uring long distance cycling events in Colorado,there’s a particular company who set up at key stages of the ride – in general, as you near the top of some enormous climb – with cameras to shoot photos of the riders. Later, they post the photos on their website by rider number, with the idea that you will want to order these photos and display them in your home. You will presumably be ignoring the fact that most people find it unacceptable to hang up photos of themselves in skin-tight lycra. This is why there is currently a photo, somewhere on the internet, of me at mile 93 of 2014’s Triple Bypass. I’m climbing the final pass of the ride (there are three, in case the name didn’t tip you off), just pure cranking up the steepest portion of the climb, with the top of the pass about to swing into sight on my left. At the time, I thought that I was arranging my sweat-encrusted features into a desperate rictus grin. In retrospect, though, the grin doesn’t look forced at all. I look blissfully happy.
Outside magazine published an article in 2001 by Steve Friedman entitled “It’s Gonna Suck to be You.” I mention it for two reasons. First, I think it’s the best piece of outdoors writing I’ve ever read and I know passages from it by heart. Second, it is about the Hardrock 100, an insanely hard ultramarathon that the Triple Bypass is in no objective way comparable to in terms of difficulty, but it captures perfectly the almost wholly mental spirit of endurance that I think is necessary to complete any kind of long physical challenge. I am an endurance athlete, the tortoise my mascot, and so one of my ride mantras is a cheerful, looking-ahead-to-the-next-hill, “It’s gonna suck to be me.” I can’t even estimate how many times I thought that over the roughly 120 miles and 11,360 feet of elevation that I cycled in one day on the ride touted as Colorado’s most difficult non-competitive cycle ride. The jerseys you get with your course packet say: “For those who dare”, written, I imagine, with the exact kind of gleeful swagger with which I was chanting.
If you’ve ever driven I-70 west from Denver to Avon (the next major town west of Vail), then you have travelled, for the most part, the route of the Triple Bypass. Riders start in Evergreen, at the base of Juniper Pass (7700 ft asl), and ride 18 miles to the first aid station and summit of the pass (11,130 ft asl). From there it is a miles-long downhill to the town of Idaho Springs. After that, it is time to go straight up for almost exactly 30 miles – climbing from the low point of Idaho Springs (7500 ft asl) to the top of Loveland Pass (11,990 ft asl). After Loveland, there is a 13 mile downhill, past the ski resorts of Arapahoe Basin and Keystone, until riders reach the south end of Lake Dillon. They turn away from the main road and cycle over Swan Mountain, sometimes known as the fourth pass in the Triple Bypass, and then down into the town of Frisco (9000 ft asl). From Frisco, riders have their final long uphill, roughly 30 miles along the dedicated bike path beside I-70 that goes to Copper Mountain and then up to the top of Vail Pass (10,500 ft asl). From there it is a 25 mile, mostly downhill coast through Vail and on to the finish line in Avon. If you are interested in seeing the route and elevations in more detail, you can view it on my Strava here.
Described like that, it sounds pretty average for a long distance ride – 30 miles here, 25 miles there, some elevation gain, some elevation loss, the end. Preparing for it, that’s how I felt. I did the Denver Century and joked it was a training ride; I rode both sides of Vail Pass on my way to work one day and told people how easy the westbound side (the side featured in the Triple Bypass) was. My best friend, also riding the Triple for the first time, confessed the week before that she was nervous and that she wished she’d trained more, studied the course more, ridden more segments of it beforehand. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out there and just do it.
