by intrepid reporter Roberto Schott-in-the-Head
It is only now, a few days after returning home, that the heavy fog of exhaustion has begun to lift and I gathered enough strength of hand and acuity of thought to pen a few lines about the recently completed campaign: the (First Annual?) Tour of Anaerobia, May/June 2000. I think I was not alone in being laid to waste after 8 consecutive days of riding and over 600 miles in which relentless efforts were made to beat the substance out of one another, generally to great effect.
Northern New Mexico has now been annexed as a province in the Republic of Anaerobia. Rarely in our week long visit did we find ourselves below 7,000 feet, and not infrequently we were above 10,000 feet where the air is as rare as the food drops from relief organizations. It is dry, hot and windy- essential fuel for the consumptive inferno which this summer laid claim to huge parts of New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Frequently the horizon was filled with pyrocumulus mushrooming tens of thousands of feet toward the stratosphere- here and there on different days like it was a summer nuclear test festival; the fires created their own weather and undoubtedly adding to the oppressor headwind which sought to blow us all the way to Mexico.
Ten of us convened in Albuquerque on May 27, 2000 in various states of fitness, but fresh and eagerly naive to the demands of the journey. Pete Heller organized this year’s tour and put together a roster of cycling devotees that included climbers (De Nardi, Burkhardt and Stahl), roleurs (Pepper, Heller, Starksen and Herms), descenders (Pepper and the Amazingly Aero Gordon Good), closet aggressors (the ferret-like Coggins), and Comrade Pepper starring in the role of agent provocateur, stirring the pot at every opportunity. Everyone got along supremely throughout (too exhausted most days to disagree) and the day’s competitions were put to rest each evening as we descended en mass- a plague of hunger, on some unfortunate eating establishment.
The Sprint from Albuquerque
The first leg of our journey took us from Albuquerque, nearly at the center of the state, to Los Alamos, 100 miles to the north and 2,000′ higher in elevation. Albuquerque lies in the high desert on the intermountain plateau- arid tumbleweed domain punctuated with squat adobe dwellings bleaching pale in the sun. There is little rainfall and the area is sustained from the runoff flowing down the Rio Grande. Quite unexpectedly, at least to me (at the outset I was quite ignorant of the geologic particulars of New Mexico), it grew more lush with alpine and then deciduous forests on the transition from the intermountain plateau as we ascended the western edge of the Rio Grande rift toward Los Alamos into the Jemez Mountains- a volcanic field north and west of Albuquerque crowned by the vast Valles caldera. Of course climate and geology were but a distraction on the day of our ascent as the pack, anxious to test fresh legs churned and disintegrated into packlets through Jemez. Unity became disunity under the selective pressure of gravity. We all took pause rolling through the Valles caldera somewhere above 8,000′- a massive volcano before the top blew a few hundreds of thousands of years ago, giving lie now to an immense swath of green pastureland, dotted with herds of grazing animals- a jagged-rimmed green chalice so vast it was hard to gauge it, although I felt dwarfed by the landscape.
Valle Grande (literally, “Big Valley”)
Riding the rim as we did allowed us full appreciation of the expanse. I pedaled along with Michael awestruck and not immediately sure why. There were no particular formations that caught one’s eye, no one single feature to point out; nonetheless motorists stopped- snapping pictures surely to disappoint, simply because the most striking feature of the landscape was its immensity, and it was impossible to get your arms around it. You simply occupied it briefly and felt trivial and transient and powerless- brought right to your existential knees, knuckled under by a reminder of the grand scale of nature and time and the rather inconsequential sliver that even the most self-absorbed of us occupy.
We descended on the far side into Los Alamos through the Bandelier National Forest which had large swaths of trees recently charred by the Los Alamos fires. Heavy with exhaustion after 90 miles of riding, we encamped at a Days Inn and were fed that night at the Heller homestead in Los Alamos, where astonishingly his mother managed to provide such a substantial spread that there were more calories than the hungry hoard could consume. The conversation was animated. At days end we had just enough energy for food and conversation- nothing more strenuous could be sustained, although Dave was able to entertain us on the piano and Dr. Heller gave us a few stories from the fascinating history of Los Alamos, the birthing center for the nuclear age.
