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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Great Divide - Goodbye, Hello

You say yes, I say no
You say stop, and I say go, go, go
Ooh, no
You say goodbye and I say hello
Hello, Goodbye, John Lennon & Paul McCartney (1967)

Paul says goodbye to the Great Divide, at least until next year.
I say hello to my solo ride to Antelope Wells.
(photo by Matt Brasby)

Like many endurance cyclists, Paul Brasby holds a long time dream of riding the entire length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Also like many others, Paul has a full time job, a busy slate of family commitments, and a long list of community activities. He simply does not have the block of time required to ride the Great Divide in a single shot.

However, Paul recognizes that it doesn't have to be all at once or nothing. He sets out to ride the Great Divide in sections, as his time off allows. Paul initially decides to ride the northern half in 2020, but then learns of my plans to ride the Cloud Peak 500 bikepacking route in August 2020 as a big shakedown ride for riding the Great Divide in 2021. He joins me at Cloud Peak, where he rocks the entire route to become the first, and still only, official finisher of the Cloud Peak 500. See Cloud Peak 500 Wrap & Links.

The northern terminus of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route at Roosville, Montana.
(photo by Colleen Groseth)

Atop our first pass on Day 1 in Montana.

After the Cloud Peak 500, Paul continues to prepare for his Great Divide by riding the Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure (Pony Express Bikepack), the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Bikepacking Event (Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Bikepack), and the Black Hills Bounty (Black Hills Bounty). Those rides shape his thoughts on his bike, gear, and ambitions. Also, in addition to all the typical bikepacking stuff to sort through, Paul figures out how to carry and charge a C-PAP machine and batteries for multi-day rides. see Paul's Set Up & Gear List. He's ready.

Not all miles are full of smiles.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Sweet single track through an old forest fire area.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul cobbles together enough time off to ride for 24 days and we start our Great Divide ride together at the U.S. Border Station in Roosville, Montana on July 20, 2021. For Tour Divide racer-types, 24 days may be plenty of time to ride the entire route. That may be enough time for Paul, as well, except that he wants to ride it with me. And I'm not racing it. See my 2019 post Bikepacking The GDMBR.

Instead, we plan to ride 8-10 hour days, much like our Cloud Peak 500 and Black Hills Bounty. If we actually keep our trip going for 24 days, we think we may be able to cover the 1,200 miles or so to Rawlins, Wyoming. Maybe farther. It's hard to tell sitting at home looking at maps and a computer screen.

Topping a pass brings out the smiles.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Staring down Fleecer Ridge. It drops. It just drops.

Right from the start and throughout the entire ride, Paul is a straight-forward, problem-solving, git 'er done guy utterly devoid of pretense or drama. Just ride, man. He's a great companion on a multi-day ride filled with long, difficult, unpredictable days.

We both are determined to ride the main route created by the Adventure Cycling Association, unless roads are closed or absolutely impassable. Early on, the biggest potential problem are wildfires in Montana. Fortunately, timely evening showers knock down enough of those fires and we slip through those areas without any road closures or breathing issues. Those same showers create some soft roads on occasion, but no serious detours.

We simply work through the fires, the weather, and whatever else comes up. Go, team.

Celebrating the top of Union Pass in Wyoming, the last big climb before the Great Basin.

Enjoying the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter in big grizzly country near Union Pass, Wyoming.

Paul also takes exceptional pictures, even though he only uses a cell phone and adamantly refuses to edit or alter the images. His father was an amateur photographer who hauled his small legion of kids, including young Paul, up and down the mountains of Colorado on countless camping and hiking excursions. For a visual treat, just take a look at his images sprinkled throughout my Great Divide and Cloud Peak blog posts and on his FaceBook page.

Paul shares on social media a collection of images nightly, or whenever we have cell coverage. He often works into the night, well after I go to sleep, selecting images and drafting daily reports. He also tags me on his posts, so that my family and friends can follow along our trip. Many noted how much they enjoyed Paul's posts and missed them when I rode on solo.

An example of Paul's cell phone picture taking wizardry.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

After 24 days on roads and trails, we roll into Rawlins, where Paul's brother Matt shuttles him home to Nebraska. He'll be back next year to pick up where he left off on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. 

And know that he will git 'er done.

After 700+ miles, Paul and I celebrate reaching the Montana/Idaho border.

