One of the worst, most depressing experiences I have ever had on a bike, or for that matter off a bike, was hitting the wall on my first day climbing in the Colorado Rockies. The day started with 30 miles from Pueblo to Wetmore. In the process I climbed about 1,400 feet. It was a bit challenging but not too bad.
Between Wetmore and Westcliffe, however, was a 3,000 foot climb over what I learned today is something called Hardscrabble Pass. The Google says the distance is 15 miles but other accounts have it at 12 miles. Either way it is a relentless grade of between 6 and 8 percent for most of the way up.
Today I read an account of a bike tourist who did this ride in 2009. He describes having to stop every 1/10 of a mile to avoid going anaerobic. His legs kept tying up as he rode. With no experience at this sort of thing, I didn’t stop until I was completely unable to get a breath. At around 7,500 feet, I leaned over my bike gasping. (My asthma didn’t help a whole lot.)
Another rider broke the Pueblo to Westcliffe ride into two days. He referred to the pass as “the wall.” He took five hours to ride 15 miles over the top. And he walked three times.
After starting and stopping several times, I ended up walking the steepest part about half way between Wetmore and the pass. I felt humiliated, but these two journals assure me that my failure to ride nonstop over the pass had nothing to do with my fitness or age.
The cook at the market/gas station/florist/laundromat/cafe across the street from my motel in Dove Creek makes a damned fine omelet.
After breakfast I went back to the hotel to get ready to ride. Nearly everything was packed but when I went to leave the room I couldn’t find the room key. After a long search I found it in one of my panniers. It must have tumbled in there from my bed.
My front panniers were each loaded with a 2-liter bladder full of water. I need to test them out before I need them. (One made the trip without incident; the other leaked but I think that’s because I didn’t seal it properly. Only damage done was the loss of a half roll of TP given to me by brother-in-law Greg in a box of useful things for bike tours. I’d been carrying this TP around for over 10,000 miles without ever using it, I was going for a Guinness record of unused TP transport. I’m probably out of the running now.)
Gently rolling terrain has a different meaning when your riding a bike loaded with TP and 40-odd pounds of other necessities. Even the slightest rise in the road calls for downshifting.
I endured the ups and downs and was rewarded after 8 miles with a new state! Goodbye, Colorado. You kicked my ass nine ways to Sunday but I escaped.
The next 23 miles saw Utah turn from farmland to rocky, sagebrushy, near desert. I rode into Montecello much more tired than usual after such a short morning.
I stopped for lunch at a Montecello institution they had been doing business for 30 years. I am happy to report they make a good sub sammich and were kind enough to fill my water bottle with ice and water.
As I left the shop a bike tourist went by headed east. I yelled and he turned around. Bob is from Sacramento and has endured all kinds of bike touring hell on this trip. He’s been rescued twice: once after he got caught in a hailstorm and once when he ran out of water. Bob seemed to be in a good mood. I gave him the scoop on the miles ahead. He returned the favor. He’s dreading the Colorado mountains but he only has 2 more to go before he surrenders to sanity and grabs a train home from Grand Junction.
He said it was mostly downhill to a Blanding, my destination. Poor Bob’s brain is going because a few miles later I was bringing up a big hill in my granny gear.
After that, it wasn’t bad. I saw some deer (unlike Colorado they were not dead), got waved at by three women flying down a hill I was climbing, got rained on (it felt wonderful), and went down a whopper of a hill over 40 mph. There was a slight uphill before Blanding, my destination, but I was feeling my oats by then and just powered up.
Just as I pulled into Blanding, I spotted a general store where I bought a massive bottle of cold Powerade. Gone in 60 seconds.
I had reserved a room in a motel but when I went to check in I saw that they do not have WiFi in the rooms. Off I rode to a Super 8 on the edge of town. For the second night in a row, I was not allowed to bring The Mule into my room. This is the first time in four tours that The Mule has been treated so poorly.
As I was rolling it around I found that the back wheel was out of true. I flipped The Mule over to perform inept surgery with my multi tool, I spun the wheel and the wheel was true. A bicycling medical miracle. Had I been forced to operate, The Mule may not have survived.
