Like many spring events, the Ironhorse bike ride for which Grant, my husband, and I were training has been postponed for the fall.
Like many of you, we are continuing to train, albeit on a less compressed, regimented schedule.
Which is how I find myself on Saturday morning heading out of an empty parking lot in Golden, Colorado and into a feisty wind. I have a vague idea of our route—we’re climbing and going up Lookout Mountain—but I happily concede the navigator role to Grant.
Although I have ridden my bike regularly since doing Ironman in 2013, it has been with a cardio/injury-prevention focus, not a go-fast-go-hard training focus. And I’m not lying when I say I have not willingly climbed any hill than two minutes long. My favorite route is basically flat, with <700 feet of climbing. Ironhorse has nearly 6,000 feet. I’ll do the math: that’s about 10 times more than I prefer to climb.
“Climb for five minutes, climb for 20 minutes, climb for 30 minutes,” Grant yells, describing the ride basics. The wind carries his message back. I nod and settle in.
Our first climb goes by fairly quickly: the exciting spark of a new long workout. “This will be perfect heading home,” Grant screams into the gust as I pull up beside him on the wide shoulder. Thank you, Mr. Brightside.
We hit a stoplight or two, then get to the next climb, the road that also houses the two entrances to Red Rocks Amphitheater. I’ve driven this road plenty, admiring its smooth pavement and generous shoulder from behind the steering wheel. Driving and cycling it are two very different things, of course, and today, we’re going in the uphill direction: 20 minutes, by Grant’s count.
About five minutes into it, I now have total recall the harshness of long cycling climbs. That fluid, tune-out feeling associated with most runs? Not happening. On the steepest inclines, I am in my easiest gear and still have to tap out the quadzillas for every crank of the pedal arm. On less steep inclines, the muscular effort isn’t as rough, but the cardio (huff) vasc (puff) ular (huff) demands skyrocket.
To get through rough spots in running, I count my footsteps. Not on the bike, though: counting pedal strokes just amplifies the effort. Instead, I give myself small targets. That Bud Light can on the side of the road. That reflective parking thing. That crack in the road. That weed that looks different than the others around it.
The markers aren’t meaningful, but they are twenty feet apart, max, which is key. Get to one, pick another, get to it, pick another, get to it, pick another, and for the love of all that is good in this world: Don’t look too far up the road.
Twenty-five minutes later, we’re two climbs down, one whopper to go. A few fun and flat miles on a bike path, and we arrive at the base of Lookout Mountain. I suck down a Cola Me Happy GU, take a swig of my Kona Cola Nuun (favorite flavor, don’t fail me now!). “Here goes nothing,” I think to myself, shifting into my easiest gear and head up.
I switch my GPS to the plain old time of day. I don’t want to know my heart rate, and I definitely don’t want to witness my speed. Every few minutes, between blow into my hand and wiping it on my shorts, I pick out markers. That fence post, that large crack, that pine tree, pick another, get to it. And because I’ve been a fitness-based writer for too long, I start thinking of this three-hump ride as a metaphor for the pandemic through which we’re currently rolling.
Even though the elements of the bike ride (wheels, road, chamois-lined shorts) and a typical day (meals, family, work) are familiar, they are assembled into a combination that throws me off-kilter at best, makes me nauseous at worst. Motions that should feel easy (pedaling, grocery storing) unconsciously suck my energy, making me feel powerless and exhausted. Time, formerly a reliable rooster, is now a sly fox. I can run faster than I’m pedaling, and what day is it again?
Even the vague markers of what this ride looks like—5 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes to top of Lookout, home—resemble the pliable dates when things might start their return to pre-COVID days. Especially when I realize, upon looking at the data post-ride, that the five-minute climb was actually 10, the 20 minute climb was 25, and that 30-minute climb? Yep, 45 long minutes. (It may have been closer to 42 if I hadn’t dropped my water bottle.)
We make it to the top of Lookout. Release, exhale, Hallelujah. Stop for another Cola Gu, slither on my arm warmers, and zip up my windbreaker. I arch my back to stretch out, thanking my legs and lower back for surviving three climbs and the hardest bike ride I’ve done in seven years.
Grant has been chivalrously riding behind me nearly the entire ride. Now I tell him, a much more confident descender, to go ahead and wait for me at stop lights. “Brake before the curves, not in them,” he says, sensing my nervousness. Pushed by the tailwind, I top out at 41 mph, every nerve ending in me vibrating. Psyched that I’m feathering—not gripping—my brakes. Then a guy with his chin aerodynamically tucked on his handlebar goes flying by me. I wonder where he gets his courage.
Ever since mid-March, the parts of the day—and ride—where I relax are minimal. Yes, I’m meditating; yes, I’m going to bed early (sleep is a different story); yes, I’m doing my best to keep my finger off the Twitter button. Even my Peanut M’n’M consumption is way down. Still, I’m either grinding or white knuckling, trying to stay present or tearing up about the wide wake of death COVID is creating—or sometimes all four at once.
Lightness and calm come most predictably when I remember look around: Red Rocks against a bluebird sky; a truck that stops and waits patiently when my dropped water bottle rolls into the road (and Grant turns around to get it for me); daffodils poking up in my garden as I return from the store.
We get back to the car, and I’m all badass on the bike. As we pull into the lot, Grant offers his last bit of commentary: “Do that ride one more time,” says Grant, “That’s Ironhorse.”
Stay in my easiest gear; pick attainable targets, pass, pick, pass, repeat for as long as necessary; and for the love of all that is good in this world: Don’t look too far up the road.