Reinventing the Wheel

It’s been said that the only certainty is change. The last couple of weeks have really driven this home for me. It started with a short-notice decision to head to Sedona, AZ, for a weekend of early-season mountain biking. In pulling stuff together I was reminded that I’ve been riding for the last year or so on Jess’s rear wheel due to a mechanical failure in my own wheel that cannot be fixed due to the lack of replacement parts. I’ve been wanting to return Jess’s wheel for several reasons, but after searching around somewhat extensively I’ve discovered that the growing popularity of 29er and 27.5er wheels, 26″ mountain bike wheels are becoming scarce. This is especially true in the middle ground between the ultra-expensive Cadillac parts and the el-cheapo.

Luckily, on this occasion, we’re a family of pack rats and a desperate scavenger hunt through the garage turned up not only a “new” rear hub, but also a matching rim. I had purchased some spares when they were being discontinued, but never used most of them. So, for the cost of 3 dozen spokes and nipples (and a couple of hours of time) I could build a nearly identical replacement and re-live the glory of the early 2000s.

This week Phoebe is a bit hobbled with not 1, but 2 sprained ankles, so I thought I’d offer her the opportunity to help with the wheel build. Now, with a 5-11/12 year old you never know how they’ll respond, but she was super excited to build a wheel. So yesterday after dinner we set to work with the rim, hub, spokes (2-sizes), nipples, and guidebook (The Bicycle Wheel, by Jobst Brandt) spread out before us.

I’ll spare you all of the technical details (a quick search back through old blog posts will turn up an extended description of wheel building) and simply relay that Phoebe had a blast. Her pattern skills were invaluable in aligning the spokes to the holes, and you’d have been amazed to hear her read the instructions as we went. It was chock full of the usual kindergarten sight words like incremental and lateral stress. Jess captured a couple of pictures and this cool interview with Phoebe midway through the assembly. BTW, Phoebe now says that wheel building is easy. Maybe she has another vocation to add to doctor, banker, and delicatessen worker.


Some amazing reading:

After Phoebe went to bed, I finished off the build by tensioning, centering, and truing the wheel. Now all I need to do is find some elusive 26″ tires. . . Bike industry, I’ve a bone to pick with you!

Vacation in PA

Last week we took a nice vacation trip to Ephrata, PA, to visit with Phoebe’s Grammie and Pappy. My sister Erika was also there part of the time with Phoebe’s cousins Genevieve and Cordelia (unfortunately Heidi was stuck in Pittsburgh working). For most of the family, the trip started early Tuesday morning when we woke up and hopped into the car in order to make our 8:30 a.m. flight to Philidelphia, but I got a jump on Jess and Phoebe by taking Monday off to escape the blazing summer heat by doing some mountain biking. Dann and I left Lafayette at about 6:30 a.m. and headed up to the Copper Mountain ski area. We found some parking and made the out-and-back ride along the Colorado Trail to Searle Pass. It was pretty brutal in my current (activity-challenged) physical state, but the views were amazing and the downhill run back to civilization easily worth the pain. I can see why it’s a highly regarded ride.

This was some of the nicest singletrack on the ride. We climbed gently up a long valley meadow before eventually getting up to treeline.
Here’s the view we were rewarded with for all of the effort to reach Searle Pass.
Here I am on the way back down next to a little mountain stream. The stream was a couple of hundred feet below the pass and just above Janet’s Cabin.
Here’s a shot of Dann from earlier in the ride. Look how much energy he still has!

Tuesday and Sunday were mostly lost to travel, but at least the travel was pretty easy. We did have a little bout of road-sickness with Phoebe just as we were reaching the airport, but she did great on the flight out. I, on the other hand, was starting to get nauseated as we landed in Philadelphia. I think one more highly-banked turn and I’d have been a goner. On the return flight, the tables were turned with Phoebe getting a little sick (yes, she actually did get sick on Jess’s leg). Thankfully it wasn’t too bad (depending on who you ask) and occurred right at the end of the flight, so she didn’t have to suffer through too much. In fact, she was so tuckered out from playing with her cousins and having a generally great time that she actually slept about 1/2 the time.

Hurry; let’s get this firetruck to Colorado ASAP!

On Wednesday, Don’s daughters came over and we all had a fantastic cookout. Despite the temps, we were able to lazily sit outside enjoying beer and chatting. Don set up a little sandbox and filled a kiddie pool for Phoebe and Genevieve. They had a great time playing in both, but seemed to especially enjoy putting the pool water into the sandbox and the sand into the pool. Hopefully Pappy will eventually get the sand dried out and be able to use his tub again for mixing concrete and mortar.

Phoebe and Genevieve had a lot of fun playing in the sandbox. In this pic it looks like Phoebe has already decided to fetch water from the pool.
We’re gonna need a lot more water.
Even Cordelia couldn’t resist enjoying some fun in the sun on the 4th.
Wow, look how fast this ball rolls down the hill.
There might be a lot of “plain folk” around Lancaster, but the crowd at the Mennonite church says they still like fireworks (and oldies). Our view was partially obstructed by a tree, but it was still a blast to watch.

