Handlebars, headsets, and tunnels. Oh my!

Last year I did a couple of cyclocross races and got bitten by the bug.  I started shopping for a cyclocross bike in late July because bikes in my small size are few and far between.  I was scouring online forums and bike shop web sites for something, anything in my size so that I would be outfitted come race day in September.  It was suggested that I visit a certain bike shop in Boulder because it was known to be “the” cyclocross bike shop in the area.

I dedicated an entire afternoon to making the drive up to Boulder with the intention of test riding as many bikes as I could find to fit me.  The first (and only) bike that I rode was a Focus Mares CX Disc 105.  I rode along South Broadway in Boulder to some open space where I could take the bike on the dirt.  Overall the bike felt large and sluggish.  I gave this feedback to the sales rep who was helping me.  He suggested swapping out the stem so that I would feel less stretched out on the bike.  We went to the back of the store where he did this while we chatted.

He asked me to take the bike in a loop around the parking lot before departing for the open space just to get a general sense of whether it felt any better or not.  I gave him the thumbs up and once again headed south on the sidewalk parallel to Broadway.  I was bunnyhopping, jumping, and generally riding aggressively on the bike as I pedaled alongside the busy road.  By the time I reached the tunnel that passes under Broadway, it became evident that there was a problem with the bike.  As I entered the tunnel and it became darker, I became very confused about what was happening.  I realized that while I was still going straight forward on the bike, the handlebars were turning sideways.  I had absolutely no control over the direction this bike was going.  I gingerly placed one hand up to run it along the tunnel wall and bring the bike to a stop.  As I rolled to a stop in the dark tunnel, six kids came charging through the tunnel as they rode their bikes home from school.  I was subjected to bells ringing and verbal reprimands for stopping so foolishly in the dark tunnel, which only added to my confusion and fear.

After dismounting the bike and pushing it back into the light, I was able to confirm what had happened.  In swapping out the stem earlier, the sales rep had failed to properly tighten down the headset.  All the jumping and aggressive riding I’d done between the tunnel and bike shop had loosened the one bolt that he had tightened.  I started the walk back to the bike shop.  As I walked by all the obstacles I’d jumped, I wondered how it came to pass that I had not lost control of that bike and veered off into the traffic speeding by on that busy road.

When I finally arrived back at the bike shop, a couple of their team members snickered as I walked by with the bike.  I suppose it was quite a sight: me in my loose fitting shorts, t-shirt, and shop-loaned helmet walking a bike with the handlebars turned completely to the side.  When I entered the shop, one of the sales reps looked at the bike in horror asking what happened.  I rolled the bike toward her and told her I was sent out with a loose headset.  As the gravity of that sank in, I retrieved my driver’s license from the sales rep who swapped out the stem.  He seemed as appalled as I was by what had happened and took full responsibility for it.

Later that night I received an email from the shop owner inquiring about the situation.  He assured me that this incident was the first of its kind at his shops.  We exchanged a couple more emails and ultimately he reassured me that he’s ridden for years and nothing has ever stopped him from getting back on a bike.  I knew it wouldn’t stop me from riding either.  I’ve had too many good experiences on the bike to let one incident like this stop me from riding.  I also knew, however, that a most basic level of trust had been violated.  The nightmares I’ve had about biking since this incident confirm that it affected me on a very deep level.  As I said before, it hasn’t stopped me from riding, but it has stopped me from returning to this shop.

Riding the Beartooth Pass

Riding the Beartooth Pass

The Beartooth Pass is on US Highway 212 between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana.  The highway meanders along the borders of Montana and Wyoming high on the plateau of the Beartooth Mountains and eventually leads right into Yellowstone Park.  It’s closed in the winter and occasionally on other days throughout the year, given the right weather conditions.  The day before I pedaled up the pass on July 30, it was closed due to snow.  At its summit, this road is the highest elevation highway in both Montana and Wyoming.

