By John Killen
The road keeps climbing in front of me. There are almost no trees. Instead, the brown hillside is dotted with stocky blue-green sagebrush.
The low cloud cover that was shielding the sun’s rays for much of the morning is burning off, so the temperature is climbing. And I’m running low on water.
But I’m wondering: What would Kristin do?
She’d keep going, of course.
I should have started earlier in the day. In fact, that was my plan. I was going to begin my ride by 9 a.m. But as I often do, I procrastinated. I was staying with my brother-in-law, Galen Louis, at his condo in southeast Boise, and we were having a pleasant post-breakfast conversation about community theater, one of his passions in retirement.
Before long, it was 10:20 a.m. Aargh. Time to put on my cycling gear and go. It’s supposed to climb well north of 90 again today, which is pretty normal for Boise in August.
Galen has been battling some health issues and my sister, Peggy, was going to be out of town for a few days. He said he would be fine, but she was a bit concerned, so I said I could come over to Boise for a few days and keep him company.
And I had an ulterior motive. Boise has some mighty fine cycling. So I threw some clothes and my road bike into the back of my old Volvo wagon and headed east.
One ride that I wanted to try while there was the road that heads from town up to the Bogus Basin ski area. It’s a steady climb, rising about 3,400 feet over 15 miles. The road takes you from the foothills of Boise – elevation 2,700 feet — to the base of the ski area, which is about 5,700 feet.
I had done this route once before, but that was 43 years ago when Marlie (my wife-to-be) and I were living in Boise. I was 25. Now I’m 68. But I’m a pretty avid cyclist and I do a fair amount of climbing in Portland’s West Hills, so I figured I could handle it.
I wasn’t sure I would do the full 15 miles. Instead, I wanted to see how far I could get from the time I left the condo and headed up the road, which is in north Boise.
So I aimed my bike north, turned west when I reached the gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, pedaled through the Boise State University campus, and then took North 13th. I knew it would take me to the base of the climb.
All the while, my mind was alternating between the traffic and thoughts of Kristin Armstrong. For those who don’t follow competitive cycling, Armstrong is a bit of a legend — and a Boise resident.
A former swimmer, distance runner and triathlete, she focused on cycling in the late 1990s and developed her true talent. She won gold medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the time trial discipline. She also won world championships in that event in 2006 and 2009.
Along the way, she also helped promote cycling and bicycle racing in the Boise area. Boise responded. The city these days has a burgeoning network of cycling pathways, cycling events and bike boulevards. It also has some of the best single-track riding in the West.
In thanks, Boise renamed a city park after Armstrong and — more to the point — has designated Bogus Basin Road as the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway.
Which is where I am right now.
Awhile back, I passed the 3,000 foot marker and I’ve lost count of number of switchbacks as I climb — slowly but steadily — up the grade.
I look down at my Garmin — the small bike computer fixed to my handle bars — and note that I’m averaging about 6 to 9 miles an hour. Not speedy, but not bad given the heat and the steady 4 to 8 percent incline.
So far, I’ve seen more bikes than cars on the road, which is nice. It’s a Tuesday and most of Boise is at work, so that makes sense.
I’ve heard stories that this was one of Armstrong’s main training regimens as she prepared for the Olympics. I can see why. I’ve climbed steeper grades in Portland’s West Hills, but none of them go on and on — and on — like this one does.
I pass the 3-mile marker, the 5-mile marker and then the 7-mile marker. Another sign says 4,000 feet. The heat is starting to build. The grade isn’t doing me any favors.
I’ve finished off one of my two water bottles and take a sip from the second. I also pour just a bit through the slots on the back of my helmet. The cool water runs down my neck and onto my back. The relief is short-lived, but much appreciated.
I don’t know where Armstrong lives but I find myself wondering if there’s any chance I might see her as I climb. I know she’s retired, but I hear she still rides. In fact, I saw her on a YouTube broadcast a day or two ago when she was helping promote a cycling event in Boise. She looked ready to race.
She’s actually become a sort of hero to me, partly because she’s a champion cyclist, partly because what she’s done for cycling in Boise – and the world.
And there’s the fact that I actually met her once – sort of.
It was in the summer of 2002 and Marlie and I were in Boise for our niece’s wedding. The ceremony was actually held at one of the lodges at the top of Bogus Basin Road. Our niece, Brooke, was also a former collegiate distance runner and had converted — like Armstrong — to cycling. She also had found that she could excel on two wheels and had been invited to join the women’s T-Mobile professional team with Armstrong.
They became friends and Armstrong and some of her other teammates were among the bridesmaids at Brooke’s wedding. I can’t say I have strong memories of her or the others, but I do recall being introduced to several very tan and fit-looking young women wearing bridesmaid dresses.
There’s the 8-mile marker. I’m about halfway through the second water bottle. The clouds are gone and the sun is truly getting hot.
I’m also thinking about the fact that I told Galen I would be home by 1:30 p.m. I do some mental calculations. I know I will descend about three times faster than I am ascending. I roll the numbers around in my head. I pass the 9-mile marker, and take another drink.
I’m actually still feeling pretty good. Up ahead, I can see that I’m not too far from entering the pine forest that starts up at about 5,000 feet. Shade! I also know that just after that, the road flattens out considerably and most of the climbing will be behind me.
A little less than 1,000 feet and I’m on top. But there’s not enough time. Not enough water. And honestly, maybe not enough energy.
Time to turn around.
I pull over, snap a couple of photos with my iPhone and begin the downhill spin. I can hear the gentle, rapid clicking from the rear hub of my bike.
I’m coasting at about 25 to 30 miles per hour. The rushing air feels cool. Boise is in the distance below, but crawling steadily closer.
I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t keep going, but I did climb about 2,600 feet, so it was definitely a good workout. Also, the Bikeway is well kept and the pavement was smooth. And very few cars. As a cyclist, you can’t ask for much more.
And as it turns out, I just missed Kristin.
I’m a member of Strava, which is a social network for cyclists and runners. One of its features is called “fly by.” After a ride or run, it allows you to see other Strava members who you passed or who may have passed you or ridden near you.
I mouse over to “fly by” and there, two names below mine, is “Kristin.”
What? I click on the name to get more info. Sure enough, the rider’s full name is Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho. I click on her route from that morning and realize she and I just missed each other. She was riding some nearby roads as I was climbing the Bikeway. In fact, for a brief time, we were probably within a few hundred yards of each other.
For a second, I wondered what I would have said had I seen her.
But I knew. I would have smiled and waved and felt a momentary surge of excitement — and just said thank you.
John Killen is a retired journalist. He worked for The Oregonian for 27 years and for two other newspapers before that. He now spends his time riding his bike and helping his wife Marlie take care of their two granddaughters.
Editor’s note: John and I started at almost the same time at The Oregonian. Though I’ve never biked with him, we’ve found common interests in teaching, basketball, bowling, hiking, journalism, parenting and now grand-parenting.
Tomorrow: Patricia Conover | Thoughts on returning to Oregon