Adventures in Sensory Deprivation – Anti Epic 160

Greenland Open Space

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4/5/13 – 4/6/13, 292 miles

I’m on mile #162 of – on paper at least, a 160 mile race. In other words, pretty near to the end of the ordeal. The clock is ticking off hour number 11 on riding these long forgotten gravel roads south of Denver – and when I say, “South“, I mean, a good 60 miles south. Better sounding then, “20 miles North of Colorado Springs“, I guess – because who knows really where Colorado Springs is, relative to anything, except Pikes Peak?

I’m staring down a small, one-lane slot that makes up the overpass below I-25. Bleary-eyed, a little sunburned. My crotch is something akin to being on fire, as my pair of bibs are very well over their guaranteed freshness date, having seen thousands upon thousands of ill-cared for miles in the (only) 9 months I’ve had them: the stitches in extremely important places are now only memories, stripped out like the fillings in my teeth from today’s ride, the only evidence of both being the holes left behind. My bottles are empty – I’ve been eating roadside snow for the better part of 3 hours. Stomach is full of nothing but rocks.

I’ve picked up quite a bit of speed, as the last few miles have been downhill – the last 75 miles before that have been achingly undulating – but the direction has been mostly up – 7,000 feet of, “up?” Much to my chagrin and complete blubbering of basic chart reading. At present, I’m going about 25 mph, racing directly towards this hole in the wall. On the other side, going a little faster, but a little farther off, is a giant, F-250 red pickup truck. We’re both approaching this slot, not wide enough for both of us – barely wide enough for the truck at a reasonable speed! – and one of us is going to have to give way.

Christ“, I think, “I’m playing a game of Chicken with a local in a 3-ton full-cab.“.

Surely, the truck will give way to the bike. A head-on in the center would render the cyclist (ME), dead and the truck – well, a quick sweep of the wipers and I’m just a little bump in the road. “Perhaps like last week” (I imagine the driver thinking out loud) “when that errant alpaca got loose on S. Spring Valley Road – and, well the speed limit is 50 mph and those undulations of the grade can be gradual – but they can also be pretty abrupt! biff. Unfortunate – and worthy of some ‘plainin’, but certainly the fault of the lesser object in the way.

I do my best impression of this sometimes stubborn, vicugna pacos, opening my eyes just a little more than seems normal and careening my neck to center in with the slot.

I do a cost/benefit analysis.

Squeezing my tiny little brakes weighed in grams with the force of forearms cross-trained at the bouldering crags, little nibblets of rear tire tear off and join in the surface texture, joined by the sound of the skitching tires. The truck continues hauling through. I give them a thumbs up as dust kicks up around me. “Good job!“, I yell. The driver neglects to give a second glance.

Welcome to the end of the 2013 AntiEpic Gravel Grinder. You have just earned 6th place. Now, go home.

Photo by Ben Welnak

I can only faintly remember why I signed up, but it was imperative that I sign up MONTHS in advance, lest the race roster fills up to dizzying amounts of names. Gravel Grinders seem to be en vogue, maintenent, so what the hell. 160 miles seems a good distance for this little diesel engine that could. My cyclocross season was filled with more costumes and beer handouts at every lap than any real, well: results on the podium. When you don’t have a top-end, a 45 minute race is enough time to simply get warmed up to go about the same speed (maybe a little slower) for, well, all day, and that’s what I’m highly specialized to do: blunder around literally all day on a bike. To test this theory – well, you do these types of races – but oh – just doing 160 miles ain’t enough:

I’m without car, and I still needed to get to the start of the race, and then get back home. A good 75 miles each direction: Let’s Ride It. With the challenge completely drawn up, and the work week finished, it was time to take the current rig to the starting line and start the 300 miles, for this evening’s little leg stretch.

The current rig, as its stands, is basically what I was riding for cross season: a Surly Crosscheck, single speed. Simple as can be. Tough as nails. I’ll be racing the 160 mile race with the same gear ratio as I did for <10 mile races: 42 x 19, because that’s what I got. Pack up the rig with some overnight gear and head on out. Test this, “Gee Pee eS” contraption I’ll need later in the month for a bit longer of a race (say, the entire length of Arizona).

