Day 85: Pueblo Lake State Park to Royal Gorge, CO - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

July 6, 2011

Day 85: Pueblo Lake State Park to Royal Gorge, CO

I wake up to a calm and quiet morning, as if the madness of last night never happened.

Six miles out of camp I ride up a short hill and push the lever to upshift the rear derailleur like I've done thousands of other times on this trip. But instead of moving the chain I feel the cable pop and instantly lose all tension, and then look toward the ground and see it hanging limp below the down tube. It's the first mechanical problem in more than 4,000 miles that I can't fix or patch myself, and it means I'll be riding a high-geared three-speed until I reach the bike shop in Canon City, about 35 miles away. On the flats of Kansas it wouldn't matter much at all, but with the chain sitting on the smallest sprocket of the cassette, the bike is always in its most difficult gear and every uphill section becomes a challenge.

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The landscape around me is beautiful, filled with wide open range land dotted with ranches big and small. The green and brown slopes of the Rocky Mountains rise just in front of me, backed by a hazy sky of blue and white, so close that it looks like I can touch them. It's amazing, but I don't really notice because every hill is an ordeal. I have to stand up on the pedals, carefully balance myself using the handlebars, and crank more slowly than I've ever pedaled before—hard enough to to move 230-something pounds of bike and gear and rider, but gentle enough that I don't tweak either of my weak old-man knees.

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The hills are tough but manageable until just before Wetmore, when I run into a long, steep, nasty son of a bitch. It makes me work harder than anything I've ever experienced in my life, on the bike or off. The Blue Ridge and Appalachians have nothing that compares to riding a fully loaded bike up this half-mile hill in Colorado in a painfully high gear. I curse and sweat and growl like never before.

And then, just about two-thirds of the way up the awful bastard, I decide to stop feeling upset and sorry for myself because I realize how lucky I am. I could have snapped the cable in the bike shop wasteland of Kentucky, or on the upcoming climb to 11,500 feet, both of which would have put me in a terrible spot. Other than the huge hill, the elevation changes I have to deal with are some of the most gradual I'll see the rest of the way. Better still, today is cooler and cloudier than any other day in the last three weeks, which means I work harder but don't feel completely destroyed. It could all be so much worse.

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The stretch of highway between Florence and Canon City turns out to be a death trap, with cars and trucks and SUVs and semis all passing close, even when another vehicle fills the opposite lane. It's a high-speed game with no margin for error and it grinds on me. The first 15 cars than squeeze me get a free pass, but the white pickup that goes by me as a car comes the other direction—while I take up a third of a lane on the shoulderless road—gets a long, skinny middle finger as he comes within four feet of my left-rear pannier. It's my first since leaving Key West.

The driver takes the message personally.

He hits the brakes and pulls off to the side of the road a few hundred feet in front of Becky, who rides just ahead of me.

Great.

Obscenities fly out the rolled-down window as I ride past, mostly a blur of F-bombs and also a less than friendly reminder to stop taking up so much room and get out of the way. I give him a quick look and try to ignore it.

But words aren't cathartic enough.

He peels out, with the V-6 engine racing and gravel flying, kicking up a dust cloud behind him and doing his best to convince us that he's going to run us over and leave us for dead along the side of Highway 115. Even though I know what's happening and want so badly to win this game of chicken, my subconscious kicks in and keeps me alive with a squirt of adrenaline and a rush of terror that cause me to veer off and come to a skidding stop in the gravel as the truck speeds past within ten feet, the driver cackling inside like a mad man.

"Yeah, that's right!" he yells out as he speeds off. "You get back over there where you belong!"

I stand over the bike in a dirt patch next to the road. My heart pounds so hard I can feel it thumping in my ears.

When I meet up with four of the ACA riders at a park in Canon City, B.J. agrees that the last ten miles were some of the worst so far.

"I gave at least two middle fingers," he says with a few slow nods of the head.

I feel better knowing that I'm not the only one who felt pinched, but sad that the friendly drivers of the Midwest and the South are long gone.

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The guy who runs the bike shop tells me to come back in a few hours, at 2:00, so I hang out in the library. I try to write, but every part of me feels tired—tired from a lack of sleep, tired from the heat, tired from worrying about mechanical problems, tired from trying to catch up a horribly out-of-date journal, tired from not having talked to my people at home in several days, and tired from road rage and close calls. For the first time in 85 days I consider the possibility that being at home might be better for me than riding 2,000 more miles across the West to the Pacific Ocean.

In the moment, all I want is to forget about everything in my life and go to sleep for the next 12 hours.

But fixing the bike is the top priority, so I pull myself together and head back over to the shop at 2:00—which becomes 2:30, then 3:30, and then almost 4:30 before the bike finally rolls through the front door and up into the stand. That's just how it goes with one-man bike shops in the middle of the summer, so I hang out on the front porch and try to get my mind back in a better place.

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When I head inside I find a great little shop, with walls covered in local art and antique bikes hanging from the ceiling. Spencer takes care of the busted derailleur cable quickly once he gets to it. He's a cool guy, both a mechanic and an artist, who's been in Canon City for more than a decade. He tells me that the road I came in on is the worst around, and that the town is a really great place to live. He also gives me a recommendation for a great Italian restaurant nearby.

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I pedal away from the shop feeling a little better about Colorado, about this trip, and about life. At the Italian place I enjoy the best meal I've had in weeks, and then I ride west to Royal Gorge through patches of both sunshine and the dumping rain from passing thunderstorms.

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The gorge is a huge tourist trap and I have five campgrounds to choose from. I just happen to pick right and end up at the place where the ACA group is staying, so I ride into camp to nearly a dozen familiar and smiling faces. That helps me feel better still.

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Up above 5,000 feet I experience the coolest, most pleasant evening in a very long time. I'm one of the last to head to bed, at the ridiculously early hour of 9:00, with the roaring noise from the traffic on the highway ready and willing to lull me into the sleep I so badly need.

Today's ride: 55 miles (89 km)
Total: 4,280 miles (6,888 km)

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