Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bucket List Item #273: Circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains

It was a ride that I'd been dreaming of since I bought my first road bike over three years ago.  It was also a ride that I'd been terrified of trying for just as long.

What's funny about that, is that I'd ridden almost every part of the route at some time in the last 3 years.  In fact, there was only about two miles that would be "undiscovered country" for me.

So, for one of the last items on my El Paso bucket list, I decided that I would circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains.

El Paso is roughly horseshoe shaped, with the Franklin Mountains sitting in the center of the city.  There are three passes over the mountains, Scenic Drive on the south end, Transmountain Road in the middle, and Anthony Gap to the north.  To do the mountains justice, I decided to skip the middle, and use the north and south passes when crossing over.

I rolled out just before sunrise with the air a crisp 43 degrees.  The wind would stay fairly consistent, about 10 mph from the north, for my entire ride.  I made sure to wear my heart rate monitor to help maintain a low heart rate and level of exertion.  Although the route was only 72 miles, I wasn't sure what unknown obstacles I might face, surprise detours, etc., and wanted to conserve enough energy to overcome anything.

The climb over Scenic Drive was uneventful, I stayed light in the saddle and wasted nothing summiting and coasting down the backside.  Almost immediately, the temperature dropped 5 degrees and I was incredibly grateful for the layers I'd almost left behind.

On the west side of the mountains, I zig-zagged through side streets, making my way to Mesa Street, for the crossing into the Rio Grande valley.  This was my first time on the major street and the reason I'd taken off so early.  Turning onto the road, I spied two other riders in front of me, just close enough that I could bridge the gap and jump onto their tail.

I was suddenly faced with an unexpected opportunity and decision.  Did I bridge the gap and join them along Mesa, save myself about 10 miles overall, and feel safer with a group for security?

I asked myself what a half-crazed, masochistic sasquatch would do.

I turned left on Executive and crossed I-10 into the river valley.

The temperature dropped another 5 degrees in the valley and I soon found myself along familiar roads.  My fingers were numb but traffic was still fairly light, with the first church goers of the day the only other cars on the streets.

Par for the course, another flat tire.
My first stop was the Johhny Lolitas coffee shop in La Union, NM, about 27 miles into the ride.  I pulled into their gravel lot and coasted up to the shop.  And that's when I noticed the goathead embedded deep into my front tire.


It was what I was most afraid of on a ride this long and so far from help.  Flat tires.  Well, that, and getting run over.  That's also not fun.

I ingnored it and went inside to thaw out and get some coffee and sugar into my system.  The proprietors are fantastic local bicycle advocates and a standard breakstop or start/finish point for rides on the west side.

Warmed up, I got to work patching the front tire.  That's when the massage therapist showed up.

Oh, the people you'll meet.

She offered me a ride, gave me her card, offered me a massage, offered another ride, then made me promise to give her a phone call if I ran into any trouble.  And that's when I realized that I had left my wedding ring at home, gloves were off, and sleeves rolled back.  Maybe she was drawn to my animal magnetism or the pheromones of athletic effort.  I like to think that I look real good in my cycling kit.

Specializing in relaxation, deep tissue, myofacial release
and scar tissue release.
I can dream, can't I?

The ride up the valley and then east to Anthony Gap was peaceful, quiet and scenic.  I found myself mostly alone on the road with only the occasional cyclist heading opposite to wave to.  It was at this point in the ride, while pedaling through barren, winter slumbering pecan orchards,  that I realized I was truly committed to finishing this ride as planned.

There's always that moment in longer rides, especially so in this one, that you realize that you are totally committed to finishing what you started.  It may be that you have gone too far to turn around, that it's easier to just finish the route, or maybe you've already reached the halfway point in an out-and-back course and you have no choice but to finish.  Either way, there's no quitting and you start counting down the miles, instead of counting up. 

The climb up Anthony Gap is a solid 5 miles with a few grades that peak over 10%.  Once I crossed the summit, most of the remaining mileage would be slightly downhill, albeit, some of it with a challenging crosswind.  It was on this climb and descent that I encountered my first traffic issues.  Drivers in El Paso don't seem to be mindful of anything around them, and even exhibit erratic and homicidal tendencies.  I found myself fighting to maintain a safe bubble around me while cars passed well within 3 feet.  More than once oncoming traffic decided I was not an obstacle to their passing slower cars.  I finally had to push the image out of my head of colliding head on with little more than carbon fiber and styrofoam between me and 1,000 lbs of speeding aluminum.

One more reason I'm glad to be leaving El Paso behind.

Turning south onto War Highway (connects El Paso to White Sands Missile Range) I finally found my first bit of clean shoulder to ride on.  I try to measure how safe a shoulder is by how much broken glass, twisted metal and shredded particle board is waiting to kill me.  In a 72 mile ride, this was the only 4 mile section I felt comfortable riding.

Go figure.

I left the War Highway behind and headed east, only stopping to find a quiet, inconspicuous bush and eat some delicious peanut butter bars.  (Mom's recipe with Charla's twist)  The rest of the ride was familiar turf, and once I turned south I could ride the tailwind the 18 miles to home. 

When I pulled into my driveway, Charla was waiting for me.  My legs were shaking, my arms were tired, and I was short of breath.  I definitely didn't eat enough on the ride, and probably should have drank more water.  But I was finished, with only one flat out on the route to slow me down.  (later that afternoon, I would check on my bike to find both tires had slow leaks and were completely flat)

I've ridden longer rides and I've ridden harder rides.  But this ride will always be singular in my memory for what it signified in how far I've come as a cyclist.  Three years ago, a ride this long, covering so many different areas around town and so far away from my support base was beyond intimidating.

Only in perspective does it now seem hardly terrifying at all. 

 My biggest rides of the last year have all led me to this final test of my commitment and development as a cyclist.  The Death Ride was over 230 miles in 3 days (111 miles on the longest day), the Chile Pepper Challenge was a fast 100 mile bike ride, and the climb up Haleakala Volcano started at sea level and climbed straight up to 10,000 feet.  All have given me the perspective to recognize that nothing is impossible once you have committed to achieving it and put in the preparation to do so.

Circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains, check!

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