The night before, as we were checking out the road closures due to fires in Yellowstone and the Tetons, planning how to re-route around the fires, I thought, “No, not a 400k/200k split, I hate riding 400ks!” The original route plan had been so nice, a 350/250 split, for two nice days of riding the Yellowstone 600k. But now, it was midnight, I had been riding for 20 hours and one thought pervaded my mind: “I LOVE riding 400ks! It’s my FAVORITE distance, from now on I’m ONLY riding 400ks!”. And I do love riding that distance; start hours before sunrise, ride all day long and well into the night, sunup/sundown all in one fabulous ride. I was cruising along thru Island Park Idaho, so much warmer than the 28 degrees I had encountered earlier that morning. I had soooo wanted to call my brother in San Antonio that morning, “Hey, guess what? It’s 28 degrees on August 25th!!!” But now it was a much more comfortable temperature, all the cars had retired for the night, and I was REALLY enjoying this home stretch thru the dark night.
“PLINK??? What could fall off my bike and go PLINK???” I went thru a mental checklist and came up empty. Nothing that I could think of would make that noise, I must have kicked up a screw or some random metal strip. So, my thoughts drifted back towards finishing up my ride with the killer downhill into Ashton, eating, showering, sleeping and getting up in the morning to do it all over again. But disturbing thoughts kept creeping into my mind as I rode: “Why am I going so slow? Shouldn’t I be to the downhill by now? Why does it feel like my bike is hardly moving? Is something rubbing? I don’t hear anything rubbing…” I stopped several times to investigate, but in the dark I just couldn’t see any problem. With zero ambient light to illuminate my perspective, and being on an unfamiliar road, I just couldn’t tell if I was climbing. It sure felt like I was climbing a steep pitch, but I knew I should be starting a descent. I stopped again, checked everything over and gave my handlebar bag a good heave. As I started riding again, the bike accelerated as expected and I was indeed on the downhill! It wasn’t until several days later at home that I discovered the source of my problem. I rocketed down the hill into Ashton and finished my ride with 251 miles for the day.
I had started the day on a delightful road from Ashton up the Mesa Falls Scenic Highway. With a 4 AM start, I did not see a single car for the first 30 miles, two hours into my ride. I did however discover a beautiful red fox in the middle of the road. The fox was mesmerized by my headlight; it stood frozen in the middle of the road staring at me as I slowly approached on the gentle uphill. As I got closer I began to have harrowing visions of fox-in-sprockets so I let loose with my well-rehearsed dog bark which sent it scurrying into the bushes.
As I continued my lonely dark ride into the morning twilight I decided it was a good time for haikus; here are three that I came up with:
it's harder to eat a banana in the dark but just as yummy
the fox in the road was attracted to my light just until I barked
the cars I have seen while riding my bicycle still number zero
I turned onto Hwy 20 just as the sun was starting to come up and I encountered my first traffic of the day, mostly heavy trucks getting on with the day’s business. After another hour of riding I decided to stop for a snack and to lube my chain. I was confused about why my chain was squeaky because I had lubed it really well at home, then it occurred to me that we had driven thru a pounding storm on the drive up from Salt Lake with our bikes exposed; the rain had washed all the wax-based lube off my chain. I saw an approaching cyclist headed my direction and soft-pedalled while he caught up. He looked like he was on a day ride but chatting with him I learned he was on a cross-country ride with his wife driving SAG for him. He was from North Carolina and told me he knew the RBA from his area but had not ridden any brevets there. After a brief climb I arrived in West Yellowstone just in time to meet the breakfast rush at McDonalds. I wolfed down an egg sandwich and stuffed two more into my handlebar bag to save for third and fourth breakfast later down the road.
As I approached the main gate into Yellowstone I was anxious to learn my fate. What of the fires, was the road open? Jackson or Ashton? 350k or 400? As I rolled towards the gate, I saw the rest of the group pulling out ahead of me, so I knew I’d have some riding company later. I chatted briefly with the lady at the gate and learned that the road would be closed due to the Berry fire, so I now knew, 70 miles into my ride, what my route would be for the day.
