The most important day of the ride.
I toss and turn until I throw the covers on the floor muttering something. Lights go off at 10pm but my eyes are wide open at midnight, 2, 3am, 4am, what is the point of sleeping? It is all the Beartooth Highway's fault. That's what it is. The alarm is set for 5.15, clean shave, clean clothes, clean man and a brand new day. Last night I chowed down 700 gr of nutella, 2 jars, one right after the other. That is correct and I feel no shame in admitting that and much less in doing it. My nutella-overloaded body might have something to do with my having only one bowl of oatmeal at breakfast. I am eager to go, I can't eat. I step outside and the dawn is barely breaking. The fresh crisp mountain air is a relief. I look south and I see a menacing ridge which is still in almost total darkness in the dawn light but I can make out the jagged line. The street lights are still on and Red Lodge is asleep when I hit the road. 6.15 is the earliest start to a day on this ride, any earlier and I would have ridden in the dark. The breeze is strong and I have a headwind. No please, not today. Don't worry, reach the mountain sides and they will shield you from the wind. I keep talking to myself on the bike more to keep myself warm than trying to reassure my suspicious mind. I am going up to 11000ft with two summer jerseys and a rain cover and that's it. I am wearing what I was wearing two days ago with 100F in Lovell, am I crazy? Maybe but I am sure the climb will take care of it. Will it? I don't know. I just have a few garments and a dream. Enough for me.
The Beartooth Highway (named after a bear tooth-shaped rock which is visible from the top) is an all-American road and you would not be surprised if you saw it ranked number one in the all-time US scenic roads. The prelude is short, I fight the cold for two miles and then it is business. I am shivering on the bike from head to toe but less then two miles out of Red Lodge the climb begins. My worry shift from the cold to the climb. The headwind slows down as soon as I get close to the mountain sides; the road goes up but the climb is not strenuous yet. In a few minutes I start sweating and here comes the huffing and puffing? Not really, I am just really strong and ready. I set a decent pace and begin to work on the pedals. My eyes shift from the road to the scenery which gently opens up as the road gains altitude. The sky brightens and I'm finally bathed in full sunlight. Many clouds float around but the sun manages to keep them at bay. The light reveals the impressive Galatin Mountains on the right of the valley. I am beginning to work hard but the beauty of the road makes the labor so much easier than it should be. I feel strong and I cannot wait to get up the mountain to see what the top looks like. While rising steadily, the road still hangs in the valley for at least 15 miles. After riding along Rock Creek for about 10 miles, the road climbs about 5% and 15 miles out of Red Lodge I see the start to the famous switchbacks. Here we go. Each leg of the switchbacks is about 1 mile, maybe 1.5 long. It is not really the grades that make me work, it is the cold air, it is the thin air and the long climb. It is relentless, from the start of the switchback I have a climb of 15 miles, all uphill, no respite, no excuses, nowhere to hide. I set a pace and stay there, I only stop to take pictures and make a few silly videos for posterity. I am not gonna say much about the scenery because I hope the pics give you a rough idea of what it is like and what it is like to cycle on this road. Let's just say that it is every bit as wonderful as I imagined it would be. No wait, more. Even better. I'm head over heels. I ride and ride and ride and never once grow tired of the world laid out in front of me. Never once grow tired of the uphill climb which gets steeper as the switchbacks end. I am emboldened by the scenery, I am excited by the challenge, I am encouraged by how well my body responds. It is cold but the strain of the climb keeps me relatively warm. I still could do with an extra layer. I hope the descent won't be freezing. Thoughts swirl inside my head, keep them out, stay warm in your head too, keep going. By now I know myself on the bike, if my mind is happy my body is light. Simple. The wind diminishes even more and I start to see patches of snow in some cavities that are not hit by the sun.
The road is built into a very steep ridge where no sensible person would choose to build a road. I have no earthly idea how they built this road. It is literally hanging from the cliff of a mountain, it is insane.The steep ridge appears to be unstable where the road is blasted in, but there are remarkably few retaining walls.
The grade picks up, now it is probably 6-7 percent and I have never seen such long switchbacks. I figure that the road climbs 2500 feet with only 5 segments of switchbacks. At the end of the switchbacks I still have 1000 feet to ascend and when I look up I don't see a summit, only a rounded field which gradually enters my sight as I climb but I see no end to it. No trees grow on top of the plateau. Just tundra. And of course it's very windy on a high plateau with no trees but not as bad as the breeze down yonder portended. I think I am lucky as the guy from the hotel last night said that the Pass can bring heavy winds and unexpected snow storm at any time of the year. At an overlook about 5 miles short of the Pass I ask a guy sitting in a car if he knows the temperature: 50F he says. Wow! Eventually I reach a crest at the elevation of 10,800 feet, then the road descends 350 feet and just when I thought I had reached the top it climbs another 500 ft to the actual summit at 10,940 feet (3315m). I am disappointed that I cannot find the summit sign. However, at the highest point I take a couple of pictures, I stick out my two fingers in a V sign and no time to rejoice because I have a steep descend to worry about. I am lucky I haven't sweated too much so my inner vest is not wet. So I should be fine. I think I rode incredibly well and I am on the top by 9:30am, about 3 hours of riding from Red Lodge. I eat two fruit bars and I am eager to go down. It is really cold and I wore only the usual jersey the whole way up. I immediately put on my rain cover and begin to descend into a cold breeze.
