"Alpine Odyssey" is an apt name for the race. For one thing, like myself, I have a feeling it was a redemption ride for some that did not finish the 2012 Leadville 100 mountain bike race. In that sense, it was part of a greater odyssey, a greater journey, to the far shore of Ithaca; that red carpet our Penelope, waiting, waiting, waiting...
It was an alpine environment. After leaving the resort town of Mount Crested Butte, the race route climbs up Slate River Valley, an amazing, stunning, breathtaking alpine valley. This past weekend the aspens were in their full glory, splashing the landscape with golden brilliance, making it near impossible to ride. I just wanted to stop and soak it all in. I wanted to capture in the images I was seeing with my feeble vision, to take back and share digitally with the world. If only I could take you all there to see with your own eyes the surreal landscape of the Elk Mountains.
Race day dawned with bright clear skies. The 9am start was a benefit, as the sun was up and warming us before we had to take off, allowing those of us that run a little hot to shed the warm clothing (and weight) before the gun.
All sunburning aside, it was incredible weather, an incredible time to be in the out-of-doors in that part of the world, and just a stellar experience regardless of whether you were riding, volunteering or spectating.
Unlike Leadville, I went into the race with little expectations. I had no idea what the course was going to be like, what the pace was going to be like, and what to expect from myself. The course is very straightforward and enjoyable. Like I said, the scenery is downright distracting. My pace might have been faster if I hadn't been looking for excuses to walk so I could take photos. 29% grade? I'll walk it. Snap. Snap. Snap. As for myself...
I diligently carb-loaded Wednesday and Thursday. I had no choice but to ride in to work on Friday, but I took it easy so as not to deplete my carb stores, and I ate a big plate of pasta at lunch. I stayed away from junk food all week, and only put good fuel into my body. I've discovered a new love for orange juice as my electrolyte drink of choice.
My stress levels were so much less going into this race compared to Leadville. The night before we settled into the hotel room and watched a bit of TV before going to bed. I only tossed and turned for a few minutes before I fell into a deep sleep. When the alarm went off at 6am we took our time waking up and getting ready. There was no rush to get from Gunnison to Crested Butte. I calmly ate an egg and cheese bagel and drank a nice cup of coffee.
Sunlight bathed the mountains, the aspens and the town. As we drove up into the resort we could see much paint on the steep roadway: remnants from the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I still remember last year's memorable finish up that road, attack after attack after attack, strong riders surging to the lead and then falling off until only Levi Leipheimer remained. It was incredible. We were driving up hallowed cycling ground. In a short time I'd be bombing down that same street with the Alpine Odyssey field.
The start area was oddly devoid of racers at 8:15am. By the time Mandy left to go find a good spot to watch the start, Sam—Sam's wife G.E. blogs over at Endless VeloLove—and I were wondering where all the riders were. He informed me he'd heard there were only 275 people signed up. Whoa...
The small field definitely increased my chances of getting a slot in Leadville in 2013. Heck! I might even be able to place! Well...probably not, considering my age group (30-39) was the second largest category after the 40-49. But 275...wow, that's a whole different ball of wax than the gazillions that raced Leadville.
With little fanfare the minutes had ticked away to 8:59.30. They announced Lance would be taking his place at the start. Despite being only a few yards away I never did get a good view of him. And then the 10 second countdown began. The gun boomed. And we were off. As my official chip time would reflect, I rolled across the start line less than 10 seconds behind the leaders. The neutral start weaved through the resort town and then down that paint splattered road I mentioned before. When we picked up speed I realized I was less than a couple hundred feet from the lead car and the lead cyclists just behind it. As I approached the hard right turn onto the road up the Slate River valley I could see the leaders, hardly more than arm's reach away, but I couldn't pick Lance Armstrong out of the pack.
Initially the field stayed together. But as we traveled up along Slate River we started to stretch out. When the pack finally thinned slightly a cyclist pulled up beside me. We'd just come down a short hill and it sounded like he said: "I like your block."
I grinned, thinking back to the guy that had thanked me for letting him draft around Turquoise Lake at Leadville. I might actually get a reputation in these races as a wind block. I had to chuckle to myself. But something made me second guess what my fellow racer had said.
"What was that?" I asked.
He replied, with an accent I hadn't detected the first time: "I like your blog."
Ah! My jersey! I was wearing the custom jersey I had Alchemist Threadworks make for me before Leadville. It has my URL on the back. He'd read my blog!
I chatted with Dave, number 55, for a few minutes as we rode along. I was both humbled and happy to hear that he had been reading the blog after finding it through a search for the Alpine Odyssey. So I've got to give a shout out to Dave from Broomfield. Great ride! Thanks again for letting me know you're reading! I hope you had a great day. It looks like you had a good finish time.
