Monday, July 25, 2011

Beartooth Brevet. On Top of the World!

Brenda and Jackson did a little Paris-Brest-Paris glacier graffiti

With almost exactly one month from the start of Paris-Brest-Paris the time has come to put the finishing touches on my fitness for the event. Last year I scheduled the 200K Beartooth Brevet to take place on July 23, 2011 for just this purpose.

The Beartooth Highway takes a switchback laden meandering trek over the Beartooth Plateau to Cooke City, Montana. One way is about 100K so obviously going back over gets us the requisite brevet distance of 200K (with a 13.5 hour time limit). The challenge of course is the climbing, starting out at Red Lodge at an elevation of 5,553 feet we climb to the west summit of the Beartooth Plateau which tops out at 10,947 feet before descending to the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone River, back up to 8,000 feet on Colter Pass and finally stopping at our intermediate checkpoint in Cooke City before returning to Red Lodge via the same route. The ride is pretty much 65 miles uphill and 65 miles down-with very little flat in between and three significant summits-the east and west summits on the plateau, and the five mile long Colter Pass climb. This is a route that could easily feature in the Tour de France (if it was in Europe), except that it tops out at about 2000 feet higher than any of the Tour’s climbs. Check out the route profile HERE.

Brenda, Jackson, Ernie, and I motored to the small town of Joliet, Montana 26 miles north of Red Lodge to take advantage of the moderately priced Joliet Motel which was a bargain compared to the inflated motel prices of Red Lodge. Brenda brought me to Red Lodge the next morning where she signed Ken Billingsley and me in for the brevet. We departed a few minutes after 7 AM and started going uphill, first quite gradually, but soon in earnest. A series of switchbacks took us up the face of the mountain to the Montana-Wyoming border with an unrelenting uphill grade. Some 20 miles after Red Lodge on one of the switchbacks is a rest-area turnout called Vista Point. Ken, who was five to ten minutes ahead of me stopped at the rest area where dozens of cars, motorcycles, and campers congregate to take in the scenery. With a quick cursory glance I didn’t see Ken or his bike in the parking lot so I assumed he kept going. My plan all along was to stop as little as possible on the outbound segment so I just kept going as well. A little while later a couple in a van pulled up along side me to tell me Ken was back at Vista Point looking for me. Uh oh! Oh well, I figured Ken would eventually determine that I was ahead and he would catch up. There was no way I could afford to back track and lose the precious elevation I had worked so hard to gain. Besides, Ken is a much, much faster climber than I am. I’m still not sure how we missed each other. Ken got himself a couple extra climbing miles by backtracking a bit to look for me-but as he demonstrated later in the day-he was more than up for it.

The air above the tree line is thin, but go-figure, the wind can still knock you over. So you have to hold on tight. It was also quite chilly, though it was beautifully sunny. I would guess temperatures were in the upper 40’s. As I climbed the final few meters of the west summit I passed a gaggle of motorcycle riders pulled over at one of the many turnouts along the way. There must have been at least 20 of them and nearly every one had an encouraging word as I slogged past. It was a neat moment. A few minutes later they all came rumbling by and led me down the curvy technical descent. Motorcycles were clearly the vehicle of choice on the day as we were passed by hundreds.

I pulled off at the Top of the World Store, 38 miles away from Red Lodge, re-stocked my camelback and ate a sandwich I had packed with me. I was joined by a German motorcycle rider who was touring all over North America. While we were chatting Ken came in, relieved to see I was here and not crumpled up on the side of the mountain somewhere. We had lots of conversations at the store with tourists passing both ways, including another cyclist who had started at Red Lodge and was going to Cooke City too.

The ride from the Top of World Store to the base of Colter Pass is mostly downhill, except for a little bump a few miles from the store. We had a pretty stout headwind at this point so I couldn’t hit crazy speeds. Temperatures rose steadily on the descent and I shed a layer of clothes once I reached the Clark Fork of the Yellowstone before making the five mile long climb up Colter Pass.

We got to Cooke City with about 20 minutes to spare under the randonneuring time limit, cutting it fairly close. The ride back has about 2000 feet less climbing due to Cooke City’s 7500+ elevation so time wasn’t a huge concern, barring any unfortunate mechanical or medical mishap.

