Into thin air

Many years ago I lived in a mountain town, Dillon, Colorado. I had run out of gas driving back from Oregon to Texas and had run out of money as well.

I parked and asked a dude who was walking by where I could find a job. “In the summer? In Dillon? Nowhere. Everything’s closed down.”

I walked for a couple of miles until I came to Keystone Ski Resort. It wasn’t shut down. I went up to the front desk. The main lobby was deserted. “Are you hiring?”

The clerk, who was about my age, gave me a quick look. “For what?”

“Anything. I’m out of gas and money.”

“You could try La Brasserie, our cafe. It’s over there.”

“Thanks,” I said, and walked over.

The manager was standing at the entrance, bored. The restaurant was a cemetery. “You hiring?” I asked.

“Yeah. We need a dishwasher. Can you run a dishwasher?”


“Okay, come on back to my office.”

“Our dishwasher just got sent to prison,” he said.


“Yeah. Norm. Norm Phlebbets. He got in through the roof, went through an air duct, broke into the main office a couple of months ago, cracked the night safe, and made off with over $100,000 in cash.”

“How’d they catch him?”

“He didn’t have a car. He was just walking along the highway with a suitcase stuffed full of cash.”

“Oh,” I said. The manager didn’t seem surprised at the craziness of the story. This was my welcome, I later realized, to mountain living, where thin air, lots of mushrooms, and not much to do makes everyone completely insane.

With age come scars

One of the most insane things I did during my tenure in Dillon was the Bob Cook Memorial Hillclimb. I was a Cat 2, and when we hit the first turn, before the road had even kicked up, I was shelled. Over the course of the next little while I was passed by the 3’s, the 4’s (there were no 5’s), the women, and then the “veterans.”

I quit at the halfway mark, coasted back down to my truck, and drove back to Dillon.

What I learned from that bike race I put to use when we arrived in Mammoth on Thursday in preparation for the 25th Mammoth Gran Fondo. The lesson? There ain’t no air up here.

We checked into the very nice St. Anton condos, got dressed, and went for a short 15-mile ride, avoiding as many hills as possible, which wasn’t possible. Back at the room it felt like someone had dropped a 500-lb. safe on my head.

“This fondo,” I told Yasuko, “isn’t going to be pretty.”

You’re doing the full fondo, right?

On Friday morning I got up early, ate, coffeed, and was out the door at seven. I climbed up Minaret Rd., a mild little 6-mile ride, taking baby kitten breaths all the way. At the top I descended to the Reds Meadow campground, a trailhead for insane people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or trekking over the hills into Yosemite, you know, kind of like how you’d walk down to the store for a carton of milk, except it takes weeks, you carry all your own shit, and every hundred yards or so there’s a pride of hangry bears.

I u-turned and did the 8-mile climb back up. If you do no ride in Mammoth but this one, you’ve seen one of the most gorgeous vistas there is to see. The road was deserted; I saw five cars. But the climb back up was challenging since here, as well as in Mammoth Lakes proper, someone had left the door open the night before and all the oxygen had escaped.

I kitty-breathed it home, ate a second breakfast, and took a long nap.

At one o’clock I was leading an “easy” 20-mile tune-up ride from Footloose, the main bike shop in Mammoth. “Are you ready for the fondo tomorrow?” I was continually asked.

“Yes,” I replied without wavering.

Then, invariably: “You’re doing the full 102-mile fondo, right?”

“Wrong. I’m doing the mini baby tiny reduced-fat sub-fondo, a/k/a the Piccolo.”

“You are?”

“I are.”

“How come?”

“There is no air here, anywhere, and I know because I’ve looked for it. And I don’t do well without air. In fact, by my calculations, the 40-mile Piccolo, starting at 8,000 feet, will be the rough equivalent of riding 700 miles at sea level. On a Big Wheel.”

“Are you sure you’re not just copping out?”

“I’m sure I am copping out. However, when I’m on my third plate of pulled pork you’ll be 80 miles in, dessicated like a prune, out of water, out of food, and riding into a 20 mph headwind as you climb the final two thousand feet or so. You will accomplish much and get an awesome finishing picture, but you won’t really appreciate it until you’re out of the intensive care unit.”

An easy 20

We left Footloose and rode onto U.S. 395 headed towards Convict Lake. The wind was closely related, perhaps a twin sibling, of the winds that used to caress me in the Texas Panhandle.




We got to Convict Lake, turned around, and experienced the joy of a tailwind for a short way until it turned right back into a headwind. Greg Leibert and I sat on the front, he smiling and chatting, me pinned and barely able to turn the pedals.

As we struck the bottom of the 3-mile climb up to Mammoth Lakes the wind redoubled, the road jolted up, and our “easy” ride disintegrated into a horrific honkytonk beating. I didn’t bother to look back. People were either on our wheel and miserable, or somewhere else and miserable.

Some dude who had been nestled on our wheels waited about a mile, then attacked viciously. Greg easily closed the gap but I didn’t easily anything. Danny Lupo breezily came by, dragged me for a bit before I cracked, then recovered, caught the guy who had gotten it started, and clawed my way back to Danny and Greg’s wheels.

They were chatting, which reminds me of something: Everyone should have a cycling friend like Greg, who’s always there to remind you that no matter how well you’re going, you aren’t going all that well.

Attacker dude finally fell off just before we got back to Footloose, and there I was, my 20-mile “tune-up” ride having left me completely destroyed.

Back at the condo I crawled into bed for the second time that day and slept deeply. I awoke to aching legs. The 40-mile fondo on Saturday was starting to look like the smartest move ever.



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3 thoughts on “Into thin air”

  1. No doubt Wanker. Altitude, for us not trained for it, definitely adds an interesting additional element to the hurt factor. Did a 100 mile MTB race at 8000 feet in AZ yesterday and felt it firsthand.

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