Ain’t no mountain high enough

Before we leave Jackson behind, a quick word. If you live here, it appears you make your living catering to rich/adventure tourists, or managing the wealth of the rich locals. That does mean the hoi polloi who are funded by their former co-workers can always find an espresso, local brew, or gelato. Lest I sound too critical of the town, they have an excellent paved bike trail system all through the valley. My one quibble (which I find with most bike trails) is that directional signs are minimal. If you are on roads there are always signs to tell you where you are and where you’re going.

They also have a Target store. I learned that the free floss from the dentist lasts < 2 weeks and the TSA-approved sizes for toiletries last about 2 weeks.

Today’s route runs through Grand Teton National Park, on a beautiful bike trail. It’s almost enough to make you forget you’re riding 100 miles. It also gives me my second chance to use my Senior Pass to the National Park System.

See the 2018 post for pictures. Also see the 2018 July 4 post for a stirring take on the 4th of July and the theory of Manifest Destiny, courtesy of the Firesign Theatre.

Oh, by the way: jersey choices are sometimes random, but the “Horribly Hilly Hundreds: Biking Like a Viking” jersey for the climb of Teton Pass was entirely intentional. I needed that.

approaching Grand Teton
Leaving Grand Teton

Today was about as close to perfect as a day can be, for the first 95 miles. We rode through Jackson and out along an elk preserve, slowly gaining elevation. We rode into Grand Teton National Park, riding parallel to the range on a beautiful bike path. I was prepared to use my Senior Pass, but the ranger just waved us through. Coming through a tunnel we came upon a fox that made no effort to get away. We later saw a sign that said “Do not feed the fox”. I guess that’s why it showed no fear of humans. That, or it was rabid.

After the Tetons was a 17 mile climb to Togwotee Pass – a good 2.5 hours of steady climbing. Some might argue that the “perfect” ended here. As we ground up the pass, there was an electronic sign informing us that “It is illegal to stop on the roadway to view bears.” Somehow, that thought had never entered my mind. The only way I would stop to view bears is if I were riding with someone slower than I.Over the pass we rode down into the Wind River Valley. The Wind River (pronounced like a breeze) is aptly named, as it seems to be always windy here. Today was mostly tailwind. It would also be apt to pronounce it like winding your watch, as it is the twistiest river I’ve ever seen.

As we crossed 9000 feet, it was hot in the sun and chilly in the shade. The descent required a jacket but was great fun – 9 miles at 25-45 mph. At 95 miles I heard a pop and a hiss and stopped to change a tube. The sidewall had a tear so I added a boot, which lasted until the turn into the campground when it blew again. The tear had grown, so I changed tires. Now I have two tubes to patch next weekend and I’m already using one of my spare tires – that one didn’t last long, being brand new for the trip.

We’re staying at a KOA campground in DuBois, WY. We were warned that the road would be closed from 1-3PM for the Independence Day parade – as though we would get here that early. We’re told they’ll have great fireworks – but fireworks are after dark, when I hope to be sleeping. Tomorrow is a “mere” 82 miles which appear to be mostly downhill.

The phoenix has risen!

We left Ashton, ID at 7 AM with Grand Teton looming in the distance. It continued to loom in the distance for much of the morning. For a while we aimed straight for it, then turned to parallel the range as we head for Teton Pass. The sky was clear but dark clouds loomed over the pass. They seemed to funnel forebodingly toward the pass.

Grand Teton. We’ll be closer next week.

As we approached it turned blustery and the headwind made it seem that we had started climbing miles before the actual climb, though we did gain elevation steadily throughout the day.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the day. This was decision day. If I rode the whole day and cleared the pass, I would cancel my flight home tomorrow. If I was not able to make it, I might be outta here. A staff member (also COVID+) assured me that I could be picked up at the last water stop before the climb if I wasn’t “feeling it”. Before that, the COVID bus rule was “once you’re out, you’re out. We don’t have time to come back for you and you can’t get in the other sag wagons.” This became the day’s mantra:

The entire song was apropos, but the key was “Every time that wheel turn round/Bound to cover just a little more ground.”

At home we have some rides that I call “big ring rides”. The route is flat enough that I can stay in the big chainring using the higher gears. The past three days I’ve kept myself in the small ring, limiting my speed so I would recover and not get weaker. I only allowed myself into the big ring on descents, then back to the small ring as soon as the road leveled out. Today was a small ring ride until we cleared the pass. To celebrate I stayed in the big ring until the turnoff to the Teton Science Center.

