“Extreme” is an overused word in mountain sports; usually it means doing something really stupid for sponsorship money if you survive — or it is yet again another dummy in a body bag — if you don’t. The word has been abused. “Extreme” has a different meaning in Boulder; it means someone will always be around to take you to the end of your endurance, or abilities, or both, and then push you for more.
“So, if we are going to park near the Greenbriar Inn, why don’t we just go get a beer?”
“Get your bike out of the truck,” she says.
“Hey, one or two beers couldn’t hurt.”
Betsy looks at me exasperated, as only an old friend can look exasperated because she may have had this conversation with me twenty times before.
“First,” she says, “it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Second, we are climbing to Ward today. Third, beer and climbing will make you toss your breakfast.”
“Oh,” I say, “and you forgot to add, ‘You wuss.’”
“You wuss,” she says and goes about getting ready for the ride.
The ride to Ward is one of those Boulder benchmarks like doing a sub-50 Bolder Boulder, or putting-up all 54 14ers, or driving a car that cost more than your education.
It’s 17 miles of moderate uphill from the Greenbriar to the Utica Street Store in Ward with an altitude gain of about 4,000 feet and this memorable mile-and-quarter climb at the end that will make you spit up pieces of lung.
The road to Jamestown is classically foothills beautiful with the Left Hand Creek cascading along the side the road. The bike lane gets a little thin in spots, but most of the folks, including the militias who shoot-up one of the side canyons and off-road-vehicle (ORV) folks who tear-up the backcountry, usually give us a wide berth.
In front of me, a wanker with a trailered ORV comes as close as he can to the bike lane and honks. I see the riders jump. But he’ll park his rig somewhere up the road, unload his ORV, and tear up a side canyon. Someone will take the time to stop and pee on his door handles.
After six-and-a-half miles, we turn left toward Ward. I’m hot, pulse is 130, cadence is 70, and I’m cranking the higher end of my climbing gears. I’m saving that big humping gear in the cassette for the climb into Ward.
Betsy is watching. I’ve never done Ward before. It is the thought of climbing to Ward that is actually harder than the climb. But then we are only half into this thing and I’m feeling good, as if breathing from almost every orifice of my body is an okay thing to do.
After a settlement called Rowena, the climbing moderates somewhat and I make adjustments with my cadence and gears. But I can feel the altitude gain in the limited amount of oxygen I’m able to suck in and with the dryness in my mouth, throat and chest.
We stop for water and energy bars. While the ride has been moderate, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to get off the bike for a moment and just stand still munching something gooey and drinking water. For a moment, there is no neutering saddle, no burning thighs, and my breathing is almost normal. We have five miles yet to climb to Ward.
The route is still moderate as we pass Lick Skillet Road and then after a while I can see the fateful right turn uphill for the approach to Ward.
Betsy drops back alongside me,
“You can do this,” she says.
“We could also turn around right now and be drinking beer at the Greenbriar in an hour.”
“Just remember —
… pace yourself,
… keep your cadence up,
… try to stay out of debt,
… go slow,
… don’t watch anyone else,
… do your own ride.
… and I almost forgot — you wuss.”
We begin the climb. Right from the start, the road slithers right and left and gets steep and stays steep. Now, I really do feel like I’m breathing from every orifice of my body. The road is now crawling straight with a turn ahead to the left.
“Slow down! Slow down!” Betsy yells at me and then drops in front of me and slows.
It’s true, the pitch has spooked me and I’ve started hammering the pedals to make the bike go faster and maybe end the pain sooner. I slow down and my pulse drops to something almost manageable. But there remained a sort of an inexplicable stink in the air in my lungs.
Huge amounts of air with little oxygen are sucked into my lungs and expelled immediately for another huge huffing suck of air. I try to slow my breathing and my speed without wobbling into traffic or the weeds.
I’m in the biggest gear on the cassette and I’m slowly spinning my way up the road. My breath is still coming in huge draughts of thin air. My chest hurts, my back is suggesting collapse and my thighs are burning.
I see the town pump on the right, and I know the store is not all that much farther.
“You’re almost there! Keep going. Keep going,” Betsy yells and pulls me up the road.
And then it is over. I have two wobbly legs holding me up. I’m stretched along the top tube with my arms dangling off the handlebars and my head down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe normally again.
There are some pats on the back from an old friend. I’m smiling.
“Now there’s something — like the last pitch on Wetterhorn — that I don’t ever have to do again,” I say.
“How about we climb a little more and then go to Raymond?” Betsy suggests. “It’s only 10 or 12 more miles, mostly downhill.”
“How about no?”