Thursday, August 11, 2011

Courage Classic

Once again, thank you all for your kind and generous support for our Children’s Hospital fund-raising efforts. We had a goal to raise $2,000 for the Hospital, and as of yesterday we were at $1,943! I never thought we would get even that close; you all have far outstripped my expectations and I am honored and humbled to have such fine and generous friends. Thanks. And apparently you can still contribute until the end of August (I thought we were done after the ride) so, if you are interested in helping us get that last $57, then feel free to click either of the links below and make a tax-deductible donation on our behalf. Thanks again.


But at any rate, the big ride is actually over; it’s been over for over a week now, I’ve been remiss in writing a follow-up, so I’m here to right all wrongs and write about all the thrills, spills, and chills of the Courage Classic Weekend.

And I sort of wish there were more spills to write about. If you know my style, you know that I prefer to write about misadventures and things gone wrong, more than writing about when things go well. You know, happy bike rides are all alike; every unhappy bike ride is unhappy in its own way. Thank you, Tolstoy. Anna Karenina as an allegory about cycling. Of course Tolstoy’s implication is that one really only needs to write one story, if that, about a successful Courage Classic venture, and be done with it. And sadly for my blog, but happily for me, on the whole the bike trip was a grand success. But I’ll see if I can’t tart it up a bit nonetheless. We rode 200 miles over three days, over several classic Colorado mountain passes, in beautiful weather and with great friends. But I think I can cherry-pick some of the unexpected mishaps and make this narrative at least somewhat entertaining for both myself and you all. But alas, no one threw themselves under a train, so right away I’m playing from behind.

As mentioned, the “Classic” took place over three days. Although we stayed in Copper Mountain for the duration, the first day’s ride started in Leadville on Saturday. This necessitated us driving over Fremont pass early in the morning, with bikes in tow, to get to the official start of the ride. We would leave our truck in Leadville all weekend, and ride back from Copper to get it on Monday. So basically this meant that we had to ride back to Copper from Leadville on the first day. These two towns are only about 25 miles apart from one another, but the Classic elects to take a longer route betwixt the two, summiting Tennessee pass between Leadville and Minturn, and Vail pass between Vail and Copper. It was a ride of 58 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing, half of which would be on the Vail pass climb at the hot, sticky end of the day. Vail pass. This could be the chance for disaster I’d been craving. I did ride it just a few weeks prior after competing in the Vail hill climb, but I had a delightful tailwind that day, and was, even after running a 7 mile race, fresher than I would be on this day so I anticipated glorious struggle ahead.

There are probably 2,000 riders in this event, but they don’t all start at the same time – too bad, actually, another missed opportunity for mayhem and chaos. Our little team started the ride at the tail end of the recommended “start window”, which ended at 9:00 am. I think we started at 8:45 am. As the weather was beautiful with very little chance for rain, we figured there was no point in starting early when it was cold. Biking seems to turn me into an instant wuss, particularly in such matters relating to cold temperatures, so I was more than happy to start as late as possible on this day.

No one can accuse the Courage Classic of saving the best for last; the first 20 miles of the ride are arguably the best of the entire course. Any rider who has been will tell you that Tennessee pass is an absolute treasure. Gorgeous scenery, smooth pavement, steady grades, light traffic, great weather; to steal from baseball, it’s a 5-tool road. I was enjoying my day and riding nice and easy when I came up behind two girls who were singing “Don’t stop believing, hold on to that feeling…”, just as I passed them. Without missing a beat, I sang back “Street-light, people-whoah-oh-oooooh!” and just kept going. Celeste and I sing that song all the time, it was pretty surprising and rather awesome to hear some other girls singing the same song and having fun.

Aaah, but that’s too nice. Couldn’t something have gone wrong here? Oh yes, now I remember. As mentioned, the route climbed to the top of Tennessee Pass, and then revealed a long descent to Redcliff, before a short climb up Red Mountain and a steep descent into Minturn. Our team hung together to the top of the pass, and then we all took the descent at our own pace. My teammates Tim and Tony quickly got ahead of me on the way down, as they are much better riders than am I. But I can climb faster than they can. By the time I got to the base of Red Mountain climb I could no longer see them but I thought I would get out of the saddle and see if I couldn’t reel them in nonetheless. Tony I was able to catch part way up the hill, which gave me hope that I could catch Tim as well. Alas, as soon as I put in a really hard effort, or perhaps because, I slipped my chain as I tried to shift into a higher gear. Tim was out of reach as a result. Actually I think he was out of reach regardless, but I can blame the chain. Quite embarrassing, really.