I quickly caught up with Jim, Kent, and Janene and spent some time riding with them. I had not ridden with any of them very much on local brevets, so it was fun to chat with them during the day. I got into a routine of pulling ahead, then stopping to gawk at the next scenic area until they passed me, then catching up again. The great thing about touring on a bike is that it’s so easy to pull into every little stop that might be too much of a hassle in a car. Compared to a car, a bike is already basically stopped, so taking a few pictures is no problemo. I pulled into Norris Basin at mile 93 looking for water as noted on the route sheet, but never did find any there. Then I took a scenic detour via Virginia Cascade Drive (highly recommended!) at mile 95. We all pulled into Canyon together and spent some time at the canyon overlooks and taking pictures.
I lingered over the views while the others moved along to find lunch. I shortly joined them and relished the chance to pay $9 for a hot dog. A nice long bike ride has that mystical ability to turn marginal food into delicacy! The other three took off as I was finishing up and taking more pictures. I thought I would catch them quickly, but somehow I leapfrogged them and didn’t end up seeing them again until the end of the ride.
The next 15 miles was the only section on the route that had no shoulder. Traffic was heavy, but slow moving and courteous. After one RV passed a little too close, I decided I needed to control when traffic passed me by riding in the middle of the lane whenever opposing traffic was present. This forced traffic to slow down to my speed so that when they did pass it wasn’t a high speed affair. I’ve always considered my mirror as my most important safety device and once again it allowed me to safely monitor and control traffic. I think many riders would feel nervous and uncomfortable during this section.
I enjoyed riding along the shore of Lake Yellowstone and turned off onto the Gull Point Drive for my second scenic detour. Like Virginia Cascade , this is a highly recommended detour. I was struck by just how big Yellowstone Lake is, I was riding next to it for 20 miles. Approaching West Thumb, I also marvelled at how a road next to a lake could be so hilly, but it was very fun riding and perfect weather.
I turned west away from the lake at West Thumb and began the gentle climb up towards Craig Pass. This was also very interesting riding with short ups and downs, fun curves, low traffic and beautiful scenery.
As I pulled into the first Continental Divide crossing I found a fully loaded touring cyclist stopped at the top. As she was setting up for a selfie, she asked me if I would take it instead:
Her: "Would you mind?" Me: "No problem. Sooo, anyway, what's a selfie called if somebody else takes it?" Her: "Then it's just called a picture" Me: "Oh, yeah, I knew that"
Seeing her with a full load of camping gear had me once again pondering the difference between touring and randonneuring. A 600k covers the distance most touring cyclists would cover in a week. In fact, the previous fall I had attended a presentation by a local touring club about their 7-day trip thru YS and Tetons, following nearly the exact route we had planned. But touring has the luxury of a relaxed pace and more time for off-the-bike activities. I just need to do more of both!
I pulled into Old Faithful at 5:50 and quickly found the geyser eruption board. Old Faithful was expected in nine minutes!!! I hurried over to join the meager crowds and fiddled with my gear while I waited. 5:59 passed, 6:04 passed, 6:05 passed… After 165 miles of riding I guess I just wasn’t too keen on waiting around to watch the geyser. I lost patience and headed to the café to eat before the crowds got there. Good strategy, the café was empty. I was just finishing up my dinner when the place started to fill up. I filled my bottles and headed back out.
A new gear addition for this trip was a retractable snowboard lock. Cheap, lightweight, compact, and just enough deterrent to keep some hooligan from riding off while I dine. I returned to my bike to find it had done its job, but I had failed at mine: remembering the combo! Luckily, I had put it into my phone, so after some brief fumbling I was back on the road.
The road from Old Faithful to Madison was exciting; with the road to Jackson closed, all the park visitors needed to head for West Yellowstone for the evening so traffic was backed up for about 12 miles! Since it was a gentle downhill, I flew past the stopped cars, smug-o-meter pegged! Of course, they all re-passed me before I got out of the park and I pulled into West Yellowstone just as it was getting dark. I found a small grocery store, stocked up for the last 55 miles, and headed off into the night.
The rider from North Carolina told me his car registered 28 degrees in Island Park which explains why I was so cold in the early morning; the forecast had called for a low of 36, so that’s what I was prepared for. There was basically no wind all day long and scattered clouds came and went throughout the day. When the sun was shining it usually felt really good against the gentle chill of the day. I wore a wool blend LS jersey all day and only took it off briefly twice during extended climbs.
This was the first real test of my new lighting set-up and it was wonderful. I have a SP-9 hub with a B&M IQ-X light and use a battery-powered tail light. I left the light running all day as a safety light, it was great to not have to worry a bit about running out of battery power, and the dark roads were lit up wonderfully.
