In 2020 I dreamt up a route that both thrilled me and terrified me. A Super Sized ride, if you will. Over the years my definition of such a ride has constantly morphed from “I wonder what it would be like to ride my bike for two hours” to their current iteration: Ambitious single day routes built around idealistic objectives. Most often the objectives are peaks, or mountain passes, or geographical features that make me feel infinitely small when I finally arrive at them. Tiny tiny person, huge huge landscape; that’s my ideal, my singularity. That contrast charges me up and fills me with the sense that I am indeed living life, not watching it pass by from the sidelines. I have a small collection of these rides among my memories. They are among my most precious adventure memories: Black Bear + Imogene, Antero, Breck Super Loop, Three Passes, Denver to Kansas, Solo 200, White Rim Solo. There might be others. There are definitely others. Each of these rides gave me equal measures fear and ultimately elation upon completion. Many took more than one attempt to finish. If I were to point at why I ride bikes in an effort to explain it to people, I would point at these experiences.
As bad as the years 2020 and 2021 were vis a vis the pandemic, they were probably the most dense and creative years of riding that I’ve ever had. That feeling of not really being able to travel, and having to engage and reinterpret routes and terrain that were accessible from my door created the perfect condition for creativity: Constraints. If you aren’t able to do X, you might just go and do Y, even if you would never have done Y if you were able to do X. In the absence of racing in 2020 we all watched as online reports of FKTs and mega ambitious rides undertaken by pros popped off left and right. Without races to go to the elites of the sport had to find ways to both challenge themselves and entertain us, the audience. Us non pros did the same, entertaining ourselves with many personal rides and challenges that themselves threatened to qualify as genuine wanderlust. Those two years felt like a golden age of adventure cycling, and it is staggering to me that they were brought about by such massive human tragedy on a global level.
In 2020 I dreamt up my newest personal challenge: The Super Jones loop. The idea hit upon me when the whole Rodeo office took a day off work and headed for a classic Colorado MTB route: Jones Pass. Jones Pass is itself a delightful mountain saddle nestled high in the Colorado alpine at 12,454ft. A rarely passable road cuts right over the pass, but it is often graced with a stubborn snow cornice left over from winter. Often times the cornice does not melt for years on end, and as such cars (trucks, Jeeps) are never able to themselves summit the pass. Instead the pass is claimed only by hikers, bikers, and other human powered travelers. The six mile dirt road climb from the paved highway to Jones Pass is itself formidable, but the true Jones Pass adventure begins on the pass as the Continental Divide trail treks southward along a dramatic ridge framed by 13,000+ ft peaks. This is the good stuff. This is the Jones Pass that plucks my heart strings and wears deep ruts in my brain from my visiting it so often in my imagination.
What is it about the alpine that gives it so much resonance to a human passing through it? Is it the raw nature of it, devoid of trees and decorative green? Is it the exposure, and the lack of the sense of absolute safety that we often live in down in our domesticated towns and cities? Does the alpine tap into a more primal existence when every movement and expenditure of energy was more about survival than it was about recreation or self expression? We live in comfortable times, times of gas pedals, thermostats, refrigerators, and bulbs of light powered by energy use that we have no frame of reference for. Modern comforts are an insulator that separate our daily lives from the true natural world. Maybe our experiences in the alpine, though again buffered by helmets, Vibram, sunglasses, and techy fabrics, still allow us to touch nature that we feel the echoes of in our genetic memory.
2020 and 2021, being peak adventure years, set a pace that was in retrospect was not sustainable, but in a way that I didn’t expect. Many of us in those years had our small adventure pods and groups of friends that we had on speed dial or group chat. Rides of ten or a hundred riders may have been necessarily out of vogue, but big days with two or four companions we there regular, and I loved those days so much. With so many people working from home, and all of us being so pent up, it wasn’t hard to float an idea for a bicycle adventure and get some very nearly immediate “in!”s as a response. The gang was up for anything, and we did everything. Many deposits were made in my collection of favorite-rides-ever in that 24 month period.
And then, almost instantly, almost as suddenly as the pandemic changed everything, everything changed again.
