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by Neal Rogers
December 31, 2016
Photography by Colin Farrell/OPP Creative
This shouldn’t hurt so much.
That’s what I kept thinking on the early slopes of the climb, hot wind blasting me in the face.
This shouldn’t hurt so much. It didn’t hurt this much yesterday, and if it hurts this much today, I’m doomed for the rest of the week.
It was a singular form of suffering, the kind that sets your body ablaze and puts your spirit into survival mode.
I was pedaling up a climb at 10,000 feet above sea level, producing a tragically low level of power. My legs felt like planks of lumber, stiff rather than supple, void of any spring or snap. I’d been in my easiest gear for an hour. My feet were swollen, my too-new shoes squeezing them like vice grips. Every pedal revolution was a victory of sorts.
It was hot. The kind of heat that becomes impossible to quantify; was it 95F? 100F? What difference did it make? Salt stained my open jersey and shorts. Sweat stung my eyes. Water seemingly went straight from my bottle to my mouth and out my pores, as if I’d sprung a thousand micro leaks.
It was late June, the second stage of the seven-day Haute Route Rockies test event, held in Colorado. This day would prove to be the hardest, and not just because I was terribly dehydrated. At week’s end, our small group of journalists and staffers agreed that the route from Boulder to Winter Park — 137km with two fierce climbs and 3,050m of elevation gain, combined with the heat — made for the toughest day of the event.
The first stage had been tough enough, a 120km loop with 2000m of elevation gain that started and ended in Boulder, my hometown. Unlike the other days, where our group size hovered around a dozen, on the first day a large number of invited guests and friends rode along, upping the pace, and upping the ante. I’d pushed hard to ride with the second group on the road, and though I felt good most the day, I was absolutely smoked at the ride’s end. It was exceptionally hot, and I’d depleted myself. When I got home, I needed my wife’s help to get my shoes off. A few cold beers with dinner was a poor choice, and the effort, heat, and dehydration all combined to set myself up for a disastrous second stage.
Which brings me back to the final climb on Stage 2, over Berthoud Pass, and that singular form of suffering.
Unlike the previous day, I had been unable to keep contact with the second group: I couldn’t even hold the wheel in a headwind. I was the last person on the road, the sound of the follow car idling low RPMs behind me. I was a rollercoaster of emotions, in pain but numb; upset but also delirious. I’d stopped at the base and put in earphones for the long climb, using music to distract myself from the shock of it all.
There were plenty of moments for reflection during a hard week of riding at Haute Route Rockies 2016.
It was Father’s Day. My wife and I were expecting our first, in six weeks. That morning she’d given me a card that said, among other things, “Happy 0th Father’s Day.” My mind wandered to my relationship with my wife, and the unconventional year we’d had.
It was a year marked by her pregnancy — morning sickness, and general daily discomfort. On January 1, I’d started a new job, with CyclingTips, reason to celebrate, but also to focus, and roll up the sleeves. A few weeks later, while at the Fat Bike World Championships in Crested Butte, I’d lost control of my car on an icy road and smashed into a friend’s truck; I sliced open my index finger, requiring stitches. It hadn’t been my finest hour. In March, one day after my birthday, we’d had to put down our 17-year-old cat, due to cancer, a pet my wife had all of her adult life and loved dearly. My wife clutched her against her pregnant belly as her spirit left her body.
I was on the road for much of April and May, at the Redlands Cycling Classic, Sea Otter Classic, and the Amgen Tour of California. We’d begun a fairly extensive kitchen remodel the day I came home from the Amgen Tour, which was still ongoing when I left for the Haute Route; it was scheduled to wrap up a few weeks before the baby arrived. The Tour de France would start a week after the Haute Route ended, meaning I’d essentially be working every day until the baby arrived.
In the grand scheme of things, these were small inconveniences. They weren’t trivial, but they weren’t life-altering, either. We were both painfully aware of how many people in the world were truly suffering. We weren’t facing terminal illness, or financial hardship. We were healthy, happy, and employed. But in the microcosm of our daily lives, we were facing new and unexpected challenges, one after another, with a joyous but game-changing arrival on the way. Our lives had gotten very full, and it was sometimes difficult to manage.
Navigating our own hectic lives overlapped with with reconciling the world we were bringing our unborn child into: Senseless acts of terrorism in Europe and the Middle East. Climate change (my God, it was hot). The horror for women, pregnant like my wife, who lived in areas where Zika virus was spreading. The increase in vehicle-on-cyclist fatalities, in the pro peloton, in Michigan, and even along my home roads in Colorado. The contemptuous, never-ending U.S. presidential campaign, and our divided nation.
Throughout our rollercoaster of a year, I’d done what I could to be the best, most supportive husband and partner I could be. Most of the time, I think I did well. But I was also aware that, in certain moments, the enormity of it all had gotten to me: The disarray of working from home during a kitchen remodel, among plastic tarps and sawdust, with various contractors coming and going. My wife’s increasing discomfort with her pregnancy. Getting ready for the big arrival. Trying to find time to get out and ride my bike, knowing I’d be pedaling across the Rockies, and over 11,000-foot passes. I’d accepted the invitation to the Haute Route as my last chance to get away before I’d be changing diapers and warming bottles, sneaking away for the occasional 45-minute ride.
Throughout it all, we tried to keep our focus on what was important. But we’d had tense moments. And in many of those moments, I was to blame. I’d been snappy. I’d been impatient. I’d been overwhelmed. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the typical shit you try to avoid, but sometimes fail. I’d failed more than I wanted to admit. I’d not always been at my best.
In this moment, on this endless climb, legs twitching and firing, I saw myself. That’s what these all-inclusive, multi-day events like Haute Route tend to offer — they allow you the space and setting to look inward, one pedal stroke at a time. Oftentimes, the journey is as much about where you go, internally, as where you go externally. Through the suffering, a mirror reflected back at me. And in this moment, I realized I wasn’t content with what I saw. I needed to make some changes.
In this moment of suffering, I remembered that it was Father’s Day. I was going to be a father. Everything would soon be eclipsed by a child — a small, new life, equal parts me and my wife — that would need nothing more than to be raised in a loving environment. My wife, enduring her third trimester during the hottest summer months, would soon be giving birth. In a matter of weeks, nothing would ever be the same again. Being snappy, or impatient, or overwhelmed, was simply not an option.
In this moment, in that heat, I got chills. I thought about my wife, and the family we were starting. I thought about the unborn child I would soon meet, and about fatherhood. I thought about friends my age who have lost their fathers, and how that impacted them. I thought about my own father, who is alive and well and rides a few times a week. I thought about the father he had been for me, and what lessons I could learn from him. I thought about how lucky I was to be invited to this event, to be healthy and fortunate enough, to ride a bike at all.
In this moment, I saw things clearly. It felt as if I died, and was reborn. And it felt as if it was needed, as if it was overdue. It took reaching rock bottom to scrape it out of me. My eyes welled up, and the pain washed over me.
A friend of mine calls moments of deep suffering on the bike “finding religion.” Call it what you like, but for me it was certainly finding clarity — an epiphany moment that I’ve only ever achieved through that singular form of suffering. Cycling is labeled an endurance sport, but in those moments of extreme endurance, so much can be gained that has nothing to do with sport.
Suddenly, I welcomed the pain. It didn’t hurt any less, but it had purpose. My worst day of riding in 2016 had become my most important.