Alaska Adventure Machine!

Alaska Adventure Machine!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


It was another rainy morning. The forecast was for nearly 2" of rain along the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains, roughly 80 miles away. It had rained all night here in Espanola, NM. Clad once again in wool socks, neoprene booties and full rain gear,  I turned on my flashing rear tail light and joined the 6:30 AM commuter traffic bound for Santa Fe, NM. After a few hectic miles of pedaling alongside the highway traffic, I found a peaceful frontage road to ride on. I climbed steadily out of the Espanola valley. I passed Camel Rock, which I remembered from my youth. I wondered if this frontage road had once been the main highway, now bypassed by the multi-lane highway nearby. Taking a couple photos here felt nostalgic.

Highway 89 was shade-covered by tall cottonwood trees. "A pretty spot" I thought as I cycled through Tesuque Pueblo.  After a few miles I dropped into Santa Fe. I was still in rush hour morning traffic there. I was making good time, though wary of the dark rain-laden clouds. I stopped at a gas station and bought a sandwich, as I still hadn't had any breakfast due to my early start.
After battling through the construction zones on Cerrillos Road, I sped South out of Santa Fe. I began to lose elevation rapidly. That was not good, as I'd face lots of steep hills to regain elevation on the backside of Sandia Peak. I passed some fanciful wind vane bicycle art outside of Santa Fe.
Up and down I went, passing through the mining district of old Madrid. I was enjoying the distinctive southwestern landscape in spite of all the climbing involved.
All alone in my world, suddenly another cyclist appeared. Wow, another touring soul! I pulled over and we had a chat. His name was Greg, a college student from Tempe, AZ. He was headed to Colorado Springs to work as a camp counselor for the summer. He was camping out along the way, although often grabbing a couch for the night he'd located through a cycling site His ride was to be 750 miles long and he had 75 days to do it. Not exactly a rocket pace, but he was also killing time until the job started. He was quite the cycling novice and had no idea about clip-in pedals or even toe clips for his feet. His bike was a heavy steel steed. But he had spunk and youth on his side. I was sure he'd make a great youth counselor, already creating a good role model for the youth he'd soon meet. Fancy bike equipment was not needed, his 'can do' attitude surely would propel him the rest of the way!
I was making good time as I reached the eastern side of Sandia Peak. Albuquerque was just 15 miles away. It was chilly out, scud clouds hanging low. I treated myself to a coffee and pastry at a Cedar Crest bakery. I phoned home to have my wife forewarn my in-laws of my impending arrival. With a warm belly I raced down Tijeras Canyon, a fortuitous tailwind whisking me into Albuquerque, the "Duke City". Still wearing winter cycling tights, neoprene booties and rain jacket, I knocked on my in-law's door. In seven hours I had quickly ridden 90 miles and over 5,000' of steep hill climbing. My fifth day, and my last ride of the 458 miles, had been done in good form. An amazing route through central Colorado and northern New Mexico had been ridden. I was back in my old stomping grounds. It was time to visit family and friends and even dress up for a wedding! The tour had exceeded my expectations. A "Credit Card" type of speed touring using motels and cafes versus the full camping and remote Alaskan ride of last September. It was fun to go light and fast for a change. "What would be next ride" was already in the back of my mind!

Steaming South

The morning dawned bright and clear. The cobalt blue skies of the American West lifted my spirits as I clipped into my pedals. I had a quick goodbye with Dan as he rolled over to sleep in (finally!) and await his car ride home. On the edge of Antonito, NM is the northern terminus of the Chama Toltec Scenic Railroad. This coal-fired steam train first began running in 1880. Now it is a popular tourist ride of 64 miles, chugging it's way through sage hills and alpine aspen groves. Although not officially running for the season yet, I was fortunate to be there as they were moving the steam engine around the switch yard. A big black coal plume bellowed skyward, pumping steam power to the big wheels. And a long toot of the whistle...magic!

With the whistle ringing in my ear, and New Mexico a few minutes ride away, I enjoyed the cool morning air. I reflected a bit more, with some melancholy, about Dan's dropping out. It sure had been a good time with him. We'd figure out some future adventure fun someday. Yeah for sure! I took photos at the NM border and pedaled into the home state of my youth. It felt good to be returning this way, by bike.
The miles passed quickly. The grass lands of the San Luis Valley gave way to rolling juniper and pinon pine covered hills. Alpine mountains were in the distance. A very quiet highway, perfect for cycling. After 64 miles I passed through Ojo Caliente, NM. Meaning "hot water" literally in Spanish. This is the bi-lingual "Land of Enchantment". No stopping at the hot springs for me; the upscale spa there would have been a wonderful respite. But I had miles to ride and a friend's wedding date to arrive by! I dropped into drier country now.

