On Saturday, we set out before sunrise to drive to the airport and begin our trip to Las Vegas. Some of you might think that this is a funny place to take a three-year-old, but we have reasons beyond the usual; Elise’s parents live there. We lugged the usual complement of books, toys and food to keep Andrew amused on the six-hour flight to Las Vegas. However, this time I had also stuffed some bike clothes and my pedals in my bag. Though biking is far from the primary purpose of this trip, the lure of 50° weather and clear-ish skies was too much for me to pass up.
Originally I had planned to mail a bike ahead so I’d have something to ride. However, a little Internet research revealed that Las Vegas is one of the few places in the country where a roadie can get a temporary fix. A local shop (McGhie’s) rents “performance road” bikes for the not-totally-outrageous sum of $35 per day, rent 3 days, get the 4th free. Since the two-way packing and shipping costs would run nearly as much as a three-day rental, I decided to give McGhie’s a shot.
As Elise’s brother drove us home from the airport, I happened to mention that I needed to visit McGhie’s at roughly the same time we passed it. This clearly demonstrated the long-suspected psychic link between me and cycling, or at least between bike stores and my credit card. We pulled a quick U-turn into the parking lot, dismounted and herded Andrew past a rack of Merckxes (Merckxen?) and Cannondales to the rental counter.
A few minutes later I walked out with an appropriately-sized Trek 2100 with my pedals sprouting from the crank. While not exactly dripping with panache (which will soon appear on the UCI banned-substances list anyway) it was more bike than I expected, and in passable condition. We stuffed it in the hatch and drove home where I proceeded to tinker with the position and take an hour-long easy ride to make sure the seat wasn’t a total ass-hatchet. It wasn’t.
This morning, a few hours after the obligatory 4:30am wake-up call from my jet-lagged pre-schooler, I chamoised up and headed for Red Rock Canyon. Red Rock is a National Conservation Area nestled in among a range of 6000-foot peaks west of the city. It features, among other things, a 13-mile scenic drive loop with a 1000-foot net elevation gain in the first 5 miles. The route from town gains another 1000 feet over about six miles. As you might imagine, this is a popular destination for local cyclists and runners.
As I worked my way due west up Charleston Boulevard’s long ascent, I passed (and was passed by) about a dozen fellow bikers mounted on everything from recumbents to full-aero triathlon machines. At least that number were headed in the opposite direction, tucked into their drops and enjoying a long, straight downhill after an early workout. Multi-mile grades like this are a rarity back home so I settled into an easy rhythm and admired the morning sun reflecting from tiny snowcaps crowning the peaks the Spring Mountains in the distance. Against this backdrop the Mojave Desert spread in desolate magnificence, tiny rocks and scrub brush casting long shadows.
I was breathing deep when I turned into Red Rock, so I downshifted as I cruised past the visitors center and entered the scenic loop. Immediately I encountered the field for the Las Vegas Track Club’s 20K Classic. The road itself had tall orange cones planted on the centerline, dividing the road for runners on the left and, apparently, everybody else on the right. I worked my way through what appeared to be the mid-pack recreational runners as I climbed to Calico Hills, the bright red sandstone formation that gives Red Rock its name. After pausing to take a few pictures I continued climbing to the high point overlook. The road race traffic thinned considerably on the way up to the highest point in the loop, but we still managed to pin a couple of cars behind us. Small patches of snow lingered on the road on the descent, conspiring with the runners to limit the amount of road available to negotiate the switchbacks.
The road tilted up again as I crossed a wash – I was surprised to find a ten-foot-wide, three-inch-deep stream crossing the road. After topping a final rise, the road settled into a gentle slope back towards the visitors center. I was finally clear of foot traffic so I found the big chainring and churned up the last two miles in a big gear. A few members of the local bike club were out to escort the runners, and we checked each other out as I passed. I didn’t stop to explain the “BHCC” on my shorts.
Too soon I reached the end of the scenic drive and turned back onto Charleston for the return trip. This two-lane road has a wide shoulder, heavy bike traffic and a 60 MPH speed limit for cars. This made the descent back to Las Vegas a bit less enjoyable than I had hoped. That’s entertaining, I thought as yet another SUV sprouted from my left shoulder without warning and buffeted me towards the gravel strewn on the shoulder. I was halfway home before I had threaded my way through the bike traffic and found enough road to relax. Trading my remaining few hundred feet of elevation for a little more speed, I crouched low, slammed into the biggest gear I had and churned for home.
After cooling down on the city streets for a few minutes, I stopped to reflect on how few people get to feel what I had just experienced. More than 30 million people visit Las Vegas every year (so I’m told), and the vast majority of them never make it out of the garish caverns of the Strip. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just as well – I’d hate to have even more competition for the natural beauty I found at Red Rock.