I like climbing mountains on my bike. I’m not sure why. I’m not particularly good at it; there are plenty of riders stronger than me when it comes to pointing their bikes upward, and the extra ten pounds or so I seem to carry most of the year (gained during the Christmas holidays, and then finally “lost” by the next fall, only to be gained again) doesn’t help matters.
Still, I climb and climb. The one thing I do have going for me, is that I’m persistent. I almost always make it to the top. There aren’t many things that will stop me from doing so.
Another climbing adventure came my way in the first part of May, on the 1st Annual Mingus Mountain Madness Century, put on by Absolute Bikes of Sedona. This ride went from Sedona to Jerome and up and over Mingus Mountain, to Prescott Valley, and then the same route in reverse, which of course, meant up and over Mingus Mountain from the other side. A claimed 108 miles in length, and billed as “12,000 ft of climbing” (which I figured was a bit exaggerated), this ride was the perfect venue to test my climbing legs.
Sedona, AZ, May 3, 2009
The ride started at the Verde Valley School, just south of Sedona in the town of Oak Creek, at 7 am on a Sunday morning. I knew from past experience that on a long climbing day such as this I’d probably average 12-13 mph. This meant for 8 hours or so of riding, plus one or two hours of stopping here and there at rest stops. So, I was looking at a nine to ten hour day, and knew that I probably would just miss the free spaghetti dinner scheduled to end at 4 pm. That didn’t matter. I had made it a goal this year to do at least one century a month. That way, I could keep my long-distance “chops” up, and be able to go long whenever the occasion arose.
I rode part of the way with Tom, the only other soul from the group of riders I know who was willing to take up the challenge. Except his idea was to do the shorter 80 mile version, which went to the top of Mingus and then back to Sedona – a worthy goal on its own. There were some other riders from the Phoenix Metro Bicycle Club that also attended this event: Jules, Randy, and others whose faces I recognize but who’s names I forget. (Sorry, I’m terrible with names.)
Tom, Jules and I left together, but I gradually pulled ahead, cruising south out of Sedona and then southwest on the Beaver Flats road towards Cornville. I noticed that we seemed to be descending a lot, with 2-4% grades — grades we’d have to climb on the way back with tired legs. I hooked up with a paceline, one guy and two gals, with us guys doing all of the pulling. I stayed with them until the first serious rise, where I was dropped like a rock. I could have pushed it and stayed with them, but I knew not to. Far better to just ride my own pace, and if that meant going solo, so be it. I cruised into the first rest stop, with Tom and Jules and others not far behind. I had wondered how far back they were. Turns out, not far at all.
The road to Cottonwood consisted of a slight drop towards the bottom of the Verde Valley, in a series of rollers. Some of the other PMBC riders turned into the rest stop in Cottonwood, but Tom was riding up ahead and apparently didn’t see the turn off. I continued on, just behind him. We had plenty of food and water to make it into Jerome. As we left the valley, the grade picked up. I passed Tom, and soon we turned southwest up the long 8 mile climb to Jerome, at a steady 6% grade. I could hear Tom’s breathing intensify behind me. I shifted down into my bike’s triple granny gear and spun at a nice cadence.
“You can make it, you’re doing good!”
Tom hung on right behind me until the first switchback just outside Jerome, where the grade suddenly picks up, first to 8% and then 10%, and then through the streets of Jerome, at a nice “pleasant” 12% grade. I knew about those 12% grades, having talked to some riders who had passed this way the week before, on the Answer to the Challenge. So I was expecting it. Tom was not, and soon I heard him yell behind me, resignedly, “See you at the rest stop.”
On the second switchback, as the grade picked up, a young gal in a pink jersey and sporting braided pig tails came lumbering by. She was riding hard, jubilantly climbing out of the saddle, repeatedly yelling, “Come on, you can make it, you’re doing good!” I kept my steady, determined cadence, spinning with dear ol’ granny, seated the whole time, not using any more energy than needed.
At first I thought Miss Enthusiast was talking to me with her notes of encouragement, but I soon realized she was talking to herself, willing herself up the climb. The way she was climbing though, I don’t think she understood the steep grade was more than just a temporary inconvenience. We had another mile of this, and she was riding too fast to last. Sure enough, I rounded a corner, and stopped along the side of the road was Miss Enthusiast, gasping for breath. She saw me pass, and latched on behind, soon calling out again, “Come on, you can make it, you’re doing good!” I spared a few breaths for a laugh. Her amusing antics took the weight off the climb.
