Have you ever ridden a mechanical bull? For 6 hours a day? Every day for two weeks? Neither have I but I have a good idea what it might feel like! The trails and roads we are riding are not terribly steep (think Apple Hill Road) but are as rough as they can get. I regularly find myself sailing down roads that look and feel like dry river beds. Swerving from one tire track to another to avoid the largest potholes or hunks of protruding ledge. I’ve learned a lot in the last week and built a lot of confidence. Confidence in my bike and how big of a tree fallen across the road my bike can hop without getting off (about 7 inches in diameter). Confidence in my ability to hop over large rocks at various speeds, and confidence that I can tell how fast I can hit what obstacles without risking losing a pannier or hurting my bike. I’m also learning just how steep and rocky an incline I can ride up, and how to recognize a stretch that is too dangerous to ride with my shoes clipped in to my pedals. I’m very glad I got pedals that are flat on one side as I like to ride any really hairy sections without clipping in.
The climbs are long and slow but you develop a rhythm and they can be quite enjoyable. The downhills can be every bit as challenging as I find I’m standing most of the time and having to really focus on picking a line and following the safest route. In many ways it reminds me of skiing moguls. I’m learning to handle my bike in new ways, leaning into turns and safely navigating around obstacles. Whenever we leave the mountains to cross a stretch of flat plains, the winds pick up and even going slightly downhill you have to push through and really work for every mile. Each day brings new and exciting challenges and excitement.
A word about navigation: riding this trail without an accurate odometer would be impossible. The network of forest service roads up here is immense, and most are unmarked. There are directions that say things like “at mile 34.7 turn left onto the unmarked and less traveled FR127.” and in a 3 mile section there may be 4 roads that meet that criteria! If we didn’t have good odometers, we would never know which unmarked and virtually untraveled trail to take!
A few choice map directions:
“mile 22.6, drop left onto unsigned FR 9591. This road is closed and blockaded, cross creek and go around boulders.”
“mile 18.3: ride around boulders; road becomes more primitive as it wraps around the north east end of Richmond peak into a spectacular alpine basin. Occasional downed trees and rocks in trail next 3.8 miles, use extreme caution in rock slide zone at point where road has failed.”
And so that is how it goes each day. We figured out that we are climbing generally 2,000 or 3,000 vertical feet each day, sometimes even more. We stop at each intersection to put our heads together and decide which of the dirt tracks which direction refers to. Generally we are impressed with the directions, though sometimes we are fairly well baffled until we get ourselves straightened out.
In the park in Lincoln I met a nice couple from Helena who were camped in the city park for the weekend. We were talking about the bike trip and they were duly impressed. When I said we typically take the hardest, steepest, least passable roads between any two towns, they said “you don’t take Stemple Pass to get to Helena do you?” It sounded familiar so I said I thought we did and they were astounded and said they couldn’t believe anyone could ride over it. I looked at the map to confirm and realized that in fact I was wrong and we don’t take Stemple Pass. However, our directions have a side note which reads “turn right into FR 4134 up the south fork of Poorman Creek. The next 4.4 miles are extremely steep uphill but they lead through fascinating country with several stream crossings. For an easier but slightly longer route, take Stemple Pass.” We all laughed pretty hard at that!
From Lincoln we rode 30 miles to what was supposed to be a no longer in service state campground. Either we never found it or it really truly no longer exists, so we wild camped by a creek in between two fenced off private property lots. Leslie and I did a stellar bear hang, see photo below!
A classic bear hang high in the trees. As long as its 10 feet from the ground and 4 feet from the tree trunk, our food is safe from even the tallest bears! A good spot to safely store our food at night is always key to picking our camping spots. While many established campgrounds have metal bear proof food boxes, more often than not we hang from the trees!
The ride involved our longest steepest climb yet, even Stemple Pass would have been easier! Everyone walked at least a few sections, except perhaps John who is a machine (I’ve decided he’s a reincarnated grizzly!)
The downhill was also spectacular and very rough and rocky. We rode through miles of logging areas and saw lots of clear cuts. Many of the logged areas were specifically logged in ways to control the spread of the pine beetles, which have killed hundreds of acres of trees, leaving entire mountainsides with nothing but standing dead trees.
