Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Riding along the Musselshell River...and not in it!

The start of day 2. I'm not as angelic as I appear!

More Photos Here

Central Montana has been ravaged by floods from record snow pack and rainfall this spring. One week before my scheduled 600K brevet, a significant portion of US Highway 12 between Harlowton and Roundup was underwater. Alternate routes, of which there are very few, were being contemplated as my final Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) qualifying brevet hung in the balance.

Fortunately, the waters receded just enough and the Musselshell River 600K brevet route was open for business on June 18-19, 2011. Now all we had to do was ride the 375 miles within the 40 hour time limit.

Brenda, Jackson, Ernie, and I rendezvoused with fellow PBP hopefuls Ken Billingsley and Karel Stroethoff on Friday night at the quaint Countryside Inn in the quaint town of Harlowton-pretty close to the center of the State of Montana. A cloudy day had given way to a pleasant evening and the forecast for Saturday looked good (just a chance of showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon). As for Sunday…well at this point that was too far off to worry about (one of the strategies for completing these long rides is to not look too far ahead).

5:00 AM Saturday morning showed up with temperatures in the mid-40’s and an almost imperceptible west breeze. The sun was coming up and as promised it looked like a beautiful day. We sped along US-12 toward Roundup along with the swollen Musselshell.

The devastation of the recent floods was all around. The smell along the river was not pleasant with all the stagnant water everywhere-kind of like a wet dog that just rolled in a manure pile. We could see where the water had been over the road, with the river levels just a couple of feet lower now. We didn't see much of Roundup because we stopped at the first gas station in town, but there were flooded properties and the washed out former Milwaukee Railroad grade that appeared to serve as a dike. It was a pretty big mess.
Fixing Karel's first flat in the Bull Mountains along Highway 87

After a short rest in Roundup we had a long stretch on the much busier, but also shouldered US Highway 87 to Billings. Lots of debris, glass, and chewed up tire bits on the shoulder-so inevitably flat tires. Karel got the first flat, somewhere in the Bull Mountains. Later on I got one on the high plains outside of Billings. A sharp piece of steel belted radial was quickly discovered as the culprit. Unfortunately, as with my Cody brevet a few weeks ago, I didn’t do the change job properly and promptly flatted again about a mile down the road. The valve stem didn’t seat right. I thought it would work itself out. It did, by slamming against the inside of my rim and flatting immediately. The second change went better and we were on our way-but I was pretty flustered. It took until the city limits of Billings to finally calm down and start trusting my tire again.

We were still together as we rode through Billings Heights to Airport Road along the Rimrocks to the infamous Zimmerman Trail-a very short, but busy and narrow switch back descent to the valley floor below. We were able to easily exceed the speed limit and stay with the cars on the way down. A few hours later we would have to go up Zimmerman Trail-that would be a whole different kind of experience!

Ken and I lost Karel a few miles later. One minute we could see him about a quarter of a mile behind us and the next minute he was completely out of site. It was only about 6 or 7 miles to Ken’s house and our next rest stop, so we decided to press on . Karel has ridden 10’s of thousands of kilometers of brevets over the years-we knew he was equipped to take care of himself, and we were close enough to dispatch a volunteer to go find him if necessary. Heath and Brenda and the flag of Brittany-a region of France on the PBP route

Ken and his wife Heath live on the top of a hill off Buffalo Trail Road, north of Laurel. It’s a beautiful area to ride with a nice new paved road and no traffic. We were greeted at their house by my Mom and Dad who had driven over from Belgrade earlier in the day, Brenda, Jackson and Ernie who came in from Harlowton that morning, and Heath, who had the place all decorated with memorabilia from Ken’s five previous PBP’s. Big delicious grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches were served up and life was good! An approaching thunderstorm after lunch. We should have waited it out.

Karel showed up just about the time we thought we should go look for him. His rear tire had developed a slow leak and he had to stop several times to pump it back up.

As we finished lunch, thunderstorms were brewing all around. Ken and I decided to press on-randonneurs are always trying to keep forward momentum as the clock is always ticking-despite some crackling thunder overhead. Karel was working on his tire, but bid us to go on. It almost proved to be a fateful decision. As we turned on Molt Road to head back to Billings the skies opened up and a cold drenching rain came down. There was also a brilliant flash of lightning and immediate clap of thunder that nearly scared us out of our wits. The lightning didn’t strike anything, but looking around on the open plains, we were about the tallest things around (and I’m quite a bit taller than Ken!) Fortunately, the storm was over just about as fast as it started. As we descended back to Billings we dried out pretty quickly.