Tomorrow is complicated. My planned destination is Natural Bridges National Monument. It has 13 tent sites given out on a first come, first served basis. And no water except at the visitors center. I probably won’t hike to see the bridges as they are quite a hike. The park has appeal for another reason: it’s so isolated it gets awesome stars.
If I get turned away it will be another 40 miles to a campground near Lake Powell. The first 40 miles features a 1,000 foot climb to a summit. The second 40 features a looong downhill with 3,500 feet of elevation loss.
After motel breakfast I tried to leave early but was cornered by some guests who also stayed at my hotel in Montrose a few days ago.
After the chat I was off to the west on Highway 145. More terrific scenery, a generally downhill route, and a gentle tailwind. Finally!
Just before Naturita I turned onto Highway 141. It was time to payback the downhill. You’d think I could get one day without a climb but no!
So I climbed out of the valley I had ridden into and over a rather large hill into a basin, a vast valley bordered by mountains. It was quite pretty, particularly after the climb because I rode right down into the basin.
On the ride down I passed all kinds of cool rock formations. Many of the bluffs had caves. Some of the rock formations reminded me of people and animals.
This is movie cowboy country. You’re sure you’ve seen this place in a million TV shows or movies.
After about 45 miles of riding that couldn’t be beat, it was payback time. I had to ride over a range to get to my motel in Dove Creek.
Ride is used loosely here. I made it a mile or two up Slick Rock Hill (Coloradans love to call enormous mountains “hills” because they have mountains that are whoppers everywhere you look.
To help things along the wind changed direction. Nothing helps push a bike up a mountain quite like a headwind.
Occasionally I got on the bike and rode to the next steep section. Then I hoofed it some more. This hill, I was told, was preferable to the hill I avoided yesterday by riding to Norwood.
Near the top I jumped back in the saddle and finished the climb. I was expecting a 20 mile descent to Dove Creek but mostly what I encountered was rollers: down for a half mile, up for a half mile. And headwinds.
After all the flooding I saw earlier in the tour it was a relief to find freshly planted fields.
I thought this was going to be an 80 mile day. I managed to go through two apples, a banana, a Clif bar, some mixed nuts, and five bottles of water. And it wasn’t nearly enough.
It was good training for Utah and Nevada which have long stretches without food or water. (Tomorrow I’ll fill my 2 2-liter bladders to make sure they don’t leak.)
Today’s miles: 74
Tour miles: 1,764
Top speed: 34.4 mph
Tomorrow will be an easy day as I enter Utah. The next day is up in the air. Natural Bridges National Monument has a first come, first served camping policy and only 13 spots. I may skip it and camp at Lake Powell.
I stayed up to watch game 7 of the Stanley Cup. Not that I cared but game 7s are usually exciting. This one was meh, mostly because this is only the second hockey game I watched all year. Time management is my middle name.
After my hotel breakfast. I rode westbout of Ridgway to Dallas Divide, an 8,900 foot pass through snow covered mountains and lush meadows. I hate the climbs around here but the scenery is amazing.
I was about a half mile from the top of the climb when I realized that I was killing myself to go 3 mph. I dismounted and walked the rest. The smile is one of relief.
The ride down the other side was not as fast as I expected. Mostly I kept my speed under 25 mph.
I pulled into a general store in Placerville. I talked to a cyclist who had just ridden from Telluride. This was the route on my maps. He reported that he couldn’t find camping in town so he settled on a $180 motel room.
That’s a bit rich for my blood. I talked to the store owner. She confirmed that road over the mountain from Telluride is a killer climb and that the road on the downslope going into Dolores Co was partially blocked by a humongous boulder.
It would be cool to see the boulder but the climb would be to 10,200 feet. She, as did the people in Ridgway, recommended that I ride off route to Norwood, Colorado.
So I headed west to Norwood. This means I will miss Dolores and Cortez, Colorado. I’m sure they are scenic but the ride down the San Miguel Canyon toward Norwood was truly spectacular. The San Miguel River was gushing with snowmelt. The hills were red rocks, all jagged and menacing looking.
After ten miles of easy riding I hit Norwood Hill. I was lead to believe that this was no big deal but it was a climb out of the canyon. After a mile or so, I was once again grinding away for 3 mph. Time to push. I passed a crew working to clear fallen rocks off the road. I kept pushing and peaking over the edge of the road. There was no guard rail just a drop of several hundred feet.
