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Monday, August 17, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 - A Bikepacking Journey

Got to pay your dues
If you want to sing the blues
And you know it don't come easy
It Don't Come Easy, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (1971).

When compadre Lucas Haan alerted me to the Cloud Peak 500 bike packing route in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming (Cloud Peak 500), I immediately recognized its potential as a primo shake out ride for a Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) tour. Specifically, it offers about 20 percent of the distance and elevation gain of the GDMBR on a similar variety of remote roads and terrain, with occasional small towns for re-supply. As a bonus, the Big Horns are but a few hours from Rapid City. I mark it a priority ride for 2020. (Cloud Peak 500 - That's The Plan)

From the start, I believe that I could comfortably cover 60-80 miles per day with a loaded bike packing bike on that route. That means riding 6-7 days. After a couple of overnight rides in the Black Hills on my loaded bike, I bump that estimate up another day. Confident in my assessment, I arrange car transport with my wife Colleen and even commit to help our daughter Cara move to a new apartment in Denver right after that.

Meanwhile, cycling friend Paul Brasby of North Platte, Nebraska catches wind of my Cloud Peak 500 plans. As a lifelong, successful road racer, Paul is an enthusiastic gravel racer and bike packer with both eyes fixed on a GDMBR ride in the near future. He also concludes that the Cloud Peak 500 looks to be an ideal ride to prepare for that, as well as a great ride on its own. We decide to start together and see how it goes.

Early on Day 2, Paul Brasby and Craig Groseth at USFS Dead Swede Campground.
We're celebrating the end of the beastly Red Grade Road climb at about Mile 72.

With promising weather and good spirits, Paul and I start early one morning from Sheridan, Wyoming. We ride together, off and on, during each day and re-connect each night, usually at a primitive campsite. The rough, remote roads demand long, steep, exposed climbs, but deliver big, stunning views. The weather cooperates fabulously, with mostly moderate winds, short and predictable afternoon showers, and seasonably warm temperatures. Navigation by map (me) and gpx (Paul) is flawless. Although few in number, the local people are fantastically friendly. All is well.

Despite such favorable conditions, I did not ride my expected 60-80 miles a day. Not even close. With a fully loaded bike, on those rough roads, with that much elevation gain, I manage about 50 miles a day. And at the end of each day, I am more than ready to be done. I think Paul was, too.

Early on Day 3, Paul is pleased to crest a pitch at an elevation well over 10,000 feet.

That shortened daily mileage adds up over time. At the end of Day 5, we approach Mile 250 at the small town of Ten Sleep. At that pace, we would not reach the finish until Day 10. However, Paul only had 8 days to ride before needing to return to work. I had 7 days and maybe the morning of an eighth before Colleen picked me up to help Cara move. Time to re-assess.

Leaving Ten Sleep early on Day 6, we aim to reach a primitive BLM campsite at about Mile 300, re-supply water, re-fuel and decide then whether to ride into the night. With the biggest climbs behind us and the road surface improving, Paul is energized at the prospect of riding the remaining 250 miles in just 3 days to complete Cloud Peak 500 route. However, by mid-morning I know that I'm unlikely to make it, so I encourage him to go for it.

Paul kicks in. I kick back.

Later on Day 3, I negotiate an 8 mile, rock-strewn, loose, steep, 4000+ foot drop
the map calls a road. I call it "Dude's Downhill" as it's straight from an X-Games course.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul rides an amazing 105 miles that day to reach Kaycee, rides another 78 the next day to reach Buffalo and then finishes in Sheridan the following day. His total time for the entire Cloud Peak 500 route - 7 days, 5 hours, 30 minutes. What a ride. What a finish.

Back to Day 6, I rolled into that BLM campsite almost two hours after Paul and stayed for the night. The next day, I rode another 50-some miles into Kaycee to complete my Cloud Peak 500 tour at about 350 miles. What a great week. What a great experience.

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to post the story of each day of our Cloud Peak 500 ride, in words and pictures. I also plan to post separately the logistics of each day, particularly since much of the route is so remote and dry. Over a week long trip like this, the experience creates much to process. This one deserves some time and effort to get right.

It Don't Come Easy, Ringo Starr (1971).

A final note. Only passionate, local enthusiasts know their backcountry well enough to piece together a route such as the Cloud Peak 500. Thank you, Sarah Wallick and Aaron Denberg of Big Horn, Wyoming for creating this unique, challenging route in, over, up, down, and all around the Big Horn Mountains. Anyone finding this gem is fortunate. 

Cloud Peak 500 route, from

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