There are all kinds of ways in which we boomers test ourselves. Careers, relationships, accomplishments of many kinds. For Denver lawyer Jeff Pearson, the test this summer was a bike ride. Not a simple one either.
I started road biking three years ago, after changing out both knees. Last June, a few months before I turned sixty-nine, I signed up for a bicycle experience called “Ride the Rockies” and it’s unlike anything I’d ever attempted: a six-day, 400-mile tour through the Rocky Mountains with 30,000 feet of elevation gain. Friends said if I trained I could do it, and I’d have fun. I trained, but wasn’t convinced. Not that I could do it, nor that I’d have fun.
Day 1 was a gentle pull from the town of Carbondale on Colorado’s Western Slope to the resort town of Aspen. That was easy. The only easy day of the week.
Day 2 began with the ascent of Independence Pass. If you don’t think the air is thin at 12,096 feet, you haven’t tried it.
Day 3 was reputed to be the hardest ride of them all. Popularly known as the Copper Triangle, it required back-to-back climbs of three mountain passes — over 6,500 feet of elevation gain in a single day.
The night before Day 3, it rained and hailed. The temperature plummeted. In the morning, my derailleurs — basically, the gizmos that control the gears — were coated with ice. I put on my warmest gear. Teeth chattering, I stood by my bicycle in the mountain shadows. Over coffee, I talked to riders who’d decided not to ride. Maybe I shouldn’t. But what would that mean? Before I could work out an answer, a woman rode up.
“Ready?” she asked.
“I can’t feel my toes.”
“Come on. You’ll warm up as we go.”
By noon I’d finished two of the three Copper Triangle passes. An hour later I’d begun the ascent of Vail Pass, the longest climb of the three and 10,662 feet above sea level at the top. That was the third and final apex in the triangle. Two hours later I crested it and was speeding down the other side to the Copper Mountain resort where the day began. People rang cow bells to welcome us back. I felt tears in my eyes.
I was proud of myself, but something was off. That night, lying awake in my tent, I thought I understood. For me, finishing Day 3, indeed signing up for the ride in the first place, had little to do with the fun that friends had told me about. It had to do with denying mortality. I might be almost 69, but if I really nailed the ride, I’d never get sick, I’d never die. Of course if I didn’t nail the ride, the opposite would be true.
After this little epiphany, I began to relax. I laughed when the shower trucks ran out of hot water. I whooped when I saw a moose-calf romping in Rocky Mountain National Park. I sang to the wind as it tried to drive us off the mountain on Trail Ridge Road (12,183 feet at its summit, by the way).
When I got home, and friends asked how the ride was, I said, “Fun.” By then I believed it. To get to that point, though, I’d had to pass the Copper Triangle test, then wake up to the fact that there was no such test. So every day now, on the bike or off, I try to remind myself: the ride is the thing. I’ll keep this up until I take on some new challenge, and forget.