Trans Am Bike Race 2016 Update: Lolo, MT

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Lael riding along the Salmon River in Idaho.  Photo courtesy of Trans Am Bike Race organizer Nathan Jones.  Keep up with his images and reports on the Trans Am Bike Race Blog.  More race chatter in the Trans Am Bike Race Facebook group.

Lael called while leaving Lolo, MT this morning.  She described the ride over Lolo Pass as “long and slow”, not surprising after several days of heat and 200+ mile days, although cloudy skies minimized exposure during most of Tuesday.  The actual road grade to the top of Lolo Pass is mild, until it steepens at the top, and ascends just 4000ft in 100 miles.  Lael reports being unable to ride fast, although she can still stand and climb in a way that satisfies her.  Standing while riding is Lael’s hallmark, and while both unconventional and inefficient, that’s the way she likes to ride.  She hopes to regain some spark and some speed in the coming days and weeks.  

Just before the top of the pass last night, Lael’s Di2 battery lost power.  The battery transmits signals from both shifters and powers both derailleurs, and is meant to be charged from a USB port.  The average user might go months without charging, the average ultra racer might go a week or more and several Trans Am racers and one Tour Divide racer report only a single re-charge for the duration of the event.  The battery was fully charged in Astoria, which makes this the shortest amount of time I’ve ever heard for a full Di2 battery cycle.  Aside from her standing technique, Lael also shifts a lot.  She’s neither the fastest nor the most graceful cyclist, but she can ride for a long time.  There is a small chance that her battery is otherwise faulty and not holding a full charge, but I wouldn’t immediately suspect that.  She is carrying a spare battery, fully charged.  To remove it from the inside of the seatpost we installed a piece of string to the battery, which is installed with two rubberized gaskets making a snug fit into the inside diameter of the post.  While stopped last night on the pass, Evan Deutsch rode up from behind.  Lael was thinking about replacing the battery with the spare, but he suggested continuing with the single gear ratio over the pass and checking the lodge on the other side.  They both stayed at the Lolo Hot Springs RV Park last night in a rented cabin, and Lael charged the battery.  It seems to be working just fine this morning.  While she had planned a little more sleep last night, the incident inadvertently gave her the opportunity to rest well.  She likely washed her face— a shower is unlikely— and feels better from the brief time inside.  This isn’t her desired MO, but I can see the silver lining.    

We’d planned to charge the Di2 battery from the dynamo, but Lael told me the B&M USB-Werk charger has not been working since sometime on the first day.  I’ve had one of these devices fail in the past, except in this case I suspect the issue is with the K-Lite system.  Her lights are performing flawlessly, and they have since we received them last fall before her Arizona Trail ITT, but I’ve had three separate devices connected to this system and they’ve all failed to provide power, and I now suspect some part of the system has damaged these devices.  The first USB-Werk I wired was in Arizona last fall, which was a well used unit that was previously working.  I assumed it had failed, Lael used batteries in her GPS on the AZT, and I thought nothing of it.  This spring, I ordered a new USB-Werk and installed it, and was never able to receive USB power from it.  I tested it directly to my own dynamo hub and couldn’t produce any power, so in this case I assumed a faulty unit.  I ordered a third unit immediately, and once I received it I wired it directly to my hub to verify that it worked, which it did.  I shipped the new unit to Lael in Portland and she had it installed at River City Bicycles.  She claimed it worked (in passing, in a brief conversation while still in Portland), although from her most recent report the USB-Werk has not worked since the first day, so I’m not sure if it worked at all.  

What this means is that she will have to recharge the Di2 system at some point along the way.  Charging time from a wall outlet is claimed to be 1.5 hours, so the duration of the charge is not a problem, but it will require her to tether herself to an outlet for some time.  Presumably, she will do this at night while sleeping, either by finding an outdoor wall outlet (in a park or pavilion), or in a motel.  She has already planned service at the Newton Bike Shop in Newton, Kansas, so she will certainly charge it there.  Perhaps the battery will last longer this time, perhaps by accident it did not receive a full charge in Astoria, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.  Wondering about electronics is not the reason she is out there and she is happily pedaling forward, taking it as it comes.

