Riding the Beartooth Pass

Riding the Beartooth Pass

The Beartooth Pass is on US Highway 212 between Red Lodge, Montana and Cooke City, Montana.  The highway meanders along the borders of Montana and Wyoming high on the plateau of the Beartooth Mountains and eventually leads right into Yellowstone Park.  It’s closed in the winter and occasionally on other days throughout the year, given the right weather conditions.  The day before I pedaled up the pass on July 30, it was closed due to snow.  At its summit, this road is the highest elevation highway in both Montana and Wyoming.

I’ve driven over Beartooth Pass several times on my way to or from Yellowstone Park over the years.  The views never disappoint despite the wind and cool temperatures on top of the plateau.  When I started this cycling journey four years ago, riding up Beartooth Pass on my bike was  always a thought in the back of my mind.  I guess you could say it was on my “ride bucket list”.  Yes, cyclists have such a thing as I suppose motorcyclists do as well.  However, each summer when I returned to Montana, there was always some reason why I couldn’t do the ride: last year, I brought a mountain bike, the year before I was too busy… the list goes on.  This year I was feeling overwhelmed with all that is involved with moving from one home to another and felt a sense of urgency about returning to Colorado.  However, after seeing the weather forecast for the remaining week of my visit, I decided to stay just long enough to fit in the ascent.

I got up early on the morning of July 30, loaded my bike into the car, and departed Billings for Red Lodge.  As I

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

The sign just outside Red Lodge where I parked nearby and started my ride.

approached the mountains I realized there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  I unloaded my bike, suited up, and pedaled away.  I had done better research for this ride than my previous ride on Alkali Creek Road and knew that I could expect to pedal for about 25 miles to the summit on a paved road.  I could expect the ride to take me approximately 2.5 hours based on the results of other cyclists I had seen on Strava.  I also knew that the climb to the summit would be gradual, at about 4% on average.

As I pedaled along, traffic was minimal on this beautiful late July day.  I saw many more motorcycles than cars.  The switchbacks started at nearly 7 miles into the ride.  As I approached the scenic overlook turnout, I passed 5 other cyclists, all of whom pulled off into the overlook parking area.  I kept going because I knew it was about halfway to the summit and I don’t like starting and stopping on prolonged climbs; it’s hard to get the legs going again.  Besides, there was no need.  I had plenty of fluids and food tucked in my pockets.

At about 19.5 miles into the ascent, I came to a place where I had to descend and then climb again to reach the summit.  I’m not going to lie, I was cold and considered calling it good and turning around.  But then that little voice in my head chimed in with “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now, especially when I can see the summit in the distance.”  I got as aero as I dared and

Elevation 10,947 feet

Elevation 10,947 feet

descended as quickly as possible, so as to minimize how much colder I would become before the final climb.  My garmin showed about 23 miles at the summit.  I took turns with all the motorcyclists taking pictures in front of the summit sign.  Then I slipped on my wind jacket for the descent.

What I didn’t realize when I had done my ride research was exactly how much climbing the ride would entail.  The total elevation gained was 5,262 feet… just 18 feet shy of a mile, give or take.  Hmmm.  That’s interesting considering the fact that I now reside in the “mile high city”.  A city known for more than just it’s elevation,  if ya know what I’m sayin‘.

On the descent, I stopped and took some pictures along the way…Enjoy!

So many motorcycles up there!

So many motorcycles up there!

IMG_4407

The Beartooth Mountain range. Look closely for the triangle shaped precipice on the horizon over the upper right corner of the sign. That’s the bear’s tooth. The next picture zooms in on it.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

A closer/cropped shot of the bear tooth.

Finding Peace on Two Wheels

There are 365 days each year, most of which pass us by with little to no fuss.  But there are a few days each year that we anticipate ~ be it with excitement or dread.  The days I look forward to are primarily happy days: my birthday, my husband’s birthday, our anniversary, June 21st (the longest day of the year), July 4th (who doesn’t like fireworks?), December 21st (because it means the days are getting longer and we’re halfway to June 21st).  Someone queue Bon Jovi.