I kept pushing and the base of the canyon kept getting smaller, until finally I was over the top and could ride into Norwood with minimal effort.
Norwood has three hotels. The working class motel had no vacancies. The tony Inn didn’t either. My last hope was the Back Country Inn on the west end of town. There was not a single car in the spotless parking lot. As it turned out this was because the motel’s guests were all road crews working in the area.
I asked the owner if there was anywhere I could camp. She offered me a space in the lawn behind the motel for $20 with shower, towels, and breakfast included.
No it’s time to head into town for some vittles. Tomorrow I ride over the mountains 70 miles with 4,000 feet of climbing and 4,200 feet of descending. I booked a room in the motel to be sure I won’t end up in the woods feeding Clif bars to the bears.
Miles today: 42
Tour miles: 1,689
Top speed: 31.6
By this point in a bike tour I am normally getting stronger. Not this time. The mountains and the thin air are very tough.
After three 8,000+ foot summits, my body was really tired. I slept hard again.
After motel breakfast I hit the road, heading south in the general direction of Telluride.
I knew I was riding slightly uphill, so I decided to take in the scenery and plod along at 9 mph. The temperature was comfortable and the winds were light.
I spotted a coffee shop along the road at Colons don I took a break and had a coffee and a doughnut.
A customer in the shop started chatting with me. She recommended that I not follow the Western Express route over Lizard Head pass and ride off route to the town of Norwood instead. I am always wary of taking route advice from non- cyclists; the terrain looks different from behind the wheel of s car. I thanked her and we both hit the road for Ridgway.
The terrain was slightly hillier but not granny worthy. The lack of a shoulder and the idiots driving campers made sure I was adequately stimulated.
The last three miles into town were on a concrete trail. It went along a river, through a marsh, and into town. A big improvement over the highway.
I stopped at the town bike shop and talked to Nate about the Norwood thing. He agreed that it was a better route that would also bypass Dolores, CO.
I’ll see how I feel after riding through Dallas Divide, an 8,900 foot pass before Lizard Head.
During my ride today I never felt right. My right thigh cramped a few times and I felt light headed. I think my body is tying yo tell me something.
After talking with Nate I decided to have an early lunch and see if I felt like riding on. Lunch made me feel better but I was still a little lightheaded. I checked into a motel and called it a day.
The Wanderlust Hostel in Gunnison worked out great. I walked to dinner at The Dive, a not at all divey open-air bar and grill.
I slept well which is attributable to me being super tired, wearing earplugs, and taking a little something to help me sleep. About a week ago I bought some chewy edibles at a weed store. I bought them as s lark to see how high I would get. I barely felt a thing out of the ordinary the first night I took one but I slept hard and woke up with zero pain in my wonky left knee or anywhere else in my body. As a pain reliever, edibles worked much better than ibuprofen.
After a humongous gut bomb at a Gunnison diner, I headed west on US 50. I left my bike in the backyard of the hostel, not knowing that it has a sprinkler system for the lawn. My helmet and gloves were the only things that got wet. Do I began the day wearing my floppy hat and the long fingered gloves I bought for descending mountain passes.
The ride from Gunnison was virtually flat and the wind was low. This allowed me to enjoy the scenery in the Currcanti National Recreation Area. The scenery is amazing here. I took a bunch of pictures, too many to fit on this post so check out my Instagram page (Search for Rootchopper, of course).
About 19 miles into the day I came across Dan Hurwitz who is riding east from San Jose. Dan was at a pull out along the road. He was using a compact luggage scale to redistribute the load in his panniers, because his bike was wobbling during descents.
We exchanged info. He gave me his card. His blog is bikerdan.wordpress.com.
Speaking of blogging cycle tourists, my friends Mark and Corey have abandoned their TransAmerica trip after riding well over 2,000 miles from Yorktown, Va. I don’t know quite why they packed it in but I’m pretty sure thin air didn’t help. They were a real treat to ride with. I was hoping to meet up with them in Oregon.
He told me the hills between Sapinero and Montrose were difficult. I was amused when he said, “It is what it is.” This should be the touring cyclist’s mantra. He reports that today and much of his tour featured a tailwind.