I’ve driven over Beartooth Pass several times on my way to or from Yellowstone Park over the years.  The views never disappoint despite the wind and cool temperatures on top of the plateau.  When I started this cycling journey four years ago, riding up Beartooth Pass on my bike was  always a thought in the back of my mind.  I guess you could say it was on my “ride bucket list”.  Yes, cyclists have such a thing as I suppose motorcyclists do as well.  However, each summer when I returned to Montana, there was always some reason why I couldn’t do the ride: last year, I brought a mountain bike, the year before I was too busy… the list goes on.  This year I was feeling overwhelmed with all that is involved with moving from one home to another and felt a sense of urgency about returning to Colorado.  However, after seeing the weather forecast for the remaining week of my visit, I decided to stay just long enough to fit in the ascent.

I got up early on the morning of July 30, loaded my bike into the car, and departed Billings for Red Lodge.  As I

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

approached the mountains I realized there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  I unloaded my bike, suited up, and pedaled away.  I had done better research for this ride than my previous ride on Alkali Creek Road and knew that I could expect to pedal for about 25 miles to the summit on a paved road.  I could expect the ride to take me approximately 2.5 hours based on the results of other cyclists I had seen on Strava.  I also knew that the climb to the summit would be gradual, at about 4% on average.

As I pedaled along, traffic was minimal on this beautiful late July day.  I saw many more motorcycles than cars.  The switchbacks started at nearly 7 miles into the ride.  As I approached the scenic overlook turnout, I passed 5 other cyclists, all of whom pulled off into the overlook parking area.  I kept going because I knew it was about halfway to the summit and I don’t like starting and stopping on prolonged climbs; it’s hard to get the legs going again.  Besides, there was no need.  I had plenty of fluids and food tucked in my pockets.

At about 19.5 miles into the ascent, I came to a place where I had to descend and then climb again to reach the summit.  I’m not going to lie, I was cold and considered calling it good and turning around.  But then that little voice in my head chimed in with “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now, especially when I can see the summit in the distance.”  I got as aero as I dared and

Elevation 10,947 feet

Elevation 10,947 feet

descended as quickly as possible, so as to minimize how much colder I would become before the final climb.  My garmin showed about 23 miles at the summit.  I took turns with all the motorcyclists taking pictures in front of the summit sign.  Then I slipped on my wind jacket for the descent.

What I didn’t realize when I had done my ride research was exactly how much climbing the ride would entail.  The total elevation gained was 5,262 feet… just 18 feet shy of a mile, give or take.  Hmmm.  That’s interesting considering the fact that I now reside in the “mile high city”.  A city known for more than just it’s elevation,  if ya know what I’m sayin‘.

On the descent, I stopped and took some pictures along the way…Enjoy!

So many motorcycles up there!

So many motorcycles up there!

IMG_4407

The Beartooth Mountain range. Look closely for the triangle shaped precipice on the horizon over the upper right corner of the sign. That’s the bear’s tooth. The next picture zooms in on it.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

The Importance of Researching a Ride Route

While Colorado is my home, I remain a Montana girl at heart.  Every year I make it a priority to visit my family in Montana, where I spent most of my adolescence.  This year I brought my Cannondale Evo along to ride during my visit.  Billings is just large enough that there are parts of the town that I’m not familiar with.  I grew up on the west side and rarely ventured to the other parts of town.  Therefore, I wasn’t exactly sure where each of my rides would take me.  This “from the saddle” discovery is one of the funnest parts of riding and has the potential to turn each ride into a fun adventure ~ or not.

The view from Molt Road.  The wild turkeys didn't make it into this pic.

The view from Molt Road. The wild turkeys didn’t make it into this pic.

On my first ride, I decided to take the Molt Road out of Billings.  I was planning to ride out and back and expected at some point I would see a sign indicating how many miles it was to Molt.  Since there was no sign- or because I missed it – I just rode until it was time to head back to Billings for other commitments.  I could see Molt in the distance, but would have to save the complete ride for another day.

