Friday September 26, 2014, 96 miles (154 km) – Total so far: 5,583 miles (8,986 km)
Should there be a ceremonial way to start the last day on a tour? It seems like there should, but it’s too early for me to figure something out. I just can’t get my brain to do more than the standard routine at 6 am. All I can do is just get down to business. Business today will include a morning climb to 11,318 foot Fremont Pass.
The day begins with the unceremonious 6 am start in total darkness. It doesn’t seem that long ago that first light was at 4.40 am! Where has the summer gone? Yeah, I know, it has slipped away underneath the tread of my tires as I pedalled to and fro around Montana. I wonder if it is easy for anyone to relinquish the long days of summer and the freedom of a tour. It certainly has never been for me.
I pedal up the switchbacks of the bike path below the Dillon dam wall. The light from my flashing headlamp bounces along as we hit lumps, bumps and cracks. The silence is intoxicating. The stillness isn’t still – there is a 5 mph westerly bending back the grasses along the trail this morning. First light catches us as we crest the dam wall and start heading into the wind. In the darkness ahead I can see dark shapes moving down the path – early morning runners with no reflective clothing. Once past them, I see no one else on the trail. Dawn catches me along the edge of the lake near Frisco. I love the anticipation of dawn. The sky is slowly stripped of darkness molecule by molecule. That disintegration of darkness is slow and steady, as night is scattered by the sun’s rays ascending the horizon. In those moments before the sun pops over the hill, the atmosphere almost feels expectant, like the predawn is pregnant with light. The arrival of the sun ushers in the activity of diurnal creatures and another day begins.
I ride into the shadow of the walls of Ten Mile Canyon. A glacier came through here, 1,000 feet thick, exploiting a fault and weakness in the rock to grind out our path through the mountains today. We are certainly grinding our way up – the headwind and uphill have me spinning in pretty easy gears! Over 12 miles, we’ll gain about 700 feet of elevation from Silverthorne at 9,035 feet to Copper Mountain at 9,712 feet.
I inhale a couple of bananas at Copper Mountain and then begin the climb to Fremont Pass. It’s 11 miles and about 1600 feet of climbing. The grade is gentle to start. The number of commuters heading down to the I-70 corridor is considerably more than I expected. Lines of headlights reach back down the road in groups of 8-10 cars separated by a few minutes of no traffic. Leadville used to have cheap rent. It doesn’t anymore – but it’s obviously less than whatever you’d pay in the ski communities.
I head on up the gentle climb and round the corner where the steeper grade comes into view. There’s a few miles of seven percent grade to spin up. But I love the climbing, and knowing this is my last pass for this tour, I enjoy finding the groove and listening to my heart beat and my lungs exchange air. I love to listen to my body working in a well-tuned rhythm that has developed this far into a tour. My asthma is quite manageable today. I feel like I could just keep climbing all morning. Just up and up and up. But the miles tick by, the mining company trucks zoom back and forth up the road with their orange flags waving, the sun breaks the ridge, the road weaves along the edge of the massive tailings ponds for the molybdenum mine, and then the mine workings come into view.
One more curve, one more short climb and we’ve made it to the top. The huge dump trucks scooting along the hills to the east at the mine trail clouds of dust. They look tiny from here, though they are massive vehicles when you stand next to one. Wow. We are done. That’s the last big climb this year. There is a small climb into Leadville and a small climb just past the Chalk Cliffs on 285, but the rest of the day will mostly be downhill. My soul is sad in so many different ways.
There is little traffic heading my direction, and I know the curves in the road from last year, so I’m going to give the downhill everything I’ve got. I only made it to about 39 mph last year, so I want to see if I can do better. The downhill has a steep grade of seven percent for a bit less than a mile to start, then there is a long sweeping curve before the grade goes gentle. Then there are two short, but steeper, sections of around five percent grade to give you a little kick. All of this is set beneath the high forested ridges of the headwaters of the Arkansas River. Let’s go!
