Jarmila Gorman This is something I was inspired to write about my favorite sufferfest. Enjoy, and I'd love to hear your stories too!
***(best read with a beer in hand)***
What’s it like to ride the Highlander vs. the Triple Bypass in Colorado? At first glance, they’re similar – about 120 miles (the Triple is 120, and the 2010 Highlander is 129 miles). Riders “enjoy” approximately 10,000’ of elevation gain on the Triple, 11K on the Highlander – also known as Death Before Dismount. Both rides are extremely well organized, the scenery is breathtaking, the camraderie strong... And that, my friends, is where the similarity ends.
The Triple Bypass has altitude and relentlessly long climbs over three mountain passes plus another “bump” just for fun. Basically, you start on one side of the Continental Divide, go up and over, and down the other side. Riders often experience frequent severe weather and sudden, dramatic changes in temperature (it’s not uncommon to see a forty degree change in the course of two hours).
The Highlander might seem mellower because the environment isn’t as extreme, but there’s a little extra kick in the Highlander that the Triple doesn’t have. Hills that go straight up. As in ‘rocket-launch’ straight up. Anyone expecting midwestern-style undulations is in for one hell of a rude surprise.
OK, who builds roads like this - roads that for no sane reason are completely vertical??? In Colorado we call them ski runs and we go down, as gravity intended!!
Look at Bristol Mountain from the parking lot, where the Highlander starts… and imagine pavement under the chairlift. That’s what they call roads in upstate NY!
Anybody from Colorado would tell you, you’re an idiot if you have a driveway that steep. For those who have gravity-defying driveways out here, a 4x4 truck with a permanently-attached snow plow is not a luxury, but the only way to get the groceries home. Driveways become bobsled runs in winter (and during mud season too, thanks to our baby-poo sticky clay soil), often negotiated sideways at awkward angles that cause flatlander visitors to gasp uncontrollably and grab their knees in white-knuckle terror.
But… even the most idiotic driveways in Colorado generally employ an obviously little-known-in-upstate-New-York engineering secret called “switchbacks”.
But noooooo, the Finger Lakes road builders figured the most efficient way to get from A to B was to draw a straight line from A to B. But there’s the issue of topography (well, I consider it an issue). Not these guys. 23% hill in the way? Bah, no problem! The fastest way to get from here to there is a straight line, duh.
So geniuses that they are, that’s what they did. Straight line from A to B. Obviously the best way.
Yes. In a car.
And that of course begs the question… who in their right minds would ride a bicycle up these roads??
Umm… I would. I, among many other “enthusiasts”. For reasons of our own, we are compelled to prove to ourselves and the world that because a hill is there, we can ride it. Not that that’s necessarily the “smart” thing to do. It’s just what we do. Again and again. We don’t cower and hide. We may whine and whimper, but we resolutely point our bikes at the hills and attack.
“As long as I live, I attack.” – Bernard Hinault
Background on me: I love climbing. Really, truly love to go higher and higher on a bike. It’s pure zen. I live in Colorado, at almost 7,000 feet above sea level and many of my training rides routinely take me from 6,000 to 11,000 feet (and back down). Altitude doesn’t begin to affect me at all until I get to treeline, locally around 12,000 feet. Climbing big mountain passes is a piece of cake. They’re long, but gradual. No big deal. They’re my backyard rides.
Yeah, and then I go ride the Highlander and I’m humbled, big time.
There is no county-maintained road in Colorado that exceeds 18% and those are exceptionally rare. Most of our climbs are in the 6% range – sure, they can go on for 16+ miles… but once you settle into your rhythm and learn to effectively utilize every available molecule of oxygen, you’re golden. It’s almost like riding on auto pilot when you get in the groove. But, no such luxury in the Highlander.
The Highlander can and should be considered an extreme ride. The Triple Bypass is tough. But the Highlander? Insane. Wonderfully insane.
When you break it down into its components, riding the Highlander is riding intervals all day long. Max effort, max recovery. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I’m an endurance rider. A diesel. Point me in a direction and say “go”, and I go. For me, the Highlander is a challenge of epic proportions – to keep on going despite rarely finding my groove because (like mountain biking) there is no groove. You just have to keep going. No matter what.
