2010 First Annual Assault on the Peak: Hardest Bike Ride I've Ever Done

Derrick Bourgeois

I pulled into the checkpoint at Glen Cove, 11,440 ft, right about 3 hours into the ride. That was well under the cutoff time so I had no worries there and after grabbing some food, topping off my water bottles, and putting on my wind breaker, I continued on, now managing some 3.5 to 4-mph. I still felt good, strong even despite my mediocre speed.
Then somewhere past the Devil's Playground and nearing 13,000 ft, the cramps set in! It seemed as though every muscle below the knee in both legs was cramping up and I had no choice but to dismount and stretch my legs. I stood up and felt light-headed, drunk even. I squatted down, my head lying on the top tube of my bike. I started giggling for no apparent reason. A sudden urge to sleep set in and I closed my eyes and felt myself start to fade away. I knew it was the altitude. I stood up, shook it off as best I could, and got back on my bike and pedaling on.
I didn't get far before the cramps set in again. And again and again, every few hundred yards it seemed. Shortly, I came across a long line of cyclists dismounted and pushing their bikes up the road. I passed several before the cramps set in. Then they came walking past me. And so began the "dance". Ride past the walkers, cramp, and stop only to have them walk past me. It might have been easier to walk but I had planned to ride my bike to the top and that's what I was going to do. I struggled on. At one point a strong wind gust hit me head on and brought me to a complete stop. I had to put my feet down or fall over
At long last, the cramps subsided a bit and I was able to make some progress. I was nearing the end with each switch back. Finally, the summit house was insight. A quarter of a mile or so more and I would be there, on top of Pikes Peak. I came in at 5 hours 44 minutes. No records were set and even a woman with one leg and a guy on a unicycle passed me but I made it.
The organizers had arranged to transport our warm clothing bags to the top ahead of us; so I quickly found mine and put on my tights and thermal jacket. I met up with a friend who was riding an '88 Cannondale upgraded to a triple and long cage derailleur. After resting a bit we started down.
If the climb up had been difficult, the decent off a 14,000 ft peak into swirling 30-45-mph winds bordered on terrifying. The steepness of the road caused the bike to want to accelerate but the winds were too strong to risk moving at speed. I had no choice but to rely on the brakes to keep things under control. I was beyond white knuckles - now my hands were cramping from constant pressure on the brake levers, struggling to keep the speed between 10 and 20-mph. Every few switchbacks I would stop and check the brakes and rims. The rims were too hot to touch. I'd let them cool then start down again. I laughed at what I was thinking at that moment: back in the 60s Freni Universal had an advertisement that showed a rider using Universal brakes descending a steep, winding mountain road as his competitors were crashing as their brakes failed. The thought kept occurring to me: I hope to God that wasn't just advertising hype. Well, Universal must have been telling the truth since I made it down safely. Once I got down below timberline, the trees blocked the wind.
After stopping again at Glen Cove and chatting with the people manning the rest stop, I headed on to the unpaved section of road again. This time we had to keep our speed in check due to the roughness of the road. Finally we cleared the dirt and got back on to pavement and I was able to open up the Bottecchia on the decent. The road was narrow and winding with trees on both sides, presenting the risk of animals jumping out. So it generally wasn't safe to push it past 30-mph but the Bottecchia handled beautifully, neutral and balanced, carving every corner. In one longer stretch I brought it up to 43-mph. Even the Universal brakes were awesome. The lever pull was hard but the stopping power was excellent, enough to control a 25-lb bike and 185-lb rider on 10% descents again and again without fade. The only thing I would change for next year's ride would be the crank.
The details of the equipment…rather than simply ride up the mountain with the all the aid of modern cycling equipment, I wanted to add to the challenge by going completely old school or at least as old school as possible. To that end I choose my favorite bike, a 1973 Bottecchia Grand Turismo. It is a classic racing machine of its era with a frame built of Columbus SL tubing, Prugnat lugs, and Campagnolo fork ends and drop outs. In its sport-touring configuration, it weights just a little under 25-lbs. The drive train is a special combination of a French Nervar Star model crankset, Campagnolo Record shifters and front derailleur, and a relatively rare Campagnolo long cage Rally rear derailleur that allows me to use a 34t large cog in the rear. There are 5 cogs on the freewheel with a 14-34 configuration, and it uses down tube, friction shifters. That means no indexed or "click" shifting as you have to shift by feel and sound.
The brakes are also typically old school Universal Model 61 of the Italian brake manufacturer Freni Universal. That model brake equipped most of the Italian bikes in the pro peloton from 1961 to 1967 and were still the most common brakes on high-end Italian bikes until the mid 70s so they were a quality brake of their time. That said, they are an old center pull design that has more flex than a typical modern dual pivot brake caliper and the levers have less leverage than a modern brake and must be operated from down in the drops since you would not be able to generate enough force on the lever to stop from the "tops" or "hoods" position common today. They require a "manly" pull to stop.
Everything on the bike is correct for the early 70s period with one exception - the pedals. I use modern Look clipless pedals because they work really well and I like to have the same type of pedals on my road bikes so that I switch back and forth without needed different bike shoes. The Look ARC cleat system dates back to 1984. So I hope you can allow me that one small discrepancy. I also wore a vintage Bottecchia jersey and cycling cap although the rules and good sense required that I wear a modern helmet.

Bent Fork Chronicles - Vol 3 Issue 5 October 2010

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