Deciding to take a new route through Parker (*shutter*), instead of a route that’ll take me through off-limits construction on Sante Fe Dr, with no detour for the finer modes of transportation, I found myself in suburban sprawl within hours of starting out, just as the sun was dipping down. It’s always a shock to experience the drop off in bikes-on-roads education from drivers. “What keeps me in the city”, I’m always asked, and often by my brain. Well, city dwellers kinda understand bikes. And pedestrians. And all that – and work with them, instead of against them, or around them, or sometimes straight through them. There’s just so many ridiculous comments I can stand while stopping for food, or horn honks of disapproval of blocking real traffic I can take while riding along the extreme right hand side of a 3 lane-per-side road. Sigh.

After getting a bit lost (lossy GPS is useless without whatever extra expensive add-on I need to make their maps useful) and figuring out… about where the start is (or, near enough), I roll up after 7 hours of riding to a mostly desolate parking lot, save for one camper in a truck w/a top over the bed. Someone’s sleeping in the bed. Another racer, I of course assume. I set up the sleep kit and lull myself to sleep. I have 5 hours until the start. I make with the making of the anti-hay.

Which should have been easy, but we’re about 100 meters from the Sante Fe freight rail line and shit! is it prime time for shipment time. I’ve been camped closer to busy rails before, but it was a manageable commuter line, not half of Denver’s daily coal consumption being tugged sluggishly towards the Queen City of the Plains. Sparks from each rail car’s metal wheels are both audible – and visible. It’s a special state we live in.

5:30 am can’t come early enough and my truck-buddy and I wake up at about the same time. Light shined in my snoozing buddy’s face as he walks towards me. “JUSTIN! is that.. YOU?!” Of course, it’s Skinny Aaron – haven’t seen him, since his parents dropped me off at the wonderful Salida Backpackers Hostel last July, as I gained an unlikely hitch back to the Centennial State, after both Skinny-A and I finished up our little ride from Banff, Alberta Canada at about the same time, starting 23 days prior. The day before the pickup in Mexico, he had frightened the ever living [explitive] out of me around the same time of day, as he soldiered into my camping area to fill his bottles somewhere in the Gila National Forest at some bizarre work center, filled with burly and very over-worked firefighters doing basically all they could to keep the entire state not going up in flames. Paid back the favor. The light-shining in the wee hours – not the ride back. I still owe ’em some beers. Big hug from Aaron though, it’s nice to see a comrade.

We saunter to the actual start, which is just over the train tracks, ie: really close from my night riding got me. I’m pleased. I stash my gear in the race coordinator’s car, with the promise that it’ll be available whenever I myself get back, and do the roll-in start with everyone else, after a little final bathroom break. The sun has yet to come up, but we’re going due East. I ask out loud, “Who starts a race, that begins by going east into the sun, and ends, going west…into the sun?” The promoter is riding just abreast of me. Some small chuckles.

My plan is, well, I have no plan, except to ride the bike at a steady clip. Being of only one-speed and having already hit 75 miles in the last 12 hours, I have no idea what my legs have in store for me. The beginning neutral roll-out seems fine, fine. Racing your own race seems like a legit choice.

Brought enough food for the entire day, enough water, too. I think. There’s a gas station at about the halfway point if the stores needs adding to. Most of what I have are these gel things. We’ll be living off of mostly pure sugar for the next half day. A small roast beef sandwich, too. No mustard or mayo on it, though. You always forget something.

The course is fine – wide gravel roads going here and there. I get used to following the Line on the GPS electronic tele-promoter display thing, showing me where to go, without having to think about distances, times, landmarks and whatever. A few less things to be in charge of, I guess. The problem is, there’s not much else to keep your mind occupied with. The landscape in this part of the Colorado stretches out WIDE and all just about the same thing: Kansas. This proves to be the most difficult part of the race: the extreme lack of diversity in surroundings. But not quite yet. As the sun comes up slowly, we’re first assaulted by the abrupt change from night to sunrise, to trying to make out exactly where we’re going, as we had straight into the sun’s stinging rays. I’m relieved, every time the track turns north for a few minutes, before continuing again in an easterly direction.