On the next ride, I went to the Billings Heights part of town.  I happened upon a bike lane and followed it until it ended.  I ended up riding in a big loop.  I then came upon a pretty nice bike path along Alkali Creek Road and decided to see where it went.  After a few miles, I caught up to three women out for their morning training ride.  I rode with them for a few miles and it turns out one of the gals was on the committee that plans the Billings bike path.  She was a wealth of information on the bike path system and gave me some helpful directions and ideas about where to ride in Billings.

The route for my next ride was inspired as I drove down Highway 3 northwest of Billings. IMG_4388 It had been a long day in the car because we had decided to drive from Banff, Canada back to Billings all in one day.  As we neared Billings, we passed a street sign out in the country that read “Alkali Creek Road”.  I had just ridden on the bike path along Alkali Creek road the other day when I rode through the Heights.  At that time, I had wondered if it connected with another road, and here I had just driven by the intersection of Highway 3 and Alkali Creek Road.  My ride route for the next day was planned!

As I set out on Alkali Creek Road the following morning, I started my ride on the bike path.  Eventually the bike path ended and the houses became fewer and further between along the road.  I wondered how far of a ride it would be until I hooked up with Highway 3 – a detail I had neglected to look up online before departing.  I came upon a man walking toward me and figured he was a local who might be able to tell me how far I had to go to Highway 3.  I slowed, said hi, and then asked him if he knew how many miles it was until Highway 3.  Instead of answering yes or no to my question, he looked at my bike and said “you’ll never make it on that bike with those skinny tires.”

“Really.” I replied.  He went on to say that the road turned to gravel around the bend.  The gravel was so treacherous that he had a difficult time with it on his mountain bike.  I told him thank you and said that I would go see this gravel for myself and pedaled away.  I was annoyed that I hadn’t done proper research before embarking on this ride and was left to ask a stranger a simple question that he refused to answer.  When I saw the gravel, I agreed that it was in fact deep.  Deeper than I would have liked to have ridden under normal riding conditions.  But I’ve ridden on gravel roads before, and if it was only a short distance, it was certainly doable.  But now I wasn’t riding under normal riding conditions; I had been challenged.  And  nothing makes this girl more determined to do something than a boy telling her what she can’t do.

Shortly after embarking on the gravel, I remembered to check the mileage on my Garmin.  After about two miles, I bagan to wonder if I might be better off turning back.  And then I remembered the challenge.  The gravel was unlike any of the gravel roads I had ridden in Colorado.  It was more like I was riding through someone’s deep landscaping rock, rather than down a dirt road with the occasional washboard and rocky sections.    I kept creeping along the road and thought I may have seen cars moving along Highway 3 in the distance.  As I pedaled along, I became more and more annoyed with my failure to research the ride more thoroughly; with the fact that I didn’t notice the road being gravel as I sped by the other night; and with my stubbornness that wouldn’t allow me to turn around.  I considered letting some air out of my tires so that I might have some traction, but I didn’t want to have low pressure for the remainder of the ride after reaching the highway.  Onward I went.

After about 4.5 miles had slowly passed, I finally reached Highway 3.  There wasn’t anyone around to witness my superior dance, so i kept right on pedaling onto Highway 3 and back to Billings.  Will I do better research for my next ride in unfamiliar territory?  Maybe.  Finding your way is a big part of the adventure.  And if it takes a little longer to get there… that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re on a bike.

The Beartooth Mountains are just barely visible on the horizon.  More on that adventure coming soon!

The Beartooth Mountains are just barely visible on the horizon. More on that adventure coming soon!

Ridge at 38 Crit – a Race Review

Last year I missed out on this race due to a travel conflict, so I was very excited to race this criterium this year.  Wheat Ridge Cyclery and the entire Wheat Ridge community came together to put on a top notch race.  This was apparent from the moment I arrived early on the morning of June 7th.  I had pre-registered for the race and was able to quickly pick up my race bib from the registration tent.  I saw a couple of team mates on the way back to my car.  Just as I pulled my bike out of the car, one of my team mates pedaled over and mentioned the course was open for a quick pre-ride before the next race began.  I quickly grabbed my helmet and set off to ride the course with her.