I wasn’t aware of the change while it was happening to me. In the moment it was too soon to know that things weren’t as they recently were. Going into fall of 2021 it was natural to see friends less. Days grow shorter and temperatures drop. My own riding retreats from the high mountains and becomes nearly entirely restrained to mundane and repetitive commutes on roads and bike paths around Denver. Fall is automatic loneliness for me. Its tidal, and probably even healthy, making one appreciate those spring reunions, or random winter weekend rides where the band gets back together for a revival spin. The tide goes out, and the tide comes back in. Large forces outside of you control the tides, and tides are therefore reliable. I rode alone through the fall and winter and waited for the onset of the new year, and spring, where the optimism of adventures to be had would shake everyone out of their winter stupor. My friends and I would soon be riding together again.
But a funny thing happened in 2022: The tide never came back in, and with the most precious few of exceptions the band never got back together. There was no reunion tour. My go-to adventure friend squad vaporized. The realization of the new reality began as an ache. The loneliness was tolerable, but only for so long. Where had everybody gone? The answer wasn’t simple, it wasn’t sinister, and it wasn’t coordinated. In fact there was no single answer. There wasn’t a collective decision to hang out less, or ride less, or just straight up talk less. We just didn’t. Check-ins ensued. This person was busy, this person was digging deep with some work things, this person had a new house and a dog. This other person was a doctor and was quite simply busy saving lives. All good reasons, really good reasons, to not burn eight to fourteen hours in the hills lollygagging like a bunch of nineteen year olds with no responsibilities or lives outside bikes. But still, what happened to my squad? What happened to my homies? What happened to friendship and comradery? It affected me deeply. I was sad, lonely, and depressed. But there was nobody to lash out at, nobody to hold a grudge against. I held it all inside. Things had changed. Things will always change.
Of course, riding circumstances changed for me in 2022 as well. My kids continue to grow older and more in need of my presence in their lives. Work continues to do the same thing: This damned bike company somehow always asks me more and more not to ride my bike. I, along with my friends, found reasons to stay out of the hills and close to home.
As the year went on I began to wonder what it is that had called me into the big mountains all those previous years. Was it time with friends? Was it a competitive desire to throw down routes and rides that would wow people and rake in the kudos? Without a doubt the answer to both of those questions was yes. Time with my crew is among the best of times, and putting up a big route to a round of virtual high fives definitely stroked my fragile ego. Outside of that why did I go? If my and my friend’s lives had changed so suddenly, was I still a person who went to and belonged in the mountains? Or was that person and those years now just a closed chapter in my ongoing story?
The question nagged at me non stop as soon as it landed in my brain like the ringing of tinnitis.
For a while I didn’t go to the peaks. I stayed down low and I stayed close, safe in the comfort of “around town”. Gravel racing season returned in 2022 and that was a wonderful distraction. Mid South, Rule Of Three, and Unbound in 2022 were all big events with big crowds, scores of friends, and plenty of physical challenge. I didn’t have to answer that small, quiet question in the back of my mind. The question of being in the peaks. The noise of racing made the question difficult to hear.
As soon as the final big race, Unbound, had passed, its raucous clamor began to fade. I was once again left with myself and this ringing in my ears that I didn’t know how to answer or quiet. What is your relationship with the mountains? When will you go to them again? How badly do you want to be in them?
As the snow in the high country melted the ringing got louder. Adventure tinnitis, it was. My Jones Pass route popped back into my head. What made it a noteworthy challenge for me was the fact that the route began and ended in Denver. It wasn’t simply a question of riding up the four mile dirt road to the pass, traversing it, then bombing back down to the car. My Jones Pass ride, Super Jones Pass, involved grinding out a significant road ride from Denver to the MTB ride itself, and then required riding all the way back to Denver having left calories and stoke behind on the high peaks of the Continental Divide. Super Jones was the type of route I love the most. It was about 150 miles in all, but it was a very unkind 150 miles. The route has every surface type possible from fresh blacktop, to dirt roads, to singletrack, to scree fields, to New England style roots and rocks. If undertaken it was a complete pilgrimage, a worthy and respectful outing.
