I continue to conquer new territory in Montana as a Regional Brevet Administrator (RBA)-this time the Capitol City of Helena and the Electric City of Great Falls-along with a big swath of country in this big state.
The Helena-Great Falls-Double Divide 600K Brevet, was scheduled for Labor Day weekend, 2013. At 5:30 AM 4 randonneurs, including Ronaele Foss from Colorado Springs, Ken Billingsley from Molt, Karel Stroethoff from Missoula, and myself from Belgrade set off over the north hills of Helena to Great Falls…and beyond.
Early on we had an 18 mile stretch on I-15, but at that time of the morning there was almost no traffic-allowing riders to be in the travel lane and off the debris covered shoulder for much of the way. Despite that, Ronaele got a flat, but she had it repaired in short order.
After the I-15 section we got on a very quiet and incredibly scenic frontage road through Wolf Creek Canyon along the Missouri River pretty much all the way to Great Falls. This stretch reminded me of my favorite local ride in Jefferson Canyon, but it’s much longer and dare I say has even less traffic. We met Mike Biggle from Great Falls out on his bike on this section. He had ridden from Great Falls that morning in the hopes of finding us out there. We had a nice cruise and conversation back to Great Falls. Along the way we saw plenty of deer, a great blue heron, and even some big horn sheep by Hardy Bridge. The sheep were up on a rocky ledge above road looking down on us. Ken and I stopped to say hi to them, but they didn't seem to be too impressed.
After the quiet and scenic beauty of the frontage road, the route’s personality changed dramatically as we entered Great Falls. There’s no quiet route entering Great Falls from the south. You have to get on I-15 for a mile and go screaming along the super busy 10th Ave. South until quieter streets become available. I designed this route to use some of Great Falls’ river’s edge trail, a piece of bicycle infrastructure the City is somewhat famous for, but articulating how to navigate the trail on the cue sheet became problematic. Ken and I had no trouble, as I had pre-ridden this part of the route with Mike 3 weeks ago, but Ronaele and Karel who were a ways behind did get lost for a while. Fortunately, they figured it out eventually, making it to the Walmart on Smelter Ave. which served as a checkpoint.
We left Great Falls on a gritty frontage road to the small town of Vaughn. Traffic was light, but fast moving. There’s not much to look at on this stretch except railroad tracks, stock yards, industrial buildings, and some suburbs. At Vaughn we got on Highway 200, which is a major thoroughfare connecting Great Falls to Missoula. Traffic was heavier, but there’s 2 travel lanes in each direction and a big wide shoulder. Unfortunately, the road was recently chip sealed and the shoulder was especially course. Ken and I rode on the white line most of the way and the traffic went around us in the passing lane…for the most part.
The road stayed flat all the way to Simms where we had another checkpoint and took advantage of their little C-store to get some refreshments. The next leg to Fairfield is only 11 miles with a long hill in between, but on a nice quiet and smooth road. At Fairfield, home to an Anheuser Busch grain storage facility with the biggest grain bins I ever saw, we had another checkpoint and set off across a meandering and low traffic road to the small town of Augusta.
I was starting to lose my good feelings as took the back roads to Augusta. I probably went too hard early in the route. On the other hand Ken, who hadn't been feeling all that well early, seemed to get a second wind. I was having a hard time holding on to his wheel. Augusta was a welcome stop. They had a nice grocery store and there was a bench across the street to sit on for a while.
Ken and I were making great time as we pressed on to our next checkpoint at Wolf Creek. Mike and his wife Regina came along in their truck about 25 miles from Wolf Creek to see how we were doing. That was really nice of them. They then headed up the road to check on Karel and Ronaele and call Brenda to give her a status report on how everybody was doing. On a route as lonely and isolated as this one was, it is really a morale booster to see a friendly face and know you're not out there totally on your own.
Ken and I met up with Brenda at the store in Wolf Creek. We were on schedule to get into Helena around midnight, so we'd have time for a pretty good sleep break. As per Mike and Regina's report, Ronaele and Karel were riding close to each other, and a couple of hours behind. They still had plenty of time in the bank as well.
8 miles after Wolf Creek we were back on I-15 in the dark. Ken was riding much better than me at this point and I bid him to press on ahead. He did, and was soon out of sight. I slogged up the big hill between Wolf Creek and Helena as best I could. The fast descent wasn't much fun in the dark on the freeway shoulder. Traffic was light so I moved over to the travel lane when I could and went a bit faster. But I was still cautious and just couldn't let it go. The disc brakes on my bike did their job until I was on flatter roads. I got into Helena just before mid-night and hit the bed at 12:30 with the alarm set for 3:50 AM.
I woke up for day 2 feeling light headed, nauseous, and with a weird chill. Today was going to be a toughie. Despite the ill feelings, I met up with Ken and Ronaele at the Town Pump on Montana Ave in Helena. Ronaele was going on 2 hours less sleep than me, but looked like she was handling it much better.
