At 7,902 feet above sea level, Aspen, Colorado's air is thin enough to leave someone from New Oreans, 2 feet below sea level, gasping for breath after the exertion of getting dressed in the morning. From Aspen, Highway 82 heads east and up 19 miles and 4,193 feet to Independence Pass on the Continental Divide, 12,095 feet above sea level. The two-lane road sometimes narrows to one lane. In other places, the sheer drop off the side of the road comes to where the white line would be on most roads. So not only is there no shoulder, it seems like there is not even an edge to the road. This is the road from Aspen to Independence Pass. The climb is relentless, averaging over 4% over the 19 miles, steep enough in some places for cars to labor. You can count on one hand the number of times that the road is near level or just slightly downhill and never for more than a couple of hundred yards. No, once you start up toward Independence Pass, the road is uphill, for practical purposes, the entire 19 miles. And as the altitude increases the air gradually gets thinner.
On July 3, 2003, this old fat guy from New Orleans rode a rented Lightspeed Capella from Aspen to Independence Pass. Now making this ride is not necessarily that big a deal. This is a popular ride for area cyclists, just as cyclists from Vail and Frisco enjoy riding up to 10,600 foot Vail Pass on bike lanes that more or less parallel I-70 west of Denver. But is was a ride of a lifetime for a modestly fit bicycle commuter from sea level where the roads are all perfectly flat. Never mind that it took 3 hours to ride a distance normally covered in an hour or so, it is a ride. The fact that I made it is something I will cherish. I will admit to two very brief stops, neither of which was to rest. I only had one pop top bottle so I had to stop about 30 seconds to refill it from a screw top. Later I thought I should eat so I stopped less than a minute to gulp down half an energy bar. I wouldn't normally stop to eat but at 4-5 mph and shaky I didn't trust myself to take a hand off the bar for any length of time. Oh, and on the way up I stopped long enough to toss a rock off the downhill lane so I wouldn't have to dodge it coming down.
I am still surprised that I made it to the top. With the rarified atmosphere and never getting to ride hills I had my doubts. The only way I was able to keep going was to keep my breathing controlled. I was breathing VERY HARD the whole way, but any time I started gasping I backed off until I could get in control with very deep belly breathing. As hard as it was, I never thought "I can't go on. I have to turn around.", but starting at about 4 miles I often thought "I don't see how I can keep this up for another (15, 12, 10, 5, etc.) miles." By focusing on controlled breathing and just keeping the pedals turning over, the mile markers passed by, if ever so slowly. Then, when I rounded the last bend and realized I was practically there, the road pitched up cruelly steeper for the last 300-400 meters with a particularly nasty final 100. I was thinking I would surely have to walk the last 50-75, but by alternately standing to get some momentum then sitting to conserve that last bit of energy, I made all the way, even turning to go up a little farther on a path to some scenic overlooks to get some pictures.
After some pictures I headed down, sometimes reaching speeds very close to 50 mph before backing off a little. I didn't want to use my brakes much, but anything over 40 mph is getting too scary for me, especially on a narrow, not-too-smooth road occasionally littered with fallen rocks. The return took less than an hour, and I was really irritated on the few occasions when I actually had to PEDAL. The bike needed to be back to the shop at 10:00 to get the half day rental rate. Good thing I left 15 minutes earlier than planned because I got back at 9:56! I don't think a few minutes would have mattered. The guys at Aspen Velo were great and very encouraging when I told them what I planned and expressed doubts. They set me up with a beautiful Lightspeed Capella with a triple and 25 tooth big cog in back. Most of the climb I was on the 30/23 or 25 and would have liked a 28 or 30 in back at times!
After the ride I told my wife it was one of the hardest things I have done, even harder than the marathon I ran years ago which actually wasn't that bad. I don't think I have ever worked so hard for 3 hours so close to the red line. I am glad I did it, and enjoyed ever masochistic minute. I'm not sure I want to do it again unless I have time to up my fitness level to make it more managable! It's a great ride. Try it if you are ever in the area.