A Note from Fatty: This is the third in the “I’ve Never Suffered So Much” guest post series, sent in by readers of FatCyclist.com. And it’s high time we have an entry from a woman.
I’ve never suffered as badly on a bike as the second time I did a ride that was entirely climbing: two summers ago I was forced to ride up Big Cottonwood Canyon. First a little (long) back story…
During the 2006 Olympics I was living in my home state of California. I had recently quit playing hockey but I was still skating for fun with my friends. Sharks Ice San Jose put on free clinics of all the Olympic ice sports. My friends and I spent the day attending every one. The last clinic of the day was short track speed skating. I was immediately hooked.
Fast forward two years. After only skating on and off a couple times a month I wanted to get more serious about training. A few of my fellow Nor Cal skaters would go on rides on days when there was no ice time. I decided I also needed a bike if I was going to train like them. After a couple weeks on layaway I brought home a 2007 Specialized Dolce just before Christmas.
I loved my new bike. I started riding it on a paved trail in Los Gatos with a couple of skaters. I did not ride very frequently and when I did it was always flat.
Five months after buying my bike I moved to Salt Lake City because it’s the best place to train for short track. Once I started riding with the skaters here I developed a deep dislike for cycling. On the ice I was the slowest and weakest skater, and so I was on the bike as well. By the end of that first summer I felt a little stronger biking but all the rides had been flat and I was still getting dropped.
The next summer I was usually working on ride days. Because of this I only rode once or twice before being forced to climb (attempt) Little Cottonwood Canyon. I have been told that Little Cottonwood is like Alpe d’Huez without the switchbacks.
I was more than a little out of my league.
That season we had got a new coach named Jun. He was from Korea and didn’t speak English very well. He had never seen me ride before. I tried to explain to him before the ride that I was horrible on a bike and I had never done a climb before, not even a small hill. I also made him promise not to laugh at me.
My team was riding with the short track national team so I knew some extreme embarrassment was in store for me. Sure enough I was dropped about 40 feet from where our cars were parked. The coaches drove by in their van, with Jun hanging out the window yelling my name, and pointing and laughing. Not the best way to boost my confidence. Just shy of halfway I turned around. I did not try another climb that summer. In fact I can’t even remember if I got back on my bike at all.
Now that brings us to the next season (last year) and the worst ride of my life. Jun had left us to be the national team assistant coach. The process of finding us a new coach was going to take a few months so the head coach of the national team, Chun-sem, let us train with them. Every Saturday they would climb one of the canyons in the valley.
Conveniently I had to work every Saturday. The last thing I wanted to do was make a fool of myself on my bike again.
One week, sometime around late May, my boss posted the schedule for the next week and I wasn’t working on Saturday. When I asked her about it she said she thought I would like a weekend off. This was a very nice thing to do and normally I would appreciate it except it meant I didn’t have an excuse to get out of the group ride. Coach Jun was also my roommate so he would know if I lied. I had no way out.
Saturday morning comes and it’s colder than normal. I tried again to get out of it, reminding Jun about my failure of the summer before but with no luck. I did not have any cycling clothes for cold weather. The only clothing I had at that time was one pair of shorts and one sleeveless jersey. I grabbed a thin cotton jacket hoping that it would keep me warm enough. According to Salt Lake City Cycling, Big Cottonwood Canyon is about 14 miles long with an average grade of 7.8%. The grade didn’t really mean anything to me because I didn’t have any frame of reference. All I knew was that it was going to be long and hard.
In the parking lot at the base of the canyon I was already suffering. I was completely unprepared for the weather. Chun-sem remembered my lack of skill and so before the ride he told me and another skater that if we didn’t keep up we would be attacked by bears and wolves (Chun-sem is also Korean and can’t say the word wolves, read as if it sounded more like “vorlves”). Apparently this was supposed to motivate us.
Most of the actual ride is a blur of misery. I only remember the beginning, the end, and small parts that were out of the ordinary. It started out not so bad. The girls started five or ten minutes before the guys. I was actually able to ride with the group in the not-so-steep beginning part of the climb.
