Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cowboy Tough - leg 9 (bike)

(Photos by Tom Turley, John Beard, and Chris Radcliffe)

None of us had ever ridden almost 200 almost-consecutive miles (when you consider legs 7 and 9 together), so we weren't sure how this was going to go.  Only one way to find out!

Leg 9 - "Ride Across Wyoming"
[163 (!) miles of biking, 30% paved, 70% gravel, 5700' gain and 6600' loss]

With the amount of hike-a-bike in leg 7 and the excellent diversion of leg 8, we were practically starting fresh on the bikes.  We just had to keep breaking down this "200-mile" thing into manageable pieces.

Although we were fresh bike-wise, we were definitely not fresh from a mental standpoint.  Time for another real sleep - it had been 2 nights since our hotel stop in Pinedale.  The team started discussing options for where we could do this - in the TA?  In another campground?  What would be most comfortable and quiet?  We had tried to put sleeping bags in the Sinks Canyon gear box, but when the box came in over max weight those were the first things to get removed.

Well, I ventured, Lander has hotels.  No sooner had the word "hotel" come out of my mouth then Leslie shot up her hand and said, "I'll pay for a share of a hotel room!" and Dave followed suit immediately.  They wanted to know why I hadn't brought up the idea before, as I had been downplaying the option to detour through Lander.  It was a couple miles out of the way and I didn't want to be the one always pushing for stopping in towns.  But apparently the first hotel night went so well that everyone was excited to put the hotel sleep strategy to use a second time.  Great, I'm all in too!

We rode toward Lander on a nice paved downhill, something I had done several times in training and really enjoyed.  Oops, flat tire!  Apparently I rode over a goathead, not sure how that happened.  My 3 biker teammates knocked out the tube swap and soon we were rolling through town to McDonald's.

Tom was like, McDonald's, really? but the rest of us had no such gastronomic qualms about it at this point.  The restaurant was getting renovated and only the drive-thru was open, so that's what we did - and we should have gotten a photo of that!  The guy inside had seen a few teams already and was completely unfazed about bikes in his drive-thru.

We also stopped at a convenience store for a couple pieces of fruit and a burrito for Tom to carry out the next morning.

We secured a room in the motel next door and had plenty of space to bring the bikes inside with us this time.  We munched on fish filets (best tasting filet-o-fish I've ever eaten), took turns taking quick showers, and crashed in bed.  We got a solid 4 hours of sleep, that was awesome.

This time we got moving quicker, although I regretted not having easy access to my toothbrush (most everything was stashed in the Pika seatpost bag).  We split an orange for breakfast (yum) and headed out into the darkness.

Back in a paceline, warming up, getting up to speed.  We ticked off a few easy pavement miles and I was really happy that it was the middle of the night for this part.  Traffic here can be busy in the middle of the day and the shoulder isn't all that great.

We rode south on 287, making a turn to the left to point in the direction of Casper and the eventual finish line.  OK Dave, that was all the nav that I know for this leg.  The rest is up to you!  I hadn't tried to figure out the route beyond "ride from Lander to somewhere near Pathfinder Reservoir" so it was all new to both of us.

Our next checkpoint:

We saw another team out on the road and went back and forth with them a couple times.  Dave located our next turn and checkpoint 20.  We yelled to make sure Leslie saw it so she could go punch it, then noticed another team sleeping nearby.  Sorry y'all!

Next up was a long gravel section, riding many miles in the darkness on decent surface.  Leslie helped me by shining her bright light ahead on the downhills, and she also towed me on the uphills (lots of small ups and downs).  Eventually we decided to swap helmets so I could ride downhill faster with her bright Ayup light.  I may need to get me one of those.  I have something similar but I dislike the setup with the battery pack coming off the back on a cord so my head is tethered to my pack.  The Ayup battery is smaller and mounts on the helmet - less runtime but a lot easier to manage.

Dave tried to follow along with the side roads on the map, but they were hard to see in the dark (or possibly just farm roads through fields?).  Eventually we decided it was better to rely on the odometer and the outline of the hills we could vaguely see around us.  We had been wondering about the intersections near Millers Spring when we did our map work, but apparently we rode right through there without seeing any turns or choices to make.  Just one road heading southeast:

We wanted to be ready when this leg decided to throw the "challenging navigation" portion at us (as each leg seemed to do).  And we really didn't want to add any bonus miles on top of an already-long day on the bikes.

