A story for every mile in Ride the Rockies
Steamboat Springs — Michael O’Brien didn’t stop because he was afraid he wouldn’t start again.
The annual Ride the Rockies bicycle ride descended into Steamboat Springs on Monday afternoon with nearly 2,000 cyclists, and the city may never have looked more beautiful than it did in their eyes.
To be fair, that had a lot more to do with what the riders endured Sunday than it did the Yampa River Valley’s emerald green radiance.
Sunday, the first day of the ride, began under sunny skies in Boulder but ended in a blizzard atop Berthoud Pass. Many of the riders had to be shuttled from the top of that pass to the day’s end point in Winter Park, and nearly 24 hours later, they were still reliving what was an epically miserable experience.
O’Brien, for instance, devoured a hamburger at the base of Steamboat Ski Area and listened as a band played on the stage in Gondola Square.
His mind drifted back a day, however, to the climb up Berthoud Pass when he couldn’t stop riding because he was afraid he may not be able to start again.
One last ride
Ride the Rockies is filled with people with stories — not just stories earned on Sunday, either.
Gerry Maughan is a New Jersey cyclist who is participating in his 10th Ride the Rockies event. He’s seen much of the state by this point but has been drawn back again and again by his desire to see more.
Sunday was brutal for him, too.
“I’ve been cycling for 20 years, and that’s the worst day I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was frightening.”
He’s even ridden with the event through Steamboat Springs but going the other direction. That allowed him to truly appreciate descending Rabbit Ears Pass on U.S. Highway 40 as other brave souls not associated with the ride worked their way up.
There’s still immense satisfaction in finishing a day’s ride, he explained. At 61, however, this may be his final Ride.
“Colorado’s a beautiful place to tour, and it’s a great place to see on a bike,” he said. “I’m getting old, so it’s getting old.”
A grueling day
O’Brien has a story, too.
The Virginian rode the event four times in his 20s, from 1993 to 1996. He moved on with life, however, gave up his annual pilgrimage and eventually gained 60 pounds.
He reversed that course last year. He bought a new bike and began training.
He spent his weekends driving 90 miles to Shenandoah National Park where over and over he powered up the same steep road, preparing for his return to Ride the Rockies.
He was nervous when he got to Colorado, uneasy about the elevation profiles for the event’s first two days — the ride from Boulder, through Idaho Springs and to Winter Park, then from Winter Park to Steamboat.
Things started out so well, too, but they quickly turned soured as clouds raced in and the temperature dropped.
Hail came down as he rode toward Idaho Springs.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever had to regulate my speed based on how much pain I can tolerate from hail hitting my face,” he said.
It got worse as the route turned up the pass.
“The weather kept getting worse. The wind was always in your face. We weren’t dressed for the weather, so we all had maybe a base layer jersey and a rain coat,” O’Brien said. “My fingers were exposed. Part of me wanted to stop, but I thought if I stopped, I wouldn’t keep going, so I just kept going and going.
“I was going 5 miles an hour, and I was blowing past everyone. People were going maybe 3.”
Riders were stopped at the top, prohibited from riding down because of the snow and fog. Instead, they were shuttled down.
“I knew I’d get off the mountain,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t know how. I thought I might hitchhike.”
He ended up with a ride with an EMT unit, which he labeled phenomenal.
The morning brought more stories.
Riders awoke to 18 degree temperatures, and some found their bicycles frozen to the ground. Some wheeled them indoors in hopes of thawing things out. One person even hoisted a bike up to a hand dryer in a Winter Park bathroom looking for a quick fix.
Happy to arrive
That all got better, however. The sun came out, and Monday’s ride didn’t have any of Sunday’s wind. It featured climbs, but nothing like the grinding ride from the first day, and it all ended with the long, fast, ever-so-sweet descent into Steamboat Springs.
Riders relaxed Monday evening as local Reggae band Acutonic played at the base area. They’ll ride again today in an optional 54-mile loop on Twentymile Road, spend one more night in Steamboat then leave Wednesday, departing south out of town toward Avon.
It’s doubtful any of it will be as awful as Sunday’s ride was.
It’s also doubtful any of it will be as memorable.
“When it comes to something like this, there are two ways you can look at it,” O’Brien said. “As I was riding up, the entire time I was thinking, ‘This absolutely sucks. I hate this.’ But, ya know, it’s those things that stick with you in the future. It builds that grit muscle so you can persevere through other things.”
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