Above Category with Stephen

Glacier Park is called the Crown of the Continent.  Some places are higher. Some have more soaring granite spires. But Glacier gathers majestic peaks, plunging valleys and abundant wildlife into a dense slice of wilderness spilling northward into Alberta. Crown indeed, and a fitting capstone to my adventure.

Ride a bike for a few thousand miles and you learn that the road gives us what we need. We may beg to differ, but what lies before us is what we’re getting. Accept it, or argue with it: the road delivers the goods. And it did so once again today.

As I was riding along Going to the Sun road – and just before the climb to Logan Pass started in earnest – Stephen from North London rolled up beside me. In the characteristicly friendly tone of our neighbors across the pond, he inquired whether he might join me. He proceeded to chat me up.

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My new friend Stephen

As the road steepened we talked about the recent declining fortunes of British cycling in the Tour de France,  punctuated by exclamations of delight as new vistas opened before us. It’s worth noting that having someone to distract you from your suffering during a long climb is absolutely priceless, and so we took turns following each other’s wheel.

The climb to Logan Pass is rated as HC, or above category – descriptive of a special group of ascents that are too large to fit into the normal rating system. Leave it to the French to invent a rating system and realize after the fact that some climbs don’t fit. I can imagine someone shrugging their shoulders in Mediterranean indifference and sighing,  hors categorie. At any rate, when the clouds are drifting by below you, it’s a pretty good bet that you are indeed above category.

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Stephen and I hit the final straightaway before the pass in good form, and I rolled into the parking lot declaring victory in words understood only by cyclists:

Nice go
Got that sorted out
Had good legs today
Chapeau

After getting yelled at by the Rangers for rolling up the handicap ramp (to log 10 more feet of elevation), we grabbed water and descended 900 feet to the east of the pass. Turning around, we climbed back to the summit – the glaciers and snow fields shining like all the diamonds in the world.

The road gave me what I needed today,  and has consistently done so these last nine days. Whether flying along at 30 mph in the lap of a fast tailwind,  or suffering alone through yet another set of steep switchbacks, I got what I was supposed to have. How much time is spent looking past the right now, thinking that there’s something better we’d rather have?

The road is not random. Neither is it an impersonal convergence of capricious circumstances dealt to us by the so-called universe. I can find no courage or hope in this. Rather, the road is built on the kind intention of a God who became human for a season and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth. He brings what we need in the journey, and travels with us to give us someone we can look to when the road rises above category.

And so, this stage comes to an end: 450 miles ridden and 23,265 feet climbed. The road now leads home to the embrace of my girls.Thanks to all of you who took time to read these thoughts.

See you on the road.

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Tour de Montana: Day 5

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So I had this idea. Why not climb back to the top,  and re-descend our first pass of the day? That way I can chip away at my 20K goal. I left 10 minutes late and was still going up as the last group to depart was going down. After I finished my climb it dawned on me that the entire group was ahead of me. What I failed to take into account was that I’d have to chase back onto the group for 60 Km.

And chase I did…averaging 21-22 mph with no one – DARN THEM – to draft behind . My oops turned into an impromptu time trial, with me pedaling furiously across the Montana farmscape. The isolation of a rural highway is profound, and worry began to rise. But as I applied myself to my work, the miles disappeared beneath me, and the support van and Owen’s bearded face appeared.

Upon arrival at camp, my committment  to suffering with extra climbing was acknowledged with a ceremonial dousing with a fire hose. Pictures,  sadly,  are not yet available.

Right at 18K of climbing with high hopes that I can scratch out 2000 more tomorrow. 86 miles and 3900 feet climbed.

Tour de Montana Day 4: Resurrection Day

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The aftermath of a big day of climbing is what we call…RECOVERY. Upon arrival yesterday we limped to an icy cold creek and proceeded to soak our legs for 10 minutes. You do your best to cut your losses and live to ride another day.

It was a clearly sluggish start. Another cup  of coffee? Heck yeah!  And so rolled around 9 with stiff legs and a sense of humor.  You could tell everyone was recovering: sitting up and chatting between hills…photo opps…extra water breaks.

Took me all of 40 miles to spin out my legs. After that we hit the second pass of the day and crushed it. With only 59 miles for the day, we pulled in at about 130. Extended recovery: cold beer, cold water swim, and a session on the foam roller worked their magic.

The picture above is the so – dubbed espresso group of Peter, Tom, myself, Pat, and our guide Ian. Craig was behind the camera. I can’t think of a better group to ride with. Craig does this thing where he quietly slips beside you, and slips his hand in your jersey pocket while having a chat with you. You  then feel a tug backwards as he uses your clothing as a rubber band to launch himself past you. To watch it happening to someone else reduced me to hysterics every time.

59 miles and 3105 climbed.

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Tour de Montana: Days 2 and 3

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SECOND DAY…A Story of Flats

We rolled out a little on the late side around 845. On the menu today was the espresso group – aka, the fast group.  Now it’s worth mentioning that I almost never go with the fast group.  The difference this year is that I actually belong in this group,  and man, it feels good.

I settled in to a strong cadence,  and after warming up gave myself over to the hum of the drive train and the up-and-down of my legs.  In the words of Louden Wainwright,  all them ponies were running together.  Body and bike in happy symbiosis.

Last night’s clouds began burning off and opened views of the still snowy Bitterroot range. After 40 miles on a bike path we had the first of 5 flats in our group. I contributed a front and a rear flat to the cause over the course of the day.  After blowing past our turn off for lunch we rode into a strong rain squall. After realizing our mistake,  we turned around and doubled our time in the rain – adding an extra 6 miles.

The bitterroot valley began to narrow by mile 70: giving us a preview of coming attractions. The hills turned to rocky canyon walls, and  the river course became increasingly restricted. We crossed it frequently as it doubled back on itself.