Highway to Hell
After consuming the all important breakfast calories, it was time to exit “The Hill” as Los Alamos is known. We rode past the original guard house during the time Los Alamos was a secret city and then took the screaming descent down towards Santa Fe. Whenever it was possible to look the stunningly colorful pink and white mesas to our left made for permanently etched photo memories. After peeling off the main road we veered eastwards. It was hot on the long descent back onto the intermountain plateau followed by more climbs on the ride to Los Ojos, population of about a handful. We remained above 7000′ and the altitude demanded respect. Shortly before our lunch stop, Rich, Kurt and I vigorously contested a minor sprint “prime”- as I recall a sign for some immediately forgotten, dust-filled arroyo under a bridge. It was a short sprint but we were completely gassed rolling across the bridge. Pepper and De Nardi smelled vulnerability (how well I can remember the sideways grins as they pulled the peloton by us at 28 MPH). Knowing full well how slow recovery comes after sprinting at altitude, they attacked with gleeful abandon. Kurt, with his gifts for sustained aerobic efforts managed to catch on, whereas the ailing Pete was ejected from the fleeing pack in the ensuing pandemonium and joined a recovering Rich and I for the chase back (although later our beloved organizer blew after taking a pull). Rich and I went hard for a long way before he ultimately flatted- the pack was in our sights but we couldn’t bring them back (although we came tantalizingly close early on when they fell into internal disorganization sprinting for yet another crucial river crossing). It was a failed but sincere effort, which unfortunately came back to haunt me after lunch. A respite came in the form of Rich’s 6th or 7th flat of the trip and with Pete having rejoined us, we cruised the few remaining miles into town at a conversational and altogether pleasant pace. We lunched at a small roadside market while the day heated up- sandwiches, peanuts and plenty to eat and drink. Dave was coming off the morning drive duties and was now fresh on his bike- we staggered our departure with Niel, Dwain, and Pete up the road trying to gain purchase on the inevitable afternoon stampede. It was hot and lunch was only moments behind us when we began climbing aggressively, led by Dave as he worked to bring the early departees back. It was a common scenario for this group- nobody wanted to work so hard so soon, save perhaps Stahl (restless from driving duties), but having prey up the road fired the primordial imaginations of the predators. The prey would look back, filled (no doubt) with an urgency to find the crest of the hill and flee on the descent, while the predators were driven by their own simple agenda: get to the kill. (Rich flatted for the umpteenth time and Michael fell back to assist, allowing them temporary reprieve from the afternoon drama.) Pepper, Good and I hung gamely on Stahl’s wheel relying on instinct rather than common sense on the decision to continue the chase, at least in my case. First Gordon fell away, then me and then Pepper as Heller and Starksen were overtaken. Coggins latched on as Dave came by, but later fell off as Dave set a hard pace for the afternoon- in a pattern that was to be seen intermittently through the journey, when legs fresh from the morning sag duties provided afternoon punishment for the rest of us. Starksen (mostly towing me along) and I eventually caught Pepper and Coggins along a baked section of highway on the high plateau. I ignored the warning lights flashing in my overcooked brain that perhaps my systems were failing as I doggedly pulled through, but then quickly allowed Niel back to the front in the seemingly interminable effort to chase down Pepper and Coggins, themselves no longer apparently interested in the determined self-flagellation it would require to catch Stahl. Thus the predators grew rather listless in mid afternoon, a time evolutionarily for the lions to lounge under the banyon tree. The temperature continued with its own persistent climb into the upper 90’s, and the sun which seemed to hover but a few miles above us beat down with a relentless and searing bath of light and heat. My nausea, a mere distraction after lunch, was now accompanied by a declining ability to power the bike. I was rapidly overheating, no longer sweating much but not particularly thirsty and growing progressively disinterested. Not knowing what else to do, I blindly grasped whatever wheel I could for as long as possible, eventually drifting away from Pepper and Coggins, themselves listless but steady. Starksen (his medical expertise put to use here) sensed that I was going down for the count and hung back with me as I continued my slow collapse- I was unable to keep the bike on a straight line, even succumbing to misery on the descents which