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.
I began the day by riding to a WalMart north of Pueblo to buy supplies. Then I rode to the Post Office to mail something.
I was on the road pretty early, well before 8. The route began by wending me through a city park and some nice neighborhoods of modest, well kept single family homes. One of the homes was apparently owned by a whimsical artist.
After my tour of Pueblo, I headed west on Highway 96. Again!
The terrain immediately switched to rocky desert. There was a two-mile hill leaving town that I didn’t pay attention to when planning the day. It wasn’t hard but, having not taken a day off in over three weeks, I felt like my legs were full of lead. Not a good sign.
About 25 miles into the day I was caught by Yoni Doron Peters who’s doing the Western Express with a friend whom he’s meeting in Canon City. He was loaded even lighter than Corey and Mark. How do they do it?
After 37 miles I met two men who were finishing up the Western Express Route. Jagdish and Steve told me of a place a mile ahead with water and bathrooms. Steve is ending his ride in Pueblo; Jagdish is headed for Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
It turns out that they ran into Corey and Mark there! It’s located in the town of Wetmore where the Western Express and the TransAmerica Trail diverge.
Of course, Corey and Mark we’re gone by the time I arrived. I stayed about 15 minutes then rode out only to spot one of Jagdish and Steve’s riding partners, Warren. I told him about the bathrooms and water. He was all smiles having descended from over 9,000 feet in 14 miles. He said the hill would be no problem. I noted that all three riders in his group had mailed home lots of gear to shed weight.
I bid Warren goodbye and began the climb he had just flown down.
Since I was not acclimated to the thin mountain air I decided to take it easy. The scenery was beautiful, conifers and aspen trees all over the mountain slopes. I didn’t see much of it as I had my head down, grinding away.
After three miles of nonstop climbing my heart was racing so I stopped on the side of the road until it settled down. I did this again at 6 miles, 7 1/2 miles, 8 miles, and 8 1/2 miles.
A woman in an SUV rolled to a stop as she was coming down the mountain. She asked if I was okay and offered me water.
This hill was the hardest climb I’ve ever done. And 8 miles into a 14-mile climb my legs were kaput.
Rather than risk a heart attack or a crash from the extreme fatigue, I decide to swallow my pride and walk. And walk. And walk.
From time to time I got back on the bike but my legs were gone. At one point my right leg muscles went into a cramp whenever I pushed down on the pedal.
Walk. Walk. Ride. Walk. Walk.
I had allocated 3 hours for what I originally though was a 10-mile climb. Suffice it to say it took more like 4 hours.
My problem was a combination of not enough rest, too much weight, not eating and drinking enough, and age.
At the top the road gently rolled. A storm approached blowing me all over the place. Then I reached the descent. Wind howling, Mule flying. I saw a curve ahead with a 40 mph warning sign. I looked down and saw 37 and rising on my speedometer. I tapped the brakes to keep me from shooting off the road into the scrub and rocks.
It’s hard not to admire the landscape as you zoom downhill. Dead ahead loomed the ominous snowy peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Getting over them will be brutal.
I rolled into Westcliffe and looked for a motel that Jagdish and Steve recommended. The Courtyard Country Inn is a funky place with rooms arrayed around an outdoor courtyard with fountains.
Mo, the co-owner greeted me, and told me that there were no vacancies and probably none in town.
She took pity on me since I looked like I was about to keel over. She asked the Air B&B next door if they had anything. Only a $200 room. Then she remembered that some friends had booked tonight and tomorrow at her motel but said they might not come tonight. She called them and, indeed, they weren’t coming tonight. So I got their room!
Mo says they of anybody cancels for tomorrow night, I can have their room. I hope so; I like this place. Otherwise I’ll ride to Salida and get a room there.
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.