In 2021 I had attempted to complete Super Jones with two friends, and we came tantalizingly close. Lightning in the alpine at about 13,000 feet, just shy of the high point, put a sudden and violent end to that attempt. We beat a panicked retreat back down the mountain, fearing for our lives the entire time. Primal fear, the fear where you sense that death may be imminent, is a powerful thing. I was marked by the experience and the difficulty of the route itself. Soon fall arrived and with it snow fell. Jones was closed for the season. It would be nine or ten months until the window to do it again would re-open.
In Colorado the alpine season opens in later June. The opportunity to be among the peaks is short, lasting only two to three months on average. With Unbound in the rear view mirror, tinnitis ringing loud, and the realization that my riding friends were no longer game to join me on these silly outings, I finally worked up the courage to head into the high hills alone and afresh. That first big solo ride was so many words that begin with T: Terrifying, Therapeutic, Thrilling, and Transformational. I hadn’t yet tried to complete Super Jones, this was something less intimidating, but I tested my limits solo, reveled in that high-up beauty that I missed, and came home in one piece. The entire experience was incredibly healing from the rigors and damage of every day life, and I returned from it utterly inspired by what I had experienced. To ride up into the mountains, to pass through them, to be vulnerable to them, and to safely overcome them began to answer questions that were important for me: Do I belong in the mountains by myself? Can and will I go there without the incentive of company? If many of the friends I’ve depended on won’t go with me, are the mountains still fundamentally a part of who I am? The answer was a tentative yes, and upon learning of it, something inside me shifted.
Summer wore on. The greens of spring faded, leaves wilted a bit and the plants in my garden began to look tired. Work / life had conspired against my stoke, and once again I was a more a citizen of bike paths, not of high peaks. I often thought of Jones Pass, and indeed sometimes on family trips in The Rockies I would catch a glimpse of it far off on the horizon.
“Are you coming for me?” Jones would ask, and I would feint to the right. Maybe later. Maybe next week. Summer was just so busy… right?
It wasn’t just the business of summer that kept me off the peaks, it was the anxiety of it. Work gave me anxiety. Home life gave me anxiety. Jones Pass itself gave me anxiety. I had in fact almost completed the route on the previous attempt, and the trauma of the retreat combined with the overall difficulty of the day shot a pang into my stomach each time I asked myself if this week was the week to make another attempt. If that weren’t enough, all I had to do was picture myself traversing that alpine ridge solo and so far from Denver, to put a nail in the coffin of the entire idea of a do-over.
But that tinnitis. That ringing. It just wouldn’t go away.
September 26th, 2022. That was the day that I got up the courage to go back to Jones by myself. That three month summer alpine window was all but closed, but unseasonably mild fall conditions and a work situation that was under control presented me with a single day to take off work and go for it. I couldn’t decide to 100% commit to the ride well into the afternoon the day before. As I left work on the 25th I told Drew that I may or may not be at the office the next day. He responded that I was probably going to do one of my big scary mountain rides, wasn’t I? I was, maybe. I told him I might also get scared and bail. “Well I hope I don’t see you tomorrow” he responded. His indirect word of encouragement was the final push I needed to commit. I didn’t want to show up to work on the 26th and look Drew in the eyes, feeling the shame of surrender.
There was nothing pleasant about my second attempt at Super Jones. I felt depressed and scared when I got up. There’s just something about knowing how much discomfort and suffering you are about to embark on. I tried to think of every reason to not start pedaling. I stood in the dark in the garage and prayed, hoping that God might for some reason care if I went, and be inclined to sprinkle me with a dose of courage to put me over the top. But I felt nothing positive riding towards the mountains, as the climbing began, or as the wind picked up and mocked me. The first sixty miles of Super Junes are pretty unremarkable riding in a lot of ways. You cut a mostly straight, mostly paved line west up into the hills, and almost every mile you gain towards the objective is climbing. Super Jones has so much climbing, about 16,000 feet worth of combined vertical ascent. I made acceptable headway until arriving in Idaho Springs at 10 or 11am, famished. I set my eyes on McDonalds; the ultimate self injury culinary sin, and I partook. As I sat on the window stool and stared outside I saw the wind picking up even more. Trees bowed over in protest. Trash blew down the street. I didn’t want to go back outside, I wanted to go home. But I tore myself from the Golden Arches and began stubbornly pedaling, nursed along by BBC podcasts and depressing world news about war and economic calamity. I eventually wised up and banished the bad news and was left with the names of cities in Ukraine ochoing on a loop in my head. Mariupol, Donbas, Crimea, Kershon. Marioopool, Doonbaas, Crymea, Kershown? I chewed on pronunciation while I hugged the shoulder and traffic flew past.
