(This is a story I wrote with my wife Jo Kirsch. It is 13 years old, but it is still fun to read and worth sharing today. It was previously published in The Cracker Barrel, a Wilmington, VT magazine.)
Riding a bicycle for many miles can be a challenge for anyone. Riding 470 miles in 6 days over the Continental Divide twice, in temperatures ranging from 32 degrees to 99 degrees, well, this takes a certain mental attitude of determination no matter who you are. Now, try it on a tandem mountain bike when you’ve never been on one before, try it when one rider has never been on a bike for more than 25 miles at a time before, and try it with minimal seasonal training. Now, to top it off, try it with your spouse!
Last summer we ventured to Colorado to do just that as part of the Bicycle Tour of Colorado, a fundraiser for the Public Broadcasting System in Colorado. Our lives are busy, so finding training time was rare. We threw out the training guide sent to us by the organizers and said, “We can do this. It will be a great experience.” We decided to avoid the hassles of transporting our bikes and found a rental shop on the web near the race start in Salida. We wanted to share the experience together, so we thought, “Why not a tandem? They have a mountain bike tandem at the rental shop. Good gear range. Stable. Why not?”
As we rode around town the first day getting used to the bike, people would stop and talk with us. “Oh, you’re on the divorce bike.” “Do you guys have a strong relationship?” “You’re not newlyweds, are you?” “How are your communication skills?” “Do you totally trust one another?”
We smiled. We thought, “What are we getting ourselves into?” We practiced. Left turn. Right turn. Pedal. Glide. Stop. Go. BUMP! “How do you get out of these pedals?” We set up our tent with a thousand other riders on the school football field for the next day’s early morning start. There were only a couple other tandems and they were both road bikes. We didn’t speak much. Our neighbors in our tent community, from Minnesota, smiled knowingly, “You’ve never done this before? You’ve never been on a tandem before?” She was a triathlete, he was less experienced. Both of us sank deep into our own thoughts and slept lightly, filled with anticipation for the next day.
We have our own recollections of the next few days….
Day One: Salida to Gunnison; 65 miles over Monarch Pass (Elevation: 11,312 feet)
Bob: “A mile or two out of town on a gently sloped, straight highway, I enjoy the air against my face, I revel in the sense of freedom a bike gives me. Excited, I pedal harder as everyone else who passes us says hello, then makes some sort of wisecrack. I want to keep up. ‘Are you pedaling back there?’ I ask.”
Jo: “I don’t believe this. We’re hardly on our way and I’m hurting all over. My back hurts, my knee hurts. I need something stronger than Advil to numb my body. Everyone is passing us. How can that be when I’m pedaling as hard as I possibly can? Bob’s moaning about adjusting his cadence … slowing it down…. to match mine. Well at least the sky is a perfect shade of blue and the temperature is just right. Oh, there’s a gas station. Let’s stop so I can get some Excedrin.”
Bob: “The road starts to get steeper quickly. More people pass us. I put my head down and just pedal. It is going to be a long day, but I’ve pedaled long days before. Just keep going. ‘We’re never going to get there if we keep stopping so you can pee.”‘ Keep drinking, I tell her and remind myself. The first aid station can’t be that far away. Inside, I worry that she is already taking aspirin.”
Jo: “Wow, we are starting to go up. I just have to keep on pedaling. I can do this. I know I can. The thing is I keep drinking, because I know I have to, and then I have to go pee. Well at least stopping to go pee gets my butt off this seat for a minute or two. Wow, look at that tandem go by. Those two are standing up and pedaling in tandem. How the heck do they do that? This is going to be a long day. I’m just focusing on each moment. I know I can do this.”
Bob: “Refreshed after the first aid station and excited after the wealth of fresh foods we had eaten, I again crank away. It is uphill, with no end in sight. We come around one mountain bend only to see another still going up. ‘Keep pulling the majority of the load up the hill. I can do it,’ I think. Hot sun. Dry lips. Sunscreen. ‘Keep breathing’, I tell her. ‘Keep drinking.’ It is a beautiful day with beautiful views.”