seemed unmanageable. (Heller saw me from some miles back teetering along and correctly made the diagnosis, having been through this with me twice previously over the years.) The van was up the road and there was little relief from the sun but we did eventually find a tree and I collapsed next to it, although I was in the dirt next to (but not quite in) the shade. Starksen pulled me into the shade and removed my sticky jersey, providing me with a lukewarm bath of water from his bottle in an effort to cool me off. I was in a low-grade delirium- no thirst (although I was dry as a bone) and a core temp that was undoubtedly soaring. I remember lying in the shade and mumbling to Niel that this wasn’t much better than being on the bike. There didn’t seem to be any recovery forthcoming. Fortunately, Kurt was diligent on afternoon sag duty and soon appeared in the van. I was iced, hydrated and dragged into the vehicle, and reminiscent of the Mt. Hamilton epic of August of ’99, promptly recovered, at least enough to allay concern that I was not progressing to a heat stroke. The recovery from heat exhaustion is much faster than from a bonk, and Niel, now convinced of my survival, forged along on the blistering macadam to complete the ride. I remained in the van, content to help with sag duties. The fluid consumption that day was astronomical and Kurt kept up with us, setting a new and insuperable standard for the sag on what was the hottest day of the journey.
Eventually Heller, then an overheating Pepper cashed in their chips and sought refuge in the van. Pepper sat in the front seat, feet protruding from the window, managing the tunes and coaxing on the A/C. He seemed particularly happy from my vantage point in the back seat: hot wind rushing in from the window swirling with the cool air spewing from the vents. We sprawled nearly motionless in our seats, troubled only by the need to hoist an icy drink to our lips and marvel (not without some guilt) at the persistence of our colleagues still at war with the road. At the top of one of the last climbs we pulled over and rousted ourselves from our reverie to offer support to our depleted squadra, appearing listlessly one by one up the climb, quite desiccated and glazed over. They stopped at the van for one last refill of the bottles, asking to a man, “how far?” and then “give me something to drink” before emitting some gaseous discharge and slumping on the top tube for a brief respite. Everyone had a case of hot feet. Gordon dismounted and climbed halfway into the van, face down on the passenger seat (not a great place for a face plant for the thinking man), mumbling, “I’m going to finish.” But he wasn’t moving with much enthusiasm so we cashiered him, loading his bike in the back while he slumped awkwardly halfway in the van. He was too torched to offer anything but the feeblest of protests, although after 80 some miles it was but a short ride to town and the Casa Martinez B&B, (where our hostess, Senora Martinez, would later regale us with the local history in some detail).
Taos and La Casa Vaca
Early in the morning, La Senora laid out a carbohydrate-intensive breakfast and after a few photos and our good-byes we rolled into the slowly growing sizzle which was Day 3. (Now deep into the journey I had lost familiar landmarks and no longer recognized a particular day- Tuesday? Wednesday? It didn’t matter. It was the day to Taos. The relevant questions were, “how far?” and “how much climbing?” and perhaps “how hot?” Although we only had rough estimates- frequently well off the mark, of any parameter. It became a running joke: “How far?” “I’m pretty sure it’s 20 miles. Certainly no more than 70.”) Up and down, we motored as an intact unit to our lunch destination- a small diner (from my pictures I see that it is eponymously named “Diner”) at a dusty, windblown crossroads in the desert next to a gas station. The waitress was pretty (more so at 3 meters than at the side of the table), but far more importantly, the calories were abundant. Pepper won the lunch prime, with a chili burger that came with a discount coupon for angioplasty. I felt quite certain that he would not be agitating at the front of the peloton for quite some time, while his digestive processes wrestled with the ugly reality of that burger. (And I was quite wrong on this count.) We clacked out into the mid-day heat, lycra cowboys mounting our carbon, steel and titanium steeds with a bit of the post-feed bloat. We had a wind coming off the right flank and sometimes behind us, depending on the turns in the road. De Nardi and Heller, taking over afternoon sag duty, drove to Taos intent on pedaling back to meet us. They didn’t have the opportunity to ride very far because by and large we were flying along on a gradual descent, working out the nuances of an 8 man paceline generally at 30 to 35 MPH. Initially it was hard to hold together but we eventually