Then there’s my daughter’s birthday on February 9th.  It was certainly a life changing day and is one of the happiest days of my life.  Next month she’ll be 13; a teenager.  January has been my least favorite month for most of my adult life.  It’s such a dark, cold month.  There aren’t many January days that are good for outdoor riding.  Combine that with back to work and school following the holidays and it’s simply dreadful.   However, after I had my daughter I found a new way to make the passing of January more tolerable.  I went into birthday party planning mode January 2nd.  Now that she is getting older, the party planning has dissipated and the January winter doldrums have returned.

In 2010, on February 7th after my daughter’s 8th birthday party, we returned to our home.  It was a cold, snowy Sunday afternoon.  At that time, we still had a “land line” to our house.  The phone rang as soon as we walked through the door.  When I realized my husband had picked up a call from my mom and she was inquiring as to whether we had received the birthday gift she had sent, my daughter and I quickly bundled back up into our snow boots, coats, and hats and ran down the street to the mailbox. After retrieving the box from Texas, we ran back home as fast as we could. My mom got to be “with” us on the phone as my daughter tore into the box. It was a joyful conversation.  Later that night after the Superbowl, the phone rang again.  This time it was my dad calling to say that my mom had collapsed and died just a couple of hours before.  February 7th officially became the saddest day of my life.

When I started riding the bike in the fall of 2011, it was one of the best things I did for my mental health.  In another blog post I wrote about how I was not a cyclist when I joined my team, but quickly started pedaling my way to becoming one.  While I longed for someone to ride with in those winter months before my first race, it was more therapeutic that I was riding alone.  I’m not going to lie, there were many tears shed behind those sporty Smith sunglasses.  As winter turned to spring and spring to summer, I began to notice the birds chirping as I pedaled along.  One day, as I pedaled along a familiar road,

I heard the distinctive song of the meadowlark.  My mom always loved that sound and would point it out to anyone nearby whenever she heard it.  I started spending more time riding on this road because it was one of only two roads where I heard the meadowlark.  Being out on those deserted roads with the sound of the meadowlark made me feel closer to her.

As I gained strength and endurance during that summer of 2012, I began to ride further and further from my home, and further from that road where the meadowlarks sing. But I’m frequently drawn back to that road.  Sometimes I hear the meadowlarks calling to me as I go by; sometimes I call out to them.  Riding on that road is where I found peace on two wheels.

2014 Cycling Year in Review

I was recently inspired by Heidi Rides Bikes to take a look back at my 2014 racing season.  I competed in 12 races:

1 Road Race

Carter Lake Road Race - photo credit to Shawn Curry

Carter Lake Road Race – photo credit to Shawn Curry

2 Hill Climbs

2 Criteriums

2 Circuit Races

3 mountain bike races

2 cyclocross races

All but one race was finished – see more about that here.  I was involved in two crashes.  The first crash was in my first crit of the year.  After the injuries healed, I did another crit and was involved in yet another crash.  Smashing into the pavement was beginning to take a toll on my body, and I wasn’t interested in totaling my new Cannondale ride.  By this time it was nearly June, so I turned my attention to other kinds of races.  I did the Guanella Pass Hill Climb again, which is one of the few races that make a cyclist feel bigger than life.  I did my first endurance mountain bike race on Independence Day.  I finished off the racing season with two super fun cyclocross races.

Strava stats indicate that I put nearly 3,500 miles on my Cannondale since I got her in January.  While I rode outdoors in every month of the year, I raced in 8 of 12 months of the year.  On the non-racing side of the fence, I participated in my first Triple Bypass.  I also started using my bike as a mode of transportation rather than solely as a recreational or training vehicle, all be it sporadically.

