“8,000 ft of climbing, 100 miles of riding, 5 mountain passes, Del Norte to Chama, NM in a day. Hell yeah.”
I was awakened by a diesel engine rolling down the road around 6 AM. I gathered my things and was off. Nothing really of significance that morning. I did see an old, dilapidated mine shaft. Shortly after that I began climbing out of the valley. The first of two short passes I would encounter that day wasn’t too bad. I finished it, flew down the mountain, and hit a section of highway. The surroundings went from rolling, grassy hills to rocky, craggy, and red very quickly. It was like I was in another state entirely by the time I was on pavement. It was another 12 miles before I turned onto a dirt road to make my way up the next pass.
When I finally reached the top, the trees had smoothed out the cragginess of the land. Lush forests dominated this scene, and the sun had completely disappeared behind some rather nasty looking clouds. The wind has whipped itself into a fury by the time I was making my way down the pass. As I made my way around a small mountain (large hill?) the rain came. It was a violent, stinging cold rain that soaked me for five minutes before giving up and being scared away by the sun.
Just enough rain to make the ride uncomfortable,it seemed.
I had had enough of that pass, and after winding my way down and through a small community at the base of the pass, I found myself in La Garita, Colorado. Less than one hundred people called this place home, and I happened upon the only general store in the area. I was lucky enough to catch the owner as she was about to drive away. She let me in and I purchased Gatorade, candy bars, and potato chips.
She was that day’s trail angel.
I faced a headwind as I made my way down to Del Norte along a dusty, dry road. I was grinding hard, head down, watching my front tire creep over the dirt. I tried not to think of how tired my legs were or how much this headwind sucked.
I was roughly eight miles away from Del Norte when my chain snapped.
When a bike breaks during a race, it’s called a “mechanical”. Mechanicals are the litmus test to your mindset. If you’re racing with the right (read: healthy) mindset, a debilitating mechanical will be met with solemn reserve. A non-debilitating mechanical will be met with a calm, calculated approach to repairing the issue.
But sometimes, you just have to curse, wildly flay about, and kick inanimate objects. And after over seventy miles with not enough food, my mindset was leaning that direction.
After I was done foaming at the mouth, I calmly began to break my chain and link it together again. About this time, a loan biker (motorcycle, that is) stopped and asked if I was ok.
We spoke for a while. He was an interesting character. A former motorcycle gang member who found Jesus and dropped the drugs and booze. We spoke of motorcycles, our mutual disrespect for anything Harley Davidson, the road ahead of us, life, liberty, and the pursuit of firepower. A real road scholar, that man. He taught me about his Honda, and I taught him how a derailleur worked. When all was right again, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
It was an unremarkable jaunt to Del Norte, which is an unremarkable town.
Note: This next part is going to be very, very biased.
Del Norte, or as the locals call it, “Del Nort”, is awful. I dislike this town greatly, though my experience may not mirror other riders’ time there. However, if it was suddenly engulfed by the Rio Grande and taken all the way to the Gulf, I would dance a jig and sing gospels. You can keep your restaurants that close at 8 PM, your clouds of mosquitoes, your terribly rude drivers, your roach infested motels, and your lack of bike lanes.
Now I will say, there was a subway sandwich shop. That was my salvation. My foot-long chicken-bacon ranch, double-meat, double-cheese, double-avocado saved that town. That big, beautiful Hispanic sandwich artist lady that slathered the whole wheat bun in copious ranch and avocado spread saved me. However, I swear I lost a pint of blood before I was able to paw open the doors to the Subway.
Alright back on the road. I feel better after getting that out. I was very hungry and tired. The restaurant was closed down, I was nearly hit three times by motorists not paying attention, and I killed three roaches before going to bed in the motel room. That morning I started at 5 AM. I was about to embark on the hardest day, climbing-wise, of the entire race. I had 4,000 feet to gain before I even thought about breaking my legs in. When I laid my head down that night, I would have climbed over 7,000 feet vertically.
The first part of the day was spent riding paved roads that snaked their way upwards until I finally hit pay-dirt, which was where the pavement gave to dirt and kicked it up a few degrees.
To the granny-gear!
