I was climbing as well as a 220 pound guy can climb up a steep mountain pass about 60-miles into Colorado’s infamous Triple Bypass yearly bike ride.
I still had another 60-miles to go to complete the ascent and descent of three very long and steep mountain passes to get to the finish line in Avon, Colorado. I reached into my back pocket to get a gel when I lost concentration and dropped with a thud from the road like an over ripe apple onto the loose sand they were using to pad the new tarmac.
One second I was climbing and the next I was lying on the side of the road like beached whale still clipped into my pedals. About every two seconds a rider would yell out, “Are you OK?,” as I struggled to free my bound feet.
I was totally fine except for the fact that I couldn’t get free from my shackle-like clips. I had just taken the world’s slowest fall into the world’s softest sand. It was like plopping into fresh powder, except warmer and much more embarrassing.
After struggling for about 5 minutes like an unturned turtle I figured out it was easier just to slip out of my shoes and be done with it.
Standing only in my socks by the side of the road I was happy to have restored what little dignity I still had left as I got back on my road bike for the rest of this crazy adventure.
When I first moved to Colorado I had of course heard about the Triple Bypass. It was a legendary ride for a few crazy types who were willing to try to ride just over 120 miles with three mountain passes and over 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Just to put it into perspective that’s about the average day in the Alps for the boys on the Tour de France.
And just to put it into even more perspective please note that I don’t and indeed have never shaved my legs. That’s about the level of rider I am when compared to the serious cyclist.
I knew I was in for a long hard day when I started the ride at 6:30 a.m. with a nice steep 2-hour warm up climb to the top of the first pass. There was no dinner, no foreplay, no pleasant conversation…just a sharp right turn after I mounted my bike and right into the granny gear. In fact, I have never before in my life spent so much time in such a teeny tiny gear.
As much as I love my BMC Time Machine, this was no time to for bravery so I wisely opted to ride my Giant road bike with a triple gear for the Triple Bypass. I did see one guy (from Manchester, England as it turned out) on a triathlon Scott time trial bike, but he was not nearly as amused as I was by his valiant struggle up the mountains.
I reached the top of the first Pass at 8:30 a.m. feeling pretty proud and smug. I had now covered about the first 12 miles of the ride in just under two hours. When I did the math my heart sank, I was averaging just about 6-miles-hour. Let’s keep this perspective train rolling. The boys on the tour climbed two very similar mountains in the Alps today and the leaders averaged about 39-kilometers an hour…which is about 1 million more miles an hour than I could ever dream about.
Well there was nothing I could do about it but fill up my empty water bottles and begin the long descent to Idaho Springs. That part was easy. Now I’m sure that no one would ever mistake me for a contender for the “King of the Mountains” polka dot jersey. I’m not small, I’m not thin, I’m certainly not Columbian and I’m certainly not dancing on my bike as I struggle up even the smallest grade.
I can, however descend like the wind. All that weight and bulk that are such a huge anchor on the climb magically turn into a powerful booster rocket on the descent. Usually very few cyclists can pass me on a downhill unless I sit up and let them. So naturally I really love this part of the mountain rides. Unfortunately, in the mountains, what goes down has to go up. All too soon I was climbing again and this time up I-70 toward Loveland Pass.
This is by far the worst stretch of the Triple Bypass as all two thousand riders must negotiate about a 5-mile stretch of the highway just before the Loveland Ski area. And this part of the ride is not only dangerous, as cars whizz by at over seventy miles an hour, but also smelly and dirty, as huge semitrailer trucks and overloaded RV’s struggle up toward the Eisenhower Tunnel spewing huge clouds of spent diesel fuel.
It came as a great relief when I saw the exit toward Loveland Pass because I knew the highway would soon be behind me and the lunch stop lay just minutes ahead.
Lunch was fast PB and J sandwich followed by a few slices of watermelon. I really wish the organizers of such epic rides took the lead from Ironman and provided some Coke or Pepsi at these rest stops. For me nothing tops the tank up on a huge effort quite like a bit of cold sugar water with massive amounts of caffeine.
I stopped drinking soda a few years ago because it really is a huge and needless sugar bomb when combined with a typical lunch or dinner, but during an Ironman or Epic ride a huge sugar bomb fortified with caffeine is just what my body craves.