Hello, Goodbye, The Beatles (1967)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Great Divide - Into The Great Basin

Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue
Into The Great Wide Open, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty (1991) 

Leaving the big mountains behind, we power toward the Great Basin, pushed by 20+ mph tailwinds.

Early on the morning of Day 21 of our ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, we awaken after a comfy night sleeping inside the warm, dry, secure confines of the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter near the top of Union Pass in western Wyoming. After riding about 1,000 miles, we're set to drop out of the big mountains of Bridger-Teton National Forest and spill onto the Great Basin.

That's a good thing. Paul is winding down to his final 4 riding days on this trip before his vacation time runs out. He would like to cross the Great Basin to Rawlins, Wyoming, right on Interstate Highway 80, to meet with his brother for a shuttle ride home. But Rawlins lies about 300 remote, exposed miles away. Under the best circumstances, that's a stretch for us.

Paul drops down Union Pass Road en route to Pinedale.

A badger brawls during our lunch break at the Green River.

Day 21 - Strawberry Creek to Boulder (73 miles)

With a 7:00 am start, we bounce along a rolling plateau for about 12 miles to a dispersed campsite, where we find fellow South Bound Great Divide riders Rob and Andrea, Franz, and the Three Amigos (Gary, Michael, Rich) preparing for the day's ride. Yesterday, all of them had reached the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter before us, but opted to ride farther to camp at this place called "Mosquito Lake." To each, their own.

Union Pass Road turns rocky, rutted, and loose as it abruptly drops down to the Green River. As Paul bounces down the road, his phone bounces right off his bike. By the time he notices it missing, he's a mile or more down that steep hill. As Paul picks his way back up to search for it, a van filled with a church youth group happens by en route to a trailhead. Shortly after a brief heads-up, one of the teenagers runs down the hill to Paul with the missing phone. Trail Angels, once again.

We're still riding through wild country. Stopping for water and lunch at a bridge over the Green River, we witness a vicious battle between a badger and another critter, perhaps a fox. Those two are at each other's throats. After several minutes, the badger backs into a hole and the other saunters off. Both apparently survive, but you wouldn't know it from their blood-curdling screams.

The first 30 miles from Strawberry Creek demand almost 4 hours of moderately hard pedaling. But then the road mellows and a big tailwind wakes up. In just over more 2 hours, we cruise another 30 miles of pavement into the bustling town of Pinedale. We eat a big meal at a local cafe, re-supply for the next 3 days, and swing by Geared Up Bikes for a quick drivetrain clean. Oh, and one final huckleberry ice cream cone as we exit grizzly bear country.

Almost 3 hours after riding into Pinedale, with that big tailwind still howling, Paul suggests riding another 12 miles to Boulder, where there is an RV campground and a C-store for breakfast. Gotta surf that big tailwind, plus it would knock off a few more miles toward Rawlins. Really? Admittedly, I'm more than a little slow to get back on the bike. But of course he's right. That tailwind may not be there tomorrow.

Crossing the Big Sandy River and then climbing out of the valley.

We're just dust in the wind.

Day 22 - Boulder to Atlantic City (78 miles)

By sleeping on cots in a wall tent at the Highland Trail RV Park and eating breakfast at the C-store, we're able to load up quickly for an early start from Boulder. Maybe a bit too early. At 32 degrees, frost covers everything. It's our coldest morning so far. 

The roads are dry, hard-packed and fast. As the sun warms up, that big tailwind picks up again and we're cruising up and down a series of big rollers through stark sagebrush country. Now clear of the mountains, we fly through the surreal, lunar-like landscape at a relatively easy 15-20 mph. It's a really nice change of pace.

We spin along Lander Cut-Off Road to paved State Highway 28 and a developed rest area with water, shade, and indoor restrooms. The caretakers of the rest area live right next door and we hear that they allow Great Divide riders to camp there. That may be a good option, but we want to knock off a nasty 5 mile stretch of busy, annoyed pavement on Highway 28 to finish on gravel down the road a bit.

Mid-afternoon, we drop down a steep ravine to stop at a state historic site for a short break from the heat. Like Bannack State Park in Montana, the State of Wyoming preserved much of the town of South Pass City from a late 1800's mining boom. We check out the Visitor's Center, where we find ice cream and unique flavors of soda pop. Score!

