“You can ride 20 miles, right?” That’s the question that I kept tucked close in my consciousness, ready to pull it out every time doubt tried to enter my mind. It was a question my friend and riding partner frequently repeated to me too, whenever my doubt managed to escape my lips in the form of a complaint or fear. Her logic was, “If you can ride 20 miles, there will be a rest stop. Then you just ride to the next stop”, and so on. (I’ve finished college now, and I believe this argument would fall under the fallacy of non sequitur or the composition fallacy. Nice try, Jersey girl). This question convinced me, in my extremely novice, unfit, and apparently delusional state, that I could handle a 72-mile ride in the Colorado Rockies. Three mountain passes, one day. “I’ll just ride a lot and train,” I thought. No sweat.
I had purchased my first road bike in the fall, so the spring/summer season leading up to the big ride was my first opportunity to put some miles on. It was hard. Everything hurt at first, despite the fact that I really enjoyed being out and doing something active. But dang, I just didn’t seem to get stronger! Twenty miles felt ok, but I was pretty tired afterward. A thirty mile ride was really pushing it; my neck, back, and ass throbbed and begged for Motrin when I got home. I could put in a forty-miler, but it took me hours to finish and nearly the whole next day to recover. “I’ll just ride a lot more”, I thought. No sweat.
In early summer, my friend starting talking me up about the Copper Triangle, a mid-August ride in Colorado. The ride began at Copper Mountain Resort, near Frisco, and made a triangular loop over Fremont Pass, Tennessee Pass, and finally Vail Pass, with the downside ending back at the resort. I went online and looked at the elevation chart for the ride. It was a nifty little preview representing the hills we would be covering. The lines on the chart zigzagged up and down like a heart monitor attached to someone having a really bad day. I clicked the “Register” button on the screen anyway, and signed up. I could sense the fear and doubt bubbling up from the pit of my stomach, but I made myself repeat my new mantra, “You can ride 20 miles, right?”
The summer kept moving on and we kept riding several times a week. This can only happen when you’ve got a really supportive friend who will keep riding with you despite your whining and tortoise speed. It can also only happen when you have a family at home who is cheering you on, encouraging you to go ride on those warm summer evenings and not worry about what needs to be done at home. (I’m eternally lucky and indebted to those people in my life.) Eventually, gradually, I started to see that I was getting stronger. I started to experience a lot of ’lesses’: less time needed to recover, less Motrin, less time to complete a set distance, less worry. My friend was right, I had no problem at all riding 20, then 20 more. “I’ve just got to keep riding more like this,” I thought. No sweat.
The big weekend arrived before I knew it, and my friend and I drove to Frisco to spend the night before the ride. Our early pre-ride breakfast took place at the local Safeway, where we purchased coffee, rolls, bananas, and yogurt. We drove the five miles to Copper Mountain and looked for a place to park in the already bustling crowd of cyclists. These people were intimidating to me. It was the highest concentration of spandex, toned legs, and Pearl Izumi I’d ever experienced. I was repeating my mantra A LOT as we unloaded our bikes and gear. And then, just like that, the ride started. No fanfare, balloons, or ceremonial shots fired. Everyone just made their way out of the parking lot as they readied themselves and started up the hill. Everything happened so quickly I had no time to think about anything except pedaling.
The ride began on an incline, headed up the first and longest pass, Fremont Pass. Twelve miles up we climbed, with the first rest stop at the top. I actually didn’t feel too bad. I stopped a couple of times to catch my breath, but so did other people. I was riding in my lowest gears, but then so were other people. I forgot about cross-chaining and got my chain stuck real bad, but then so did… nah, I was the only one who did that. Beginner. I made it to the top, had some snacks at the rest stop, and was rewarded with a wonderful downhill cruise into Leadville. By then, I had passed the 20-mile mark, and the road started creeping vertically again towards Tennessee Pass. Uh-oh. “No, no,” I told myself, “you just had your 20 miles. Now it’s like you’re starting over again at the beginning. Just ride 20 more. Deep breaths, relax…” I tried, I really did. But by the time we reached the top of Tennessee Pass at about the 35 mile mark, my long-simmering doubts were turning into a low boil of fear. “It’s almost all downhill from here, until the last pass”, I overheard someone say at the rest stop. Downhill. That word cascaded over me like a warm shower. No sweat.
My confidence was short-lived. Yes, there was a really sweet downhill for about 15 miles, but then there was this thing called Battle Mountain Pass. Where on the crazy heart-monitor-elevation-chart was that? I didn’t anticipate this! I was tired, and I had to stop a lot, and hey, this wasn’t part of my mental plan that told me everything was downhill until Vail! No fair! My valiant friend had been more than patient with my sluggish riding the whole day. She needed to keep on going, and I told her to go. I didn’t want to hold her back anymore. I rode alone, and with jello for legs, finally lurched into the rest stop in Vail. I needed to sit down for a long time. I wasn’t bonking; I’d been very careful about eating and drinking along the way. But I’d reached my physical limit. The reality that I wouldn’t finish the ride slowly started to sink in. I was determined to make it to the next and last rest stop. Slowly, with equal parts mental and physical anguish, I rode on.
I remember almost every detail about the last 12 miles. Vail is a beautiful town, and there was a lot to look at. That kept my mind busy and away from a little pesky detail called “incomplete finish”. I had dropped so far behind in the ride that I was alone. I knew I could not make it over Vail Pass, but I had to make it to that last rest stop. I kept telling myself, “This is the longest ride you’ve ever done… you’ve only just started riding…you can keep training and try again next year…” to try and bolster my confidence. But as I neared the stop and saw the ‘SAG wagon’ parked in front of me, I knew what I had to do.
I unclipped near the back of the SAG wagon and loaded up my bike with barely a word to the volunteer. I took a seat in the back of the rented Ryder, grateful to be alone. I felt the truck begin to move, and the long-simmering doubt that had rested inside me for a couple of months finally boiled over into big, heartbroken tears. I failed.
What drama, right? A middle-aged woman all upset about a bike ride. I should have other more important things to worry about, right? Well, yes, I do have more important things to worry about. But at that moment, I was learning a very valuable lesson about self-motivation, goals, and failure. I hadn’t given myself permission to fail. Determination alone wasn’t enough momentum in achieving my goal, as I thought it would be. I had worked so hard convincing myself not to be afraid of the ride itself, that I had forgotten that it was ok to just do my best and let it be at that. It took me a long time to set that straight in my mind. When my kids are disappointed with themselves about something, I have told them that the only time a person fails is when they don’t try. But I wasn’t listening to my own advice. No, I didn’t finish the ride. In retrospect, I only failed because I lost sight of what a real accomplishment meant to me; and it wasn’t how many miles I logged.
I haven’t ridden the Copper Triangle again… yet. I’m a much stronger rider now, and I really am more confident and capable. Maybe next summer I’ll register for the ride again. I’ll have a different perspective and a different attitude about what I can do. No sweat.