got it. It helped that Herms had yet another flat tire and we had a brief discussion on the theory of echeloning. Taos could be seen for miles ahead as smear of settlement at the base of mountains occupying the approaching horizon. We chewed through the miles, turning into a quartering headwind as the road veered around a dust squall sweeping across some newly plowed dirt. We crossed the Rio Grande at the base of a 600′ gorge- an interesting view but we didn’t linger as the sprint for the river sign overcame the need to sightsee. Pete and Michael joined the cadre and shortly thereafter surprised at our rapid progress toward Taos. We were briefly together as a unit of 10 until the Flying Pepper launched an attack up the road. The pack fragmented and Stahl and I tried to rally the troops for a chase but the troops weren’t much interested so I set off, eventually joined by a doggedly determined Gordon. But we didn’t catch Rick after yet another painful chase for several miles into Taos. Our trio languished under the shade trees at the entrance to the Quail Ranch Resort, where we were booked for the next 3 nights. The three of us were too tired to check in and we loitered listlessly until everyone had arrived some minutes later. I must confess to an exhausted afterglow- a high which comes from such a sustained effort, and I think everyone else shared that quiet buzz.
Taos proved to be an interesting town- a bit like Santa Cruz, maybe even more so in that it was peopled by individuals who somewhere along the way had veered sharply from the usual paths. In what was to be our evening ritual for 3 days, we splashed around briefly in the pool and then piled into the van for the short drive to town where we systematically laid waste a rather substantive dinner, prefaced by 2 bottles of red and 2 of white, which seemed to focus the appetite and at least for me, uncouple me from any sense that time was important. As if a participant in an Einsteinian thought experiment, I was, relative to my usual self, suspended in a thickening and sweet goo of time. There was no hurry to be found in anything around me, no particular point to be made, no more battles to be fought. It was 80 miles and a glass of Merlot and there was nothing more to be had, except that gauzy web of sleep- that deep oblivion of the righteously exhausted which was a mere hour or two away and beckoning with a slowly mounting urgency. Already there was an economy of thought and of motion, all the sharp edges- the shattered glass of the workaday world was swept clean away, and for a little while I understood why I seek to inhabit this state. More succinctly stated, it’s cheap group therapy for the restlessly insane.
The middle of the week provided us with a “rest day”. Michael, Gordon, Pete, Dwain, Dave and I rode “piano” a few miles to the little town of Arroyo Seco, to what became our favorite hangout in Taos: The Casa Vaca (“Cow House”). It was frequented by beautiful but vaguely distracted women, mangy dogs, longhairs with unusual theories, and the occasional lycra cowboy. There was sparse shade for a few tables under a fruit tree where we generally took up residence, and some benches in the sun. The coffee was full octane and I can vouch for the bagels and lox. One of the counter girls was Polish with a faintly exotic accent and the other resembled Mariel Hemmingway. We’d line up at the counter in the morning and impress them with our prodigious appetites- one can only hope that the Casa Vaca had a profit sharing plan, otherwise they probably cringed when we turned up. Transiently fed we proceeded andante toward the turnoff to the Taos Ski area, which required an ascent to around 10,000 feet over several quiet miles of road which ended at the resort. It was a languorous climb aided by a stiff tailwind. It was the only attack-free day of the journey and the scenery could be enjoyed without a sense that someone might ignite the pace and it would be nose-to-wheel on the climb. After a brief inspection of the resort we descended prestissimo (no brakes required) to a midway point where we dangled our feet in a searingly icy mountain stream. Nowhere to be; no meetings to take; no beepers, phones or faxes. Just dangle your toes and swat ineffectively at the flies, although I think it was Pete who was actually trying to catch the flies. I was reminded of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn from schoolboy readings, and remembered what was most alluring about the stories, now thinking back as a middle-aged man with his feet in a river: the idea of being untethered- unbounded by obligation, if only for a day or two. If there was something important to do I couldn’t think of what it was, nor could I do anything about it. I wanted to remember this notion and carry it with me, to take out from time to time for a revisit; it is a concept which most of the year seems impossibly out of reach.