Ahead of us we saw a bright light higher up, probably a racer up on a hill.  I played around with the bright light on my head, pretending to signal that person just for fun (my idea of fun can be weird).  We suspected it was a team getting close to the next checkpoint.  We rode through a big wide drainage and up a long-ish hill, with my legs waking up and doing OK to start the day.  My legs were also happy to walk the steeper stuff.

There were no trees anywhere, just sage, open fields, and a few cows.  We had definitely made it to the prairie.  We were happy with the early morning cool air for as long as it lasted.

Without any trees, Dave wondered where they would hang the checkpoint flag.  I guessed on a fencepost at a cattle guard - yep!  Checkpoint 21 was at the top of the hill, with a nice view back to where we had just ridden:

Easy dirt roads brought us east, and we were treated to a very pretty sunrise.  Such colors and wide open scenery:

Thank you Tom, for breaking out the camera that morning!

We were also happy to see the clouds, maybe it wouldn't be too hot right away this morning.

A quick snack break as the sun peeks over the horizon:

Spiz for breakfast, yum!

We're doing well, rested and ready to ride!

It was a fun long downhill coast to checkpoint 22 by a reservoir (taking just a minute to find it, while wondering if that might have been hard in the dark?).  Dave tried to find us a direct route to the east, but the old road beds looked like crap so we stayed on the nice graded road that went north instead.

We found pavement (back on 287) and rode a couple miles to the Sweetwater rest area (possibly part of the Oregon Trail? if I'm remembering that right):

1/3 of the bike leg done, yay!

We located checkpoint 23 hanging from a tree, then took a break inside the rest area.  It was great to have a place to sit and eat, a mirror for putting on sunscreen, a trashcan to drop off some wrappers, a real bathroom and running water - it had been hours since we left the hotel :)

Other teams had obviously been through here, but we were impressed that no one had made a mess of the place.  Even the trash can, although quite full, was somewhat organized.

We decided to carry more water with us since we expected it to get hot later and we were going to receive only 2 liters of water per person at 2 checkpoints in the afternoon.  No natural water sources until we reached the reservoir in the next leg.

While we were sitting there, the hand driers turned on and off randomly, like there was a ghost.  That was weird.  We definitely did not hallucinate that.  I think.

OK, back to work, now heading south on Bison Basin Road, going uphill and back on gravel.

All of a sudden there was a major headwind, oh boy.  This could be a long morning.  It took quite some time and effort to climb that long hill.  Tom led the paceline, riding strong.  Leslie continued to tow me (and occasionally take a turn at the front of the paceline).  My legs were starting to come alive on the climbs, happy to keep the towline slack as much as I could.

Tom took a break from the front to snap a couple photos:

He pointed out that it looks like Leslie is reaching for Dave's Big Mac:

When actually Leslie was pushing Dave WHILE towing me - she's amazing!

Time for a rest from the wind!

Spiz for second breakfast:

Finally we gained the top of the ridge, phew, and also turned toward the southeast so the wind was more from the side.  The main challenge of the morning was complete.

Look, four wild horses!  One for each of us!  Tom managed to grab the camera and get a shot of them while riding:

Checkpoint 24 had been moved north of its original location:

We found it at the next road intersection, after seeing a team up there ahead of us.  They had departed to the south, while we were planning to go east.  We stopped at the checkpoint (hanging from a sign) to discuss.

This map had been the subject of much discussion back on the bus to the start.  There were roads drawn in faint lines as kind of a maze and it had not been clear what to do with them.  Until I pulled out the supplemental Gazetteer maps they'd given us - there we could trace a solid dark line from CP24 to CP25, along the base of Crooks Mountain.  We hadn't even noticed this option until looking at the Gazetteer.  So thank you for that map, race people.

The top orange line is what we wanted; ignore the erroneous highlighting in the middle:

So we headed east, with some bike tracks ahead of us agreeing with that choice.  It seemed great until the road detoured directly south unexpectedly.  It was still the main road in the area, maybe just a reroute?  It turned out to be such, yes, just stay on it.  Alternate routes looked much slower.  Dave followed closely on the map as the main road turned back to the east and eventually returned to the highlighted route.  Happy day, and good nav Dave.

We were wondering if this might be a tricky section, but it ended up mostly straightforward after that.  More miles, with Leslie towing me most of the time and Tom taking a turn to give her a break.  Thank you both!

