Search This Blog

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 (Day 1) - Up High, Down Hard

Took my love, I took it down 
Climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
'Til the landslide brought me down 

Landslide, Stevie Nicks (1975).

A warm sunrise awakens a clear blue sky. Ahead lies 500 miles of remote back roads repeatedly snaking up and down the imposing Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. Months of preparation lead to downtown Sheridan for a weeklong bike packing trip on the Cloud Peak 500, a unique route created by locals Sarah Wallick and Aaron Dernberg. Cycling friend Paul Brasby of North Platte, Nebraska arranges valuable vacation time to join. Expectations could not be higher.

Eight hours later, I hit bottom. Hard.

The end of my Day 1. Maybe the end of my trip. Maybe even the end of my bike packing.

Early morning on the first Wednesday of August, Paul and I ride to the start of the Cloud Peak 500. Our bikes are loaded for 7-8 days of self-supported bike packing and we're jazzed to finally get started. On that first day, we aim to reach USFS Ranger Creek Campground at Mile 52, but would love to continue to USFS Dead Swede Campground at Mile 72. Let's ride!

With all the food, camping gear, clothes, repair tools, and especially water, Paul's 19 pound uber-bike, a new carbon Salsa Cutthroat, now weighs 72 pounds. I purposely do not weigh my steel Jones 29+ bike, but it is noticeably heavier. It all adds up, especially since I'm determined to ride self-supported, including carrying food for the entire trip. As we learn, that's a lot of weight to be lugging up the long, steep, rough climbs ahead.

Paul Brasby and Craig Groseth in downtown Sheridan, Wyoming on Day 1.

Right from the paved start in downtown Sheridan, the Cloud Peak 500 points uphill. Foretelling the ride ahead, Paul immediately pulls away as we climb our way out of town. Settling into a sustainable rhythm, I know that the general profile of the route shows a meandering 34 miles of gentle prairie gravel to the town of Big Horn, where the big climb up Red Grade Road effectively begins.


Those first 34 miles indeed start with a few miles of pavement and then a few miles of fast gravel. But even with the good road surfaces, we're working hard to pull our loaded bikes uphill. Turning southward, Beckton Road (89) gets lumpy in a hurry and then Big Horn Road (99) gets downright grumpy. Rutted, loose, dirt steeps demand maximum effort in my lowest gears just to stay upright. Eventually, I'm off the bike, pushing it up another steep.

I glance at my cyclometer. Mile 19. I'm walking at Mile 19. Out of 500. And the big climb today doesn't even start until after mile 34. Oh, man. I scramble to extinguish the brush fires of doubt popping into my mind. Keep moving.

Foreshadowing many, many miles ahead, Paul waits while Craig crawls up 
a shadeless, exposed, rocky climb en route to Big Horn. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Stopping for a moment, I see another cyclist riding up to us. Who could possibly be out riding this forsaken road in the gathering heat of a Wednesday morning? It's none other than Sarah Wallick, one of the creators of the Cloud Peak 500 route, out for a ride on the course. How cool is that?

Sarah excitedly peppers us with all sorts of questions about our plans and checks out our bikes and gear, before zipping off toward Red Grade Road for her climb of the day. Well after she disappears up the road, her enthusiasm, good cheer and spunk linger. What a treat! Thanks, Sarah!

Who's that flying up to catch us? 
None other than Sarah Wallick, co-designer of the Cloud Peak 500 route, out for a ride.

After 5 hours of hard pedaling, we finally limp into Big Horn. I am beat. Even though we've ridden only about 34 miles, we've already climbed over 2,500 feet on some pretty rough roads on a hot morning. This aggressive start crosses the thin line between warming up and wearing out.

It's far past time for a long break. I need to cool off, drink a boat load of water, eat a ton of food, and just get off the bike for awhile. But the pickings are slim in Big Horn. The route passes but two commercial establishments, neither of which open until 4:00 pm. We scrounge for some water, eat an energy bar and search for shade. Red Grade Road looms on the horizon and in my darkening thoughts.