Just 5 miles later, we drop down another ravine into Atlantic City, capping another good, long day on the bike. After devouring big burgers from the Miner's Grubstake Cafe, we lounge in luxurious accommodations at Patricia and Mark's log cabin right on the route. This is the nicest place, by far, on our entire ride. Patricia even washes our clothes and delivers home made burritos for breakfast. Amazing.

We are set up for success to launch across the Great Basin in the morning. Now, if only that tailwind sticks around.

Diagnus Well is not easy to spot from the road.

Long sight lines in the Great Basin.

Day 23 - Atlantic City to A&M Reservoir (85 miles)

By riding 150+ miles the last two days and by comfortably recovering the last two nights, we believe we have a reasonable shot to ride across a big chunk of the Great Basin to reach A&M Reservoir. This day will decide whether we make it to Rawlins, or whether Paul's brother will need to track him down out here somewhere.

Fortunately, that big 20+ mph tailwind of the last two days pushes us along once again. Within just a few hours, we cruise over 40 miles on hard, fast roads and stop for lunch in the shade of a building at the Bison Basin Oil Field Camp, the only development of any kind we see all day. It's 90-some degrees, but we're flying. Occasionally, the road bends enough North or South so that we experience the force of that westerly wind as a cross-wind or even briefly a head wind. Wowzer.

By late afternoon, I'm on cruise control and actually ride right past the A&M Reservoir, not expecting that body of water to be 50 feet above the road grade. So, I add a couple of miles to an already long, hot, windy day out in the exposed Great Basin. I'm out of water and out of gas. Time to refuel and recover. 

Filtering water from the shore of the reservoir, my mind drifts. The sheer magnitude of this landscape overwhelms. I realize that I am just a speck of dust blown across this great expanse of open prairie. Late that night, the countless stars show that the earth is even less across the cosmos. All of creation declare the glory of God!

Neither water nor shade anywhere for many, many miles.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul spots a small herd of wild horses on the horizon.

Day 24 - A&M Reservoir to Rawlins (57 miles)

That big westerly wind continues to howl into the night, buffeting my tent and sparking hope for one more day of tailwinds to blow us into Rawlins. Inexplicably, it simply stops in the middle of the night. The sudden silence awakens me. I step outside my tent, gaze in wonder at the number and brilliance of the stars, and know that big tailwind is gone. What's next?

It doesn't take long. After about 30 minutes of eerie calm, I hear what sounds to be a rumbling train bearing down. In a flash, the force of a new wind punches through the night. Oh, man. Here we go.

Sure enough, a new weather front reverses the wind. With most of our 57 miles to Rawlins veering south east, we plow into that stout head wind almost all day. A 25 mile stretch of rough pavement on Mineral X Road extracts almost 4 hours of hard, head-down pedaling. Then we ride 16 miles of U.S. Highway 287 over yet another Continental Divide crossing before finally reaching Rawlins.

But, hey, if we only face headwinds 1 day out of 4, and just 57 miles out of the last 300, that's pretty good. Besides, we now experienced a day of the infamous Great Basin headwinds. 

Filtering water as the sun sets at A&M Reservoir in the Great Basin.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Sunrise at A&M Reservoir in the Great Basin.

We roll into Rawlins early afternoon and enjoy a celebratory meal while waiting for Paul's brother Matt to pick him up for his shuttle ride home. Optimal conditions for 3 days push us 236 miles from the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter near the top of Union Pass all the way to A&M Reservoir. The shortest day, and the hardest, is clearly that last 57 miles into Rawlins. But we make it to rendezvous with Matt.

Paul's 2021 Great Divide ride ends. My solo ride begins.

Into The Great Wide Open, Tom Petty & The HeartBreakers (1991)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Great Divide - An Unlikely Encounter

Obi Wan Kenobi. Obi Wan.
Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time.
A long time.

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (1977)

Craig, Rob & Andrea on my Day 15.
Crazy random reunion on a remote Montana road on the Great Divide.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

While I stop for a break on Lima Dam Road early on Day 15 of my ride of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a man and woman ride up on loaded bikes. She immediately notes my Christian Cycling water bottle from a popular circuit road race we promoted for years called "Wheels of Thunder" and asks if I'm from Denver. I reply that I lived there for 20 years, but moved home to South Dakota many years ago.

"You're Craig Groseth of Sheridan Ross!" blurts out the man.

Sheridan Ross. Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time. A long time.  

Who is this guy?