Jo: ‘We must be reaching the top of the hill. If we can reach the summit, the Continental Divide, it will be amazing. I’ve driven up winding roads like this before that climb up and up and up. I never imagined I’d be riding a bike up a mountain pass like this. I keep looking at the back of Bob’s shirt. It has a map of the whole tour screened on it and l can follow our path up Monarch Pass. Are we really climbing from 7000′ to 11,312’? I’m just going to keep counting and pedaling. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3…”
Bob: “The paint on the road reads: YOU DID IT! We made it to the top. Music is playing. Food is plentiful. I am exhausted but energized at the same time. We have a long downhill with hairpin turns ahead. How will the brakes work on a tandem? How will she react to speed? We aren’t even halfway there yet…”
Jo: “Wow, I think I hear music. I can’t believe it. We reached the summit. It’s all downhill from here. Hey, they just took our photo! This is cool. We made it. I’m going to get off this bike and go devour some bagels and peanut butter and whatever else they have at this aid station. Wow, it’s extraordinarily beautiful up here.”
Bob: “The speed of the downhill is wonderful. Let it rip. Stand up and feel the air, the freedom. Let the cars wait for us. I’m using the entire lane to carve these turns!”
Jo: “Oh my God! This is SCARY! I just have to hold on to the pedals and stay steady. WE ARE FLYING DOWN THIS ROAD. Oh my God! I don’t want to drive Bob crazy but here comes a corner, which way do I lean, oh please slow down, slow down, slow down. I’m praying. I’m singing prayers. I know he can’t hear me through the wind. Okay, I have to start to relax. Relax, relax, relax. Bob’s done this before, he knows what he’s doing. We’re not going to die. Hey, we’re finally passing some other bikes. I guess these tandems do really rip downhill. Oh, phew, sigh, it’s starting to flatten out. Wow, what a ride.”
Bob: “The ride to Gunnison is long. A slight head wind is in my face. I have nothing left in my legs, but I still feel like I am carrying most of the load and have to continue to do it. Thirty miles seems so long. Twenty miles. Ten miles. The last mile, where’s the end? Where’s the food? Look at all the people showered, already fed, tents up, walking around refreshed. I go to get food. She goes to pee.”
Jo: “Well, now I wish we had a little downhill left. This flat stretch to Gunnison is going on forever. Just keep pedaling. No choice. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10, 1, 2, 3 … Hey look at that rider. He’s coming towards us. And he looks all clean and showered. “You’re almost there,” he shouts. “The High School is just around the comer.” We made it. Pee. Set up the tent. Shower. Food. Stretch. Sleep. Wow.”
Day Two: Gunnison to Delta; 100 miles; Climb 2,000 feet to over 9,000 feet elevation along the Blue Mesa Reservoir, then descend to the desert at just over 5,000 feet elevation.
Bob: “The crisp morning tail wind is wonderful. We ride along the winding edge of the reservoir, going fast. People still pass us, but I feel great. The first aid station comes quickly. The road along the Black River Canyon winds up and down. I pedal hard. I let us pick up speed on the descents. We ride for a while with a Californian who had recently ridden cross-country. He slows for us. We pedal harder to keep up with him. For once, I feel some power from the back of the bike. This is good. We keep up with a biker who seems very acquainted with bike touring, who seems to be pedaling close to his wife. The descent to the valley floor is amazing. I let it rip. We pass many other bikers, even a cow in the road. It is very hot on the valley floor. It is a desert: 99 degrees and dry. We are parched. I am dehydrated and feel sick. The heat is too much for me. Most bikers are there when we get to the school field. There aren’t many spaces left. They serve ribs for dinner. I am becoming a vegetarian. The shower in the portable shower truck never felt better. I find some shade and don’t move. Two days down. One more day, then a rest day. Everyone talks about the day ahead. A bunch of masochists, I think to myself. They enjoy talking about the difficulty, the pain.”
