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Ridin' through the Rockies

The scenery was beautiful, but the terrain offered a real challenge for bicyclists unprepared for the altitudes and attitudes it would take to complete six days of riding in the mountains. Participants slept in schools and community centers or outdoors in tents. Mid-week a "day-off" in Pagosa Springs with its spas featuring geothermal pools and the San Juan River's white waters, was the place to relax. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

To say that Colorado kicked our butts would be a gross understatement.

That's what happened to my friend Bob Hines and I when we rode in the Bicycle Tour of Colorado.

We'd been planning for months for the weeklong ride that looped through the southwestern portion of the state and into New Mexico.

During the six days of actual riding -- we'd get a day off in Pagosa Springs, Colo. -- Bob and I and 1,200 other riders would cover 470 miles and bike over mountains as high 11,361 feet.

At least, that was what the tour website said.

Colorado had other plans.

We'd prepared ourselves as best we could, paying attention to the tips on the website. We rode daily, did longer rides on weekends, did a couple 100-mile rides and looked for hills and headwinds to prepare us for the challenge of riding up mountains.

By the time we left for Colorado on the evening of June 16, we'd each racked up more than 2,000 miles of saddle time since the beginning of the year.

And that didn't count Bob's running (he runs marathons) and my time on a stationary bike in my basement on cold winter days.

But that wasn't enough to prepare us for Colorado.

The place is like Minnesota on steroids.

The terrain is beautiful, but towns, like Gunnison where the tour began and ended, are in valleys nearly a mile and a half above sea level.

So before we even began climbing to the mountain passes another 3,000 to 4,000 feet up, we were breathing air much thinner than us "flatlanders" were accustomed to.

Then there were the winds.

On June 20, the first day of the tour, we encountered headwinds that gusted to 50 mph as we tried to climb to Slumgullion Pass, the highest pass of the tour.

And that was after we'd ridden 60 miles climbing what the tour vets called "bumps" that rose to a mere 9,000 feet. During our couple days in Gunnison prior to the tour, we'd been damned proud of our reaching the tops of those "bumps."

"We bit off more than we can chew," Bob said when we stopped at the aid station at the base of Slumgullion.

To reach the pass, we'd have to ride eight miles up a mountain with a 9½ percent grade. Then the road dipped to about 10,300 feet and rose again to 10,901 feet at Spring Creek Pass.

After that there are several more "bumps" on the 30 or so miles to Creede, Colo., our destination for the night.

But the scenery on the road from Slumgullion to Creede is breath taking.

I saw snow-covered peaks, deer romping up and down the hills and cyclists trying to keep up with the truck I was riding in.

There were several veterans of the tour among the 20 or so other people in the truck. They said they were shocked by how hard the first day's route was.

By the time the truck reached Creede I was in a foul mood.

Everything else seemed to go wrong: there was no hot water at the school where we stayed that night, dinner was served at the community center a half-mile from the school and we had to have our gear packed and in front of the school by 5:30 a.m.

Actually, that last detail only bothered me. Bob's an early riser.

And, what I actually was told was that the truck would be at the school at 5:30 a.m. That didn't really happen either, but I digress.

If there was a day in the tour that was meant for a couple of old Minnesotans like us, it was the second day.

It was as close to all down hill as possible.

Even the cold -- around freezing -- didn't bother us.

We felt the cold as we rolled down the road, but saw people pulled over with their hands between their legs and groups of riders standing around one person they were all rubbing.

Medics were scurrying up and down the road with their vehicles' lights flashing as they tried to help those affected by the cold.

A few hours later, everyone had shed their warm clothes because the temperature had risen 45 or 50 degrees.

The 80 miles to Alamosa were easy.

On the third day, the 10,230-foot La Manga Pass and a small descent between it and the 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass were between us and Chama, N.M.

We walked about two thirds of the La Manga, but rode over the Cumbres.

We were determined to get over these passes under our own steam.

Once we reached the passes, we faced the terror of riding down the other side of the mountains. Experienced riders flashed past us flatlanders at 50 or 60 mph making insect-like buzzing sounds.

Some of the speeding riders crouched to achieve better aerodynamics and pedaled to go even faster.

We stuck to 20 or 30 mph and nearly liquefied our brake pads doing so.

There were nothing but "bumps" on the 51-mile ride from Chama to Pagosa Springs, Colo.

On the fifth day, we rested.

And Pagosa Springs, with its spas featuring geothermal pools and the San Juan River's white waters, was the place to relax.

But I was worrying about the Wolf Creek Pass, which we'd have to climb on Day 6.

The 10,850-foot pass has less of a grade than the earlier climbs we faced. It was tough, but we rode all the way to the top.

Even though there was one more pass to cross on our final ride, the 10,149-foot North Cochetopa Pass, Coloradans told us it was an easy climb. It was the 97 miles to Gunnison that would be the challenge, they told us.

They were right.

But ascending to the top of a mountain means coasting down the other side as fast as your nerves allow.

This descent took us through a canyon of sharp, angular, rust-brown rock faces adorned with trees and other greenery. We rolled through it for what seemed like hours.

To me, it was as if the tour planning had saved the prettiest territory for last -- quite an achievement in such spectacular territory.

As we returned to Gunnison and began packing our bikes and gear in Bob's truck, we felt humbled by the land we'd ridden the past week.

But we felt way better about our cycling skills than we did after the first day of the ride.

"It's all about elevation and attitude," Bob said.

And although we politely said "sure" when a tour volunteer said they'd see us next year, we doubted that would happened.

But -- maybe -- in a few years, we'll be back.

Gary Miller

Gary Miller is a Designer for Forum Communications Co. Born and attended public schools in Willmar, Minn. Served 20 years in U.S. Navy as a photojournalist. Worked at West Central Tribune and Forum Communications since retiring from the Navy in 1994.

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