Dinner that night was al fresco at the Restaurante next to the resort. The kitchen was overwhelmed by an unexpected influx of diners in the form of a squadron of cheerleaders(!) visiting from Kansas, or some similar corn-fed Midwestern locale. The service was shabby but then some of us were entertained by the cheerleaders frolicking on the lawn beyond the tables (my back was to the youthful escapades, so I report second hand). At some point in our lives this might have been taken as a sign of an interested and divine presence in the universe, but this night we were more intent on our quesadillas y pollo, especially after the sun set and our sparingly insulated torsos lost their heat to the high desert night. Scowls replaced smiles as blood sugars dwindled, but all was set right with heaping plates of food.
The Enchanted Circle (theoretically)
Our third day in Taos found us back at the Casa Vaca for 2nd breakfast and coffee (this was after pawing through the “1st” breakfast at the resort). We happened upon another cyclist who shared some stories of riding around Taos while we lazed under the fruit tree in front of the Vaca. He graciously led us out to the start of the day’s ride: The Turquoise Trail, a 92 mile loop through the mountains ending back in Taos. This loop is also known as the “Enchanted Loop”. We were without sag support so that all ten of us rode together, in fact the only day we were able to do so. After a friendly rollout over several miles west from Arroyo Seco with our tourist friend, we turned North on Highway 522, negotiating an endless parade of long rollers in the general direction of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I remember riding in the line, with Gordon and Pepper initially at the front going very hard up one of the early rollers, or so it seemed to me. The squadra broke apart and it was all very painful following wheels for several minutes up one side of the pitches and down the next. I thought it was much too early and too long a ride for such antics, but these affairs are anarchy at best: you do as you please and you follow if you please. Sometimes it doesn’t really please you to follow but you do it anyway, or so it seems to be the case with me. Rather like a dog chasing a stick: it’s some routine embedded in the antique centers of the brain that is generally resistant to cortical inputs. On one last big roller coming into Cuesta, Pepper attacked just prior to the summit and then was unmatchable on the 55 MPH descent with Herms, Burkhardt and I in a failed team pursuit. Pepper had the town prime securely in his grasp. (Pepper could hold a very streamlined position over the bars- his butt like a cowling above the seat, which generally left the rest of us flailing along in his wake.) The descents for the entire journey were generally non-technical, and descending velocity was a function of aerodynamics and probably, in part, flexibility- Gordon and Rick could hold an awkward position for long stretches. My theory was that Pepper’s recent interest in yoga may have contributed to these developments, or perhaps it’s his slavish devotion to the Kama Sutra, which I understand he translated himself from Sanskrit. (Either that or he studied the pictures carefully.)
We motored east on Highway 38 at a pace that allowed us to ascend to Red River en famile. It was noticeably cooler as we were now above 8000’ (on our way to almost 10,000). Red River appeared lightly inhabited for the summer months. Along the main strip the town was done up in an “Alpine Modern” architecture, with an abundance of A-frames and businesses catering to the ski crowd. We pedaled the strip and after some debate we settled on a market for lunch, although became separated from Pepper in the minor chaos that generally surrounds our mid-day dining when more than one choice is evident. Despite considerable hunger, I exercised some restraint for lunch, knowing that the Bobcat Pass lay just beyond town. I noted that Heller violated a cardinal rule of the mountains: never eat anything bigger than your head if you have a climb after lunch. We found ourselves on some of the steeper grades of the trip within minutes of leaving town, and predictably Pete and his lunch hastily disappeared off the back. The climbers climbed and the chasers chased but we all gathered again at the pass- a woman in an SUV had identified the Republic of Anaerobia jersey and asked the galactically imponderable question, “do you know Rick Pepper?”