Riding the New Mexico Bike Tour with Lizard Head Cycling Guides
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A New Mexico Journal – Riding the Norte de Nuevo México Bike Tour

A New Mexico Journal – Riding the Norte de Nuevo México Bike Tour

Please enjoy this journal and first hand account of the tour from a guest on our recent New Mexico Bike Tour.

I arrived at 3:15 in Albuquerque, New Mexico after an uneventful trip from Atlanta. Checked in, made a liquor store run and waited to meet my riding friends for supper.

We met at a local James Beard winner, Zacatacos in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was my third trip with John and Chris from Columbus and also my third trip with Norris from Atlanta. Good riders all. Norris had invited Alan, a retired surgeon, “Hubs”, and Beverly, a retired lawyer. All three turned out to be excellent riders. John, a thirty-year-old Rice alumni and IT employee rounded out our supper group.

The food and service was excellent, and the restaurant had a vibe with excellent creative food and an attentive staff serving the needs of the really full space. After supper, Norris, Hubs and I shared a drink and cigar before going to bed. Norris and Hubs were roommates at Woodbury Forest who graduated from high school four years after me. We had a nice time catching up and making connections with common friends.

Woke early and got my kit together, only to find that no one else was up. The first morning is always particularly hectic, because the bikes needed to be swapped out with pedals and seats, and with twelve bikers that takes time. We were also joined by Jim and Becky, and Becky’s brother Tony, and this is my fourth trip with them. They will be the fastest riders. Rob, a food scientist, who lives in Albuquerque, and Jim, a United Church of Christ bishop, rounded out our group.

Our guides were John Humphries, the owner of Lizard Head Cycling Guides and a dynamo, and Leslie Moore, who helped guide my first trip to Red Rocks in 2011.

We drove to Gallina, New Mexico approximately 100 miles northwest from Albuquerque, gradually climbing from 5,500 feet to 7,584 at Gallina, New Mexico. At the lower elevations, the vistas were of rose colored sandstone clay, greenish, gray sage covered vistas with juniper and pignolia pines, little 12 feet stunted pines, giving way to the darker blue and lavender mountains on our right, the Sandia range. Sandia is Spanish for watermelon. As we climbed, there must have been more rainfall, because the fields gave way to pale green grass fields with some livestock.

We reached Gallina at approximately 1:00, ate a quick lunch and started out at 1:30 for what I thought would be an easy ride of 37 with a predominant descent.

I was wrong, and the altitude of 7,584 took all of us by surprise, and it took approximately four miles of pedaling a slight grade to finally get your breathing in a rhythm. We topped out at probably 8,000 feet after thirty minutes of hard cycling and then started a 15 mile descent with grades of between 2 and 5 percent through a Ponderosa pine forest, which gave way to high plain tundra at 6,500 feet. Many, many sunflowers, a few Indian paint brush and Indian blanket flower alongside the roadway. Averaged almost 14 miles after the first hour, and given that it had taken me the first thirty minutes to cover 4 miles to the apex, I thought that this ride was in the bag.

Not to be, because as we descended the canyon, we picked up a headwind that started at 10-12 knots and seemed to increase to 25-30 as we rode on. No speed on the downhills and it made the climbs and flats glacially slow.
Still it was a beautiful ride through a pastel landscape with the afternoon weather showing light purple rain and some lighting all around. I was glad to call it a day and get in the van after thirty miles for the trip into Ghost Ranch.

Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian retreat with approximately 30 adobe duplex cottages, common areas, and plenty of space for common study, mediation etc. It looked very tired. After a very early mediocre dinner of fried pressed indiscriminate chicken parts and some rice, I went to my side of the cottage, smoked a cigar, and was in bed by 8:30, more than a little bummed at my poor ride showing earlier in the day.

Before the trip, I had trained hard and logged almost 1,060 miles accumulated in short hard rides of around 30 plus, always riding against my last time. I thought I was ready, but learned yet again that age is no impenetrable defense to surprise, particularly when you are speculating about your own abilities.

I slept soundly awoke at 6:30, and set out to explore Ghost Ranch in the early morning stillness. A good night’s sleep certainly changes your perspective! Ghost Ranch was started as a dude ranch in the early 1900’s, before it became a retreat for writers, painters and the Presbyterians. Georgia O’Keefe had a small cabin and painted at the Ranch throughout the mid-part of the 20th century. You can see her paintings of the cliffs and chimney rocks that surround the Ranch, and the Ranch has a lovely view of the plains and mountains towards the west.