The route for Day 2 would feature two crossings of the Continental Divide at MacDonald Pass and Flesher Pass, both at over 6,000 feet. The route is similar to the Helena Bicycle Club's Double Divide ride-except they break it up into two days. We on the other hand would be doing the entire 136 mile loop in one day with 240 miles in our legs from the day before.
The MacDonald Pass climb starts right out of Helena. I felt weak and climbed very slowly. Soon Ken and Ronaele were out of sight. The morning was pleasant, if a bit chilly, and there was very little traffic on the 4 lane highway. I got over the climb after a couple of short rest stops. My appetite finally came back about halfway up and I chomped down a cold McDonald's hamburger that Brenda got me the night before. The descent was fun. I didn't need the brakes as I cruised down with the road all to myself.
I met up with Ronaele and Ken after Avon where Brenda and Ronaele's husband Paul had set up a secret checkpoint. She reported that Karel had left at about 7 AM and he was a ways behind but moving well. I wasn't too worried about Karel. He's done so many epic rides over the years, including a 1200K earlier this summer in Alaska-he'd be fine.
Ronaele and Ken were back on their way again in short order. I lingered awhile, taking advantage of Brenda's hospitality. It would be a long stretch to Lincoln and our next chance to get food and water.
The ride to the junction of Highway 200 was really nice. Traffic was fast moving but light. There was no shoulder, but I didn't have any trouble. I saw a big black bear out in a hay field after Nevada Lake. A couple of cars were pulled over watching him. I pointed out the bear to an oncoming loaded touring cyclist.
At the junction of Highways 141 and 200 it was getting hot! And Highway 200 was recently chip sealed and super busy. I started carefully nursing my liquids as it was going to be a long 15 mile uphill ride to Lincoln. Fortunately, the road improved and a nice shoulder emerged. I rolled into the biggest C-store in Lincoln. I could see Ronaele up the road just leaving town, and Ken was putting his helmet on and getting ready to go as he chatted with Paul who had been keeping an eye on all of us throughout the ride as he drove the route. I stepped inside and got a sandwich and sat down to eat it. Outside I saw Ken was still there and both he and Paul were working on a wheel. I saw a tube come out and knew he must have had a flat. At least he had a nice shady spot to fix it, and Paul's floor pump too. But there must have been something wrong because they kept replacing tubes and pumping it up and then taking it apart again. I went outside to see what was going on. A leaking valve on one tube and another valve that wouldn't take air apparently. Ken finally got his wheel on and was underway. I went back to refueling.
The turn to Flesher Pass road is only 10 miles from Lincoln, but 5 miles of that was on one of the worst paved roads I had ever ridden. There was no shoulder, lots of pot holes, and a lot of very fast moving and unforgiving traffic. I got through this stretch unscathed, but Ken later reported having to bail out to the ditch a couple of times as the cars and trucks couldn't be bothered to move over and/or slow down. After a bit of research I learned that this stretch of Highway 200 is scheduled to be rebuilt in 2014. I certainly hope so.
I came across Ken at the foot of the climb to Flesher Pass, working on his tire again. A leaky valve would plague him all the way back to Helena.
Temperatures were well into the 90's as we climbed the pass. Again Ken was soon out -of-sight as I still had no energy. I walked a few hundred feet, just to rest my legs and aching backside, but the Flesher Pass climb, though hard, is pretty short from the pacific side and soon I was at the top with the hope of a long sustained downhill to the finish.
Early on the descent was fun. A wind in our face kept it at a safe speed as the road twisted and turned. But as the incline got shallower, the fun and speed stopped. Though we were going downhill I had to work to get 12 mph. The wind felt like a blast furnace. The miles ticked by much to slowly.
The Canyon Creek store, about 20 miles from the finish was an oasis. I met Ken at the store as he was going out. He was still fighting that leaky inner tube, but kept moving. I went into the store and downed a coke and poured a cold bottle of water into my camel back. I had enough fluids to get to the end...but did I have the energy?
10 miles went by-then a few more. After a short climb and descent I was finally back in the Helena Valley and crawling to the finish. Brenda was at the Town Pump to greet me. I was hot, tired and crabby. But after loading up the bike it began to sink in what I had accomplished. We headed back out on the route to look for Karel, who we found soon after just approaching the Helena city limits. He was hot and dry as well, missing the Canyon Creek oasis as it had closed before he went by. But Karel, who had started 2 hours after me, only finished about 50 minutes behind me. So he had ridden very well despite spending the entire month of August off the bike.
Ronaele had long since finished. This was her second super randonneur series of the season. She has been putting on a ton of miles this summer and is planning on riding 2 1200K's yet this year! Amazing. I am in awe.
So with that, I finished my 4th super randonneur series and my first since 2011. It feels good to get it done. Now I have to figure out how to do it without being such a mess at the end. I guess that will come with more experience.
Many thanks to our volunteers Brenda, Paul, Mike, and Regina. It was a hard fought 600K-and a route I would love to do again someday, but only after Highway 200 east of Lincoln gets fixed and I reconfigure the route in Great Falls.