There is one hill I must mention, the infamous Bopple Hill. No matter where it comes in the ride, it’s going to hurt you, guaranteed. 12-22% for a mile. Conquer Bopple, and you’ve conquered yourself.
Here’s my experience:
One minute I’m cruising along a scenic lakefront… in the 53x11… not even breathing hard… Yes, I know “it” (Bopple Hill) is coming, but in my mind I have my eyes closed and hands firmly clasped over my ears, singing “lalala, I can’t see it, lalala, total denial, lalala, this ride is easy, lalala!”
And then the road warps into an insane Escher drawing. My mind can’t really wrap itself around this strange phenomenon. Why would somebody just fold one corner of the road up like that? Why?
Who folds roads into origami swans?
My first reaction is a very un-ladylike expletive pertaining to procreation. Then, a drastic and sudden downshift, chain skipping over teeth as I desperately make the switch to the 39T and hunt for the third-from smallest cog. Pride, people, pride… (goeth before the fall, yeah, I know, whatever).
I silently thank Our Lady of Shimano that my derailleur didn’t snap off and the chain is still in one piece. I guess thanks are relative at this point. The fact that I did not experience catastrophic equipment malfunction means I am now stuck riding this thing. Oh goody.
I hammer out the first couple feet of Bopple out of the saddle, aware of a rather alarming drop in velocity despite my best efforts to continue the 20+ mph pace I had been carrying at the lakefront.
Within seconds the remaining two gears are ejected in favor of the only slightly less painful granny. I feel the deceleration, but before I succumb to the black hole pull of the bottom of Bopple, I sit back down and power up the hill in the granny gear.
Ha ha, power up in the granny gear. I have to laugh. Stupid oxymoron.
(For what it’s worth, I like big gears. I don’t ride a triple. Don’t need one in Colorado. The Highlander is the one and only ride where I wish I had a third chainring. Really, really wish.)
But there’s no time for this kind of thinking. Fully in the moment, fully in the pain of this abrupt climbing experience. Not ‘climbing’ as in ‘ascending’, like I do at home (a 3,500’ climb at home is a 16-mile pleasant romp at 4% that generally takes about an hour-fifteen). Here, it’s medieval torture. This is climbing as in “trying to scale a wall while being pulled backwards by an angry mob.”
I crane my neck to impossible angles just to catch a glimpse of the top – depressingly not yet visible. I know better than to look! It’s smarter just to look down and keep pedaling. I push on. I think I smell something burning, accompanied by a dull realization that my legs seem to have caught fire. Hmmm. If they fry, I won’t have to do this. No such luck. Somebody’s having a barbecue, watching the carnage on the hill. That, or I’m hallucinating. Legs intact but screaming, I push on.
“Death….before….dismount….” I chant silently, each breath keeping in cadence with my pedal stroke. Cadence? That’s laughable. Cadence implies forward movement. I went from a nice, comfortable 98 rpm to… 30. 20 mph to… 2. When, when will my rhythm come??? It dawns on me, it won’t. There will be no rhythm. Nothing but the pain of keeping the bike upright and forcing it forward.
There is no “settling in” to a climb like this. It’s nothing but brute force all the way up. I’m a girl, dang it, I don’t have to do this! Oh yes I do. Dang it. Fight the tractor-beam pull of the bottom! Fight it! Go! Go! Go!
There’s a slight break as the road levels out to 12%. A slight giggle because I’m somewhat shocked that I consider 12% a relief.
And then the real fun begins, the real climb, where it kicks up a couple of notches to over 20%. The Escher drawing that is this road twists into yet another mutated shape where ‘up’ and ‘down’ are equally daunting. Those of us with a (healthy) deathly fear of heights do NOT look down.
It’s remarkably difficult to keep a bicycle upright at very slow speeds. I am amazed at the acrobat-like agility that allows me to balance on tires less than 1” wide for what feels like eternity. I try to keep my upper body relatively still, bobbing up and down rather than side-to-side to minimize the metronome-like pumping that threatens to tip bicycle and rider over.
At some point that extra movement became a necessity. I bob a little more, pumping unseen energy into my legs. It’s a miracle of physics that I do not stall! How the hell is it possible that I’m still moving forward (sort of) and still upright (barely)? I know the sight must be both comical and incredible at the same time…
Time loses all meaning on Bopple. There is only the NOW, the zen and the suffering of the moment.
