 60-mile day, and the last 20 were rough. I chose to do most of my pedaling out of the saddle, which was deeply fatiguing to my already tired legs. I started complaining openly to my friends about how I was going to stash the bike in the woods and run the rest of the way. I went so far as to do some math in my head, but realized this remained a ridiculous proposition with 10 miles to go. In the end the final miles weren't as hard as I'd feared, and we made it back with plenty of daylight. We even had time enough for tasty dinner and future trip scheming in Leadville, although I was surprised how broken I felt at the restaurant — headache, sore lower back and shoulders, spasming leg muscles, wincing every time I had to sit on hard surfaces.

This trip was fun, beautiful and fully ego-destroying, and I appreciate everything about it. This has been a necessary reminder that I need to work every day for my passions. Love can't persist in a void. And fitness never lasts. 


  1. It's interesting. When I had my knee surgery, I couldn't do much for 12 weeks. At least not weightbearing. I haunted the exercise bike, and eventually was allowed to walk. When I started running again, it felt godwaful, but I didn't feel like I had lost significant fitness. However, I may not have as high standards. I've wanted to run or hike between those huts. Is that the Colorado Trail?

    1. In this case I think it's more of a matter of losing strength and conditioning. I have plenty of endurance fitness, and never felt "tired," but I was lacking much of the horsepower that I enjoyed all summer long. I'm finding the same as I get back into upper-body weight lifting, where I also lost a fair amount of ground during my seven-plus weeks of single-minded hiking. And conditioning really is necessary to keep one's backside happy. This ride required more than 12 hours in the saddle, which is a lot off the couch.

      I don't think Weston Pass Hut is on any of the trails. It sort of sits by itself at the top of the pass. It's quite popular with skiers in the winter. I'm sure there are quite a few other huts like this in Colorado though. I hope to make more use of them this winter.

  2. Had to laugh at the 6 min of test riding...I've just grabbed and go a few times and wish I had done at least what you did. Lol. I've found sport spacifc fitness tapers off after 2 weeks of non use and takes about a week to ramp back up after a layoff. Air squats can help keep quad fitness up when hiking more than biking. Running on the ball of your foot shifts work to the quads where heel first hits the hamstring....imho.

    Jeff C

    1. I was doing so well with my knee-supporting PT exercises including bunches of one-legged squats before I went to Europe ... where I dropped a lot of balls in favor of all the mountains.

      In running I'm a hopeless toe-striker, but hiking steep ups and downs involves more of a variety in my foot strike, because my overall focus is on keeping my balance, and negotiating the variable obstacles. I'll have to pay more attention to what I'm doing sometime. It does seem like steep inclines should promote quad strength, and it's curious to ponder why they'd become so weak.

      A ride a couple of days ago revealed my biking fitness is not really all that bad; on one of my typical hilly routes, I'm only marginally slower than my moderate paced rides in July/August. I think the combination of a loaded bike, some built-up fatigue from my longer hikes, and altitude all hit me harder than expected on this Leadville trip.


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