USA Pro Cycling Challenge Stage 1

Words: Jeremy Dunn | Photography: Jake Stangel | Date:

*Stage 1: Salida to Crested Butte*

The right side of my upper lip is cracking. I should reach back under my vest, remove the lip balm that is stashed in one of the jersey pockets and apply it. This would be the right move to prevent further pain in the face region. The balm will probably be in the far right pocket. If I could just think back to this morning when I was loading my pockets. But I can’t. Reach back, that is, just as I can’t recall where I put the damn balm. The wind is so severe it’s having that effect on me. It blows you to the side when you take a hand off the bars and right back into the saddle the rest of the time. It’s funny how one moment the wind can whip its way along the base of a canyon and propel you to speeds you never thought possible. And then, moments later, it wipes clean any notion of assistance by completely stymying any sort of forward motion. Which is what it is doing right now.

With Monarch Pass sliding out of focus gently behind us, it was easy to think the day was a wrap. Sure, it was a long day, but a quick look at the course profile showed the steepest bit was at the beginning, up and over Monarch. Then, a quick and easy 80 miles of relative flat, in through Gunnison, on to Crested Butte and that would be that. However, after a quick stop to regroup after one of the most amazing descents I have ever seen, we pointed our bikes forward and were blasted in the face with the exact opposite of easy – gale force winds.

“Same team, same team,” was James Selman’s battle cry as he exited his hotel room earlier in the day. Much earlier. “I seriously don’t know how people get up this early,” I thought to myself. Nick Legan and Hott Sam had left for the cafe about ten minutes previously and James was coming towards me in his Rapha Club Jersey with the lime green strip across the chest. At that time of the morning it took me a moment to register it was the same jersey I was wearing, thereby causing James’s outbreak of song.

The thought of having James on my side made me feel a little better and slightly less anxious about what lay in front of us. As we headed off into town, snapping and clicking – our bones as much as our pedals – a few thoughts from the previous evening also snapped into my mind. There was the bike shop in downtown Salida with all the old bikes and frames hanging from the ceiling. A vintage Moots, a couple Yetis (complete with fluoro AccuTrax fork) and a Cannondale Colgate road bike that reminded me of a jersey that Pete Rubi could never get rid of. Then there were the two artisan welders putting up their sculptures in the center of town. And the brew pub with the dog that came out at sunset to walk the length of the garden walls some six feet above the heads of visiting diners. They were all moments that caused us to jab each other with our elbows and point in wonder at Colorado. But it also made us ask the same questions over and over: “Where exactly are we?”; and “what’s going on here?”

Right now, back on the bike, the only thing I can think is this: “I wish this wind would just f*** off.” It was something Guy Andrews, editor of Rouleur magazine, once uttered when we were riding the Gent-Wevelgem course in Belgium. We spent that day being pummeled by a Belgian-style ‘breeze’, one that seemed to be following the same course as ourselves but in the opposite direction. It turned when we turned, ducked when we ducked, in fact did everything it could to stay right in our faces. Guy’s line stuck with me and I quoted him in Embrocation, my own magazine (which, admittedly, tends to help things stick in your mind). Now, with 40 or so miles left to Gunnison, it was all I could think about.

It happens every time I’m faced with winds like this. That quote jumps out and puts a smile on my face. Sometimes I even say it out loud, in that sort of faux British accent only the best of us Americans can muster. Today, it wouldn’t matter if I said it out loud because no one would hear me. No one can hear anything over this wind that’s doing its best to decimate this group of friends.

The only other thing I can think about is the hot spot on the bottom of my foot. At one point I try to unclip and shake my foot around a little bit. It doesn’t help. Neither does pulling up my socks. They’re not the problem. The problem is this damned wind. Gradually, as the miles tick by, I realize what’s causing the pain – none of us has stood in an hour. We’re just five riders pedaling towards our doom, all stuck to our saddles, all with the same grimace. And all with the same knowing shake of the head. As we pass each other, we don’t speak but we’re all thinking the same thing: “Carry on.”

When we do eventually stop, the first thing I do is pull off my shoes and rub the spots in my feet. It gives me hope, for a moment, that the hotspots will not return but I know they will. I feel bad for stripping down like this, for pulling off the only armor that I have to face this foe. The moment passes when Greg does the same and the silence is telling. We’re all thinking the same thing: How are we going to do this for the next five days? It’s not a question that warrants an answer; all we can do is hold back from bitching about the wind.

“I sure wouldn’t want to live where you do,” says a woman’s voice when we make our next stop. She is speaking about Oregon and she causes Jake Stangel, our photographer, to raise his eyebrows at me. I laugh out loud. “Oh yeah, and why is that?” We are standing in the middle of a bank of gas pumps and the lady in question is a little rounder and quite a bit older than us. Still, there is enough spark in her to make me think that one wrong word from Jake or myself and we might have a fist-fight on our hands. “Well,” she continues, “I’ll tell you this much. I’m happy right where I am and next year, when the whole West Coast falls into the ocean, I’m still going to be right here.”

This time the raised eyebrows are mine. “Really,” I say, placing the emphasis on the middle of the word. She picks it up and scolds me in her reply. “You mark my words, the West Coast is in for trouble.”

I don’t know where Salida gets some of its residents but I’m guessing it’s not from a Swiss finishing school. From the gruffness of the waiters – Nick Legan put one in his place by reminding him we were there to spend money – to this lady’s tough exterior (she turned out to be quite sweet), this corner of Colorado mixes backwoods provincialism with the sensitivity of a drill sergeant.

We stop for lunch and all stand in line waiting for our hippy, sprout and flax-filled sandwiches. Bleary-eyed, skin red from the wind, lungs ragged from the altitude. There’s a feeling that no one really wants to stop. But then no one really wants to keep going either. A relation of Sam’s will be putting us up for the night and the right-hand turn through Gunnison makes me hopeful that a new direction will mean less wind. It doesn’t. The mind-melting quality of this wind wipes everything from memory and only snippets of it come back, mostly through conversation. It’s a strange way to ride. What is usually a jovial, chat-filled romp through the countryside becomes something akin to a slog through the mud. Whatever, and whomever, we are about to encounter on our travels through this state that feels like another country, Colorado is clearly not holding anything back.

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