Melissa the Mountain Goat had another successful Ride the Rockies! Read all about your favorite Naked hill climber’s week-long experience here.
Where do I begin? Ride The Rockies 2014, will be a year that Sharon Madison and myself will not soon forget. It was a week of freezing temperatures, new friendships, sudden injuries, beautiful scenery, close calls and personal accomplishments. Ride The Rockies, aka RTR, has become an annual event for Sharon and I since we met in Steamboat during the 2011 tour. We both had this year’s “Epic Week” marked on our calendars since the beginning of March. To start off, we both planned on racing the Sunshine Hill Climb Race on June 7th, followed by RTR June 8th-13th, and finishing up with the Guanella Pass Hill Climb race on June 15th. We knew what we had signed up for, but never dreamed it would have turned out like it did.
Sunshine was hard! I was not ready for that monster climb at all. Without going into too much detail, I wasn’t feeling too great that day but I signed up and raced anyway. It was my first race as a Cat 3. Talk about being nervous. My body already turns inside out before every race, but when I lined up next to those crazy strong Cat 3s that morning, I knew I was in store for a sufferfest. I love to climb, and I think in normal circumstances, I would thoroughly enjoy climbing Sunshine Canyon. However, I think my mind got the best of me in that race. Maybe it was the anxiety of knowing RTR started the very next day (with a scheduled 10,000 plus feet of climbing in 89 miles) or maybe it was the fact that I was racing at a new level with very strong competition. All I could think about was how sick I felt and that climbing that beast of a mountain was going to hurt. And it did. My teammate, Jamie Gilmore set a very strong pace right out of the shoot. My initial thought was “uh oh”, because I knew she is an incredible climber. I did my best to hang with her for a bit, but with the way I was feeling, I knew I had to back off. As a few other racers passed me, I conceded to the fact that this was a personal race for me, and it was about survival. It’s hard to race when you don’t feel good, so just finishing was an accomplishment. Jamie and Brittany dominated the Cat 3 race and Sharon took 3rd in Masters. It was very exciting to see them all on the podium at the top.
After racing Sunshine, I came home and began packing for my week long trip with one of my very best friends. Most people who sign up for Ride The Rockies camp at the local high schools in each of the finishing towns. Not Sharon and I. =) Camp? Could you imagine? Those riders are tough. Every day they ride over mountain passes, through extreme weather conditions, sometimes close to 100 miles of riding, set up their tents with tired bodies, shower in semi truck trailers and sleep outside in the cold, just to get up and do it all over again the next day. Ha! I’m too prissy for that. I need my coffee every morning and a mirror to put my eyeliner on. Each year Sharon organizes hotel accommodations in the hosting towns and we tuck into warm hotel beds each night after eating fancy dinners with great friends. Talk about extreme differences. But that doesn’t mean we don’t work our booties off when we are on the road. Our friend Dr. Sean Bender, who also rides with us each year, makes sure we all hit Zone 5 at least once each day…..or all day, depending on what he ate for breakfast that morning. He was nicknamed the steam engine for our Naked Train this year because he is so strong and fast. I remember some guy hooked onto the back of our train one day and he came up to Sean at the Aid Station and said, “Do I owe you money or something for that ride? You are a machine!” Sean just laughed and acted like it was no big deal. I think he was the strongest rider on RTR this year. And if that’s not impressive enough, he was that strong even after suffering a broken collarbone in February, from a crash in a race in Vegas.
