What would you do with a day off and your camp is one mile from the entrance to Glacier National Park next to the Rockies? I know, that’s what I did as well. Go for a bike ride!
Not just any bike ride but the most epic experience for that moment. Not many get the chance to ride the Going-to-the-Sun (GS) Road and for a short time each spring, this road is open only to cyclists. The road is typically open to vehicles in late June once they have cleared the road of snow and snow avalanches. They use huge front loaders to put this packed winter snow into trucks and then haul it out.
At certain points, they also have to blast this hard pack in order to break it up. This road is in the high elevation mountains once you go past the entire length of Lake McDonald. It may be one of the prettiest roads in America but also a white knuckle drive as reported by my friend Michael H. It’s tough to drive it with cliffs and drop offs on every mile.
Next to me at Glacier camp is Emily and Charlotte who are biking from Seattle to Vermont. They told me they planned to get up early and tackle this ride. I have to go as well.
I woke up at 5:45 am and got ready. Weather is so unpredictable, so I load my rain gear, jackets and gloves. Expect it to be cold on top. I have my front Ortlieb bag with digital camera, wallet (for snack shop at top….lol) and a map. Back bags loaded with the rest of gear but my tent, stove, and Thermarest pad are left behind at camp. This makes my bike feel light, lively and stoked for some climbing.
Since I’m camped outside of the park, I have to bike 20 miles to the start. As I’m biking, I see vehicle after vehicle pass me loaded with their carbon fiber racing machines. Everyone is driving their bikes to the GS road. I’m the only one actually biking as are Emily and Charlotte who left about one hour earlier.
Eventually I get tp the parking lot where all the drivers are unloading the bikes near the barricade where cars can go no further….bikers only. I hear lots of languages, people have come from all over for this unique experience.
The ride starts easy, some up some down as we move towards huge granite peaks covered with snow. You can see waterfalls everywhere coming down the mountain and areas of avalanches are evident. Just as you think this is going to be easy, the road starts a twisty direction up the mountain…we are headed towards Logan’s Pass.
This will require 3,500 ft of climbing in 16 mile stretch. At first riders are going around me like mad as they just got on their bikes and caught up in the moment.Two young men on their road bikes pass me and one of these guys has six bananas sticking out his jersey pocket. I tease him by asking what he will trade for one of them since he has a bunch. We talk for awhile then he says he has to go and takes off.
It is at this point I realize I have made a rookie mistake…how could I screw this up with my experience? I didn’t bring any food. No nuts, bars or snacks. 3 water bottles but nothing else? I pull over at side of road and rummage thru my rear pannier. I’m furious with my stupid self as yesterday I lounged around Lake McDonLd and visited several of the visitor center stores at Apgar. All of them had snacks and food.
In the bottom of my bag I find peanut butter and a tortilla shell. Saved. Saved by accident cause normally those items are in my front bag with all my food supplies. I must of put them there when my front bag got too full. Don’t remember doing so. Ok, I can now ride.
Fording the Avalanche
This ride is spectacular. Yesterday there was an avalanche and snow covers the road with approx 5 miles to go to Logan’s Pass. Undeterred, I just pick my bike up and carry it over the snow. In places large, 3-ft boulders are sitting in the road. I just go around. Some people are now giving up and going back down. You start to see some riders cramping up and stopping on the edge stretching and showing the stress of the grade.
I find a pace at 6 mph and 92 rpm. It is same pace I have used for 8 hours against the South Dakota and Montana headwinds. I pull on the handle bars and drive upward. I feel like I have done 5 weeks of training just for this event.
I soon catch up to banana man. You could see it on his face how he hated to be passed by ol man on touring bike with bags ….I never see him again. I pass rider after rider. Eventually I stop to make a tortilla and PB sandwich after 3 hours of riding. I stop frequently to take a quick picture and then ride.
At Logan’s Pass the center of the road is blocked…huge piles of snow still remain to be shoveled or blasted. It is really windy and cold up there. Immediately you are wind strafed if that is a word. I celebrate with a bunch of strangers who mostly are on e-bikes ….we high five and talk trash about the ones that quit and went back. We are buds in the moment.
The descent was hair raising. I have always been able to climb like a mountain goat but going down at break neck speeds reveals a real weakness in my game. I touch my brakes too much and just can’t let 45 mph happen without imagining the helicopter ride that would result when I crash. I don’t have the good skills, and some riders fly by me like I’m standing still.
My hands cramp on the bars as fingers go numb from the cold and speed- produced wind. I put on a jacket and gloves and still freeze. I enjoy the ride going up more than the roller coaster going down. That’s weird isn’t it?
As I go down, hundreds of riders are still creeping up the pass. I’m amazed at some of the riders as they appear to be just casual bikers taking on this great opportunity. I’m also humbled by a team of bikers with physical impediments on hand pedaled recumbents. Quite frankly they are today’s true champs and are demonstrating grit in way I will never forget.
When I get to the bottom, I stop at the café in Apgar as it just starts to pour. I refuel with a cranberry salad and wait for the rain to stop. I then jump on bike too early and get soaked before I can finish last 5 miles back to camp.
At camp I celebrate with Charlotte and Emily by sharing some double stuffed oreo cookies and Dirt Arrogant Bastard beer where it says right on the label that I’m likely not worthy to have such suds. Today, after 80 miles of riding on my day off up a mountain pass, I disagree and chug that brew. I felt worthy.