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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE

A Week for the Strong

Seven Days of Scenery and Suffering Between Telluride and the Mountain-Bike Mecca of Moab

March 18, 2001|Bob Sipchen

A man walks into a restaurant, orders the albatross, takes one bite and drops over dead. What happened?

This is what Anacleto Rapping, the photographer who talked me into this seven-day mountain bike ride, calls a conundrum. He sprang this one on me and the two strangers with whom we had just hooked up as we lay in the dark 10,980 feet up the side of a mountain. It would resonate throughout this 206-mile-trip. But as I sit on a rock the next morning, enjoying a landscape framed by the snow-encrusted peaks of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, another question cycles through my thoughts: Why?

Below me is the winding dirt road we had pedaled up the previous afternoon, the last stretch in a short, steep ride that lifted us 2,785 vertical feet from the town of Telluride (To Hell You Ride). I can see the spot where my lungs and heart and leg muscles mutinied against a brain that had become alarmingly airy; where the midsummer heat knocked me sweat-soaked off my rented bike and forced me to push in 10-foot bursts, each of which left me gasping and dizzy. Far to the west are the La Sal Mountains. As weathered and white as T-rex teeth, they're the final barrier we'll have to cross before descending to our destination of Moab, Utah. They look as if they're a continent away.

So, as two cute but disconcertingly aggressive chipmunks edge closer, I sit on a lichen-painted boulder, sip coffee and brood: Why am I doing this? Why would anyone?

Day One

Telluride (Elevation: 8,745 feet) to Last Dollar Hut (10,980 feet);

14.8 miles; 2,785-foot ascent; 550-foot descent

The superficial why of this sort of trip is easy: Logistics. For $395 per person, the San Juan Hut System provides maps and directions to steer mountain bikers through the Umcompahgre and Manti-La Sal national forests, over remote fire and logging roads linking a series of strategically spaced shelters. In keeping with the traditions of cross-country skiing, the huts are stocked with water, food, pots, pans and sleeping bags. Cyclists carry only personal gear and emergency supplies. From June through September, groups of two to eight (a party of one is too dangerous) move through the six huts in a continuous flow - a total of 56 riders may be spread out along the route on a given day.

On a rapidly warming morning in mid-July, Anacleto and I show up for our required briefing at Easy Rider Mountain Sports on Telluride's main drag. This is a small town. Although we gave ourselves only one day to acclimate to the altitude, we already know that the bike shop's co-owners, Jon and Missy Haas, had married the week before and that the Hut company's co-owners, Mike Turrin and Joe Ryan, are in the midst of an acrimonious business tiff. This interests us not just as gossip, but because these people now have considerable influence on whether we enjoy the next week or die writhing somewhere in the vast unknown that lies ahead. As it happens, Joe eventually buys out the business, in part, this former miner who lives "off the grid" will explain, because he worried that Mike seemed intent on making the experience too "frilly." Fortunately, at the time of our trip, the loosely linked operations are functioning as smoothly as the Shimano deraileurs on the new Jamis mountain bikes that Anacleto and I have rented.

As Jon tinkers, putting on the seats and clip-in pedals we brought from our own bikes back home, Mike spreads maps out on a counter and goes over the intricate route, telling us about the eccentricities of each hut and filling us in on safety - reminding us, for instance, that a couple of weeks earlier, out in the middle of nowhere, a hut-to-hut rider lost control on a gravel descent and broke her arm.

The day before, only two riders had gone out - strapping young women with calves so chiseled they could break teeth. Police officers from Denver, we're told. The two riders joining us at initiation = the rest of our small group, it turns out - are also in law enforcement. As fate would have it, they're lawmen.

Because they brought their own bikes, they're off and riding while Jon makes final adjustments to our mounts. Dusk is descending when we catch up with our new pardners. Like Anacleto and me, they're middle-aged. Like Anacleto, they're semi-fanatical bicyclists. Yet, in what I take as an encouraging sign, only Anacleto is able to stay in the saddle as we struggle over the final stretch of road leading to the first hut, which is hidden in a stand of pines on a ridge abutting the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness.

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