Day one of RTR was wild. We left the high school in Boulder at about 6:45am and headed up beautiful Boulder Canyon. It was a real treat to ride up that canyon with one lane closed to traffic. I remember thinking how nice it was to not have to worry about cars and to be able to take in the scenery around me. The morning air was crisp, the rivers were full and flowing fast, the sun was bright and everyone seemed energized and happy. It felt like it was going to be a perfect day. The beautiful weather stuck with us all the way through Nederland, Rollinsville and even up until Gilpin County (mile 36 or so). But the storm clouds were rolling in and when we got to Black Hawk and Central City, it was evident that we were in for some weather. Riding through Central City was fun. There are some good hills back there and the descent into Idaho Springs was a blast. Once we got to Idaho Springs however, my attitude changed quickly with the first crash of thunder. I always knew I was a lightning wimp, but when you are standing out in the open with a group of people on bikes, and a GIANT flash of lightning flies overhead, I think it’s perfectly normal to FREAK OUT!! Sharon, Sean and John were taking their sweet time putting on their rain jackets and leg warmers as lightning streaked across the sky and thunder shook the ground. “No big deal guys!! It’s just lightning!!!” I was convinced we were going to die. They just laughed at me as I had a mini panic attic on the side of the highway. Then it happened……In the midst of my meltdown, my attention was suddenly diverted. A group of cyclists flew past us in a very organized and beautiful fashion. They were not your typical RTR riders and it was evident in their appearance and riding style. My eyes were immediately drawn to them and I quickly realized it was George Hincapie. ((sigh)) That guy is a hunk! Suddenly, my terror turned to excitement and all I could focus on was trying to catch up with his group and ride with them. Thank you Mr. Hincapie for the distraction!! That was exactly what I needed to get me through the storm and on to Empire.
When we reached the Aid Station in Empire it was windy and cold. Yuck! We shivered and huddled together while we ate our bars and goos and rested for the climb to come. We were 62 miles in and the summit on Berthoud Pass was mile 75. When you are already freezing cold and you know you have to ride in the wind to a much higher, and inevitably colder elevation, its hard to get back on your bike. Sean decided he was going to summit Berthoud alone. Word on the street was that he had a massage waiting for him in Winter Park, so he took off like a rocket and told us he would meet us there. Lucky guy…or so we thought anyway. As John, Sharon and I began to climb the pass, the weather went from wind, to light rain, to light snow to giant snowflakes that stick to your eyelashes. I decided I wanted to push myself up the mountain, so I set out on my own for a bit. I was feeling awesome considering the dreary weather. I even noticed I had some guy sucking my wheel the entire way up. I didn’t say anything but I knew he was there. The closer I got to the top, the wetter the roads got and the more I became aware of my body temperature dropping. It was strange, I went from feeling amazing and powering up the mountain, to sudden dizziness and confusion. I even had to get off of my bike to try and regain my focus. I never do that. Was I bonking? It was a feeling I had never experienced before. I could see the summit in the distance, it wasn’t far at all. My body didn’t feel fatigued but I was dazed and had tunnel vision and I felt like everything around me was spinning. I remember thinking maybe it was low blood sugar or dehydration and I would eat when I got to the top. I forced myself to get back on my bike but it was the first time that I was truly afraid that I might black out while riding. It was so surreal. When I reached the top, I immediately got off of my bike and just laid it against a wall in the parking lot. There was a little warming house (not heated), so I went inside and just sat down on the floor. I remember Sharon came in moments later and said “Let’s go and get out of this weather.” She wanted to descend right away but I knew I couldn’t do it. All I could do was sit there. I was done riding for the day. I told her that I was afraid I couldn’t descend safely. She and John told me to wait there and they would go get a car in Winter Park and come back and get me. I felt like such a baby. I was not pleased with myself for wimping out, but I knew I would crash if I tried to descend those switchbacks on wet pavement, feeling the way I did. My head was in a daze. As Sharon and John began to leave, over a loud speaker, a police officer announced that the pass was closed to cyclists. “There will be no cyclists allowed to descend. The conditions are too dangerous.” They said we were to wait at the top and they would make arrangements for us to get down the mountain safely. At that time, the warming house was not very full. However, as the cyclists began to make their way up the mountain, suddenly the warming house looked more like a sardine can. Everyone was piling inside to get out of the wet snow and wind. Sean made it down the pass before they closed it, but Sharon, John and myself were stuck at the top with hundreds of other cyclists.
