Saturday, July 27, 2013

Arguing With Myself, The Bearthooth Highway 400K Brevet

See the road way down there? 
I knew going in that my 3rd brevet of the season, the Beartooth Highway 400K was going to be tough.  Any ride using the Beartooth Highway, which climbs for over 30 miles and gets up to 10,947 feet is hard.  I've ridden up and over the Beartooth Highway and back several times, but I've always started those rides in Red Lodge.  This ride, however, would start in Columbus, and we would get to climb over the very steep and long Bear Creek hill and have 70 miles in our legs before heading up the Beartooth.

We had five randonneurs at the 5AM start in Columbus on July 20, 2013 including fellow Montanans Ken Billingsley and Joshua Loveland, and we were joined by Mark Roehrig and Hugh Kimball of the Seattle International Randonneurs.  Mark and Hugh were the first SIR members to ride one of my brevets so I was really excited.  But there was trepidation also.  My wife Brenda is usually available to handle the paperwork, staff a control, and provide neutral emergency support.  But she was in Alabama at a family reunion-so we would be totally unsupported for the toughest brevet of the season.

The first 100K of the route going from Columbus, to Joliet, to Bridger, and Belfry was easy.  Most of the route was flat and winds were light and favorable.  Ken, Mark, and Hugh took advantage and rode away at a quick pace.  Joshua and I, on the other hand, agreed that we needed to ride conservatively if we were to have any chance of success.  This proved to be a wise decision for me later on.

When I decided on this route earlier in the year, I didn't bother to look to see what else might be going on in the area that weekend.  As it turned out, this particular weekend was the Beartooth Motorcycle Rally, centered in Red Lodge.  This is the biggest motorcycle rally in Montana with 10,000, mostly noisy Harleys converging on the area-all joyriding on the same roads we would be riding.  This became very apparent as we began climbing the big hill between Belfry and Red Lodge.  Harleys would be our constant companion until we left Red Lodge again that evening.

Harleys at the Top of the World Store
Fortunately, the vast majority of Harley riders were very nice, considerate, and gave us plenty of room.  Many also came over to chat whenever we were at a rest stop.  I only had one biker yell at me to get off the road.  I told him to kindly kiss my derriere.  He then yelled something unintelligible and bravely sped away like they always do.  Lucky for him he did run away as messing with a tired cranky randonneur is not a fate he would have enjoyed.

Joshua and I got to the grocery store in Red Lodge just as we saw Mark and Hugh leaving.  Ken was still at the store and we had chance to chat for minute.  They looked to be doing pretty well.  Joshua and I bought some food, ate, and chatted with some locals in front of the store.  We knew the next phase of the ride, climbing right from Red Lodge up the Beartooth Highway was daunting.  The temperatures were heating up as well.

We were both struggling, but Joshua was starting to lag behind.  Before he was being conservative, but now I sensed that the ride was getting to him.  I was also slow, but my legs didn't feel too bad.  As we approached the first switchback, we both agreed that this route was ridiculous and we contemplated turning around.  But we decided to press on to at least the Scenic Overlook rest area about 3/4's the way up.  It took a few rest stops, but we finally made it to the overlook.  No small feat-and a place many cyclists turnaround.  Joshua had decided he was going to head back to Columbus from there.  I agreed to do the same, not feeling like I had the gas to get the rest of way over the pass to the Top of World Store and then climb back over again.  It just seemed too hard.  But we waited a while, ate a bite, drank some fluids and thought about it.  Joshua gently encouraged me to keep going.  I noted that I still had plenty of time, the weather was as nice as it would ever get on the Beartooth Highway, with light breezes and no chance of thunderstorms, and my legs didn't feel all that bad.  So at the last second, I bid Joshua farewell and kept heading up the mountain.  Joshua would still end up with about 170 miles for the day with a lot of climbing-no small feat indeed!

I met Hugh as I was flying down the other side of the mountain and Ken and Mark as they were riding through a construction zone after the turnaround at the Top of the World Store.  There was no place to chat as traffic was moving through the construction, but they appeared to be doing well.