After Sapinero about 900 feet of climbing would take me to 8,500 feet in about 5 miles. That hill was hard and the headwind was no fun but the scenery of the Blue Mesa Resevoir at least took my mind off the misery.
After a short descent, the road rose up again taking me to 8,700 feet. Okay, that was hard too. A week ago it would have done me in but my wee granny gear and wicked awesome scenery got me to the tawp.
A ten-mike descent followed. The headwind was no match for The Mule in full gallop.
Near the base of the descent I pulled into a general store. They had no restrooms or WiFi for dining customers. I would have walked out but my body needed something more than another apple. The sandwich, fries, and Gatorade hit the spot. I paid without leaving a tip, which is highly unusual for me.
A sign in the store said I could find a restroom 1.8 miles to the west. And, thankfully, the pit toilet at a pull out met my rather urgent need.
Then began climb number three. Oh joy. This one was about 900 feet in five miles.
I stopped every mile to let my legs and lungs recharge. The top came and I posed from the obligatory I-climbed-this-motherfucker photo. (Should I have hyphenated motherfucker? Discuss.)
After my selfie moment, I gradually descended over 19 miles to the city of Montrose. I passed by the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. From what I saw it has a lot of hills that look to be made out of adobe.
When I arrived in Montrose I discovered that I was now at 5,807 feet; this was the first time since Pueblo that I’d been this low. I also discovered that it was 89 degrees. I can’t complain. Other than the headwind it was a very good day to be on a bike.
It was 39 degrees outside when I woke up. Not gonna happen. I ate breakfast of sorts on my room then hit the road at 7. Before even leaving the parking lot, I took off my long pants and my jacket. It had jumped to the 50s and I had a tailwind.
I was heading to Monarch Pass in US 50. A few days ago I utterly failed on a 9,000 foot mountain. How’ll I ever get over this 11,300 foot beast?
Don’t get too excited. The first four miles were a false flat, an almost imperceptible incline to the road. I gained 400 feet in elevation on what looked like level ground.
At Poncha Springs, the fun began: 18 miles and over 6,000 feet of climbing. I surprised myself by doing the first six miles in my middle chainring. The tailwind surely helped.
But at about 8,500 feet I started to feel the effort. I took a hit of albuterol to see if it would clear my lungs. No dice. Thin air is what it is.
With 12 miles to go I implemented my climbing plan. Stop when I get tired. Drink lots of water, eat something. Start again when my heart rate comes back to normal.
I did this five or six times. Once I stopped because a family of mountain goats were coming out into the road. I gave them lots of room.
As I climbed riders on (mostly) road bikes we’re flying down the mountain. Go ahead; make my day. The road very much reminded me of US 60 in West Virginia at Hawks Nest.
My itinerary called for me stopping 2 miles
My itinerary called for me stopping 2 miles from the top and camping. When I got there I thought “Why waste a tailwind and eight hours of daylight?” I was prepared to walk the last mile, which had switchbacks that looked brutal. After a five minute break, The Mule and I managed to find a nice pedaling rhythm and went right to the top.
The parking lot of the general store was filled with hundreds of bikes and their riders. They were participating in Ride the Rockies, an annual event in these parts. They had just arrived at the top from Gunnison about 45 miles to the west.
I went into the store and bought a cup of coffee. It was about 55 degrees outside but I was shaking. The coffee helped with my body temperature but made me nauseous.
I was starting to feel the elevation big time. I got my picture taken at the pass sign then took off down the western slope of the mountain. It was a thrill ride comparable to last summer’s descent from Washington Pass.
There were hundreds of Ride the Rockies participants crawling up the mountain. I dropped from 11,300 feet to 8,450 feet in ten miles. All the curves were banked and the road was clear of debris. And, yes, I rode in the middle of the lane. I was passed four times on the way down.
At the base of the mountain I stopped hit lunch. A BLT, fries, and three glasses of ice water took me and hour to eat but it revived me.
The shop owner offered me a camping spot by the creek out back. I was tempted but decided to ride 32 miles to Gunnison.
Stupid me. The wind had changed direction on this side of the pass. A strong headwind beat me numb the whole way. Once I got a cellphone signal, I called The Wanderlust Hostel in town. There I will stay until the morrow.