The start/finish was right in front of the Wheat Ridge Cyclery main entrance.  From there, the course went south up a shady, Ridge at 38 Course Mapslight hill and then took a left.  There were two more left turns that brought racers back to 38th Avenue, followed by a quick series of right, left and left turns that brought you back around to the front of the store again.  This course was sure to be fast and fun with all the corners.  The pavement was smooth and swept clear of gravel.  Aside from the occasional man-hole cover, you couldn’t have asked for a better race course.  It was a clear, sunny morning (finally) so wet streets would not be a factor in today’s race.

Photo courtesy of Jay Hardesty

Photo courtesy of Jay Hardesty

I lined up at the start line with 16 other category 4 women and 7 women from the 50+ masters division, for a field total of 23 racers.  We were scheduled to race for 40 minutes.  When the whistle blew, we took off in a sprint up the hill.  I knew if I didn’t stick with the peloton, I’d get dropped shortly after that first turn as the speeds increased on the downhill.  I put forth whatever effort was necessary to ensure that the peloton didn’t pull away from me on that first corner.  After a couple of laps the peloton began to settle into a very fast pace averaging 23 MPH.

In the midst of one of these laps, we heard a noise reminiscent of a shot gun blast.  I had heard this sound one time before when a tube popped mid-ride, which is precisely what had happened to one of the racers in our peloton.  Fortunately, she didn’t go down, was near the outside of the peloton, and was able to safely pull to the side of the road and stop.  Eventually, the race officials put up the number of laps remaining and the countdown began.  I tried to find as much shelter as I could as often as I could during the 15 laps of the race.  My team mates had not been able to stay with the peloton, so I didn’t have anyone I knew to work with.  When we lapped the gals that had been dropped, my team mate slipped back into the peloton on the second to the last lap.

The speed picked up for the last lap to close to 30 MPH and I began to drop off the peloton with a half a lap remaining.  At this point, my team mate pulled in front of me and led me back to the peloton, enabling me to have a sprinting pack finish.  The tactic was executed flawlessly and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.  Thanks Jen!!

This race was by far the funnest of the season.  The course was fast and curvy, just what this gal needs to fulfill her need for speed!  Well done, Wheat Ridge Cyclery, well done!

Boulder Roubaix

There’s a race in Europe called the Paris Roubaix.  It is known for being brutal due to a combination of potentially treacherous Spring weather conditions, the distance (~150 miles) and the cobblestones.  Colorado has its own “mini” Paris Roubaix.  It’s called the Boulder Roubaix.  I couldn’t find a lot of history about the Colorado race, but what I do know is that it is held every three years in the Spring in Boulder County, Colorado.  When I first joined the cycling team, I remember hearing about the race in 2012 and had not seen it on the race schedule again until this year.  For that reason alone, it was a must do!

It had been recommended that I swap out the skinny 23 mm tires on my road bike to a slightly wider tire of 25mm.  This was to provide just a little more traction on the gravel sections of the race.  The race flyer also suggested doing a bolt check before the race…that’s something I had never seen mentioned on a race flyer before.  So I checked the bolts on my bike and ensured everything was tight and ready for bumps.  Because Boulder County, Colorado does not have any old cobblestone roads like in Europe, we would be spending roughly half of the 18 mile course on paved roads and the other half on gravel roads.  On a pre-ride of the race course in the days before the race, a team mate and I found the gravel sections to be surprisingly smooth.

On race day Saturday, April 11, I lined up at the start line with three other team mates under blue skies and sunshine.  Our race category would be taking two laps for a total race of 38 miles.  Our strategy was pretty simple: not to get knocked over on the bumpy sections and to stick together.  We intentionally dropped to the back of the peloton after the start because we didn’t want to be going through the first few corners with the group.  We didn’t want to risk being crashed out in the first few corners of the race, which were on a bumpy gravel road.  As we neared the first paved section of the race, I could see the peloton ahead of us and knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to catch them once they hit the pavement and went even faster.