Erika, Genevieve, and Cordelia had to leave early (relatively) on Friday morning so that they could get back to Pittsburgh in time for another week-long vacation. Now that’s a tough life! After the rest of us got motivated, we headed over to a nice little petting zoo within a park in Lancaster. Phoebe seemed to like the donkeys and Jess really liked petting the llama. I think everyone liked the pot-bellied pig, but she was a bit protective of her food. When Phoebe got too close, she was effectively backed off by a surprisingly quick and agile snout. After the petting zoo, we moved about 100 yards farther along the road through the park to another huge playground. Phoebe loves to climb around on the playground and had a blast on one of the slides. She’s taken to testing them for temperature (a very good idea) and pronouncing any warm play structure as “hot.” It’s very cute, if a little frustrating at times.

It was a few days early, but we all got to celebrate Genevieve’s 3rd birthday with Grammie and Pappy.
We also got a chance to see the wheat field get harvested. Can you tell where the lawn stops and the field starts?
The girls had a blast playing dress-up with Genevieve’s new costumes.

One of the nicest parts of the vacation was just sitting around and relaxing while the girls played doctor and “cooked” us various foods. We also owe the neighbors a thank you for letting us enjoy their pool. It felt great to cool off in the water, and Phoebe really loves swimming. As the week passed by, we knew it would be hard to say goodby and return to Boulder, but the onset of cooler temps and the Colorado monsoon season helped a bit with the motivation.

Here’s Phoebe telling Grammie and Pappy about the slide.
No wonder she was excited about the slide!
Phoebe and mom checking out the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. You can see that Phoebe was also wearing her new Noah’s Ark backpack. Perfect attire for a petting zoo. I think the pig had the right idea on such a hot afternoon.

Aside from being hot and humid all week, we had a great time on the trip. We even got in a little exercise. Jess managed to go for a jog with Don while the rest of us played with the girls at the playground, and both of us went for a nice bike ride while Phoebe and Grammie enjoyed a walk along a rail trail nearby. Luckily for us Don is better stocked than some bike rental shops, so his ability to outfit us with mounts, helmets, gloves, and (in my case) shoes was handy. We did run into one little snag with a stripped seat-clamp bolt (I’m that strong), but it was quickly remedied with a trip to the nearby hardware store. For us the trail was pretty shady, and the temps didn’t feel at all like the 101°F reality while riding. We also managed to cover enough terrain to rendezvous with a giant root-beer barrel. I hear it was a bit hotter at walking speed in the sun and seriously lacking in refreshment stands. Afterward we all enjoyed some lunch at a neat little pub and stopped for some ice cream on the way home.

The next day, we got up early, pulled our stuff together, exchanged some pics, and headed back to the airport in Philadelphia. It was a great vacation, but it’s always nice to be back home as well.

When we got back to Colorado, Phoebe spotted this really cool bug. It’s covered with about 2.7 million beads. Nice catch Phoebe!

Tin Cup Pass

The collegiate peaks blanketed in early snow.
The collegiate peaks blanketed in early snow.

Editorial Note: This story is way out of place chronologically, but I thought it might make a nice spring preview given the recent weather here in Boulder, CO. I was also telling Pete about this trip on the drive back from the Lake City Ice Festival last weekend and realized I still had this unfinished post.

A couple of weeks ago we headed back towards Salida with our friends Andy and Gretchen. Andy and Gretchen had just gotten married, so I guess it counts as a bit of a honeymoon for them, but for us it was just another chance to get some mountain biking in before the leaves turn. Of course, being in the mountain when the aspens are all turning a beautiful shade of yellow (occasionally red) isn’t bad either.

Our initial plan was to do some riding around Winter Park, but a terrible weather forecast sent us towards the Arkansas River valley with hopes for more hospitable temperatures. We left after work on Friday and munched on chips throughout the drive to stave off hunger. We pulled into the Rincon site along the Arkansas river just outside of Buena Vista with enough time to set up camp and reheat some of the yummy Indian food that Jess had made earlier in the week. It was a cool but pleasant and dry evening. We didn’t have enough wood for two nights of campfire, so we turned in a bit early.

Wow, what a view they had in the old mining town of Saint Elmo!
Wow, what a view they had in the old mining town of Saint Elmo!

The following morning I hopped out of the tent and started work on a typical Gribble camp breakfast. That’s either a breakfast burrito with egg, tomato, onion, pepper, and garlic all cooked fresh on the camp stove or a steaming lump of barely-edible instant oatmeal. Occasionally a rasher of bacon is used to augment the burrito option. Thankfully, this morning was the former, as the latter would be the following morning’s breakfast. Normally Andy and Gretchen pre-cook all sorts of yummy food that can easily be re-heated on a camp stove, but this weekend they packed in a hurry and were without a proper breakfast. We pointed them in the direction of a few breakfast spots in Salida and the timing worked out great. By the time we ate our breakfasts, cleaned up our dishes, prepped our mountain bikes, and drove to Salida, they’d just finished eating their meals.