The ride up Slate River seemed to go on and on. I'm not complaining. That valley is beautiful. And once we turned into the switchbacks and began climbing up out of the valley the view became even more beautiful and inspiring. While we gained 1,600' in about 3 miles we also gained better perspective over the landscape and the Elk Mountains surrounding us. The scenery definitely helped to take my mind off the long grind up to the first aid station at the Paradise Divide.
High up Slate River Valley near Paradise Divide
Paradise Divide aid station
After the aid station there is a fast and rough descent through the Paradise Basin around the north slopes of Mt Baldy to Schofield Pass. At Schofield the true descent begins. Within seconds you drop out of the trees and are rewarded with an alpine vista, of which Emerald Lake is the centerpiece, and on a mountain bike you can go much faster than you could in a car. The road skirts the lake high on the steep slopes to the east. Just below the lake the road begins twisting around buttresses on the ridge. One turn is loose and tight with a steep 100 or so foot dropoff on the outside. On the first lap I saw it coming and slowed considerably and repeated that tactic on a few other such curves further down the valley.
The long ride out the Gothic valley is fun and fast. When I crested the steep descent into the town of Gothic I saw the speed limit sign: 25. I was doing 30 and picking up speed as I bombed through the little community on the straight gravel road.
All the while Mt Crested Butte was in view giving me a point of reference. But once the resort came into view I knew the first lap was almost over. But first there was the singletrack section. To get up onto the lower shoulder of the northern slopes of Mt Crested Butte there is a series of singletrack switchbacks. A long, but relatively easy section...
Once up on the shoulder of the mountain the race takes a long winding path through aspens and finally out onto the open ski slopes above the resort. The last leg to the start/lap/finish line is a downhill course with banked turns. As you descend you can hear the announcer and see the line long before you get there.
On the first lap the route winds through the tight streets between the resort buildings to the aid station. I saw Mandy directing the course just before.
"I love you!" she called as I carved past. I stopped at the aid station a few dozen yards later, and I considered walking back up to see her, but I decided I needed to fuel up and get going. I had beat the four hour cutoff by AN HOUR!
There were two aid station jockeys, future mountain bike shredders I'm sure, that ran up and asked if I needed water or sports drink. They ran off with my bottles while I sucked down some watermelon. They two kids replaced my bottles and asked if I needed anything else. I thanked them, told them they were doing a great job, and that I was all set.
I looked back up the route and caught Mandy's eye. She waved, I waved back and we exchanged our secret "I love you" hand signal. Then I was off for the second lap.
The long slog up Washington Gulch came after 31 miles. I'd managed a pretty solid pace the first circuit. The Washington Gulch (2nd) lap is inside the first lap. Basically, Slate River is the westernmost north/south valley, Gothic is the easternmost and Washington Gulch is in between. All three converge (sort of) at the Paradise Divide. The first lap is Slate River and Gothic and the second lap is Washington Gulch and Gothic.
By the time I started the second lap the meager field had spread out considerably. For the second half of the race there were many times when I had gone long periods of time without seeing other riders.
In fact, for the bulk of the last climb up to Paradise Divide I was all alone. I walked some steep sections and rode sections that seemed too steep. Time dragged on. Scylla and Charybdis guard Paradise Divide. Above the junction of the two climbs is a mile long grind up to the highpoint of the route. It's not terribly steep, but it seems longer than the advertised mile. And then there is a sign that states: "Aid Station 1km." I don't think that was right either. By the time I rolled into the aid station for the second time I was tired. I wondered when I'd get my second wind. I wondered if I'd have the energy to repeat the singletrack switchbacks. I wondered if I'd slow considerably and be cutting it close to the 8 hour cutoff.
Looking down the long Washington Gulch valley toward Mt Crested Butte
I lingered at the aid station. It was nice to be off the bike, enjoying the cool breeze, drinking and eating at will, proximate to the port-a-johns. I was dreading the street-fight descent through Paradise Basin. The road drops away from the divide like dive bombers. The travel surface has the texture of carpet-bombed steppes. On the second lap, despite my fatigue, I just let The One go, dragged toward sea level by gravity. At least, that was the plan. But halfway down the descent through the alpine basin I started squeezing harder on the brakes, bleeding off speed in the loose scree surface of the road.
At the short climb up to Schofield Pass two riders caught up with me. I am embarrassed to say that even though I rode with both of them for many miles after that, and saw them both come over the finish line, I can't remember their numbers or names.