At the time of writing, I received another brief phone call from Lael— the kind where you didn’t say I love you and I miss you enough times in the previous call so you have to call back a few minute later.  She was riding into Hamilton, her energy restored, totally enthused about the ride ahead of her, planning to tackle another 200 miles today, and reporting that she felt like she got her energy back!  She was so excited, it lifted my spirits to know that she was having fun again.  If it isn’t fun, why do it?  

Steffen and Sarah are riding strong out front; Lee has dropped back, likely due to dehydration and exhaustion; Kai Edel put in a big day yesterday and has caught Lael and Evan.  Several hours ago, Sarah Hammond was the first to ride into Wisdom, MT and continued off route towards Wise River, failing to turn south at the western edge of town.  It is not yet clear if this is intentional, or a mistake.  She is almost 3 hours from Wisdom.  Should she return to the route, she would be required to rejoin the route in Wisdom, and the rules would allow her to seek or accept motorized transit to the point at which she left the track.  She has just stopped in Wise River, so hopefully she discovers her mistake.  Wise River is a minor resupply on the Great Divide route, although the two routes are meant to meet further south near Polaris, MT.  Stefan has continued along the prescribed track, turning south on Hwy 278 toward Bannock and Dillon.

Edit: Sarah Hammond is traveling toward Wisdom at 18mph, indicating that she is riding back to the track.     

Follow the Trans Am Bike Race 2016 on Trackleaders.com

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016 Update: Riggins, ID

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Evan, Lael, and Lee ascending the Whitebird climb away from the Salmon River in Idaho. 

The Trans Am Bike Race continues with high heat and low humidity, slowly climbing to elevation over each successive pass.  The top five racers— Sarah, Steffen, Lee, Lael, and Evan, in order— crossed the Snake River into Idaho yesterday and will cross into Montana today, immediately greeted by a the prolonged climb over Lolo Pass.  Lael reports feeling healthy from Riggins, ID,although daytime temps are still challenging for the pace and distance these riders are pushing.  She slept last night for two hours, started riding again, and quickly realized she needed another hour.  Thankfully her bivy is quickly accessed in her framebag.  Both Sarah and Steffen have taken a substantial lead, averaging now over fifty miles ahead of Evan, Lael, and Lee.  The race is long, and the nature of the terrain changes with time, as does the individual rider experience.  Lee’s pace seems to be slowing, while Evan and Lael remain consistent.  Steffen is pushing fast during the day, and sleeping longer an anyone else in the top field, stopping early and resuming again in the middle of the night.  Sarah Hammond continues to ride fast and far, and finally stopped for about three hours last night, her longest overnight rest.

In just over three full days of racing these tope riders have passed over 800 miles of the Trans Am Route.  The race should continue for about two more weeks.

Follow the Trans Am Bike Race 2016 on Trackleaders.com.

LW ITT Update: Ashton-Flagg Ranch Rd, ID/WY

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Tour Divide legend Jay Petervary drove up from Victor, ID to deposit a rental SPOT Trace device along the roadside for Lael.  Matthew Lee, Tour Divide organizer and Trackleaders affiliate, has a fleet of rental units and a few remained in Victor following the Fitz-Barn ride this week.  Collectively, Matthew and Jay have ridden the Divide twelve times. Photos: JayP.

Lael arrived in Lima late in the morning on Thursday, after the roads dried enough so that her wheels would at least spin through the frame.  The areas with sun were mostly dry, although shaded regions of the road were still caked in mud.  She resupplied at the store and washed in the bathroom.  Sunny skies and wide open gravel roads lay ahead of her as she exited the state of Montana for a second time this year.  Crossing the Continental Divide at Red Rock Pass into Idaho, she descended to a store just before close and proceeded onto a section of rail-trail which is famously sandy and corrugated.  Leaving the store, she rode one handed on the sandy trail and described how she almost quit yesterday.  

The weather stopped her progress entirely.  She faced a 24 hour gastric issue on the same day that forced her to stop every few minutes.  It was not her best day, and did not reflect the reasons which brought her back out on the Divide for a second time in one summer.  By the time she got to Idaho she had shifted her focus forward and was excited about the strawberries she had bought, her first fruit since Banff; the Cheetos she packed, reminding us of all the Nik-Naks sold in South Africa and Lesotho; and of the Monster Coffee energy drink she bought, which somehow signaled a commitment to continuing.  Although, she quipped, “I don’t want to eat anything ever again”.  These foods were just tokens.

