Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Flatlander Goes to the Mountains

This weekend I spent 13 hours driving to Colorado from Austin. (One way. 10 (TEN!) of those hours were in Texas. I made my way to Cañon City, Colorado for the Bikes and Brews Royal Gorge Century. 

The drive went pretty smoothly, with only a few mild calamaties. I had to stop in Brownwood and buy a Rand McNally Atlas (did you know they even still sold them?) because the GPS on my phone wasn't working due to a lack of service. I'm so thankful I'm part of a generation that grew up learning to drive without electronic GPS, because I know how to accurately read a map. I know more than a few people who would have just had to turn around and go home without their in-car navigation system! The second minor disaster occurred between Lubbock and Amarillo. That stretch is over 100 miles and there is literally not one. Single. Gas. Station. I hit E with about 40 miles to go and was having a heart attack, convinced I was going to run out of fuel and either have to ride my bike to Amarillo along I-27, or lay down and die of boredom, trapped in the Panhandle forever and ever. Thankfully, I coasted in to a Love's truck stop on fumes and filled it to the top.

I got to Colorado around 5:30, 13 hours after I'd left Austin. I received a lot of confusion when I told locals where I'd come from. "You drove up here just for this??" was pretty common. I didn't draw it at random- my friend lives in Denver and told me about it. I figured I am signed up for IM Boulder and have never ridden at altitude, so why not get some practice??

I also love the mountains, so really, it wasn't a hard choice to make about going. She, her husband, and I had rented a cabin 8 miles from town and were all riding. I took a million pictures, so this week's post will be more of a photo-narrative. Enjoy!

 The morning started out MUCH COLDER than I anticipated, which is silly since I've lived in mountains before. Since it was 95 degrees when I left Texas, I didn't even think to pack cold weather clothes. We hopped on our bikes at 6:30am and at 7:00am when we rolled to the bike shop at the start line, I wasn't sure if my fingers would operate my brakes, or if I was going to have to just do a power slide in to someone's SUV. Thankfully, the bike shop was open, and the owners helped this poor, frozen Texan out by helping me pick a pair of gloves. None of the road cycling ones would fit, so I got mountain biking gloves. Not a big deal, since MTB is what I plan on doing this winter, anyhow.

 We started about 30 minutes late, thanks to my clothing needs, but at least then the sun was coming up! Here we are near the start line, cold but smiling, and looking fly in our mirror tint glasses. The ride was well-marked, and had really visible, consistent SAG and emergency response support. We felt safe heading out to the mountains!

One lesson I learned was there was a reason I was the only person on a TT bike. I did NOT have enough gears for some of the climbs we took! I love BB very much, but she's built for speed, not for sitting up and spinning away along a 15 mile climb. However, for a majority of what we did, she worked great. And, considering that I did 1,000ft more climbing in less than half the distance compared to the IM Boulder course, I think she'll be fine to use for that race.

We started the ride going back up the same 8 miles we'd ridden down, which was called "8 mile" climb. It was a good way to get warmed up, at least! Pictured above are Sandra and Chris. While Sandra rides all the time, Chris had about 100 miles total on a bike, ever, so we knew this would be interesting!

I stopped for a breather and got a shot of the scenery. Looks kind of like El Paso, really!

Chris around mile 25, still feeling good! It was a little warmer in the sun by now, at least. The altitude was not effecting me, but the cold, dry air was making my chest a little tight.

We rolled up to the first aid station and were excited to find bagels with Nutella (YUM!), bananas, Honey Stinger chews, cookies, pretzels, pickles, whatever you needed. I grabbed some chews, a Nutella bagel, and a couple of cookies. I also kept thinking I smelled a skunk, but then remembered that we were in Colorado and it was probably not the animal kind of skunk I was smelling. Whoops!

Did you know one way to get a FREE Brazilian Butt Lift is cycling in the mountains? Apparently, that's what she's got goin' on, and I let her know things were looking good back there (because behind her was where I was 95% of the time!)

I spent most of the ride saying I needed to stop for pictures, but I won't lie, it was definitely to take a break. Sandra probably got annoyed, but I think Chris liked having an ally.

The view from the highest point- 7,941 feet according to our altimeter. "Enjoy the view and turn around!" the sign said. They forgot "take a break until you can no longer hear your heart in your ears or feel it beating against your helmet straps!"

We had more than one person ask us about our sponsor! (Also, ask if we were sisters/twins) MapMyRide sent me these cool kits back in May and I shared with all my cycling ladies, and she and I just happened to both pack the same kit. I'd say we look pretty slick in them! 30 miles in, we took the decent back down the mountain. I reached close to 45 mph on my bike- fastest ever- and was definitely hovering on my brakes the whole time. Sandra, who is fearless and badass, zoomed by me more than once. If I'd been on a road bike with drops, I like to think I'd have been less nervous, but who knows!