So, at 5:25 am on Saturday, July 12, I swung my leg over my trusty Trek Lexa, on which I have clocked well over 2500 miles in the past year and a half since purchasing it in November 2012, and started out of the parking lot towards the start line, the light to turn onto the road to Juniper Pass. Bicyclists were out in force around me, almost exclusively wearing branded jerseys and riding on Bicycles of Unusual Expensiveness (BUEs). Road biking is a sport where a Magazine-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recently told me that a $2200 model was a “starter bike” for the “cyclist who isn’t ready to commit to the sport” and where two road bikes on a roof rack often could account for a larger insurance claim than the car beneath them. BUEs zoomed around me, the riders excited, determined, obviously ready to go. My recently tuned bike then decided to throw my chain. I managed to unclip without falling, dismounted violently, and had to carry the bike around the starting area in search of the mechanic station. They were able to extract the chain from where it had gotten caught up in the derailleur, I vowed to go complain to the people who tuned it up (who have since made it right for free and given me a bright pink chain for my mountain bike, so all’s well that ends well), got back onto the bike, and tried that again. At 5:40 am, I crossed the start line. I would cross the finish line 12 hours and 40 minutes later, having completed the hardest single-day physical challenge I had ever attempted. My moving time was 10 hours and 32 minutes.
Bicycling is, at least for me, an activity played out almost entirely in the head. My legs are strong – the cutoffs have not been made that can effectively hide my thunder – but without that mental game, I don’t think I could propel myself beyond the pain and the discomfort and the sheer boredom of sitting and cranking and staring at a front wheel for hours on end. And don’t tell me that cycling isn’t boring sometimes – I saw a guy with a GoPro on his helmet near the start line and almost started laughing because in a ride with this much uphill, what was he going to film? I imagined him proudly showing the video to his significant other – twelve continuous hours of a shaky view of his handlebars and front wheel as he bent over them, the sound of his panting fuzzing and distorting the audio. Who knows, maybe he left it on during the rest stops to alleviate the tedium. The point is: this is not the sport for you if you can’t live inside your own head for hours on end.
I can safely say that I’ve never been as mentally tested by an event as I was by the Triple. I went through the five stages of grief – reversed. I’m sure you’ve heard of these five stages, known formally as the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first, I was accepting. So very, very accepting. Oh, you want me to bike straight uphill for eighteen miles? Awesome! There’s going to be a steady 4% grade, increasing to 10% in some places? Yeah, sure, no problem. I can do that. Over 3000 feet of elevation gain? No worries! I came to win! I came to fly! You’re going to hear me roar! Some other power statements from pop songs! This stage lasted for quite a while – it carried me over Juniper Pass and down to Idaho Springs, where the town had really turned out to cheer us on – I really appreciated it, Idaho Springs! – and on to the second rest stop, all the way up to the town of Georgetown. Georgetown is at 8500 ft asl, so I had already climbed 1000 ft from Idaho Springs when I got there, but it just hadn’t felt that bad. Georgetown, though, was where the depression started.
My best friend’s husband, who has done this ride three times now, described this portion of the ride – from Georgetown to the rest stop at Loveland Ski Area, at the base of Loveland Pass – as “The Georgetown Death March”. As I rolled into Georgetown – thanks people of Georgetown who were also out cheering for us! – I started to get a very bad feeling about this. I couldn’t see where the road was going – I could just see a steep mountain face ahead of us. Georgetown is a beautiful place, part of a National Historic District that recalls the days of the mineral rushes that founded the state of Colorado. The streets are crammed with gorgeously kept-up Victorian buildings. However, the west side of town ends in a very steep mountain indeed – and we were riding straight towards it. Just when it seemed like we were going to hit it, we hit a switchback instead, turning us back around so as to lower the grade going up this brutally steep hill. You can see it on my Strava – it took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to go 10 miles. There were places where the grade was over 13%. For quite a while, we were along a wide road. It was steep, but it was manageable, and more importantly, I couldn’t imagine it getting any worse. Then we were funnelled onto a narrow bike path, and it got worse. The bike path alternated between steep and absurdly steep in approximately 30 second intervals. It was amazing how uniform these intervals seemed to be – almost as if the path designers had known just how much elevation gain they needed to make up over this short distance and so had designed the path for maximum efficiency. The bike path was also a disaster zone. I saw people walking up some hills and I saw people making terribly risky passing manoeuvers and I also saw someone who had passed out and was receiving medical attention in the middle of the path. Through it all, I cranked on, alternating between my absolute lowest gear and the two above it and thinking about nothing except the pain in my legs.