Jo: “I feel good today. After yesterday I can do anything. I think we’re getting the hang of this. This Canyon is so beautiful. The air against my skin feels nice. Hawks are riding the thermals above. Plenty of sun screen on. The climb today is filled with I switchbacks. This is better than yesterday, because the road climbs a ways and then descends and climbs again. Not all up and all down. I feel more comfortable going down. Lean into the turn. Relax my body. The day is starling to get hot. Keep drinking. Stay hydrated. Keep going. We’re almost there. Ahhhh. I never guessed I’d be showering in a truck in the desert. It feels good to cool off. Can’t wait for the sun to go down. We need sleep.
Day Three: Delta to Palisade; 75 miles; Over the Grand Mesa, climbing almost 6,000 feet, then descending again to desert and peach country.
Bob: “A slight incline and headwind greet us. ‘If we’re going to make it through the day, we’re going to have to learn to stand up to climb. Let’s practice.’ The road just gets steeper and steeper. I want to keep pushing, she was starling to lose it. I remind her to breath instead of cursing. ‘Use different muscles.’ To me, it is a test. To her, it seems like torture. ‘Just a little further, then we’ll take a break!” The climb continues after the rest stop near the top, and then it gets steeper. The clouds darken and the temperature drops. Thunder. Rain. Hail. Near freezing temperatures. We neglected the advice to carry rain gear up the climb; we have only nylon windbreakers. I shiver uncontrollably. Some riders seek cover. Many are quitting and taking the sag wagon. The sag wagons wait for us at the top. Our friend from Minnesota is now driving one van, volunteering after suffering through too much knee pain. ‘It is clear up ahead on the other side of the Mesa, but I’ve got room for you in the van if you want a ride.’ The van looks warm, steamy and crowded. We ride. We shiver. I have a hard time controlling my hands for the braking on the descent. My teeth chatter and I can not stop them.”
Jo: “This is hard. I am dehydrated from yesterday. My legs feel like jelly. I drain my camelback, reach the first aid station and begin to come alive. Here we go. This is the endless up. Endless. Keep pedaling. I can’t believe I’m doing this. This is nuts. Everything hurts: my butt, my knee, my stomach, my back. I just keep moving my focus from one pain to the next. I’m losing it. I’m swearing. Bob suggests I close my mouth and focus cm my breath. I’m ready to kill him. But I feel a little better. Keep going,” he says. “This will help you perform when you’re skiing moguls next year and you want to stop and you remember this. This will help you perform and reach your goals in life.” I like this train of thought. Grrrrrr. I’m an athlete. Grrrrrrr. I am strong. Grrrrrrr. I’m an athlete. I can do this. I hear the D.J.’s music. We must be at the summit aid station. My tears are flowing freely in gratitude. Past the aid station, huge storm clouds come up behind us. Lightning and thunder. “What are we going to do?” I shout. “Ride ahead of the storm,” he retorts. He’s nuts… he’s lost it… we’re done for. Where is the sag wagon? Where’s some shelter? This hail hurts. I’m soaked through. This is unbelievable. We make it to the top. The storm passes over. The sag driver said, “The road is dry up ahead. The ride down should be a beauty.” We keep riding. We dry off and warm up as we descend into the aid station in the 90-degree desert. Unbelievable.”
Bob: “Before long, the sun is out and we glide through a beautiful mountain descent. We had been here before with the kids a few years back to camp and backpack. It is familiar. It is beautiful. It is warm again. It is hot again. As we arrive into Palisades, the local fire company greets us with an arcing spray from a fire hose. It is refreshing as it almost evaporates on contact. ‘If they only knew about our day in cold, rain and hail,’ I ponder. The townspeople are so happy to have us in town for two nights and a day. They schedule a barbecue in the park with live music. We rest under the large trees in this little oasis between the steep walls of a canyon surrounding us. They serve more meat, ribs and chipped beef. I eat more veggies and desserts. I also try to deal with an apparent sinus infection. We sit in a pool most of the rest day. We meet an endurance bike rider who competes in 24-hour races (this brings back memories for me) and will be coming to our area to do a Montreal to Boston and back race later that month. He goes for a ride on the day off through the vineyards. We are with some serious bikers, but somehow, after doing the Grand Mesa ourselves, I feel like we have become one of them. I am proud of Jo. She had done it, all the way.”