What goes down, on this ride at least, must go back up. In this case, it was up at an 18% grade. That is Chris up ahead of me for reference. I got off and walked. There was just no physical way my bike was going to make it. The SAG wagon guy said, "don't feel bad, I live here and get off and walk sometimes." That made me feel better, just a little!

We FINALLY reached the Royal Gorge bidge, approximately 50 miles in to the ride. It's a bridge that spans the Arkansas river, made of a metal frame and wooden boards of questionable integrity. I knew then I was glad Bryce didn't come, because he does not do heights or like climbing. Heights are OK with me, climbing was getting less OK as the day went on.

This couple made it through a mountain ride and I can report they are still married. I think that means it's for life, kids.

Group shot above the canyon. We all look skinny and happy. The smile is only about half faked on my part- I was still having lots of fun at this point, despite being exhausted.

View of the river from the bridge. That's a loooooong way down.

We climbed out of the parking lot (literally, ANOTHER climb) and cruised downhill again for about 5 more miles. Before the last intersection we hit a really slight incline and I realized my legs were over it. I was having fun, but coming to grips with the reality that I had my fill and it was time to stop. If I had gone the last 40 miles, I would have no longer been having fun. I let them know, and turned left back to the campground one mile away instead of right to the last canyon climb. When I got back and was walking my bike to the cabin, I heard another bike behind me and turned to find Chris had come to the same conclusion. We showered, changed clothes, and rested on the cabin porch before getting in the car to head to town. We got pizza and beer (tickets included in registration!) and waited for Sandra, the Lone Ranger, to cross the finish. She came across strong and we continued to eat pizza, drink a few of the local brews, and enjoy the fabulous weather. We went back to camp and built a fire, roasted some s'mores (with Cadburry, not gross Hersheys!) and all passed out about 9pm after a long, exhausting, but fun day.

I'm really glad I had this opportunity. It gave me perspective to how my body reacts at altitude and under stress from climbing. If I didn't have a 70.3 the following weekend, I would have completed the ride. This was a great lesson in the idea that sometimes, being tough for the sake of toughness isn't the right thing to do. Sometimes, the right thing to do is quit while it's still fun and go get a beer instead!

The next day, I had the drive back to Texas to contend with. I couldn't bear doing another 13 hours straight, so I decided to cut it in half. I made it to Quitaque, TX (kitty-kway, as their signs explain!) and stopped at Caprock Canyon State park

State parks are better than any hotel, for sure. For $16 on a Sunday night, I had the ENTIRE park to myself it seemed like. The campground was all mine for sure.

After hours driving through the Panhandle again, this was such an amazing relief I clapped for joy. I got camp set up, took a quick hike, and then proceeded to settle in for the night. I was seriously the ONLY person in the campground.

My bridal shower last weekend was camping themed, so I was freshly stocked with cool new camping toys, including this stove, food, and cool backpacking camp chair all given to me by my awesome friends and family! (The chicken gumbo, by the way, was surprisingly delicious!)

I built a fire and enjoyed my meal, looking forward to the nightfall, since Caprock Canyon is a designated dark sky area. The stars were breathtaking, until a storm blew in! I saw the lightening from miles away and since that's not something to mess with, broke camp and got in the car. Thankfully, the storm blew through with only mild rain and starry skies were back by 10pm. At this point, I was too tired to set my tent back up, but too sick of the car to sleep in there, so I got my sleeping pad, bag, and pillow and slept on the picnic table. It was just me and the coyotes for the night! (They let me know there were plenty of them, and they like to party pretty late at night.)

I drove a little further in and parked the next morning to do another hike before heading out. I was up with the sun and not eager for windshield time, so I figured why not.

The canyon is beautiful. I hiked about a 4 mile round-trip and was literally the only one out there. Thanks to the rain, the trails were fresh and showed only my tracks, as well as the wildlife.

Including this little guy- bobcat! I followed his tracks for about half a mile until I saw where he ducked across a creek and in to the brush.

The trail abruptly goes from wide, flat double-track to climbing up the cliff face, and so naturally I had to follow it. This was some Louis and Clark level views, people. It was really cool. 

That concluded my first ever mountain ride and first ever solo camping trip! It was a long, exhausting weekend but well worth it. I highly recommend those living in the flat lands to try their hand at altitude- it's rewarding, and you quickly realize why, while we talk about rides in terms of miles and time, riders in the mountains only ever mention the elevation profile. The hill country surrounding Austin is challenging, but it was really fun to mix it up a little. Just next time, it'll be on a road bike!

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