 I finished my day's ride at Espanola, NM. I had ridden 87 miles. I called Dan up check in. He was still in Antonito, CO awaiting his ride. He was pretty bummed to not be riding; even a bit more so at not having left Colorado yet, and I was done pedaling for the day. We said our goodbyes and hung up. I celebrated my progress by having a large pizza delivered to my motel room.


Day 3 dawned with more rain and forecasted 'doom and gloom' on the motel TV. The low pressure system wasn't going to let up at all. In fact it was beginning to look like we'd be experiencing it into New Mexico now. This lingering winter weather was beginning to ruin my dreams of a sunny cycle South.

We quickly downed the burritos we had purchased the night before from a roadside food truck. We had a 107 mile ride ahead of us, beginning with a 2,000' climb up Poncha Pass. The sooner we hit the road the better. In the pre-dawn drizzle, and with low cloud ceiling, we cycled upwards in full rain gear, neoprene booties and a flashing tail light blinking our presence.
The grade up Poncha Pass was reasonable, in fact one I found my perfect rhythm on. Some climbs are so steep one really strains on the pedals. This one seemed ideal for me; a nice 90 rpm cadence and I quickly gained elevation on the 2,000' climb. Dan seemed to be dragging a bit, the cumulative exertions digging him deeper into his illness. Today would be another test for him.

We had a quick descent down Poncha Pass into the San Luis Valley. Now we were at the northern limits of the conquistadors explorations of 1599. This is the oldest area of Spanish influence in Colorado. It is full of rich history and worthy of a visit by both history buffs and nature lovers. The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is certainly unique, consisting of thirty square miles of sand dunes nestled at the base of the 14,000' tall snow capped San de Cristo Range. But there would be no viewing of the cloud shrouded peaks today, as we were chased by frequent rain squalls across the  hundred mile long valley floor. Nor was there time in our demanding schedule to detour to the dunes. We were factory workers slaving away, turning the bicycle cranks round and round.
We took a short break in Alamosa, CO. Dan's energy was really slipping. We had another 27 miles to go. A strong wind was really picking up. For 17 miles we struggled to even stay upright, as we were slammed sideways frequently by the gusty blasts. We were punch drunk as we fought our way past Jack Dempsey's birthplace, Manassa CO.
By mile 107 Dan was beaten down. His bronchitis had won. His normally cheerful spirit was crushed. With just fumes in his tank, he said his last cycling prayer for this trip at the oldest church in Colorado. Just 6 miles from the NM state line, here in Antonito, CO, was the end for him. I couldn't blame him. He had started the trip sick and run down. This was a predictable conclusion. However he had battled mightily and we had grown closer over the days and rugged miles of this trip. It had been trench warfare for him. The weather had been wet, windy and not pleasant most of the way. These hadn't been conditions suitable for any sort of recuperation by him at all. So we enjoyed our last evening together over a tasty green chili New Mexican style dinner. It had been a memorable ride all in all, but now I would have to push on alone. A friend of Dan's from Santa Fe would drive up tomorrow and take him back home to Albuquerque. He was quite disappointed.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Recovery Ride

The next morning we both awoke, quite fried from our long ride the day before. It was raining outside and the weather channel promised more of that to come. The low pressure system up North, in western Idaho, was sliding South into Utah. It looked like we we going to be chased by it, at least to the New Mexico border, for the next two days

We climbed the seemingly small Trout Creek Pass and began a rapid loss of elevation into Buena Vista, CO. Skies began to brighten up a bit and snowy peaks showed their faces.
Dan was feeling better and having an 'easy day' seemed to be working for him. We continued southwards to Poncha Springs, CO. We ran into three Denver cyclists training for a trans-America ride (Washington to Maine). They were due to start in a month. Our main advise was to take less of whatever they thought they needed. They could buy something later if they really decided they needed it. Every pound counts in distance touring!
Our cozy 'Mom and Pop' motel greeted us at the end of our 'easy day' of 57 miles. We had climbed only 1,500' today, so that was nice.
We gave our cycling muscles some much needed therapy in the motel hot tub. Well-deserved!

New Mexico or "Bust"!