We’d brought the Mukka Express (thanks Erika & Heidi) in order to brew fresh coffee, but our stove ran out of fuel before the espresso could finish. The resulting drink was weak and utterly disgusting, so we met up with Andy and Gretchen to get some proper espresso and plan the day’s ride.

There were a couple of variations of the Monarch Crest ride that were somewhat appealing, but I was concerned that it was too late a start for the amount of time we’d have to spend up above tree line. After pouring over the guidebook for a while, we settled on a scenic ride from Saint Elmo to Tin Cup via Tin Cup Pass. Both Saint Elmo and Tin Cup are “abandoned” mining towns that see far more action than some fully-inhabited mountain towns I’ve visited. I’d been looking forward to doing this scenic high-altitude ride for a while, so even though the mountain biking wasn’t technically challenging, I was still pretty excited.

The old general store and post office. They didn't seem to be any mail delivery on this day.
The old general store and post office. There didn't seem to be any mail delivery on this day.

When we were heading into camp Friday night, we picked the campsites along the river for our first inspection because they involved very little in the way of detours. As we drove back past the Chalk Cliffs, we passed two lovely campgrounds that turned out to have plenty of open sites. Either would have been far more idyllic than the somewhat barren spot along the river, but it would have also made for a much longer breakfast drive for Andy and Gretchen. For future trips, these look quite lovely and would make excellent starting points for some high altitude sight-seeing mountain bike rides.

We probably didn’t actually get the ride started until after noon, but it wasn’t a super long ride, so it seemed reasonable. It also featured a single high-altitude pass, so escape from bad weather (lightning) seemed assured. We checked out Saint Elmo briefly, then headed out of town. It was a nice little descent for about a 1/10 of a mile until we crossed a little creek and started climbing. From that point, it would be all uphill until we reached Tin Cup Pass.

Looking back towards Saint Elmo from near Tin Cup Pass.
Looking towards Tin Cup Pass from the meadow where we regrouped. The pass is the low point or saddle in the middle. You can just make out the road cutting up towards the pass.

Not long into the climb, I’d opened up a small lead on everyone, and while looking back to gauge the size of the gap I caught a glimpse of my rear tire. I’d discovered that it had gone badly out of true while on our last mountain bike ride in Nederland a couple of weeks earlier, but I’d forgotten all about the issue. I stopped at a wide grassy spot and set to examining the wheel. Since I have a small spoke wrench on the little multi-tool I typically carry, I thought a little truing would be a piece of cake. By the way, I highly recommend the Crank Brothers tool. Everything you really need in a small, lightweight package. Just dry it out after super wet rides or it will rust a bit!

I flipped the bike over onto the handle bars and gave the rear tire a slow spin. The wobble was terrible! About then, Jess rode up alongside me. Just as I was explaining the issue, Andy and Gretchen appeared as well. I urged them all to ride on while I “trued” the wheel, knowing I’d likely catch up after a few minutes anyway.

Turning my attention back to the wheel, I discovered that I had broken another spoke. I have no idea when the failure occurred, but I’d bet it was during the ride in Ned. I wonder if it’s related to my neophyte wheel building? The spoke had broken way down by the head, so it was easy to unscrew the spoke from the nipple and remove it from the wheel. The head, however, was not removable without pulling off the wheel, but since it posed no risk of additional failure, I left it in place. After a few minutes with the spoke wrench, the wheel was reasonably straight and strong enough, I hoped, for the ride. I stowed the broken spoke and my multi-tool, flipped the bike right-side up, and hopped back on to catch up with everyone.

More of the beautiful scenery along the road to Tin Cup Pass.
More of the beautiful scenery along the road to Tin Cup Pass.

After several stops, we eventually made it up to this lovely alpine meadow just below Tin Cup Pass. You could see a variety of trail junctions. I was the first to arrive, so I found a comfy spot in the grass alongside the old 4-wheel drive road and pulled out a little snack. Over the next several minutes, the rest of the group arrived and joined me. Everyone was pretty worked from the long climb. The last mile or so prior to the meadow is easily the steepest and most technically challenging portion of the ride.

After regrouping and resting we continued up to the pass. From the meadow, it looked like we could practically reach out and touch the pass, but of course it’s never that easy. Riding a mountain bike is made increasingly difficult as the air gets thin. Tin Cup Pass sits along the Continental Divide at an elevation of 12, 154 ft (In Colorado we’re all very fascinated with elevation). After arriving, we hung out for a while and snapped a few pictures. Jess was right behind me up the final stretch, and Andy was just a couple of minutes back. Gretchen seemed to run out of steam, and after a bit it began to get pretty chilly and some minor sleet started falling! We’ve been in snow high up on the mountain in every month, but it always comes as a bit of a surprise anyway, especially in bike shorts! We also bumped into a family on vacation from Texas. It’s always people from Texas when you see an SUV creeping through the mountains full of nice people that simply can’t believe you rode a mountain bike to (fill in the blank) location. We chatted for a bit and helped each other snap a few pictures by the sign at the pass before heading down.