I mean the very beginning. I don’t know if I even made it a mile with them. Time and distance are also pretty blurred. There was one particularly steep part when I was about a hundred feet off the back of the last girl that very clearly stands out because I was still warming up and having a hard time breathing. This was also about when I started hating life, a feeling that wouldn’t end until about five hours after I finished the ride.
The next thing I remember is the guys passing me one by one. I remember Jun and Chun-sem going by in the car for the first time telling me to keep going. Once everyone passed me all I can recall for miles is cold, snow, and hail. I was freezing. My legs did not warm up. My feet were numb and then they started to hurt. My cotton jacket got wet from the snow and hail.
The coaches came down to check on me again and I remember Chun-sem saying I looked stronger. I didn’t feel stronger. I replied that I was completely frozen. I thought this was the most miserable I would ever be on a bike. The voice in my head was really loud at this point. Mostly it was saying things like “you are stupid,” “what made you think this was a good idea,” “I hate cycling,” and “you are pathetic.”
In about four more miles I would discover that I could feel worse.
The coaches later checked on me one more time and told me to turn around when the first person passed me on their descent. Finally I felt better because I thought it was almost over, they had given me hope. Unfortunately because of the weather no one wanted to ride down. They all waited at the top and the coaches went down to get a second car.
So there I was riding along praying that every biker I saw coming towards me was with our group and my ordeal would finally end. Every time it wasn’t one of us I got more frustrated. I had not been drinking my water and didn’t have any food with me. I was starting to fade fast when a car stopped on its way down and told me to be careful because there was a moose in the road. I rounded the corner and sure enough there it was right in front of me. The last thing I needed was to get charged by a moose. I was too afraid if I stopped pedaling that I wouldn’t be able to start again so I just rode in small circles until it finally ran off.
Pretty quickly after the moose incident I saw a skater coming towards me. I stopped and slumped over my handlebars thinking it was finally over. He rode over to me and told me I was almost to the top, just a couple more turns and I would be at the van. Completely exhausted and on the brink of tears I told him I couldn’t make it (you don’t want to know what the voice in my head was telling me at this point).
Somehow he convinced me to start climbing again while he rode behind pushing me. Then a second skater-turned coach rode down and also came to help me. I had stopped again– this time actually crying– and unable to move.
The new arrival told me I just needed to eat. He gave me a strawberry gel and then helped push me up the stupid hill. The gel was the most disgusting thing I ever tasted but I was happy to eat something. So there I was trying to finish the ride while being pushed by two people. I was frozen, wet, shaking, and weak and more than anything I wanted to be anywhere but on my bike on that mountain.
After only a few minutes we met up with the van on its way down. I can’t even describe the relief I felt at seeing it. I can’t say that I was happy. I was too far gone to feel anything close to happiness. I was told that I was picked up about ten minutes after the second to last skater finished and I had been less than a mile from the top.
You may ask if I regret not making it to the top and a part of me does. But then another large part of me flashes back to how I felt crying on the side of the road and I have to say no.
This day and ride still stands out as one of my worst days in recent memory. It is not an exaggeration when I say I have never been as cold or felt as weak as I did that morning. Other skaters were going out for lunch together but all I wanted was to go home and get warm. Once I added extra clothes I picked up a burrito from Café Rio.
To this day that burrito is the best meal I have ever had. Nothing has even come close to how amazing that burrito tasted after the suffering I had endured.
This shouldn’t be a surprise but I continued to hate cycling. However there is a happy cycling ending to the story. A few months later I quit skating and spent a year being lazy. This summer I needed to get out and do something so I started riding on my own. I quickly fell in love. I even enjoy climbing (though I am still dreadful at it).
Voila! happy ending.
About the Author: My name is Gabi, I live in Utah. Though I have had my bike for a couple years I only recently started riding often and actually enjoying it. I used to ride only as cross training for speed skating and every time it was a form of torture and humiliation. I have now joined to working world and no longer skate.