Jo: “A rest day is just what we need. Write some postcards. Take it easy. Relax. And prepare for three more days of riding. I’m beginning to feel like we can do this. Each day is an eternity. But each time we reach our goal, I feel a huge sense of relief and accomplishment.”
Day Four: Palisade to Glenwood Springs; 76 miles, along a highway in a canyon gently rising 1,000 feet.
Bob: We have a rhythm now. We pedal into a slight headwind the whole way, but along the gentle grades of a highway. After a day off, I am anxious to go through the morning ritual of packing our tent, loading our gear in a truck, eating breakfast and getting on the road again. It doesn’t seem like as many people are passing us today. We cut the wind, speak little and go about our business. We encounter a little rain near the end, but our day is otherwise largely uneventful. We find a patch of green for our tent near the school, take showers, and walk around town. Other bikers arrive behind us. We hold hands.”
Jo: “A long day. Pretty flat. I have a sense now that we can do this. We’re no longer the last riders to come into town and set up our tent.”
Day Five: Glenwood Springs to Leadville; 90 miles, climbing almost 5,000 feet to Tennessee Pass at Elevation 10,424 feet.
Bob: “The ride along the bike path in Glenwood Canyon in the morning is both beautiful and dangerous. We go through it smoothly, but we hear of some crashes. Riding a tandem around bollards and small pedestrian bridges is getting easy for us. The ride through the communities around Vail gets us talking about our ski teaching futures. Some other bikers are drafting behind us. Then the climbs up Battle Mountain and then to Tennessee Pass. We are in sync now. We stand up and climb together, or even take turns. We pass some other climbers. Our legs and butts scream, but we keep going. I pull her. She pushes me. The night of camping in Leadville at over 10,000 feet is glorious. Many riders arrive after us. Some on bikes, some in vans. We watch the sun set. We sleep soundly, only interrupted by our pee breaks. We watch the sun rise. ”
Jo: “We are excited about the day. We have a rhythm now. We communicate well and move together on the bike. The bike path winds along the canyon floor offering incredible views of the rock walls and birds and the rushing Colorado River. We climb two summits today, Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass. We ride by ski areas and are energized by the big mountains. Sometimes we both stand up and pedal. Sometimes Bob is up and I’m down and sometimes, I’m standing up and Bob is sitting. Wow! My excitement and enthusiasm with our riding, our surroundings and our success is overcoming my pain and exhaustion. This is actually fun. Camping at Leadville High School was dramatic. I hope the kids who go to school here realize the dream they are living, surrounded by 12,000+ feet high mountain peaks. We are as high as a kite. And only one day left… all downhill back to Salida.”
Day Six: Leadville to Salida; 60 miles, downhill, past the Collegiate Peaks.
Bob: “Downhill on a tandem is like skiing down a softly-groomed, intermediate run on giant-slalom skis. Effortless. Stable. Cutting the wind decisively. We relax. We stand up. We yell in glee. The fresh morning air, I’ll remember it forever. We glide home, almost sad that it is over. Biking around Salida now is effortless, corners and street signs are now uneventful, and people greet us warmly. We pack up. We return our bike, surprising the shop owners with our success, and spend the afternoon together by the river in the shade. Still married. Wanting to do it again.”
Jo: “The sweet morning air and soft light from the rising sun wash over us as we begin our easy descent to Salida. Effortlessly pedaling and gliding down the road in tandem, we reach the outskirts of town before we’re ready. We ride through the familiar streets and coast under the finish line banner, reaching our destination together, connected and enriched. Still married. Looking forward to our next tour.”