A short, sweet stretch of downhill gravel early on Day 1. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Our lofty early morning thoughts of reaching Dead Swede Campground at Mile 72 dissipated hours ago in the morning hills and heat. Indeed, we're still about 18 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain just to reach Ranger Creek Campground at Mile 52. Normally, that would be challenging. Right now, it's daunting.

With every mile hard-earned and with many more ahead, I'm not enthused about riding off route in search of some refreshments that may or may not even be available nearby. So, we soft pedal out of Big Horn to start the climb, with just a bit of the edge removed from the heat, thirst, hunger, and fatigue. 

Big mistake.

Soft, rough, exposed uphill dirt road leading to Big Horn. (photo by Paul Brasby)

As soon as the road leans uphill, Paul spins off into the distance. He looks good, perhaps a normal-tired for the effort so far, but determined to keep pedaling. It's a hard day right out of the blocks, even harder than expected, and he's working through it.

I'm relieved to see Paul moving well, but I am not. I pedal, but at a snail's pace. No power at all. I am empty. There's nothing there. No legs. No lungs. No heart. Nothing.

Just 2 miles out of Big Horn, I spot a final sliver of shade before miles of sun-scorched climbing. I stop to re-set mind and body. I get off the bike and lay down. This got ugly quickly.

Red Grade Road turns to gravel around that curve. No where to go but up.

I eat a few bites of an energy bar, but I'm cratering. What I really need is a big, immediate calorie boost. Where's that Hammer Gel?  Pillaging through my food bag, I find 3 empty flasks that should contain 5 servings of gel each. Oh, man. In my early morning excitement, I forgot to fill them. Instead of a boost, it's a body blow.

I inhale a couple of shots of peanut butter, grab some beef jerky and plow up the road after Paul. For the next hour or so, it looks and feels like I'm pedaling in place, on a constant incline, in an oven. I work hard, but the road doesn't change and the mountains don't get any closer. It's like the entire road is one giant set of rollers and the mountains are a painting on the basement wall.

Enough. I need a different mental picture. I dismount, drink more water, and lean over my bike. After a few minutes, I pedal again. Too soon thereafter, I dismount again. After a few minutes, I pedal again. Repeat. Repeat again. To keep moving, I force myself to ride a mile before stopping. That works once. Then it's half a mile. Soon I'm walking. Then I'm not. I'm in free fall.

Red Grade Road. (photo by Paul Brasby)

I plop down in the ditch, in the sun. Like a bad dream, I can't move. I can't think. I am physically, mentally and emotionally empty. I have nothing left. I'm done.

My dreams of this day, of riding the Cloud Peak 500 route, of riding the Great Divide, of bike packing anything, all come crashing down. All of it. All buried in a landslide of utter fatigue and crushing doubt. 

Negativity floods my addled mind. I can't even ride one day. I can't do this. I can't do anything like this. It's not in me.

Red Grade Road, reportedly 19%. Looks like an Evel Knieval launch ramp. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Stop. I force myself to think through options. First and foremost, I work through how to make it under my own power to the Ranger Creek Campground, still about 11 miles and 2,500 feet of elevation gain to go. Even under these circumstances, I believe I can make it, after some rest, cooling, food and water. It may be well into the evening, maybe even after dark, to get there. So, what? I can do this. I've finished plenty of long, hot, one day events well into the night and even into early the next morning. 

But, Craig, this is not a one day event. You plan to ride 6-7 more days, none of which are much different in distance or elevation gain than today. What about tomorrow? And the next day? And the next? 

I don't know. I really don't know. How does this work? How do I make this work? What if I somehow manage to power through today? What then? Eventually, I painfully conclude that recovering from such an effort would take more than one short night. Finishing this day would jeopardize tomorrow for sure, and maybe the rest of the trip.

At that moment, I realize I'm kidding myself. Even with a significant break, I seriously doubt that I could cover another 11 miles straight up and then repeat that effort every day for another week. No chance. This trip is toast.

