Tuesday, November 24, 2020

I do love shoulder season

It took me a few years to realize this, but November really is a nice time of year in Colorado. All of the challenging aspects of summer — heat, smoke, pollen, thunderstorms — have finally faded, but there are still plenty of warm days to go along with the gorgeous late-autumn light and intermittent snowstorms. I have been feeling especially calm and content lately, and I'm not even sure why — world events are as harrowing as ever. Based on my still-prodigious daily news consumption, it seems like a time for my inner pessimist to shine. And yet, my outlook has become — dare I say — slightly rosier recently. I give at least partial credit to CBD capsules, which I started using on a regular basis again about six weeks ago. Even if it's just a placebo effect, I've felt noticeable relief from the relentless buzzing of low-level anxiety. I also credit the sheer amount of cycling I've indulged in during recent weeks. 

On Monday I embarked on my long ride for the week. I didn't have a route plan when I set out, so I chose my mountain bike to deal with the shoulder-season mixture of mud, ice, pavement, gravel, and snow I was likely to encounter. Early in the ride — around mile three — I decided to check out an overlook I'd never ventured up before. It involved a steep pedal up a rocky outcropping that I managed to clear, followed by a boulder scramble. For these efforts, I earned a lovely view of Gross Dam, the reservoir, and the snow-capped Continental Divide. I crawled down the boulders, hopped back on the bike, and immediately launched downhill, not noticing right away that I had looped onto a different rocky outcropping than the one I climbed. I realized too late that this drop was steeper and longer. Large, chunky boulders lined the edges of the rock garden. I didn't have the speed to clear the rocks at the bottom, slammed into them while grabbing my brakes even though I know better, and flipped forward. 

It was a strange over-the-bars type of crash. I must have lost a lot of speed before I hit the rocks because the entire thing seemed to happen in slow motion. I realized what was coming, decided how I wanted to land, and rolled sideways to touch down on my left shoulder blade, which was protected by a puffy-coat-filled backpack. That part didn't hurt too much, but while I was twisting my body to land on my back rather than my head, the bike became tangled in my right leg. It's difficult to describe. It didn't break the skin, but my entire leg is riddled with bruises, some deeper and more painful than others. The handlebars also got a good punch in on my left arm. Of course, the bike wasn't hurt. It never is. (And, for the record, I despise the question, "Was your bike okay?" in response to a crash. Bikes don't feel pain, and they're a hell of a lot cheaper to replace than bones. Rant over.) 

Okay, so I crashed. It was my dumb mistake and it wasn't a big deal. Nothing was broken, including the bike. I laughed off the pain as I sat up, shaking my head, and admonishing myself out loud. "You should not try mountain biking." The bruises on my leg hadn't yet bloomed and the limb was only mildly sore, so I continued on my eight-hour ride. The loop I devised while pedaling ended up climbing to 10,000 feet through several inches of sugar snow. Thanks to truck traffic, I could ride most of the climb, but the tracks stopped abruptly near the crest of the road. The descent into Gamble Gulch was a sphincter-clencher. Surfing the skinny tires through six inches of loose snow feels reminiscent of my early days of "snow biking," and is both exhilarating and terrifying. It's a matter of finesse — shimmying as the bike finds its own traction, shifting my weight ever so gently when the rear wheel begins to fishtail, and basically hanging on for dear life. Objectively these half-controlled plunges are considerably riskier than descending rocky outcroppings, but it's all a matter of perspective. At least I didn't crash.

Over the next few days, bruises erupted all over my limbs. I was sore. It's true, what they say — the older you become, the less your body can absorb a direct hit, no matter how well you walk it off. Every step jolted the tender flesh, so running was out of the question. But I could still ride a bike without too much pain. Colorado's typical third summer arrived just in time, with temperatures in the 70s during the middle of the week. I took advantage by riding the gravel bike up Sunshine Canyon, enjoying great conditions even as I battled a fearsome headwind. Any area exposed to direct flow from the Continental Divide was so wind-blasted that I had to pedal hard to maintain forward momentum downhill. But I was enjoying myself and feeling strong, so I continued to wrestle the air monster all the way to Brainard Lake. 

It's always fun to bash out one of these big rides — 50 miles, 6,700 feet of climbing — in late November, and still enjoy ideal conditions. Honestly, it feels like cheating summer, because snowmelt helps pack these typically dusty and chunder-strewn roads into hero gravel (although that west wind will always be there to keep me honest.) 

The speed and ease of that ride to Brainard revealed a fun truth: I am in prime cycling shape right now. I can't do much with this, however. My 200K fat bike race in January was officially canceled this week — although Beat and I were already leaning heavily toward not racing due to COVID concerns. Soon enough, any hope of a fourth summer will fade and it will truly be winter, wherein I'll need to build up a completely different kind of strength and conditioning for fat biking and snow slogging. But for this week, these few beautiful days of the shoulder season, I could at least leg out some PRs. 

After convincing Beat to ride with me on Friday, the spotlight turned onto my neglect of the gravel bike, which was once Beat's bike, and which I've "borrowed" for close to 1,400 miles without doing any maintenance. The brake pads had worn down to the metal. The rear tire was almost completely bald. Beat rightfully admonished me but went to work immediately in order to fix the abuse. My gratitude for Beat's mechanical skill runs so deep that I put it in my wedding vows. I know, I shouldn't be rewarded for negligence ... but I'm so grateful I can keep riding despite poor attentiveness (hey, I didn't realize I'd ridden the bike 1,400 miles. I would have guessed a few hundred at most. But Strava keeps track of such things for a reason.) 