As our sweat began to cool and the temperature continued to drop, the shivering reached an entirely new level. My entire body physically hurt from shivering so much. I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes and I remember feeling short of breath from my body tensing up so much. Sharon couldn’t sit still through all of this. She is considered the Mayor of RTR (because she knows EVERYONE), and she was able to work her magic and found a ride down the mountain with a friend. John hopped on a crowded bus. They said they would come back with a car to pick me up. I decided to sit down in a corner and rest my head on my knees. I was so tired. A very kind man was next to me while I waited. He put his jacket over my shoulders and offered me food. I was so exhausted. I said no thank you to his kind food offer and I rested my head on my knees again. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I just wanted to sleep. I couldn’t stop shivering and I just wanted to close my eyes while I waited for John and Sharon. As I began to doze off I remember feeling the man’s hand on my arm, pulling me to my feet. I was embarrassed that I was so sleepy and it took me a minute to realize what was happening. He pulled me by my arm through the crowd of people and outside into the snow and wind. I remember it seemed so bright outside and I asked him where we were going. He just told me he knew some people and before I knew it, he opened the doors to a big fire truck and he helped me inside. He said “Stay here and I will come get you when John and Sharon return.” How did he know John and Sharon? I was so confused. The fire truck was incredible. It was more like a warming truck of some sort. There were benches to sit on and heaters that blasted warm air throughout the entire cabin. There were people in blankets shivering next to me and as time passed, more and more people piled inside. I felt like I was dreaming. As my body warmed up, I wasn’t as sleepy as I was moments before and I felt like I could see more clearly. I looked out the windows of the truck and realized the severity of the situation. There were bikes everywhere, people wrapped in blankets standing in lines to load onto buses and trucks and the snow didn’t show any signs of stopping. I have no idea how long I sat in that truck, but eventually that wonderful man that helped me, appeared in the doorway again. He said “Sharon and John are here. Let’s go.” We piled four people and several bikes into the car and made our way down the mountain. We all ended up safely in Winter Park at a beautiful condo that Sharon had reserved for us. We sat around and told our stories while we rested our tired bodies. That was only Day One of Ride The Rockies! Little did we know, we had several other wild adventures to come.
Day 2 of RTR began with a chilly morning in Winter Park. So chilly, we decided to leave a little later to allow the temperature outside to rise a bit. Sean and I both know the importance of a cup of coffee each morning before a long day in the saddle. Sharon is not a coffee drinker, but she is sweet and tolerates our desperation to find a coffee shop each day. That morning we happened to find a Starbucks. I was so excited. Once we indulged in our addiction, we headed out into the cold, crisp morning air. At least the sun was shining. As we made our way out to the main highway we bumped into a friend of Mayor Madison’s. His name was Robert and he happened to be standing next to a vehicle that said Hincapie on it. Suddenly I became very aware of the BMC bike that was resting next to a pile of suitcases. “That’s George’s bike!” I thought to my self. I didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay and see if I was right, but alas, Sharon said it was time to go, and she is the boss, so we went. We met up with a friend of Sean’s on our way out of town. His name was Alexi and he was going to ride with us for the day. So the 4 of us began our journey to the next location. Day 2’s route would take us from Winter Park to Steamboat Springs, traveling 95 miles over Muddy Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass. It was another big day. Other than a cool breeze, the first 30 miles were pretty uneventful. We were all settling into our rhythm and getting to know each other’s wheels. After stopping at Aid Station 1 just before Granby, when we reached Aid Station 2 near Parshall, we decided not to stay very long. We wanted to get through the day at a quick pace to avoid any weather. That’s when the next unexpected event happened. As we pulled out of Aid Station 2, Sean took the lead, followed by Alexi, then Sharon and I hopped on the back. We barely started pedaling, when all of a sudden a vehicle that was passing us pulled over to the right, forcing Sean off of the road. Alexi hit his brakes, which caused Sharon’s front wheel to rub his back wheel and Sharon ended up crashing. It was horrible to witness. It was like it was happening in slow motion and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Sharon’s wheel rubbed the side of Alexi’s wheel for what seemed like forever. She held her bike upright as long as she could but she finally went down. Her head and her shoulder hit the pavement first and my heart sunk in my chest. Sean is an ER doctor and he rushed over to Sharon to see if she was ok. She got up immediately and quickly realized she had a lot of pain in her shoulder. Her helmet was cracked and she had some road rash on her hip. She was incredibly calm. Even at a moment like that, she was kind and graceful. After Sean looked her over, he decided it would be a good idea to have her shoulder x-rayed in Steamboat. Her bike was not damaged but she definitely needed a new helmet. The woman that pulled over, pushing us off the road, was ironically a friend of Sean’s. It was a complete accident and Sharon was as sweet as can be to her, despite the pain she was in from falling. Sharon decided to catch a ride with Sean’s friend to the next Aid Station. I wanted to ride in the car with her but Sharon wouldn’t let me and she told me to keep riding. That was not easy for me at all.
