Half an hour later, as we wedged ourselves beneath our scant shelter under the onslaught of rain, Cecil ambled back into our site. “You young’uns are worryin’ me,” he said, offering us a huge tarp that he’d dug out of his RV. As we settled in beneath the picnic table—warm and cozy and dry thanks to the massive awning—it struck me that it was just this sort of interaction that I’d been missing in my bike racing.

Racing has its own rewards, but moving slowly and thoughtfully yields insights and connections that you can’t get when you’re going hard. Cecil returned the next morning to check on us and send us down the road. “Come back when you can stay,” he hollered as we pedaled away. “And bring a tent!”

We didn’t need a tent (not for a few nights, anyway); despite my protestations about dirtbagging and the purity of the experience, Jen had booked a hotel in Ouray the following evening. Just one 12,800-foot pass to clear (Engineer) and one talus-choked, jackhammer descent to endure, and we rolled into the stately Beaumont, a 12-room historic inn that’s been painstakingly renovated to its 1886 Victorian grandeur. When we clomped into the stately main parlor in our muddy bike cleats, a dapper bellman greeted us beneath the magnificent wood staircase and valeted our bikes to the back of the hotel as his counterpart must have stabled miners’ livestock a century ago. Our accommodation: The Gold Rush Room. For the first time in a while, the bike had transported me. A downy robe, a soak in the hot tub, and we were soon swilling bourbon at the mahogany bar—no complaints from me, I should add. Suffering be damned! There’d be plenty of that tomorrow.

From the Beaumont the road kicked straight up to 10 percent, and I was immediately out of the saddle, grinding, churning, battling up the unrelenting grades to Imogene Pass. It was 5,700 vertical feet of fighting without even the hint of a flat for recovery. With a mile to go, a family in a Toyota T100 pulled alongside us.

“You’re amazing,” the father shouted as the mother snapped our photo. “My truck can’t even breathe up here.”

Atop the pass, where Jen and I sat to rest beneath the Imogene sign, pairs of jeepers crowded around our bikes and squeezed us out of the way to take photos that they could send friends to prove that they’d ridden themselves to 13,100 feet. Thinking about what lay ahead I was too exhausted to even protest.

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