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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I Bear-ly Made It

"Close don't count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
                     Frank Robinson (Time magazine, July 31, 1973)

Close doesn't usually cut it in bicycle touring either. You pretty much need to finish the route. That is, unless you stumble upon a place in which you'd rather spend the rest of your life.

The third day of each of the tours presented real challenges in the form of weather and difficult climbs. In each case, I made it. And I didn’t make it. Here are the accounts...

I Bear-ly Made It - CGY
Today I rode 31.4 miles from Red Lodge to the top of Beartooth Pass, putting in 5,640 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 38 degrees F.

The route ended at Cooke City. My ride, just a little shy of that!
The gorilla bear in the room made its presence known as this was the day to go up and over Beartooth Pass on our way to Cooke City, Montana at the Silver Gate entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Remember the weather at the end of the ride from Absarokee to Red Lodge? Rain, wind hail. Well, for today the forecast on Beartooth pass was for cold and snow. SNOW. In AUGUST! 

The forecast was very precise - snow would start sometime between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Well, at least it narrowed the possibilities a little. CGY took the approach of hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. The first action in this vein was to announce that the morning departure, normally between 7:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. would this day be moved and shrunk to 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. giving a better chance for more riders to get over the summit before the weather. In addition to this, CGY called in more vehicles to patrol the route and provide SAG services as needed.

We departed in the dark and immediately began riding uphill into a moderate chilly headwind. Grades slowly increased from 2% to 6% over the first 10 miles as we rode through a spectacular landscape of steep mountainsides on both sides of the road. Here we went from the 5,500 foot elevation of Red Lodge to about 6,700 feet. The "acclimation" rides of the first two days certainly helped, but altitude was also going to play a role in today's ride.

At the 10 mile point, the road went left and we started the more serious part of the climbing ...

The rest stop was 22 miles into the climb and at an elevation of 9,300 feet. It was not yet 11 and it was beginning to snow in fits and starts. The skies were gray and low - well, lower than the surrounding peaks anyway, which were enshrouded in the mist. The CGY staff was asking everyone to get some food and hurry back onto the road. There were 10 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing to the summit and the weather would only get worse from now on.

I think the first picture below, the last I took this day, is near the 25 mile point. The next picture is at the same location, taken by the CGY photographer. Comparing this to the picture from earlier in the climb, you can see that I have now put on my heavier jacket and gloves. The temperature had been dropping as we climbed and here it was just at freezing.

Smiling? Perhaps not ...
I was tired and when one of the SAG vans stopped to pick up a few riders, I considered his offer of a ride up to the summit. But, I kept on. Three miles later, I was at the summit. The east summit. The clouds parted, possibly out of surprise that I had actually gotten this far, but this brief glimpse of blue sky was soon a memory as the gray and light snow returned. What was to come was a 1.5 mile descent followed by a 1.7 mile climb of 425 feet to the slightly higher elevation of the west summit.

I had made it. There was hot soup for lunch. I was fatigued and cold. The short descent between summits had revealed a stark reality - the real descent ahead was going to be cold, cutting-through-every-layer-I-had-on cold.

We were on a barren mountaintop with no facilities. The only shelter was a number of CGY cars, trucks and an RV, all already full of people getting warm and waiting for a ride to Cooke City. It started snowing in earnest and the CGY staff were saying the window for leaving was going to close soon. If anyone thought they were up to going to the next rest stop, nine miles down the slopes, then they could leave. That rest stop was at a store, out of the snow, and more convenient for the ride vehicles picking up riders and carrying then to Cooke City.

When I heard this, I thought I can at least do this next 9 miles. But after putting toe warmers in my shoes adding another layer over my hands and feet the following happened: (a) It started snowing even harder, wind-driven and limiting visibility. (b) I realized how fatigued I was. (c) I recalled what I knew about the descent - it was going to be steep, fast, technical and very cold. (d) I decided I would end my ride right here.

Not so many people made it all the way to Cooke City this day. And, as almost all of them would say, they deserved some congratulations, but also a reminder that it was maybe not worth it. Bill was one who made it. He said the descend was bordering on terrifying. Cold robbed his fingers of feeling and caused him to shiver enough to make controlling the bike difficult. Others who I talked to or overheard had the same story.

It was, as one rider put it, an epic day. He went on to explain that in this case, epic wasn't necessarily great, but a day that would provide stories for a long time to come...

I Bear-ly Made It - Piedmont
Today I rode 29.2 miles from Acqui to Alba, putting in 2,080 feet of climbing on a day when the average temperature was 61 degrees F.

The route from Acqui Terme to Alba
This ride was startlingly similar to the one over Beartooth pass considering it was so different. Or, perhaps it was extremely different for one that was so similar.

We started this ride in a dumping rain. After 2 miles on a busy road, we turned off onto a short climb; the average gradient was 19% with a section near the top registering 28%. This was thrown in just to get our attention I guess. Two and a half moles later we started on a longer climb averaging 8% again, with a good portion being in the 13 - 16% range. It had stopped raining however and I could finally put my glasses back on.

We eventually made a nice descent into the town of Canelli. We stopped for coffee and a navigation update in a shop that Bill and Julio had been at on a previous ride. The two pictures below are the only ones I took until we rode in to the hotel in Alba. It was that kind of a day.

On the descent into Canelli
Coffee and navigation in Canelli

About 6 miles out of Canelli we started climbing again, gaining 1350 feet in 3.7 miles, averaging 7% with the odd 15 - 19% thrown in for good measure. The first town we went through offered no open restaurants - Italy closes in the early afternoon - so we rode on, now heading downhill.

It was good to get into descent mode, but alas, it was short lived. We actually rolled across the top of a ridge, descending a little then having to regain the elevation on a series of short, steep climbs. After 8 miles of this, we came to the town of Manera. We found a tavern with a small dining area. However, were told upon entering that the kitchen had just shut down for the break. I think the proprietor saw our desperate need though and offered to prepare us something. It turned out to be a hearty pasta with tomato sauce. It did not do too much for us, only saved our lives! We were very appreciative of this kindness.

While eating I realized that I was feeling not too different from where I was at the top of Beartooth pass. Julio was actively looking for a path to Alba as we walked out the door and saw a sign showing we were only 8 miles from town. The tavern owner said it was all downhill.

After a brief consideration, I opted to ride with Julio and we set off on a very nice descent - the road was not busy, the surface was good and the curves and switchbacks were gently sweeping, allowing for a brakes-free run into town.

So it was that we pulled into the hotel, got settled and enjoyed a post-ride beer before Bill and John came in. They reported that the route they had finished was not nearly as challenging and father and son got to enjoy that part of the ride at their pace. Win - win.

We saw the sign to the hotel as we rode into Alba - good thing as the GPS route had us going into the center of the city!

Sitting at a small table relaxing after the ride, enjoying the nice lawn with its bowling surface 

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