I planned to do a short ride. On the flats. After all, yesterday I did around 5000 feet of climbing. Tomorrow I will do around 3000.
So it was clearly a good idea to do a nice short spin, focusing on high cadence and low torque.
But it was so hot outside. And one thing every cyclist who lives near mountains knows is: you can climb out of the heat. Seriously, it’s always ten or fifteen degrees cooler in the canyon, and maybe even cooler as you get toward the summit.
So when I had to decide — turn right and head toward the flats in the valley, or turn left and head to the canyon — I turned left.
Which meant I would not be doing an easy spin.
By the time I got to the mouth of the canyon, I could tell something: my legs felt good. Unusually good. Like they wanted me to see what they had.
I stepped it up. Still felt great. Went to a higher gear. Wanted more.
By the time I got to the toll booth, I was in my big ring, about three cogs down the cassette. That is not a common gear selection for this ride.
But for whatever reason, that’s where I wanted to be.
This Pain Is Mine
I generally climb the Alpine Loop in the second and third gear, shifting up to third and fourth when I’m standing. Today, though, I rode in fifth and sixth. At a cadence that seemed higher than normal.
It hurt. It hurt gloriously.
I think other cyclists who love climbing will agree: There is nothing quite so exquisite as pain you have elected to suffer, and manage to keep right below the threshold that breaks you. You are controlling chaos. You are mastering your body. You have the time trialist’s smile: a weird grin with teeth exposed and clenched.
Mostly, this is a combination of reacting to pain and wanting to get as much air as possible. But sometimes there’s a little bit of smile in there too.
You are pushing every single thought — except one — out of your head.
And that one thought is an important one: Can I push harder and still not snap? If the answer is “yes,” then you push harder.
It’s surprising, really, how often the answer is “yes.” More often than you think.
When the answer is “no,” however, the sense of gratification is immense. Unless — and until — the answer becomes, “no, and you can’t hold this pace for long either.” Then you have to evaluate. Is that your inherent overcaution? Or are you really about to pop?
Today, I was certain, once, that I had hit that point. I had popped. I slowed drastically, the sense of disappointment settling in.
But then I stood up, and I went again. And I had it in me.
“Today,” I thought, “I am turning in the ride of a lifetime.”
And you know what? It’s entirely possible that I did. Right now I weigh 156 pounds. Much lighter than this and my power starts dropping off pretty fast. I’ve been riding a lot this last few weeks. So I may, right now, be the strongest cyclist I have ever been.
But I have no idea whether I was actually the fastest I have ever been on this climb. I had no electronics with me (other than the electronics that shift my gears, I mean). So maybe I just turned in a 57-minute Alpine Loop summit. Or maybe I just turned in a 1:02. Either is possible, and neither matters very much to me.
What matters is how I felt. And I felt very fast indeed.
When I reached the summit, I pulled into the parking lot and rode around the perimeter for a couple minutes in slow circles. Happy. Proud. Throat very raw.
I pulled a bottle out of a cage to take a drink and realized: I had been so focused that I had taken only one tug the entire climb. I made up for lost time (and fluid) and began the descent.
Usually, I attack the downhill of the Alpine Loop pretty hard. It’s so fun. But today, I just coasted, conservatively. I just didn’t have anything — energy nor intensity — left in me. I felt well and truly exhausted. Spent. Empty.
It’s a good feeling.