Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tour de Wyoming Day 1: Worland to Ten Sleep

My watch alarm finally went off. I’d set it for 5:00, since breakfast was served from 5:30 to 7:00 and I’d planned to be on the road every morning by 6. As if on cue, the sounds of camp breaking down floated across the field. Everyone else had the same idea I did.

We lined up in the community center’s hallway, filing through the old cafeteria for a breakfast of stale pancakes and sausage. I’d hear later that they ran out of food, so the early rising bit was a wise idea.

Amber had announced at the orientation meeting that the Worland mayor wanted to ride out with us in a mass start. At 6:00 I was in front of the building, waiting to go, and other cyclists took off in small groups. Kathryn snapped a picture and I decided the hell with it – I’d skip the mass start and just go.

A few turns in Worland put us on 789 north, heading to Manderson, where we’d have our first rest stop and make our first turn. It was a gorgeous morning – low 70s, the Big Horns a dark ridge to our right. Those mountains, of course, were on our route. The following day we were scheduled to climb Ten Sleep Canyon and ride all the way to Buffalo, and we all knew it. As the sun rose higher and the dark ridge became defined by snow-covered peaks and other mountainy features, some folks stopped to take pictures.

Yours truly just kept pedaling, averaging somewhere around 15 mph. The shoulder was good and it felt great to crank away some miles. There was a palpable sense of relief, too – I’d trained hard for this, the day was here, and riding felt great.

It was on this first stretch that I first detected a trend that will shape my future training: even moving along at 15 mph, riding strong in higher gears, people – old, chubby people – blew by me. “Your left,” someone would call, and invariably I’d see white hair flowing beneath a helmet or a beer gut stretching a bike jersey beyond its normal capabilities.

In Manderson we climbed a small ridge, and at the bottom was a café with portable shade tents and a group of cyclists. This was clearly our first rest area. That’s one of the truly cool aspects of the Tour: every ten miles or so, Tour volunteers have shade tents, snacks, and fluids. All part of the Tour fee – you just show up, lay your bike down in a safe place, and fill your bottle with Gatorade and eat bananas, cookies, or Fig Newtons. It’s a great time to hit the porta-potty or just chat with other cyclists.

Onward to Wyoming 31, taking us east toward Hyattville. I’d made the rest area by 7:30 or so, and by 8:30, somewhere on 31, the infamous Basin heat made its appearance. The wind, too, picked up as the morning progressed. Whatever romantic notions I’d had about riding Wyoming back roads disappeared. I pedaled, sweated, pedaled, sweated, pedaled, climbed small hills, took no pleasure from the downhills due to the wind, sweated, and pedaled some more. Finally, the second rest area appeared on the horizon.

More bananas and cookies. I ran into Linda and Monte, fellow Landerites I’d been introduced to by the aforementioned Tour veteran, and we chatted a bit. Then it was time for another leg, to a rest area roughly halfway between here and Ten Sleep.

This next stretch on the Lower Nowood Road is hazy now, just over a week later. I remember an increase in hills, heat, and roadkill. For the uninitiated, death has a particular smell. Dead squirrels in a corner of the yard smell bad; you know something’s wrong and it usually doesn’t take too long to find the fried little guy.

But large animals next to a highway are something else entirely.

Depending on the wind, you smell them for a long, long time before you reach them. Time is relative on a bicycle, especially when you’re in pain, so “long, long time” in this case means something around a minute. But that’s long enough to make you pedal faster, which means inhaling sharper, which means accidentally breathing through your nose if you’re not careful, which means damn near puking.

Sometimes you see the blackened, bloated carcass on or by the road, and you’re suddenly upwind and free of it. Sometimes the winds are so damn contrary that even if you pass the carcass, you’re not necessarily out of its clutches. Sometimes you never see anything at all, you just pass through a cloud of death smell.

The last rest area, 8 miles or so from Ten Sleep and thus shade and chairs, appeared on the left. There wasn’t much traffic, so crossing the road wasn’t a big deal. At this point I was broiling – I remember filling my bottle with Gatorade and hanging out in the shade of the U-Haul truck being used as a supply vehicle.

The final leg seemed like it would be nothing, or at least not a killer; another hour or so of small hills and roadkill. Oh, sure, I was sweating and my wrists, neck, shoulders, sit bones, and ankles were all a bit sore, but my lungs and legs were fine. I still had gas in the tank, as they say, and I was eager to put the first day behind me.

Technically, it was 8 miles and about an hour. Emotionally, it became a kind of crucible. The soreness became acute pain, and on a bicycle there is no way to alleviate that pain. You can stand on the pedals to help the sit bones, but that makes the pain in the shoulders worse, not to mention stressing the legs. You can take one hand off the handlebars to help the shoulder, sitting upright, but that makes the sit bones and other shoulder hurt worse. You can’t do much about the neck pain, and you can’t do anything at all about the ankle and foot pain.

With around five miles to go, the heat and pain became personal. Cyclists were still blowing by me, the wind was constant, and the only inspiration I could find was in the form of self-flagellation. I’d feel pretty stupid, I told myself, if I quit now. I’d feel especially stupid if I quit because of mere pain – getting hit by an RV or running into a cow and breaking the bike, those were good reasons for quitting. But not pain. Especially not when other cyclists were clearly dealing with the same pain and not, apparently, bothered by it.

One final climb over Nowood Creek, outside of Ten Sleep, and then – puhRAISE Jesus! – we turned onto the downhill into town. It was somewhere around 10:15, and Kathryn would later tell me I came in sooner than 75% of the others (not that I was keeping track, not that it was a race, not that there was a certain amount of ego involved in this whole thing for me . . . ). One of the first businesses in Ten Sleep, coming from the west, is a café. As I pedaled by it, Kathryn called from the deck “Hi, Honey!”

I stopped, clipped out of the pedals in the gutter, and barely got off the bike. I laid down in the shade of a tree in front of the café. I could barely hold a coherent conversation with Kathryn.

Though it was technically morning, we got beers at a Ten Sleep bar, watched some of the U.S. women’s World Cup match, and took a stroll through town. Throughout this whole trip, Kathryn was a champ about setting up and breaking down camp, and camp at the Ten Sleep high school was a rather crammed affair through no fault of hers.

But you learn, on a bike tour, to disregard that which really doesn’t matter. Tent proximity doesn’t matter when you’re asleep, unless someone snores, but you’re usually too tired to notice anyway. Adolescent locker room or toilet anxieties don’t matter when you’re all old and bald and you just want a freaking shower.

Ten Sleep High School’s hallways were lined with bikes and people. It was relatively cool in there, so people just found a spot where they could. Some folks chose to “camp inside,” which meant setting up sleeping gear in the gym or just out in the halls. After the beer and food, I was ready for a nap. I found a great spot beneath an empty trophy case, threw down my Thermalite, and rested my face on the tile. I fell asleep like that, face down, arms at my sides, and slept for at least an hour. Kathryn, meanwhile, set up one of our camp chairs and read her Kindle. It was a lazy afternoon.

Dinnertime is 5:30 to 7:00 on the Tour, and ours was served at a park a few blocks from the school. We lined up, chatted with other cyclists, and got pelted with rain. It was a welcome change. Jalan Crossland played for us, a Tour tradition, and when the rain became a true gullywasher, Jalan invited everyone into the shelter to make it a more personal affair.

To bed in the tent. I slept well.

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