Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Wyoming & Montana, Part Four: Cycle Greater Yellowstone

The second week of our trip was spent on Cycle Greater Yellowstone (CGY). CGY is a Cycle Oregon-style ride, fully supported, but much smaller. There were about 350 riders this year. Although not quite as organized as its older sibling to the west, it was reasonably well-run and, when it really counted, the organizers did a great job. The food...well, it is tough to feed that many people. It was hit or miss, but we didn't starve by any means.
We started in Red Lodge, Montana, camping in the city park the night before the ride kicked off.
Our first day of riding was 58 miles to Absarokee, Montana. It was pretty easy riding through farmland in the Yellowstone and Sillwater River valleys. I might have set a new personal record for that distance that morning. We were done with our ride by noon.
Sunrise in camp in Absarokee on day 2.
Day 2 took us towards the Beartooh Mountains. Unfortunately, smoke from wildfires to the west obscured them a bit. It was still a pretty ride out to Nye, Montana. From there, we returned to Red Lodge.
The way back to Red Lodge took us through rolling, grassy hills. The weather was also steadily deteriorating. Somewhere along here, I got stung in the forehead by a yellowjacket. This did not improve my general level of morale.
We had to cross a major construction site on the way to Red Lodge. They had us wait on the side of the road until the pilot car led all of the vehicle traffic ahead of us. Then we followed behind the last car. The road was completely torn up (no stopping for pictures), so we rode on gravel and got to dodge random construction equipment. All of this went really well, which is a credit to the ride organizers and the flexibility of the construction crews.
Day 3 involved climbing over Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet). The climb just to get to the east summit is 28 miles long. The night before, we were told that a weather system would be moving in, but that they thought they had a window until about 11 a.m. They wanted everyone on the road by 6 a.m. and over the pass by 11 a.m. If riders didn't make it to the rest stops at mile 10 and 21 by a certain time, they would be shuttled over the summit. They also let us drop a bag of warm clothes that we could pick up at the west summit and gave us chemical handwarmers.
Our friend and I climbed pretty well. We skipped the first rest stop, but we did stop for pictures fairly regularly. At the 21 mile stop, we got a bit of food and continued. We were well ahead of the cutoff times.
Looking back down the pass towards Red Lodge. Note the low clouds.
This is at the east summit, crossing from Montana into Wyoming. About ten minutes after we left the 21 mile rest stop, around 10:15 a.m., it started snowing. By the time we got to the east summit, it was 25 degrees and snowing pretty heavily (well...for August, anyway. I'm sure it is worse in January). We started down the short descent before another short climb up to the west summit and quickly realized that we were in trouble. Both of our hands were frozen within a mile. My glasses froze over, so I couldn't see. We stopped, but then we are sitting at 10,500 feet in the cold wind. Since we had been climbing all morning, our clothes were damp from sweat and melting snow. It.Was.Cold. Our warm, dry clothes were all at the west summit. We wound up flagging down the support ambulance after about ten minutes. By the time we got in, I was shivering. They picked us up along with two other women who were in a similar state. The EMTs in the ambulance gave me a heat pack. After that and some food, I was doing quite a bit better.

We got a ride to Cooke City, Montana - our next overnight town - in one of the SAG vehicles. We had to leave our bikes by the side of the road when we got picked up. SAG support picked them up later and brought them to town.We might have been able to finish the ride that day had we had access to our warmer clothes at the east summit, but it is hard to say. Conditions were pretty tough. A number of people did make it, though. The organizers did an amazing job considering the conditions they were working with. It must have been terrifying for them to have riders strung out all over the mountain. Even the caterer managed to turn on a dime, serving hot soup for lunch that day (not something riders would normally want).
It rained on and off all that afternoon in Cooke City. We were treated to a rainbow in the evening.
Sunset in Cooke City. Cooke City has a large grizzly bear population, so we actually had a night watch at our campground that night. We were camped on the local baseball field. Members of the ride crew patrolled the perimeter all night with bear spray.
There was a hard frost that night, leaving everyone's bikes covered in ice crystals to start Day 4.
Day 4 was much better - sunny and clear and eventually warm. This is looking back towards Cooke City. Out of all of the days we rode, this was my favorite day of the bike trip. The climbing was challenging and the long descent into Cody was a lot of fun.
We rode through the sunlight basin, which was absolutely beautiful.
Riders got pretty spread out that day, so at times, it was like were were riding on our own, without anyone else.
The big climb that day was on the Chief Joseph Highway. The weather made up for the storm the previous day and we had a great climb.
Probably my favorite sign of the entire ride. The entire descent was actually quite a bit longer than 11 miles.
As we approached Cody, Wyoming, the landscape got much drier and the vegetation completely changed.
Day five was the layover day. There was an optional ride or you could do other activities or nothing at all. We opted to ride. The BLM opened up a road that is typically closed. It follows the North Fork Shoshone River to Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir. It was a pretty ride through the canyon.
After leaving the dam, we fought headwinds uphill for 30 miles towards the east entrance to Yellowstone. It was a tough ride. As the morning progressed, the wildfire smoke got thicker, too.
At mile 37, we finally decided to turn around. It had taken us more than three hours to ride that far because of the wind. Now pedaling in the opposite direction, we had a tailwind! It was like being on two different rides that day. On the way out, we had been struggling to get our speed above 11 or 12 miles an hour. On the way back, we were doing a steady 25 mph. We had so much fun on the return ride. The picture above shows how much the canyon had filled with smoke.
We spotted a herd of Pronghorn near the reservoir.
That night, we went to the Cody Rodeo, which was fun.
On our last day of riding, we did 80 miles. It was pretty flat, which was nice after several days of climbing and fighting headwinds. The ride went fast. I think I may have set another personal record for an 80 mile ride.
Ridges and fields near Powell, Wyoming.

After a night of listening to 50-60 mph winds, we opted not to ride the last day since it would have involved almost 70 miles straight into the same winds. They did not abate much in the morning sun. We might have considered riding, but we had a nine hour drive back to Denver that night. As it was, by the time we got our bikes packed up, retrieved the car, and had lunch in Red Lodge, it was 1 a.m. before we got back to Denver. Had we ridden, it would have been much later.

All in all, it was a great ride under some challenging conditions.

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