This morning, Lael retrieved the plastic bag hanging from the sign of the Squirrel Creek Ranch containing a SPOT Trace tracking device and a few zip ties.  She cycled the power button several times, as Matthew prescribed, and continued riding into Wyoming.  The SPOT Trace is a newer device, mostly designed as an asset tracker for trucks, boats, and motorcycles, and is about half the size of the new Gen 3 trackers.  It functions as a full time tracker, without any customizable features and without an SOS button.

Great thanks to Matthew and Jay for collaborating to get another SPOT to Lael!  On his record-setting 2012 ITT of the Divide, Jay also lost his SPOT tracker and received a new unit in Lima, MT.

Follow the yellow LW bubble on the Tour Divide 2015 Trackleaders page.

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Tour Divide Update: Idaho

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Lael smiling on the morning of Day 6 at the Montana High Country Lodge in Polaris, MT.  Thanks to Russ Kipp for the image, via the Tour Divide 2015 forum discussion at Bikepacking.net 

Lael called from Lima, I missed the call, tried to call back, we got tangled in trying to call each other until she answered and said “I’ll call you back in a minute, I’m checking out at the store”.  Then I knew she would continue.  She called back and said, “I’m feeling pretty good, I think I’ll keep going”.  And that was it.  

I watched her tracker at work all day, but was worried when her pink balloon faded less than 20 miles outside Lima.  Had she gone to sleep before sunset?  The result of another asthmatic fit?  She reappeared more than 30 miles later, finally ending her day 182.5 miles after it began.  Riding into the night, she camped at the crest of Red Rock Pass, as I did several years ago, and awoke early to begin pedaling the 72 mile section across Idaho, including the famously sandy railroad corridor.  By noon, Mountain Time, she’ll be ascending the Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road into Wyoming.  She ate Idaho for breakfast.   

Later this afternoon Lael will ride onto a paved road which connects Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, a pleasant pedal along the shores of Jackson Lake.  We pedaled through this area together back in 2011. From Moran Junction, the route climbs to Togwotee Pass and Union Pass before descending into classically windswept Wyoming.

Good Morning Great Divide

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Bed by campfirelight, awake by sunlight. Smoke fingers linger over my down bag in the early morning; I always take time to admire how lofty my bag has become by sunrise. I played games with REI for years returning bags, and finally bought a better bag at a local shop in Missoula last summer. I’m fully content with it, and a vapor barrier extends the range at the end of the season. Toss the coals about, lay a log on top and heat some water– coffee and cream of wheat will get me where I’m going. This is my last night in the woods for a while, as I’m into the great wide Wyoming open for a week of sage and sunshine. I can count the campfires I’ve had over the past four years on one hand, and this seemed like an occasion to burn a little bit of the woods. The campsite was littered with rusty cans of Texas ranch-style beans and shotgun shells– it wasn’t dirty by USFS standards, but well used. I took the opportunity to use it some more. If i’d had a big gun, I woulda shot it.

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Two days ago I climbed away from Idaho on the Reclamation Road between Yellowstone and Teton National Parks into a thick August swarm of tourists. Yesterday I climbed away from Teton tourists to the not-so-secret handicap accessible swimming hole at the top of Togwotee Pass. Descend twenty miles, then climb back to Union Pass and ride until dark. From my camp at 9000 ft, today is all downhill, nearly, and the final miles into Pinedale are paved. Ice cream and wifi aren’t too far off, despite fifty miles of riding. I rest my forearms on the bars and find my aero position– I’m there by noon.

The Great Divide narratives underscore the pretense of long stretches without water, the presence of bears and to be off the trail by “mid-October at the latest”; mostly I count long stretches without a half-gallon of ice cream for $4.44, and the fact that I’m “in bear country” is nothing new. The riding is occasionally challenging, but the route is a logistical walk in the park with the help of the ACA maps. It’s dangerous to visit supermarkets with big eyes and an empty stomach as 4 for $7 promotions of Keebler cookies and day old donuts are tempting– a hungry sucker, I had to find a way to pack a dozen day old donuts and a half-gallon of soymilk. The soymilk fills the Kleen Kanteen, but doesn’t last long. The donuts are now a ball of smashed donuts, and that’s just fine. This is the first “super”-market I’ve visited since Butte, and the experience is overwhelming– they have everything.