Our strategy of sticking together also slowed down our progress because with varying fitness levels, you can only go as fast as your slowest rider.  We ended up dropping one of our own teammates near the end of the first lap.  There were a few gals here and there who jumped on to work with us rather than finish the race solo.  For the most part, everyone took their turn at the front of the pace line (pulling). Those who didn’t were dropped or shamed into doing their fair share.  For those of you reading who are unfamiliar with pace lining, the rider at the front of the pace line does most of the work while those following are able to rest and refresh their legs. The pace line goes faster than an individual rider because as a rider fatigues, she pulls off the front and tucks into the back of the pace line.  The next person in front of the line has fresh legs, sort of.  Occasionally, a pace line ends up with someone who wants to rest their legs and not take pulls.

As our group approached mile 33, I told my team mate it was time for us to break away.  We were approaching a prolonged climb and I thought we would be successful here in dropping the rest of the group.  Unfortunately, she didn’t hear me, so I soon found myself in a solo break away.  I kept looking back expecting that she would bridge the gap, but I didn’t see that happening.  So I was on my own for the last five miles.  I crossed the finish line at 2:03.  The race leaders were about ten minutes faster.

There were many lessons learned from this race.  One of the most important is to not underestimate your competition.  We had anticipated the peloton would blow apart much more than it did.  In reality, the top ten finishers must have worked together and ended the race with a sprint finish ~ or so it seems based on the results.  The race course itself was well marked with lots of mile markers and volunteers at every turn.  It was a very well run race and seemed very logistically organized… kudos to the promoter!  As for the gravel roads, I can’t say they’re my cup-o-tea.  Then again, I have three years to forget them before the race rolls around again.

Boulder Roubaix

The Joyride

Spring riding can be so elusive with Colorado’s wild spring weather.  The last couple of days had been warm enough to melt some of the 18 inches of snow that had fallen nearly two weeks before; during that time, I’d spent more time on the trainer than I like to.  I had been out each afternoon this week doing intervals at Lookout Mountain in anticipation of the hill climb coming up Saturday.  As I sipped my morning coffee and contemplated riding into work, I heard the birds chirping outside and didn’t see a cloud in the sky once the sun came up.  I decided it would be a good day to ride – perhaps a bit chilly on the way in, but the ride would be worth it, especially on the way home when it was warmer.   I froze just enough to build a little character on the way into the office.

When it came time to ride home, I decided to take a different route just to add on some additional miles and be in the sunshine a little longer.   I needed a joy ride!  As I pedaled along, I saw lots of other cyclists, dog walkers, and runners out enjoying the sun just like I was.  I said hello or waved to everyone I encountered, just like I do on every other ride.  Sometimes I get a return wave, but most of the time I don’t get any response.

As I turned from the Ralston Creek Trail onto Virgil Way, my chain became tangled as I shifted from the big ring to small.  I was unable to take a single pedal stroke as I began to pedal up the hill and quickly came to a stop.  Here’s what I saw upon inspection:

An attempt to downshift resulted in this tangled mess.

An attempt to downshift resulted in this tangled mess.

Fiddle as I might, I could not get the chain unstuck.  During the few minutes that I was kneeled in the grass alongside the road with my bike upside down, three cyclists pedaled by ~ 2 men, 1 woman.  Not one of them said a single word or paused their pedal stroke as they went by to inquire whether I needed or wanted any assistance.  That annoyed me more than the fact that I might be walking home in my Sidi’s.  So much for my joyride… and just when I had been contemplating which detour to take next.

As I mentioned before, I’m the kind of cyclist who greets and waves to other cyclists that I encounter on my ride.  I make a point of slowing and interacting with cyclists that are stopped along the roadside dealing with an obvious problem, especially if it’s a woman.  Most of the time I simply confirm that they have the tools they need for the job, but on occasion I’ve provided assistance.  At the very least, I can offer moral support or to make a phone call if I’m unable to help.