Jess and me at Tin Cup Pass.
Jess and me at Tin Cup Pass.

The ride back down the hill was a blast. It’s rather badly rutted and exposed just near the summit, but as you proceed downhill, it becomes pretty rideable. I wouldn’t call the road smooth at any point, but it’s really no big deal on a mountain bike. If you find yourself in need of a long, but technically easy, ride near the Chalk Cliffs, you should definitely consider the pilgrimage from Saint Elmo to Tin Cup (or vice versa).

Wheel Building

All of the necessary wheel building parts lined up and ready to go!
All of the necessary wheel building parts lined up and ready to go!

Kokopelli’s Trail was hard on my bike. It’s already rough on a race hardtail to have a 200+ pounder riding around on its back, but add on the extra 20-30 pounds of gear, and the burden grows that much greater. A broken chain was the only obvious sign of damage, but the poor shifting performance after replacing the chain hinted that at least the cassette was badly worn.

Since I like to do most of my own bike maintenance, I picked up a new SRAM cassette. I’d been riding for a few months with a badly bent large chainring, so I decided to replace the middle and large chainrings as well. The “new” chain only had a few miles of wear, so I hoped it hadn’t been too damaged by riding with the old cassette.

As often happens with major overhauls like these, I ran into a few snags. The first was just extracting the crank arms from the bike. Theoretically you can remove the middle and large chainrings without removing the cranks, but the bottom bracket felt a little sticky, so I wanted to check out the bearings as well. I’ve never been a big fan of self-extracting crank bolts, but most of the new external-type bottom brackets only work this way. I was eventually able to get the cranks off, but the crank bolt was trashed, so I also had to order a replacement from Race Face.

When I removed the old cassette, I discovered that I had several worn spokes on the rear wheel. Since none of the spokes were broken and I didn’t have any replacement spokes on hand, I decided to just true the wheel and hope for the best. That worked for about 1 week of mountain biking. On the 2nd day of our trip to Fruita, I was experiencing what I thought was wind-up. This can happen when the ratchet pawls in the freehub body break down and stop ratcheting. I’m familiar with the problem because I replaced a freehub body on one of Jess’ wheels a few years ago.

About a mile farther along the trail, I noticed a funny noise coming from the bike. Just after starting up Steve’s Loop, I pulled over to look at the bike. At first I couldn’t find anything wrong, but eventually I found a broken spoke. Yep, the time I saved earlier was coming back to bite me in the rear. I attempted the traditional trailside repair by wrapping the nipple-side of the broken spoke around an adjacent spoke to keep it out of trouble, but I couldn’t find the other half of the spoke. Eventually I located the empty flange hole, so the broken end must have fallen out.

When I got back home, I pulled off the brake rotor and the cassette and examined the spokes. I pulled off another drive-side spoke and one from the opposite side for sizing the replacements. I counted at least 10 damaged spokes from one side of the wheel and about 5 from the other side. Most of the damage was from rocks scratching across the spokes. Given the large number of worn spokes, I decided to re-spoke the entire wheel. That meant I needed to track down 32 new spokes. Since I wanted to keep the same look, I needed to get black double-butted spokes. This wouldn’t normally be a big problem in Boulder, but it was after 6:00 on a Saturday, so most of my favorite bike shops would be closed.

This is where Performance Bike comes in. Performance is a weird bike store by Boulder standards. They are one of the only bike chain stores selling bikes in the area. They have a pretty good supply of tools and parts, and most of the tools are out where you can pick them up without having to speak with the shop. As always, there are pros and cons to such an arrangement. When it comes to the shop, they’ve never impressed me with their expertise. For a while they were one of the only Cannondale dealers in town, so I did need to make use of their services from time to time. The guy working in their shop was helpful, but they had an incomplete supply of spokes. They also don’t sell by the box, so the cost per spoke is a bit high.

Adding the first course of new spokes to the hub.
Adding the first course of new spokes to the hub.

I ended up getting double-butted spokes for the non drive side and straight gauge spokes for the drive side. I was able to down-size the non drive-side spokes by a millimeter, but the size wasn’t available for the drive side, so I just lived with the original size. (Typically you can reduce the length of spokes by 1-2 mm when reusing a rim and hubs.) I also picked up some new brass nipples. Rather than counting out the nipples, the tech just put a handful into a baggy.