. Stupefied at the question we wondered if she represented a federal agency, most probably the IRS. In fact, she knew Rick’s wife from California. (She was driving behind her husband, also on the climb somewhere.) We didn’t chat for long because it had started to rain, more of a cold spit really, and we had one of our 50 MPH descents confronting us. After a brief pelting with ice (quite painful at full speed) we quickly hemorrhaged altitude but picked up perhaps 6 to 8 degrees of warmth in the valley. The hint of rain soon departed and we were left with a ferocious headwind, perhaps a steady 30 knots. We held together in a paceline of sorts until a sprint sign prior to the afternoon snack stop, where Heller, who generates more heat than a small nuclear reactor, took on more fuel. It was here that we found Pepper who had been ahead of us the entire time. More of the rapacious headwind confronted us to the last climb of the day, in the vicinity of Eagle’s Nest. Pepper directed us into a 3 x 3 rotating echelon as the only way to make decent headway. This proved more manageable but even so surging and flailing our ten headed beast eventually broke in half on the wind-blown struggle to the base of the last climb. This proved more manageable with just 2 five-packs and we hustled as best we could to the climb with a regroup before the ascent. Gordon led us up the hill and we paused at the top to answer nature’s call one last time. Then it was off to the races on the Magic Mountain inspired 15 mile descent back into Taos. Pepper led De Nardi and Stahl immediately ahead of the rest of the group with a reckless abandon. It took a few beats but then the rest of us realized that this descent demanded such abandon- only modestly technical, most of the corners could be taken au bloc, pedals churning. A loose coalition of chasers formed- Coggins, Burkhardt, Good, and Heller would shoot past the front (whither Starksen in the commotion?) forcing us to chase the chasers. Eventually the leader would slow enough that another descending attacker would take the point and we would eventually coalesce behind, if only momentarily. It was less pulling through then constant attacking as if the mounting ferocity of the chase had us turned on one another. It was fast and hard- heart rate at the maximum, pedaling furiously down the gentle curves, but it was a long while before Stahl and De Nardi were to appear ahead of us- they now pursuers of the invisible Pepper, and longer still before we joined them. This required first that we catch a cement truck careening down the mountain (this says much about the descent that it took us a few miles to latch onto this monster) but then we had a brief easy time of it, relatively speaking. Close in on the slapping and groaning beast the wind disappeared, as did the countless irregularities in the road which became apparent only as one rode through them. Fortunately the cement delivery shoot was swinging unpredictably behind the truck much like an elephant’s tail shooing the flies away, keeping us at proboscis’ length. Finally at the conclusion of an enormous and only occasionally cooperative effort (cheating at every opportunity) we overtook the somewhat surprised Pepper toward the end of the descent. “Gee, I thought I dropped you guys for good.” (As if.)
We stopped at a traffic light in Taos to await the ailing Starksen (it was to be his last day of riding consequent to the tear of muscle in his calf), dragging our bikes into the shade of a nearby shop, for it was blisteringly hot in the sun. Pedestrians took us in- smeared with a base layer sunscreen which mixed with sweat and dust gave us the high-tech urchin appeal. The crusty swaths of dried salt on the shorts were our merit badges. After a few minutes of inactivity on the street corner the pedals suddenly became very hard to turn and all thoughts were on the pool of cool water awaiting us at Quail Ranch, a mere 5 flat miles away, as the muted procession sought the end of the day’s adventures.
The Ring of Fire
It was not without some reluctance that after 3 days we left Taos for Las Vegas (NM). (It could have been an endless summer under the big sky in the shadow of the mountains, riding by day, poolside in the afternoon and then prowling for calories in the cool evenings.) Our itinerary had been undecided until the last moment because of the raging fires in the direction of Las Vegas- each day we would anxiously gauge the plumes of pyrocumulus filling the horizon in that direction, but after consultation with various agencies regarding the fires, we finally departed with some confidence that we not find ourselves en flagrante inferno.