So the day went until I found myself at the base of the dirt road leading up to Jones Pass. I was three hours behind schedule and mentally defeated. The headwinds had totally sapped me, the way pedaling hard and going nowhere does, and the real climbing was about to begin. More prayers were dispatched, yelled out loud this time because nobody could hear me. The sound of my own voice was startling, but it was also nice company for a change. I climbed the basin below Jones at a snails pace, but speed didn’t matter, only forward motion did. As I climbed The Alpine went to work on me. Trees faded away and massive mountains revealed themselves to me. Those peaks, those formations, and those bubbling mountain creeks egged me on towards the pass itself. I hadn’t enjoyed the act of arriving at this place where I was, but it felt so wonderful to finally be here.
I began having doubts about my rate of progress versus odds of success as I inched higher and the day wore on. Those doubts were finally confirmed and victory totally banished when I arrived on the saddle of Jones pass itself around 2pm. The basin below, as it turns out, had been sheltering me from a sobering truth up high: The winds were absolutely ripping through the saddle and the peaks above it. There was no wind at all in the basin, but as I rode over the top past the melted summit cornice I was smashed in the face by a wall of air so strong that it ripped my bike from my hands and pushed me over. Not only could I not ride, I couldn’t even walk across the summit saddle with my bike. There was no decision to be made, there was no fighting it. There was, once again, only submission to nature and a surrender to the natural force that now pushed me back down the mountain and back to Denver. Strike two. Jones would not accept me.
Later that night, back down in Denver I reflected on the day and the defeat. I felt the sting of it, but I also felt respect for it. What was it about this route that had now rebuffed me twice? It would have been so great to have completed Jones that day, but it was also very cool that I couldn’t simply walk up to the mountains and push them over. What satisfaction would there be in that? What question would would be answered in doing so?
Perhaps there would be no answer to the question this year. October arrived and snow fell in the high country. Alpine season was once again closed. But 2022 was not a wash, and not a failure. I had begun making new inquiries about who I was, and why I ride. I had begun trying to collect pieces of the puzzle, the final image not fully visible.
Deep down I want to be a person that can lean into hard things and find what is on the other side of them. I want to be that sort of cyclist as well. Riding alone, all day, into the mountains is hard for me. I depend on distraction from friends, or podcasts, or even optimism to transport me through tough moments, and when distraction isn’t there I have to live through the full intensity of those present challenges. I have to stare negative things in the eye; things like fatigue, loneliness, doubt, danger, and the lot. That isn’t fun for me to do, it isn’t fun for anyone, but it might be the only way to sort out who we are as individuals.
Colorado’s peaks faded further into fall, and three weeks passed. The year anniversary of the dissolution of my squad of ride friends vaguely came and went. I was adjusting to the disappointment of another year of my Jones goal not achieved. It would be that same nine or ten months before I could attempt the route again. Or would it?
Colorado’s snow came late in 2022. Typically we see first signs of it in mid September, but by mid October we had only seen a few passing mountain storms. The peaks weren’t buried yet, they were merely sugar dusted. I investigated the forecast and saw a day where work and conditions weren’t outright prohibitive of an impulsive third try at my route. Not surprisingly the familiar pangs and nerves returned as I considered it, but they were drowned out by a stronger sense of self and a hunger amplified by a the few weeks of regret I had just experienced. If I had one more chance at Jones there was no way I could pass it up.
I returned to those miles leading out of town. Returned to those climbs and sensations fresh from three weeks ago. Upon arriving in Idaho Springs I even returned to the wind. I swore. Not again! It couldn’t end this way. But there was no denying those trees were bowed over and that trash was blowing by. I ignored the signs and plowed ahead. I skipped McDonalds. I had no time for that. I was so much more focused on the goal this third time and I wasted no time making my way towards it. I rode in a state of denial as the lower slopes of Berthoud Pass crept by me and Jones inched closer. The wind was almost certainly going to defeat me again, but I was here, I felt good, and I wouldn’t know my fate until I stood on the pass.