Since we were planning to ride on Sunday after church, I needed to finish the wheel rebuild Saturday night. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but Jess and I went to watch the new Star Trek movie. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t get home until about midnight! It was about 12:30 a.m. when I had all of the parts assembled and got underway. I put on the television for some company and sat down to rebuild the wheel.

The first step is just taking apart all of the pieces from the old wheel. I took a few pictures before starting just in case I needed a reference for reassembly. Several of the old nipples were badly nearly stripped from all of the truing over the past several years. One of the problems with alloy nipples is the relative ease with which they can be stripped. It took about an hour, but eventually I had a pile of spokes and nipples sitting next to my old rim and hub. Oddly, I’ve had a replacement rim sitting around for a while, so I planned to use the new rim with the new spokes/nipples and the old hub. Although I’d originally suspected the freehub body might need replacement, when I took off the cassette, I could see a small scratch on the back side. As best I can tell, the broken piece of spoke must have been scratching and occasionally catching in the cassette as the wheel was spinning. I’m lucky the broken piece fell out and nothing major happened.

It's much more difficult to add the 2nd course of spokes while trying to hold everything in position.
It's much more difficult to add the 2nd course of spokes while trying to hold everything in position.

After the old wheel was disassembled, it was time to start rebuilding the “new” wheel. I turned to the bible, The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. It’s a great book, even if it made me a bit curmudgeonly. Basically, if you’ve read Brandt’s book, you’re a proponent of 3 or 4 cross spoking with 28-36 spokes per wheel. My wheels started out with a 32 spoke, 3-cross pattern, which is just what I wanted to rebuild. Conveniently, there are pretty much step-by-step directions in the bible. Assembling the wheel is surprisingly simple. It’s a bit tedious, but as long as you’re meticulous it isn’t really hard.

Several years ago, a good friend built a new set of wheels for his road bike. He was initially working without the bible, so I got a nice play-by-play of all of the possible missteps. One of the biggest errors is ignoring the location of the valve stem. In a well designed wheel, the valve stem will be positioned between two of the nearly parallel spokes. This provides good access to the valve stem without compromising wheel strength. Matt’s 1st build didn’t achieve this ideal, so he had to disassemble and start over. I was lucky to know about this pitfall in advance and avoid this mistake.

It’s a little tricky getting the 1st couple of courses of spokes into the wheel, as everything just flops all over the place; but as it begins to look more like a wheel, things get easier to handle. Once fully assembled, the next task is to tension and then true the wheel.

There are a few specialized bike maintenance tools that I don’t have in my tackle box. Most of these are expensive frame building and finishing tools. As much as I’d love to own them, they really don’t make sense for the home mechanic. For instance, you can have your bottom bracket faced and a new crank (or bearing) installed by a quality repair shop 10 times before you would cover the cost of a refacing tool. That’s a big investment! A spoke tensiometer is another example. There are only a few commercial tensiometers available, and they are all expensive. Since I’ve got a pretty good ear, I instead used the less precise tone method of determining spoke tension. In this technique, you can estimate the tension based on the tone produced when plucking or lightly tapping the spokes. By comparing with a well built wheel, you can get the tension pretty close. You can also quickly spot significant differences in tension from spoke to spoke. In an ideal wheel, you’d have equal tension in all of the spokes on a single side. Because with a modern rear wheel, there is a difference between the angles made by the drive-side and non drive-side spokes, the tensions on the two sides will be different in order to place the rim exactly in the center of the hub. This happens because of all of the extra space needed for a multiple-gear cassette.

With the wheel assembled and tensioned, I grabbed my dishing tool to see how centered the rim was. Not even close! I wasn’t surprised as I was evenly tightening the nipples in 1 turn increments throughout the tensioning. A few passes around the rim adding tension to one side of the wheel and reducing the tension on the opposite side corrected the dish.

Now, all that remains is the slow process of truing the wheel.
Now, all that remains is the slow process of truing the wheel.

By this point in time, I was getting pretty bleary-eyed and the sky was growing visibly lighter. I popped the wheel onto the truing stand and gave it a spin. It was immediately obvious that I would have my work cut out for me. After a few adjustments, I gave the wheel another spin. One of the best things about truing your own wheels is the amazing feeling you get when you see the rapid improvement that can be made from just a few minor adjustments. When you’re starting from scratch, it takes a bit longer, but little by little, things improve. Truing wheels is a constant trade-off between getting the rim true (no wobble) and concentric about the hub (no hop). It’s easy to find that one of these two traits are perfect, but the other is way off. If you’re careful, you can get these qualities to come together simultaneously, and if you’re really good (or lucky) when you give the wheel a final check for dish, it’ll be right on.

For me, the latter didn’t quite happen, but it isn’t too hard to fix. Unfortunately, I was exhausted and wasn’t thinking straight. I made a pass going around the rim and providing the wrong correction. I made two passes before I caught my mistake. Another couple of passes with the right correction, and the dish was back. I put the wheel back into the truing stand, and of course, the true was off. I readjusted from true and hop and rechecked the centering. This time it all came together. I popped the wheel off the stand and reinstalled the brake rotor and cassette.