I worked on my posture and tried to get off my butt whenever I could (without adding work for Leslie).  So far the long ride was going well but we had a long way to go.

It might be somewhere around here that we started seeing pronghorns on the prairie - they were fun to watch and boy can they run fast when they decide to go.

Dave guessed that our road was going to follow a powerline to the right, but I thought the powerline was too close, so we had a guessing game of "how far away is the powerline?"  John and I had actually discussed distance estimates on an open prairie in North Dakota and I was curious if I had come away from that with any slightly useful knowledge.  My "2 miles -> OK, 3 kilometers" turned out to be amazingly accurate, I think I got lucky on that one!

We were also lucky to have clouds all morning and enough wind (but not too crazy) to keep us cool.  It finally started getting warm about when we made the next turn to the south:

It was also here that a race medic came riding toward us - what's that about?  Oh, he was just getting in a ride and wanted to chat, so he rode with us to checkpoint 25 and Leslie talked with him while we followed along.

The checkpoint was manned by some lovely folks and we got to sit in the shade of an easy-up for a few minutes.  We met a British team, the team we had seen going south from CP24.  One of them told us that their route had a lot of sand, and with her accent it sounded like "sun" so Tom was confused.  She said they left CP24 at "Half 2" so I ended up translating her words into American for Tom.  Pretty funny.

We told them about our Lander hotel room, and one of the women seemed most jealous about the shower we got to take.  Dave ate his Big Mac while sitting there, and it was fun to watch McD's being eaten in the middle of a prairie.  I don't think anyone was salivating over a cold Big Mac, though.  At some point we shared the apple that Tom had been carrying, that was what I really wanted.

We picked up our bottles of water and rested a bit in the shade.  Dave and I got out our swamp coolers to cover our heads and necks for the warm afternoon.  I was also happy to be wearing a cotton shirt for the day, something I had been experimenting with for hot, dry riding.  Both stay wet (from wetting them down or sweating) longer than other material, which feels cooler.

Time to roll again.  More dirt road, not always in good condition like the first part of the leg, but we also had a decent tailwind and almost no uphill so we were still moving OK.

After a few miles we took a break for food and to re-wet the swamp coolers:

Heading for the next set of hills, still lucky to have some clouds in the warmth of midday:

Brief side diversion to tell you what John was up to that day.  He checked out some sites related to the Oregon Trail and emigrants heading west.  Here's one of the gaps that was a landmark on their journey:

Independence Rock, another landmark and a spot where they needed to be by July 4 in order to make it over the Sierras by winter:

One of the stamps on the rock - a distant relative?

A race-relevant display at Independence Rock - "Marcy was considered an authority on overland travel."  They carried a lot of wrought iron, good thing that wasn't on our gear list.  And the quote at the bottom says, "When you start over these wide plains, let no one leave dependent on his best friend for any thing, for if you do, you will certainly have a blow-out before you get far."

OK, back to the race, where we weren't having any blow-outs yet.  We rode a long bumpy downhill that went on and on...

I just tried to stay off my butt and get the pack off my shoulders to keep comfortable.  I was excited to find that the Pika bag was high enough to support my pack when I leaned back a little and straightened up.  So far so good on the lack of butt sores.

We found a little town and paused briefly to figure out how to make our way through it.

We came to a larger road and stopped to verify the map.  A guy driving by motioned subtly to go down the road - I think I just saw that?  I don't think he exactly winked but he might as well have.

So we headed down the road and found checkpoint 26 at Lamont.  It was getting cool again (we really lucked out with minimal heat that day) and it looked like storm clouds were coming.  We opted for fewer water bottles from the nice volunteers, but still carried plenty of water out of there.  The winds picked up and we briefly considered staying under the easy-up but decided we should get going.

The Brits took off south while we decided to go around to the north:

I'm not sure which decision was better.  Our way was a tad shorter, but it was full of soft sand.  And I'm not going back to ride the other route just to compare.

On top of that, we were hit with a massive side wind and sharp rain drops.  Not much fun!

My bike chain started complaining.  I tried to keep my own complaints to myself, but I'm not sure I succeeded.  The sand, it sucked.  Nothing to do but ride when I can and walk when I have to.  Sliding around, getting wet sand grains in everything, argh.