The next time I see Rob & Andrea is on my Day 38 shortly after Indiana Pass.
We later camped together on my Days 39 and 40 in New Mexico.
They also finished the Great Divide at Antelope Wells.

Many hundreds of cyclists ride along the Great Divide every year, both South Bound and North Bound. We leap frog with many South Bound riders from early on, over the big Montana passes, and across the Great Basin, occasionally camping together. We also stop to chat with North Bound riders, as their stories are always interesting and their intel on the trail is priceless. 

On our Day 14, rain and wind drive us to seek shelter at the small town of Lima, Montana. We're not alone. We learn of 9 South Bound riders and 2 North Bound riders hunkered down for the night there. If the roads dry enough overnight to ride, we're sure to be leap frogging a few others in the morning.

Dawn breaks clear and bright. The gravel/dirt roads are soft, but rideable, with frequent pools of standing water to negotiate. We decide to shoot for Red Rock Lakes Campground at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about 60 miles away with modest elevation gain. Some hours into the day, tire tracks in the soft road reveal a few riders ahead and I see others coming from behind. I stop for a short break.

That's when the man and woman Great Divide riders stop. When he says that his name is Rob Traver, I recognize him immediately. Twenty-one years ago, Rob was a new associate attorney at the Sheridan Ross law firm where I was a senior partner. He says that I taught him how to write his first patent application and that he always enjoyed stopping by my office for work. Rob adds that he never left without some quality bicycle talk, too! Imagine that!

What a serendipitous encounter out on a remote road on the Great Divide. We end our day camping together at the Red Rocks Lakes Campground, along with several others. 

Rob and Andrea unknowingly leap frog with me over the next 3 weeks, as they ride faster and farther most days, but also take a number of Zero Days. Our paths finally cross again over 3 weeks later in southern Colorado, as I lounge in the sun at Summitville, shortly after topping Indiana Pass. We all stay in Platoro, CO that night and camp together again the next two nights in New Mexico. They then take a Zero Day in Abiqui and ultimately finish in Antelope Wells a few days after me.

Thanks, Rob & Andrea. That was a real treat!

Here are a series of pictures of some of the other Great Divide riders we shared time with along the way. Meeting these riders is one of the best, most memorable parts of this entire experience.

Ron (Colorado), Craig (South Dakota), Tobias (Ohio), Franz (Virginia), Paul (Nebraska)
Leap frogging Great Divide riders congregate at the USFS Warm Springs Campground in Idaho.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Three Amigos (Gary & Michael in the background, Rich in the front middle), Craig & Franz
Great Divide riders leaving the Grand Teton National Park Hiker/Biker Campground.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Great Divide rider Linda Gryczan of Helena shares a few miles with us in Montana.
A few days earlier, Linda rode Paul to the Helena Post Office and Great Divide Cyclery.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

At 71, California Ken bought a new bike, his only bike,
loaded it up, and started riding the Great Divide.
The last I heard, he was still at it in New Mexico.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

North Bound rider Bill near the end of his journey.
He counseled to take it easy the first 10 days.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Mark and Lisa on a 7 month ride from their hometown of San Diego, to Antelope Wells,
North Bound on the Great Divide to Roosville, and then back to San Diego.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Retired lawyer Michael about to complete his North Bound Great Divide ride,
as part of his 4 1/2 year world cycling tour.

Out for a morning ride, Dave from Helena rode with us for over an hour, sharing local lore.
Four years ago at age 71, Dave rode the Great Divide from Banff to Helena.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Intrepid group of young North Bound riders that Paul dubbed "Boyz-to-Men."
I didn't write down their names, but their ages were 23, 22 and 16.
They provided great intel on staying at the church in Wise River.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Brooklyn Hipsters Mike and Tom were North Bound hoping to enter Canada.
Mike says, "I like your sunglasses, man. They look retro."
I reply, "Thanks. They were new when I bought them 20 years ago."
(photo by Paul Brasby)

North Bound Great Divide riders Allie and Race of Fargo, ND are full of good cheer.
Weeks later, I read their entry in the Toaster House journal in Pie Town, New Mexico.

The last North Bound riders I saw were a father-son team battling headwinds across the Great Basin.
This is the 18 year old son, waiting for his father. Both tough cookies.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

I'll close the rider pictures with Tobias, an energetic, engaging, enterprising young attorney.
He put his career on hold to ride the Great Divide and fearlessly rode through all sorts of weather.
He did have a hard deadline to meet his girlfriend, for he planned to propose. Great guy.

