mara ride the rockies

Learning to Love (Cycling) Again

By Mara Abbott,
Olympian, CTS Contributing Editor

Less than ten kilometers into this year’s Ride the Rockies, I bailed into the refuge of a hapless course marshal’s SUV.  It was then, as I cranked the heat and downloaded a newspaper onto my phone, that I got my first inkling of just how awesome the week was going to be.  

The ribbon-cutting and official start of the 2018 Ride the Rockies had taken place in the emerging daylight of 6am. As we casually cruised down a shaded, high-altitude valley, it did not take too long to become unacceptably cold. My professional racing career left me with far too many memories of unacceptably cold situations on my bicycle, so it was with great delight that I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually have to endure that discomfort anymore. This is how I found myself begging my way – like the unprepared tour rider I was – into that toasty vehicle, telling myself gleefully that I could stay as long as I liked. The bliss actually was curtailed after forty-five minutes, as the sun began peeking over the ridge and my new favorite course marshal came knocking on the window to inform me that she did, indeed, have other places to go that morning.  I saddled up and rode on to discover some of my early-starting comrades had found another solution – warming their hands over a giant pancake griddle at the first rest stop.

This was definitely a new kind of bike riding.  

I haven’t ridden very much since my retirement from pro cycling in August of 2016 – almost two years now.  Cycling had always been my vehicle for accomplishment rather than experience. As a racer I was in love with the challenge of discovering potential – so once I was no longer competing it just didn’t make sense to spend a bunch of hours pedaling my old training routes for amusement. I basically stopped cold turkey.

I had made a half-hearted attempt to ride a bit in the lead-up to Ride the Rockies, but it turns out neglected, five-year-old training bikes have a penchant for catastrophically self-destructing, which provided a convenient escape from my training plan. Thus, I arrived at the start in Breckenridge a bit unprepared, but planned to ride the prologue and the first stage as I had promised, before quickly retreating back down the mountain and away from Bike World. I figured I could fake fitness for two days, right?

However, it turns out that Ride the Rockies is like no Bike World I had ever experienced before. CTS coaches Chris Carmichael, Charlie Livermore, and Jim Rutberg encouraged me and invited me to ride with them. The ethos of the entire event was inclusion, not competition, and I found I couldn’t make myself leave. Each morning I claimed, “Just one more day…” but the next sunrise kept proving me to be a liar.

There are no marked finish lines or one-kilometer-to-go banners to end each day’s course at Ride the Rockies. I came to understand we were genuinely just there to experience the Colorado mountains on roads that had been in my backyard my entire life, but that I had never ridden. Such an expedition would have been an unnecessary stressor in my training plan. For the first time, my goal was not to be the most impressive person out there, which was fortunate because the duo who completed the route on handcycles, the man riding ninety-mile days on a fat bike, and the riders pedaling into the finish still smiling at 7pm were locked in a three-way-tie for that title.  

Among a supportive horde of two thousand other riders, I began to remember what it felt like to ride again, to rediscover the so-familiar, so-repressed sensations of muscular control and repetition, as I remembered what it meant to vary my cadence and accelerate. I indulged once again in the satisfaction of feeling worn out at the end of a long day, and the excitement of waking up ravenous for breakfast and ready to get back on the road. Though I no longer wore a pro kit or had big goals, it turned out I still had the ability to feel like me, like I always had, just riding a bike.

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I learned it was actually fun – rather than a sign of weakness – to stop at all of the aid stations.  I rode slowly when I wanted to, and sped up when the mood took me, and I got dropped from a group because I stopped to take a picture, and then caught up when they slowed to look at a goat farm. Following some unspoken agreement that it was time for a bit of a challenge, I got suckered into a fast rotation with Chris and Charlie, suddenly remembering what it felt like to ride with effort and precision before we started coasting at an equally arbitrary moment after we wore ourselves out. We played on bikes. I had forgotten that was possible.

