One vicious cycle
COPPER MOUNTAIN Among the thousands of cyclists who rode in last Saturday’s second annual Copper Triangle, Mike Tierney was likely the only one with a strong dislike for the long stretches of downhill. As for the stretches of climbing over three mountain passes, Tierney said he didn’t seem to mind those as much as those around him, including Floyd Landis, the embattled winner of last year’s Tour de France.See, when you only ride atop one wheel, grinding uphill is actually less taxing than the stamina necessary to remain upright while pedaling down steep pitches. Descending is a delicate balancing act that requires exceptional leg and core strength. Tierney has made a name for himself for doing the unthinkable on his solitary 36-inch wheel, having completed some of the most demanding hill climbs in the United States. Last August he finished the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb, a 28-mile slog up the highest paved road in the country that tops out with more than 7,500 feet of vertical. A year earlier, he set a new unicycle record at the famed Mount Washington Hill Climb in northern New Hampshire – a 7.6-mile grunt up one of the steepest roads in the world.But the Copper Triangle was different. Tierney wasn’t concerned about the 5,981 feet of climbing while mounting the course’s three mountain passes (Fremont, Tennessee and Vail) because he’d already previously crested all of them. What gave him pause was the thought of making it down each in one day, and the sheer length of the loop that completed the Triangle: At 78 miles, it was the longest ride he had ever attempted.
And, admittedly, the familiar local decided to set out despite not being in top physical shape – the offshoot of a booming personal business and a family life that has kept him from extensive training rides this summer. “I have done all three passes on that ride, but I did it back in 2004,” said Tierney, an Aspen Highlands ski patroller and the president of Aspen Solar. “I started and stopped in a different town before, though, and I went in an opposite direction. This was totally new to me – because it was a different starting and stopping point, and it was longer. It was much harder.”Not that Tierney didn’t really expect to finish. Before he left the Copper Mountain base village at 5:40 in the morning with about 140 other cyclists, he told one race organizer to expect him back at the same spot in 10 hours.True to his word, he pedaled across the finish line exactly 10 hours and 10 minutes later amid a stream of cheers and applause.”On a unicycle, you know what your top speed is and your cruising speed is,” Tierney explained. “I’ve got it down to a science.”
Tierney’s time in the saddle was just in excess of eight hours. He estimated he took 10 or 12 breaks and measured his average moving speed at about 9.5 miles per hour. The lone unicyclist among the field, he said he found himself being regularly passed throughout the day on the downhill portions of the course, while doing the opposite on some of the course’s climbs.He mentioned one cyclist who made a point of passing him while climbing Tennessee Pass, catching Tierney’s eye while mentioning “that there was no way” he was going to let a unicyclist pass him. Near the top, Tierney overtook the same rider -and said nothing in return.The majority of the cyclists were less inclined to challenge the lone single-wheeler in the field.”I’ve never heard so many ‘holy shits’ and stuff like, ‘Superman used to be my hero,'” Tierney said of his converts. “That was actually a new one. There’s also the occasional people who just shake their heads and laugh, not because they’re making fun of me, but because they don’t know what to think. It’s just so bizarre and unique, I guess, to see a unicyclist doing the same thing.”There’s also those who have seen Tierney over the years in other draining rides, and who have grown accustomed to him making the seemingly impossible look routine.
“Some of those that know me, they just acknowledge me by offering some words of encouragement,” Tierney said. “That’s always been really inspiring for me.”Tierney also finds strength from the nature that surrounds him during his long rides. In the Mount Evans race last August, he seemingly hit the wall less than a mile from the finish, and stopped to meditate on a nearby rock. There, he encountered a peaceful mountain goat, which Tierney explained, subconsciously helped him find the strength to keep going.Likewise, a sublime Colorado sunrise made the early morning grind up 11,318-foot Fremont Pass easier.”The last three or four miles of that climb is really tough, but it was awesome,” Tierney said. “The sunrise over the Tenmile Range was awesome. It was definitely inspiring to see that pink cloud overhead, and as soon as we got to the bottom of Fremont, the sunlight started splashing up over the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.”Tierney made good time in the early morning, and reached the top of 10,424-foot Tennessee Pass about three hours into his ride. That’s when the hard work really began. The long stretch of downhill to Minturn and then to Vail tested Tierney so much, he actually was excited when he reached Vail Pass and it was time to start climbing again.
“It’s definitely a lot of focus,” he said. “When I’m going downhill, I have to maintain my speed. On a unicycle, climbing and descending is just like running uphill and downhill. When you’re going downhill, you are behind your center of gravity, and if you get too far forward, it’s really hard to slow down.”Tierney said he is a traditionalist in the sense that he’d never equip his bike with a brake to make the downhills any easier. “I really like to have the feel of the pedals,” he said. “Brakes are just something that could break or fall apart anyway. I like to do it on my own power.”And what considerable power that is. After completing the Triangle, Tierney was already musing about the next chapter among his “epic” rides. He is still on a personal quest to climb and descend all of Colorado’s highway passes from both sides, of which he only has a handful left in the southern part of the state.While it is still warm, he said he plans to get at least one of those rides in over either Wolf Creek Pass, Spring Creek Pass or Slumgullion Pass. He also mentioned a couple of big mountain loops in Arizona that he would love to do.
Really, if it’s a high mountain pass, Tierney said it’s hard for him to pass up the thought of climbing it. On a unicycle, the upside always outweighs the downside.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
David Stapleton is the development officer for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. A product of the club, AVSC sat down with Stapleton for a Q&A session in this week’s Clubhouse Chronicles.