Following my return from the Dolomites I wisely took my time recovering. Now with Cyclocross approaching as well as the Winthrop Fondo I realized I have let my fitness lag a bit too much. To jump start me back into training I had planned a repeat of my StarvationMountain ride.
Not only would I characterize the ride as epic but so, it seems, does STRAVA. My recollection was that this was a serious undertaking that was loose, hot, steep and dusty all at the most inopportune times.
I checked my ride history and this was a five and a half hour adventure with 2,000 meters of climbing. When I did it two years ago I ran out of food and water and was absolutely shattered when I came rolling in with my tail between my legs.
This route has it all. Remoteness, an unrelenting climb and the memory of hearing what I still believe was a bear just off the gravel road. It also is one of the most rewarding gravel rides and offers both type one and type two fun.
I gave this ride the respect it deserves and prepared accordingly. Following my pre-ride breakfast of eggs and grits I saddled up and departed with five, count ‘em, five water bottles. I carried a backpack with two bottles inside as well as two on my bike and one in my Fondo saddle bag. I’ve lost bottles on rough gravel descents so I have begun using ski straps to keep the bottles on my bike from wandering.
I was rolling before 7:30 and for a few brief moments the air was cool on my arms. I spotted the valley's balloon also greeting the day and took at as a positive sign. Don't ask why, I just did.
Soon I was climbing up Bear Creek and watching the long shadows grow shorter. Summer may be ending but it isn’t ending yet. My arms glistened with sweat and it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. When the pavement ended I began the grind up Lester Road and picked lines on either side of the road to stay as shaded as possible.
The summer rain storms made this and all of the roads on this day interesting. There were many sections that were silty or sandy and it was easy to spin out. On a long climb an often used technique is to alternate sitting and standing as you pedal. With loose roads to avoid spinning out you are forced to sit or at least keep your weight waaay back when you stand which makes your legs scream.
Knowing what was ahead I couldn’t call this the first course or even the appetizer. This was just a taste of what was coming. I kept my HR under 160 and just treated it like another day at the gravel office. I ate a TERD and drank some liquid.
After cresting at 1,000 meters at the top of Lester I made the rocky creek crossing and then descended the loose duff that had been bulldozed in place as an attempt to repair the damage of the flash floods that have slashed this narrow drainage multiple times since the fires of 2014.
As I descended toward Beaver Creek I stopped at the last stand of trees and took off my pack. I shuffled bottles and put the empty one I had already consumed into the pack and put a fresh one on the bike. I took a long drink from the remaining one that I would pick up on my return. I then stashed the pack in the bushes and continued on with three full bottles and one and a half in my belly.
I rolled through the horse camp and made the left, uphill turn onto 4225. I felt my left adductor spasm and I thought, “wholly shit, not already?” I attributed the near cramp to the long descent out of the saddle and prayed it would not return.
The deep valley gave me respite from the sunshine and the road was as good as I’ve seen it. I was in a low gear with a good cadence and I kept an eye on my HR. I looked down at my legs and asked them to get me to the top.
I passed the first cattle guard and had a couple shot bloks. Then I crossed the second cattle guard and smiled as I knew the grade would let up for a couple hundred meters in a bit. In fairly quick succession the road flattened out then picked up again as my eyes strained looking for the sign indicating the junction with 4230 was ahead. It appeared and I braced myself.
I’ve ridden 4230 twice and both times it started off as a steep pile of loose rocks. The image in my mind was of me fighting just to keep momentum. I drew a deep breath and veered left.
The surface here was better than it has ever been. The rocks and dirt and rain had formed a solid roadway and aside from some sandy sections this lower portion was excellent. The washboard was the only real problem. The Silver Bullet and I had ridden this part last year and I was looking forward to the views and the downhill that I knew was ahead.
The climb just kept going and time and again I was thinking it would top out around the next corner. Each time I rounded a corner I could look ahead and see more road and the more road was all uphill. Dang……
My memory of doing this with Barry was that the climb wasn’t too long but my memory can be unreliable.
Finally the road tipped downward ever so slightly and then I tried to keep some power going despite the road flattening out. To my left the views opened up and I was glad to be out of the river valley of 4225 and ascending toward a ridgeline.
Descending on gravel roads necessitates a Zen-like focus to read the best lines to avoid breaking a wheel on a rock or crashing because you hit loose sand or bounced off the road after skimming on wild washboard. It was while I was in this zone that I noticed a couple pickup trucks and a camp below and to my left. I noticed a man in his twenties walking shirtless. “Mosquito bait,” I thought to myself as I flew past at 40k an hour. I bet he was freaked out to see what looked like a road biker so far from a paved road.
The downhill was fun but short. Soon I was back to climbing and hunting for the secret passage that takes me from 4230 to 4235 and the road to the top of Starvation Mountain. When I reached the junction I stopped and moved the empty bottle to my Fondo pack and put a full one into the bottle cage.
In less than two minutes I resumed the climb. This short section has historically been loose and rocky and was also as good as I’ve seen it. I had to dodge some sandy sections but I was able to wrestle my way up. The sun had climbed higher and I unzipped my jersey for the final push to the top. I had a bit over ten kilometers all of it uphill.
I reached 4235 and turned left and chugged along. Soon I was on the eastern side of the ridge and the sun had me as a target. My heart rate was tickling Z4 but that was part of my plan.
