In his 1969 book, "Challenge of the North Cascades," legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey tried to explain why he was willing to bushwhack dozens of miles, endure blisters, bears, rain and freeze-dried food, to stand atop high places.
"Loveliness," he wrote, "is paid for partly in the currency of suffering."
It's Beckey who swims to mind as I slam into mile 90 of the ride cyclists affectionately call the "Cannibal Classic," between the Colorado mountain towns of Crested Butte and Creede. Three days into a weeklong, 500-mile cycling tour through the highest of southwest Colorado's spectacular high country, I've had to earn every wildflower and every Kodachrome moment with a crank of the pedal.
But this is just unfair: At the foot of 11,530-foot Slumgullion Pass, the road takes aim at the summer sky and pegs there for the next 3,000 feet. I grind slowly upward on wheezy sea-level lungs, my hamstrings tight. Sniffing weakness, the asphalt rears up to nearly a 10 percent grade.
I am last in the group. I could push my bike uphill faster than this.
Then it begins to hail.
On the "Colorado Cols" tour offered by Telluride-based Lizard Head Cycling Guides, cyclists spin anywhere from 67 to 137 miles a day. (A "col" is a small mountain pass.)
The range boasts more real estate above 10,000 feet than any comparable range in the Rocky Mountains. It's home to 13 of the state's 54 14,000-foot-plus peaks. The targeted intermediate-to-advanced riders could expect to climb more than 5,000 feet a day.
"It doesn't really get any harder than this," said John Humphries, Lizard Head's owner. "It's definitely a limited audience."
The four other clients, all men in their late 40s and 50s, are serious lifelong cyclists with corded calves and splendid machines. Len, an insurance executive from Manhattan, was once a semipro cyclist in Italy; he and his friend Steve, a real estate developer with a greyhound's angles, wear matching cycling kits. Peter is a Web developer from Pennsylvania who rides 10,000 miles a year on his Moots bicycle, which cost more than my used Honda. Never have a bunch of dudes with shaved legs seemed so intimidating.
A support van leapfrogs over the group throughout each day, setting up aid stations and lunch. "If you're really not having fun, you don't have to ride," Humphries said. Hop inside when tired, take a 25-mile "bump" and then hop out to ride again.
Just outside town hulks our first day's ride: 10,125-foot Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world. Rising from the sagebrush desert, the mesa's pancake summit is furred with pines and dotted with 300 cool alpine lakes. Humphries pronounces it "the easiest 6,000 feet you'll ever climb" — a good opening day.
Soon the earth cants upward. Len and the others vanish up the road. The van zooms past with a rider already inside. I get a flat tire. "Why do I do this?" I sputter.
Eventually I calm down and settle into what a friend once termed the Zen of Up — a pace I can keep up all day, and a detente with the discomfort. When I find it, my mind unclenches. I see tailed copper butterflies flitting before my wheel like bits of bright cloth.
Make no mistake: Even Zen won't rescue you from exhaustion. By the time we reach Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards, our night's lodging, we've ridden nearly 70 miles and climbed 8,600 feet. I limp off to bed before the first stars appear.
The next morning, we spin languidly through a Swiss-meets-West landscape of rolling ranchlands on little-traveled roads. We're on our way to Crested Butte, 98 miles distant. Eventually, as it will all week, the landscape rises.
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At lunch, two more riders climb aboard the sag wagon. Near Gunnison, even Peter, the 10,000-Mile Man, looks stricken by two days at this high elevation and climbs aboard. Fueled by schadenfreude, and by a doppio espresso in Gunny, I turn north with Humphries up the gentle ranching valley toward Crested Butte, riding fast and chatting.
Here I'd like to tell you about my triumphant arrival in Crested Butte, one of my favorite mountain towns. But today is only my second "century" ride ever, and the final 15 miles spank me. Weary hands cramp into claws. A brushfire erupts in my bike shorts, and a malevolent headwind whips up and tries to keep us from entering town. I arrive shattered. After half of a Teocalli Martini at Montanya, a local rum distillery, I stagger to the hotel and into a fitful sleep.