While the racing season didn’t turn out as I had hoped in the criterium category, I was pleased with my results and the number of races overall.  But most importantly, I’ve come to respect what my body is capable of and learned to listen when it tells me it’s time to try something different.  I’m the first to say that it’s important to have a plan; but it’s equally important to allow those plans to change when the time is right.

For 2015, I’m looking forward to more crits and more commuting; to continuing to improve my cycling fitness; and to sharing cycling joy wherever and however I can!

2015 bike

Lessons in Encouragement

This post has been percolating in my mind for several weeks.  It’s about the affect our words can have on other human beings.

At a recent cyclocross race I was very near another racer whose family speaks a foreign language.  On each lap when we passed her family members, I would hear them shouting to her in what could have been Russian or German.  Since I don’t speak the language, I was unable to understand what exactly was being said to my competitor.  Regardless of which language it was, I didn’t get the sense that what was being shouted at her was entirely encouraging nor supportive.  At the finish line, I saw an exchange between this competitor and her family that clearly was not supportive.  As her family walked away in what appeared to be disgust, the cyclist sat down in a heap on a curb in the shade by herself to catch her breath.  At about that same time, my family approached me and offered hugs, high-fives, and congratulatory words, despite the fact that I finished nowhere near the podium.  When I finally quit coughing, I looked around for that competitor because I wanted to congratulate her on a tough race, but she was already gone.  I was disappointed that I missed her and I thought of her and what I had seen at the finish line often over the next few days.

At the next race, I arrived at the start line a little early.  As I stood there, my competitor from the previous race appeared.  Since her family was not around, I immediately approached her and struck up a conversation about the previous race.  I told her that I was sorry that I had missed the opportunity to tell be positiveher after the previous race what a strong racer she is.  As I finished this sentence, I notably saw her stand a bit taller as her chest expanded with pride.  She began to radiate confidence as we talked.  Not long into our conversation I realized that she was just a child.  A younger child than my own, in fact.  I wished her good luck on the race as the call ups began.

I once heard a phrase or saying that went something along the lines of: you are responsible for how another person’s words make you feel.  I never agreed with the saying because it implies that one person’s words should have zero affect on another person.  But clearly from this example, they do.   Especially when they come from the people you know and love.  I’m grateful that the opportunity presented itself for me to offer kind words to that young competitor.

I challenge you to find one person each day who you can offer kind words of encouragement to, whether it’s a friend or a stranger, a team mate or competitor, a child or an adult, even your partner.  Then sit back and watch that little seed of confidence grow into something bigger.  Sometimes you’ll get to see it blossom before the conversation is over.

feel

Primalpalooza: From Excitement to Dread in Milliseconds

If you read my last blog post about cyclocross, you know that I was racing on a borrowed bike.  I’m pleased to report that passing the woman I borrowed the bike from in the Green Mountain Sports CX race did not result in a loss of  bike borrowing privileges!  I was even able to do a couple of mid-week cyclocross training clinics where I learned the proper form of a suitcase lift (where no suitcase whatsoever is involved) and mounts and remounts.  After all this practice and success with the last race, I was very excited to register for “Primalpalooza“… with a name like that, what’s not to like??

I had observed this race last year from a vantage point where I could see the stair run-up as well as the switchbacks leading up to the stairs.  For those of you unfamiliar with a stair run-up, it’s where you dismount from your bike and carry it (like a suitcase) up the stairs.  Here’s a video of a gal who happens to be pretty good at it:

Beyond the portion of the Primalpalooza course that I could see, I had absolutely no idea what the rest of the course was like.  I was in for quite the surprise as I started my pre-ride on race day.  Each lap was 2 miles of twisty, turny chaos with a couple of sides of barriers, stairs and whoop-de-do’s.  Oh, and let’s not forget the howling wind!  Despite all this, I was super excited about the race right up until the moment when someone mentioned that there were 64 women registered in my category for the race.  64.  My heart immediately sank as I thought about what it would be like to try and maneuver through this course, particularly the narrow sections, with so many other racers.

