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The Gila Monster

The past week has looked something like this.

Wake up. Check social media until I can’t wait for another photo to load on account of the terrible wifi connection. Make tea and oatmeal. Get dressed, pack what I’ll need on the bike. Pick the music I’ll start with. Head out the door and onto my bike.

Climb the steep driveway before descending: Tom Lyons, onto Vic Culberson, then Christian Flurry. Then turn either left or right onto Little Walnut. Left means I’m riding up to Pinos Altos. Right means I’ll either do the time trial course heading south on the 90, or I’ll head west on the 180 to do part of stage one. Usually I’ll go left and up to Pinos Altos on the 15. Admittedly, I’ve only done the other two routes once.

I like the 15. It’s a hard road, but it’s less windy and much more stimulating than the other two. You climb from 6000 to 7000 feet in the first 20 minutes. Then you pass through Pinos Altos and continue into the Gila National Forest. Here the road narrows and for 18 miles there isn’t a centre line. The air is a little cooler, and the road is lined with several species of pine. Few cars drive by, and if you stop, it’s silent, except for your breathing, which is heavier up here. You’re far from anything.

 Silver City is tiny and colourful.

Silver City is tiny and colourful.

Riding along, you own the road. I usually ride in the middle, and take race lines through the corners, cutting the apex and crossing the non-existent center line without second thought. When the road straightens out, sometimes I can’t help but sit up tall on my saddle and stretch my arms out to the sides, as though I’m celebrating a victory. Riding this road feels victorious. Liberating. I’m probably smiling.

It’ll feel different in a few days when I’m racing on it and someone is making me suffer.

The past week I’ve been living in Silver City, New Mexico. Most of my team has been away racing the Joe Martin Stage race in Arkansas. Myself and one other team mate have been here. Our training plans have been different, so we’ve mostly been riding on our own. I’ve enjoyed the freedom of doing my own thing. It’s always been difficult for me to ride alone, and I’ve certainly had a hard time getting out the door on several occasions this week, but it’s been nice to do my own thing without having to follow someone else’s plan or endure the constant disapproval of my teammates for whatever I do, say or choose to wear. I’ve been a little more relaxed. I’ve actually started to appreciate my solo moments, which is something I’ve been working on for ages.

Training over the past week has been relatively light. I’ve had to adjust to the altitude. Coming from sea level, 6000 feet (~1800m) has been harder on me than I’d expected. I’m actually wondering if there’s more to it. I’ve been very tired. It’s got me a little worried.

 I took a break the other day and drove to White Sands with my friend, Jenna. She took this photo.

I took a break the other day and drove to White Sands with my friend, Jenna. She took this photo.

The first day here I rode the stage two course. It goes up the 15 past Pinos Altos, and descends down to the 35. Then it’s relatively flat for quite a while before you turn toward Fort Bayard. The race will be 120 km, with three cat 3 KOMs and two intermediate sprints. There will be 1800 m of climbing. I felt really tired during the ride, and stayed light on the pedals. It was my first time riding the 15 though, and I fell in love.

For my second ride here I did most of the fifth stage course. This took me on a reverse stage two, and included an out and back over the Gila Monster, which is perhaps the defining feature of the entire race. At the top of the front side, I decided to turn around and head home instead of descending and then ascending the backside as well. I was tired and didn’t want to dig a hole. I had to listen to my body.

One day I did the tt course. Winds were gusting over 60 km/h and I was extremely frustrated by some bike trouble. I almost didn’t ride. I pushed through and did my first efforts at elevation, and felt quite satisfied having accomplished something. My legs didn’t feel great, neither did my mind, and I did stop a couple times just to sit on my top tube on the side of the road and gather myself, but I did it.

 Another colourful piece of Silver City.

Another colourful piece of Silver City.

My favourite ride here happened on Friday. It was 0 degrees in the morning, and winds were gusting over 70. I had a five hour ride planned, including both sides of the Gila monster. I pulled all my clothing out the night before, and prepared my bottles and ride food. Something about putting all my layers on for the first time in a month felt oddly calming. I had hated doing it all winter, but suddenly it felt natural. Almost meditative. I was relaxed as I carefully layered my arm/leg warmers, baselayer, jersey, vest, neck warmer and gloves. I set out with some mellow music and climbed in the early morning sun toward Pinos Altos. I think I felt a little more at home.

I did 3000 m of climbing, and put a few extra watts down on the climbs. Nothing major. I went just a little harder, but I wasn’t uncomfortable. I loved doing the ride on my own. I enjoyed the crisp, fresh air, and taking in the views.

This past week has been odd. While I’ve appreciated the time on my own, I’ve had some trouble with anxious and depressive moments. On some rides, I’ve gone from smiling like a goon, to near tears, to totally distracted and neutral, to sad and to happy all in the span of five minutes. I’ve had two nights of pure, inexplicable sadness, crying myself to sleep. It’s been a strange rollercoaster. It’s a little exhausting. I’ve determined that my anxiety is most often stemmed from things beyond my control. Today, for example, I am anticipating the arrival of my teammates. I’m anxious.

There’s a hierarchy on the team, much of it has to do with age. Much of it has to do with the longevity of your participation on the team. Much of it has to do with strength/results. The three kind of go hand in hand. This is essentially my first year, and I’m one of the younger guys without much to show for in the way of results. However, the shit-talking, or ‘hazing’ if you will, is less prominent with me. In fact, very little is said to my face. But there are negative things or complaints made about me when I’m not present. This leaves me guessing how serious the problems the guys have with me are. It makes me anxious. I think that on account of my blog and my openness with my mental health struggles, people don’t know how to act around me. I feel I’ve isolated myself a little.

 Jenna at the White Sands.

Jenna at the White Sands.

To be clear, I don’t want this to sound as though I’m bashing my team. This is an admission to my struggles with what is ‘normal’. Most people experience this sort of thing and it troubles them only as much as they allow it. Being anxious, issues that may seem small to others are a big deal to me. I’m doing my best to keep it under control. Apparently this is simply a part of sport. Albeit a part I dislike, but a part I must endure all the same. I’m aware of it, and I’m aware of my reactions. It does make me miss my friends though.

Aidan continues to be a massive support from a far. While he is going through his own struggles, he’s been there for the late-night, urgent phone calls to keep me company. I miss him a lot.

The Gila Monster is something to be respected. While I fear for the day I race over it, I appreciate its beauty and what it has and will teach me. From the first time, when I rode only one side appreciating how tired I’d be if I did both, to the second time, when I rode both sides on my own and loved it. I’ve got my own monsters inside of me all the time. They’re there, and sometimes I’ll have to ride over them. But like the Gila monster, sometimes I’ll respect and listen to what they’re telling me, and I’ll only tackle ‘one side’. No matter how hard the ride is, it will end. Every climb comes to an end. Every cloud eventually dissipates. Every struggle is temporary. My life will continue to be up and down.

I’m beginning to enjoy the ride.