We proceeded at a sustainable pace up a gradual grade out of Taos, the dogs of war still on their leashes. We came over a named climb “Holman Hill” I’m told- the details now evade me entirely and we found ourselves on a gentle ascent through a river valley. The usual elements were in place- climbing into a headwind in the heat. On this day Pepper began to waver and then cracked at a surprisingly moderate pace. Efforts were made at a diagnosis, food stuffs were proffered but in the end De Nardi and Stahl dropped back to ride escort (their kindness to be repaid later when Pepper would drop them on a descent!) The rest of us motored silently, rotating some but mostly sitting for long stretches behind Herms who had found his legs and towed the rest of us along for miles into a headwind up that gentle valley- it was so subtle a climb I checked repeatedly to reassure myself the gentle stream on our left was flowing away from our path of ascent. The sputtering Pepper and his praetorian guard gradually disappeared behind us and were left to their own devices. I found it sometimes uncomfortable sitting in the Herminator’s wake taking his pace, but would occasionally pull through to show my mettle, and then would immediately regret it because it hurt (it’s a guy thing, I guess). Quietly we paraded- our fatigue accumulating because it had been many consecutive days spent pushing through the heat and wind and hills, some 300 miles thus far and now at the end of this valley was a steep and unwelcome pitch up. True to form, someone had the legs to punish the rest of us and on this grade at this moment it was Coggins, dutifully followed by the resilient Burkhardt surging onto the climb. There was always somebody with their fingers on the dial, ready to turn up the pain gain. Herms and I followed but then Rich began to pay for his earlier efforts and faltered midway up the climb. It one last ugly spasm I bridged up to the pair perhaps 20 meters ahead of me as we approached the summit. Coggins looked back, and with the instincts of a playground bully and inspired by the stench of my desperate effort, stood up and surged again, with Kurt in tow. I had no answer for this and was dropped only a few feet from the summit, and when I crested they were long gone ahead of me. So now we were a smear of riders- a front cluster and a rear cluster, chasing (or perhaps not chasing) as was our daily habit. It does seem that you were either a predator or prey (all day, every day).
I scrunched on my bike, my neck and back complaining bitterly about maintaining some semblance of an aerodynamic position but I was committed to chasing down Burkhardt and Coggins. I wasn’t looking much behind me but could sense an approaching presence- Herms no doubt who had crested just behind me. But it was Gordon- last seen fading rapidly behind on the climb, who rocketed by like some piece of 2 day express mail folded up on his bike. Herms and I outweighed him by perhaps 30 and 20 pounds respectively, but I had to sprint to his wheel and struggle to stay there as he held this tuck down the descent, slowly reeling in the front pair. I was rather amazed that we could somehow turn what is generally the pleasant payback for all those miles up the hill (that is a fast, non-technical descent) into an agonizing effort to curl into a stealthy (and unstable) position on the top tube in a effort to milk a few dozen seconds from the downhill.
And then at the bottom, shockingly, maybe not really, who should appear but Pepper! Having been provided an escort to the top of the climb he said, “Thanks a bunch, I’ll see you later” and flew down the descent, overtaking all of us at the final flat segment into Las Vegas, just as we were preparing to send the meat wagon back for his fly-encrusted corpse, which we understood with great certainty to be splayed out in the weeds a valley or so behind. We had our one and only revenge on the way into town when he attacked (unbelievable!) fracturing the peloton. He was countered by Michael (the smiling assassin), with Dave and Kurt contributing (and then me clinging precariously like a lint ball). We dropped him, watching with no small glee as he disappeared behind! That such antics could animate us at the end of an exhausting day says more about us that I think is safe to share.
Las Vegas was generally uninspired but did offer us a few amenities: a nice pool and spa in the Ramada Days Holiday 6 Inn where we were staying. Dinner was in a Restaurante Bonita which provided great food and an inspired young guitarist to serenade the diners. This was to be followed by a trip to the movies where choices were limited but “Mission Impossible 2” provided a vapid but serviceable entertainment for the evening.
Leaving Las Vegas
The Las Vegas to Santa Fe segment was rolling without sustained climbs, but the outstanding feature this day was a monstrous headwind. We were up and down leg-sapping rollers next to a segment of the interstate- featureless terrain for the most part. Perhaps it seemed a moonscape because of the interminable headwind. At some point Pepper and Coggins got a gap off the front, I think more out of their desire to get to town rather than inspired by urge to drop the rest of us (although dropping the rest of is is generally high on the list of priorities). As a practiced cycling parasite I quickly discovered there was shelter to be had by following directly on the bumper of the battleship-class van while Starksen facilitated this devious plot by driving a steady 20+ knots into the wind. We lined up like a school of pilot fish behind the whale and rode for some miles in this fashion. It was so obviously a weak-assed move that I began bleating like a sheep every time Niel accelerated a bit and threatened to shake us loose from the bumper. The herd got into the spirit of the moment and soon we all were bleating, ‘maaa, maaa” as we jockeyed for close-in comfort at the back of the tank. Pepper viewed us with some disgust as we scurried past, the muffler spewing its toxic mild from which we fed eagerly.