After our picnic the climb began. It starts gradually, with some flat(ter) sections, then becomes gradually steeper as you go. The dark and heavy clouds began to leak a bit. As long as it was a few drops, it would just keep us cool. If it turned into actual rain, I had a jacket in reserve, since I needed a jacket and full finger gloves in the morning. The sky gradually cleared. When it got steep, the sun came out fully. Instead of a chill, it was now hot. I stopped at every paved turnout (eschewing the gravel ones) for photo ops, water, and rest breaks. By the last one I had to pour water on my head to stay cool. Other than a few coughing breaks, I fared well. It was definitely a slower ascent than 4 years ago, but it was an ascent.

Somehow our cue sheet said we hadn’t yet reached the 10% grade, but looky here. If the past two miles were 10% what’s the steep section ahead?! Seems that happened 4 years ago as well. Fool me once…
If proof is needed, here it is. Your blogger at Teton Pass.
In Jackson Hole, Grand Teton still waiting.

The descent was exhilarating. A couple of times I went into turnouts to allow cars to pass but, for the most part, I stayed with traffic (which was very light). Unlike 2018, the winds were not swirling and the bike felt stable at all times. In the valley, a shot of espresso was waiting, courtesy of my former co-workers. Aside to you: I think of you every time I swipe that gift card. I hope you’re having half as much fun as I am. Thanks again!

There is no cell service here at Teton Science Center, but we were granted wi-fi access. Once we had access, I canceled my flight home tomorrow. I’m back! I think my eyes got wet as I made my way through the valley.

Back among the living!

My private dining room in the Holiday Inn – soon to be joined by another COVID+ rider. Yes, it’s a storeroom.

Frost on the tents in West Yellowstone. Going to sleep at 70 degrees (21 C), it was hard to imagine that it would be 36 (2 C) by morning. We had to sleep with a pile of clothes to put on as the temperature dropped. Again I rued my decision to leave the sleeping bag in the closet.

The creeping cold comes like an Ambush in the Night.

We slept on the high school football field, with meals in the Holiday Inn – white tablecloths for dinner, red for breakfast. 25 miles in the COVID bus followed by 40 on the bike as I work to get back into riding shape.

As I finished the last dose of my 5 day drug regimen, things started to look up. It took the full 5 days, but I feel better. Now it’s mostly the rigors of life outdoors on the road; that and the need to regain the strength I lost.

We rode through Mesa Falls on a Scenic Bypass. I was going to ride the COVID bus to the water stop to leave 40 miles to ride. Due to circumstances I wasn’t dropped until the Scenic Byway so I rode part of the route twice to get to the 40 miles I wanted for conditioning purposes. I have no pictures of the falls from 4 years ago because we rode out of West Yellowstone in a hailstorm and cold rain continued all day. Today’s 75-80 and sunny was highly preferred.

Lower Mesa Falls
Alpine meadow

At 10 AM, Grand Teton appeared on the horizon, perfectly framed by trees on both sides of the road. We were aimed straight at it, though it will be a while before we get there.

At the end of the ride I found a root beer float with my name on it.

COVID-19 has changed my life in ways I hadn’t imagined. Riding alone early in the pandemic made me realize I wanted to make this trip and that I was willing to retire in order to do so. COVID helped me decide to retire earlier than I planned to.

I look for places to eat/drink outside; now to protect others from me instead of vice versa as it has been for 2.5 years.

Sitting with a dying man as he enjoyed possibly his last pleasurable moment helped me to savor those moments. Having COVID-19 myself this week put me through a lot. I still have flashes of “COVID brain”, like today when I got out of the shower and realized I hadn’t brought clothes with me. I put my wet cycling clothes back on and made my way to my tent for clean clothes.

I found emotions much more powerful, with tears easy to come by. I bought a plane ticket home, ready to throw in the towel on this ride, and now every mile feels like a gift. Tomorrow will decide whether I get on that plane or give up my seat and prepare to ride through Wyoming next week.

Riding today felt good. I had the occasional burning sensation in the main stem bronchus, for those of the anatomical persuasion – windpipe to the rest of us.

Tomorrow we climb Teton Pass and descend into Jackson Hole for a day off. We’ll be staying at a science center outside of town. If I make it over the pass, I’ll let you know.

RIP Paul Sherwen

I first read of Paul Sherwen’s death in another blog I follow, A Dude Abikes. Sherwen, for those who don’t follow bike racing, was what we in the US would refer to as the “color commentator” for BBC and Eurosport TV broadcasts of bike races. Analogous to American football broadcasts, they employed a retired bike racer (Sherwen) to provide inside commentary along with a broadcast journalist (Phil Liggett). Though unlike the usual team, Liggett was also a former bike racer.