I pedal hard into the steep downhill and flick into the biggest gears. I tuck down and pull out into the far side of the lane to charge into the apex of the curve. We scream around the corner, leaning into it as much as I dare. I think I hear Verne giggle. Then I pull up and pedal as hard as I can through the gentle grade, trying to maintain as much speed as possible into the next steeper section. As we drop more quickly again, I pedal until I can’t keep the cadence then tuck down again. Pedal hard again through the next gentle bit. Then pedal hard into the final steep part, tuck right down behind Verne and Kermit, elbows in, head down. I know I’m not going to be breaking any records on such a shallow descent, but I’m going fast enough to feel pretty fantastic. I love how everything – every bump, every tiny swerve in steering, every gust of wind – is so exaggerated at speed. I stay tucked as long as possible, but eventually the road flattens out and there’s no more speed to be gained. I keep pedalling to keep the momentum, but the flying has finished. A check of the bike computer says we did 41.4 mph. Not bad – but pretty typical for me on a downhill. I did go faster than last year, though, so I call it a success.
Further down the road I see two road cyclists who wave with the full length of their arms and smile broadly. Further on, I see another little cluster of them. Then further back still, I see their support van and an even bigger cluster of riders. In all, there are probably about 15 of them doing a supported tour. Everyone waves and smiles; the support van honks. I wave to all. They will have an amazing downhill after their short climb to the pass. I can imagine their grins as they get that straight shot down the seven percent section.
After a quick Subway sandwich in Leadville, I head on down the valley. The winds are supposed to be favourable this morning but not so much this afternoon. So I keep the rubber to the pedal and tick away the miles below the massive peaks of the Sawatch Range. We roll out of the wide flats of the upper Arkansas River valley into the rocky canyon at Granite. Then we roll back out into a wider valley once again. The shoulder is wide, the trend is downhill. I’m rolling toward the finish of 5500 miles. Can someone hit rewind?
I stop in Buena Vista around noon to eat and to call my parents. As I sit in the park consuming trail mix, I talk to my mom. She sounds very excited to hear from me. “Where are you!?”, she asks.
I reply, “I’m in Buenie. I’ve just stopped to eat a few snacks. I’m going to make it down to you today for sure. The wind has swapped to a headwind as forecast, but I’m thinking I’ll get there between 2 and 3 pm, depending on the wind.”
And then we go riding down the final miles. The string of 14,000 foot mountains called the Collegiate Peaks rise straight up from the valley to the west. The aspen groves look so teeny against the massive bulk of those mountains. The scale and immensity are breath-taking. It happens to be quite scenic, too. A few clouds gather behind the peaks, but there is little chance of a storm today. It is just another beautiful, stable and sunny September day. The traffic is quite heavy after the 24/285 junction. It seems like all of Denver is heading into the mountains for the weekend. It also seems like every third car is toting mountain bikes – I imagine the Monarch Crest Trail will be very busy this weekend!
All too soon, I get to the gas station before the final drop into Salida. I go in and get an ice cream sandwich and a Coke – my own celebration of the end of the tour. I don’t want to eat ice cream too often in front of my mom since she can’t indulge. The guys and I enjoy it, and I’d like to spend some time reflecting on our 5500 miles, but I can’t. It is too sad, and it doesn’t seem real. How can this be my last afternoon of riding?!
We roll on down 285, turn off onto 291 and pedal along the irrigated fields and housing developments. My mom gave me directions to their new place some time ago, but I only remember bits and pieces of those instructions. I do remember to turn at the Scanga Meat sign and know that they are on the main county road. I just don’t remember how far up. I don’t remember the street address, so I’m hoping I can recognise the house and spot their cars. And of course, the final few miles are uphill at a pretty decent grade. I’m not in granny, but I’m spinning up the hill just a few gears away.
The Pinon Hills subdivision is a mix of super-expensive, custom-designed homes and modular homes that arrived by truck. My parents have purchased a modular home in need of some work. My mom has been working very hard to get it all ready for my dad’s arrival from Indiana and a visit from my brother and me. She has hilarious horror stories about plumbing problems and trying to remove existing carpet and linoleum. This is my Mom’s dream home, though. She’s wanted to live in Colorado for the past 35 years. Dreams do come true.
I huff and puff my way up the hill and almost miss their house. I thought it would be on the next corner. As I pedal into the driveway, it still doesn’t seem real. This is it. The ride is over. I see my 29 year-old teddy bear in the kitchen window, propped up so he can be looking for me. I then see my dad on a ladder in the dining room window hanging a new light fixture. He calls out, “She’s here!” It is right on 2pm. And just like that, 4 months and 5500 miles of riding come to an end.