Day Three is the crucible day: a Tour de France-worthy 137 miles and an absurd 11,000 feet of climbing strung between the former mining towns of Crested Butte and Creede known as the Cannibal Classic. In February 1874, a group of prospectors heading from Salt Lake City to the gold fields near Gunnison, led by one Alfie Packer, got snowbound here. Only a well-fed Packer emerged in the spring. After his murder trial, a local saloon keeper hollered, "You man-eating son of a ... There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them!"
"You don't want to get dropped by the group today," Humphries quips. I tug on a second pair of padded bike shorts in the forlorn hope of calming my raging saddle sores and waddle to my bike.
It's a fine morning to be in the saddle, riding two abreast down the valley in the blue dawn, talking and joking, and escorted by mountain bluebirds. After the grunt up Nine-Mile Hill, we spin through handsome, broad-shouldered ranching valleys of ponderosa pine.
Of course, all these pretty moments come with a price tag: Outside Lake City, we meet Slumgullion Pass, which boasts the steepest grade of any continuously paved road in the state. The next 90 minutes are heartbreaking. Thighs howl. The mind cracks. Cold rain falls, then hail. Lightning. I reach the summit, descend tentatively, then climb toward 10,901-foot Spring Creek Pass.
At the Continental Divide, the support van idles. Nearly everyone's inside — even stout Len has climbed aboard, wisely choosing not to ride the snot-slick descent — and they stare, expecting a broken man to join them. But something amazing has happened on my solo climb. The clouds have broken and a euphoria has descended. I'm the only one left — and for the first time I know that I'm going to survive this week.
I grin like a lunatic and say I want to keep riding. A cheer goes up. Humphries grabs his bike and together we rocket the last 30 miles down the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. That night, we feast on Colorado rack of lamb at Antlers Rio Grande Lodge and fall asleep with our doors open to the river's murmur.
The days continue in a yin-yang of beauty and exhaustion. We cross Wolf Creek Pass and the Continental Divide again, then take a rest day in Pagosa Springs, a resort town about 20 miles from the New Mexico state line with dozens of thermal soaking pools. Next we roll on to Durango, a former mining town that's now mad for all things cycling.
Humphries dubs the final day the "Queen Stage." Other days have been longer, but the finale has more punch per mile: three mountain passes, 78 miles, 9,400 feet of climbing along the sublime San Juan Skyway roadway.
We ride fast together through the Animas River Valley before the oven of the day is lit. When the climbing begins, I suck on Len's wheel as long as I can, but soon I drop off and am alone. The climb to 10,640-foot Coal Bank Pass is a punishment. Though briefer, 10,910-foot Molas Pass is hardly easier. Coasting into the former mining town of Silverton for lunch, I confess to Humphries that I'm toast.
"You can do it," he encourages. "You can still do every mile."
I force down a sandwich, chug a Coke, swig pickle juice to stave off cramps, and climb back into the stirrups. Steve and I fall in together, and we pace each other up Red Mountain Pass, elevation 11,018 feet, a road with no guardrail.
And one last time, when I need it most, the views provide: We pedal past waterfalls tumbling off mountainsides, past roadside bouquets of Queen Anne's lace and larkspur, past creeks that flow orange and poisoned from the skeletons of abandoned mines.
When I reach the pass, the last cyclist, everyone is waiting. There are high-fives and hugs over our accomplishment: six days, about 500 miles and 45,000 feet of climbing. It's too big, and too soon, to understand in this moment. Only weeks later, fully recovered, will I hold the pleasure and the pain together in my mind. And want to do it again.
For now I do the one thing that's left to do: I climb back on my bike and open the throttle for the 13-mile corkscrew descent into the old mining burg of Ouray. The last ride turns out to be the very best of the week. And for once, I'm in the lead.