The road was getting bad now and there were deep ruts forcing me to ride the hump in the middle. The grade was stiff and my surface options were deteriorating. Sandy, rocky, rutted, washboard and potholes all engaged my brain as I sought the lesser of all evils.
I hit a sandy section and my wheels sunk slowing me almost to a stop. My necessary reaction was to instantly triple my power output to keep moving. My legs didn’t like this as the strain of nearly two hours of climbing was taking its toll. My mind recalled that as a child one of my great fears was quicksand. As my tires found more traction I thought the words “quick” and “sand” should not be joined together.
I passed the area where I had heard the bear and I kept my eyes and ears tuned. The vistas opened up on one side then the other. This part of the route climbs a ridge so the horizon you are constantly teased.
This is my favorite part of the entire route. It isn’t because it is easy but it is in fact a combination of polar opposites. I am in the sunshine so it is warm. I am over six thousand feet above sea level so the air is a tad cooler which feels good. The views are terrific but the road surface is sketchy so I can’t gaze at the landscape for more than a second or two. The air is thin and the grade is relentless. The air is fresh and it is quiet. I am nearing my objective but I also know it in hiding behind the ridgeline.
Sweat drips onto my top tube and my legs are glistening. My gloves are soaked and it feels like I am riding with a wet ravioli in the palm of each hand. For the first time in forever I realize that my biceps and triceps are sore.
After one more switchback the road points to Starvation Mountain. It has been hidden until now. I can see two switchbacks cut into the mountainside. My memory of the final push was that it was double digit steep and loose and then as now it was hot.
The grade let up for a minute and rather than drop down the cassette for a faster gear I just rolled and got ready for the final push.
The first switchback wasn’t bad and I thought I might get lucky. Then the road started to look like a fresh avalanche. Big rocks strewn on loose sand with ruts on a twelve percent incline. You can’t spin this stuff or take it easy or watch your heart rate. You either attack it or walk it or turn around.
I let out a primal yell and powered up. Momentum was essential and painful. I was in Z5 which was what I expected for this part of the ride. My legs were letting out their own yells with my hamstrings and adductors twinging as I followed the road around the last right hand turn.
My goal had been to make it to the top from the junction of Beaver Creek and 4225 in less than two hours and ten minutes. That would take fifteen minutes off of my previous time. As I finally reached the summit I figured I had achieved my goal. I would later find my time was 2:06 and it was a KOM.
Bike and cement thing
At the top I dismounted and leaned my bike on one side of some cement thing and I sat down on the other. I took off my shoes and poured out some bits of gravel. I ate a bar and drank some. I took my time catching my breath.
Had been a chair available, I would still be there. As it was the stark contrast between the focused effort of the past three hours and the sudden stillness was almost disconcerting. The cement I was sitting on wasn’t getting any more comfortable so after just a couple minutes I zipped up my jersey and pointed the B2 Bomber toward the cabin.
Gravel descents aren’t your mother’s downhills.
In five minutes I was threading my way down the loose rutted nightmare that I had just come up. Perhaps I had been hypoxic on the way up as the road was so rough I actually stopped and looked behind me and marveled that I had climbed that monster.
I snapped a couple pics now and again as the views were staggering.
When the road permitted I could open up and my speeds exceeded forty kilometers per hour. I passed the top part of the secret passage and continued on 4235. This was the route I had done with The Silver Bullet.
I rounded a corner and the road kicked up again. WTF? I didn’t remember this. Okay……..
Small ring in front, big ring in back. Up I go again. More. More. More. Come on now….
Finally I can see a ridgeline approaching and I smile as the road finally points down. I’m on NF42 headed toward Loup Loup. The road is rough and I’m again zigging and zagging avoiding rocks.
I spot the curve that signals the junction of 42 and 4225. I’m as good as home now. The road conditions are good again and I am feeling strong. I go ahead and pedal hard in the big ring. Zipping along I sit when the road conditions allow and hover over the seat when I must.
I pass the 4230 junction at 40kph. Then I roll over the second cattle guard. I’m in my Zen state focused on avoiding rocks and sand as the shadows are still over the left side of the road. I’m flying and this is fun. My arms ache.
Up ahead on the right side of the road I see an odd colored rock the size of a trash can. It was flesh colored so for a second I wondered if it might be a person. At the same instant I confirmed it was indeed a rock there was a commotion to my left.
I looked left and a huge brown bear was running alongside me on the edge of the road. He dove through a gap in the trees and went downhill. This was no cub. The butt I saw running away from me was four feet across and going fast. The bear was the size of a refrigerator and just as graceful as he mowed down bushes and small trees crashing downhill. We were both scared and going fast.
Not a bear but still cute
My mind was blown and I tried to string together words in my mind to find my thoughts. I have always wanted to see a bear while on a gravel ride. It was only now that I realized that what I really wanted was to see a bear BEFORE it saw me.
Soon I was climbing Lester from the east side and when I reached my stashed backpack I pulled out the water bottle and drank half of it before finishing the climb. It was one in the afternoon and the sun was blazing on the exposed climb.
I shifted into autopilot and checked the Garmin and with 2,000 meters of climbing done I knew I didn’t have much more to reach the top. I walked across the rocks at the top and then let it fly down the dirt. When I was finally back on pavement I sat up and gave my aching arms a break.
After cutting through Bitterbrush I was back at the Cabin and drinking some chocolate milk. It was a great ride and it was great to be done.
I splurged and had a burger and corn for dinner.