Instead I filled up my water bottle with water and plopped in a Nuun tablet. When I was first sponsored by Nuun I wasn’t really sure of how my body would react to the new stuff, but over the last several months I have really come to appreciate the ease and convenience of the little tablets. Unlike the mystery aide drink they had on the ride, the Nuun is always the right consistency and taste. When they mix up the power drinks at the rest stop they always seem to use different amounts of powder and this means that sometimes it taste just right but most times it is either too strong or too week.
I actually used up an entire bottle of Nuun tablets on the ride, and I was so happy to have such a convenient and personal supply of my very own perfect hydration mix.
After recovering from my fall, I met up with some of the other brave raceAthletes at the top of Loveland pass. It was so nice to see a few friendly faces among the sea of strangers. That’s really one of the greatest parts of team raceAthlete…the ability to show up at a race or a ride and know that you have somebody to share your pain and/or joy.
I was now just over halfway through the ride. In fact I had finished the hardest part of the ride. What I didn’t know was that the Triple Bypass would throw me a bit of curve.
Why do they call it the Triple Bypass?
That’s what I kept wondering as I flew down the backside of Loveland Pass.
There really is no feeling like descending fast on a bike after a huge climb. You really feel like you’ve just sprouted wings. After hours of slogging it up hill at some ridiculously tedious and painfully slow pace (in fact, I do believe a very energetic inch worm passed me as I plodded up the pass), the descent feels like you are an immediate contender to win the Tour de France.
I was flying down the hill, but a small voice in the back of my mind kept screaming to slow down. It was almost 10 years ago that I had done this very same descent for the first time on my mountain bike retrofitted with street tires. It was my first taste of mountain riding. I just climbed the hardest pass of my life so I was jubilant to be flying down this very same road tucked into a very precarious and very silly aero position on a bike designed for mountain trials, and not fast descents.
It was just before a very dangerous and steep curve that I heard a sound that at first meant nothing to me, but today scares the hell out of me. It was loud pop or ping…almost a muffled shot gun blast. I was descending at about 45-miles-an hour heading toward a curve with a thousand foot drop just past the stubby guard rail.
Immediately my bike started to buck and bob like a crazed bull with a hornet in its ear. The back end of the bike wobbled so furiously that my vision blurred. I jumped on the brakes and the rear one pulsated as it caught and released in a frantic attempt to slow the bike down.
The only thing that saved my life that day (for I was heading straight for the guardrail and there was no doubt in my mind that I would catapult over it and into the valley thousands of feet below) was the fact that the spoke that popped was on my back wheel.
If you have ever had a spoke break you’ll know that in an instant the wheel goes out of true. This is usually a minor problem, but when you are flying down a mountain on a mountain bike with well over two hundred pounds on it the wheel can easily pancake. This recently happened to a friend of mine who did not walk away from the fall.
I was so very lucky that it was the rear wheel and that I was able to use the front break to stop just inches from the guardrail of doom. As I now flew down this very same road, this frightening scenario kept replaying in my head over and over again. By the third showing I was on my brakes. I suspect that it is the ability to ignore that little screaming voice in the back of the head that either crushes or creates some of the greatest cyclist in the world.
This Tour wannabe was all over the brakes. I had nothing to prove and two significant mountain passes still looming in my future.
They officially call it Swan Mountain Pass on the road sign but for some reason the organizers of the Triple Bypass have completely ignored it in their marketing. It comes between Loveland Pass and Vail Pass, but you’ll hear no mention of it in the official tile of the ride as in Quadruple Bypass.
I suspect that it would be the straw that would break the camels back for many riders when signing up for the ride. “Sure honey, I think I can do three mountain passes and 120-miles in the saddle,” the conversation might go. But four mountain passes, well that’s just one too many.
And that’s exactly how I was feeling climbing up Swan Mountain Pass. I was ready for Vail Pass, but instead I had to climb this bonus pass. Which would normally not be a big deal, but when you are blown, cracked, exploded like a walnut dropped on a busy semi truck clogged interstate, even a small hill is a problem. A small Mountain Pass might as well be the summit of Everest.
There comes a point for us hairy legged everyman (and I suspected even shaved legged everywoman) in any long ride when the legs explode. The symptoms are simple and straightforward. One of the large muscle groups in the legs cramps up to the point of immobility. Oh yes...and it hurts like hell.