I’ll give you all an update once I’ve ridden the wheel a while and let you know how the rebuilt wheel holds up. If it stays true half as well as the original despite the abuse of a Clydesdale-class rider, I’ll be super pleased.


I’m sitting in Bongo Billy’s Salida Cafe, drinking a cup of coffee and reading Persepolis for book club on Tuesday. The book is wonderful so far. My knees are aching. My thighs are aching. My feet and ankles are aching. Even my fingers are aching. And my eyes are still bleary even though it’s 11:30 a.m.

Dave and I took Friday off work and packed up the car. We had to stop at the gas station and the grocery store and water the garden before we could get out of Lafayette, but we drove away by about 10:00 a.m. It only takes about two hours and forty-five minutes to get to Salida from home, so we arrived in the early afternoon. We first headed to the O’Haver Lake campground, where there was one spot left. It’s a really pretty little lake and people were out fishing. I imagined waking up and looking out at the lake in the morning light. But the only spot left—number 28—had a post about 200 feet from the lake that said NO CAMPING and showed two arrows, one pointing left and the other right. Dave guessed that it meant no camping beyond the sign. It made no sense to me—why not just say “no camping beyond this sign”? We walked around the lake to see if there were any other sites, but number 28 was it. It was a lovely site, actually, except that it sloped rather aggressively downward toward the “no camping” post, at which point it flattened out.

It’s always a hard decision to leave a campground with an empty site when you don’t have a reservation anywhere. Doubly so on a holiday weekend, when it can be really hard to get a site. The weather—a good chance of rain for four days straight—was in our favor, because other  people might be staying home. We deliberated, thought about how uncomfortable it is to sleep on a slope, and decided to continue taking our chances. We drove about 20 minutes to Angel of Shavano campground, nestled up the hill at the base of Shavano mountain, which we’ve actually climbed—it’s a fourteener. I hate climbing fourteeners, and I’m awful at altitude. I get near the top, which is often a boulder field, and start challenging myself to go just two more boulders before stopping to catch my breath. I suspect that Ed Viesturs‡ could lap me six or eight times. Anyway, that’s another story. The Angel of Shavano campground was the way to go; there was only one other family already camped when we arrived. It’s not reserveable and it’s slightly out of the way. We had our choice of spots, so we chose number 2. Dave has actually camped in that spot before, when riding the Monarch Crest with some friends, but I checked out the whole campground and decided that it’s the best one. Not too close to the roaring creek, which was full of spring meltoff and very noisy. (Our mobile home neighbors, with their constant generator noise, hadn’t pulled in yet.) We set up camp in a very light rain. There’s a beautiful spot for a tent, nice and flat, and Dave did his magic with Noah’s Tarp (cute, huh?), keeping part of the picnic table and enough space for our camp chairs dry. Once we had everything set up, we headed into town to go to the grocery store and get a few things we’d forgotten, plus some wood for the campfire. We stopped at Bongo Billy’s for a cup of coffee and to check our friends’ website. Our friends Erica and Adam were in the process of having a past-due-date baby, and while Erica labored away, Adam was adding quick text updates to a website. Technology is so cool! Baby Henry was born Friday evening and he and Erica are well, if exhausted. When we got back to camp, the rain was still intermittent, but a bit heavier. We had planned two campfire meals and one camp stove meal, so we went with the camp stove and cooked burritos, which we ate under the tarp. Delicious! We built a fire, which fizzled out twice, and stood around it warming up and eating a couple of toasted marshmallows before bed.

roasting marshmallows
Roasting marshmallows.

Our site is indeed comfortable: we slept well and woke up around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday.

Dave got up first, leaving me to fall back asleep in the warm and suddenly spacious tent. He used the Mukka (thanks, Erika and Heidi!) to make himself a mocha and me a latte, then cooked eggs with green pepper, spinach, onion, tomato, and cheddar cheese, topped off with Cholula and wrapped in burrito shells. He’s an excellent back-country cook and breakfast was just the thing to start a good day. We hung around camp for a while, waiting for it to warm up a bit and listening to Click and Clack on the radio. (Don’t drive like my brother!) We got out the softball and gloves and threw the ball around. Around 11:00 a.m. it was warm enough to think about riding—the point of the weekend—so we started to pull on our bike clothes and pump up our tires.

Dave's ready to ride!
Dave's ready to ride!

The sun even peeked through the clouds for a moment, an auspicious sign. The campground is located at the junction of Chaffee County 240 and the Colorado Trail, so we only had to go about 100 feet to get on the trail, right about noon. The weather was still intermittent, but I was full of good cheer. It’s always fun to get started, to check out a new trail, to get moving for the day. We rode only a few hundred feet before we hit the trailhead and a sign-in box, which contained a sheet torn out from a notebook, covered in names and hometowns, wrapping around the margins. I squeezed us in and we were on our way!