The climb back up the mile long Zimmerman Trail was not as terrifying as I had been imagining over the last several months. The cars and pickups came by in clumps of 4 or 5 as they were released by the stop light at the bottom of the hill, and they were only going about 20-25 mph so even though they were close enough to reach out and touch I never felt in danger. We made short work of the climb and got back on the high plains to Lavina.

Ken, who was riding a little faster than me at this point went on ahead and I settled into a steady but conservative pace for the 40 or so miles Lavina. There was a lot of standing water in the fields on both sides of the wide shouldered road-providing great mosquito habitat. I had to abandon a “nature break” because hundreds of bugs feasted upon me the second I came to a stop.

Brenda and Mom and Dad set up a control at Lavina which gave us the opportunity to refuel and get ready for night riding back on US 12 to Harlowton. Ken was just leaving Lavina as I pulled in. Karel was a ways behind as he ran over a construction screw just outside of Billings and ruined the new tire he had just installed at Ken’s house. Fortunately, Brenda happened along at the same time and she had his old tire. Karel was having a rough day, but Brenda reported he was still in good spirits.

The ride back to Harlowton was slow as it was uphill and into a light headwind, but it was a pleasant evening, and the only thing I had to share the road with were mule deer. Night bicycle riding can really be wonderful.

Karel who was still a ways back told Brenda he was going to try to press on after Harlowton. He didn’t reserve a motel room for Saturday night-but he did have his van which he could rest in if he wanted. Ken and I on the other hand agreed to set out again at 5AM on Sunday morning to finish off the last 200K. I ate a little snack, hit the bed, and slept fitfully for about three hours-getting up before the alarm went off at 4AM. It was in the 50’s but raining lightly. I wasn’t feeling too great and had no appetite-just nibbling on some junk food for breakfast.

I was slightly dreading the next 57 miles to White Sulphur Springs. We would be riding into the Castle Mountains and there was some serious climbing ahead. After riding together for the first 20 miles or so, Ken set off ahead and was soon out of sight. I was feeling really sluggish and in a pre-bonk state. No fuel this morning was not going to work for me. Fortunately, Brenda had made me a Nutella-bagel sandwich which I had in my jersey pocket. That had just enough calories to re-light my fire and get me moving-although slowly. The road conditions were terrible and rain was still drizzling down as I climbed to the small community of Checkerboard. After Checkerboard the road got much better, with a shoulder, but the climbing got more intense and the rain came down hard for a while.

Relief set in when I finally dropped into the White Sulphur Springs Town Pump C-Store a little before noon. The hardest riding was done and we only had a little over 100K to go. Ken was just leaving the Town Pump when I arrived. I was quite surprised to see him as I figured he would be hours ahead. But he had also struggled with a lack of calories which slowed him on the climbs. The hot dogs at the gas station got some much needed protein and fat into my system. I was feeling much better for the finish.

Mom and Dad and Brenda caught up to take care of us at the last control on the route at the turn to Martinsdale. Karel was nowhere to be found so far and everyone figured he was way out in front. Brenda finally found him almost to Harlowton in the afternoon. He did go to sleep in his van (after getting in at about 3 AM) and got started late. With the big climbs ahead he decided to turn back at Checkerboard and abandon the brevet. Fortunately, he had completed a 600K last weekend in Richland, Washington so he was already PBP qualified. He had missed the volunteers driving up to meet us when he went into the bar in Checkerboard to refill his water bottles, thus he was MIA for a while. I didn’t blame Karel at all for abandoning. The way I felt that morning I probably would have packed it in too if I didn’t absolutely need the ride to qualify. I have no doubt Karel could have finished, but he didn’t want to finish in the evening and then have to drive all the way back to Missoula on less than three hours sleep. Probably a wise decision-and he did get some really valuable training in if nothing else.

Ken made it in safely and he, Karel, Brenda, Jackson, and Ernie waited at the finish line for me come in at 5:38 PM. They cheered me as I rolled up-with a lump in my throat and my emotions about to leak out. What a great way to finish a ride. We had some celebratory hugs and handshakes before packing up and heading for home-now fully qualified for PBP. An emotional finish

It was an epic brevet series. The routes were challenging and in 3 of the 4 rides we got rained on (actually even snowed on in Missoula). We also had plenty of wind. But the extra effort in the qualifying rides will only help us in France in August. Now all I have to do if figure out how to box my bike up and get it to Paris!

A BIG BIG thanks to our families for all their support in getting this done. The help we got from Brenda, Jackson, Heath, Mom and Dad was so welcome. I hope they had as much fun as we riders did.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great writeup - sounds like quite the trip. I'll definitely be following your blog.
Dennis Gaub