This was my lowest point of the entire ride. The course completely got into my head. I had hiked about forty miles the week before in rough, high altitude terrain as part of my job, and I started to obsessively dwell on it. Were my legs just too tired? Was it a mistake to think I could do this ride? How long was this section? How much was left? Would I make it? I had never quit a ride, but during this segment, I genuinely feared that I might have to, and started making plans for quietly sneaking away, including just turning around and riding all the way back to my home in Denver – hey, it would be all downhill! I had no idea if there would be enough gas left in the tank to do anything after this section. The looming bulk of Loveland Pass, the final four miles of steep uphill that awaited me after I came to the end of this path, started to swell in my mind, until it was the only thing I could see ahead of me – not the downhills that would come, not Swan Mountain or Vail Pass, but just Loveland Pass, so many miles ahead of me. I know the route well based on the mountains around it, and so could gauge my distance based on those, and I could tell that I was crawling. People on BUEs passed me standing up on their pedals; I didn’t feel I had the strength to stand. By the end of that segment, it was all I could do to keep cranking in the granny gear. I finally emerged from the path onto… a short downhill. It was the absolute low point of the race, for me, even though it was 10,600 feet above sea level (altitude humor!). I knew that as soon as it was over I had to regain every foot I’d just dropped. I slogged up to the aid station in the Loveland Ski Area parking lot – four miles and a thousand feet below the summit of Loveland Pass – so slowly that I made a cop regret his decision to hold traffic for me. I could see the disappointment on his face as I barely rolled across the intersection, which suddenly seemed wider than the Atlantic. I cranked on.
At that aid station – also the lunch station – I reached the bargaining stage. First, I ran into two friends who I had figured would have left me in the dust so long ago that on the ride up I was seriously contemplating telling them to go on without me when they got to the end and I’d find my own way home. Of course, I’d been envisioning this between imagining them closing the course and kicking me off it before I could complete it, too, so I was clearly in a down mood. My friends cheered me up – I was actually right behind them, and they had had a very similar experience to mine with that segment of the course. The second thing that cheered me up was being able to go into a Port-A-Loo and remove my underwear. I had just bought new cycling shorts before this ride and it turns out – as I’d discovered over 56 painful miles – that they were not meant to be worn with underwear (as many are not). Then I realized that I’d have to exit the Port-A-Loo and face the queue of impatient cyclists waiting to use it with my underwear in hand, so I made the brilliant decision to stuff them into my sports bra. I then proceeded to forget about them for many miles. Anyway, my sorting out my underwear situation was a huge mood booster, because suddenly it was comfortable to sit on my saddle. And third, I heard that Loveland Pass was just a steady climb without sudden grade changes – my specialty. I wolfed down as much bland aid station sandwich as I could stand, grabbed some more Clif bars and Oreos (I think my day’s total Oreo consumption was ultimately 16), and took off up the Pass.
And so the bargaining began: I told myself, over and over, that if I just made it to the top of Loveland Pass, I would have nearly fifteen miles of pure downhill. I cranked along in the second-to-lowest gear, and sometimes, if I was feeling saucy, kicked it up a single notch for a little bit. Like three spins. Max. Near the top, it started to rain, with thunder and lightning in the distance. Mindful of the story told by the same person who coined the phrase “Georgetown Death March” that he’d come down the other side of Loveland Pass soaking wet from a rainstorm shaking so hard with cold that his front tire was vibrating, I stopped to put on a raincoat. Re-mounting my iron horse, I took off into the teeth of the lightning storm. By the time I’d reached the final stretch to the summit, though, it had mostly passed. A group of older women passed me, a speaker mounted to the front of one of their bikes, blasting the only song Meredith Brooks ever made. I joined in with their sing-a-long – “I’m a child/I’m a mother/I’m a sinner/I’m a saint” – earning me some high fives. High fives on a bike are risky business but we handled it like pros. Then we all posed at the top in front of the Loveland Pass sign, grinning like idiots. Two passes down, I bargained with myself. One to go. Yes, said a little voice – whether it was the proverbial angel or demon on my shoulder I’m not sure – but 65 more miles to go, too.
