I was one of the first 25 cyclists or so to leave that morning. The first two miles were easy, low-grade foothill affairs, past mansions sitting on or near great fishing on the Ten Sleep River. This stretch of road always makes me wish I were rich.
I made small talk with another early starter. A mile or so before the climb really began, we came up on a cattle drive. Cows were being herded up the road the same direction we were riding, and we really didn’t know what to do.
A lot of us eat cows regularly. When they’re not showing up in cellophane, they’re showing up in commercials, usually portrayed as pastoral creatures of the plains. And really, cows are fairly stupid animals. Put yourself in the middle of a herd of cows, however, and suddenly one appreciates just how big they are. On pavement, you can feel one cow’s stride from several feet away. A mama cow and her calf shake the earth. A freaking herd of cattle gives you a whole new perspective on the dangers of cowboy life. And riding into a herd of cattle on a bicycle brought visions of very nasty cyclist / cow interactions.
Weaving past a few cow stragglers, we approached a cowboy mounted on his horse. Not wanting to upset either the cows or the cowboys, whose livelihood we were interrupting here, I asked if it was alright if I passed on the left. He nodded, and I zipped into the gravel, preferring to risk going ass over teakettle rather than slipping in a cow pie and getting trampled. Speaking of, the cow pies were fresh out of nature’s oven. Another mounted cowboy would call to us, as we finally pulled ahead of the herd, “Don’t forget to wash your legs tonight!” Yeah. No kidding.
And then it was time to climb.
Within a few hundred yards we were on a 6 or 7% grade, and I downshifted to my last ring very early in what was to become a very long day. The first few miles of uphill, through Ten Sleep Canyon, were certainly difficult, but it was the kind of difficulty I’d learned to deal with in my training rides. Uphill rides are grinds, man, and all you can do is keep pedaling, drink water, and take breaks if you need them.
My cowherd partner was a big, tall dude from Jackson (a remarkable number of cyclists are tall, by the way) who blazed ahead as soon as we were past the cows. I was more or less alone, occasionally passing someone but usually getting passed.
I made more small talk with a few other cyclists on this stretch, but mostly we were all focused on the climb. We all knew it was going to be an exhausting day, so those of us who’d seen the canyon before just put our heads down and pedaled. In that respect it was easy to pick out the non-Wyomingite cyclists: they were the ones stopping to take pictures.
After about seven miles and 2,500 feet of elevation comes a single set of switchbacks (so, two sharp corners). Above this is a large parking area, and this was our first break. In training, I’d used imaging to help me feel what this climb would be like – “Okay, I’ve climbed 2,000 feet, and this is about where the first rest area will be in Ten Sleep Canyon” etc., etc., etc.
Arriving at this first rest area was therefore something of a milestone. I’d envisioned it many times, thinking about how cool it would be, and here I was . . . rolling up to it.
I drank some Gatorade, ate some fruit and cookies, and took in the view. I allowed myself to gawk – Wyomingite or not, Ten Sleep Canyon is truly something – and even to congratulate myself. I let myself take an extra five minutes, and then I was back on the bike.
And here the ride started to get painful. It was getting hot for one thing, but it was the climbing, the endless uphill slugging, the false promises of bends that might reveal a lesser grade or a flat stretch or even a brief downhill but never do, the sheer crawling, that wore thin. I took a few breaks in this part. I’d pour water over my head and drink a little, and would soon be descended upon by hordes of mosquitos and horseflies. My head and neck were a grimy mixture of sweat and DEET. I’m guessing I smelled pretty bad.
This section, between rest areas one and two, continued on, and on, and on. I passed at least one cyclist who was walking her bike. Another rode with me for a while, asked if I knew whether we had a downhill anytime soon, and I said I thought we did in another mile or so. This cyclist fell off my pace before I could apologize for being wrong.
Five miles an hour. Eight miles an hour if you stand on the pedals to alleviate sit bone pain. And that’s how fast you travel for ten miles to the next rest area.
I remember a downhill by Meadowlark Lake, thinking that after this big right turn we’d see our rest area. I also remember the downhill not being all that rewarding – I just wanted off the bike, not a downhill.
More climbing for a few hundred yards before I saw, there at the bend, rest area two. And if I wasn’t mistaken, that was our RAV4 parked among the vehicles. Hallelujah.
I got off the bike and laid down in the shade of our car. Kathryn asked me about some stuff, but frankly, I don’t remember our conversation. This may very well be the closest I’ve ever been to “bonking,” a cycling term for “running out of energy and collapsing.” Having cooled off a little, I stood up and drank some water. Kathryn snapped a picture of me, and we headed off to the food table.
I couldn’t stop eating bananas and peach slices. I literally could not stop eating.
Eventually I refilled my water bottles, drank some water and Gatorade and more water, and did some quick math. We were eight miles and 1500 feet of elevation from Powder River Pass, the highest point of today’s ride, the highest peak of the Tour, and the single most important goal of mine since I’d signed up for the Tour. I could miss some rides if I had to, I could be the last cyclist to make it, but by God, I would pedal my bike all the way to the top. That was the goal. Make it to the top.
The first half mile out of rest area two was easily 8% grade. Nothing like reality to check your motivation level.
Near the top of this stretch another cyclist cranked by me. I may have met her before or maybe it was just Tour etiquette – you know, vets are supposed to encourage rookies, etc. – but as we reached the top of this hill she looked over at me and said, “Nice work.” Alrighty. Thank you.
More climbing. The bugs were getting particularly bad. Endless pain.
But at altitude! At some point in here I realized we were at about 8,000 feet above sea level, and the Big Horn Mountains are particularly gorgeous. I didn’t have some dramatic epiphany or anything, but I did suddenly appreciate where I was and what I was doing.
Closer. Powder River Pass was closer. An older cyclist asked me if this next hill was it, and I assured him it wasn’t. I didn’t need a bike computer to tell me we were still three miles away or so, and having made this drive several times, I knew that those three miles wouldn’t be terrible. They wouldn’t be easy, but they wouldn’t be terrible.
Swatting at bugs. Bugs up the nose. Bugs in the mouth, sometimes spit out, sometimes swallowed. Sweat. More bugs. More pedaling.
One mile to go. I could see the pass, a big left turn at 9,600 feet or so. Head down. Just pedal, Paul. Just pedal the stupid bike.
The final climb, a steep one, gently turning left. Our car is up there. Okay, seven delineator posts and you’re there. Six. Pedal. Three. One. Here’s the parking lot. Wow, dude, you’re going to make it. You’re there. You did it.
I pulled up next to Kathryn at Powder River Pass, put my head down gasping for breath, and to be perfectly honest, I almost cried. It was a weird feeling. Exhaustion? Yes, that, but also . . . reward. Some blend of triumph, pride, and nausea. And let’s not forget agony.
We spent a lot of time up there. Kathryn took some great pics, and apparently she volunteered to take pictures of other riders as well. Very surreal, standing by that sign. I’d been training since mid-March, bought the road bike on April 1, and had been envisioning that moment at least once a day, during rides or not. I’d done it. I’d freaking pedaled from Ten Sleep to Powder River Pass. Now all I had to do was ride down the other side.
Which would in some parts be even harder.