An image from a race photographer on a more pleasant day:

The storm went away.  The sand did not.  These several kilometers took some time and patience.  Plus my throat was sore and that was bumming me out.  Dave said his had been sore for a while, well, he's not sick yet at least, maybe it's just the dry air as he suspects.

The team started looking for a place to nap.  I just wanted to stop to fix some things.  They tried an old falling-down barn, and apparently we had reached the point where cowpies are no longer off limits to lie on.  I played with my Pika bag to fix some wheel rubbing, drank Spiz, got a snack, and finally emptied a bunch of grit from my shoes and socks.  Much better!  I came back to life and could finally move with purpose again.

My teammates had given up on sleeping so we continued on.  The road got a tad better and more rideable and soon we were approaching CP27.

We saw the Brits leaving the area near the checkpoint, faking us out about the checkpoint flag location - it's actually behind us.  My teammates tried again for a quick nap while I ducked behind the bushes, but none of us got much out of those minutes.  Daylight's fading, gotta ride.

The volunteer at CP26 had said something about having to make a choice in this next section, and it seems that way on the map but in reality there was only one real route heading northeast (the southern route that's highlighted):

The next trail started up again with the awful sand and it was slow going again.  At least we seemed to be making progress toward the next pass.  And we weren't in the middle of any of the huge sand dunes we could see in the hills around us.  We rode, slid, and pushed our bikes and tried to get as far as we could before dark.

The road crossed into Pathfinder Ranch and made a left turn back to the south - ?  We tentatively tried it, nixing the alternative of heading cross-country toward the pass.  Somewhere during the race, possibly in this section, Dave found himself a few feet from a male pronghorn and got a loud "Phffff!" warning - that was so cool!

Topping out on a small hill, Dave declared that he could see everything now.  The trail led to a road which led to the actual pass to the north, not the pass we had been looking at.  Great, let's go!  We started going down and up super-steep little hills, but I was motivated to try and beat the darkness.

Gradually it got easier to ride, following above a creek, and popping out on the other side of the mountains onto a wider prairie.

We checked our tracker for messages as we had been instructed to do every sunrise and sunset, oh, we have one this time!  "Reset the little tracker by pressing a button" - ??  We sent an "OK" but couldn't figure out the reset.  Dave had been wondering since the previous day why it was no longer flashing, and he had asked about it in South Pass City but they didn't know either.

Well, continuing on.  We were looking for a left turn to go up a hill, not quite certain where it would be.  The trail went through a fence opening with "Private Property" on the sign, and I laughed because one of the race rules was we weren't allowed on private property at any time.  But this was so obviously how we had to go, and there was nothing indicating "out of bounds" on the map.

We reached a ranch with buildings and horses - we thought we saw the Brits ahead of us going to the right, which would be odd.  Then a new (to us) team came up behind us.  It was team Uruguay and Tom has a brief chat with them in Spanish.  We were riding by the ranch house when a guy came out to explain that we needed to go the other way (the left turn we were looking for, I believe).  Oh, sorry!  No worries, he said.  I guess they had given permission for the race to come through here and didn't mind giving directions as well.

Team Uruguay followed us past some horses and up the hill, and they talked more with Tom.  They'd been having some navigational issues, getting way off track a few times and then speeding their way back on track.  Dave tried to explain where we are on the map, hopefully that helped.

On top of the hill the road turned a bit slippery and generally downhill.  We had quite a few kilometers to go yet, more than I expected actually.  It even looks long looking at the map now:

I rode in the main car tracks for the best traction, but never felt all that comfortable at higher speeds.  The recent rain made the road challenging for me.  Team Uruguay rode on ahead as we told them they really couldn't miss the TA, and I would do better not having so many riders around me.

It was finally dark, and with all the nav questions of the leg just behind us, that was good timing.  Oddly, it seemed like there were straight, tall trees lining the road.  Clearly, that couldn't be true - we were still on the sage prairie - but it was a weird effect that stayed with me all the way to the TA and beyond.

The team patiently escorted me to the TA and my head was now officially not quite "with it" for the rest of the night.  John was there, big yay!  He can watch me attempt to get my act together  :)

After leg 9 (long bike, CP28) = 104:50:38, 31st place

Wow, that was a lot of miles for one day on a bike, and thinking about it now I'm pretty impressed with us.  It was a good leg for a strong biking team (who could pull me along with them) and we came out of it in pretty good shape.  Now it's time for things to get interesting.

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