Random thoughts. Why am I not going anywhere? Why is it that I’m able to read every single name painted on the road? Am I going that slow? I’m thirsty. I hate this. Why do my frickin’ triceps hurt? When do I ever use my triceps on a road ride? I think my handlebars are gonna snap if I pull any harder. I wonder if I can catch that guy? I can’t believe I just thought that!! Amazing how those miniature chain pins can support this kind of load. Oh, look, there’s my name! I love this! Oww, sweat in my eyes! Hey, I can hear the bagpiper! Wow, I can feel my heart beat in my hands! I want this to stop! But no! I can do it! This is so stupid. Grape. Pie. Grape. Pie. Really. Yummy. Grape. Pie. There is no room in my head for idle chitchat. This is serious stuff!
If nothing else, I’m too stubborn to stop.
Riders ahead of me zigzag in tandem, engaged in their own struggle to ascend the evil Bopple. There’s a grace in two cyclists undulating back and forth across the road, much like skiers whose tracks rhythmically cross each other’s as they silently glide (downhill, having fun) through the powder. Only there is no silence here, only creaking of components and gasping of breath…
Some riders sit or stand relatively quietly on their bike, pointing their bikes skyward with grim determination, legs pumping up-down-up-down. Others engage in an epic wrestling match with their machine, bodies and bikes rocking and jerking, simply willing themselves to continue. A few walk, for the moment defeated by the hill. I catch only glimpses of other riders’ ascents as I concentrate on the pavement in front of my wheel. Don’t wanna look at the top. Don’t wanna see how far I have to go. It never gets closer!
I imagine this is about the point where people either get religion or make a pact with the devil. Or, if you’re like me, Phil Liggett comes into the announcer’s booth in my head with commentary worthy of the best Tour de France mountain stages. “Oh, it’s all she can do to keep those legs ticking over!” or “He’s cracked! He’s going backwards and she passes him like a freight train headed for the station! There’s no stopping her now! She’s won the stage and possibly the maillot jaune!” and “What an incredible effort on this most difficult of the mountain stages!”
Seriously. What would I do without Phil?
I see the top, but it never gets closer (okay, this happens back home when I’m climbing Mt Evans, too). Must. Keep. Going. Oh. God. This. Hurts. (This puny little one-mile hill hurts so much more than the whole of Mt Evans, which summits at 14,200+ feet above sea level).
So why is it so much FUN???
Near the top, spectators cheer me on. Somehow it works. My ego kicks in when I see them. A smile/grimace and somehow, I find that last little bit of oomph and give them – not me – a little extra. It’s a miracle.
The chant comes into my head again – “Death. Before. Dismount.” Each word a sentence unto itself, each eloquently expressive of suffering and determination.
Phil Liggett is thankfully still there, too, urging me on, imploring me to reach deep into my suitcase of courage. Huh. Did I pack that?
Go. Go. Go. C’mon, legs. Go!
With a final lung-exploding burst of effort, I clear the top. Keep rolling. Keep the legs spinning or they’ll seize up… grab a drink. Breathe. Got lungs?
I slump a little on my bike and roll down the road, a sense of triumphant accomplishment mixing with agonized breaths. Recover quick! I am aware of my heart beating slower now, relaxing back into a sustainable, sub-911 level. Thanks, body, thanks, bike. You did it again.
I almost neglected to mention the inevitable question, during most of the climb up Bopple Hill: Why do I do this every year? Why?!?
Einstein said that insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. I must be a bottle or two short of a six-pack, a couple of tacos short of a combination plate. Do I really think this will ever be any easier? Why do I hate it so much? Why do I love it so much? Why do I keep coming back year after year for more torture – and more fun?
Because I can.
Because there is something about the Highlander. This ride, this challenge, is above and beyond anything. This ride truly has the ability to strip away everything but one’s essence. This is where you find out what you’re made of.
Legs of steel, baby!
Mind of pudding, but hey… damn determined pudding.
Stay in the moment, never mind what’s coming, I say to myself. But the internal chatter kicks in – “but wait, there’s more hills like Bopple, more insanely folded roads that you are going to ride! (Whine, whimper). Don’t you wanna go home?”
No. I want to ride. Up, down, up, down. Just because. The origami ride.
YES! Let’s ROLL!
***looking forward to seeing you all in September!