|Karel Stroethoff, Mark Liebig, Ken Billingsley, and Jason Karp|
There was the ominous sign: "Motorcycle Advisory Road Construction Ahead Consider Alternate Route" It's a sign that strikes fear into the hearts of brevet organizers everywhere-especially in sparsely populated places where there is usually only one paved route to anywhere. But a pre-ride pre-drive revealed that they hadn't quite got to tearing up the road north of Absarokee before the Memorial Day weekend so we were going to be okay.
Four randonneurs met at the Walmart in Laurel-including the usual suspects-Ken Billingsley, Karel Stroethoff, and myself. We were joined by Mark Liebig from Bismarck. Mark is currently the only registered randonneur from the State of North Dakota-so it was a great honor to have him along.
We set out into a beautiful morning on quiet roads to our first stop at the little country store in Fishtail. After the out-and-back on the Nye Road to Fishtail and an info control we were back on the highway to Red Lodge. After Absarokee the road gets quite narrow, but fortunately, the traffic thinned out considerably as well-so we could suffer in relative peace on the big, big hills after Roscoe. Mark was off the front riding well, Ken and I were riding more-or-less in site of each other, and Karel was back a ways-riding comfortably at his own pace.
Mark met up with his family in Red Lodge for lunch, Ken and I met our dutiful volunteers Brenda, Jackson, and Ernie at the Town Pump in Red Lodge for a break, and Karel showed up in Red Lodge right after we left and met up with Brenda at the Subway. Everyone was doing well and the weather was very good-though the skies were darkening.
After the short climb out of Red Lodge it's a wonderful 14 mile descent to Belfry-where hardly a pedal had to be turned. However, after Belfry the road gets wide, busy, and flat. It was heating up close to 80, the air smelled of road kill, and we had a headwind. Ken and I found Mark at a c-store in Bridger-where they had ice cream! Refreshed we made relatively short work out of the flat boring stretch to Joliet in a 3 man pace line. The headwind didn't stand a chance!
More ice cream in Joliet and then a wonderful ride on the hilly and quiet Joliet to Columbus road. Mark and Ken, who in my defense are probably both at least 30 pounds lighter than me, pulled away on the hills, but not completely out-of-sight. Despite being slower, I felt good and was thoroughly enjoying this stretch as the wind died completely, there was no traffic, and the green hills, and purple Beartooth Range beyond was like riding in a postcard.
I found Ken at the McDonalds in Columbus and Mark soon joined us as well after making his checkpoint the Town Pump across the street. As we rested a fully loaded touring cyclist came rolling off the I-90 exit. He was Dan Clinkinbeard of Missouri-a well known randonneur-who was pedaling to Missoula to meet up with an Adventure Cycling group that was riding to Alaska. Dan was so excited to see some fellow cyclists and talked our ear off. He had great stories and a 90 pound bike I could barely lift. It was a truly cool moment in my randonneuring life.
The last 28 miles to Laurel was flat and familiar-as we went out on the same route in the morning. Mark, Ken, and I rode together and chatted the miles away on the low traffic frontage road. In the last five miles the wind kicked up and as we pulled into the finishing parking lot the thunder started to rumble. It was still light and we were dry and happy.
Poor Karel didn't fair quite so well. The rain hit him in Columbus and he showed up at the finish dripping wet. But he finished well none-the-less and he had a nice motel room waiting for him in nearby Billings.
I think we all agreed that we really liked this route. The hills before Red Lodge were a good challenge, the descent of Bear Creek Hill to Belfry was great fun, and the route was well serviced and on pretty decent roads. After the road gets rebuilt after Absarokee I will definitely want to do this one again.
Two days later-on Memorial Day, I went for a recovery ride to Bozeman where I crossed paths with Dan Clinkinbeard again. I rode with him on the I-90 shoulder for 20 miles to Manhattan. I had the best time listening to his stories-what a treat to come across him again. Best of luck to Dan on his tour to Alaska!
Now it's on to the 400K. I sit here typing this at our relative's house outside of Kalispell. I'll pre-drive the entire 400K tomorrow to make sure there are actually roads there-in what is one of the most isolated regions in in the lower 48. It will be beautiful-that I can guarantee!