When I say “road biker,” chances are the image that immediately pops to mind (after Lance Armstrong, that is) is a tall, skinny guy with the muscle tone of an antelope attired in brightly colored Spandex, sporting a helmet that looks like something the Rocketeer might be wearing if he was still around and traded his jet pack for a crotch rocket. Oh, and possibly wearing very intimidating sunglasses.
If you live in Colorado, you’ve probably heard a lot about road cycling, and you’re about to hear a lot more. Colorado is setting the stage once again for the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. It’s a grueling race over some of the best and most challenging roads the state has to offer, beginning late August in Durango and ending in Denver. The race lasts for seven days and will feature some dynamic cyclists…blah blah blah. OK, for those of you who are thinking “why do I care about Spandex-coated über athletes who get on bikes for seven days to ride up hills on the road… the easy, paved, not rocky, root-filled, cliff splattered ROAD?”
Well, it’s time to pay attention. Yes. You. You mountain bikers, runners, skiers, snowboarders, marathoners, etc. Road cycling has somehow gotten a bad rap, and I’m not even talking about the doping. Some people seem to think the sport is either easy or a form of self-torture used by old, rich people who want something to brag about. I admit I too once shared this misconception. However, anyone who is interested in sports, especially here in the mountains, should pay attention to the upcoming race and at least have a limited basis by which to accurately judge the true effort required by these tremendous athletes.
I’m going to digress here for a moment. I would normally not give a hoot about a bunch of roadies closing down traffic lanes; however, my life changed this spring when several doctors told me that I was no longer a runner. They didn’t give me a choice. My knees and my foot were, as they say in medicine, “thrashed.” The choice I was given: road bike or couch. In fact, I was even (gasp) prohibited from hiking for a month. So I rolled my eyes, and bought a road bike.
How could this possibly be close to the workout I get from running?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Summit County this summer, so my first spin on the roadie was from Frisco up to Copper. A mere 15-mile roundtrip. On an exercise bike, I could do that without batting an eyelash. But an hour or so into the ride, tongue rolling out of mouth, feeling like I might pass out, thighs on fire, thanking God that I purchased padded shorts “even for my first ride,” I got off my bike and announced to no one in particular “Oh my God. I. Am. Addicted.”
Road biking simply rules. The cardio workout you get is insane. I’ve run my tattered limbs all over this state, up hill, trail, paved road, whatever. And I have never been as taxed as I have gotten myself on a road bike. When you run or do any other form of cardio, you control your speed when you hit your cardiac threshold (i.e. sprint). When you are on a bike, the hills tell you when you’re sprinting and for how long, and trust me, they could not care less about what kind of shape you’re in.
On my recent ride up Loveland Pass, I made it from Frisco to A-Basin, got off my bike, and promptly vomited all over the place because I was so tired (don’t worry, I rallied). My first ride up Vail Pass, I felt like a dog panting the whole way because I was so out of breath I could not close my mouth for a second.
Road cycling also has rewards at the end. You earn your turns. For every big climb you do, you get to come down something equally as big. The feeling of flying down a paved road on your bike—knowing that the road is paved and that you (probably) don’t have to worry about rocks, roots, obstacles—is unparalleled. It can be terrifying, but that’s why we have brakes. To just feel like a part of your bike, coasting at 20 or 30 mph into huge curves is like, skiing.
Lastly, and relatedly, if cyclists don’t seem “hardcore,” just think for a moment how it feels to crash a bike into concrete going 40 mph. In other words, think about how it might feel not to have any skin on one side of your body, in addition to a bike seat buried in your pelvis. Yeah, that’s hardcore.
To bring this ramble full circle, my tangent is only to illustrate how much respect the athletes coming to compete across Colorado in August deserve, and to maybe pique some interest in a sport that seems to have been mislabeled in the public eye.
My longest ride has been about 50 miles and I nearly died of exhaustion. The athletes in the Challenge are not only able to double that daily, back-to-back for a week, but they are able to do it at high altitude. This being a race and all, they also have to ride faster on the downhill than I even care to imagine and be willing to risk relatively horrific injuries, all with the idea that they will get back on their bikes as long as they are able, skin be damned.
Racing also involves strategy, including when to eat the carbs necessary to keep muscles functioning and where and when to drink water. I have also, through diligent research with my new awesome cycling friends, learned that many of us mere mortals can have fun watching the athletes do things we will never be capable of by watching the different stages of this race. It is common for locals—especially those who are involved in and supportive of the biking community and the sport—to bike to certain prime locations along the passes the bikers come through (especially Independence Pass) and hang out, have a few drinks, and cheer the teams on as they cycle by.
It’s like watching a marathon come through your city; except the people competing are on super high-tech machines that weigh about 16 pounds and look like superheroes.