After an hour or so at the Top of the World Store-about 10 miles from the west summit of Beartooth Pass, I began the climb back over.  It was about 5PM, plenty of time to get back to Red Lodge in daylight.  After a short delay at the construction zone, I rode through.  The construction zone narrowed the  road to one lane for about one mile and it was controlled by a traffic light and pilot cars.  This meant that I would have the road all to myself for 10 to 20 minutes, then a big group of bikes and cars would go by, and then I'd be by myself again.  I got into a rhythm of pulling to the on coming lane and walking when the big group over took me.  I could hear the motorcycles coming for miles so I had plenty of warning.  This worked really well and allowed me to save energy and have less stress.  Finally over the top, I was free to fly and I was back in Red Lodge in no-time. 

I took an extra long stop at the Town Pump in Red Lodge.  I was plenty on time, but I wanted to wait for the sun to set, as I would be riding west for a while.  I had more nice chats with bikers, many who had saw us all day as they cruised up and down the pass.  They were all impressed with what we were doing.

As I left Red Lodge, I rode past the local fair grounds on the way out of town where a lot of the bikers were camping.  As soon as I passed the campground, the air became silent.  No more Harleys (or hardly anymore) the rest of the ride.  It was so peaceful!

The first half of the 50 miles road between Red Lodge and Columbus has big, big rollers and I was slow going up.  The hills were made a little tougher as it got dark and I couldn't quite see how big they were.  But it was a pleasant evening, with a near full moon over my left shoulder.  The 2nd half of this stretch is a nice gradual downhill and I made good time, cruising effortlessly at 20 mph for a long ways.

I got back to Columbus at mid-night and I had an out-and-back to Rapelje and 50 more miles to go.  The final control closed at 8AM so I had plenty of time.  I decided to go back to my motel room at the Super 8 in Columbus to change shorts, re-supply, and take a nap.  This was almost a fateful decision.  That bed felt soooooo good!  I woke up after about an hour and a half and sat on the edge of the bed-thinking I didn't want to go out again.  The road to Rapelje is one of those roads that seems to be up hill both ways.  I decided 200 miles was enough-I was proud of what I had accomplished.  I didn't need to finish the 400K.  I had my clothes off and was about to get in the shower when I thought about Mark, Hugh, and Ken.  They were still out there and they'd be wondering what happened to me.  So I got dressed and prepared to leave, but hesitated.  I sat on the edge of the bed again-thinking about those hills to Rapelje.  I decided I definitely wasn't going.  I would leave a note on Ken's car that I had abandoned and then go to bed.  So the note was composed and placed.  But as fate would have it, as I went back in the motel I saw Ken and Hugh at the front desk getting their brevet cards signed.  They had just finished.  I went over to congratulate them and tell them I was quitting.  They were both sympathetic.  Ken asked if I was trying for a full brevet series this season and if so was there another 400K somewhere that I use as a make for this ride.  I said there wasn't and that I would not get a full series in.  Ken then simply said, so at the end of this season I will be 50 miles short of a full series...I thought about that for a second and realized he was right-I'd hate myself if I quit now.  Hugh and Ken assured me that the hills on the way to Rapelje were short.  The ride isn't that hard.  I knew they were lying, but decided to believe them anyway and headed out the door. It was sometime after 2AM.

I met Mark on the outskirts of Columbus.  He only had a couple of miles to go to be finished.  I congratulated him and headed out to the prairie.  As I expected, the hills were tough and I was slow.  I also had a light headwind.  But I kept going and finally saw the lights of the tiny town of Rapelje way off in the distance.  I was still 10 miles away, but the biggest hills were done for the time being.  I mailed my post card at the Rapelje post office (the way we proved we were there) and had a quick snack.  The silhouette of the four Rapelje grain elevators against the slowly brightening eastern horizon was really cool.  The town, other than a barking dog, was totally silent. 
Rapelje, Montana Sunrise

I made may way back to Columbus slowly, walking part way up the biggest hill as day broke.  I snapped a nice photo of the sunrise behind me as I walked.  It really was a beautiful site.  I had gone 'round the clock and then some, but I still had plenty of time.  The final 10 miles was downhill, as Ken had promised, and I finished at 7:04 AM.  Hugh saw me in the hall of the motel and greeted me.  We both agreed it was a hard, but wonderful ride.  I took a quick shower and then crashed in my bed until checkout time.  I was so close to quitting on this ride-twice, but thanks to my fellow randonneurs, I didn't and I was glad.  I don't know if I could do a harder 400K-I sure don't think I want to try.  This one was a doozy!


lynnef said...

Congratulations! (who designed that route, anyhow?)

Jason Karp said...

Thanks! Yes it was a mostly self-inflicted ordeal.