By Christi Turner @sustainability.love
Somehow I’m at a point in my life as a cyclist that I often have people ask me things like, “how do you ride for so long?” or “how did you make it all the way up there?” The short answer, of course, is training and habit – and let’s not forget finding the right riding kit (chamois, ahem) and keeping a well-tuned bike. And the glue: lots and lots of support from friends and family.
But sometimes I’ll instead answer, “a mile is not a mile.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that. Our typical hill training ride up and down Lookout Mountain, for example, is only about 14 miles – but we tuck in nearly 1,700 feet of climbing. Whereas our other go-to, from downtown Denver out to Littleton on the South Platte River Trail, is around 22 miles with hardly 400 feet of vertical (but oh, that steady headwind). If we tack on the jaunt to Chatfield, that makes for about 34 miles round-trip and around 700 feet of climbing. See what I mean?
And then there are factors like wind chill, a soaking rain, icy roads, the numbing of fingers and toes and limbs. Any number of variables can turn a mile into a MILE. My riding partner helps me see the value in every mile, no matter how tortuous: “that’s another experience to put in your bucket, Turner,” he’ll say. That helps me appreciate (most of the time) whatever fresh hell we’re willingly putting ourselves through.
And it definitely helps get through those Big Rides. One of the “biggest” I’ve ever done, in fact, actually turned out to be not-as-big-as-feared, in part thanks to all those various types of miles in the bucket. This Big Ride was Haleakala, one of the most revered climbs in the U.S., on the island of Maui. Haleakala – the name of the mountain and the sleeping volcano in its belly – is a 36-mile steady climb from sea level to 10,351 feet. That’s right: a 10k elevation gain in 36 miles. There’s virtually no place to stop pedaling. There’s a persistent threat of thunderstorms. There’s a temperature range, from bottom to top and back down again, that makes planning the right kit to fit in your back pockets quite tricky. There’s a dense fog around 6,000 feet that doesn’t clear until you literally climb above it around 9000 feet. And there’s a long, long time to keep your mind steady and just keep turning the pedals over.
But even with all that climbing, a mile is not a mile. The average grade on Haleakala is only about 7 percent, which feels almost like a flat if you’ve recently ridden a bunch of 14-plus pitches. And as pure luck would have it, the air was warm and still and the sun was shining for the majority of our ride on the particular day we selected for it (but for the famous foggy section); one day earlier or later and we would have been swimming in storm clouds. We were by and large alone – quite literally the only two cyclists to attempt the climb that day, unless others had started after us and turned back before us (there’s only one way up). Even vehicle traffic was sparse. We had little to worry ourselves with but the stunning views and the passage of time.
Yes, it took a good bit of stamina, I’ll admit. Certainly my mental strength was tested, and mildly on the fritz by the end. But somehow, we topped out. I let myself feel pride when a few aghast car-tourists exclaimed to us, “you came all the way up here on BIKES?” Yes, ma’am.
A big, beautiful ride it was; but somehow totally doable – nothing like the West Maui Loop that was supposed to be a “recovery ride,” and instead almost knocked me sideways, with its steep hills, sharp turns, high winds and thick humidity. A mile is not a mile.
And when it came time for the next Big Ride, I could look back at Haleakala as an experience to build on – another one in the bucket.