Red Mountain successfully navigated, we all descended into Minturn, hit the eagle river at the lowest point of the weekend at about 8,000 feet of elevation, and started heading back up the Vail valley to the pass. The Classic provides a lunch stop here so we all stopped and took a long and leisurely break. Last year we ate too much at this lavishly appointed lunch stop, so I tried to reign in my deep-seated instinct to eat everything in sight, and opted for a PB&J sandwich, some chips, and some fruit, and a coke. And a cookie. And potato soup. Oh I give up. As we were wrapping up we ran into our friends The Cycling Amers. The Amers are family friends of Tim and Brian from Santa Fe, and they are crazy-good cyclists. Daughter Tess is a competitive triathlete for the University of Colorado, but all of them are amazing riders. The Amers pulled out of the lunch stop just ahead of Tim and I, and I asked Tim if he’d be interested in riding with them through Vail, at least. He was up for the challenge so we put in a little effort and caught up, and rode through Vail in a little pack up the valley, which was delightful. Delightfully boring, you might add. Not to worry; I’m setting something up here.

Vail pass proper is a funny sort of climb. Because, you know, all flat rides are exactly alike, but every hill climb is hilly in its own way. It starts out with a ridiculous pitch, then levels out a bit, then even has a slight downhill section as it crosses under the interstate about 2/3 of the way up the climb. Then the route becomes insanely steep again, before mellowing out ever-so-slightly at the finish.

The initial pitch completely blew up our group, and I found myself chasing Tess’ dad, her brother, and her boyfriend up the hill all on my own. Those three animals ate up vertical like a bear ransacking a cooler full of cheese, and it was all I could do to keep up. Somewhere along the way my little brain blew a fuse, and I decided that I would do everything in my power to keep up with these dudes who were clearly out of my league. Aaah, the competitive spirit comes out at last! I was able to stick to them through that little under-the-interstate downhill bit, but on the near-vertical pitch directly following that bit they started to pull away, ever so slowly. I was broken! But not completely. I kept them in sight and kept pushing. And I had the advantage of knowing that the course does, in fact, mellow out a bit towards the top. I don’t think they knew exactly where the top was, so I perceived that they were starting to ease up a bit as they neared the final pitch. I put in a stupid, drooling, bug-eyed effort and got pretty close to them at the top. Holy crap that was difficult and pointless! I realized then that this is how I would spend the rest of the weekend. Totally sandbagging it on the flats and downhills, and hitting the hills as hard as possible. Why? I seriously have no idea. I like hills? Do what you like.

At the top of the pass the Amers gathered together and then all took off while I waited for my team, and got a free bike tune at the summit (see chain, falling off all the freaking time, above), which was pretty sweet, and actually quite necessary. Team Ziggy thusly congregated, we all started down the East side of the pass to Copper, but were quickly stopped before we could enter the bike path that winds its way down to the resort between the twin strands of interstate. Apparently there had been a collision on the path, and that had snarled up traffic, much less busted up one or more riders, so they were only letting us down the path in small groups. This situation took a little wind out of our sails as we cruised on back to Copper, but I didn’t see any carnage on the trail so hopefully it wasn’t that bad and everyone involved was ok.

That evening we all enjoyed beers and pasta and hot tubbing, and I cut a striking figure in my newly-acquired bike “tan”. More like a bike burn, really. I swear I put on sun screen, it must have sweated off during the day. Ouch. So day one carnage consisted of bike chain slip-age, Vail pass drool-age, and bike tan burn-age. Not Tolstoy-esque, but not bad with a little embellishment.

Sunday was the big day. Tim and I got out of the condo early, as we were the only two who had aspirations on taking on the big 100-mile ride that day. The others, sensibly, slept in and opted for the 50 mile (I think?) option. Tim and I were in the saddle at 7:04 am Sunday, nearly two hours earlier than the day before. The “century” (actually only about 94 miles I think? Whatev, close enough) starts out with a mellow ride down the bike path from Copper to Frisco. Just mellow enough where you don’t really need to pedal. A situation that did me no favors as I was freezing in the shade of the canyon on that initial drop. We started to warm up when we made it to relatively sunny and therefore relatively balmy Frisco, and then Silverthorne. But I didn’t remove my jacket until about 25 miles into the ride as we stopped at the base of Ute Pass.

