Roadside grave marking the beginning of my ride.
I love riding my bicycle. Am I great at it? No, not really. So when I set out to ride the road to the Santa Fe ski basin I was somewhat nervous. I’d been living, on and off, in Santa Fe for several years, but had mostly kept to riding dirt while in the area. I’d ridden from Aspen Vista to the television towers, a ride that tops out at about 12,000 feet, but I had never ridden from downtown Santa Fe to the top. I’d heard about this ride for years because my brother, who just completed his first Ironman Triathlon, had been mentioning it for years. I sent him an email to talk trash about my upcoming battle with the mountain.
“Oh ya, the ski basin,” my brother said, “That is one of my favorite rides.” Just hearing him say this was what began to get me worried. You see my brother is the kind of guy that needs translation. I’ll ask something like, “Hey, where are we riding today?” “How long?” “Is it flat?”
He will answer something along the lines of “Oh, it’s only 30 miles, mostly flat, a tail wind in both directions and there are plenty of ice cold water stops along the way, and a river we can swim in if we need to.”
Thirty miles into the all uphill crossing of a wasteland, with a headwind, I will realize just how misleading his description was. Believe it or not it took me years of the occasional ride with him to figure this out. At one point I was caught in the middle of the Texas Hill County in major trouble, so fatigued my only goal was not passing out and swerving into the path of a lifted monster truck. Reaching my breaking point I found myself at a roadside honky-tonk begging them for saltines and sugar water. They looked at me with ZERO pity, but I did manage to eat an entire basket of crackers. My brother, who hadn’t eaten anything the entire day, sipped a coke and said, “You’re fine, let’s go.”
The road to the basin, fifteen miles up and fifteen down.
So as the sun crept above the horizon line I began the pathetically slow assault. Making the first turn and staring up at the mountain the only sound you could hear was my derailer, “click, click, click, click, click” as I flat out surrendered right from the start.
“You left your racks on?” “What, are you an idiot?” one friend asked. Ya, I did. I left them on. Look, this bike, a Trek 520, steel touring bike, nicknamed “The Belafonte” is heavy to begin with. At the speeds I was going, having the racks on was really going to make little difference. And I’m lazy. Did I mention that? In addition to the rack I had two bottles of Heed, one Camelback filled with water, four Gu shots, one powerbar and these packs of those chewy things that at certain times actually taste good. I really didn’t know what I was going to need so I “loaded for bear,” as my dad would have said.
This is not a look of fear. Panic is a better description.
I had driven this route many times in the past, both in summer and winter and oddly enough had never really paid attention to the actual road. I cursed myself for not really knowing how hard to go or how easy. My brother had said, “Ya, you’ll probably be at eight or ten miles per hour on the way up, and four times that on the way down.” I immediately cut his prediction in half and felt okay if I could sustain that. And in case your wondering what my training regime was, well, it was elite. The prior week I was in Panama, working on a documentary project, drinking beer and staying out really late.
Taking a little break at Aspen Vista.
I have to say, the day was beautiful and the road was quiet. I was virtually alone and never saw another rider the entire way up. The start of the road was steep and I became well acquainted with my lowest gear, a ring I’d never experienced before. I began to wonder what would happen if I tried to ride a road like this with my bike fully loaded. I made a mental note, “Before touring, change gearing.” After about an hour I began to feel pretty darn good. I ran scenarios through my mind, things like standing up and attacking the last mile or perhaps a crowd of tourists at the top cheering me on and asking me to sign the foreheads of their babies. Then I would look ahead and see switchbacks of significant grade and would tell myself, “Don’t look, just look at the ground right in front of the bike.” For those of you non-cyclists you might be wondering, “Why are you doing this, it sounds like Hell,” and that is a good question. It really is fun, and challenging and in the brief moments between panic and insecurity I did look around and enjoy the scenery. At Aspen Vista I stopped, ate some Gu, drank some Heed posed in the parking lot like I knew what I was doing, acting like I was making some critical bike adjustments and then made my attack on the summit.
Looking overly confident at the top.