As the race official began call ups, I waited patiently to see if my name would be called.  Very near the end, I was happy to hear my name.    I guess one race earns you a call up!  With 64 women to contend with, I’ll take whatever advantage I can get!  When the whistle blew, we took off in a sprint down a fairly wide street that quickly narrowed to a one lane uphill dirt road.  The pack quickly thinned due to the incline.  The twisty sections of the course caused many women to fall; I’m still not sure if the wind played a factor or if it was inexperienced riders.  Some women went down in sections of the course where wheels were ~ or should have been ~ straight.  One woman rode forearm to forearm with me through two corners only to fall over when we entered the straight away.

On my third lap, I was pulled from the race, along with everyone else who was behind me.  Because each race runs for a specified amount of time, the officials stop racers at the finish line once that time is almost up.  This keeps all the subsequent races on schedule.  I’d never had this happen before and was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to keep going.  Nevertheless, when the race results were published, I was pleased to have finished in the top half: 25 out of 64.

One of the best parts of the day was having my family there to cheer me on and hand up water bottles.  I loved hearing “go Mom” all over the course; these cheers weren’t for me necessarily, but I love seeing and hearing kids of all ages cheering on their mom.  It makes my heart sing.  In reviewing the race results, it did not escape my notice that the woman who lined up in front me ~ very near the back ~ had a top 10 finish.  If she can do it, I can do it… with a little more practice!  It’s time to learn to race smarter…. and maybe invest in a bike of my own.

Reaching for water.

Reaching for water. AND it’s time for new gloves.

Triple Bypass – A Ride Review

I signed up for a ride called the Triple Bypass back in January.  I’d heard about this ride for years; it’s been around for 26 of them!  It’s a 120 mile ride over three Colorado mountain passes, with 10,000 feet of elevation gain.  And for those who think that distance and elevation gain are simply not enough, there is the Double Triple Bypass option where you turn around and ride back to where you started the next day.

I had plans to pre-ride all the passes, but unfortunately, time got away from me and before I knew it, the ride was here.  I went into the ride knowing I was capable of the distance and elevation, but unsure of how long it would take me.  The other concern was the stormy weather we’ve been having in Colorado recently.  I knew the earlier I started the ride, the better my chances of finishing it.

I departed promptly at 6:00 AM.  As I began to pedal my way up Squaw Pass Road, I knew that I could go faster, but I intentionally kept a pace that would be sustainable for the entire ride.  The road had recently been repaved and was super smooth with a very nice bike lane.  I was surprised at how many cyclists insisted in taking up so much of the roadway.   The road was closed to all traffic but law enforcement and Sag vehicles, and apparently the meaning of the words “keep right” and “ride single file” were not clear to some cyclists.  One State Trooper actually pulled a cyclist over for riding on the left side of the road in the wrong direction.  I’m not sure what the outcome of that meeting was, but the conversation sounded unpleasant as I went by.  I stopped at Aid Station #1 (18 miles into the ride) and had a banana and bagel and refilled a half full water bottle.   I pulled on my wind jacket before leaving for the descent into Idaho Springs.

The descent into Idaho Springs went smoothly and the route through town was well marked by volunteers and law enforcement.  As we headed west, I found myself in a sustained climb for the next 28 miles.  When I came to Aid Station #2 (42 miles into the ride), I stopped to eat and refill my bottles.  The best snack of the day was had at this aid station:  it was a chocolate chip cookie sandwich with peanut butter and banana filling…mmmmm!  The weather this far into the ride was still perfect: blue skies and lots of sunshine. I hopped back on the bike and continued to pedal towards Loveland Basin where I knew lunch awaited me.