Ute Pass is another funny sort of climb, isn’t it? Aren’t they all, Tolstoy? Funny in what way, you ask? Well for starters unless you are a miner of molybdenum, Ute pass really doesn’t take you anywhere. A real road to nowhere, Mr. Byrne. Secondly, the road is in such good shape as to seem unreal. The grade is steep, but consistent, and the pavement is pristine, black, smooth, banked in the corners and gleaming without traffic, a delightful side-effect of the not so delightful gigantic mine hidden away on the other side of the pass. As Tim and I climbed towards the pass we salivated at the thought of returning down this beautiful road. Well, I may have been drooling, not salivating exactly, but we were excited nonetheless.

And the descent did not disappoint. Neither did the views form the pass at the snow-capped and spear-tipped legion of the Gore range to our west, the same mountains I spied from the other side with furtive glances from the Vail valley floor the previous day. It was fun to think I had come so far, all under my own pedal power. But this view was not spied, furtively or otherwise, as we sped back down to the valley floor on this most perfect of mountain roads. I’m such a tentative downhill rider but on this stretch of asphalt I was able to release the brakes more than usual, and enjoy a (for me) screaming, barreling, tear-inducing descent back to the blue river valley. Quite frankly it was altogether too fun for this narrative, as I’m trying so hard to wring out the tension and drama from this weekend. But it was pretty awesome at the time, I won’t lie.

Speaking of time, Tim and I felt like we were under the gun a bit on Sunday, as the weather forecast called for a 40% chance of rain that day. I have always wondered if “40% chance of rain” means that the entire area of weather prediction has a 40% chance of getting rained upon during the day, or if instead 40% of the area of prediction has 100% chance of getting rained upon, or if 40% of the area has a 40% chance of being rained upon for 40% of the day? I know it logically means the first clarification, but I amused myself by thinking that since Tim and I were essentially covering the entire area of prediction that day, that being the length and breadth of Summit County, then my chances of hitting some of the “40% area”, however interpreted, were pretty high indeed.

The previous year when Celeste and I rode this same route we did get drenched on the final 15 miles of the ride, and I was not eager to repeat that experience, so Tim and I tried to keep up our pace and out run the predicted afternoon storms. We had what we thought were two more climbs left in our day; a soul-sucking climb from the “mountain shopping experience” of Silverthorne-Dillon to Keystone on a busy highway (where have you gone, Tennessee Pass, a courage classic turns its lonely eyes to you-ou-ou-ou), and the much more pleasant – scenery-wise, at any rate – climb up sawn mountain between Keystone and Breckenridge. As was my mode this year, I kicked it into big-jerk competitive mode on the climbs, and rested on the flatter bits. Our route included an out-and-back to Breckenridge where we finally, 80 miles into our ride, had a sponsored lunch stop. We were both getting pretty tired by then but had avoided getting wet, at least, so although my neck, knees and back were starting to complain about so much time on the bike, we were feeling rather chuffed as we coasted into the parking lot where lunch was served.

Happily for you all, my long-suffering readers, I would soon have something to complain about. This is because I now proceeded to make the near fatal mistake of gorging myself at the lunch stop on room-temperature Asian stir fry, chips, coke, and cookies. Here we go again. The chips, cookies and coke actually were not so bad, but a simple PB&J would have been far and away the superior choice, and that staple was an option. But I was so impressed that the Courage Classic would even attempt to roll out such an exotic spread that I just had to reward their culinary verve with a Gore-range monument of almost-warm vegetable fried rice and young vegetables stewing in cool brown sauce. Yes it was quite nearly as delicious as described. I had a much easier time circumnavigating that mountain of food than I did the actual mountain range that somehow inspired this tacky monument of gluttony. Objectively speaking the food was not good, well, the cookie was good, but after riding 80 miles I laid waste to that quivering plate like a Barbarian horde of One. After pillaging my tender and defenseless Chinese vegetables, my victory was completely satisfying initially, but ultimately pyrrhic in nature. Alas my careless aggression at the buffet table would haunt me for the next, oh, 16 hours or so, and make me persona non grata of the team during that span, not to put too fine a point on it. Now that’s how we wring out the drama!