Leaving Idaho behind, squeezing between the two national parks…

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Not interested in an $8 campsite– the campground attendant was incredulous at that, and rude– I rode the final hour of sunlight to the Teton Nation Forest boundary. This is public land and I figure my tax dollars are hard at work helping the trees grow so that I can sleep amongst them. Actually, the USFS is a road builder above all else. They build a lot of roads, and a gated logging road provides perfect camping. I awake to climb up Togwotee Pass, to a 46 mph descent down the other side, and a climb back up to Union Pass. At 15 mph the Surly Larry tires hum, at 25 they sing, and at 45 they scream.

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Making camp by campfirelight, I awake to descend two-thousand feet to Pinedale over fifty miles– let the fat tires roll.

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Riding high: Idaho

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It is not every day that I can boast the benefits of the Surly Pugsley or fatbikes in general, although I try.  I am often forced to concede to admonishing onlookers that “yes, the tires are heavy” and “no, there isn’t a motor hidden within”.  I’m more inclined to speak with those that are interested in what it can do, rather than what it can’t.  In fact, I haven’t found anything it can’t do, but there are some people that can’t be convinced.  “All the way from Alaska? Really?  Honey, did you see that?”.   I’m forced to stand and smile for pictures.  Italians want to know “what kind of bike it is?”, and before I can say Surly Pugsley they clarify, “is it a mountain bike?”.  I’m resting in the shade atop Togwotee Pass above 9658 ft.  Call it anything.

But when the trail turns to sand, described by the Great Divide narrative as “extremely soft volcanic soil”, I’m grinning ear to ear.  If only those sedentary naysayers could see this, or the Anchorage winter, or the miles of washboard I’ve ridden.  Now in Wyoming, I met an awesome guy on an old Schwinn Sierra that fell in love with the concept of framebags, and completely understood the concept of fat tires despite his first encounter.  Two of the same breed– the Pugsley is a little like the Sierra would have been in 1984.  What are the big tires for?  Aren’t they slower?  The simple fact is that some people want to go places on bikes, and some do not.  This old Sierra carried him cross-country in the 80’s, and he’s been in Wyoming ever since.  Bikes take people places.

The thrifty mile abandoned rail corridor, once called the Oregon Short Line, shuttled tourists to Yellowstone National Park; anymore is it signed and managed as an Idaho state multi-use trail.  It’s an ATV and snowmobile trail for sure, and it’s not suited to the casual bike ride as many improved rail-trails are.  Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are rich with similar trails whose main function is winter snowmobile use.  I’ve just met Trey and neither of us have met another Divide rider in over a week.  We are barely through the ritualistic questions about the big tires when their volume and low-pressure speak for themselves, and we part ways.  Sinking, spinning tires on his secondhand Kona mountain bike Trey opts for the alternate route which is 17 miles longer and half paved.

Evening is my time to ride and accounts for about half of all time in the saddle.  Swimming accounts for the remaining daylight hours.  Following side trails for fun, I lose my way and find myself at a gas station on the main highway.  I pick up a cold tall beer and ask directions back to the abandoned rail corridor.  Riding sand on a fatbike, swimming, and sipping a cold can of beer– I’m riding high in Idaho.

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I’ve regularly begun filling the 64 oz. Kleen Kanteen as surface water become less plentiful.  Refilling my drink bottle and cook pot, the supply of water within is never-ending.  Sick of peanut butter for the time being, I’ve got an extra bottle cage on the fork for another liter of water which may be useful through the Great Basin.  And as the days become shorter, I’m finding myself riding into the night.  Cool evenings and distant national forest boundaries tempt me; at least, a half-hour of riding in the dark to reach free camping is better than packing into a national park campground for $8 a person.  An impromptu group of four cyclists can share a piece of dirt for $32, although I opt to ride to the Teton National Forest boundary.

Miles Davis performed at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 in front of a rock audience of over 500,000.  When asked the name of the tune, or the kind of music, he replied, “call it anything”.

Riding cross: Bannack, MT to Idaho

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My first few days back on fat tires wear the nubs off the knobs, riding on pavement.  Thereafter, I huff and puff up Fleecer Ridge, barreling down the other side.  Being able to descend with abandon is fantastic, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the ability to climb with vigor for some cheap thrills– I require a bike that can do it all, fast.  After a few days of dreaming about normal sized wheels and tires, something happened.  Finally, I can ride the Pugsley the way I want.  It has taken some acclimatization, literal and figurative, and some muscle development.