As I approached the third Aid Station at Loveland Basin Ski Area (56 miles into the ride), I could see it was quite crowded with cars and cyclists.  I found a place to park my bike and made my way to the food tents.  Here I discovered an extremely long line of hungry cyclists awaiting their turn to grab food.  When I finally got my chance at the food tent, I had the BEST ham and cheese sandwich ever, a handful of pretzels, half a banana, and a cookie.  The line was moving so slowly that I was able to stand and consume all this food before I had moved 10 feet toward the water table.  When I realized that I had already been there for 30 minutes and it would likely take another 30 minutes to fill water bottles, I decided to go with Plan B.  Plan B was relying on my one full water bottle to get me to the next aid station where I was hopeful I would find less of a clusterf@ck.

loveland passI began to pedal up Loveland Pass, which I can’t say I’ve so much as driven over before.  It was quite scenic and a rather short ascent of 4 miles.  On the other side of the continental divide, it was quite windy.  As I approached Aid Station #4 at Summit County High School (77 miles into the ride), I was nearly out of fluids.  I was delighted that there was virtually no waiting at the hydration station and lots of shady places to sit.  I picked up a small sack of trail mix, an orange slice, and a Cliff Bar and found a shady place to sit and eat.  Keeping a close eye on the clouds to the west, I didn’t sit for too long before hopping back on the bike.  I was thrilled to have made it this far into the ride and knew without a doubt that I would be finished not long after summiting Vail Pass.

The last time I rode my bike over Vail Pass was during the Copper Triangle two years ago when I ascended from the west side and descended on the east side.  I was pleased to see that the east side of the pass had been repaved recently and was silky smooth.  The

At the Finish Line

At the Finish Line

ascent from the east went quicker than expected and I’m pleased to say that I passed, but did not get passed by anyone.  As I pulled into Aid Station #5 on the summit of Vail Pass (92 miles into the ride) I could see some dark clouds building to the west.  I grabbed just a few pretzels, an orange slice, and another bag of trail mix.  I had topped off one bottle with the Cytomax hydration mix at the previous aid station and had not had any gastrointestinal problems with it, so I decided to go full strength with the drink mix.  If any problems arose, I only had 18 downhill miles left.

As I descended into Vail I was struck in the lips by an insect with a very sharp stinger.  In my efforts to rapidly brush it from my lips, I nearly crashed.  As I sit and type this blog post two days later, I have swelling in both lips as neither were spared by the angry insect.  I’m just grateful that I had my mouth closed!  As I continued to pedal through Vail, I kept looking down at my Garmin to see how much further I had to go.  On the summit of Vail Pass, I had somehow mis-calculated that I had only 18 more miles to ride, but it was in fact 28 more miles to the finish.  Those last 10 miles, despite being flat, felt like the longest miles of the day.  At one point, I began to think I had missed a turn as the signage was not as prevalent in Avon as it had been along the rest of the route.

I did it!!

I did it!!

As I approached the final round-a-bout, I was greeted by Avon Police Officers with “Congratulations! Welcome to Avon!”.  It was the best news I’d heard all day.  By this time, I’d been listening to my bike make lots of noise for the last 90 miles and couldn’t wait to get off (check back for another blog post on that… I have video!)! Not to mention that my legs were a little tired.  As I pulled to a stop I felt a tickle under my jersey near my waistline.  I lifted up my jersey and saw what I can only conclude to be the little insect that had stung my lips 20 miles ago.  Now he was leaving his mark on my tummy.  I guess it’s my very own souvenir from the 2014 Triple Bypass!

Firecracker 50 – My First Endurance Race

I was recently talked into racing in the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge, Colorado on Independence Day.  I was told I would get a fabulous pair of Woolie Boolie socks AND get to ride my bike in the town parade.  Then, if I didn’t get to the cutoff point in time, I’d be sent down the mountain with a beer!  Having never ridden my mountain bike for more than 27 or so miles, I was a little concerned about my ability to actually ride the entire 50 miles (that’s what the 50 in Firecracker 50 represents).  But, I was really excited about the socks, parade, and potential for a beer hand up.  Besides, I can’t think of  a better way to start Independence Day then spending a few hours on the mountain bike.