Early that morning there was a slight rain and then the most incredible double rainbow that I have ever seen stayed for approximately 20 minutes.

The Ranch is in a sandstone canyon with red cliffs with a view looking west over light green fields that merge into the mountains, probably 25 miles away. The dominant mountain is the Perdenal, a mesa topped mountain that is the subject of so many Georgia O’Keefe paintings. The mountain range is high enough to create weather, and there were dark blueish, purple clouds signaling an impending thunderstorm.

The light was diffuse, and the scenery in the distance seemed to glow from within, and everything was so still and quiet. The Ranch had a quality that a retired pastor used to describe as a thin place, one where the distance between earth and heaven is particularly close. Being there, you can feel why Ms. O’Keefe thought this was such a special place.

Breakfast was good with eggs, corn beef hash and fried potatoes, and after breakfast, I explored a small but very nice anthropology museum with artifacts recovered from the Ranch along with a dinosaur museum of skeletons discovered locally.

Around 10:30, we got our gear ready, saw part of the eclipse through the cloud cover, and set off on our scheduled ride, which would take us over the watershed of the Rio Chama, through the river valley, and then over the gap at approximately 7,500 feet before a 10 mile descent into Oja Caliente, New Mexico for a distance of 44 miles. Riding conditions were perfect, temperature in the low 70’s, no humidity, and no wind!

Before starting, I got my seat leveled and raised, as I had noticed yesterday that I kept slipping back and seemed to be hunched over the bars in an uncomfortable position. The adjustment made a big positive change in performance as I was to discover to my delight.

We slipped out of Ghost Ranch and pedaled up the grade to reach the edge of the Rio Chama watershed, and then descended into the valley and then rode parallel to the river along irrigated lush green fields for approximately 10 miles before turning left to begin our climb at the town of Abiquiu, New Mexico. We crossed the Rio Chama and began climbing steadily, grades never below 1.5% and never more than 6%. We entered the Carson National Forest. At the start of the climb, the landscape was sage covered tundra with juniper and pignolia pine and cottonwoods in the ravines where water was more plentiful. As we climbed, first the cottonwoods and then the scrub pines departed, leaving fields of greenish gray sage rolling up to the serrated red and lighter colored clay and sandstone ridges. We ate lunch at El Rito at elevation 6,870 feet next to a church established by the Spanish in the 1830’s.

After lunch, we climbed 4 miles to the top with grades never less than 4% and never more than 6.5%, topping out at approximately 7,500 feet. From there it was a 10 mile descent in Oja Caliente, where we stayed at the Oja Caliente Mineral Resort and Spa.

I rode as well today as I rode poorly yesterday.

The resort is something out of a Fellini movie! The guests wonder around in Dalia Lama robes on their way to spa services: mud baths, hot mineral springs, massages, all the while with New Age music faintly in the background while stewards patrol pointing “whisper only” at cyclists who talk to loud. Norris and I both got carded! Generations of couples, gay and straight, most predominantly tattooed, and many terribly overweight and you get the picture.

Tuesday morning, most of us went for a short out and back ride through the Rio Oja Caliente valley. The small farms seemed more prosperous, with irrigated fields of corn, greenhouses, row crops, hay fields, and some livestock. The sunflowers and bee balm were very showy! After 16 miles, Beverly and I turned around after 1,350 feet of climbing. It took us almost 2 hours to get there, but only an hour to return. After lunch I had a message and relaxed on the patio with a cigar and caught up my emails and journal.

Wednesday morning we headed for Taos, New Mexico riding North on a beautiful sunny day. No wind, no humidity, and freshly paved blacktop. We cycled for approximately 10 miles and climbed over 1,300 feet to 7,300 feet before we started descending into the Rio Grande Valley. It was like riding on top of the world. After lunch at the Rio Grande Bridge we took the van into Taos for a leisurely afternoon.

Taos enjoys an international reputation, but I think most of us were disappointed by the trinket nature of the shops around the central plaza. Notwithstanding the tourist nature of the town, its physical attributes are stunning as it is sited between the Rio Grande gorge and the Sangre de Christo mountain range which reach heights in excess of 12,000 feet. The range is the southern most part of the Rockies running from southwest Colorado to just above Santa Fe.

