Photo: Kyle Sheehan
We make it to Walden just after dark and check into the North Park Inn & Suites. We push our bikes past the indoor swimming pool and carry them up the carpeted stairs. I charge my electronic shifting every night because I don’t trust it. I take a shower and fall asleep before I remember closing my eyes.
We wake up to an alarm in the dark.
“Sarah is here.”
“What? How? Something must have gone wrong.”
I know we haven’t done anything brilliant to catch her, so I know something is wrong. I don’t cheer her misfortune. I’ve been there.
We shrug and get out the door. We’re riding by 4AM. A bright light in the dark catches us. It’s Sarah. We begin the climb up Willow Creek Pass together. Sarah and I greet each other, but we’re both pretty quiet. In the dark hours it’s surreal to see her. The last I knew, she was at least a hundred miles ahead. Evan is friendlier.
“Hi, I’m Evan.”
He falls in behind us.
Sarah starts talking, looking straight ahead. It’s not conversation, they’re just words.
Steffen took a wrong turn. I took a wrong turn too… every crack in the road feels like it’s going straight into my spine… the road just kept going up to Walden… it took hours…
She’s arching her back and rolling her head forward and back slowly.
Evan pulls ahead and starts pushing the pace and I follow him. It’s chilly even climbing until the sun hits. We climb strong and chatter through the morning. It is going to be a beautiful day. Soon, we’re over the pass and descending to Hot Sulphur Springs. Less than a mile from town, I roll over a sharp rock and it gashes my rear tire. We stop and boot it and I put a tube in. A nice couple on their Sunday morning ride stop to help. They even offer me a ride to Silverthorne. I tell them about the race and that I’m confident I’ll make it to Breckinridge to buy a new tire. There are plenty of good bike shops in Summit County. We pass a closed burger shack and Sarah catches us at the gas station, but she doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere quick.
“It’s a shame that the restaurant is closed… I miss my dog…”
I sympathize while a chug a liter of chocolate milk and we’re back out on the road.
Kremmling is wide open and western and surrounded by mountains. We follow the Blue River to Silverthorne and then the bike path to Frisco. A giant German tourist on a cheap hardtail waves me behind him, offering a draft. I decline and he hammers ahead. We waste time looking for a bike shop that has apparently moved to Dillon. The sky is dark and it starts to rain. We get back on the bike path to Breckinridge. I buy a tire, spare tubes and gu at Avalanche Sports. The rain stops and the skies clear. Evan and I are both getting a little nutty. He’s pacing around and I put on all of my clothes in the middle of the afternoon because I feel like I’m freezing. We resupply at a health food store and chug cold cans of yerba mate. I pack away a couple burritos and sliced Kerrygold Dubliner cheese– definitely the best food I eat for the entire race. Right as we’re about to leave, Kyle pulls up on his bike! He’s an old friend from Annapolis. We’re ready to move.
Do you want to ride up Hoosier Pass with us?
And then there’s another guy, Derrick, on a loaded up Long Haul Trucker and he’s coming along as well. And I’m laughing and excited and the sun comes out bright. It feels like we’re a party riding up Hoosier Pass, the highest point on the Trans America Trail. After the pass, we’ll descend out of the Rockies and out of freezing nights for the rest of the race.
Derrick blows through a red light, hollering that he’s above traffic law. The rest of us wait for the light to change. I pull over a mile up to strip back down to shorts and a t-shirt. Evan and Derrick ride ahead and Kyle waits for me. He moved to Carbondale three months ago. He saw I’d be that I’d be coming through close by and came out to ride a stretch. He says he can’t believe how much fun we’re having considering how much we’ve been riding. And we are having fun! Evan slows up to pedal with us.
“This guy has a mental illness and we need to distance ourselves from him.”
He’s not kidding. Derrick is hauling ass up the pass, carrying way more equipment and schooling us all. Without a sound, two silver-hairs on road bikes pass us too. They’re training for the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. Evan rides alongside their friend and later tells me that he smelled liquor on the guy’s breath. It’s party time on Hoosier Pass. By the time we get up to the top, Derrick has already lit up his pipe as the old guys eye him suspiciously.