The older rider rocketed away from the pass, and I followed suit, gearing all the way down and slamming down on the pedals. The other rider, wearing a USA Pro Cycling "Most Aggressive Rider" green jersey kept pace, but hung back a few yards for the most part.
I was dazzled a second time by the mind-boggling beauty of Emerald Lake. After a few seconds of marveling at God's beauty I kicked up the speed and tried to catch the first of our trio.
He flew and I flew. We both flew past Emerald Lake, and then...I almost flew off of the tight, loose curve with the 100+ foot bank on the outside. I realized I was coming into the curve far too fast and when I really, really realized I was going to overshoot the bend I started a growling scream.
"AHHHHGGGGG!!!" I bellowed as my tires dug deep into the gravel and I skidded toward the outer edge of the road. It was going to be ugly. I was going to experience free fall.
I skirted the edge of earth and space, maintaining most of my speed. After that close call I backed off the speed just a tad, and the older rider pulled away. I was okay with that. Better to have a good ride than a DNF due to catastrophic organ failure upon impact.
The road opened up not much further down the valley, and I found my speed again. For many miles I managed to stay above 25 mph. My second pass through Gothic I hit 35. Knowing my slog up Washington Gulch had put a serious dent in my overall average speed I desperately tried to make up some time. I hardly touched the brakes as I kept the pedals turning and the golden aspens blurring.
Looking over my shoulder back up Gothic valley
At mile 57 the road starts to roll and there are some moderate uphills where you have to gear down. I took the opportunity to drain my energy drink, suck down a gel, and text Mandy to let her know I was five miles out. But those were five miles of steady climbing, tight singletrack, and a bomb run descent back into town. It wasn't over.
When I reached the start of the trail I was all alone. No one in front, no one behind. That took off a lot of the pressure I felt on the first lap, with a slower rider in front and a group of riders on my wheel behind. On the first lap I felt strong, and cruised the singletrack section, but I knew I didn't have a lot of gas left, and that the more technical section was going to take a lot of concentration, determination and luck. Having extra personal space was going to be a bonus.
I rode it all, feeling better than I expected I would, with the exception of two steep and tight switchbacks. Finally, I reached the dirt road near the top of the shoulder. The hardest stuff...all of it...was behind me. Well, at least the physical stuff.
I enjoyed the meandering trail down the ridge through the aspens. I tried to focus on the beauty of the ride and ignore the pain of my body and the weight of the miles. Gravity did most of the work, but I had to stay sharp on the narrow trail, especially on the last goatpath section when the resort came into view. The trail traversed a slope so steep, and was so narrow, I feared if I pedaled I'd risk my uphill pedal clipping a rock or root and catapulting me hundreds of feet down the slope.
My Leadville mantra entered my head: "No whammies! No whammies! Big money!"
Before I knew it the goatpath ended and I was on the last, last, last section: the downhill course.
I made myself take the banked turns slow, to cruise over the jumps instead of taking flight. I rode the end cautious and controlled. I don't know how many there were, but the sum total of switchbacks down that last open slope was maddening. At the top you could see the finish line, but you couldn't take the straight line between point A and point B. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, down and down and down.
Just before the very last turn I grinned a huge grin to myself...which was immediately contorted by a sob. Would I laugh...or cry...at the finish.
I could hear the announcer telling the rag-tag crowd of spectators another rider was coming in. I knew it was me. I'd not seen another rider in half an hour. I was off the trail and making the final broad loop to the finish. I was smiling. I heard my name over the PA. I was down, back, done, finished, victorious, redeemed, saved from a year of regret at having not finished in August.
Then I saw Mandy over the finish with the camera. I cruised across the red carpet, the finish line and into her arms. She draped my medal around my neck and kissed me. I hope my smile was as big as hers.
The final math: I finished in 6 hours and 44 minutes. I was 169th overall, in (what I discovered later) was a field of 221. I was 47th out of 55 in my age category. Overall 202 riders finished. My final average was 9.2 mph. Mandy had asked Shannon (Gipson, the volunteer coordinator) if she could put my medal on. She'd been working at the finish after the first lap. Shannon told her "of course" and so there she was when I came in. That was amazing—having the love of my life, my best friend—putting my medal around my neck.
Mandy's day is another story all together. Considering the shadows are getting long, I'll reserve that tale for my next post. And for now I'll leave off the chronicle of the events immediately after my finish. Let's let the ambiance of a victorious finish linger. I won. I wasn't first, but I won the day. I couldn't have dreamed up a better day of mountain biking for myself. My Alpine Odyssey was a marvellous journey, one I will never forget.