I made the Jerome rest stop (at the 32 mile mark) and partook of the ubiquitous banana and cookies. Tom strolled in about 10 minutes later, with that survival-mode, dazed look in his eyes.
“That climb was a bitch,” was all he said.
I left a few minutes later, telling Tom I’d probably see him back at the finish, unless he chose to dally at the rest stops. The plan was that we were both going to the top of Mingus Mountain, but since I was going to continue all the way to Prescott Valley and back, I left before Tom. I needed all the extra time I could get. I found out later there was some confusion. Tom thought we were at the top already, not realizing there was another 8 miles of climbing. Jerome was only half way up the mountain. So his 80 mile day became a 64 mile day. He didn’t know this until later, because his computer had stopped working somewhere along the way.
To the summit, and beyond
Compared to the steep pitches thru streets of Jerome, the road out of town settles back into a more reasonable 6% grade, with an occasional foray into 8%, maybe a spot of 10% on certain corners. Four miles up the climb I was passed by a couple that seemed familiar, but couldn’t place where I’d seen them before. Later, a few riders passed me coming back down the mountain. They had apparently made it to the summit and were on their way back to Sedona. I reached the summit at the 40 mile mark, surprisingly not far behind the curiously familiar couple that had passed me earlier. My GPS said the summit was 7,000 ft, and I’d done 5,000 ft of climbing. I wasn’t sure of the elevation of Prescott Valley, but I was sure it wasn’t as low as Sedona or Cottonwood, so I knew then, as I suspected earlier, that there wasn’t any way this ride was going to be “12,000 ft of climbing.” With 5,000 ft completed, and with Prescott Valley not being as far down as Sedona, I figured there was less than 10,000 ft of climbing for the day.
I asked the couple at the summit if they were continuing on to Prescott Valley.
“No way!” they said. “We did a century ride yesterday, and our legs are tired today.”
See? And you think I’m crazy!
Surveying the handful of riders at the top, I surmised that none were continuing on. I had thoughts of turning around too. If I kept going, I’d be consigning myself to riding alone the rest of the day.
Oh well, my goals for the year were to ride a century each month, and this was supposed to be my century ride for May. With that in mind, I started down the other side.
After a few miles, I realized where I had seen the aforementioned couple before. The century ride they had done the day before was probably the ABC Desert Classic back in Phoenix, and I had ridden with them for 50 miles of that ride, a few years back. It’s a small cycling world.
The road was steep and curvy for a few miles, and then straightened out and tapered off to a 3-4% grade, the terrain opening into a wide prairie. That’s when the wind made its presence felt, alternating from being a cross wind to a head wind, making for a squirrely descent, and robbing me of any speed over 25-27 mph. Five miles from the turn-around point, I encountered a dozen riders heading the other way. Those would the first of the hardy souls doing the whole distance, and I wondered, were there any riders behind me? Or was I now last on the ride? Maybe I should just turn around now. Nah, might as well continue.
I reached the turn-around rest stop in Prescott Valley at the 52.5 mile mark. (The 0.5 portion of the 52.5 would prove to be important later on.) There was no one there except two high-school girls running the rest stop, and me. I refilled my water bottles and sat down on the curb to have another piece of banana, and a cookie or two.
I gotta say, the food at the rest stops was unimaginative: Gatorade, bananas, and cookies, and an occasional raisin or two. No way could someone survive on that for 100 miles, especially on a hard ride as this was going to be. Something more substantial would have been nice at this point. A PB&J sandwich, for instance. But no matter. I had an adequate stash of Hammer’s Perpetuem powder in my jersey pockets. This magical powder is formulated for long distance endurance events, and I know from experience that you can survive on it all day long with nothing else to eat, if you have to.
I climbed back on my bike just before noon, fighting an east cross/head wind as I made my way back towards Mingus Mountain. About three miles up the road I encountered a rider coming the other way. That meant there was a least one fool besides me. A mile further, I saw a group of four riders coming the other way, and then another lone rider. So now that meant six other riders were behind me. At least I wouldn’t be the lanterne rouge of the day. Counting the dozen or so riders I had seen earlier, plus this newer six I’d seen, and including myself, that meant only 20 riders were doing the whole enchilada, out of the 120 or so who signed up for the ride.
