Have you ever seen a big old tree that has consumed a metal gate or some iron railings? I have something similar happening, and I noticed it this week. If I run my hand through my hair and across my head I can feel ridges. After many thousands of hours of wearing my bike helmet, my head is taking on the shape of the vents. Perhaps it is closer to foot binding, who can say, but I am now becoming as one with the bike.
A headwind ruins what should have been a perfectly straightforward and easy pedal from Ordway into Pueblo. It is hot too, with a dry heat, which if you do not swallow for a few minutes makes the next time you do feel like trying to get down a fir ball. There are three dead snakes, one of which is big enough and alive enough to make Esther swerve, almost taking the front of my bike with her. It is hard not to react first and do the thinking later. ” We could both ended up on the floor there, and been bitten by a snake “. She still has scars on her elbow from years ago in France when I slammed on the brakes as three big dogs ran for me. I did not realise they were behind a fence. Often the most dangerous thing on the road is the person you are cycling with.
We get to Pueblo rather too worn out by our battle to enjoy its delights. Only when we leave the next morning do we get to see what a nice place bits of it are. A search of the WWW. finds the gps tracking page for the TransAm race. This is a self supported race on our route that is coming from the west coast. The leader will pass here in a few hours after starting just 7 days ago. That after crossing all the lumpy bits of the Rockies and Cascades, respect is due. It is a quiet Sunday morning as we leave the flat lands behind and bike out of town. We are both nervous about the climbs ahead. We get our first view of the Rockies early in the ride. For a while the Arkansas River ran along by our side. But a series of short climbs and we were on our own, back in a bleached wilderness.
We have been gaining height very slowly even as far back as when we entered Kansas. Things are going to get very serious rather soon here. We have a tailwind that takes us to the town of Wetmore and our first time this year at 6,000 ft. It has been easy biking, with the wind playing on our team and a coolness from the altitude. We take a right, leaving HWY 96 after hundreds of miles and lining ourselves up for Canon City and the Rockies. There is a short uphill pull that plays with our moral by throwing in a 10% grade, and then there we have it, snow-capped peaks far in the distance. Like every lump of mountain seen from afar, they look impossible to climb.
We are feeling so good, we push on and start some of the climb that we had time-tabled for tomorrow morning. We take a right in Canon City and we are on the climb straight away. Up ahead is the unmistakable shape of a bike being pushed up the climb. I never get the guys name, but his story is amazing. He travels by bike in search of gold. The thing you see above lashed to his bike is his panning stuff. The bike has a two stroke engine bolted to the rear hub. It is all a bit of a hit and miss system. Recently it was the hit part, and the motor ripped out most of his rear spokes. His answer is to walk 50 miles, pushing the bike. Jason in the photo above and this guy are the hard men of cycling and more similar than they would ever imagine.
Up we go gaining height towards Royal Gorge. Every time the road ramps up we are reintroduced to Lactic Acid and the effort of getting a heavy touring bike up a hill. We have the first cold night in the tent at a great Campground. It feels cooler now we are at altitude, and perhaps there is less of a feeling of being thirsty in this dry air. One way or another, I have not drunk enough and my urine is the colour of Glenmorangie. A cold and crisp evening as we watch the sun drop behind the mountains and the scuttle into our down bags for our first night at altitude.
Up early and on with the cooker for tea and oats. This is going to be one of the hardest days of the trip from coast to coast. We take a right turn within the first mile and head towards Cripple Creek and away from HWY 50. I have not even bothered to look up on the WWW the wind direction. It did not seem important in the face of a heap of climbing. I am wrong, and this part begins with a wind strong enough to force us to pedal down hill. This first section is far harder than we could have imagined. Soon we get some shelter as the mountains come close and we ride through slots between them. Now the wind comes from every angle. 7,200 ft and a bit of flat and tailwind allows us to spin out the legs. I flick through the bar meter and find that we just went through the 100,000 ft of climbing since the start on the east coast.
The easy bit is over. The final 1,500 ft of ascent is more miserable than Hamish McMiserable, the most miserable man in Scotland. Spring has not long ago arrived here and flowers are in full bloom in their short season of sun and warmth. 9,405 ft and the roads drops to Pike National Forest and a vista to the mountains across a high plain. The wind hits us in the face as a gust charges across the flat land, we are bought to a standstill. This is a hard day.
The wind, the altitude, the effort of climbing all make the long and brutally straight stretch to the days end beautiful and horrid in equal measure. We had a hard day because we expected to get food at Guffrey, a small and now semi ghost town just off our route. It has three places to get food. Unbelievably, they all close on a Monday. This put us in a poor mood as you can imagine. We were just pedaling away when Bill whistled. He is the centerfold in the book ‘ weird Colorado ‘. We had put money into his drinks machine, only to hear it drop without trace inside the machine. ” I owe you a pop then, so let’s make it two “. You have to visit Bill and sign the guest book.
Guffrey was the high point, and this final slog the low. At times I just pushed the bike up even modest hills, just for a bit of a change. Hartsel is always one more hill away, and there is nothing left in the legs. Of course we get there, but it did not look likely for the final 10 miles. We camp opposite the diner, tucked down behind two big trucks. The wind drops just after nightfall and Coyotes call into a cold night.
The sun is up early but it has a lot of work to do to bring up temperatures that are close to freezing. A golden light comes low across the South Park Plain. Too lazy to cook this morning, we eat a huge diner breakfast. It is warm enough as we throw our legs over the top tube to go without the leggings and winter gear we thought we would need. Off we go for another day of climbing. First there are the flat lands to cross. Trains once linked all these small towns together. There were casinos, churches and gold fever. Soon, the gold ran out and small ranching communities of cowboys were left behind.
The mountains are right in our path now. So too are the first of the tourist hot-spots. We get our first close shave from a passing RV. I am certain the driver has no idea that his retirement gift to himself has just given us a handswidth of room on a straight road. Do these people think they turn into Trolls if their wheels cross the yellow centre line?
Close to 10,000 ft now and to be honest I am finding it hard to talk and pedal. It is one or the other from now on at this height. The breathless feeling kicks in, but luckily the grades are less demanding than yesterday. Alma, the town is North Americas highest incorporated town. It is worth putting this on a big notice as we ride into town. I have no idea what it means, or care much.
The final 4 miles kick up just to make getting to the summit something of a trial. We have the perfect day to be climbing what is our highest point on the whole TransAm route and are sucking in gallons of pure pine fresh air. We crest the last rise and are rewarded with a panorama of much of Colorado and beyond. Photos at the top, we have crossed the Continental Divide for the first time on this ride.
On with coats for the descent from Hoosier Pass. It is much steeper than the way we came up here from the east. We drop through prosperous looking holiday retreats and into tourist towns. The West starts here, the music taste the lifestyle and even the beer. The day is now hot bringing out the smell of the roadside pines. We have had a great day and it ends in Frisco. A wonderful town to have a day or two off.
The efforts of the day only really hit after we have eaten our meal. ” I don’t feel too great, how are you? ” We are both suffering and still being over 9,000 ft is a bit of a problem. I can not get enough oxygen and am starting to panic. I am walking around the town at 3.00 am trying to find some air and not focus on breathing too much. Back at the house I throw up. This is horrible and it is so hard not to panic. It is only the next day on the WWW that I truly understand just how high we are on the altitude sickness league table. We will have to take a couple of days off here to get adjusted. For goodness sake we are supposed to be in prime fitness, why is this so hard? Twenty minute Brown Rice takes over half an hour to cook here – now who has that much time for rice?