We also met many hikers, including through-hikers of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Their route is generally more rugged than the Great Divide, as it follows hiking trails along the Continental Divide, wherever possible. However, to connect those trails, the CDT also uses many of the same roads as the Great Divide. Those folks are a different breed altogether. Just a joy to talk with.

CDT hikers greet each other with trail names.
Here we meet the delightful Sweet Pea, Mace and Beardo.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

CDT hiker Speedy G looks like he's out for a day hike.
By far, the lightest set up I saw the entire ride.
Speedy G christens me "G-Man."

Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars (1977)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

The Great Divide - Shelter In Grizzly Country

Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away

Gimme Shelter, Mick Jagger & Keith Richards (1969)

Inside the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter looking over maps for tomorrow's ride.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

I like bears, including grizzlies. I just prefer not to sleep in their pantry.

For the 20 nights in grizzly country on my Great Divide ride, I slept inside a hard structure 7 times, a tent at a developed site 12 times, and a tent dispersed in the forest just once. In contrast, my next 30 nights, I camped at a dispersed site 12 times.

Those numbers directly result from our approach to overnight shelter in grizzly country. Where possible, we are determined to sleep inside a structure or at a developed campground, even if it requires a shorter or a longer day than we might otherwise prefer. It works for us.

We slept inside in variety of structures, including a private man-cave garage, the Ovando Jail, the Alpaca Inn at the Lost Llama Ranch, the Basin Community Hall, the Big Hole Community Church in Wise River, the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter near Union Pass, and one motel, Jan's Cafe & Cabins in Lima. In addition to bear bins, many of the developed sites for tent camping offered other nice features like potable water, power, and picnic tables. As an unexpected bonus, the people we meet while staying at these places add greatly to our Great Divide experience. That alone is worth it to us and it keeps me looking for similar opportunities later.

Here's a summary of all seven of our nights inside a structure in grizzly country.

4. The garage is pure Trail Magic. I had to post about that experience. see Trail Angels Marlene & Paul

6/7. The Ovando Jail and Lost Llama Ranch are scheduled in ink on my pre-ride plans and we just make those happen. I had to post about two of my must-stop overnights. see Small Town Stoke and Five Acres Of Kindness

9. I know in advance of the Basin Community Hall, which we hit at the end of a long, hot day of climbing that culminated with infamous Lava Mountain. Exhausted, we burst into the Silver Saddle Bar & Cafe just 10 minutes before their grill closed at 8:00 pm and they happily prepare some big burgers and fries for us. They also manage the Community Hall, which they open for us with a $5 donation. We follow their recommendation to sleep on the padded benches lining the long walls of the Hall. 

11. We learn of the Big Hole Community Church from a remarkable group of three young North Bound Great Divide riders that Paul calls Boyz-to-Men. I did not write down their names, but their ages were 23, 22, and 16. Notwithstanding their youth, here they are in the middle of Montana, nearing the completion of their Great Divide ride. Based on the Boyz-to-Men intel, Paul knocks on the door of the parsonage next to the church and the pastor's husband simply tells him to let yourself in and make yourself at home. It's great to be indoors that night, screened from the heavy smoke from large forest fires raging nearby.

14. Cold, driving rain dogs us to Jan's Cafe & Cabins in Lima, although it takes some persistence and patience from Paul to get that room. Like many small businesses along the way, Jan's is operating very short staffed, is scrambling to close the cafe and prepare for breakfast, and had told others they had no vacancies. In reality, they had not cleaned the one room that's unoccupied and they aren't really wanting to. Paul somehow discovers that and offers to wait. Then Paul plays Trail Angel by offering our extra bed to Tobias, a young solo South Bound rider we met earlier in the day who was huddled in his tent nearby in the rain. Paying it forward.

20. Paul spots the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter right off Union Pass Road, talks with a few passing locals about it, and just can not pass it up, especially with reports of recent grizzly activity in the area. We must ride an extra half a mile down to a creek to filter water, but it's more than worth it. The dispersed sites identified further down the route that we were planning to hit turn out to poor campsites, with water difficult to access or non-existent. And there's a reason for the name Mosquito Lakes, which is temptingly marked on the ACA maps. For our last night in grizzly county high up a mountain pass, the Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter is warm, dry, and secure. Perfect.

Setting up camp in Paul Fifield's luxurious garage.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Getting booked into the Ovando Jail.

