Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mile to Sheep Creek: Epic Ride Montana Style!

Through some brief texts the previous week I was tracked in to meet two friends for one of the areas best "EPIC" rides: Mile Creek to Sheep Creek down in the Southern Madison Range above Hebgen Lake on the Montana/Idaho border. The original plan for my Butte 50 training was to do Curly Lake, which is a 25 mile, 5000ft ride. When I was told the Mile/Sheep ride was "bigger than Curly" it was a no brainer to join my friends instead. There are a number of "epic rides" in our area which include alpine riding, big big climbs, and long miles of great trail. The Mile/Sheep ride gets top billing from many and I had not yet ridden it! Neither of my companions had ridden it either so we were all equally excited for exploration.

Perfect weather greeted us at the trailhead courtesy of the high pressure system that has graced our area with temps near 90 going on three weeks or so. We dropped the car, and did a few road miles to eliminate any shuttling. Very quickly we hit the junction with the Continental Divide Trail which we would be on for a number of miles.  We passed some horse people coming out and they said "We scared away all the grizzly bears for you" This is major griz country and we all carried bear spray at the ready and routinely and regularly yelled out "HEY BEAR" throughout the ride.
Junction at beginning with Continental Divide Trail and Trail 214 where we were headed. This began a 3000ft ascent.

 The trail climbed through the meadows that were quite green still from being up higher on the mountainside. It was beautiful singletrack right from the beginning.

 After a few hours we were really getting up there, and here you can see back out the drainage we had come up. I believe at one point here it was 1100ft in 2 miles or something. It was just a wall of switchbacks!

 We were pretty stoked to get to this point until we figured out we weren't topped out yet! This was maybe 2.5 hours or so...all climbing, all in the granny gear! We had started at around 6300ft at the car!

After another push we made it to the high point of the ride at 10000ft, just below Targhee Peak. 3 hours at least to this point.

 Targhee Peak to the left and an incredible view of the Tetons in Wyoming off in the distance! It was really awesome to be up there and see all of this. Oh, did I mention we saw the ONLY other people of the the whole ride just below here: a couple hiking with their dog from Colorado.

 This is the view the other way from the ridge to the North back into Montana. We live way over in the direction Dan is pointing! Dan and Brian have done a bunch of backcountry skiing in this area and were discussing winter routes.

 We had something like 9 miles of downhill as we dropped in off the ridge. Woohoo! I don't think there is anything more fun than riding downhill on never-before-seen great. It is a Zen focus experience and the mind becomes single-pointed with the body to interpret and react to the about getting in the zone!

 And with scenery like this it becomes even more powerful. Vestiges of winter snow clinging to the shadows.

 On ride of this magnitude the trail and ecosystem changes as you travel up and down in elevation and across aspect and exposure to the sun and water. We were down into the high alpine meadow again where the trail was a faint path and wildflowers abounded.

 This picture is for you Dad! This was still on the downhill section and we had miles to go before we bottomed out before the final climb. Some flowy ATV doubletrack followed this part directly and then some blowdowns jammed up our good time descent for a while till we hit the creek at the bottom.  Bottoming out near 7000ft.

 We have to climb again? How much? 2000 more feet? Oy! We were 6 hours in at this point and about to begin the 2nd big ascent of the ride. Tired legs, sore asses, and lots of sweat going on.  We had already refilled our water supplies at a little creek earlier. Rides this long require either a water filter, steri-pen, or chemical purification for mid ride refills. And be careful later in the summer as there may not be any water in the creeks...

 We had the benefit of some trees for shade on this last push. Temps were hitting 91 on the thermometer. The stream of sweat dripping out of my helmet was near constant the entire climb.

 Nearing the head of the drainage the trail disappeared completely. Without some good backcountry navigation skills one may have some problems here. We did fine and just kept heading up and up. Lots of pushing through these meadows. The grass hummocks are too difficult to ride. The trail reappeared at intervals when it entered the trees to reassure us we were on track. 9200ft here we come!

 Just before topping out is this tiny little pond. Totally picturesqe. Moose and elk tracks all over the meadow in the soft ground.

 The Sheep Creek Drainage. After the second high point of the ride, we were pretty excited have the final downhill back to the car. 7 hours plus to here I think.

 The trail dropped precipitously in series of ridiculous switchbacks, most of which were not rideable, and the ones that were retained major consequences.

 So happy to be done with climbing we skittered our way down the headwall to the creek below and the intersection with the Sheep Lake trail.

We had some nice sections on the way out, but again the trail changed character mile by mile: open meadow, creekside forest, thisck underbrush, rocky, smooth, windy, was pretty amazing. Winding down the ride we came back out into the Madison valley and had a few last miles of dirt road to the car. Totally spent and totally stoked! 33 miles, and 6000 vertical, and about 8.5 hours. Bigtime. Can't wait to do it again!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Triple-Crank, I Love You

The decision to go back to 3x was mostly made while suffering through multiple hike-a-bikes during the Butte 50 last year when I couldn't pedal the 28x36 combo any more on the 2x10 setup. I longed for the 22 tooth granny gear of drivetrains past just so I could stay on the bike pedaling a little longer. Riding a bike up steep trail sucks enough but getting off and pushing up said hill just adds insult to injury. And it makes my arms tired. And it's embarrasing when every little tiny racer dude spins by merrily saying "Good Work!" when they are really thinking "What a loser! He can't even ride up this hill! Did he even train at all?!?" It is of course very nice to blame all of this suckage on my chainrings.

So for the past year and a half I have been running a 2x10 drivetrain on my Blur which came as part of the stock build. For about a year now I have been meaning to swap my cranks back to 3x but have continued to procrastinate. I did try the swap last year the week before the Butte race, but was stymied by shifter and derailleur incompatibilities: 2x vs 3x vs SRAM vs Shimano vs What Spare Parts I Had In The Bin. I couldn't get it working and threw the 2x back on for the race. Yesterday, a year later, I finally got the 3x cranks on, purchased the appropriate front derailleur and got everything working again.

For the 140lbs racer who rides 20 hours a week the 2x10 system probably works great. They can hammer it out for as long as it takes pushing big gears. Also for those who live where there are fewer hills, shorter hills, or even no hills, it is probably great. For the big-ascent (and descent) Rocky Mountain riding around here, bring on the 3x! For hours-long ascents like Curly Lake or Bangtail Divide, the 22 tooth ring is a lifesaver.
My riding focus for two years running has been the Butte 50 race. I would say for the 8 hour race there must be around 6 hours of climbing. My race theory is it is all about average speed. With the 2x drivetrain, I was off and walking on anything steep pretty early in the race. Walking is slow. What is also slow is the dismount and remount associated with all the walking.  With the 22 on the 3x cranks all this walking will be quite reduced, thereby bringing up the slowest speeds I will go. Average speed will go up and I should be finishing faster. 

I am an idiot for not making this change sooner than I did. Oh well. Maybe in about 10 years I will have it all figured out. Or maybe by then I will figure out how to ride 20 hours a week and be a machine and run whatever gears I want.