Last year I attempted this ride, making it to Cooke City, but running out of energy, desire, and time on the way back and having to hitch a ride to the east summit. I had a couple of things going for me this year in helping me make sure a DNF wasn’t going to happen again. First off I had experience. I know the route much better and know where it will be hard and where I’ll get a respite. I also have a slightly smaller gear on my bike which helps keep my legs a little fresher. Mentally I broke up the return route into two 10 mile climbing segments, instead of looking at the entire return route as a whole. After the first 10 mile climb there’s a short downhill and some flat back to the Top of the World Store, then another 10 miles of climbing to the west summit. From there it’s just a couple of more miles climbing to the east summit and the 30 mile uninterrupted descent to Red Lodge.

The strategy was working. I found Ken relaxing at the Top of the World Store where we were soon met by Brenda and Jackson, our dutiful volunteers, who came out to get some pictures on the plateau. Ken said he didn’t even have to wait for me very long-which was encouraging because I’m too big to ever be a fast climber. Most importantly, I still had some gas in the tank.

A swarm of mosquitoes chased us away from the store pretty quickly and on to the switchbacks and eventually the summits of the Beartooth Plateau. I told Ken I was channeling the theme from Rocky as I climbed at a blistering 5 mph. Ken wanted to get in a little extra work, so he pushed himself ahead to the top, then came back down to tell me I was almost there. He made it look awfully easy! Winds were gusty and unpredictable on the barren open plateau with one gust almost blowing both of us off our bikes. It would also be cold going downhill so we put on our jackets.

It’s a very technical descent to Red Lodge with too many twists and turns to allow for super high speeds. There’s also just enough traffic to worry about. A real champ descender could easily keep up or even go faster than the cars, but that wasn’t for me or Ken. We took it pretty easy and safe.

I was a little concerned getting close to Red Lodge because Brenda and Jackson had yet to pass us. I was worried that maybe Brenda had some sort of mishap. But as it turned out, we were just too fast. She had stopped to take a few more pictures, expecting to catch up and pass us, but never did. She drove in just few seconds after we got done, much to my relief. Now I could truly celebrate-12 hours and 40 minutes after starting out that morning.

I’m very proud of this ride. I know of many cyclists who ride to the top and come back down, or ride to Cooke City and stop, but other than Ken and me, I’ve never heard of anyone else going over and back in the same day (though I’m sure it’s been done). It’s a monumental task. I can’t imagine there being many other 200K‘s that are more difficult than this one.

I felt very good after the ride considering the difficulty. My fitness is pretty good and the 28 cog on my bike helped a lot-making the ride more doable. The effort should really pay off when we ride in France next month. The Bear's Tooth can be seen in the center of the photo. The whole mountain range is named for this relatively small feature (at least it looks small from here).

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very good ride report. Congratulations on a ride well done. That is indeed a bit of climbing.

Dennis said...

Outstanding, Jason. My hat (or should I say my helmet) is off to you and Ken. I'm one of those people who's ridden to the summit from Red Lodge and back several times. And I've also ridden from Red Lodge to Silver Gate en route to Chico and Livingston a couple times.

But I've never done over and back in one fell swoop. And I'd have to agree with you: while somebody else may have done it before, I never heard about it. So consider a first - congratulations!

Jason Karp said...

Thanks Dennis! Ken's done it at least 3 times now so he's the real pioneer. I think it might be a lot more fun to ride over to Cooke City one day and ride back to Red Lodge the next. Or maybe tour the park in between. So many ideas...

Dennis said...

Would it be possible to do a brevet totally inside Yellowstone? Grand Loop - 150 miles, give or take. I've done it as a multi-day tour several times but all in one shot would be an adventure. Would the park brass go for it? As for night riding with the critters out, it is possible with care. I know that because the Billings bike club has a full moon ride inside the park every summer (July?).

Jason Karp said...

I think so-though the Park has some rules for organized rides that I have to look into. I am contemplating doing something in Yellowstone and maybe also Glacier (Going to the Sun Highway). Depends on the red tape.