Terry and I arrived early in Breckenridge on race day.  We went to the race headquarters and picked up socks, t-shirts (bonus!), and race numbers.  Then we returned to the car to suit up and warm up our legs for the race.  The race would be two 25 mile laps with ~4,000 feet of climbing per lap.  My goal was to make it to the aid station before the cutoff time so I would at least have the option to ride the entire second lap, if I thought I was able to do so.

We lined up on Main Street by category; as a sport woman racer, I found myself in the back as usual.  When the whistle blew, I took off up Main Street with about 15 other women in my category.  I rode as far as possible to the left so that I could hold out my hand and touch as many of the little hands reaching out to me from behind the barricade as I could.  So many people were clapping and cheering as we rode by… maybe because they knew seeing us meant the real parade was about to start?  Regardless, what a fantastic way to start a race!

For several miles, we pedaled up Boreas Pass Road to the first aid station.  This served to thin out the racers before we reached any single track.  I did not stop at the first aid station and continued onto the single track where I was able to pass more frequently than I got passed.  At one point I passed Terry without recognizing her.  As I pedaled past her, I heard her yell “go Amber!”.   Before I knew it, I was at the second aid station where I took in some of the plentiful nutrition being offered by race volunteers.  I knew that proper nutrition would be critical to successfully finishing this long race.

The aftermath

The aftermath. Yes my feet are that white and my legs that dirty.

Between Aid Stations 2 and 3 is a little section of the trail called Little French Gulch.  This section is full of loose, chipped slate and at one point, the grade is 25%.  I found myself, and all of my new mountain biking friends, pushing our bikes up this section beside the snow banks and through ice cold streams.  At one point, I had sweat dripping from my eyelashes.  This is something I’ve only experienced in a winter spin class at Defined Fitness Training.  When the trail finally turned and leveled out, it was extremely narrow.  It was so narrow that passing required the rider in front of you to actually stop and pull off the trail.  I went as fast as I could here as I didn’t want to have to stop and let anyone by.  Before I knew it I was going down a fun terrain park-like section where I crossed what would be the finish line had this been my second lap.

As I continued on to begin my second lap, I grabbed food and some electrolyte drink as the hike-a-bike section, heat, and distance were beginning to take their toll on me.  I just kept telling myself to get to that aid station before the cutoff time.  This time going up Boreas Pass Road, the spectators were few and far between; only the occasional honk from a passing car, or words of encouragement from another racer.  As I reached Aid Station 1, I parked my bike and stood in the shade to have some food and catch my breath.  I asked if I had made the cutoff and was told yes by one of the volunteers.  However a few minutes later, another racer pulled into the aid station and asked the same question.  This time the answer was different from a different volunteer.  We had to make it to the second aid station in 20 minutes if we wanted to try to finish the race!  I debated about turning around now, but a little voice inside my head piped up “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now.”  So I hopped on the bike and pedaled.

I missed the cutoff at Aid Station 2 by about 8 minutes, but I was very proud to have made it there IMG_3150in the first place.  I was 37 miles into the Firecracker 50 when I was offered my choice of cold beers for the ride down the service road.  Heineken never tasted so good, and I didn’t spill a single drop on that bumpy road, steering my bike one-handed.

Lessons learned: read the race rules and COMMIT them to memory.  I wasted valuable time at Aid Station 1 on my second lap and could have made that cut off time at Aid Station 2 if I’d kept moving.  Gatorade is not a good drink choice for me; test the products being offered at a race BEFORE race day.  Oh, and let’s not forget to actually RIDE the distance of your race before race day.

I can’t speak highly enough about how well the race was organized, marked, the nutrition and hydration offered at aid stations, and the volunteers.  Oh, and let’s not forget that parade and all those little hands wishing us good luck… See you all next year!