I am not a confident cyclist. I have been riding my road bike now for 2 years, and I still feel like everything is a new experience. I read about cycling and listen to podcasts about cycling. I read books about bike maintenance, and practice the techniques on my bike. And above all, I just keep riding. The more I ride, the more in control of my bike I feel. But generally I am riding to and from work, and I am riding alone, so I have no way of knowing what I am really capable of.
Last week I brought my bike to Boulder, planning to ride at lunch. Boulder is home to some great routes for both running and cycling, but I have always been drawn to Mt. Flagstaff as a challenge. Perhaps it is the fact that it seems so mysterious, so close to Boulder, yet so much effort separates you from the top. It was two years ago that I first tackled it on foot, running to the top and back down in a soaking downpour. I was amazed by the number of times the switchbacking road crossed the trail as I went up. “This,” I thought, “must be a blast on a bike!”
View of Boulder from partway up Mt. Flagstaff
I have indicated to a few of the cyclists that I know that I wanted to try to ride Flagstaff, but in the back of my mind there was always the nagging thought, “Are you sure you are going to be able to do it?” I did not want to be holding anyone up on the mountain as they waited for me to drag my frame up the slope. If I was going to ride Flagstaff I knew I would first have to do it alone. It was with that goal in mind that I departed, unprepared and unsure, for my ride last week.
With the effort of the previous day’s ride still in my legs, I was not even half-way up Baseline before I felt out-gunned. Each pedal stroke felt like I was pulling through molasses. But when I hit Flagstaff road and the grade kicked up I stood up and started to find a rhythm. Standing on the pedals, my legs still felt fresh, and I was able to keep moving despite the steepness of the road. I made it to the first lookout point drenched in sweat and unsure if I could keep going. I had forgotten my water bottle at home, and I was starting to get thirsty. I made the decision that I would keep going, and that I could turn around if I didn’t think I could go any further, at least it was all downhill on the way back.
But after the lookout point it seemed that the grade of the road was not quite as extreme. I found I was able to grind away across the slopes and only really had to stand up when I hit the switchbacks. I reached some point of equilibrium where I knew I could continue for a long time at that effort level. Each switchback brought me closer to the top, and I became more confident that I was going to make it. It was slow going, I was in my lowest gear and each pedal stroke seemed to only move me a few feet up the road, but it was forward progress. At one point a car coming down the mountain was making a weird sound that I thought was my tire, so I stopped to check on it. When I found that the tire was fine (at least the back one was) I was cursing myself for having stopped, knowing what a pain it would be to try to get clipped back in on the upward slope. I managed that without too much difficulty though and it was not too far up the road from there that I saw the sign to Flagstaff Summit. From there it was only a quarter mile of road and I knew it was in the bag.
I made it to the top!
I made it to the top, under my own power, and I found some confidence along the way. If you never get in over your head, then you never really know how tall you actually stand! Little did I know the adventure that awaited me on the descent…
[UPDATE] Apparently I did not ride the “full” version of Flagstaff, as Flagstaff Road continues for several miles past the “Flagstaff Summit.” I’ll be back to try it again!