Facts on the ground (Canyon tour day two)

Gallup, NM; September 20, 2010. Day two of the Grand Canyon Tour was supposed to be easy. Low mileage was one reason: 85 miles (instead of the previous day’s 106 and the next days 97) and much of the route on quiet roads far from the freeway (north at Thoreau on NM 371, east through Pinedale, and back to Route 66 which continues as a frontage road). Furthermore, the elevation gain of 1,600 feet was lowest of any day of the eleven that we would be cycling, even though the route crosses the continental divide at 7,800 feet. Because we were cycling on a high plateau rather than through mountains, the grades would be easy and the road would work its way around mesas and find the best way over the low-lying ridges all around.

Fifty-seven miles into the ride, expectations met reality. For ten minutes, cars and trucks—and bicycles—queued up until a pilot car arrived to lead them through. First cars and trucks, and then cyclists, were waved into the dusty passage by the patient person “womaning” the stop sign.

The black top had been pounded and scraped and much of it trucked away, leaving behind a wash boarded under layment disguised by a thin coating of sand and course gravel. Now and then a smooth stretch twenty or third yards long conveyed a false hope that the road might be getting better. The eastbound lane was covered with an eight-inch layer of water soaked sand and gravel, which heavy machinery preparing for the new roadbed. The section being worked was one three or four miles long, but the beat up pavement—twelve miles long—continued in both directions, stretching across the open land in front of travelers. Puffs of dusts marked the road until it disappeared over the off in the distance.

Since this tour was for people on road bikes, no one was riding bikes with wide tires and suspensions that are designed for this kind of road. Classic randonneur bikes, with wide tires and frame geometry designed for Europe’s cobblestones, would have managed the roadway with reasonable comfort, but not the bicycles people had brought: Waterford, Co-Motion, Seven, Rivendell, high-end Trek and Specialized, recumbents, and tandems. Even the bike with 700 x 32, thick-treaded tires and a Brooks saddle with springs was challenged by the course.

Cyclists had to slow down—7 or 8 miles an hour for some, slower for others, and a little faster for a few. Cars and trucks, including semis, could travel faster, which meant that early in the ride through the one way section cyclists faced the pilot car coming back, and a little later coming up from behind. Cyclists moved to the inside of the lane, allowing the motorized traffic most of the space on their right, including the non-existent shoulder.

After seven miles of pounding, cyclists came to the scheduled lunch stop at the Pinedale Headstart School. The familiar red trailer was set up on a paved parking lot up and away from the highway. Bikes were stationed on the portable stands. Off with the gloves, wash up with soapy warm water, get food, sit on portable benches for conversation and nourishment. An open door gave access to restrooms in the school. Then back to the highway for five more miles of pounding. Two or three flats had to be repaired at the side of the road. One rider went down, resulting in scrapes and a puncture wound to his body but little damage to his bike.

At the 69-mile mark, the torture ended. South on NM 566 and west on Route 66, and cyclists reached road’s end for the day. The conversations over dinner were marked by complaints over a system that left so much roadway torn up during reconstruction and by gratitude for the remarkable courtesy they had experienced from motorists. Most important, the Grand Canyon Tour had been fused with a new spirit of confidence.

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