Yesterday ( day 16) we rode about 41 miles to Helena. I had my first flat tire of the trip. I ran over either a sharp rock or a piece of metal embedded in the road. Leslie and I stopped and patched it, and put a boot (like a tire patch) unfortunately the patch didn’t hold all day and I ended up refilling my tube several times because I was too lazy to put a new tube in. I have slime tubes which are supposed to more or less patch themselves, so I was quite disappointed to have it not reseal even if the patch leaked at tad. So far I’m unimpressed with the slime tubes! I also sprung a leak in the hose on my pump, which I just bought at Onion River! I bought a more durable one in Helena and will send the other one home to return if possible, it should have held up better than it did!
Our route for the day had two scheduled divide crossings, but didn’t lose too much elevation in between. However, despite our careful map reading we missed a turn just before the second divide crossing. We suspected at one point but didn’t take the time to really figure it out in time. It turned out to be an expensive mistake as it dropped us on the west side of the continental divide and Helena is on the east side! So even though it only left us about 18 miles further down the highway from Helena than we were supposed to be, it meant re-climbing all our lost elevation on a hot, shadeless paved road.
The upside was coming down off the paved MacDonald Pass was fabulous! Our first long downhill on pavement. As many know I’ve been wanting to hit 50 on my bike for some time. On the Trans Am in 2010 I hit 48 before having to slow down while passing a tractor trailer truck who was going under 45. Sadly I didn’t quite make it this time either due to a slight side wind and my nerves being shaky worrying about my tire being a tad low on air. My odometer topped out at 48.9 MPH. Leslie laughed at me saying a blow out at 50 isn’t any worse than a blowout at 49, and alas she’s right, I should have pushed for it! She also was sad not to quite hit 50 on the Trans Am, but yesterday she topped out at 50.3!! Go L go!
Today was a rest day in Helena. We met a bunch of locals, had a few great meals out, and explored a delish local brewery. We also each had some work done on our bikes. I had my rear wheel trued and a new tube put in. I also replaced my chain as it was already starting to wear. Leslie didn’t replace hers yet, but had it shortened as it was a few links too long and was causing some shifting challenges.
With each of us on a nicely tuned bike, all rested and refreshed, tomorrow we head back out into the high hot mountains. We should be to Butte the day after tomorrow. Here are a few pictures from the last few days…
My bike feeling lonely on the side of the road as we fill water from a spring. Sadly my SteriPen which has been totally awesome and reliable for purifying water this whole trip is no longer acting reliably. Even new batteries hasn’t solved the problem. The gear outlet in Helena was out of the Sawyer filter Leslie and I wanted to replace it with, but the nice guy at the store sold us his almost new one at employee cost and will replace it even the back order arrives!
John prepared for another epic downhill! These hills are awesome and fairly challenging. Lots of swerving all over the road to avoid the largest washouts and chunks of exposed ledge!
That’s right, that’s Leslie walking up a hill. Funny how it doesn’t look steep in pictures! Note I was only able to take such a picture because I was also walking my bike! My bike is geared super low so there have been a few hills I was able to ride up that Leslie walked, but the funny thing is I can literally ride so slowly my speedometer reads zero (luckily my odometer keeps ticking even at a speed of zero!). Leslie generally beats me to the top of the climb even when she walks and I ride!!
Another long gravel climb. While in some ways they all begin to seem the same, on other ways they are all unique and gorgeous. Each day has it’s own sets of challenges and new sites to see.
It rained for a bit while we were setting up camp in a city park pavilion in Lincoln, but we were under cover and got a beautiful rainbow out of it! It also meant way less dust on the ride the next morning which was very welcome!
Roger has been ordering pancakes every breakfast out, daring each waitress to beat him with an order he couldn’t eat. He was finally defeated! The waitress told a story of a regular patron (who happened to be there at the time) who had come back 3 times challenging her to beat him with pancakes and she finally had by serving him a stack of three that were 16 inches in diameter!!!