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Into the wind: El Cap to El Cap cycling trip offers gorgeous scenery, brisk winds

Little traffic, mountain vistas on Highway 54 near Van Horn

Staff Writer
Austin 360
The 'sag wagon' support vehicle closely follows cyclists on Texas 54 near the end of their 55-mile ride, which began in Van Horn. Pam LeBlanc AMERICAN-STATESMAN

VAN HORN This is wheel-spinning, pedal-powered bliss.

I am speeding down a two-lane West Texas highway, the wind (temporarily) at my left shoulder, the forbidding Sierra Diablo mountains crouched to the west and a vast expanse of prickly nothingness sweeping into the Delaware Mountains to the east.

Two of my best buddies are within eyesight, and the towering Guadalupe Mountains, which mark the finish line of this 55-mile bike ride, appear tantalizingly close.

But then the road curves.

Suddenly I am slogging again, struggling like cinder blocks are attached to the chain ring on my bike, plodding like an elephant looking for water in this vast desert.

Bummer.

Our group of 10 cyclists set out from the dusty town of Van

Horn a little before 8 a.m. today, taking a couple of warm-up laps around the parking lot of the Hotel El Capitan before launching ourselves north on Texas 54, aiming at a mountain peak also named El Capitan.

We dubbed the ride El Cap to El Cap.

Unfortunately, our trip coincided with a windstorm. Right now, it's 44 degrees, with steady winds of 35 mph and gusts much higher.

I guess we should be thankful. A few days ago, the weather service predicted blasts of up to 75 mph — stiff enough for some serious skin exfoliation.

At first, the breeze was brisk, but not so strong we couldn't deal with it. Besides, it was coming from the side.

But now it's turned tough. My cadence slips. My quads quiver. I actually have to pedal to go downhill.

The group has strung out along the road, and I'm in back with my Austin friends Marcy Stellfox and Charlie McCabe. Our speed dips from 22 mph to 15, then 10, now 6.

We push on, and get a few short reprieves that allow us to check out the scenery, which is gorgeous in a gray-green, cactus-studded, horizon-goes-on-forever sort of way.

We roll by ranches, where windmills whirl like hyperactive pinwheels. Families have worked the land here since the 19th century, traveling this same route to deliver goods to Van Horn.

A far-off smudge of silvery white marks the site of salt deposits, the remnants of an ancient shallow lake that formed 1.8 million years ago.

The Butterfield Overland express, the first intercontinental mail delivery service and stagecoach line, ran near here, too.

The route is pretty flat, and we've only seen a couple of cars on the road since we started. For cycling on a calm day, this would be pretty close to ideal.

We stop for a restroom break, though there are no trees for cover. As I huddle behind a scrubby bush, a low moaning floods my ears. The wind!

When I climb back onto my bike, my jacket ripples like waves on an ocean. The tall grass along the highway is pressed flat to the ground.

Near the halfway point, we pass a gate equipped with high-tech surveillance cameras. It's the entrance to a commercial spaceport being built by Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. He hopes to send tourists to outer space from this desolate site.

As for me, I'm starting to wonder if the winds might blow me all the way to Mars.

When a particularly wicked gust nearly tips me over, I unclick my bike shoes and flag the support vehicle following us.

"I'm done!" I holler.

I love to cycle, but this wind, which occasionally whips up here in early spring, is sapping the pleasure. Stellfox, McCabe and I hop in the sag wagon. Sweet relief!

As we motor to the finish line, we pass others who have managed, somehow, to stay upright on their bikes.

We're happily munching sandwiches and chips when they roll up, unfazed by the hurricane-force winds.

Rob Barrio, owner of Crazy Cat Cyclery in El Paso, tells me he liked the ride so much he's planning to invite others to join him for a redux in September or October. For that ride, he'll tack on an extra 10 miles (all uphill) to Guadalupe Pass, to make it a metric century ride. (Check his Web site at www.crazycat cyclery.com for updates later this year.)

"Mountaintop finishes are kind of cool," he says.

Besides, he just loves the open country that Texas 54 splices.

Stellfox agrees. Her favorite part? "The colors. The bright blue sky, the white cottony clouds against red and orange sandy mountains, and the dusty plains leading up to them," she says.

We want to try again.

Preferably on a day when the wind isn't so strong.

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Tips for riding Texas 54

1. You'll be cycling in the desert. Take plenty of water and snacks and simple tire repair supplies.

2. No services are available along the 55-mile route, and no gas, food or hotel lodging is available at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. (Campsites cost $8 a night.) Stock up with supplies in Van Horn.

3. Respect private property; do not cross gates or fence lines.

4. Relax and enjoy your ride!

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If you go ...

We stayed at Hotel El Capitan, 100 E. Broadway in Van Horn, a bicycle-friendly historic hotel. Rooms range from $69 to $149. For reservations, call 1-877-283-1220. Texas 54 starts across the street from the hotel and heads north. Our destination was a roadside pullout at the intersection of Texas 54 and Texas 62/180, in the shadow of El Capitan at Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

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pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994