A few hours pass, and I’m in the understanding I’m in a small, chasing group, with the leaders going a bit faster up front. It’s a long, long race, I tell myself, and anything can happen. I’m not going for first, but I’d like to make a good showing of it. I decide to stay with it, but ultimately my gearing deficit sees me in familiar circumstances: I climb faster than most everyone else – because I have to, and I spin out on the downhills, as I run out of gear inches. Climbing hills with a high-ish gear is going to get tiresome and the loss of ground on the downhills is going to get somewhat old, compared to my geared counterparts. But, whatever. Soldiering on! From my electronic recon, the first half the race looks as if it has the most elevation gain, with the second half losing all the thousands of feet won. Hopefully that means the doable-ness I’m experiencing now, should keep being doable, as my body and mind tires at the big turn half way.

The “about” half-way point comes into view, as the gas station next to the highway is first spotted. I make the decision to just keep going, instead of stopping. Experience tells me that time gets eaten up with such stops. I’m looking forward to this downhill part, relaxing a bit and takin’ ‘er in easy.

A small hill comes into view. I climb it, descend down a little less. Another hills comes to view. I repeat the process. Another hill.

I realize at this moment, that I’ve reversed the elevation plot, somewhere in my retched head, when doing my prep. The first half is where you LOSE all the elevation, the second half is where you GAIN it all back. And that makes sense – you know? Away from the Rocky Mountains, we’ll eventually hit the Atlantic; But 40 miles away west it reaches up of 14,000+ feet, on top of ol’ Pikes Peak.

So, time to deal with this little situation. My somewhat high-for-150-miles gear ratio is really going to get old, quick. I have the option to gear down, as I have some fancy dingle-cog/double ring thing, but… naw – the hell with it. Stick to the guns. This is definitely not uncharted territory for me. In fact, this is quite a bit like a slice of a Tour Divide pie. The most boring, featureless parts of the Tour Divide, but still – anyone set on that race, should do something like this race. The non-technical features and mind-numbing boredom one can experience is good practice for the last half of Montana. All of Idaho. The Great Divide Basin in Utah. South Park in Colorado. The long stretches of straight pavement in New Mexico. And the other long stretch of pavement in New Mexico, after the first one. What I want would be a honest-to-goodness hill to melt a little of my boredom away,

And I get it, as a 1.3 mile nubbin to get over. It feels good to not be able to see MILES ahead of me, and focus on what’s right ahead and oh! behind a corner. Such luxury. But in small time, it’s summited. I look at the infernal GPS. A big straight line. I zoom out: a big straight line. I zoom out:

A big straight line.

I’m thinking I’m not going to like this GPS, on anything but what I’m learning to use it for: unseen singletrack that stretches for over 700 miles, into desolate terrain with little fudge room for water resupply. But here? It’s a little overkill. I can’t even make myself look at the mileage left, as it’s certain my internal guesstimate is way over actual position. I focus on just riding the bike and mentally noting things I need to do, once back home. I haven’t actually seen anybody for a couple of hours now. It doesn’t really take long for someone to come, pass you (or you pass them) and then: you’re all alone again. A few trucks everyone now and then – far more than other races. It’s a quiet time, really. Pick a good line in the gravel, and look for something interesting to look at. Many times failing at both, as you hit a deep patch of sand, or see another un-worked plot of land. Even the cows seem to be on vacation.

I’m down to that roast beef sandwich, and it’s a bit difficult to eat, as it’s fairly dry. Water’s about out, too. There’s snow on some of the sides of the road, where the shade works to keep it for a few more days. Not one to pass up the offer, I stop periodically to scrap a little snow and make a unflavored Italian Ice. The ice feels amazing trickling down my throat and I repeat this exercise more than really necessary.

I miss the turn, like every damn person, to the, “B” road, which proves a little too slow for my gearing and give up on a hill, scrape some snow and walk up the crest, eating the ice in my hand. No one ahead, no one behind. It takes a lot less time than I fear to traverse the B road and it’s back to gravel. The sun still seems high in the sky. What time is it, I wonder?

