500 Miles, Are You Insane?
Well, as a matter of fact, it probably depends on who you ask.
When I tell people that I want to bike for 500 miles straight in a single, continuous, timed race… well… I suppose you can imagine the responses.
And this is roughly the course, with some deviations to avoid wilderness areas where bicycles are prohibited. It’s mostly rugged, picaresque, high-country singletrack from Denver to Durango through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. The Colorado Trail Race is a dream for an outdoorsy, athletic engineer like myself.
Because It’s There
When asked why George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth, he responded simply “because it’s there.” Most people don’t understand this answer. Particularly in western cultures that are principled in productivity and efficiency, there is no room for doing something merely because it is available to be done.
The real answer is much more complex. It’s not just because it exists; it is also because a person wants to learn more about themselves. Can I do it? How will I prepare? How will I operate when there is real risk of injury or death?
A Different Kind of Race
Athletes have a particular affinity for their equipment beyond the necessity of that equipment to participate in their sport. Rather, a tennis player’s racquet becomes an extension of his body for the duration of the game. A runner’s shoes are her feet for 26 miles. A swimmer’s wetsuit is the body’s skin for 4 kilometers.
Yet, not all athletes care for their equipment the same way. In a short race, it’s not as critical to have shoes that perfectly conform to the foot. In a 90-minute soccer match, the ball makes little difference to the outcome of the game.
Cycling is different. In cycling, whether long or short distance, the equipment can win or lose the race. A simple mechanical failure like breaking a spoke or flatting a tire is akin to a runner’s shoelace breaking. It is reparable, but it will most likely cost the runner the win.
Appropriately, distance cyclists are in tune with their equipment to a degree much higher than a hockey or football player. The complexity of drivetrain interactions, friction, bike fitment, and gearing all play together to carry the cyclist to their destination. If there is one component or subsystem that doesn’t play nice, the cyclist will lose.
It’s no wonder that many amateur cyclists come out of technical fields. Engineers, technologists, and scientists all have a special affinity for mechanical systems that most of the world doesn’t understand. Why would you want to depend on this complex mechanical beast when you could demonstrate your fitness in any number of other events that require almost no other equipment besides shoes or a swimsuit?
Because as you learn the details and nuances of bicycle maintenance and tuning, as well as the technical proficiency to ride a bicycle for long distances, especially off-road through the mountains…. you learn about yourself.
Check out some race reports from the Colorado Trail Race.
Also check out how gorgeous the mountains are in the summer.