by Hayden Mellsop
It is 4:30 a.m., July 4. Like moths to a flame, mountain bikers converge in the predawn darkness in a home on a quiet backstreet of downtown Salida. Ahead lies a journey that will take them from Salida to the top of Monarch Pass, south across the Continental Divide to Silver Creek, then traversing the Rainbow Trail to Bear Creek before closing the loop back to Salida. In its 23rd year, this mainly locals ride is an 80-mile odyssey involving over 10,000 feet of cumulative vertical gain along some of the most renowned single track in the U.S.
I’m nervous. This is my third attempt at the ride. The previous two I’ve pulled out early, succumbing to a combination of cramp, general fatigue and inclement weather. This time, I’m determined to complete the whole enchilada. I’m 55, and the clock is ticking. It’s not likely to get any easier.
A voice calls out. “Time to ride!” Around 50 riders mount up among a scattering of cheers and wheel stands, and ride west through town toward the blackness of the mountains. I concentrate hard on the wheel of the bike in front of me, and trust those behind are doing the same. While finishing the ride is my number one goal, a close second is not being “that guy,” the one who, through inattention, brings down the pack. I seem drawn along by those in front, pushed along by those behind. Voices come out of the darkness; some I recognize, but I dare not look around to make conversation.
We come to the first noticeable climb, up past the airport, and I am breathing hard by the time I crest the top. Three miles down, 77 to go. A short downhill, out onto the highway, then bikes and riders arc left in graceful unison, like a flight of birds turning to an unseen breeze, onto the first of the backroads and old railroad grades that will take us to the top of the pass. The faster riders are already disappearing from sight, a few stragglers are behind, and rather than try to catch up, I recall the words of my riding companion on my first attempt: “Ride your own ride, dude, not anyone else’s.”
I settle into my groove. The steady climb of the railroad grade combines with the rhythm of lungs and legs to bring about that separation of mind and body that comes with honest, repetitive exercise. I begin to realize that the real gears aren’t located on the bike, but inside the mind. Three hours pass by in a flash, and I realize I am on top of the pass, thirty miles already under my belt while most people are still in bed.
The trail south across the Divide is familiar, an exhilarating combination of fast downhill, spectacular views and gut-busting climbs. As is normal for this time of the year, there are snow drifts to be hiked over and around, but the sky is blue and the wildflowers are out in force, and it is great to be alive. Down Silver Creek, and the fun really starts, seven miles of single-track downhill through pine forest, aspen glades and gorgeous meadows studded with columbines and daisies, not to mention gurgling brooks and beaver ponds.
We break for lunch where the Rainbow Trail crosses Hwy. 285, and my riding buddies and I take stock. We’re over halfway, but the hardest part of the ride lies just ahead – a steep, four-mile “hike-a-bike” stretch of trail, rutted and largely unrideable. Thunder rumbles in the distance. We look at each other. I reiterate, “Can’t say I’ll be feeling any better next year than now.” They nod in agreement. We fill our water bottles and start pushing uphill. The next hour and a half goes by in a blur of sweat, aching legs and rasping lungs, until at last we crest the final ridge and begin the descent into Sand Gulch, and recognizable territory.
By now it is late afternoon, twenty miles still to go, but the trail is familiar, and I can sense the finish line. It is near six in the evening when we cross the Stockyard Bridge and ride alongside the river toward town. The smell of barbecues and the sound of music in the park permeates the air as we stop one last time on the F Street Bridge and shake hands, the loop closed, the ride conquered at last.
Back home, I shower, then lie spread-eagled on the floor, too stiff and sore to go to the park next door to mingle with my neighbors. Will I go again next year? If you’d asked me right then, I’d have laughed. Now, memory of the pain, like that of childbirth I am told, is receding, and I might just be drawn to the flame once more.
Hayden Mellsop lives in Salida, Colorado. He believes a life well lived is measured not by the hours spent indoors engaged in petty toil, but by those spent outdoors, in places that matter and pursuits that don’t.