It wasn’t long before I knew I was going to make it, and not only make it, but kinda push myself, attack a little maybe. Okay, attack is a strong word. Sustain my limit maybe? Push myself? Is that better? I knew I had enough juice to go and it was at that moment I really began to enjoy the ride. My lungs burned, but that good burn of conquest, fitness and knowing the gallons of Panamanian beer were flowing through my pores. I was alone on the mountain, light cutting through the pines. It was silent but my ears were filled with the pounding of my heart and the sucking of air through my lungs. This moment was why I ride a bicycle. I’d set an uncertain goal and went looking for the answer to the question, “Can I do it?” I shifted up and stood up, changing position, bounced on the pedals imagining a fictional commentator describing my ride to a broad television audience.
Clean as a mountain spring.
And suddenly I was at the top. There were no crowds. There were no messages chalked on the highway for me to read. There was just one guy in a jumpsuit doing repairs at the ski basin. I got off the bike, looked around, heard water running and decided to take a peak. The stream was ice cold, crystal clear and was exactly what I was hoping to see. Just me and a bit of nature discovered by pushing pedals. I knew I still had the descent to endure, so I sucked down more Gu, a little more water and mentally prepared for the thrill ride in store. My total time to the top was 2:20. Stop laughing. Really, laughing isn’t helping anyone.
Beginning the descent. Eighteen going on forty-five.
Now in case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m not an “amazing descender.” As a kid I hated rollers coasters. I didn’t like speed. I drive a Prius people. A Prius. So when I thought about descending the mountain my only goal was not to hit a tree, a car, another bicycle or even an large animal at high speed. My fear of descending is based in past experience and well founded if you ask me. You see many years ago I rode a bicycle that was, let’s just say, less than a quality build. At the time I didn’t really know how bad this bicycle was. I remember looking at it and thinking, “It’s got 105’s, it’s gotta be good.” Well, this little beauty was a merlot colored death trap. At a certain speed the bike would begin to shake, shimmy, VIOLENTLY, and there was little I could do to get it back under control. I remember descending a Central Texas hill with my brother an inch from my rear wheel. At about 40 mph, my awesome bike began the mechanical bull feature it had built in and I remember hearing my brother pulling the rip cord, breaking heavily and uttering something like “Uh oh,” as he peeled off to get as far away from me as possible. I had never really had “The Belafonte” over 40mph so I wasn’t sure what I was in store for. I shot the above frame, stopped, put the camera away, took one last sip of water and said “bring it on.”
The photo I too while trying to readjust my spine.
The top portion of the road was steep and filled with switchbacks. The sun was higher now but the road was still a mix of bright sun and deep shadow. I glanced down from time to time, 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph. The bike was rock solid and I knew I could go faster. I still hadn’t seen another rider and there were few cars on the road. About .22764536354347 seconds after I thought, “I can go faster,” I hit a pothole hidden in the shade in the middle of a switchback. The good news, I didn’t crash. The bad news, I literally felt my spine move about an inch to the right. Everything hurt. My hands, my arms, shoulders, spine, right knee, neck, and yes, the one part of my “undercarriage” that happened to be resting slightly above the saddle. I cursed the New Mexico Department of Transportation and their road crews. I thought for sure the bike would be broken in some way. I had to be going at least forty when I hit the hole. A broken spoke? A bent rim? Something? Anything? I swung over to the side of the road and looked up at the aspen covered in carvings. I inspected the bike, found nothing out of whack and once again aimed downhill. It was a blast. Because I had just slowly ridden the route I knew far more about the road than ever before and I knew that halfway down there was as long section where I could really just let it go. I passed an RV camper, a guy having a smoke and a coke, watching his dog pee and I momentarily froze him as I whizzed by like a floundering Russian satellite. The bottom section of the route is a perfect combination of grade, curve and shoulder and I found myself beaming as I leaned from side to side in the perfect place of not having to pedal and not having to hit the brakes.
And then I was back in downtown Santa Fe, salt crusted on my shorts, my bottles empty, my legs slightly spent and eyes wild with excitement.
So as I sit here back in Southern California my mind keeps thinking of that road to the ski basin. I’m heading back New Mexico way in the near future, and come or shine, I’ll be back on the mountain.