Apropos of nothing, I saw more dead deer between Sargent and Gunnison than I’ve ever seen anywhere.
I am staying at a motel just outside Salida. Last night the place was quiet. I slept well so I booked the room for tonight as well.
The motel manager told me of a breakfast place down the road but I couldn’t find it. The wind was blowing hard from the east and it was 53 degrees. Not shorts weather.
I headed into town letting the wind push me. I visited two coffee shops. Neither served a proper breakfast so I made do with coffee, a breakfast bagel (it had an egg in the middle), and a blueberry scone. After that I went to a grocery store and bought some things for tomorrow’s ride as well as a salad for lunch.
Then I went back to my hotel room and loafed. About mid afternoon I took my pulse to see if it was high from the altitude. Nope. 50. Just about right.
I heard from Corey. He reports that Mark and he crossed 11,000+ foot Hoosier Pass this morning after camping overnight at 9,000 feet. I’ll bet they are relieved.
I stayed in my room all day trying to avoid any more physical activity and to stay warm.
After too much TV (I sent my book home yesterday), meditation, and failed napping, I headed out for dinner. There is a McDonalds about a mile downhill from the motel so I headed into the still blowing wind. Even with long pants and a jacket I was cold.
I stopped short of McDonalds at 50 Burger which was about twice the cost. The food was twice as good. And I turned down a beer with dinner because I don’t need my tummy tossing all day tomorrow.
The ride back was a breeze, literally. I didn’t notice the incline. Since temperatures in the morning will be in the high 40s, I stopped at a gas station convenience store to buy some hand and foot warmers. They were out of stock so I did what any sane person would do: I bought some Bugles and some M&Ms.
I am trying to not get anxious about tomorrow. Just looking at the mountains is enough to freak me out. I plan on wearing March commuting gear minus the holey sweater.
I crashed hard last night after a burger and a beer at a Westcliffe bar.
This morning I pulled a pair of bike shorts, a pair of socks, a shirt, a book, and two Adventure Cycling maps. I mailed them back home to lower the weight on my bike. I also tossed my jar of Nutella. I’ll have to do laundry more often and get used to straight peanut butter on my tortillas but I had to cut weight.
I also went to Candy’s Coffee for, well, coffee. Emily made me a mocha and a breakfast burrito. Thanks, ma’am.
My motel did not have a vacancy for tonight but I thanked Mo and hit the road for Salida.
Within five miles I hit a hill that my legs wanted nothing to do with. I thought that this would make for a long day. I persevered and my legs finally kicked it. It helped that I had a decent tailwind and the terrain was gently rolling. I was riding with the snow capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains to my left and a dry rocky ridge live to my right.
The curvy road made for a fun ride. I’d come around a bend and get blasted by a side or head gust. Then things would calm down and I’d grind away.
After about 25 miles I hit a fantastic downhill that reminded me of my scary ride around Square Butte in Montana last summer.
I was buzzing along at 35 mph when I saw some bike riders waving at me from the opposite side of the road. I hit my brakes gently so as not to overheat the rims. I had a long talk with Tom and Stephanie who were riding from San Francisco to Key West supported by Stephanie’s brother in law John who was towing an Airstream style trailer.
They told me tales of horrible weather and scary mountaintops. Cold, snow, rain, and hail. They were glad to be nearly done with the Western Express.
I bid them safe travels and pointed The Mule downhill. This descent went in for a few miles and over 700 feet of elevation loss.
It turned out that I lost a little under 800 feet in elevation today nearly all of it on this one descent.
It ended at a stop sign where I took a left on good old US 50. The winding two lane road followed the Arkansas River through a gash in the rocky landscape. The river was running fast, probably fed by snow melt. River raft companies were doing big business today.
As I was going upriver I was gradually climbing. My legs handled the grade without complaint.
On arrival in Salida I went to a bike shop. The mechanic was swamped but referred me to the Sub Culture Bike Shop around the corner.
I’ve been having trouble with my rear derailed since I had a new chain and cassette put on in Pueblo. Cam, the bike mechanic, fixed it in five minutes. Then I mentioned that I could use a lower granny gear. (This is the smallest, easiest to turn gear used in climbing.) Cam dug out a chainring they had two fewer teeth than the one on The Mule.
