Climbing on my bike. I kicked off the year by racking up 3228’ of the “up stuff” on a mountain bike ride from home over to Duthie, around the cross country circuit, and then back over Grand Ridge to High Point. I had 66,368’ of climbing last month, which made December my biggest climbing month of 2013. I have now climbed over 500,000’ for seven years in a row, and 2013 was the first year I broke through the 700k barrier, finishing with 706,466’. I do love going uphill. What goes up must come down, and I love going downhill as well, although not to the same extent.
Normally on major holidays I like to ride my road bike on the blissfully deserted highways and byways. But just like on Christmas Day, I felt the foggy New Year’s Day weather was better tailored to riding the mountain bike. As I expected, the trails were a lot more crowded on a relative basis than the roads would have been. Not that sharing the trails with quite a few people was a burden at all.
The trails were in super shape, I felt great, and I rode very well. Winter is never a time for going fast on the MTB anyway, and certainly not with crowded trails, so I decided to focus on something else. My goal for the ride became greeting every person I met with a unique salutation. Instead of simply saying, “Happy New Year,” or “Have a great one,” blah, blah, blah, I cooked up something different to say to every single person or group I encountered. Of course, most of the time I did start with “Happy New Year,” but otherwise I went with whatever struck me at the moment. It was a lot of fun to say things like, “You will be in the sun at the top,” or to a child at Duthie, “That is a cool looking helmet,” or, “Those are very handsome dogs,” or, “This beats watching football!” In any case, the most fun part for me was coming up with something different every time.
Today’s project on the trail reminded of several times I have used a similar tactic to distract me from being really fatigued. Saturday June 9th in 2007 was the fifth and crux stage of a cycling tour I was on. The tour was following the spine of the Pyrenees Mountains. We were using the Raid Pyrenees route (plus some bonus climbs) from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. The fifth stage was particularly arduous, starting in Bagneres-de-Luchon, and ascending the Col de Peyresourde, the Col d’ Aspin (for which one of our cats is named), and then the mighty Col du Tourmalet. From the top of the Tourmalet, it was pretty much all downhill to Argeles-Gazost, the pretty ski village where we would be spending the night. I say mostly downhill…unless you added the optional HC climb to the ski station of Hautacam. This climb was immortalized in 2000 when Lance Armstrong stormed up it in an EPO powered rage and rode into the yellow jersey, just as Bjarne Riis had done when he demoralized and cracked the entire peloton in the 1996 Tour de France. Adding Hautacam to the already steep (no pun intended) agenda for the day brought the total mileage to 91, with 14,000’ of climbing. Of the 17 riders on the trip, I was one of only three who tackled Hautacam.
The turn for Hautacam came precariously close to the day’s final destination, where food and a cozy room awaited me. On top of that, it was an up and back unsupported climb. There was no compelling reason to make that right turn and head up towards the sky again. At this point, I was riding solo, but there was never any doubt in my mind the entire day that I was going up that sucker. Well, maybe a shred of doubt as I crested the Tourmalet in the rain.
It was 3600’ of climbing at an average grade of 7% to the official top, but damn it anyway, I decided to add 200’ of additional very steep climbing up to the upper parking lot that was at the top of the bunny slope rope tow! Sometimes I wonder just what it is that makes me do these things, especially when there is not another soul around.
I was already deep in the Hurt Locker when I started up Hautacam, and about halfway up I was having serious doubts as to whether I wanted to continue. When you start wondering what the point is of what you are presently doing, you know you are starting to pop! At that stage of the climb, I started to see signs festooned with the image of a cyclist announcing the gradient for the next kilometer. These signs are common and normally entertaining on many of the famous European climbs, but it was pure torture to see the 8%, 9%, and then 10+% numbers on the steeper second half of the climb. To change my focus and outlook, I decided that every time I went by one of those signs for the next kilometer I would think of some really special moment I’d enjoyed with Tracy, who is now my wife. Kilometer by kilometer, the thought might have been something sweet that she did for me, or a fun trip we had taken together. The thoughts in my head helped to click off the kilometers, and before I knew it I was done with the climb.
Another time I was reminded of on today’s ride was my ascent of the Stelvio on Tuesday, June 17th of 2008. I was on a nearly three week cycling trip of a lifetime with my friend Tim W. Tim’s wife was accompanying us and essentially driving sag support for us. Sweet! The Stelvio remains the single greatest climb that I have ever done, and it was an almost mystical experience that day. We started the 16 mile/6000’ vertical gain/7.1% average grade climb in a drizzle, but that didn’t last long. Soon we were in a steady downpour, and by the time we reached the top of the col at over 9000’, it was snowing. Perhaps the arduous conditions and the lack of traffic on a rainy Monday helped to make the Stelvio the most incredible climbing experience I have had. In any case, it was a hard climb. No, make that a VERY hard climb. Day after day of 10,000’+ of climbing might have had a little to do with that, but even on a good day, the Stelvio is a monumental piece of riding. Just ask the pros who ride the Giro.
It was a stunning climb, but nevertheless, at some point, I knew I had to dig deep and find some kind of bonus motivation to keep me going. The Stelvio is made all the more special because it has 48 numbered switchbacks that zigzag back and forth up a very steep face of the mountain:
Switchback #48 is low on the climb. In general, the higher you go, the closer the switchbacks get. There was a lot of distance between #48 and #47, and it gave me plenty of time to devise a strategy to make the climb more enjoyable (survivable?). On the Stelvio, I tried to reconstruct each year of my life that corresponded with the number of the switchback. As the climb got harder as I rode higher, it became more and more difficult to fill up each kilometer with specific memories, but I gave it my best effort, and it really did help. It was an odd situation in that I wanted the experience of the climb to go on forever, but it was a hard climb and I needed to take my mind off of that as I also focused on enjoying the moment and my surroundings. At around age 5 I gave up, and just focused on the matter at hand.
Today I wasn’t trying to distract myself from any unpleasant sensation. I was simply sharing how much I enjoy riding my bike with everyone I encountered. It was fun being creative, and hopefully as a sidelight, I added a little positive vibe to the image of mountain biking. So once again, I found myself starting the New Year where I left off the previous year…on my bike.