Clearly the standards I hold for myself are not shared by every cyclist.  As I started the long walk home, another cyclist pedaled by without a word.  Then my phone rang.  I got lucky that my husband (AKA Mr. Fixit) was nearby and able to come and pick me up.  When he arrived, he was able to untangle the chain so I could resume the joyride home.

On my way home, I came upon a little Asian lady who was holding an empty dog leash in the air and looking distraught.  I slowed and circled back to her, remembering ALL the people who had ridden by me without a word.  Through her broken English, I understood that her little yellow dog had gotten away from her and was now missing.  She would sit on the curb and wait while I rode ahead in search of the little guy.  Instead of the dog, I came upon my neighbor who was heading in the opposite direction back toward the Asian lady.  I asked if he had seen the yellow dog in the direction he had come from.  He had not and agreed to tell the Asian woman when he came upon her sitting on the curb.  I turned around and continued my joyride home.

Whether you decide to help another person clearly in need speaks volumes about the character of your person.  More importantly, I’m a firm believer that you get back what you put out there in the universe.  So I’ll continue to smile, wave, and offer help to those in need, even those that choose to ignore me.  It’s just the way I roll, even on this joyride.

Finding Peace on Two Wheels

There are 365 days each year, most of which pass us by with little to no fuss.  But there are a few days each year that we anticipate ~ be it with excitement or dread.  The days I look forward to are primarily happy days: my birthday, my husband’s birthday, our anniversary, June 21st (the longest day of the year), July 4th (who doesn’t like fireworks?), December 21st (because it means the days are getting longer and we’re halfway to June 21st).  Someone queue Bon Jovi.

Then there’s my daughter’s birthday on February 9th.  It was certainly a life changing day and is one of the happiest days of my life.  Next month she’ll be 13; a teenager.  January has been my least favorite month for most of my adult life.  It’s such a dark, cold month.  There aren’t many January days that are good for outdoor riding.  Combine that with back to work and school following the holidays and it’s simply dreadful.   However, after I had my daughter I found a new way to make the passing of January more tolerable.  I went into birthday party planning mode January 2nd.  Now that she is getting older, the party planning has dissipated and the January winter doldrums have returned.

In 2010, on February 7th after my daughter’s 8th birthday party, we returned to our home.  It was a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon.  At that time, we still had a “land line” to our house.  The phone rang as soon as we walked through the door.  When I realized my husband had picked up a call from my mom and she was inquiring as to whether we had received the birthday gift she had sent, my daughter and I quickly bundled back up into our snow boots, coats, and hats and ran down the street to the mailbox. After retrieving the box from Texas, we ran back home as fast as we could. My mom got to be “with” us on the phone as my daughter tore into the box. It was a joyful conversation.  Later that night after the Superbowl, the phone rang again.  This time it was my dad calling to say that my mom had collapsed and died just a couple of hours before.  February 7th officially became the saddest day of my life.

When I started riding the bike in the fall of 2011, it was one of the best things I did for my mental health.  In another blog post I wrote about how I was not a cyclist when I joined my team, but quickly started pedaling my way to becoming one.  While I longed for someone to ride with in those winter months before my first race, it was more therapeutic that I was riding alone.  I’m not going to lie, there were many tears shed behind those sporty Smith sunglasses.  As winter turned to spring and spring to summer, I began to notice the birds chirping as I pedaled along.  One day, as I pedaled along a familiar road,

I heard the distinctive song of the meadowlark.  My mom always loved that sound and would point it out to anyone nearby whenever she heard it.  I started spending more time riding on this road because it was one of only two roads where I heard the meadowlark.  Being out on those deserted roads with the sound of the meadowlark made me feel closer to her.

As I gained strength and endurance during that summer of 2012, I began to ride further and further from my home, and further from that road where the meadowlarks sing. But I’m frequently drawn back to that road.  Sometimes I hear the meadowlarks calling to me as I go by; sometimes I call out to them.  Riding on that road is where I found peace on two wheels.