Today is done. 93 miles,  3100 feet gained, 19.5 miles per hour pace.

THIRD DAY…A Feast of Climbing

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Oh the places you will go

In the words of Dr Seuss, there are exciting journeys ahead. Today did not disappoint.

We rolled at 730 right into a 3000 foot climb on Lost Trail pass – a beautiful stretch of pavement. I have a special fondness for truly alpine settings. In the words of a fellow rider: doesn’t it smell just like Christmas trees?

After being harassed by a driver in a pickup during the descent, I hooked up with Paul and Craig for the 35 mile run to Wisdom MT. We traded leads and averaged a rather quick 22 mph.

The second climb provided the excitement. While descending at about 40 mph I was hit with a vicious crosswind, and experienced a case of speed wobble. This sets up a cycle of vibration that makes the bike sway side to side. The cure? DECREASE SPEED AND GRIP BICYCLE BETWEEN KNEES. The other cure? Don’t ride down hill fast on windy days in rural Montana.

The final climb was a lovely dance through the forest – switchbacks having their curvaceous way up the mountain. Not all climbs are equal: some excel in beauty, and how the road unfolds. I was pulled along by an invisible string of holy wonder from one Vista to another. We laughed and chatted all the way down, celebrating the gift of a downhill tailwind.

7100 feet climbed, 119 miles. I ate dinner twice.

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Tour de Montana, Day 1:To Look Good is to Go Fast

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It has been said,  ‘to look good is to go fast’

However,  some clarification is called for. To wear $300  sunglasses whilst breaking the speed limit in your Acura is a different thing altogether. Looking good cannot be bought.  Rather,  it is a heady mix of form and strength that results in this particular presentation of looking-good-ness of which we speak. Fat guys in expensive cars know nothing of speed. 

For the cyclist, expensive kit and the aforementioned sun glasses do not make us fast. Speed is more than skin deep. Wearing a pro team jersey doesn’t make you a cyclist anymore than sitting in the Minneapolis airport this morning makes me a pilot. It’s all about what lies beneath.

The way of the cycling disciple leads through the fire of adversity. Adversity separates the casual posers from those who seek refinement in the crucible of intentional effort. This is why 60 km of speed work into a roaring headwind or endless climb repeats sort us out like few other experiences can. We travel on the path of truth when we can say,

I’m faster than I was,  but not as fast as I’m going to be

Beneath our sharp kit lies the secret to speed. We look good because we’ve become fast. To understand this is to know why a cyclist in a sun-faded but otherwise clean kit in good repair has become fast. (To plumb the depths of this mystery further, a raunchy smelling, ratty jersey guarantees you will ride alone in a state of slow-paced, low minded suffering.)

Like my young friend in the stroller sporting the upside-down sun glasses, it’s all about what’s on the inside.

Tour de Montana – PROLOGUE

bikepacked

All my bags are packed; I’m ready to go.

It’s time for my yearly quest…my theater of the absurd. I’m off to join Cycling House for six days of riding in Montana. We’ll be riding south from Missoula, almost down to the Yellowstone, in a 400+ mile loop that will climb six mountain passes along the way. The basic route has about 15K of climbing, but I have [perhaps foolishly] inquired how I might push that number closer to 20-25K. I mean, heck, Mike the Cycling Bard I and I did 20K in 5 days in Wisconsin a few weeks ago.

After 3000 miles of training and 100,ooo feet of climbing this season, Tour de Montana is where it all is, at least in theory, going to come together.

  • Hundreds of miles of speed work in a wind tunnel early season? CHECK
  • Three months of weight training during the winter? CHECK
  • Dozens of hours of indoor power intervals on the trainer? CHECK

All of this, and one truth is self evident: I’m not a climber…I’m a Clydesdale. I like climbing – at least as much you can like things that are painful – and I always get to the top. Yet I have no illusions of grandeur. Even whipped down to 208 lbs, I don’t climb like the more genetically blessed who weigh-in at 150 pounds. What’s most likely, as a rouleur, is that I’ll get put out front on the flat and rolling terrain.

I’m a great wind block.

Should I live through this and prosper, I’ll be sure to ride Going to the Sun Road in Glacier Park to add another 7K of climbing before the silver bird flies me home.

Sur la plaque! [Google that, why don't you?]

 

When Enough is Enough

Cycling Tour de France

During today’s fifth stage of the Tour de France last year’s winner, Chris Froome, said ENOUGH. After three crashes in two days Froome couldn’t continue. Just like that. The camera followed him as he got up slowly and stood for a moment in the rain.  A team support person rolled out a replacement bike, but Froome slowly limped past it, opened the passenger door of the team car, and got in.

The Tour de France is not just a sporting event, it’s a novel written day by day over 21 stages and 3664 Km. The plot lines mingle, as they must, with the many personalities and nationalities – birthing a compelling story of struggle, humor, heartbreak and eventual victory. Chris Froome’s part in the story embodies these.

In other sports a competitor knows that the clock will finally run out. A boxer has two minutes. A soccer match has 90 minutes and the occasional time-out. A bicycle race lasts as long as it lasts: you ride until you’re done, whether or not you feel strong, whether or not you’re going well. Froome inspired because he kept going after being scraped and beaten raw on both sides of his body by the first two crashes. The third crash tipped the balance.

Experienced riders know that suffering often brings unexpected surprises. They push on because they know that emptying the tank could just as well trigger some deep reserves. Our own willingness to press on sometimes brings an end of the ride rally where form and strength are recovered. And sometimes on the other side of suffering is a crumbled confidence and will to continue…and you stop. But the most deeply sacred thing is this: to have fought until we can’t go further. That we gave good battle is sweet consolation, and the great equalizer.

Chapeau, Chris Froome: you fought with great courage.