We started out full of enthusiasm, but quickly hit some rocky uphills that were too hard to ride. Dave usually got a bit higher than I did before he had to pop out of his cleats, but we both ended up walking up rocky slopes, wheeling our bikes. I was still in a good mood. The temperature was good for riding—slightly chilly and not too sunny. I only needed sunscreen on my face, which meant that I wouldn’t be thoroughly sticky in the tent that night. I figured the uphill rock slopes would end eventually, and they did. We hit a patch of uphill dirt that Dave executed perfectly. I had taken my inhaler (for exercise-induced asthma), but was still huffing and puffing. It wasn’t the asthma, I could tell, just a general lack of aerobic fitness. At the top of the hill, we rode downhill for a few minutes, including a very rocky downhill slope that I did perfectly and Dave chickened out on. Then we were immediately back uphill, and it was rocky again. The ride continued like this; some really fun parts followed by rocky uphill slogs, dragging the bikes. There’s a moment in every mountain bike ride that I find myself grinning with pleasure, and that certainly happened, on one of the sweeter downhills. I’m not usually a big fan of fast downhills; I prefer technical bits that go slightly up or downhill. But this ride seemed to be steeply up or fairly steeply down the whole way. As we got higher and higher on the mountain, watching clouds and drips of rain roll in and then roll through, I could breathe less and less. As I mentioned, I’m awful at altitude. It wasn’t my lungs; I could feel the air getting down into the deep chambers (thanks, albuterol!), but there just wasn’t enough of it to power my leg muscles. I even got dizzy a couple of times. Nevertheless, the sweet downhills, either rocky but doable or dirt and pine needles, were pretty fun. I love to ride on pine needles, especially when they’re a bit wet. The smell is wonderful, and I really feel like I’m in the woods.

We were heaving our bikes up another rocky uphill when we were joined by a hiker who’d been heading up Shavano to find himself in a dense cloud of fog and snow. Dave got out the map and showed him where he was headed, then checked our location. Just then we heard some thunder—always a sign to get off the mountain. We were headed for a dirt road that would bring us back to highway 50. I was pretty tired by that point, even though we’d only gone 5 or 6 miles. We only had two Clif bars and a package of beef jerkey with us, so we stopped in the middle of some rolling pine-needle trail to have a snack. I ate half a Clif bar and got enough energy to keep going. We kept riding, and riding, and dragging the bikes, sometimes up and sometimes down extremely technical downhills. We crossed a stream several times. It was fun to be in the wet woods instead of the dry desert, but I was getting exhausted. At one point, Dave offered to pull my bike for me, but I wanted to keep going on my own steam. We were looking for a campground and several unmarked dirt roads that were supposed to cross the trail, but we hadn’t found anything. Dave swore that we weren’t lost, and the rational part of my brain knew that was true. We were on the Colorado Trail for sure—we’d seen several signs, and I felt confident that it crossed a few roads at some point. We just had to keep going, sometimes through rain, sometimes through a clearing sky.

Eventually, we got to a juncture that was marked “wagon loop.” We checked out the map and decided to take the shorter side down to a road. I couldn’t wait to see a road, even though Dave pulled the map away and joked that he wasn’t going to show me how far we had to go to get back to camp. A road is always easier than trail, and this trail had been pretty aggressive so far. Well, the wagon loop, at least the side we picked, should’ve been called “rock chute.” It was a gully carved out of the mountain and full of rocks. Some parts were rideable, but not many. We ended up walking our bikes down most of it. Worst of all, Dave put his weight on his bad ankle funny near the top. I asked him if I could carry his bike, but he said no. Later he told me that he was using it as a crutch. The sun came out for a minute as we were walking down the gully, but we were still keeping our eyes on the weather. I was looking forward to seeing some road, even though we’d only ridden about 12 miles at that point.

Not our favorite section of trail...
Not our favorite section of trail...

Road! We stopped for a minute to look at the map and then headed out again. This road was gorgeous, hard-packed dirt, and downhill. We were flying, with the wind in our hair and my bike in a high gear. We even had to stop to put on our jackets. We ate a few pieces of beef jerky for energy, and rode until we reached highway 285. At first, it was lovely to be on paved road. I turned off my shock and rode along, remembering some of the road from my motorcycle trip with Elaina. It was uphill and kept getting steeper, and I was already pretty tired. Dave rode ahead, and I was wishing that I had my motorcycle. The cars were speeding by and I got more and more nervous. I had been reading Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, so I’d been trying to act, at the most basic level, as a “son of God” and keep my frustration and fear inside. I often get angry while biking, when everything seems too hard, but I’d been trying to keep calm. However, 285 stretched on and on and up and up. The cars and trucks went by in a whoosh, and worst of all, the noise of the air was constant. I don’t do well with endless loud noise, and there’s no vegetation along the side of the highway to break the wind. When I finally got to Dave, who had stopped to wait for me, I lost it. He let me cry for a few minutes and promised to stay close to me on the highway.