After riding alone with the boys to Aid Station 3, just outside of Kremmling, we ran into Sharon and noticed she was up to something. She was standing in line at the Bike Source tent buying a new helmet. Clearly, she had every intention to ride, despite her injuries. Although we set out after lunch without her, I don’t think we made it 15 miles before she was hollering out the car window for us to pull over. When we came to a stop, we realized she couldn’t sit still in the car and watch everyone ride. She got her bike off of the rack and gave us all the look that said “I’m riding. Don’t say a word”. The plan was to see how it goes. Sean’s friend was just a phone call away and if Sharon couldn’t handle the pain, she would be right there to pick her up. This was nuts. I could not believe she was getting back on her bike. I was a nervous wreck. All I could think about was how she was feeling and if this was a smart plan or not. I figured Sean wouldn’t let her ride if he was really concerned, but my instinct was on high alert. We took it very easy along the stretch from Kremmling to Muddy Pass. Although I can’t say it was uneventful. In fact, along that very stretch of road the most terrifying thing to have ever happened to me on my bike, happened in the blink of an eye.
Ride The Rockies is an annual bike tour that has gone on for nearly 30 years now. It is a very well organized event with State Patrol escorts, road blocks in certain areas, route safety volunteers and well marked hazards and road signs for all of the cyclists. Ironically, just outside outside of Kremmling, I remember seeing a huge road sign warning vehicles that a bike tour was in progress and to please proceed with caution. For the most part, traffic flows smoothly and it is clearly evident that there are cyclists everywhere. In our group of four, Sean was up front, followed by Alexi, myself and then our wounded soldier Sharon at the back. We were traveling at a steady pace going into a slight corner when a massive semi truck came barreling down the road. He obviously had no patience for the cyclists and he was going to show his rage by hugging the shoulder. Not only was he going entirely too fast, but he came so close to us, that Sean was pushed off of the road into the gravel. Alexi’s immediate reaction was to hit his brakes, my front wheel instantly locked with his back wheel on the lefthand side and all I could think about was Sharon’s crash just hours before. Typically when your front wheel rubs with another wheel, you go down. If I would have fallen, I would have fallen into the semi because I would not have fallen to the right because of Alexi’s wheel. As the front of the semi truck rounded the corner, the trailer came even closer to us. I could see the tires, and the trailer right next to me from the corner of my eye. I felt the wind from his speed as he passed by and at that moment I really thought things were going to end badly for me. I have no idea how I kept my bike upright as that giant truck flew past us. I was absolutely terrified. We all had to pull over and catch our breath. I think I will thank God every day for the rest of my life for protecting us that day. I can’t believe the driver of that truck was so careless and had no regard for life.
When we got to the Aid Station at the base of Muddy Pass, Sharon decided to catch a ride with Sean’s friend. Her shoulder was hurting and she noticed that climbing intensified the pain. So Sean, Alexi and myself made our way up the pass. As we kept pedaling, Sean decided he wanted to summit Rabbit Ears at his rocket ship cadence. So Alexi and I climbed the remaining stretch of Rabbit Ears, just the two of us. When we reached the top, Sharon was waiting. She was with Sean and she wanted to descend with us into Steamboat. Yes, I’m convinced she is crazy. Or else she has embraced an entirely new level of “badass”. One of the two. She descended the pass with grace and beauty like every other descent she has made, and we arrived safely in Steamboat.