A couple of hours later I made the saddle. Two hours earlier in the day this time, but once again with a stiff wind pushing me backwards. It was still strong enough to lift my bike off the ground like a kite. This time I pushed back and explored a little further up the ridge. To my surprise the wind subsided as the terrain undulated. Was the route passable? Could this be the day? It was too soon to say but with every footstep and pedal I gained more self confidence. I had been on this trail before, I had dressed in the right gear, I felt strong, my pace was acceptable. I felt new sensations bubbling up: Hope and optimism. I might just have this!
I hit snow soon after. The depth varied and it muted my outlook. I couldn’t risk getting high up and sliding off of an exposed scree field. The trail passed through a few of those, and at times disappeared completely under the snow. Carins showed the way, as did the ridge itself. I kept climbing. Pettingell peak was a constant sentry along the route. It is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful peaks in Colorado and it stands alone in its massiveness with thousands of feet of prominence peeling off directly below the vertical apex.
Ride, walk, hike, kick. That was how progress was made. Temperatures ranged in the 20s and into the 30s up that high, and the wind brought with it chill. But the sun was my ally and it heated my face and body faithfully through the crux of the route.
Suddenly, and before I was expecting it, I was there: The high point of the ride. 39.742191, -105.882366. I stood there in disbelief unable to reconcile the moments that I had imagined in my head over and over with the moment that I was now standing in and living. Relief hit, then joy, then euphoria. I can’t put into words how it felt to stand there. This was not Everest, this was not K2, this moment did not rank among the palmares of human accomplishment, but none of that mattered. This was my goal, my mountain, and my personal victory. I stood there, I soaked it up, and then I realized how incredibly far away from home I still was, so late in the day.
The descents from mountains aren’t much spoken of. That struggle for the apex is over, and the mundane task of getting home to family, food, and sleep is the last to check off. Super Jones doesn’t let you get off that easy though. The ride home is far from downhill, and the extended dirt climb up Little Bear road stole the last of my strength and the last of the daylight from me. As I summited highway 103 at Mestaa’Ėhehe pass the final 35 mile descent to Denver was done in total darkness. The cold set in, and for the last time the mood descended as well.
My tail light failed as I neared the town of Evergreen. I had ten miles of dark descending through a serpentine Bear Creek Canyon before the mountains left me in the embrace of city streets and streetlights in Morrison. With no taillight to keep me visible I had a serious safety issue to solve. I thought for a moment and decided that it was better to be seen from behind by motorists than from in front, so I switched my headlight to red blinker mode and pointed it at traffic behind me. In front of me there was only near, but not total blackness.
In the faint light of the night sky I could see the yellow and white stripes of the paved road beneath me. My eyes adjusted slightly and things became more clear. I couldn’t see well, but I could see well enough to keep going. Downward I plunged along a road I’ve ridden recently and countless times. I knew its features nearly by memory. There would be no potholes, there would be no degraded pavement. I eased up on my brakes and gained speed. I used my peripheral vision instead of my direct vision because somehow I could see better by not looking directly where I wanted to go. I freewheeled and pedaled through the dark with each rise and fall of the road. The air warmed and so did my body. My muscles stopped shivering and my nerves began to let go of what they had been carrying all day, all year.
In that exact moment I broke through to the other side. Other side of what? I don’t know, but I felt it happen and knew it to be true. I was absolutely content. Content with the completion of Jones. Content with myself, content with being alone, content with whatever definition of cyclist, or even person I fit. With light and sight and fear stripped from the remaining day all that was left was darkness and clarity. At exactly right now everything was okay, and good. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
In 2022 I spent a lot of time alone with myself, on a bike, in a way that I hadn’t been in a long long time. Once the ache of it subsided enough, I had an opportunity to test myself and learn who I was out there when it was only me. What a gift the year was. 2020 and 2021 were defined by adventure with friends, and 2023 shows indications that the old adventure band is getting back together. I’m so happy for that. But 2022 for me will always be the year was defined by solo adventures and personal discovery of a whole new type. I wouldn’t trade these past three years for anything. I wouldn’t change a thing.
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