So lunch was in Breckenridge, but dinner was in Copper, so Tim and I had to saddle up and finish the ride before we could call the day a complete success. Judging from the course profile the span between Breckenridge and Copper looked to be flat, which was encouraging. It was not flat. At least 90 miles into the day what normally might have felt flat felt like another mountain climb. Tim led out and I tried to hang on to his wheel on the pretty and scenic bike path between Frisco and Copper on the final 7 miles of the day. Back, knees and neck were now joined by stomach in a chorus of complaint, led by my legs, which were conducting a symphony which seemed less like an ode to joy, and more like a dirge, if not a full requiem of fatigue. And somehow I had to get up and do this again tomorrow? I marveled at the endurance and stamina of Tour de France riders as the pitch began to finally truly flatten out as we entered the vale of Copper Mountain to finally conclude day number two. 150 miles in the bag, and another 50 to go. And my bike tan was looking even more dramatic, thus proving that not all suffering is in vain.

As Monday morning dawned, I enjoyed a sensible and bland breakfast of toast and vanilla yogurt, and the team, once again together after splitting up on our separate quests of day 2, started en masse on the route back to Leadville from Copper. It was at this point that teammate Chryss became the lucky recipient of our one and only flat tire of the weekend, not even out of Copper Mountain resort proper.

Happy to have that bit of tradition out of the way, we then made the turn towards Leadville, passing by the “A” lift ski runs at Copper along the way. I gave “Far East” a salute as we rode by its grassy green summer ribbon. Far East is one of my all-time favorite ski runs with its broken fall lines and enormous moguls. Of course this being summer the moguls were absent, but I mused to myself about when I was maybe 7 years old, and thought that the ski areas created moguls by piling up dirt into malicious mounds in the summer months, for the snow to collect upon in perfect piles during the winter. I had no idea that they were created by the action of skiers themselves until I was older. But as we rode by I reminisced about all the times, 30+ years’ worth of times, I suppose, that I’d set off down that particular ski run that has always been there to give me a challenge.
far east on the far left of the photo

Riding by that ski slope made me appreciate that I have been fortunate enough to have been able to ski that particular run for so many years. And appreciate, in a more abstract sense, that there are places out there that I can come back to, year after year. I’m all for novelty, and trying new things, but there is something also rewarding in being able to mark the span of years by coming back to a place more or less physically unchanged over time. It’s not home, it’s even better in some ways. After a certain point you really can’t go home again, (to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, or was it Tolstoy? I’m giving it to Tolstoy. To heck with Wolfe.), because home really does change on you. But you can always go to the Far East.

And I began to consider that this event, the Courage Classic, might start to become one of those events for me. This was the second year of our participation in this event, and we all talked about doing it again in 2012. Of course this was before we hit the main pitch of Fremont pass. Fremont pass separated us from Leadville, and us from our truck, so there really was nothing to do but climb to its mine-scarred 11,000 feet summit. Thank you, molybdenum. Last year Celeste and I rode this together and we sang Journey all the way up. This year I was all business and dispensed with the singing, I think Celeste was singing though. I should have been singing, I think, and I was reprimanded by the Courage Classic spirits in the form of having my chain fall off again, just before attaining the summit. Note to self; next year less grunting, more singing.

Now once again the towns of Copper Mountain and Leadville are only something like 25 miles apart from one another (albeit separated by Fremont pass), but the bike route elected to take us on a scenic circumnavigation of Turquoise lake to pad our ride to something along the lines of 45 miles for the day. Well it’s a lake, how much climbing can there be? Quite a bit, as it turned out. My legs were pretty fatigued from the previous two days’ worth of riding, much less from good old Fremont pass, so I thought I would just take it easy on the final climbs of the weekend and enjoy the rest of my ride at a sedate pace. That attitude lasted for about 5 minutes, and then I was back to my old drooling self as I bested the numerous false-summits towards the high point of the road at the back of the lake. Young habits die hard.

We ran into the Cycling Amers again on the back side of Turquoise lake, they had started their ride from Breckenridge that day and actually had no ride home from Leadville, but didn’t seem too concerned about taking Fremont pass back to Copper and Summit county. Animals. As for us, after a long slog back to Leadville after the lake, we concluded our ride in good form at the Leadville High School. We laid waste to yet another lunch buffet – portabella mushroom burgers this time, no stir fry, thank goodness – and swapped stories and made promises to do it again next year.

So there you have it, our second courage classic successfully navigated, with an eye towards doing it again next year. If you’re interested in joining our team, let me know! My only requirement is that you like to sing. And don’t mind a little drool.

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