We stop for a quick minute, Kyle takes our picture and heads back down the pass and Evan and I continue on. We’re going to Cañon City, 90 miles away with a lot of descending. And then we’ll be in the Colorado flats and then Kansas and then halfway to the end. This race isn’t looking quite as long as it once was. We’re both anxious to get through Kansas as the wind is unpredictable and a headwind could make riding flat, straight terrain total hell. Evan says the race doesn’t really start until Missouri. The relentless hills in Missouri will expose a rider’s true colors. For now, descending out of the Rockies in Colorado feels monumental.
We wave to a touring cyclist in Hartsel and minutes later he catches us pumping music through a speaker mounted to his handlebars. It’s Derrick and he’s ready to ride through the night with us. He’s from Oklahoma City and he’s riding 6,000 miles this trip at 100 miles a day. He spins his legs at double speed and rides fast. He’s got two big panniers and what looks like a suitcase strapped to the top of his rack. He’s carrying a big tent. Sometimes he likes to hang out in there and get baked and watch Game of Thrones on his iPhone with the sound blasting out of his speaker. He stops every afternoon to cook himself a high quality meal and mostly eats quinoa. He says if he keeps eating quinoa and riding his bike, maybe he’ll be ready for the Trans Am Race next year. He’s fed up with those old timers at the top of Hoosier Pass cause they just don’t get it. Sometimes he just wants to get baked and talk about it. He’s pretty sure those guys get drunk and talk about it. He started riding a bike two years ago and has lost 50 pounds. His friends don’t think much of it, but they’re not doing anything. He used to be in the Navy and still gets Navy money and that makes his brother jealous. His brother refuses to see him. I think he told me he’s 24, but it could’ve been 26. I like this kid. He asks me when I’m going to ditch Evan and I tell him I’m not.
We’re still at 9,000 feet through Guffey and the terrain rolls and finally descends. Derrick pulls off at the RV park at the Royal Gorge– as good of a time as any to get a shower and camp for the night. We say goodbye. His bright smile lights up the warm night. Evan and I continue on US-50 and make it to Cañon City by 1AM. We check into the Econolodge and conk out.
Passing the lobby at 6AM we grab a couple of hardboiled eggs at the breakfast buffet, choke them down with apple juice and pedal away from Cañon City. It’s different than the high country with orange rock and scrub. The route rolls up and down, but mostly down as we drop in elevation. It’s warm and wide open. We have a light tail wind and we’re cruising. The route through Pueblo follows neighborhood streets and through a city park. We pedal past murals and stop at a gas station to resupply. And then it’s flat and rural and hot. The towns are sparse, marked by grain silos and not much else. We’re pushing the pedals and moving and it’s easy. A lady stands by the side of the road and welcomes us to Eastern Colorado as we’re heading into Ordway. She finds us at the store. She saw Steffen this morning and remarks that he was kind enough to stop to chat. He was out of food and couldn’t buy any until Eads because all of the stores were closed. She asks me where Sarah is and tells me that I was really far behind. It’s hot and humid and I’m just trying to get a gatorade and get out of there.
We pedal 60 miles past the grain silos of Sugar City, Arlington and Haswell to Eads. We meet a couple of cycle-tourists at the convenience store and the sky is purple. Inside, a tv is blaring a tornado warning for the whole area. The cashier shakes her head in disbelief when I tell her we’re riding to Scott City. It’s over a hundred miles away. One of the bikers recommends the Lazy-R Motel and that settles it. We’re going to the Lazy-R in Scott City. I chug a red bull and pack a 5-hour Energy for the morning and we leave Eads before 7PM to ride into a tornado watch. Lightning flashes into the dark sky ahead of us, but we see no rain. A sidewind blows into us as we cross the border into Kansas and enter central time zone. At this rate, it will take us another five hours to ride the 64 remaining miles to Scott City, but we’re committed to getting there.