An Uphill Battle

Tough love on a steamy August afternoon

Bike (6/11/2002)

Brion's comments:
'My wife, Lauri, has taught me a lot during our 12 years together. On this ride, she taught me what toughness was all about.'

Feature article:

"No one rides the chairlift."

One rule, four riders.

Standing near Killington Ski Resort's main lodge on a humid August morning in the shadow of one of Vermont's best-known peaks, my wife starts to question the rationale behind this brilliant idea of mine. Lauri is well grounded, a creature of gravity. In short she believes man created chairlifts for a very good reason, and she is more than willing to acquiesce to man's methods when it comes to reversing gravity's pull.

The Irish can be obstinate, and true to my Irish roots I counter that there's something noble and ultimately rewarding to rail against man-made contraptions foisted upon us without consent.

Ahead lies almost eight miles of trail winding more than 2,200 feet skyward along Killington Peak's 4,241-foot flank. Along for the ride are Mike Lanza, a freelance writer, and Penny Beach, a soon-to-be doctor. They are a rugged outdoor pair from upstate New Hampshire who relish the thought of spending the day sweating on the trail.

Three of us are determined to pedal every inch; Lauri briefly protests but eventually relents, her solid common sense giving way to pack mentality. I see her steal one last, longing look at the perky freeriders pedaling willy-nilly to the double chairlift before we set off on the Long Way Trail, the irony of which is not lost on my wife.

The first half-mile is a tease; it's all downhill and, in fact, so steep we need to stop for a moment to adjust our brakes. We won't need them again for a long, long time. Just past Bear Mountain Lodge the trail takes a sharp turn into the mountain and the grunt begins. At first the pitch is gentle and the ground beneath our wheels solid. This, too, is temporary. Soon the switchbacks are upon us and dirt gives way to mud—tire-sucking, strength-sapping goo. It's a thick slop that demands momentum, yet robs us of any speed.

Our slow pace alerts the black flies and they swarm around us. It's not a pretty sight. Mike and Penny grind out a steady tempo, shouting encouragement as they slowly pull away under a hot, sticky sun. Lauri doesn't hear a word, or isn't letting on. Her head is down, teeth set on edge like fingers on a chalkboard, her breath more labored with each turn of the crank. Large beads of sweat drip steadily off her nose. Her usual good humor? Gone.

At each hairpin she glances ahead in search of relief, sees the next section pointing upward, and quietly curses. She isn't talking to me, but I know I'm being held accountable. "Hon, you're looking strong," I shout. "Save it," she replies.

"Can I give you a hand?" I offer. "I'm fine, just leave me alone," she tersely says, in a tone that ends further conversation.

Lauri is a woman of great pride, and doesn't take kindly to anything remotely patronizing. I pedal off hoping to catch Mike and Penny, and I enter that strange altered state of masochistic climbing. I begin to appreciate the burn in my quads and lower back, the sting in my eyes, the nasty panting.

But the magic abruptly ends at mile seven. On a steep, rocky section, I hit the wall. The heat and lactic acid are too potent a cocktail and I'm forced off my bike. I walk on shaky legs to the next crest and Killington's mountaintop lodge comes into view. Almost dizzy, I jump back on the saddle and pedal.

Mike and Penny are sunning themselves on the deck, taking in marvelous views of the Green Mountains and chatting with some hikers fresh off the Appalachian Trail. I park myself beside them, still breathing hard, and the vigil begins. There's lots of animated verbal backslapping about conquering the mountain, but it hides a nervous undercurrent.

Ten minutes pass, 15 minutes, and still no sign of Lauri. Thirty minutes slip by and I begin to worry that the drive home will feel like an eternity compared to this adventure. I get up from my chair and start toward my rig when I see her break into a clearing, walking alongside her bike. I blink hard—twice. She is, yes, she's definitely smiling. Delirious, I conclude, after four hours on the trail. But again she proves me wrong.

Chalky white salt stains and viscous Vermont mud cover her 5-foot-10 frame. Exhausted, and perhaps a little light-headed, she's giddy with exhilaration and beams with pride born of pain and perseverance. "I made it," she says, her tone soft but self-assured. "I didn't even feel alone. I just convinced myself that the black flies were my friends, and they kept me company the entire way."

That evening Lauri admits to a renewed appreciation for gravity and the joys of going downhill on her bike. But the next morning, fried thighs and seared lungs conspire against me and I capitulate: Lauri and I make a happy beeline to the chairlift.

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