May 14th arrived and so had Dan, except he was nearly on death's doorstep. Fatigued from a stressful week in Indiana due to an unexpected funeral, and all clogged up by allergies and bronchitis, he had trekked up from NM half-doubting whether he should even ride. I hardly expected him to show up, but he gamely did, so our ride was still on. At 8:30am, we took last photos at Lake Granby and started South facing a real test of his health. Day 1 would entail 114 miles, 5,700' climbing and a high point of 11,538' at mile 100 no less!! Rain and snow were in the forecast, a low pressure system headed our way...
A least we are riding I thought, trying to repress doubts about Dan's health. I looked back and he was nowhere to be  seen. I stopped, peered back, yet still couldn't spot him. He'd been on my wheel about three miles back, gee we were only seven miles from our start. Where was he? I got off my bike stretched a bit. After 10 minutes I started cycling back. A couple miles later he appeared... a flat tire already! We had three spare tubes to start with and now were down to just two. I was sure we'd need all three tubes for the goathead thorns of New Mexico. This was not promising!

By Kremmling CO, only 40 miles into our day, it was apparent that Dan was really suffering. There was no way he could stay on my rear wheel and draft, and I wasn't pushing it at all. At the gas station bathroom break he looked pretty grim. I gamely encouraged him, but this was going to be the mother-of-all suffer-fest days for him. The upcoming 5 mile stretch of road construction didn't help. While he privately suffered, I wondered about getting the likely-hood more flats on this gravel section with our skinny 25mm road tires?

We stopped, sipped from our water bottles, and talked. Dan needed help. He was just too sick to push it. The only solution that I could offer was to take some of his gear. So I strapped his extra-large 'bike packing' rear seat bag onto my bike and started off. It wasn't too heavy, but it at least gave Dan some moral support. He struggled onwards to Lake Dillion and Frisco. (In the photo, the large seat bag on the white bike is Dan's. He used that and a day pack. I used only a day pack))
We turned a short break into a long one at the Frisco Safeway store. We lounged in the sun, refueled our bodies. Dan was despondent, but I keep encouraging him. He had done 60 miles so far. After an  hour we cycled to Breckenridge. The ski runs were still ski-able and the white-capped mountain views amazing.
As we climbed past 10,200', I was feeling the altitude and needed to shed Dan's gear. At least I had helped carry it for 30 miles and 2,000' of climbing. Dan would need carry it over the Pass, another 1,300' higher. Dan seemed stronger now, perhaps getting his second wind. He pushed the pace up the Pass, I drafted for the first time all day.
Near the summit of Hoosier Pass a storm blew in; so bad in fact a motorist stopped to see if we need a ride. Sleet blew sideways, and the altitude taxed our lungs. but no way were were going to stop now! Victory was a few pedal strokes away. Finally at mile 100 exactly, we to reached the summit. In stormy weather we took photos and enjoyed a fast (48 mph) 14 mile decent into Fairplay CO. An epic ride of 114 miles 5,700' of climbing up to 11,538' had been accomplished. A day for the personal record book that's for sure. Dan had suffered greatly, but he had done it!
Chow time ;)

Speed Touring

Soon after last Autumn's grueling but rewarding Alaska bike tour, I wondered what would be next on my biking agenda? The thought of another epic gravel road, self-supported tour was not so attractive yet to me. The ideal place for that would be Alaska again, or Canada. Lots of woods to camp in, mountains and rivers to enjoy. But this option would require another major commitment of time and resources to fly to and from suitable start and finish points. Perhaps something less ambitious logistically and lighter weight could be the solution?

Mid-winter I received a wedding invitation from an old high school friend down in New Mexico. He and I had done many epic backpacking trips together in New Mexico and Alaska. Going to his daughter's wedding would give us a chance to reconnect. Logistically it would be easy for me to bike down (455 miles) and have my wife drive down for the wedding a few days later, then we'd both return by car to Colorado. So now I had a date and a method to haul my tired butt and bike back home. All I needed was a speedy partner to draft all the way South!
Dan was definitely the "Man"! A former collegiate triathlete and still a training machine at age 31, he'd be the spur to my side to keep me training all winter. There's nothing like the ego of an aging ex-bike racer, like myself, to bite off more than one should. Dan and I had enjoyed friendly sparing over the years, battling it out on big mountain rides. I knew he'd be the right guy for this ride. Easy going, enthusiastic and fit, he'd be a great companion for the many days we'd spend together.

The winter passed with Dan training away in New Mexico and myself in Colorado. Frequent text message training reports were passed back and forth. Lots of friendly cagoling on each other's progress went on.  Dan's Strava online reports were getting out of hand; his 100 mile rides and big vertical days (over 5,000') were getting me concerned. Was he going to burn out prematurely or just plainly leave me in his dust?! I did my normal weekend nordic skiing workouts but added 2-3 days cycling midweek. That was a real challenge during a seemingly wetter Winter and Spring than normal in Colorado. I had many unpleasant training days that's for sure. The dream of warm cycling in the New Mexico sun kept me spinning those gears winter-long. As we wheeled off, my longest training ride to date had only been 65 miles long...I was definitely counting on my nordic skiing fitness to save me!