I ran Compass 700×38 EL tires, mounted tubeless to Pacenti rims. I had topped off the sealant the previous week and had no tire issues. The only problem I ever have running tubeless is that the sealant dries out quickly and I need to top them off regularly. I had found a tiny bottle of chain lube at my LBS which I was very glad to have with me to take care of that squeaky chain.
The morning was a lot colder than I expected and I did wish for warmer tights and gloves during those early hours.
I saw a fox, a handful of bison, a bunch of elk, a pair of bald eagles, and geese, swans, and ducks.
So many unforgettable sections, I can’t wait to go back. The weather was just beautiful for bike riding. I really loved the climb up to Craig Pass and the whole section from West Thumb to Old Faithful; twisty rollers, low traffic, great weather, just beautiful. Both scenic detours were great, Virginia Falls and Gull Point Drive. And cruising thru Island Park in the dark night was a great way to end the day.
The morning really was much colder than I was expecting, I was soooo glad when the sun started coming up to warm me. The traffic from Canyon to Lake was stressful, but not as heavy as I had expected. On a near-perfect ride it’s hard to find faults though. Even the disappointment of not riding on to Jackson was only a minor slight on the day. I did see less wildlife than expected, but that wasn’t something I was focused on.
I had carefully studied the route for day 1 and although I didn’t have a route sheet for the alternate, I knew the route well enough that I didn’t need a cue sheet. Day 2 however was a route that our RBA, Richard had designed the previous day and emailed to us, so I had only a vague idea of where we would be riding.
The day started out with a beautiful road. Riding Hwy 32 turned out to be my favorite part of the day. This was one of those roads where you think you should just ride laps on that one road all day, twisty, curvy, steep climbs followed by thrilling descents, no traffic.
The morning was hazy from the fires but as the day went on the haze cleared out and the back side of the Tetons was visible for most of the day. I spent more time riding with the other riders and enjoyed chatting with them at a relaxed pace.
One of my favorite encounters on long rides is chatting with other touring cyclists. At the gas station in Tetonia Idaho I found that we were not the only cyclists detoured by the fires. A Dutch rider who was on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route had to detour down the back side of the Tetons as we had, and stopped for ice cream at the same gas station we had. I asked him about his gear, especially his Magura hydraulic rim brakes, and he shared the story of his 2 hour stand-off with a grizzly bear that would not yield right-of-way on the trail somewhere in Montana. Always ask GDMBR riders if they saw any bears!
A long stretch on Hwy 33 near the end of the day was the least enjoyable part of the ride. There was a terrific head wind and although the road had a nice shoulder, there was a ton of truck traffic barrelling past, which I never enjoy. Although one fun moment was when a tractor pulling a large trailer slowly passed me; I tucked in behind it and enjoyed cruising along behind the mobile windbreak for quite some time until it turned off into a field.
I also had a chance to practice my dog skills towards the end of the day. I was riding along a country road when from beyond a farm house three cow dogs came barking. I noticed the chain link fence and relaxed for a bit until I approached the end of the lot. My eyes followed the fence line to discover the fence simply ended, there was no corner! The dogs came tearing around the missing corner just after I passed it and my concern kicked up a notch. These were country dogs, no way would I be able to outrun them on the flat road, they were fast! As the lead dog closed in, I turned my head, looked right at it and bellowed out the loudest, meanest bark I could muster. Stunned and confused, the lead dog slowed briefly before his natural prey drive kicked back in but that pause was all I needed to kick it up a notch and pull away.
After that excitement, I settled back in to a moderate pace and finished the home stretch back to the hotel in Ashton. A figure-8 route is a really nice way to run a 600k because the logistics work out so well.
Epilogue – Things that go PLINK!
A few days later at home, I inspected my bike as I prepared to ride it to work the next day, and I found the thing that wasn’t there. My handlebar bag rests on a classic TA rack that mounts to the Mafac brake via the bolt highlighted in this picture. The bolt holding the assembly together was missing!!! I’m shocked that I was able to ride an additional 200k+ without that bolt; my brakes still worked fine, my bag was fine, the only issue was the aforementioned rubbing on the first night. Compass sells a double-headed replacement bolt with the comment: “This ensures that the vibrations of the brake will not loosen the bolt, which often happens when you sandwich brake and rack on the same bolt.” I guess those guys know their stuff.
The 2017 SLR Yellowstone Series is scheduled for July 13, I’m excited to go back.