We stayed in a very nicely appointed property, and after checking in, we wandered the town checking out the galleries, which were the opposite of the tawdry nature of the trinket shops around the square.

The next morning, we motored east on Highway 64 toward Cimarron, New Mexico and Philmont Scout Ranch, stopping at a pass at 9,300 feet. We started riding a 15 mile descent into Eagles Nest, New Mexico before turning north toward Red River at a glacial lake below Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico’s highest peak. From Eagles Nest the road climbed from 8,238 feet to Bobcat Pass at 9,830 feet to Bob Cat pass over approximately 15 miles. It was quite a climb with the last 5 miles a base of 5% grades, punctuated by serial 7, 8 and 9% ramps. I will admit to hiking a portion of the climb. We descended the pass down a terribly steep and poorly maintained road into Red River, New Mexico.

From Red River we rode down the canyon into Questa, New Mexico and then to the Norte Rio Grande National Monument, a spectacular setting with the sage covered tundra dropping into the gorge on our right and the Sangre de Christos Mountains on our left.

Santa Fe, New Mexico and Taos, New Mexico were first colonized by the Spanish in the early 1600’s, but the native population threw the Spanish out in 1680 and briefly re-asserted their independence until 1692. Thereafter, the Spanish regained control and Santa Fe was the capitol of New Mexico. While the Spanish were looking for gold and silver, there is no evidence of commercial production before the American occupation after the end of the Mexican War.

In the 1820’s American traders from St. Louis opened the Santa Fe Trail, which left the Missouri river at Independence, Kansas, and angled southwest through the Comanche territory following the basic route of Route 66, reaching Santa Fe south of the Sangre de Christos Mountains. The Americans traded iron tools and engineered products for furs, and generated fabulous profits on their return to St. Louis, often yielding a return of 2,000 %. The Santa Fe Trail was the first of the widely recognized transcontinental routes.

We left Taos, New Mexico Friday morning on a spectacular day traversing the High Road between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Taos, New Mexico. Our departing point was from St. Francis of Asis, a beautiful adobe church founded in the 1770’s and still a thriving parish today. Highway 518 starts out climbing a small river canyon and pushes if not exceeds the climb over Bear Tooth Pass for physical beauty. You don’t have the vistas of Bear Tooth, but the roadsides were densely flowered with sunflowers, purple aster, and chicory, with beautiful vistas on both sides as we ascended the canyon through forests of ponderosa pine. I was in a good cadence and rhythm, and adjusted to the altitude, and the first climb of over five miles with an elevation change of 2,500 feet seemed to go quickly, as I transfixed by the physical beauty of the climb.

We then rode down into the valley before climbing another two miles for a total climb of almost 4,000 feet. This second climb was a different story and I was not the only biker glad to see the lunch stop finally appear. I needed the lunch break to re-gather myself and get enough fuel to finish the ride. We finished lunch, had a short interval of mild climbing and then intersected the High Road between Taos, New Mexico and Santa Fe, New Mexico for a 10 mile descent into Chimayo, New Mexico on an excellent highway, where we finished at a small beautiful ancient adobe church known for its miraculous healing powers.

We then headed into Santa Fe, New Mexico for the evening.

The next morning we broke up with some riding and an out and back, others exploring Santa Fe, and Beverly and I renting a car to visit Bandolier National Park, the home of the cliff dwellers. The Indians started inhabiting the park in the 1100’s, and began constructing cliff dwellings in the 1300’s with population reaching a zenith of approximately 550 people in the early 1500’s. They farmed corn, beans and squash and raised domesticated turkey. They constructed elaborate multi-storied dwellings which could only be accessed by ladders. Quite a remarkable construction when you figure that all trees and crops were timbered, plated and harvested with stone tools.
That afternoon Linda flew in and joined us and after a farewell drink and dinner, the biking group left for their respective homes.

This was one of my favorite trips, and while the total mileage was not near what we have covered in trips past, 239 miles is a good week’s work.

The chemistry between the riders was particularly rewarding and it is that chemistry that makes the trip.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 4th, 2017 at 12:30 pm and is filed under Blog, Featured Posts.
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