I flew down Loveland Pass, then on to Swan Mountain, which I’d been warned about, and so was prepared for further climbing and didn’t find to be too difficult. The long downhill from Loveland had reinvigorated me. I swooped into the rest station at Frisco, absolutely certain that the only climbing I had left to worry about was the 8 mile segment from Copper Mountain to the top of Vail Pass, which I had done on Monday and which, based on that experience, would certainly be easy-peasy. I left the rest station and turned onto the bike path from Frisco to Copper, expecting it to be flat. The portion of it that I remembered from the highway ran alongside beaver ponds. Unfortunately, it turns out that my memory only included a tiny portion of the actual path (Strava tells me it is approximately 1 mile out of 9). I turned the corner into a brutal headwind and an almost constant uphill. Then, I got angry – at the path, at the course, at my chain (which came off twice on this segment, thanks to the bad tune-up), at the people who’d claimed to have tuned up the bike and instead had broken it, and, most of all, at myself. I had driven the highway alongside this path countless times in my life and I should have known that it was actually quite uphill. I should have made the connection that going the other direction it was always very easy to speed. I thought about how many times I had wished that cars going past me on any kind of road with an uphill when I was cycling had had the sympathy to notice that it was a lot harder for me to move as quickly as they’d like. I dwelled angrily on the morning several months before, when I was commuting to work and had to go up a large hill without a bike lane and two separate drivers had rolled down their windows to yell at me. Anger increasing, I dwelled on the time, over eight years previously, when a limo with diplomatic plates in Washington DC had hit me as I rode across a crosswalk and then honked at me until I moved my person and my damaged bike out of his way. I threw in the time that I had caused my own bike accident by trying to ride down a steep hill while holding a hot Starbucks in one hand in a snowstorm and ran into a bus and got angry about that too. Every time I’d ever ridden more slowly than I’d wanted to, or done something stupid, or encountered someone who didn’t want to share the road, popped into my head as I ground out those nine miles. I finally hit the beaver ponds and coasted, drained and seriously bonking, to the base of Copper Mountain.
I stopped right before the bike path that carries you up the final 8 miles and 800 feet to the top of Vail Pass and had a Clif bar and an energy shot. Although earlier in the ride I had been cautious about not making myself ill with too many things like this (those calorie-dense foods, especially the energy shots, can really make you feel awful if you eat too many), now I threw everything I had into it. My legs were totally shot. I would be surprised if I could make it up Vail Pass in anything but granny gear. I stood trying to drink water from my Camelbak to wash down the energy shot and contemplating the slopes of Copper Mountain’s ski area. I remembered last winter, skiing the Enchanted Forest runs and landing terribly coming off a jump out of some trees and having my helmet save me. I remembered cold and snow and all the wonderful things about winter, and, as I looked at the soggy, grubby remains of the half-pipe, I thought about how it wouldn’t be too long before winter reclaimed all these places I’d been today. I’d experienced so many miles close to the ground, not separated by air conditioning or tinted windows or the power of any engine but my legs. I-70, the interstate that runs along much of the Triple Bypass course, was the last segment of the US’s originally planned interstate system to be completed because of the technical difficulties of constructing it through the Colorado Rockies. Glenwood Canyon, not far from Avon, wasn’t completed until the 1990s. How many people whizzing by in their cars, many with out-of-state plates, would ever be able to understand what it was really like to move along this important cultural pathway?