Leaving Anchorage, I labored up small hills and wondered if I would regret riding a fatbike through the other three seasons.  Over Denali’s passes and the Top of the World Highway, my body responded with strengthened legs.  Reaching the Great Divide Route, brutish climbs reawakened those climbing muscles.  At every major junction in the process of touring on a fatbike, I’ve labored under new challenges and wondered if my heavy go-anywhere bike was a good idea.  And finally, after fitting fat tires this week in Bozeman, I’ve had to grow a new pair of legs to keep up with myself.  I’m realizing the perceived limitations are in the rider, not the bike.  Even now, there’s more to this motor than has already been realized.

To propel a bike with as much utility and versatility as the Pugsley requires a strong motor, and following a few nights of sore muscles I can now ride the Pugsley like a cross bike, like I want.  Gravel grinding– climbing fast and descending faster– is now fun and familiar.  Doing it on 4 inch tires at 15 psi is new, but it is intoxicating and childishly fun.  I barely ever scrub speed while descending; while climbing, it’s good to keep the wheels turning and the momentum up, but traction is never the weak link.  And yesterday, across mild terrain, I pedaled and floated over 80 miles of gravel, culminating in a blistering sunset effort to Red Rock Pass.  Laying down to sleep amidst tall grasses and sage, I smile and reflect that riding the Pugsley does not limit my riding style.  I smile and laugh that I’ve spent the day riding it like a cross bike.  I laugh, for there’s a lot more to riding fat tires than floating over gravel at 20 mph, but it’s just one of many things that can be done on a fatbike.  Six months ago I was riding in the dark, in the snow.  Now I’m sleeping at over 7000 ft on the Montana/Idaho border, thanks to a particular purple bike.

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My breakfast of choice, of late, has been Cream of Wheat.  It cooks quickly and sticks with me better than oatmeal.  I add brown sugar and fruit in the morning, or for a savory evening snack, garlic and vegetables do the trick.  Surely my mother will laugh, as I grew up hating oatmeal and tolerating Cream of Wheat.  Now, I love both.  On this occasion, peaches, bananas and brown sugar give me fuel.

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Of course, that’s a Scott Montana overhead.  This wilderness lodge near Polaris, MT welcomes cyclists, although I only stopped to admire this nice vintage ATB.

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Some southern hospitality can even be found up north.

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Bannack is a ghost town and the first territorial capital of Montana.  A hearty thank you to my hosts at the Bannack Campground, Paul and Jamie, who are full of life in this deserted valley.  We shared an evening together, and they shared their dinner and cold silver cans of beer with blue (lavender) mountains.  Since retirement, they’ve discovered that working as campground hosts satisfies their love for travel, and their desire to meet people in a more relaxed, conversational setting.  In exchange for their time and effort, they have free rent all summer in a spectacular corner of Montana with a steady stream of visitors.  Two main bicycle routes, the Trans-Am and the Great Divide Route, pass near Bannack.  It sure beats Texan Gulf Coast summers, they say.

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The ride up and over Medecine Lodge Pass into the Big Sheep drainage challenges me; the sustained climb on the Pugsley strengthens me.  I’m finding that the more I do it, the easier it becomes.  Descending, my rear tire begins to slowly go soft.  I don’t mind fixing the occasional flat, although I hope it’s not something I encounter daily.  The big tires require well over three hundred pumps with my little Lezyne road pump and the older dropout design of the purple Pugsley requires me to loosen the rear brake caliper, which feels like one step to many.  The process is a bother.  I will be searching for a system to minimize flats, especially in the thorny southwest.  Sealant applied to tubes, or a pure tubeless setup are considerations.  A pump with a bigger chamber would be nice.

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On this night, I encountered a group of adventure motorbike riders.  All were on the de facto “ultimate adventure bike”, the BMW GS-1200.  They were riding a variant of the Great Divide Route from Albuquerque to Helena, in a ten day period.  Some of them laughed at my pedal-powered efforts.  Secretly, I laughed at the imminence of Monday morning, a pot of Folgers, and a desk job.  I will still be here in a week.

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And in a push to the Idaho border, a dotted line of classic gravel roads lead the way.  All I have to do is pedal.

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