Anyway, on Saturday I had the boost of brand new tires and working brakes, so I decided to go hard at some of my favorite gravel segments. I managed to take back my home road QOM from the professional athlete who stole it last year (to be fair, she's a runner who probably only cycles on occasion for fun. Also, my home road is private, so not many people bother with this segment. Still, the QOM is mine, and I cherish it.) Then I carved six minutes off of my SuperChap PR. It's a hearty segment; 4.3 miles with 1,800 feet of climbing and an average grade of 7.8%. I managed to hold 6.1 mph for 42:45. It's not even close to the best time in Boulder, but I am up against a number of professional road cyclists here. To best my own self by six minutes was enough fun. I was chuffed. 

On Sunday, Beat and I wanted to try a more equitable couples outing, since I will not suffer his bushwhacking routes, and he doesn't want to be "crushed by wife" on a bicycle. I proposed a hike to Mount Audubon. This 13er has thwarted us a handful of times in winter conditions, due to the incessant gale that always feels like pushing into an impenetrable wall. For various geographical reasons, this mountain is one of those places particularly susceptible to the prevailing west wind. A July hike often means teetering on rocks amid 35 mph gusts while thunderheads streamroll in from the west. Winter months bring the temperature gradients that drive truly fearsome downslope winds — you're lucky if you're not facing a hurricane-force whiteout. Not that this mountain ever holds onto its snow for long.

Thus, we braced for an Alaska-like blowhole and packed for as much. Third summer was officially over, and temperatures dipped into the single digits as we drove to the trailhead. The Brainard Lake gate is closed for the season, which means walking three miles of road to reach the summer trailhead. Strangely, it was warm and calm here — probably because of an inversion, which is what happens on a rare occasion that there's no wind. We peeled off layers as we jogged, but we were still overdressed. It felt like July. 

Beat set a brutal pace. While I've been cycling all these miles, he has been doing a lot of off-trail hiking, exploring the quieter corridors of the Flatirons and foothills. So both of our fitness is heavily skewed right now. I'm not in the best hiking shape, which falls away quickly amid the ceaseless technical demands of these rocky trails. I started to feel grumpy about this activity that was my idea. I was postholing through shin-deep snow and chasing Beat up a sweltering mountain with far too many layers on my feet. Then we hit the barren rocks — most of the terrain above treeline was cleared of snow by the incessant wind — and I realized I was grumpy because my leg hurt. One of the bruises above my right knee went deeper than I had realized, and it felt like every step was pulling painfully at a quad muscle. I don't feel this strain when I'm cycling or even walking around the house, but lifting my leg over the relentless rocks aggravated what was likely mild muscle damage from Monday's crash.

I was never going to catch Beat, yet I continued straining beyond my comfort level. The weather was unreal. Every time I've reached this saddle in the past — all during the months of June, July, or August — I've needed to pull on several layers while bracing against the gale to avoid being blown off my feet. On this day there was still a decent breeze — probably around 15 mph — but expectations made the air feel eerily calm. I continued shedding layers, marching past another group of heavily bundled hikers as I went hatless and gloveless with sleeves pushed up to my elbows. Every so often I would catch my toe on a rock, which would pull sharply against the seemingly injured muscle. Such missteps are almost impossible to avoid, but each time it happened my eyes filled with tears. This really hurt. Could this possibly be just a bruise? A few days have passed, and I really do think it's just a bruise. 

For the rest of the afternoon, however, I wondered whether I was facing a more persistent injury. Not much I can do about it up here, so I continued climbing. It was satisfying to reach the summit, my first "winter" ascent of a Colorado 13er ... even if it's not technically winter ... and even if the weather was the best I'd experienced — during any month — on these peaks that outline the crest of the continent. Sunny, storm-free skies, smoke-free air, gentle breeze, and no crowds. And to think there was a time that I believed November was just a throw-away month. 

Beat helped me get my leg back in order by forcing my knee into somewhat painful stretches and then massaging the area below the bruise. That actually did the trick. It stopped the sharp pain that was radiating up my leg and returned to that low-level soreness that isn't nearly as alarming. Beat fixes bikes and legs. Could I ask for a better partner in life? Just as long as he doesn't demand too many bushwhacks or otherwise ridiculously challenging mountain miles. Hiking is hard. 


  1. Yikes, I can barely ride my fat bike downhill in 6 inches of new snow, I can't imagine trying that on a mtn bike. Glad you didn't crash again. I would have for sure! Hope your leg is healing up okay! Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Your mood improvement shines through this post!!!

  3. Those low speed, sack-of-potatoes type falls can be the worst. My wife Karen severed her rotator cuff in a 3 mph digger.

  4. Jill...the "is your bike ok?" is a guy thing...we think so differently than women. Jeannie rolls her eyes at me all the time when I say dumb "guy things". It's genetic...we can't help it.

    Anyway...glad Beat was able to help you out...there is nothing fun about getting hurt (and the older we get the longer these things take to heal). Stay safe out there...and Happy Thanksgiving!


Feedback is always appreciated!