I was soon all by myself again, wondering why I bothered to do rides like this. It seems I’m always caught in the middle on the local century rides: too slow for the fast guys, but just strong and crazy enough to go the whole distance, when my other peers would not. The local rides usually don’t have enough riders. I know from other out-of-state rides, when there are 500, or 2,500, or 3,500 riders, that there’s always someone going your speed and your distance.
Day dreams of these other momentous rides distracted me from the gradual increase in grade, as I made my way northeast.
Antelopes give chase
A herd of antelope came sauntering over from the pasture on the west, causing me to come back to reality and for my cadence to pick up, as the herd ran with me along the fence by the side of the road. I grew up in Nebraska not far from Wyoming, and often saw herds of antelope on the high, wind-swept prairies. Seeing these antelope brought back memories of my childhood days, memories of chasing antelopes with a quarter-horse on a ranch in northeastern Colorado. Those antelope were way faster than any horse, and of course, way faster than my measly 14-15 mph pace now.
The south side of Mingus starts out at an easy 1% grade, and then gradually picks up to 2%, then 3%, and about 5 miles from the top, back to full-on 6% climbing. My rule of thumb when climbing is that 6% grade means 6 mph. Sure I can go faster than this for short distances, but for any length, my speed usually falls back to 6 mph. I accepted my fate, and kept on spinning, granny gear and all.
I figured I’d reach the top at the 64 mile mark, because I had gone 52 miles to the halfway point, and that meant 104 miles total for the day, and I knew the summit was 40 miles from Sedona, so 104 – 40 = 64. As least, that’s what my befuddled mind calculated. I had forgotten about that extra 0.5 of 52.5. As I neared what I thought was 2 miles to go, the grade picked up to 12%.
12% grade? Why, that’s just what my legs need after a metric century! Hah! My quads balked at the steepness, and I felt a touch of asthma coming on. Cramping quads I could handle, asthma was another matter. My breathing became more restricted, and I gave in, coasting to a stop, and yes, I admit it, I walked my bike for 50-100 yards. I recovered by the next corner and climbed back on the bike, resigning myself to spinning in granny gear at a whopping 4.5 to 5 mph.
And the road goes on forever
I counted off each 1/2 mile. Soon, only a 1/2 mile to go. I just knew the summit was “right around the corner.” I glanced up and saw steep switchbacks above me — a lot further away than 1/2 mile could be.
No way! That can’t be where I’m going! A few motorcycles rounded the bend up above me — ones that had passed by only moments before. Soon I saw a sign that confirmed my worst fears: “One mile to the summit.” I looked at my computer. It read 64 miles. But…but…that means it’s really going to be 65 miles to the top! Ah yes, 52.5 miles means 105 for the day, which means 105-40 = 65 to the summit. My newly corrected calculations sunk in.
At this point, any squirrels, coyotes, bears, or mountain lions lurking nearby were scared off, for I quite loudly yelled a few choice words to the cycling gods.
“You’ve got to be frikking kidding me! Another mile of this?”
I glanced down at my GPS. The grade had moderated back to a 6-7% grade, so I guess things could have been worse.
I crawled into the rest stop at the summit, 65 miles covered with 7,000 ft of climbing – only to see the ride organizers packing the last of the rest stop goodies into their pickup, ready to close up shop. I had enough fuel and water to make it to Jerome and maybe even Cottonwood, but still, this was disconcerting. There was one other lone rider at the top. She was waiting for friends who were still on their way up – the same half dozen riders I had seen earlier. The rider on top wisely decided not to descend down to the valley with her friends, and instead, opted to wait on top. Would I have been this wise.
As I sat on the curb, eating a few cookies the organizers had left behind, a lone rider came in.
“I didn’t think that hill was ever going to end!” she exclaimed.
Turns out she was the last of the riders I had seen earlier, and she had turned around right after seeing me, climbing just behind me. As the two riders waited for their companions, a few of which were way, way behind, I decided to ride on by myself, even though it would have been nice to have company back to Sedona. But I figured they would turn out to be faster than me on the descents, (I don’t like riding fast downhill all that much — I’d rather live to ride another day). If perchance they caught up with me, well so much the better. I’d have company at least for a while.
I clipped into the pedals and cranked out of the parking lot. It was 2 pm.