I spun and spun and spun. From the time I began my ride that morning to when I had crested Indiana Pass, it took me five hours. There were still snow banks here and there, hidden from the sun, stubbornly holding out. It was a green ride up the mountain. The top of the pass was a sight to behold. I sat on a rock against the side of the road, studying my map and eating my aforementioned subway sandwich as the wind cooled my brow. The pass went through an ancient looking valley, green, lush, spotted with trees. It stretched out and became a forest, which then became mountains. Where it wasn’t green it was a dry-grey color of the surrounding mountains.
As far as the Tour was concerned, I was on the top of the world.
After this, I had some pretty hairy down-hilling along old back-country logging and mining roads. I had a few hills to traverse and climb before I made it to Summitville.
Summiteville was an abandoned mining station. Old, crumbling wooden buildings surrounded me. Newer, slightly less crumbling buildings stood closer to the creek that flowed through. No one had mined this area for years. The water was also poisonous, or so my ap told me. I wouldn’t risk it either way; this place was creepy. I pedaled away from the dead houses and back into the hills.
When I finally made it to Platoro, a good sixty or more miles into my journey that day, I was famished. As good as that sandwich was, I was ready for food. And as luck would have it, Platoro had a fantastic little restaurant.
Platoro was a small, “wild west” town that lived on tourist money. However, many individuals called this place their home. I could see why, the town was in the middle of a beautiful valley, straddled by a clear river and too many mountains to climb in one’s lifetime.
I spent enough time here to eat my weight in skillet-steak and peach cobbler before moving on. I had food, and that gave me strength. I also had a dirty gravel road between me and pavement. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get that day, but the innkeeper told me that we were being sent to Chama, NM.
New Mexico? Was I that close?
After a bumpy few miles down the mountains, I hit the pavement. Highway riding was always weird. It was nice and smooth, but it was deceptive. You always felt like you could go faster now, but since I was about to climb another 2,000 feet, if I wore myself out I’d never see the border that night.
It was an unremarkable ride. The light had just about failed me when I made it to the top of the plateau. I had climbed to a large plateau and had to maneuver rolling hills by headlamp. At this point I knew I wanted to reach Chama. After all, it was only another twenty miles. I had no idea what to expect, though. Was I going to hit a dirt road and quickly descend to the valley? Who knew? The fires that year forced everyone to detour. Not that this made the route all that easier, however. It just meant that we were being sent on uncharted detours.
I rode on into the night for miles. I saw a single car the entire time. Finally a road sign came into view. CHAMA, NM, that-a-way.
I followed the road and began to notice something odd. I was going faster without having to pedal as much.
The highway I was on happened to gently let itself into the valley. The descent ended in Chama.
After a day of climbing, it was nice to fly down this deserted highway. I coasted and big-ringed in speeds reaching 40 mph for miles, all by headlamp. Now, my headlamp isn’t all that powerful. It runs off of two AAA batteries, has a single LED bulb, and fits nicely in your pocket. It’s not my first choice for navigating an old mountain highway at night on a little squirrely bike at speeds rivaling motor vehicles.
Eventually I saw the second best sign of the entire race. Welcome to New Mexico, land of enchantment!
I actually yelled out when my headlamp lit up the florescent sign. It was a sight to behold. A bright yellow, bullet-hole ridden, peeling symbol of the day’s accomplishment.
A little while after that, something caught my eye that just about took all the fun out of this descent. From behind the large mountain I was winding around, flashes of bright light. Again and again I saw the flashes. I knew the clouds were menacing earlier that day, but now? When I was so close? Thunder and lightening and a desert storm?
As I rode on, the lights grew more frequent and brighter.
But as I was ready to give up all hope of a dry ride, I finally passed the mountain enough to see colorful explosions light up the night sky, bathing everything in radiant reds, whites, and blues…
Oh man, I had completely forgotten that it was the Fourth of July! Immediately my mood changed from gloom and doom to happy go lucky. I was singing God Bless America and laughing as my tired legs carried me into town. My way was lit by those explosions in the sky. As I touched down outside of an inn, the show was in it’s glorious finale. I watched it slowly die off, checked into my room, and had a hand-full of almonds for dinner.
The most delicious almonds of my entire life. Those almonds were my reward for making it to New Mexico. All downhill from here, right?