My anger was gone. I remounted my bicycle and started up Vail Pass. It truly was not that bad. I ran into one of my friends near the top – he’d stopped because he’d eaten too many energy gels and wasn’t feeling well. We rode the rest of the way to the top together and took a short break at the rest stop. He confessed that he wasn’t enjoying the ride – it was just too punishing, it wasn’t fun. I said that was fair. Then we set off for the 9 mile downhill off of Vail Pass, 25 miles remaining on the course. He, weighing rather more than me, faded into the distance as gravity carried us down the other side of the Pass.
The last 15 miles were when I entered full-fledged denial. I legitimately went a little bit off the rails and started talking out loud. I was also singing out loud, mostly just snippets of songs. At one point I belted out the phrase, “Karma Police” in my best Thom Yorke voice and then promptly stopped, unable to remember the next line. As a teenager, I was asked to mouth along to a chorus number in a musical production rather than have my voice be heard even in a sea of other voices, so you can imagine how wonderful I must have sounded. The course carried me downhill through Vail, but it was into a stiff headwind. I had to pedal. What the course didn’t understand, though, was that I was done: 100% mentally finished with this ride. The remaining miles were nothing to me. They simply did not exist. I put the bike into its top gear and pedalled as hard as I could. I couldn’t even feel my legs complaining as they sliced through the air. I remembered Messi’s uncle recounting what his nephew had said at the recent World Cup – “his legs feel like they weigh 1000 kilos”. My legs felt like they were made of clouds. I shot out of Vail, passing everyone as I went, and onto the bike path that follows the course of the Eagle River to Minturn. Logically, I know that there were hills on this segment. I shouted at them, “What do we say to hills? NOT TODAY.” I don’t even like Game of Thrones. I tore up them in top gear. I wasn’t downshifting for anything. This was my attitude all the way up Route 6 after the bike path ended, all the way as I turned the corner and hit a roundabout and suddenly I was in Avon. There were signs for Arrowhead and Beaver Creek ski areas. There were traffic cones, cops everywhere, signs that said, “Caution: Cycling Event Today”. People were cheering. I turned a corner, saw the finish line, passed through it. It was over. My friends were waving at me, having finished shortly before me. I unclipped. I stopped Strava. It was over. 12 hours and 40 minutes after I had started, it was over. I immediately decided that I’d do it again, and that next year, I’d do the Double Triple, where you do the Triple on Saturday and then retrace your route backward on Sunday. I walked around the finish area to get Muscle Milks for my friend and myself, legs bowed out, barely remembering how to walk. It was over.
I had two general thoughts as I rode that I wanted to include here, but that didn’t quite fit into the narrative. This is because they deal with other people on the course and I think I’ve made the point that, at least for me, cycling is a very solitary sport. Sometimes, though, there are very memorable people.
As you may be able to guess, road biking tends to skew heavily towards men. The Triple Bypass was the worst example of this I’d ever seen, possibly because it was the longest and steepest ride I’d yet done. Anecdotally, based on discussions with my friends who also rode it, our guess was that one in six or fewer people on the ride were women. As a result, there were a lot of guys out on the course, and as a certain set of guys are wont to do, some of them really wanted to make unsolicited comments to the few women they saw. One of them wanted to do this so much that he rode up beside my best friend, watched her ride in a way that she described as “creepy” for several seconds, and then said, “Can I give you some unsolicited advice?” Without waiting for an answer, he launched into a jargon-laden explanation of how she was in the wrong gear. Another guy pulled up beside her to tell her, “I guess you must want huge thighs, being in that gear for this climb!” What do you even say to that? “Yes, it is an intended consequence of my riding style to gain further muscle definition and to that end my water bottle is actually full of protein shake?” Alternately, “Are you trying to shame my body? It’s not working.” Snappy comebacks are always easier to think of later, and we came up with a lot of them in the hot tub that night. Also, my best friend is a nicer lady than I am and at the time, chose to ignore it.