The Lost Llama Ranch with its row of shelters and llama/alpaca shed.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Basin Community Hall offers padded benches for beds.

Carpeted sanctuary of the Big Hole Community Church in Wise River.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Jan's Cafe & Cabins in Lima. Heavy rain and wind drove us there the night before.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter near Union Pass, our last night in grizzly country.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Here's a list of our nightly accommodations in grizzly country. Bold = indoors. Italics = dispersed.
Note that the mileage is NOT the ACA map mileage, but rather is my actual mileage from my cyclocomputer, which includes off-route excursions such as re-supply stops and missed turns.

1.  USFS Tuchuck Campground - Whitefish Divide (mile 43.6)
2.  Whitefish Lake State Park Hiker/Biker Campground - Whitefish (mile 108.3)
3.  Wayfarer's State Park Hiker/Biker Campground - Big Fork (mile 163.7)
4.  Marlene & Paul Fifield garage - near Condon (mile 218.3)
5.  Dispersed Site - Clearwater Lake (mile 257.1)
6.  Ovando Jail - Ovando (mile 308.8)
7.  Alpaca Inn - Lost Llama Ranch (mile 383.0)
8.  MTB City Bike Hostel - Helena (mile 430.4)
9.  Basin Community Hall - Basin (mile 473.0)
10. USFS Thompson Park Day Use Area - South of Butte (mile 523.3) 
11. Big Hole Community Church - Wise River (mile 568.5)
12. Elk Horn Springs Resort - near Polaris (mile 602.5)
13. Hansen Livestock Ranch - near nothing (mile 649.6)
14. Jan's Cafe & Cabins - Lima (mile 712.8)
15. Upper Red Rock Lakes Campground - Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (mile 772.0)
16. USFS Warm River Campground - south of Island Park (mile 843.4)
17. Grand Teton National Park Hiker/Biker Campground (mile 909.5)
18. Grand Teton National Park Hiker/Biker Campground (mile 909.5)
19. Lava Mountain Lodge - downhill side of Togwotee Pass (mile 962.1)
20. Strawberry Creek Safety Shelter - downhill side of Union Pass (mile 1,000.3)

Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones (1969)

Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones (2003)
Live, 30+ years after releasing the original.
They just keep on rocking.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Great Divide - A Hard Start

It's been a hard day's night
And I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night
I should be sleeping like a log

Hard Day's Night, John Lennon & Paul McCartney (1964)

Crawling up the final pitch of Fleecer Ridge on Day 11, I gather myself in a lonely spot of shade.
I'd like to say this picture was staged. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Our first 11 days on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route fly by in a blur of cool back roads, stunning scenery, and interesting people. So many stories. So many memories. And so hard.

We ride over 560 miles and climb almost 44,000 feet of elevation, which averages about 50 miles and 4,000 feet of gain per day. But that's just the start of the story. The varying road surfaces affect our effort as much as the distance, steepness of the grade, or length of the climb. And, of course, there's always the weather and the Montana forest fires. One day may sound harder on paper than it was, while another may have been much harder than it sounds.

The result? From our first pedal stroke in the morning to our dismount for the night, we work hard over 10 hours every day to cover those miles up and down the Montana mountains. There are no easy days on the Great Divide.
Climbing the Whitefish Divide in the haze of Montana forest fires.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Dropping down the Whitefish Divide toward Glacier National Park.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

It's almost always up or down. We climb many passes and cross the Continental Divide many times. Nothing comes easy. Sometimes, the downhill is actually more challenging than the climb.

Here's a tough one. Not feeling great on the morning of Day 9, I try to eat a solid breakfast, but lose everything by throwing up twice at the restaurant. So, I start with an empty tank and eat what I can on the fly while climbing most all day in the heat. This works ok until the final 4 miles up Lava Mountain, which are sprinkled with steep, loose pitches littered with rocks. We ride some, but much is heft-a-bike. That is, I bench press my bike, take a step or two, and repeat. Then the first 2 miles down are worse, actually requiring some hike-a-bike downhill. In all, we expend almost 3 hours of hard work on those 6 miles atop Lava Mountain. 

For what it's worth, that infamous Lava Mountain stretch has degraded so much over time that the Adventure Cycling Association recently removed it from the route. So, we are among the last Great Divide riders to actually complete it.

Paul picks his way up a pitch on Lava Mountain.