A stray thought from the depths suggests that I call my wife Colleen, who was still in Sheridan for the day, to come pick me up right there. NO! Then another says to just coast down to Big Horn for Colleen to pick me up there. NO! Piling on, another says to do nothing at all, just sleep there in that ditch until I have the strength to continue, whether up or down. NO! But it's relentless. As soon as I extinguish one, another flares up. Even when I regain my bearings for a moment, I berate myself for even having such thoughts.

It's a brutal battle in a sun baked ditch.

On Red Grade Road looking back toward Big Horn. (photo by Paul Brasby)

As I drown in doubt and despair, a local in a pickup truck pulls up to ask if I need help. The heavens part to reveal another option. Accept a lift from this Good Samaritan to the Ranger Creek Campground, recover as best I can tonight, and start again tomorrow. Live to ride another day. More accurately, live for the possibility of riding another day.

That's what I do, because I conclude that's the only way I have any chance of continuing this trip. In a surreal moment, I accept a lift in a truck to the end of the day's planned ride. 

Along the way, we stop to check on Paul, who has worked his way up the first big switchback. He's still engaged in the heat of the battle on that monster climb and is determined to keep riding. We agree to re-connect at the Ranger Creek Campground at Mile 52.

Paul works his way up Red Grade Road, leaving Big Horn far behind and far below.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

After a bittersweet ride as a passenger, I unload at the Ranger Creek Campground, scout it out, select a site, and take a nap. About 3 hours later, Paul pulls in. Somehow, he manages to ride the entire 52 miles from Sheridan, gaining over 6,800 feet in elevation, on that fully loaded bike, over those rough roads, in that heat, in an 11 hour day. He even endures a 30 minute hail storm late on that big climb. Amazing. Simply amazing.

But Paul doesn't celebrate. He's rightfully concerned about me and the rest of the trip. So am I.

We talk about the day and the days ahead. I did climb over 4,200 feet in 41 miles of rough roads today. That's not nothing, but it's also not enough. I dump everything out to try to sort through it. But I'm an emotional mess incapable of thinking rationally to put it back together. I can't make sense of the day. I can't decide what, if anything, I am capable of riding tomorrow. Maybe nothing at all. I ramble on and on. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to think. I don't even know where to start. I'm on an endless loop monologue.

Paul listens patiently. I'm certain he wonders what he got himself into. Exasperated with myself, I finally ask him point blank what he thinks. I will forever remember Paul's response, "Craig, you're a cyclist. You've finished rides that I couldn't. You've finished ahead of me on rides I could. You just have to decide what you want to do."

To a guy with his confidence buried in a ditch near the base of the Big Horn Mountains, Paul's simple acknowledgement of our prior experiences calmed my internal torment. I'll find a way.

USFS Ranger Creek Campground at the end of Day 1.

Almost immediately, I map out a plan that requires no conclusions and no decisions at the moment. Tonight, I will stop analyzing and just eat, drink and rest. Tomorrow, I will pack up my bike and continue on the Cloud Peak 500 route from the Ranger Creek Campground at Mile 52. I will climb another 2,000 feet to Dead Swede Campground at Mile 72, roll into the Bear Lodge Resort at Burgess Junction at Mile 82, and then assess the future of this trip. It could be a coast down Highway 14 toward Sheridan for pickup by Colleen. It could be a night at Burgess Junction. It could be continuing on the Cloud Peak 500 route further into the Big Horns. It could be an option yet unknown.

Tomorrow will tell.

Landslide, Fleetwood Mac (1975), performed by Stevie Nicks (2009).


  1. Thanks for your honesty here. As one who was inspired by your initial posts on this route, I had hoped to be out there from Vermont this summer to ride it. I've ended up living vicariously, waiting for our next summer to tackle it. This cautionary reality check is really helpful! Can't wait to hear about the remainder of the trip for you.

  2. Thanks, Steve. From Vermont! Now, that's a commitment! For me, the Cloud Peak 500 route rode much differently than what I expected. I did not know the area and could not find a lot of detail beforehand. It's all good, all part of the adventure. But for those that would like more information, I plan to post a series of ride reports, one for each day of our ride, and a series of Logistics reports, one for each day of our ride. You can also contact me directly if you have questions.