It’s Beckey who swims to mind as I slam into Mile 90 of the ride cyclists affectionately call the “Cannibal Classic,” between the Colorado mountain towns of Crested Butte and Creede. Three days into a week-long, 500-mile cycling tour through the highest of southwest Colorado’s spectacular high country — a vacation I’ve mentally dubbed the Hypoxic Tour — I’ve had to earn every wildflower and every Kodachrome moment with a crank of the pedal.
But now this — this is just unfair: At the foot of 11,530-foot Slumgullion Pass, the road bucks rudely, takes aim at a summer sky curdling with thunderheads . . . and pegs there for the next 3,000 feet. The piney mountain air sours with the smell of burning brake pads from panicked Winnebago drivers trying not to hurtle off the mountain. I grind slowly upward in my granny gear on wheezy sea-level lungs, my hamstrings as tight as banjo strings. I chew on Beckey’s wisdom with gritted teeth; I badly need to believe that so much pain will make the colors brighter. Sniffing weakness, the asphalt now rears up to nearly a 10 percent grade.
I take stock: I am last in the group. I am all alone. I could push my bike uphill faster than this. I think, well, at least things can’t get any worse.
Then it begins to hail.
Masochism on wheels
Maybe “normal” vacations bore you, too. Maybe to you, too, beaches feel like morgues with better lighting. When I have a holiday, I need to move — preferably on a sweaty adventure to remote beauty. True, my itchy feet have taken me in over my head more than once. But that has only birthed my own twisted travel corollary to Beckey’s maxim: You never forget the moments you’d rather not remember.
When I first heard of the “Colorado Cols” tour offered by Lizard Head Cycling Guides, a small, well-regarded cycling tour operator based near Telluride, it sounded like just my type of masochism — a hardman’s grand tour of the prickly San Juan Mountains, but with a beauty-to-challenge ratio that would keep me turning the pedals. Using less-traveled roads, cyclists spin anywhere from 67 to 137 miles a day, sweeping across sagebrush range and wildflower meadows and climbing passes where the summits remain piebald with snow deep into summer. (A “col” is a small mountain pass.)
Still, this was no ordinary catered bike trip, especially for a relative novice in the saddle like me: The range boasts more real estate above 10,000 feet than any comparable range in the Rocky Mountains. It’s home to 13 of the state’s 54 14,000-foot peaks. The targeted intermediate-to-advanced riders could expect to climb more than 5,000 feet a day.
“It doesn’t really get any harder than this,” John Humphries, Lizard Head’s owner, cautioned me. “It’s definitely a limited audience.”