Cross winds and cross drivers
The descent back to Jerome wasn’t pleasant. The road was rough. I was constantly dodging potential pot holes. The traffic was picking up with many noisy motorcycles, and my hands were numb from constantly pulsing the brakes down the hill and around the sharp corners. I opted not to turn in to the Jerome rest stop, figuring they probably had closed up shop anyway. I cruised further down towards Cottonwood. The crosswinds increased in intensity, making for a squirrely descent. Keeping the bike upright was almost as tiring as climb uphill.
I was passed by a lot of rude motorists, one of which yelled at me to “get off the road.” He followed that action with a single finger salute.
Thing is, I was going the speed limit. Was he?
I made it to the bottom and turned southeast full-on into the wind. The newly constructed road in Cottonwood has roundabouts at every intersection. One of those roundabouts I was supposed to take and veer off to the left. Which one? Although the course on the way out was fairly well marked, that wasn’t the case on the way back. I made a guess and turned up Mingus Ave, and then decided I probably ought to stop and check the route sheet. Mingus Ave was correct-a-mundo.
Cruising down Mingus Ave, I looked for the Cottonwood rest stop, but never did find it. I eventually stopped at a Circle K and refilled my water bottles, and bought a small package of beef jerky. Jerky seems to make a good ride food. It gives your mouth something to chew on, and the extra salt doesn’t hurt matters.
I wonder about the seven riders that were behind me. Did they pass by while I was in the store? There was no way to know.
Cornville, mecca of northern Arizona?
I didn’t like the road from Cottonwood to Cornville: a series of rollers, ultimately gaining in elevation. There were no shoulders, and the wind varied from head to cross. There was way too much high speed traffic.
Where was all this traffic going? To Cornville?
I was passed a couple of times by a guy in a Nissan SUV with a bike rack on the back. At one point, he stopped ahead of me, and I concluded he must be one of the sag people. As I cruised by he yelled out and asked if I was okay. I said yes sir, thank you very much, and continued on. I rolled into the last rest stop at the Page Springs turnoff. The guy running the rest stop had just packed up the last of the supplies and was ready to leave. He asked if I needed anything. I told him I was okay. I had enough to make it to Sedona. I asked if the other riders had come by. He said that as far as he knew, they were still quite a ways back.
As I left the rest stop, more and more rollers came my way. With each I was a little bit slower. My legs weren’t enthused about any hint of 6% grade. The wind shifted to the south/southwest, and as I turned north-easterly onto Beaver Flats road, about 10 miles from the finish, that meant a tailwind, albeit coupled with a steady 2% grade. I lumbered along at an embarrassingly slow 13 mph.
Finish is in sight – or at least, my version of it
At 4:20 pm I made Hwy 179, just outside of Sedona. I climbed a smallish hill along the highway – which tired legs amplified into a big mountain. After that, I had no desire to ride the extra four or five miles of rollers back to the finish. I had already missed the last of the spaghetti being served anyway. Okay then. I’d just get to the 100 mile mark, about five miles from the finish, and call Tom, hoping he had is cell phone on. He did, and after asking to be picked up, we rendezvoused about 3 miles from the finish. He seemed very concerned about me, looking into my eyes and watching me climb off the bike, and refusing to let me mount the bike on the hitch by myself.
I wasn’t feeling all that bad, nothing that a sandwich and a large glass of ice tea wouldn’t cure (which we had, and which they did.)
I hadn’t made it clear to Tom earlier in the day that I probably wouldn’t get back till around 4 pm. Turns out he had been panicking the last hour or so, wondering if I had crashed or collapsed in exhaustion or had gotten lost. He had been calling me, and my wife, and anyone else he could think of. The ride organizers had no idea if I was still on the route. And they seemed to know nothing about the seven other riders. Seems to me they should have been keeping better tabs. But my own situation was partly my fault. I had inadvertently left my cell phone off until I called Tom to pick me up.
Over the course of the day, I had covered 101.4 miles, and had done roughly 8,500 ft of climbing, at a whopping 12.8 mph. My guesstimate on speed and arrival time was on the money. It was a beast of a day, but I was expecting that.
Before this ride, I was contemplating doing GABA Tucson’s 56 mile Mt Lemmon ride the following weekend. (Mt Lemmon is one of the top ten climbs in the country.) I must admit that on the way up the backside of Mingus Mountain, I was wondering about the sanity of doing any more long climbs this spring.
But then again, I loving climbing mountains on my bike. I’m not sure why.