The afternoon had some of us somewhat recovered, although Pepper was off the bike for good, now making frequent stops at the gas station rest rooms to find ventilatory relief for his GI tract, retaliating from the provocation of one too many chili en flammable over the course of the week. Pinatubo Pepper was rarely visible in the van, laid out on the bench awaiting the next eruption. Niel was driving and Coggins was also in the van after a hard morning effort actually confronting the wind (unlike the rest of the Weenie Brigade cowering behind the mother ship). The 3 of them would periodically stop at the top of a roller and offer a prime for the first to the top: a 5 dollar bill, a bottle of refreshment, and in one instance enthusiastically waved genitalia. The tres hermanos took on the collective personae (and faux accents) of some drunken Cubans at a cock fight, urging on the bloodied roosters. And we of course took the bait- Dave attacking over a hill and riding away from us. Kurt pulled on his Superman cape and towed Michael and I up to him over some miles. I assumed the role of sprinter-parasite (in my pink tights with the frilly anklets), wanting the town sign into Santa Fe on my palmares, which forced me to avoid the front like a disease. But Michael flatted and Dave turned back to assist, robbing us of any drama on the sprint into Santa Fe. Rick, Dwain and Niel had staked out a final sprint point- there was no town sign, but I didn’t have the heart to jump Kurt after sitting on his wheel for 10 miles while he dragged my tired ass into the wind, so we rolled across the finish quietly to the disappointment of the noisy Cubanos who wanted to see a little sangre caliente spilled along the highway.
We cleaned up and paraded into Santa Fe for our last night of the journey. We languidly explored El Centro, slowly and on foot, negotiating for a few pieces of jewelry for the loved ones at home (who allowed us the week’s worth of rope with which to hang ourselves). Awaiting the dinner hour, a group of us found ourselves enjoying the last radiations of a fabulous Margarita-flavored sunset while perched on the steps of an old Catholic Church at one end of a long, straight street. The smooth steps favored us with the reassuring warmth collected from a day under the cloudless skies, while the sun illuminated the adobe in a slowly mutating swath from the red end of the visible spectrum. The majesty of it depleted us of the need to share much conversation. Up to our left, on a restaurant balcony, there was a noisy party in progress. I watched the partygoers in a detached fashion- they appeared happy and entirely occupied with the moment. We also enjoyed a drained but no less intense satisfaction, having made it through an arduous week. Halfway or more through our lives I silently mused to myself, but what more to do but to admire our own hard won state of grace in the waning moments of an unassailable week. And with the light quietly disappearing ahead of us, we reluctantly abandoned our perch in search of something more to eat.
Turquoise Travail back to ABQ
[Schott neglected to cover the final day. This is my brief recap as best as memory serves.]
The weary but highly content marauders threw legs over top tubes for one final leg: Santa Fe back to Albuquerque. The squadra set off at a manageable pace and even worked effectively together in a paceline for close to an hour. This was easily a record for cooperation for the testosterone overdosed comrades. Of course all self control was out the window at the distant appearance of the old mining town of Madrid. After chowing down at one of the exceptionally funky establishments we set off for the final push. To ensure that it was seared into our memory banks, the sun baked down as we were whiplashed by a series of long ascents and short descents. Eventually, Dr. Pepper’s exploits finally caught up. He blew a gasket or perhaps an O-ring failed catastrophically and he had to loaded feet first into the meat wagon. While outwardly those of us who’d been consistently flayed by his antics issued our condolences, inwardly there was glee in Mayberry. The gods had finally wreaked their comeuppance by unceremoniously clipping Icarus’ wings.
The remainder of the journey was mostly uneventful. The plane ride home consisted primarily of accounting: the win/loss tallies were revisited, the newly coined expressions recorded for posterity, and the measure of weariness taken.