The muscles just cramped up and stubbornly refuse to move. They let you know they mean business by sending waves of painful stabbing agony into your brain when you try to so much as unlock or twitch the seized up muscle group.
This happened to the muscles on the inside of my thighs on the way up Loveland Pass. Funny thing that; I didn’t even know that I had muscles on the inside of my thighs.
Now these same muscles were just screaming at me again saying if I
even so much as try to put down any serious power they would go on
strike and stand at rigid attention until I got into the nearest Sag
So it was only with kind and very gentle persuasion that I was able to coax them up and over Swan Mountain Pass. By the time I got to the second to last rest stop at the bottom of the pass I was ready to call it a day. But in for a dime, in for a dollar, as I like to say. So I got back on the bike and headed out.
Needless to say by this point (some 85-miles and 8 hours into the ride) my ass was on fire and I was running on pure stubborn determination. I had my head down and I was now on this death ride to the very end. You know when you get into that mental zone when nothing matters but the finish. In fact I was so into the zone that a car crash on the road next to me didn’t even garner my attention. I heard the skid followed by the sound of crunching plastic and metal and looked up as two cars collided in a nasty fender bender.
I just put my head down and kept pedaling. There were tons of police all around and besides the only thing I could have done at that moment was to stop, and tumble from the bike like a newly cut tree, and hope that someone would stand me back up, while I tried not to add to the carnage.
With the accident behind me I now had about a 15 mile climb to the top of the last pass. Vail Pass loomed in my future Moby Dick…huge, frightening and unconcerned.
I began the assent in earnest at Copper Mountain. I had climbed this pass from the Copper side many times. It usually takes about a half hour and makes for a very pleasant ride next to a babbling stream. Happy-go-lucky vacationers stroll up and down the pass taking in the massive mountain vistas while breathing in the hundreds of intoxicating wild flower fragrances.
I didn’t see any of this. All I saw was the cement path about three feet in front of me. I begged, pleaded, and extorted my thigh muscles to just keep clicking over. I was now in the home stretch of the death ride and all I had to do was make it to the aid station at the top of the pass. Mercifully the organizers had put the last aid station about twenty miles from Avon. The rest of the ride was all downhill from that aid station at the top of Vail Pass.
All I had to do was make it to the top of the pass and I could coast to the finish. I knew from prior experience that the last quarter mile of the path kicks up viciously and no matter how much I wished it were not so, the path had indeed not changed. About an eighth of a mile from the summit the pass took an especially nasty left turn skyward and my legs called it quits.
That was it they said and cramped up solid like titanium. I just stood there mortified straddling my bike and watched the other riders crest the hill and stop at the aid station. I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could get back on my bike, clip in, and continue up the hill. So I did the only thing left to me. I dismounted and goose stepped up the hill like a Nazi marching on parade before WWII dragging my bike behind me. I was embarrassed, but I was not able to bend my knees…but I was also not defeated.
When the road evened out a bit I was able to get back on the bike and climb the last few hundred feet the aid station which was just one parking lot level from the tippy top of Vail Pass.
I took on some more water and waited for the rest of the raceAthlete gang to join me. The had waited a bit longer at the previous rest stop to group up while I had gone ahead knowing they would catch me.
When they did we rode as a group to the very top of Vail Pass. This is where I almost puked. The tiny amount of effort to just ride that last little bit was a climb to far. My body was spent and I knew it. I felt like I had just completed and Ironman and now I was feeling weak, sick and all I wanted to do was lay down under a shady tree.
And this is exactly what I did when I finally coasted to the finish in Avon. Actually, I first loaded up my plate with chicken and a burger at the after ride feed. Unfortunately while my mind thought I was hungry my body refused to eat. I took a bite of the burger and a bite of chicken and just chewed at it. All I wanted to do was lay down and rest and stop moving and not puke.
It was the same look I saw on many a face next to me. Sure, there were plenty of people sitting on the grass in the setting sun munching on burgers and chatting about the day’s adventures. But there were just as many laying in the shade with that “I will not puke” look that comes from over exertion and too much sun.
Post Script: My mom picked me up and drove me back to my car some 120 miles away. To get to her car on the bike path I had to climb what I could best describe as a half story mound, miniature hill, or an overly ambitious bump in the path.
I walked up it.
After climbing for just under 10 hours with a total day’s adventure time of 12 hours, I could not mentally or physically stomach another hill.