I also received a number of unsolicited comments from men, not about my spinning choices, but about what had brought with me. I almost always ride with a Camelbak backpack. I find it useful to have my water easily available, to hold as many snacks as I want, and to have space for my raincoat, gloves, etc. Additionally, I carry this backpack for my job, where I regularly hike over 10 miles a day in rough terrain with it. I’m very familiar with wearing the backpack and usually forget I wearing it. On this ride in particular, with its various weather threats, it gave me greater piece of mind to know that I had those things available to me. However. I know that it’s anathema to many hardcore road cyclists to carry anything that doesn’t fit into the little pockets on the back of their expensive jerseys (I also was not wearing a bicycling jersey for the ride, which presumably marked me out as playing a starring role in AMATEUR HOUR). As a result, that particular subset of men intent on offering their unasked-for opinions to women on the course had found my flaw: the backpack. I received a number of comments telling me I shouldn’t be wearing it, expressing disbelief that I was wearing it, etc. For most of the ride, I just joked self-deprecatingly about it, but towards the end I started getting rather more waspish. As I was about to crest over the top of Vail Pass, at something like mile 94, an older man pulled up beside me and informed me sternly, “There’s no way you can complete this ride wearing a pack that big.” I didn’t respond; I didn’t know if he could tell but, like, I was kind of preoccupied with cranking it up this hill, bro. He got a little more insistent and repeated himself, voice ratcheting up from instructive to commanding. Being the nasty and humorless feminist that I am, I looked up, radiated annoyance like a small sun, and delivered my flaming salvo, “That seems unlikely, given my current position on the course.” He shook his head in disbelief that I hadn’t listened to him, immediately keeled off my bike, and lain in the grass sobbing that I couldn’t make it. Then, perhaps having reached his quota of dudely disapproval, he left me alone.
I met some lovely people on the ride too. I’ve found that on long rides like this, there are riders you see over and over again, people with whom you are roughly keeping pace and who you will pass/will be passed by as the vagaries of legs and lungs go on throughout the day. A few of these people you will develop a rapport with, and it’s nice to have them along to break up the solitude. My favorite of this ride was a man who looked to be in his 50s whom I spoke with several times, though it was our first meeting that was the most memorable. He was riding an older road cycle with a small rack on the back and a bag perched there. His attire and ride choice strongly suggested outdoorsy hippie, a common personality type along the Front Range but not one that I’d expected to find on this particular ride, which seemed sometimes like it was almost entirely Super Serious Cyclists riding BUEs. I first encountered him when we were about two thirds of the way up Juniper Pass, and we had just crested up onto an area of road where the thick spruce and aspen forest that lined it was starting to give way to smaller arboreal specimens as we crept closer to treeline. For the first time, we could see the northern mountains, their exposed rock illuminated a brilliant rose and their snowfields a deep violet as dawn alpenglow crept down their upturned faces. We rounded a corner as I moved to pass him, and the bulk of Mt Evans, one of the three 14,000 ft mountains that stands sentinel over Denver, suddenly loomed into view. The mountain curves around in a great grey bowl terminating in a clear glacial lake, but the lake was hidden from our view on the road so that only the mountain’s broad north face was visible. I’ve said my whole life that if I could one day describe the beauty of a mountain with words, I would have become the writer I want to be, but today is not that day because the sight was breathtaking. A sudden different smell through the scent of evergreens alerted me that my new friend was smoking some of Colorado’s most recently legalized product. Sweeping one arm out as if to take it all in, he offered me a hit off his blunt and summed up the entire experience for me: “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”
Jamie Anderson was born and raised in Colorado and has returned after spending most of her 20s in the UK. She is an avid skier (alpine, nordic, and learning tele), cyclist (both road and mountain), backpacker (all seasons), and rock climber. She particularly loves winter sports because winter is the greatest season and people who don’t prefer cold to heat are wrong. Her greatest outdoor accomplishments include kayaking across the width of Scotland from Fort William to Inverness, hiking the Drangajökull glacier in Iceland, completing a Class 3 climb of Mt. Sneffels in Colorado, and retrieving a whistle from a cup of jello without using hands in a time that destroyed all previous records during a combined bike/run/obstacle course race to raise money for Make a Wish Colorado.