Hacking our way down Fleecer Ridge.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

But Lava Mountain is not the most infamous descent on the Great Divide. That would be Fleecer Ridge, which reportedly drops 38% for a mile. As if that's not enough, it's a bit of a haul to even get there. We climb well over 5,000 feet just to reach it in the heat of mid-afternoon.

Like the Ovando Jail and Lost Llama Ranch for me, Fleecer Ridge is a must-experience for Paul, who is jazzed at the top as he peers over the edge. It looks like nothing but trouble to me. All I know is that I work a full hour to walk/stumble/slide down that mile, fighting to keep my bike from tumbling down over top of me and stopping as often as I can to keep my knees from exploding. I am relieved to reach the bottom with both bike and body still functioning.

Two track climb to a distant pass.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

More nice two track.

Those 11 days extract a high cost in tired legs, aching knees, and sore bottoms as we adapt to the daily demands of pedaling a 70+ pound bike up and down these rough roads. Every day presents difficult challenges, some lasting a few minutes, while others go on for hours. And for the last 2 hours or more, of every single day, I just want to stop and get off the bike.

The 11th day ends with the descent off Fleecer Ridge and then down tight Jerry Creek Road to the town of Wise River. Thanks to good intel from some young North Bound riders Paul names Boyz-To-Men, we learn to ask to stay in the Big Hole Community Church. We're grateful for the shower, kitchen, and indoor sleeping quarters while traveling through grizzly country with active forest fires.

Eyes up for obstacles on the narrow road.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Now that's a steep pitch, if Paul's pushing.

On the morning of Day 12, I wake up dog tired, more so than any other. On this morning, I have little more to give, physically, mentally, or emotionally. I need a break and should call for a Zero Day. Instead, I suit up to let the ride decide.

From the start, my legs feel dead. My journal says it directly, "Tired when woke up. With first pedal, my legs felt like I'd been pedaling 4-5 hours already." That's not good. Today we start with a steady 30 mile climb of over 2,500 feet up the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. No, that's not steep, but it's a long climb on dead legs on Day 12.

There's always another climb around another turn for another view.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

In a recurring scene, Paul looks back for me from atop a climb.

Slugging my way up that long climb, I stop numerous times. This is not working. Hours pass. Finally, I pull out a map to formulate an end game to this day. I'm not going to continue all afternoon thinking only about how I just want to be off the bike. I'm not going to ride this way any more.

There it is. Just four miles ahead lies Elk Horn Hot Springs Lodge. Even though it's early afternoon and that puts us only 34 miles into the day, that's it. I'll ride to that hot springs. That's it.

Another day, another climb, another view.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

This is after a shower, hot springs soak, pizza, huckleberry shake, and 11+ hours of sleep.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Elk Horn Hot Springs Lodge has no vacancies, but the manager allows us to pitch our tents by a dilapidated picnic table, take a shower, lounge in the natural hot springs, and eat at the lodge restaurant. Clean and relaxed, I snarf an enormous pizza and a huckleberry shake. At 7 pm, I hit the sack.

I'm out for over 11 hours. Just out. When I finally awaken, I'm recharged. Fully.

More recovery time at night means more energy by day.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Over the course of Day 13, I reach the obvious conclusion that I simply need more sleep than normal to recover from more work than normal. Like a lot more. So, I sleep another 11+ hours that night at the cyclist only camping at the Hanson Livestock Ranch. Again I wake up fully recharged.

The next 5 days we ride over 300 miles to reach Grand Teton National Park. Every day I do what it takes to get 10+ hours of sleep at night. And every morning I feel better than the day before.

I commit to adding a new element to my ride. Sleep at least 10+ hours every night. No matter what.

I stick to that for the rest of my Great Divide ride, all the way to Antelope Wells. It makes for a few late morning starts, but never again do I wake up tired like I did on Day 12. In fact, as the weeks roll by, I gain strength, physically and mentally, and my daily mileage, elevation gain, and riding time continue to increase, even while the roads and conditions deteriorate significantly in New Mexico.

I didn't need to cut back my daily riding time. I only needed to sleep more.

Addendum.  This approach worked well for me, a 63 year old middle-of-the-pack recreational cyclist who managed to ride the entire length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route self-supported. Many others ride the Great Divide much faster and farther each day, with less recovery time, and almost certainly with better hair. You do you.

Hard Day's Night, The Beatles (1964)