Many of you know this, but I guess I am just learning: riding bikes can be as simple as pure enjoyment, unprescribed physical experience, and good company. It turns out there are indeed cycling communities where I can ride without feeling judged, analyzed, or pressured to act or perform a certain way. To all of the riders, volunteers and staff at the 2018 Ride the Rockies – thank you for showing that to me.

I’m still new at the game, but if you are planning to participate in a big tour or gran fondo, I will share my best tips that I learned over the last week of riding.

  1. Remember where you put your bike at the aid station.  There is a certain freedom to just being able to lay your bike down in the grass among hundreds of others. That being said, the aid stations at Ride the Rockies are fairly large.  If you get over-excited by the orange slices and forget where you stored your steed, it may take you awhile to find it again.

  2. Go for the Grapes.  When opportunities to snack are plentiful, quick and concentrated energy isn’t a priority, and the sun is high in the midday sky, it turns out that grapes are an excellent jersey pocket snack.  They are convenient and refreshing to munch on while spinning down the road in the sunshine, and reaching into your pocket to find a forgotten grape stem is far preferable to discovering a handful of old banana peel.

  3. Enjoy breakfast.  I spent many years perfecting the exact breakfast that would lie in my digestive tract just the way I wanted it to. For a more relaxed style of riding, I discovered: You can eat whatever you want at breakfast. If it doesn’t sit well, just ride slower until things settle down. Go for the greasy muffins. Go for the hot sauce and eggs. Live it up.

  4. Pack chamois cream. Packing chamois cream in your day bag is a good idea, if only because you might just overhear someone say, “I will give twenty dollars to anyone who can give me chamois cream right now,” and he might just mean it.

Most of all, look around and enjoy the company. There is no finish line, there is no prize, and it turns out that’s just fine.

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Comments 12

  1. Hope you keep riding the tours of our country on the saddle of your bike!
    Try RAGBRAI some time – last full week in July, across Iowa. More than 8000 other riders experiencing the same thing all together!
    I call it Woodstock on Wheels!

  2. And you found out riders, like me, can have so much fun they are actually singing! Although Chris shut me down unless I pulled. Lol. It was great fun.. thanks Mara!

  3. Beautifully written Mara. I have done Ride the Rockies for 14 years and I have raced. ( not at your level) What you said is so true. I now can say I have done every pass in our beautiful state because of RTR and I’ve met amazing people along the way.

  4. “five-year-old training bikes have a penchant for catastrophically self-destructing”

    CARBON FIBER, no doubt!! (I have a 9-year-old TI bike, with 53,000 miles, that’s no wheres near “self destructing!”)

  5. I have read other pro cyclists’ testimonials about not riding if there’s no team or race to prepare. Glad to have an ex-racer in the fold. As a wannabe weight weenie, I have no desire to complete even a metric century on a phat bike, but I definitely agree that those who do define the joy of riding. Keep the rubber side down, and your arm warmers inside your sleeves.

  6. Great insight Mara,
    I think many people will benefit from your experience, and realize, in many ways, the joy is in the journey-the ride-, as much or more than the destination / goal.
    Being around the folks you now are, that community, is what humans have been striving for & embracing for eons, what a treat.
    Having a beautiful place like the Rockies, surely makes it even more special.

  7. I really enjoyed this article, I saw myself in many different ways here. Not so much that I was a professional racer but to just give myself permission to enjoy the way the ride unfolds. That it is ok you don’t stick with a group, sometimes you push past others, stopping to take a picture or take in the sights, and most important, it isn’t a race.

    Great reminder of just enjoying the ride so you can love the sport even more.

    Thanks for this!

  8. Mara,
    I think you captured what Ride the Rockies is for so many riders. It was nice meeting at chatting with you at the prologue.
    I love my bike.

  9. As another ex-racer, I can easily say that Ride the Rockies was the most fun I ever had on a bike. It definitely opened my eyes to the enjoyment of riding bikes just for the sake of riding. I agree 100% with everything Mara wrote, and especially about breakfast!

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