Keep Left… or Not

My dear friend JQ has been a great riding buddy and friend since I met her four years ago.  We normally mountain bike together.  I’d hurt my tailbone recently and couldn’t do anything too strenuous, so we decided to take to the road in Bear Creek Lake Park.  It was planned to be a slow, chatty ride so we could catch up on all the recent changes in our lives.  As we pedaled along the bike path, I couldn’t help but be astonished by the fact that there was an entire paved loop throughout the park that I had never ridden.  I typically ride the dirt there on my mountain bike, so this was an exciting discovery for me!  I’d always wondered what people were referring to when they talked about riding the loop through Bear Creek clockwise or counter clockwise.

As we climbed up a hill on the southeast side of the park, the path forked and I started to veer to the right.  JQ called out to keep left.  A bike in the distance caught my eye.  It was laying in the dirt beside the path with what appeared to be a sweatshirt or coat beside it.  I thought it seemed odd that there was a bike there, without a person nearby.  They do tend to go in pairs.  I looked left and then right again as JQ repeated to keep left.  I didn’t see anyone around the bike and decided to go investigate.  As I approached the bike, I realized the clothing on the ground was, in fact, on a person who was laying there, entangled in the bike.  I dismounted and approached the man as he lay in the dirt bleeding from his nose and head.  He was unconscious but breathing.  Beside him was a puddle of blood.  I started talking to him to see if he would open his eyes or speak.  After a few seconds we decided to call 911 and summon help.  I didn’t find any identification on the man and his phone was of no help.  We managed to get his name ~ Mark ~ and remove the bike whose handlebars had somehow found their way around his leg.  He was in obvious pain and could barely move.  As he moved in and out of consciousness, we kept him calm and still as the paramedics made their way up the bike path.

As the ambulance drove away, we observed 10 feet or so of silver scrape marks on the sidewalk that led directly to the puddle of blood.  It appeared Mark was descending when something went dreadfully wrong.  The few cyclists who had gathered had a brief discussion about the risks of riding alone. Phones that require a touch ID or key code are of absolutely no use to a complete stranger trying to offer help to someone incapacitated.   Some of us were wearing our Road ID‘s, others were not.  Each of us keenly aware that it could have been any one of us laying there in the dirt.

Have you ever observed how people come into our lives at just the precise moment when we need them?  Then, when their job is done, they’re gone. I’ve observed this a number of times in my life and the timing of this phenomenon never ceases to amaze me.  It’s sort of like the ebb and flow of the ocean tide.  As you walk along a beach, you’ll encounter shells and sand washed in by the waves.  Some of the shells will catch your eye, some will not.  Some will end up in your pocket to keep and others will disappear back into the water as quickly as they appeared.  And like the grains of sand under your feet that make your path of travel easier, some people are simply there to lend a hand when you are unable to help yourself.  I’m not sure what compelled me to go right rather than left.  I guess on this occasion, I was meant to be the grain of sand. beach

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!

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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!

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.

Lessons in Encouragement

This post has been percolating in my mind for several weeks.  It’s about the affect our words can have on other human beings.

At a recent cyclocross race I was very near another racer whose family speaks a foreign language.  On each lap when we passed her family members, I would hear them shouting to her in what could have been Russian or German.  Since I don’t speak the language, I was unable to understand what exactly was being said to my competitor.  Regardless of which language it was, I didn’t get the sense that what was being shouted at her was entirely encouraging nor supportive.  At the finish line, I saw an exchange between this competitor and her family that clearly was not supportive.  As her family walked away in what appeared to be disgust, the cyclist sat down in a heap on a curb in the shade by herself to catch her breath.  At about that same time, my family approached me and offered hugs, high-fives, and congratulatory words, despite the fact that I finished nowhere near the podium.  When I finally quit coughing, I looked around for that competitor because I wanted to congratulate her on a tough race, but she was already gone.  I was disappointed that I missed her and I thought of her and what I had seen at the finish line often over the next few days.

At the next race, I arrived at the start line a little early.  As I stood there, my competitor from the previous race appeared.  Since her family was not around, I immediately approached her and struck up a conversation about the previous race.  I told her that I was sorry that I had missed the opportunity to tell be positiveher after the previous race what a strong racer she is.  As I finished this sentence, I notably saw her stand a bit taller as her chest expanded with pride.  She began to radiate confidence as we talked.  Not long into our conversation I realized that she was just a child.  A younger child than my own, in fact.  I wished her good luck on the race as the call ups began.