I finally see someone ahead, stopped, at the side of the road, changing into warmer clothing. I’ve been in nothing but my kit, since around 7:00am. It’s a little chilly, and a little windy, but I certainly function better riding a little cold, than a little warm. I meet up with them, and we chat a bit, until the next undulation, where I have to speed up a bit to maintain the health of my knees. Something is happening, though. The hills are starting to point more down than up. I’m worried that this is the end of the race, or more specifically NOT the end, but thinking it may be anyways. I fiddle with the GPS. The line from the beginning to indeed converge with the line I’m following, meaning I only have a few miles left.

Amazingly, there’s life left in my legs, so I just open ‘er all the way up, and barrel down to the finish, save for a truck directly in my way that won’t give way. I’m happy it’s over – the people who live in the area seem to live here, because they don’t like the presence of others. When you’re a visitor to an area, it’s always prudent to be courteous to the locals, but it’s a little different when the locals aren’t too afraid to run you over. Good riddance.

I check in, almost 11 hours exact with the race coordinator’s wife and baby. The race coordinator isn’t around, nor are his keys – so my gear is trapped in his car. It’s no big deal, but my day isn’t over quite yet: I need now to ride it home. As I wait, I get things organized for the ride home, and put on some warmer layers. The sun’s losing it’s strength. My lights are all dying.

The organizer makes his way, trailing him, another racer. Funnily enough, the coordinator made a wrong turn on his own race and got momentarily lost. His companion broke a spoke on some fancy wheels, where spokes shouldn’t break. I heard they stumbled upon a ranch that had live lions in cages. The things you find out here.

Re-adjusted for the ride home, bags packed and lashed on the rig, I take her home, with a quick stop to the soon closing pizza place for a grinder, some batteries and whatever junk food I want. And coffee. I scrap the idea of going back to Parker, and just take North Perry Park to Sedalia and that to Santa Fe Dr., and well, I figure out what to do, after that. The ride is pleasant enough, and I reflect on how it’s now normal that I ride so late into the night and how these few calm-enough roads provide access to further reaches of the Front Range. This is the same road I’ve taken to the Barr trail head (and up Pikes), and thankfully, the way I’m going is losing elevation fast. Almost 2,000 feet before I hit Sedalia.

Once in Sedalia, I take the side road parallel to Santa Fe Dr. as far as I can, which leads me directly to where the construction begins, in earnest. Damn. It’s a one-lane road, busy, with no shoulder, and I’m not interested in it much to get me through safely. I poke up around. Look at the other Map GPS Phone thing in my pocket. It shows a road that side steps over all this, and delivers me to the entrance of Chatfield State Park. Blessed be.

Unfortunately, the track dead-ends at a barbed wire fence, locked tight. Spooky. I weigh the idea of hoping the fence, but thought better: the barbed wire fence is usually higher on the other side, whatever side you’re on! Waste of a good Tetanus booster, for sure. I can’t help wonder, though, what’s behind the fence. The whole area has this eery feeling – it’s a former (or current?) military/science research station. They could have tested/developed nuclear warheads/missiles here, for all I know. (Doing research, it was a dynamite plant!)

I high-tale it back to Santa Fe Dr., defeated. I ride on the dirt track besides the one-lane, no-shoulder areas. Good enough. In short time, I’m on the bike path – the safe, predictable bike path, back home – getting close to 200 miles for the day. Now I’m downtown – 15th and Platte, I cross over the Platte and off the bike path and –

a cyclist makes a too-sharp turn onto the bridge, as I’m turning off. I’ve seen him for 10 seconds at least, but he hadn’t even looked up. It’s Saturday, I’m sure his experience is being enhanced. I’m getting to the point that if I don’t keep going, I’m not going to make it home. His almost-collision into me, does make me perform evasive maneuvers to keep both upright and not on top of him. “HOLY SHIT!” is his response. He pedals away. Much fresher, I could have made a kerfuffle about it, but Pick Your Battles. I’m not fatigued enough to see how that would be look like in his shoes: some weird, dirty dude is yelling at him. Way to harsh a mellow, dude.

I limp the last 7 miles home, with fantasies of a hot-enough shower, clean-enough bed. It is a nice hot shower, and the bed didn’t have to be any cleaner.

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