Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Yellowstone National Park South Loop pre-ride report

Steve Ellis and I rode the YNP south loop on Monday, September 16 to get an idea of what we have in store for our 200K brevet on September 28 on the same route.  Here’s what we found:

It will be cool to down-right cold at the start.  Expect temperatures to be around 30-45 degrees and dress accordingly.  Also, the weather in Yellowstone is unpredictable so be prepared.  Steve and I got rained on for most of the last 13 miles.  It was actually kind of pleasant, but that’s not always going to be case.

The roads are generally very good.  Most of the route has about a 3 foot wide rideable shoulder.  However most of the stretch from Lake Village to Canyon does not have much of a shoulder so use caution there.  The shoulder between Canyon and Norris has some big ruts and potholes just outside of Canyon, but it gets better as you go up the hill.

Even though the park is shutting down, traffic will be busy.  Our pre-ride was on a Monday and traffic was constant all day.  The stretch from West Thumb to Lake had the lightest traffic.  Watch out for the big coach tour busses, they didn’t seem to be interested in giving any room.  Other than that, motorists were pretty courteous.  It seemed like we were passed by the same vehicles all day as they would stop at every road side attraction and then come by again.

My advice is to take it easy on the first leg from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful.  Other than one hill just past Madison Junction this is a pretty easy stretch.  But don’t blow yourself up, as there’s some big climbing to come.

After Old Faithful we climb up to the Continental Divide and cross the divide twice.  The first crossing is Craig Pass, then there’s a short descent and then more climbing to the next divide crossing.  It never gets terribly steep (maybe 6%) but the second peak is 14 miles away and 2000 feet higher than Old Faithful.  Then it’s a short non-technical descent to West Thumb and then gentle rollers to the Lake Hotel.  It’s about 40 miles from Old Faithful to our next control at Lake.  This was by far the toughest section for Steve and I and we needed a long break in Lake to recover.  So make sure you’re well fed and hydrated out of Old Faithful and have plenty of supplies along.

As I said, the road from Lake to Canyon doesn’t have much for a shoulder. This is in the Hayden Valley and there will probably be lots of bison out-and-about. The wildlife’s presence does tend to slow down the cars and trucks. But watch out for motorists around a bison jam-the drivers are more unpredictable than the animals.

If you’re not too tired, the section between Canyon and Norris is fun.  There’s a short steep climb for a mile or so then the climb becomes pretty easy (if the wind is right).  Then there’s some big downs and ups with a short 8% descent mixed in.  It’s not that long so I didn’t need my brakes.  Also, traffic wasn’t too heavy here when we rode.

The best road surface was from Norris Junction to the finish.  The shoulder is pretty wide and rideable.  But it is very busy from Norris to Madison Junction and there were lots of tour busses.


West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce parking lot:  You can park here all day.  There are restrooms that were open for us in the morning, but they were locked when we got back.  This control will be staffed by my loyal volunteers Brenda and Jackson.

Old Faithful: The Old Faithful complex is huge and everything should still be open for our ride.  Steve and I went to the first available store.  Take the first left after going over the overpass and on the Old Faithful entrance road-signs are there to guide you.  If you want to see the visitor’s center or the geyser itself keep going and follow the signs.  There’s another store by the lodge and visitor’s center.  Waiting for the geyser can take a long time depending on when it last went off.  Personally I wouldn’t wait for it.  After it does go off, it will be like rush hour getting out of there for a little while.

Lake Hotel: The only thing still open at Lake will be the dining room in the Lake Hotel.  This place is pretty fancy and it’s a sit-down type of restaurant.  I’m planning on having Brenda and Jackson meet us outside the Lake Hotel in the parking lot with some snacks and water.

Canyon Village:  If you want to actually see the canyon take the right turn on to north rim drive (after the turn to the south rim, and the turn to the brink of the upper falls.  The north rim drive will loop to Canyon Village and it only adds a couple of kilometers).  If you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone then the side trip is worth it.  The restrooms in the Canyon Village Visitor’s Education Center should still be open.  These are super nice facilities and they have water fountains with a spigot to fill water bottles.  The only place open to get food in Canyon will be the Outdoor Adventure Store.  They have pop, chips, candy bars and gas station style sandwiches.

The scenery on the whole route is amazing of course.  The views of Lake Yellowstone are especially wonderful.  Don’t forget to look around now and then. 

Other than bison and a few elk there wasn’t much for wildlife when we rode, but keep your eyes open.  If bison are on the road try to keep a car between you and the animal.  The bulls are especially grumpy this time of year as it is mating season.

It took Steve and me 10 hours and 40 minutes to complete the ride, including two long rest stops at Lake and Canyon.  We finished with plenty of daylight, but we did turn on our blinky taillights for the last 20 or so miles just for safety sake as it got cloudy.  Steve observed that when he turned on his taillights cars seemed to give him more room.  I would recommend everybody take a taillight and a headlight along just in case you’re delayed and it starts to get dark.

I would recommend that we let ourselves get spread out on the road.  Don’t form a long pace line.  It is Yellowstone after all.  You don’t want to be staring at someone’s back tire for 200K.  Also, ride single file and save the visiting for the rest stops.  It’s too busy to ride side-by-side and the park rangers really frown on it.  Here’s a little video about riding in Yellowstone HERE (scroll down to the bike video).

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Double Days, Double Divides

More Photos Here     Results Here

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.