Today on the way up I got a lot of thumbs up, especially from bikers. This is unusual, there is some sort of uneasiness, indifference definitely, hostility maybe between cyclists and bikers. We rarely acknowledge each other, I think this derives from the fact that we inhabit two different worlds, we travel according to two difference philosophies. For cyclists bikers just ruin the peace and they don't give a damn about the beauty of the scenery. I fully subscribe to this feeling by the way. To keep it simple, for bikers it is about the ride, for the cyclist it is about the ride, the scenery and the world around.
The downhill is equal parts stunning, exciting, and aggravating. Stunning because of the gorgeous peaks and rise on either side of the lush green valley, exciting because of the huge downhills that send the bike over 40 miles per hour, and aggravating because of the stiff wind that moves me wildly from side to side before shifting slightly and smacking me in the face. But everything's forgiven when I think that I have just summited the Beartooth Pass. It is mine, only mine.
As soon as I start pedaling again I hit eight miles of almost nonstop descent. It's smooth and easy at first, but soon I hit the construction zone and it turns into a battle for survival. The road is narrow and the few cars that approach me from behind cannot pass me. I bang over deep bumps and ruts, dodge soft patches of dust and dirt, and let out a grumble and a good bit of cursing. It's a white-knuckle dance where I balance speed, wind, rough roads, and vehicles that pass just a few feet off to my left. Slowing down never becomes a reasonable option. I make the most of my descent and when I am not busy hurling obscenities to the road I am busy yelling at the adrenaline-infused thrill that the descent provides. 30, 35, maybe 40 mph, I don't care, I don't look at the speed, I just let it carry me, I let the mountains around me take over my senses, my mind, my heart. The whole ride becomes an indescribable joy that will stay with me forever. A headwind pummels me as I ride to the west and stare in awe at the mountains ahead and the tall green grass that lines the valley floor and waves straight at me in the breeze. I reach the end of the descent and the road begins to climb again for three miles before I ride on relatively flat terrain. The road runs along a thick forest of incredibly tall trees with a thick foliage. The strong branches make it the place look dark and mysterious. I hear a rushing of water from the valley just below. I look up and I am riding just under a wall of rock rising vertically from the end of the overgrowth. It cannot be more beautiful. I am almost in disbelief and if it wasn't for the rough condition of the road I could have a tear or two in my eyes. But the cracks and the holes on the road surface makes my ride a tough affair.
The route becomes more of a battle after I enter Yellowstone. The shoulder goes away, the road starts winding up, and traffic turns thick. But the rushing green-white rivers are amazing. So are the quieter streams, the soft-looking green marsh land that surrounds them. The aroma that comes from the trees is so intense that if I close my eyes I feel like I am burying my nose in a scented candle glass. It is incredible. The first 20 miles go quickly, I am still totally psyched from my conquest of the Beartooth Pass and the excitement to have reached yet another milestone sinks in. Buffalo and rocky peaks surround me. Is this heaven? I am so glad I did not quit, I would have never experienced this on a bike. I make this moment last for as much as possible. And that is until the road turns south and it is obvious that I am not done climbing today.
I enter Yellowstone and I immediately share the road with a stubborn bison who cannot care less about other road users. The massive thing munches on the grass by the side of the road and the moment I approach he begins to drag its heavy body right in the middle of the road. Should I pass? This is Yellowstone. I ride for ten miles between two rows of perfectly shaped and colored pine trees only interrupted by several narrow creaks. Finally the road takes me into a valley so majestic in its beauty that I cannot help but stop the bike and stare at the scenery all around me with my jaw dropped. While I had a perfectly free of vehicles Beartooth, the traffic intensifies in Yellowstone. It doesn't bother me as there is no shoulder whatsoever so I have no choice but to keep on riding and to wait for the sucker behind to do his job. Not even RVs and cars can disturb my total amazement at the scenery. I take many more pictures and ride the whole way with a smaile on my face.
I ride 50 miles from the Northern Entrance to the Canyon Lodge. Yellowstone is as unique and stunning as I remembered it. The last 20 miles however, turn into a very difficult grind as I have another climb, 9 miles of 7%. The third climb of the day, the third pass. I make it after much effort but it takes every ounce of energy. I have left everything on the road today but hey, I have realized another dream of mine.
I enter the Canyon Village at 5.45 pm after almost 12 hours on the road with massive climbs and engaging descents. The odometer reads 118 miles. I cannot quite believe it. I have never climbed so much in a single day before in my life and I don't thing I ever will again. Being utterly exhausted means nothing compared to the beauty of what I just saw and the joy that I am feeling right now. My mind reels with emotions as I close my eyes and I can see myself on my bike riding up the Pass and into the valley. Just me and my legs. Freedom seems like the perfect word to tag it. It will last for many many days, and months and years. What a day.