I once heard a phrase or saying that went something along the lines of: you are responsible for how another person’s words make you feel.  I never agreed with the saying because it implies that one person’s words should have zero affect on another person.  But clearly from this example, they do.   Especially when they come from the people you know and love.  I’m grateful that the opportunity presented itself for me to offer kind words to that young competitor.

I challenge you to find one person each day who you can offer kind words of encouragement to, whether it’s a friend or a stranger, a team mate or competitor, a child or an adult, even your partner.  Then sit back and watch that little seed of confidence grow into something bigger.  Sometimes you’ll get to see it blossom before the conversation is over.

feel

Cyclocross Race Excitement!

I finally did my first “real” cyclocross race.  By “real”, I mean that I raced on a real cyclocross bike.  I don’t count the other two races I’ve done because one was on a mountain bike and the other on a cross bike that was much too large for me. The latter IMG_2461race resulted in the lovely sprocket punctures to my calf after a stair run-up.  I had a friend who offered me her old cross bike for a couple of races because she had upgraded to a newer model.  She’s very close to my size and I was able to use her bike with minimal adjustment.  I carefully selected which race I would do.  I didn’t want to race in a large field of racers or on an extremely technical course.  After all, the bike was new to me and I had only a few days to get used to its nuances.  I registered for the Green Mountain Sports CX Race.  After registering for the race, I felt something I’d never felt about a race before: excitement!!  Typically, my pre-race feelings range from dread to denial to fear.

My excitement level for this race was almost on par with the excitement I have each year in the days leading up to my birthday.  All week I looked forward to the race, counting down the days.  I was excited that my whole family was coming to cheer for me because most cycling races are just not spectator friendly.  Even my dad, who would be passing though town that weekend, would be watching me.  He had never heard of cyclocross nor seen the shenanigans that are involved with a cross race.

On race day, the women who had completed other cross races would be called up to the start line.  This is great for those receiving the call up because it means you get to be in the front of the pack when the whistle blows.  Those who do not get called up are left to line up behind everyone who was called up.  The bottom line here is that racers with call ups definitely have an advantage over those who don’t.  Despite the fact that I was near the end of the pack, I was happy and excited to be racing on such a beautiful September day.  The field was small and I felt confident that I would have a respectable finish barring any major crashes.

gmx

Photo credit: Gary Mullins

When the whistle blew, we took off.  There was much shuffling for position as we moved through the parking lot and took a sharp right onto a narrow sidewalk.  I was cautious as I didn’t want to crash before we even got to the dirt section of the race.  The day was very hot for September and I knew that pacing myself in the heat would be critical to a strong finish.  I was able to avoid a couple of crashes near me and kept going as fast as I could.  Hydration via water bottle hand ups was key.  I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone I may have inadvertently thrown a bottle at… I certainly wasn’t aiming for you.  Disposing of a water bottle when you’re sprinting through a parking lot sounds easy until you actually try it!

As we settled into the second lap, I lost sight of the race leaders and hoped that I would eventually be able to catch them.  There was a group of about 5 of us clumped together.    We played cat and mouse and continued to shuffle our positions for the next two laps.  I had a wheel slip out in a corner, which allowed the group to pass me.  I didn’t let them get far and eventually caught and re-passed two of the three cyclist, while the the third continued to pull away from me.

Eventually I caught my teammate – the gal who loaned me the bike on which I was racing.  You can imagine the mental conundrum this created as I debated whether she’d loan me her bike for another race if I passed her.  We eventually came to a steep hill run-up, where I uttered encouraging words as I ran by.  This was the last lap and I wasn’t able to chase down anyone else.  I was thrilled to finish 11th out of 25 racers, particularly since I’d started in the back of the pack.  Best parts of the day:

* Having a bike to race on – thanks to Linda!

* Hearing my family cheer for me.

* Water bottle hand-ups on such a hot day and dusty course.

* Not crashing.

* This awesome picture from Ryan Muncy Photography.