Having an ER doctor with you on a bike tour has its perks. What normally would have taken hours in the ER for X-rays, literally took 10 minutes. Sean was able to diagnose her injury as soon as the X-ray was taken. Sharon had suffered an AC separation. In her mind, no big deal. She was thrilled that her collarbone was not broken. A little tape and ibuprofen and she would be good to go. (I would be crying like a baby). Since Day 3 was a loop around Steamboat and we would be staying two nights at the same hotel, Sharon agreed that taking a day off of the bike was a good idea. It didn’t hurt my feelings either because I knew I had to race Guanella on Sunday and I was already feeling tired. So, while the other cyclists rode a not so easy 54 mile loop through Steamboat, Sharon and I indulged in a little retail therapy. We had a very nice day together followed by one of the best dinners I have ever had. Dessert was the real treat. I’m not one to ever choose bread pudding from a dessert menu, but OH MY GOD, this bread pudding with carmel sauce and vanilla ice-cream knocked my socks off. I still dream about that bread pudding. Anyway…
Day 4 was another long day in the saddle. 82 miles from Steamboat Springs to Avon. Although, we rode to East Vail because Sharon has a condo there and that’s where we stayed that night. Sharon was still hurting (obviously) from her injury, so she was quick to ditch us at the first aid station. We happened to hook up with a few guys from the GS Boulder team along the first few miles, and Sharon preferred their pace over Sean’s. It’s not his fault he is a machine and he makes people taste blood in their mouths when they try to keep up with him. So long story short, I was Sean’s designated riding buddy for the day and I knew I was going to suffer. I was right too. As soon as we fueled our bodies, we flew through the next 20 miles at lightning speed. I tucked in behind his wheel and did my best to hang on tight. I’m actually shocked I was able to stay on his wheel. It wasn’t easy. We were flying. That’s about how the rest of that day went as well. We would stop at the aid stations, refuel, refill water bottles and continue to hammer out the miles at a very quick pace. When we reached the high school in Avon, I was fried. My legs were jello and I knew we still had about 20 miles to go to East Vail. Thankfully at this point, we had Sharon with us and she took charge of the pace. I was thrilled when we decided to stop and have lunch at a wonderful pizza place in Vail. I had a diet Coke, a big side salad and 2 large pieces of pizza. Why do I mention this? Well, Sharon’s condo was about 7 miles from the pizza place, uphill I might add, and that was the hardest 7 miles I have ever pedaled. My legs were cursing Sean and my belly was full of pizza. We were nearing 100 miles that day and the last thing I wanted to do was get back on my bike. I was so happy when we reached Sharon’s place. A warm shower, a delicious dinner, homemade cinnamon rolls and ice-cream and a very soft bed, was a perfect ending to a long day of intense riding.
Day 5 was a fun day. 74 miles from Avon to Breckenridge was the scheduled route. I don’t remember our exact mileage that day because we set out from East Vail and ended in Frisco. Sean has a place in Frisco so he was like a horse heading back to the barn. He couldn’t get there fast enough, but Sharon reined him in and he was exiled to the back of the line while Sharon set our pace for the beginning of the ride. Poor Sean. Ha! In a nutshell, Day 5 started in the beautiful town of Vail, a little Starbucks in the system to get us going, and a beautiful day riding in the mountains. I couldn’t get over how full the rivers were and how green everything was. It was still chilly, but Summer was in the air and the sun was shining bright. We traveled over Battle Mountain, Tennessee Pass and Fremont Pass. Some of the bike paths we rode along were absolutely gorgeous. I feel so blessed to live in this beautiful State. When we arrived at Sean’s place in Frisco, we had an incredible dinner and we all slept like babies.
The plan for Day 6 was to take it easy. Sharon had decided she wasn’t going to race Guanella on Sunday, so it was all me. Sean joked around that I was the “protected” rider. He was really good about keeping me reined in when I wanted to power up a hill. It wasn’t easy to go slow, as strange as that may seem after the big days of riding we had just endured. Sean told me I would thank him on Sunday when I had some legs left for the race. I knew he was right so I did my best to behave. I had never been to Keystone before or over Loveland Pass. It was beautiful! There were actually people skiing as we climbed to the summit. I thought that was wild. I felt great climbing that day. I loved every second of it. When we gathered at the top, however, we didn’t stay up there long because the wind cut right through us. It was very cold up there. We quickly put our layers on and enjoyed a lot of down hill riding into Idaho Springs. That was fun. Floyd Hill was a lovely little bump in the road (Ha!) but it wasn’t horrible because I knew Golden was so close, and that meant my beautiful children and my husband were waiting for me at the finish line.
Ride The Rockies this year was definitely one to remember. I’m so glad we all made it home safely. It is such a huge sense of accomplishment crossing that finish line each year. It’s not only about physical toughness. Finishing a bike tour like this takes heart and mental toughness as well. So many different types of people participate in this event and it amazes me every year how far people push themselves. I see people of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities out there every day pushing their bodies to the limit. It’s awesome! I look forward to RTR every year and I hope I’m out there pushing myself when I’m a little old lady too.