TELLURIDE – The sixth edition of the Mountain-to-Desert Telluride-to-Moab bicycle ride went off without a hitch last Saturday. Helped by a return of summer to the Southwest, Josephine and Erik Fallenius and their large cadre of volunteers and generous sponsors put on another stellar event and in the process raised a record $73,000 for the Just for Kids Foundation. Kudos to all who made it happen!
The Mountains to the Desert is billed as a ride, not a race, and attracts riders of wildly varying abilities, from top local cyclists like Pete Dahle and Daniel Murray, to the likes this year of Jim “Hymie” Palmer, who climbed on a road bike Saturday for the first time for the 132-mile trip to Moab. As a three-year veteran of the ride and one time “winner,” I can say that at the front of the pack, it has all the hallmarks and the pain of a true cycling race. In this ride there are “hares” racing to Moab and “tortoises” enjoying a fantastic tour of the Southwest. Sometimes the hares become tortoises well before the finish line in Moab. For both kinds of riders there are moments where their resolve to finish, and determination to succeed, is severely tested, sometimes by the other riders, sometimes by the weather, and sometimes their tests lie within as they confront their doubts and fears on the road to Moab.
Unfortunately, I was not on my game on Saturday and while some would still consider my effort to be fast, I definitely felt like more of a tortoise than a hare for most of the last 50 miles of the ride. After the first major climb of the ride outside of Bedrock, I was forced to largely ride alone as I struggled with tired legs and a tired mind. Occasionally I would spot a group of three or four cyclists coming up fast on my tail and I knew that if I could hang with them I would use less energy (studies show that riders in a group use up to 40 percent less energy than solo riders) and arrive in Moab sooner. While I would try to match their pace as they passed, I was unsuccessful at maintaining contact, and soon they faded into the distance. So I slogged on toward Moab and reflected on the willpower and strength that is required of riders who are not in the hunt at the front of the pack.
At Mountains to the Desert the top riders generally arrive in Moab at or just under six hours. The slowest riders will take almost 10 hours to complete the ride. As the sun marched across the sky on Saturday, the temperature rose toward the upper 80s, and even hotter in some of the canyons we passed through. The wind picked up and became a headwind for many of the later finishers as they struggled across the high desert approaching the turn toward Moab at La Sal Junction. Most of the later finishers rode alone or in small groups of two’s and three’s, not having the advantage of the larger group to save energy and save their legs. Their saddles, gel-filled and plush when they left Telluride, felt like solid metal perches after eight-or-more hours. Their cycling shoes began to pinch and chafe. While clear blue skies greeted the riders' arrival in Moab on Saturday, in some years thunderstorms have developed and forced riders off the road to shelter lest their titanium bikes attract too much attention. Meanwhile, the leaders were enjoying beverages and massages in Moab.
At both Leadville 100 events this year I found myself in the middle of the pack, well behind the leaders’ times. Lance Armstrong finished the bike almost four hours in front of me and was back home in Aspen before I even finished. In the run, the winner was asleep in his bed while I spent the night in the mountains outside of Leadville. Was it harder for me than for Lance? Was it harder for me to spend the night running through the mountains than it was for the runner who finished Leadville on the day he started? I have always maintained that it is much more difficult for the runners who complete a marathon in four or six hours than it is for the leaders who finish in just over two hours. While the effort of the leaders is incredible, they are trained to run fast and their bodies are subjected to the strain for a relatively short time. The runners and riders who finished well back in the pack not only have to endure more time on their feet, thus adding to the stress on their legs, but often the weather changes, temperatures rise, and their bodies’ food stores run low.
The past two years I finished the Mountains to the Desert ride among the leaders in six hours; Saturday, I was on the road for an hour longer, but the effort was much more difficult, psychologically and physically. I was very fatigued on my slow climb out of Paradox, but cheered as I passed through the canyon and into Utah. The second climb to La Sal Junction was the most difficult and I was forced to stop several times to drink water and regroup. With the steepest section behind me, I faced the long gentle climb to the top of the pass. It was here that I thought seriously of abandoning the effort and waiting for a ride. I was hot, thirsty and hungry – the three signs of impending implosion for a cyclist. Fortunately, I was able to crest the pass and cruise to the La Sal Post Office aid station, where I enjoyed a Coke, a sandwich, lots of Snickers mini bars, and some time off my bike.
As a hare in some races, and a tortoise in others, I can say that it is much more fun to be the former. It is much less difficult, psychologically and physically, to be among the leaders in such efforts, and to earn the right to stop that much sooner. So my hat is off to all the riders who finished on Saturday, but especially to those riders who endured the late-afternoon heat of Moab as the temperature climbed to close to 90 degrees and the desert winds picked up. They rolled in to Moab in varying states of elation and distress. Whether tortoises or hares, they are all heroes, having suffered greatly on the road to Moab, while helping the Just for Kids Foundation to help all the kids of the San Miguel watershed.