We kept riding and riding and finally got to Chaffee County 241, where we turned. We had some more jerky and I kept trying to drink water. The sky was beautiful around the mountains, which we were now facing.

Beautiful spring mountain weather.
Beautiful spring mountain weather.

Dark fluffy clouds and mist shrouded the tops, but we still didn’t have rain. I got a tiny burst of energy and kept peddling uphill. We turned onto 250, which would just be a short spur, but it was downhill! I tried to fully enjoy the moment, while knowing that the pain would be back soon. It reminded me of the brief respite you sometimes get in the middle of a long headache, or a back rub when your back has been aching. I could even feel myself grinning again. We turned onto highway 50 and everything got hard again. My bike was squeaking and rubbing and groaning, and I could barely keep peddling, even in the granny gear I’d adopted around mile 25. I knew, according to Dave’s look at the map, that we would reach camp around mile 40 on my odometer. Dave was wonderful, sticking close to my wheel even though I was moving so slowly. The speedometer read about 5 miles an hour (I was thinking that I could almost walk faster!), and the odometer was creeping up past 30 miles. Dave encouraged me up the hills, and we stopped for a rest a couple of times. I saw a few buildings I’d noticed in the car, where they’d come one after the other. I was so frustrated with the pace, and pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it, which made me equally frustrated. As we neared 240, the road the camp was on, Dave said that he would go ahead and get the car and come back for me. I watched him sprint ahead, filled with admiration and hoping that he hadn’t started uphill too fast. (Yes, uphill again! The camp is located four miles up a hill, past some cute houses and ranches, including—strangely—Planet Hockey Ranch where Dave joked he might drop in to watch the Pens game.)

At the bottom of the hill, I stopped and put my bike down. And it started to rain. I stood there for a few minutes, and then realized that I was going to have to keep moving so that I didn’t get too cold. I don’t have too many survival skills, but I do know that you have to keep moving if you don’t want to freeze to death. I started up the hill in my very low gear. For a while, it was fun. I love to be outside in the rain, and I was warm enough from all those miles of riding. I peddled until I was too tired, and then I walked the bike. As it kept raining and I got more and more soaked, I thought about stopping under a tree and waiting for Dave, but I knew I would just start to shiver. I decided that Dave would arrive when I hit mile 37, so I kept going, walking some and then riding some. Around mile 37.5, I started to wonder if he had lost his car keys and wouldn’t be able to come. Then I thought that I might come upon his body lying on the ground. What would I do? Then, worst, I thought he might be challenging my perseverance and showing me what I was capable of. I’d find him sitting under the tarp in a camp chair, eating chips. I was definitely wet and cold, and I was shaking my hands to warm them up. I decided that he’d arrive when I reached mile 38. No sign of him. Some cars passed, and I thought someone might ask if I were okay, especially while I was walking, but no one even rolled down the window. Around mile 38.5 I realized that I was rescuing myself, and got a burst of adrenaline. I suddenly felt happy, and rode faster. I could rescue myself! I knew that the road turned to dirt when there were .75 miles left before camp, so I was glad to get that far. And then I saw Taco! Dave stopped the car and gave me some grape Powerade. He had fallen over sideways when his bike failed to shift and his foot got stuck on the pedal. He’d also walked twice and changed into dry clothes. So, in the end, we both rescued me. I was proud to ride the final .3 miles into camp.

I made it! Dave got me some dry clothes and I changed under the tarp.

Our wet clothes drying under the tarp.
Our wet clothes drying under the tarp.

We got into the car and drove to Salida to find some hot food. Dave and his bad ankle limped down the sidewalk and I hobbled, due to aching knees. I had hot chocolate and fish and chips and Dave had Pepsi and chicken tenders at a local tavern. We both took Advil. I drove back up the hill while Dave tried to stay awake. Soft snores proved that he had failed. Back at camp, we brushed our teeth and climbed into the tent, with a gentle rain falling. We fell asleep right away and woke up to the light.

It was epic. We’re not riding today. We’re both sore, but there doesn’t seem to be any bad damage to Dave’s ankle. We had hot oatmeal for breakfast, and coffee. The weather was supposed to improve each day, so although it’s still cloudy today, it might be nice enough to bike tomorrow. I’m already feeling like I could use some exercise. If you had told me when I was a kid, eating olives and reading in bed, that I’d one day be biking 40 miles in Colorado on a long weekend, enjoying time with my husband, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s what I like about the future: it’s always surprising me with things I could never have imagined. So what’s next?

*Dave picked the title for this post.
‡Ed Viesturs is an extremely gifted mountaineer, possibly the best in the world: click here for his website.

A kayaker in the "play park" in Salida, a rafting/boating town in the summer.
A kayaker in the "play park" in Salida, a rafting/boating town in the summer.