Liggett and Sherwen always provided colourful commentary along with sight-seeing opportunities and European history lessons. We could always

PAU, FRANCE – JULY 26: Geraint Thomas of Great Britain and Team Sky Yellow Leader Jersey / Sunflowers / during the 105th Tour de France 2018, Stage 18 a 171km stage from Trie-sur-Baise to Pau on July 26, 2018 in Pau, France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

count on a shot of the riders in a field of sunflowers during the Tour de France. Since I’ve never had cable or satellite TV, access to their broadcasts was always an adventure.

In 1992 I watched their TdF broadcast from a cafe somewhere near Markleeville, CA., home of the Death Ride. When I first heard of the Death Ride, I thought one had to be nuts to try it. I may still be right. The ride is ~200 km (129 miles) on California highways, climbing 15,000 feet while summiting five mountain passes. The low point of the ride is about 5000 feet and the high point over 8700. The best part is that it’s a closed course for the most hazardous parts.

I changed my mind about the crazy part when I went cross country skiing and camping in the area. As we drove over Carson Pass on our way to the trailhead I was amazed by the beauty, and thought it would look even better on a bike. Over the next few days of backcountry skiing and camping, I began to hatch a plan.

I decided to get my feet wet in 1991 with the “two pass option”, riding about 50 miles and crossing two passes, to find out what riding at altitude was like. I’d never ridden anything higher than the Santa Cruz Mountains, at about 2000 feet.

I learned an important lesson. Arriving the night before the ride I had no time to get used to the thinner air. I was tired and had no appetite. It was hot and dry. It was not my most enjoyable day in the saddle.

In 1992 I arrived in the mountains a week early, hanging out at Co-op Camp Sierra. The camp is at about 4300 feet. After hiking, swimming, and a little bit of riding, we moved north to Markleeville. (Note to self: if you make this drive again, go down to the Central Valley, drive north through the valley, then back up into the mountains – your passengers will thank you for it.)

We stayed at Sorensen’s Resort near Pickett’s Junction. A couple of days before the ride I decided to scope out Ebbetts Pass, the highest point of the ride and the only part I’d never seen. Somewhere along the ride I spotted a cafe with a satellite dish. I saw bikes parked outside and a lot of people wearing funny clothes like mine. I asked the proprietor if we might tune the big screen TV to the BBC. He agreed readily and I spent an enjoyable chunk of the day with strangers, enjoying the Tour de France broadcast with Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. (Were you wondering if I’d ever get back to him?)

The morning of the Death Ride I was up before dawn and headed to Turtle Rock State Park, the start point. As the sky got light, the strains of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner reminded anyone who was sleeping in that they’d best get up to start riding soon.

Some folks jumped on their bikes at the first strains, others wandered out as it played or as it ended. Some of us stuck around, waiting for it to get lighter. As the sun came up, The Jefferson Airplane got me on the road:

As we headed toward Monitor Pass, it began to sprinkle lightly. This seemed like a good omen, a little something to keep the heat down and counter the dry desert air on the leeward side of the divide. We went up and over Monitor Pass and down to the Nevada state line, then turned around and went back over the pass in the other direction. So far, so good.

As we turned toward Ebbetts Pass, the earliest riders were coming down. They warned us that it was cold and wet up there. Climbing the pass wasn’t so bad. At the top, no one stood around to rest or enjoy the view. It was time to head down. Employing my modern version of the age-old technique of stuffing newspapers in your jersey for insulation on chilly descents (I used a plastic grocery bag – no ink to run, and waterproof), I was back on my bike after a quick snack and collecting the sticker to prove I’d made it to the top. Collect all five and your receive an enameled pin to prove you did it. We were cautioned that there were corner marshals before all switchbacks, urging us to slow down. I’d seen them going up, when slowing down was not a problem.

Ascending Ebbetts Pass

Yes, that is the same jersey 26 years later, Grand Teton National Park

Going down was a problem. The brakes needed feathering to scrub off speed as well as to scrub water off the rims so they would actually function as brakes. It was also a way to keep fingers moving so they wouldn’t stiffen up too much to apply the brakes when really needed. Breathing on the fingers for warmth had to be done fast, so the hands could be back on the brake levers before the next switchback.

The lunch stop was welcome this time and we headed back out on the road. Coming down a few thousand feet did not make it warm and dry. The rain had entered the valley and was with us the rest of the day. Sorensen’s Resort was on the way to Luther Pass, so I stopped into our cabin, dried off, changed clothes, ate a banana, hugged my future wife, and got back out. It might have taken all of five minutes. Dry clothes felt great for the next few minutes.

After the last two passes, I showered and changed into dry civilian clothes and signed the commemorative poster as a five pass rider. Since it was still raining, I don’t know if you can read any of the signatures. We used a silver Sharpie so it was somewhat waterproof. After one last great meal at Sorensen’s, we headed back to the Bay Area. I think I’m ready to do it again.