Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 2: Ten Sleep to Buffalo (Part 2: The Descent)

Other cyclists weren’t celebrating to quite the same extent as me. Sure, they’d stop for pictures next to the Powder River Pass sign, or they’d just get off the bike and soak in the view, but they weren’t as emotional about it. If anything they were nonchalant. Yeah, well, good for you. You’re used to this after years on bikes. I’ve been cycling since April.

Eventually it was time to head down. I crossed the rest of the sizable parking area, took in the larger panorama for a moment, and pedaled hard for ten strokes at the crest.

When you tell people you’re cycling over a mountain pass, they tend to marvel at how tough the uphill portion will be and then invariably say something like, “But wow, going down will be fun!” And truthfully, before I cycled regularly I thought that all downhill bicycle riding was easy. You weren’t working; you were on an amusement ride. You just pointed the bike and coasted in glee.

And so a note here about downhills.

In some respects they require more effort than climbing. No, you’re not necessarily pedaling as hard or as consistently, but the amount of focus shifts dramatically. Instead of giving yourself an ongoing pep talk or managing the balance between pain and self-pity, instead of coming to Zen-like peace with 10 foot stretches, instead of trying to take your mind off the ride, you’re consumed by the ride. You’re confronted by a wave of hazards on big downhills – at speed, reaction times drop to nothing, and on 700 X 25 tires, darn near anything can take you down. Puddles, rabbit carcasses, stiff winds from passing vehicles, stiff winds from Montana, and wee pebbles all become deadly.

And then there’s the specter of equipment failure. Imagine a tire blowing at 40 mph. Imagine taking a corner too wide and into the scree. Imagine sliding into a guardrail or delineator post. Imagine putting the bike over, still clipped in, leaving an epidermis trail hundreds of feet long. Imagine the worst, and I promise you it can happen on a downhill.

So you’re taxed, physically and intellectually. Yes, you’re cooled off and ain’t no bug alive can land on you doing 40, but the fear and focus are acute. Oh, and did I mention the new spectrum of pain? Yeah. Downhills hurt your neck and wrists a lot.

That said, you’re going really fast, and going really fast is fun. No melodramatic litany of perils can change that.

The downhill run (“. . . from Papeete. . . “ No, no, no. Not here, Stephen Stills, although that song was on an endless loop for portions of this ride) to the first rest area was a zippy affair. I have a mirror clipped to my helmet, allowing me to monitor traffic, so I rode in the smoothest parts of the road I could, checking the mirror every few seconds. But not for long. Dancing, prancing Moses, don’t take your eyes off the road for more than a half second.

I didn’t hang out at the next rest area for more than a few minutes, and on the pullout I was clumped together with a few other cyclists. Mostly I passed people for the next mile or so, but some wackjobs whizzed by me – and I was in my top gear, cranking hard when the conditions allowed. At the end of another healthy stretch of downhill, we bottomed out and began a climb.

We knew these were coming. Anyone who’d studied the route or traveled this road knew that the descent was actually a series of downhills interrupted by climbs. Some Tour vets referred to them as “rollers,” which in any other circumstance means small series of hills – you know, four or five strokes and you’re at the top.

But if this was a roller, it was a roller for the gods. “Roller, my butt,” another cyclist said a few hundred feet into the first one, “this is another $&$^* climb!”

Indeed. The first uphill on this section was at least a mile long. Or maybe it just felt like it. I’m having trouble remembering how many, in what order, and how steep each climb was. But I do remember a particular stretch where I almost just up and quit. I’ve no idea how long we’d been pedaling by this point, but it was before the series of small, steep hills near the final descent into Buffalo. Those of you familiar with the road might recall a long, straight portion of road that descends heading west, making for a long pull when you’re heading east like we were.

It was somewhere several hundred yards from the top of this sucker that the heat and pain and exhaustion really piled up. I’d been pedaling with a stich in my side for miles by then. Other cyclists passed me frequently, but one guy stayed on my back tire for a long time, eventually pulled next to me and looked over. I must have looked like I was in bad shape, probably because I was in bad shape.

“You okay?” he asked. I either grunted or gasped.

“You’re doing fine, man,” he said. “Just keep going.” With that, he pulled ahead and into a blissful future of downhills, rest areas, and air-conditioned lunch in Buffalo.

It’ll be a miracle if I live to see any of that. I’m about to die here, people. Screw this whole stupid Tour.

You know that line in Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” about crying out in anger and shame? Yeah. I literally cried out a few times before I finally reached the breaking point. I pulled off at a dirt road, barely able to clip out of the pedals. I put my hands on my knees and almost puked. I poured water over my head, then drank, then poured some more. If I did quit here, the SAG (support) vehicle would eventually find me and I could get a lift to the next rest area. There would be minimal shame in SAGing, but it would mean forfeiture of bragging rights about pedaling from Ten Sleep to Buffalo. So there would be shame nonetheless. And so I got back on the $*#&@ bike.

Finally – allelu, allelu! – we reached the top of that hill and coped with the resulting downhill, along with others. Eventually a long downhill rounded a corner and there was rest area four. From there, we looked down to our last series of climbs, smaller climbs, familiar and friendly terrain.

If I'd overcome my earlier hissy fit and didn’t quit, there was no way I was going to quit now. A few small climbs and it was time for the final descent into Buffalo. 

From the 80s, maybe even mid-70s, in the mountains to a scorcher in Buffalo. It had been four and a half hours to the top and two hours down. The final stretch out of a canyon and into Buffalo took us through some road construction and other menaces, but mostly I remember the sheer joy of seeing Kathryn sitting outside a café. She recommended a berry smoothie of some sort, so I went inside and ordered the smoothie and a can of root beer. I downed the root beer in one toss, hands-down the best soda of my life. 

Kathryn and I weren’t impressed with Buffalo High School’s accommodations. Campers were relegated to the soccer field, which isn’t a big deal, but it was 200 yards from the school and thus showers and food. I showered as Kathryn, trooper-like, set up camp in oppressive heat. Hanging out in a broiler wasn’t our idea of a good time, so we drove back into town and found a decent spot for lunch. We hung out in town for a bit, killing time.

Kathryn’s folks were near Buffalo on business and stopped by. Sitting there on the soccer field, we passed time chatting in what turned into an utterly gorgeous evening. I called my dad, who was so excited about me accomplishing this ride that he lost the ability to speak coherently for a bit. My stepmom, too, was excited and proud. Back at the tent, my in-laws said they were impressed.

“You gotta be tough to do that ride,” Roy said. I’ll take that, thank you very much. Roy knows from tough.

Off to the Occidental Hotel for a nightcap. The bartender was a little grumpy about being out of food – thanks to the Tour – but he was nice enough when we told him we just wanted drinks. I drank water and listened, in some sort of bliss, to Kathryn and her parents chat over beers. The night couldn’t have ended more perfectly. Sitting in a comfy chair, finally rehydrated, I started to fade.

I remember walking across the street to the car, but I don’t remember anything after that at all.

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