In ten minutes he installed the ring and I took it for a test ride. Shifting into and out of the chain ring is clunky but it works. And those two teeth will make a big difference in my climbing.
It turns out that Cam used to work in a ski shop in Incline Village, Nevada at the north end of Lake Tahoe. He remembered that Don Kanare, a friend from my college days, bought skies from him. Small world.
I have to admit that I had some trepidation about riding at all today considering the fact that yesterday was one of my worst days on a bike ever. What a surprise that despite my fatigue today was one of my best days on a bike. I had enough energy to enjoy the beautiful scenery I was riding through.
I took a room in a renovated old motel just outside Salida. Depending on how tonight goes, I might stay here tomorrow night too. In any case, I’m not leaving Salida until Monday. I need to rest.
Then I’ll begin the climb to Monarch Pass. I plan in going up six miles and camping. If I feel okay, I’ll do another six and camp. I seriously doubt I can get over the top in one day. We’ll see.
It was a goof thing we grabbed the hotel last night as the pleasant forecast turned into a thunderstorm. The park where we would have camped was already wet from a sprinkler system. We fit 3 in a room with Corey sleeping in his sleeping bag on the floor.
The morning began with a quick bite in our room. When I retrieved my bike out of its hiding place I found that the front brake was grabbing. Mark worked on it for 30 minutes and got it functioning again.
We headed off into another light headwind. The forecast called for tailwinds. Just like last summer’s tour. Local weather forecasts out here are very unreliable.
The first 15 miles had us rolling through high desert.
The air is dry making me constantly thirsty.
We rode 15 miles then turned south off-route to locate a proper breakfast in the town of Fowler. Sadly, the town eatery was closed so we settled for Subway.
After an ATM stop, we stayed off Route and headed toward Pueblo on US 50 (Arlington Boulevard and New York Avenue to my DC area friends). It was a busy truck route but the paved shoulder was about ten feet wide with a two foot rumble strip. We were safe but for someone pulling a horse trailer with his pickup. He swerved toward the shoulder as he passed me and earned the first bird flip of the tour.
Approaching Pueblo we saw two super long unit (all one cargo) cold trains. The last few miles it felt like all the water in my body was evaporating.
Once in town I caught up with Mark and Corey who stopped at the Great Divide bike shop. I purchased some long fingered gloves for the mountain descents in the days ahead.
We were going to eat at a Mexican restaurant across the street but it had no windows and, therefore, no way for us to keep an eye on our bikes.
So I stopped a passing letter carrier and asked her about local eateries. She was incredibly helpful and sent us downtown. We ended up at Bingos, a hamburger joint. I had a cheese burger and fries and a vanilla shake that really hit the spot.
I noticed that once again my brakes were grabbing so we headed back to the bike shop. One of my brake pads in front was unevenly worn and gripping the rim. The back one was having troubles too. The mechanic fixed them both, I hope, for good.
While there he also replaced my chain and cassette (the gears in the back). My chain had stretched the length of a full link in two months. Corey’s chai was also worn but he had an unusual drivetrain. My chain cost $25; the chain the store had in stock for his bike cost $100. The owner offered it to Corey at a generous discount but Corey wouldn’t bite. He is mighty thrifty.
We rode a few blocks to a motel that I thought was gross. Cigarette butts everywhere. The laundry room smelled of mold. Cars in the parking area looked beat up. The room was nice and inexpensive. Corey and Mark has tried to hook up with a Warmshowers host but couldn’t close the deal do they took a room at the hotel. We said our goodbyes. They head north on the TransAm tomorrow. I head west in the Western Express.
I found a hotel north of town that is pretty nice. The only choice for dinner is the Mexican restaurant next store so that’s where dinner will be.
Tomorrow, assuming my bike behaves, I’m doing a climb over a 9,000 foot mountain. (I’m at around 4,700 feet now.) it should be challenging.
I am now a day ahead of schedule. I planned a rest day for Pueblo but I’m not particularly tired. I’ll save it for a bad weather day.
Many thanks to Mark and Corey for keeping me company. I’ll have to rethink solo touring after my experience with them. I wish them safe travels and great adventures through the Rockies and beyond.