* This awesome video from my honey that makes me look really fast!

muncy

Photo credit: Ryan Muncy Photography

Firecracker 50 – My First Endurance Race

I was recently talked into racing in the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge, Colorado on Independence Day.  I was told I would get a fabulous pair of Woolie Boolie socks AND get to ride my bike in the town parade.  Then, if I didn’t get to the cutoff point in time, I’d be sent down the mountain with a beer!  Having never ridden my mountain bike for more than 27 or so miles, I was a little concerned about my ability to actually ride the entire 50 miles (that’s what the 50 in Firecracker 50 represents).  But, I was really excited about the socks, parade, and potential for a beer hand up.  Besides, I can’t think of  a better way to start Independence Day then spending a few hours on the mountain bike.

Terry and I arrived early in Breckenridge on race day.  We went to the race headquarters and picked up socks, t-shirts (bonus!), and race numbers.  Then we returned to the car to suit up and warm up our legs for the race.  The race would be two 25 mile laps with ~4,000 feet of climbing per lap.  My goal was to make it to the aid station before the cutoff time so I would at least have the option to ride the entire second lap, if I thought I was able to do so.

We lined up on Main Street by category; as a sport woman racer, I found myself in the back as usual.  When the whistle blew, I took off up Main Street with about 15 other women in my category.  I rode as far as possible to the left so that I could hold out my hand and touch as many of the little hands reaching out to me from behind the barricade as I could.  So many people were clapping and cheering as we rode by… maybe because they knew seeing us meant the real parade was about to start?  Regardless, what a fantastic way to start a race!

For several miles, we pedaled up Boreas Pass Road to the first aid station.  This served to thin out the racers before we reached any single track.  I did not stop at the first aid station and continued onto the single track where I was able to pass more frequently than I got passed.  At one point I passed Terry without recognizing her.  As I pedaled past her, I heard her yell “go Amber!”.   Before I knew it, I was at the second aid station where I took in some of the plentiful nutrition being offered by race volunteers.  I knew that proper nutrition would be critical to successfully finishing this long race.

The aftermath

The aftermath. Yes my feet are that white and my legs that dirty.

Between Aid Stations 2 and 3 is a little section of the trail called Little French Gulch.  This section is full of loose, chipped slate and at one point, the grade is 25%.  I found myself, and all of my new mountain biking friends, pushing our bikes up this section beside the snow banks and through ice cold streams.  At one point, I had sweat dripping from my eyelashes.  This is something I’ve only experienced in a winter spin class at Defined Fitness Training.  When the trail finally turned and leveled out, it was extremely narrow.  It was so narrow that passing required the rider in front of you to actually stop and pull off the trail.  I went as fast as I could here as I didn’t want to have to stop and let anyone by.  Before I knew it I was going down a fun terrain park-like section where I crossed what would be the finish line had this been my second lap.

As I continued on to begin my second lap, I grabbed food and some electrolyte drink as the hike-a-bike section, heat, and distance were beginning to take their toll on me.  I just kept telling myself to get to that aid station before the cutoff time.  This time going up Boreas Pass Road, the spectators were few and far between; only the occasional honk from a passing car, or words of encouragement from another racer.  As I reached Aid Station 1, I parked my bike and stood in the shade to have some food and catch my breath.  I asked if I had made the cutoff and was told yes by one of the volunteers.  However a few minutes later, another racer pulled into the aid station and asked the same question.  This time the answer was different from a different volunteer.  We had to make it to the second aid station in 20 minutes if we wanted to try to finish the race!  I debated about turning around now, but a little voice inside my head piped up “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now.”  So I hopped on the bike and pedaled.

I missed the cutoff at Aid Station 2 by about 8 minutes, but I was very proud to have made it there IMG_3150in the first place.  I was 37 miles into the Firecracker 50 when I was offered my choice of cold beers for the ride down the service road.  Heineken never tasted so good, and I didn’t spill a single drop on that bumpy road, steering my bike one-handed.

Lessons learned: read the race rules and COMMIT them to memory.  I wasted valuable time at Aid Station 1 on my second lap and could have made that cut off time at Aid Station 2 if I’d kept moving.  Gatorade is not a good drink choice for me; test the products being offered at a race BEFORE race day.  Oh, and let’s not forget to actually RIDE the distance of your race before race day.

I can’t speak highly enough about how well the race was organized, marked, the nutrition and hydration offered at aid stations, and the volunteers.  Oh, and let’s not forget that parade and all those little hands wishing us good luck… See you all next year!