At 5am on Saturday, May 21 Joy and I began our second attempt at our longest, most challenging day of our bicycle ride across the US: 83 miles between Baker, Nevada and Milford, Utah. The ride required climbing over three summits with a total climb of just under 4,000 feet. Challenging enough when you’re each carrying ~70 pounds of gear (food, water, clothing, camping and cooking stuff). What turned it into a scary ride is that there are no services: no gas stations, no mini marts, no creeks from which to filter water. Nothing.
We’d been rebuffed the previous day – the National Weather Service had issued a warning for hundreds of miles around us: winds would be 35-40 mph, with gusts up to 60. Even so, we had tried to leave early to see if we could get out ahead of the storm, but after less than 4 miles, we aborted. Even on flat road, hours before the main gusts were scheduled to appear, hard pedaling was barely getting us anywhere.
At 5am it was barely daylight. A light wind was already blowing and we knew it would build during the course of the day. But at least we hoped to have a number of cycling hours with reasonable winds in what we expected to be 10-12 hours of cycling.
Just before setting out we each drank a big glass of water, and ate a pastry (for carbs) and a hard boiled egg. The hard boiled egg was the first of 5 we’d each be eating during the course of the day. Eating would not be enjoyable today. Drinking and eating would be constant parts of the day’s regimen. That day we ate lunch #1 in mid-morning and lunch #2 in the early afternoon. Almost every time we stopped for a breather or a full rest we would snack on our haphazard mixture of trail mix, almonds, dried pineapple chunks, beef jerky chunks, and peanut butter pretzels. We each ate about half a pound of that mixture over the course of the day. Plus, we each ate a few granola bars. And the eggs. We each also had four gatorade bottles and carried 5 water bottles.
Six miles after we started we crossed into Utah. We were momentarily elated. This was a big milestone for us: we had now successfully cycled across the width of California (including climbing the Sierras) and successfully crossed the width of Nevada, including surviving the combined tedium of Highway 50 (“The Loneliest Road in America”) and the challenges of Nevada’s Basin-Range geography. Twenty feet past the billboard welcoming us to Utah we saw a sign that left us crestfallen: by crossing into Utah we’d moved into the Mountain time zone and instantly lost an hour!
Within twenty minutes of crossing into Utah, the light winds began to build. As we’d experienced yesterday, the winds were blowing perpendicular to our route. While better than headwinds, the winds were still taking what should have been relatively flat road and making it as hard as a steep climb. Our introduction to Utah was not going very well.
We began taking turns acting as a wind break for each other. One of us would right on the right-most edge of the road and the other one would right to the left and slightly behind the other. We weren’t exactly drafting off the other person, but at least the person on the left didn’t have to work quite so hard. We couldn’t ride too close because wind gusts made it impossible to keep a straight line and we didn’t want to side swipe each other. We weren’t too worried about riding side by side along this road because there was so little car traffic. If 50 was the loneliest highway, what was this one?
Within a few hours of starting our ride, cycling quickly moved from hard to daunting. But we were making progress. It was just so frustrating that the “easy” part of the ride was so challenging and we still had three peaks to climb: Halfway (6,309 feet), Wah Wah (6,723 feet) and Frisco (6,460 feet).
(Click on the link to watch the video of high winds. Note the grass along the edge of the road)
Keeping Spirits Up
We knew that today was going to be day of endurance and grit and not letting the ride overwhelm us. We each began to look for ways to keep mentally focused on the task and not get too daunted by what we needed to do.
Several hours into the ride we found that battling the winds was having a big impact on our physical comfort. We’d spent long days in the saddle before, but today everything was magnified. Clothing chafed. Our seats became torture, our legs felt dead and our arms and hands ached from having to fight the gusts and to keep bikes upright. We would try to relieve the pain in our rear ends by standing our pedals, but that would make us more susceptible to gusts. Even drinking was difficult. It was easier to stop to take a gulp of water than to fight the wind with just one hand.
(Click on the link to watch the video of Joy battling high winds.)
We took delight in animals we spotted. Because our bikes are so quiet (and masked by the wind) we were lucky enough to surprise a badger who had created a burrow right along the edge of the road. What a wonderful treat that was! For a short while, at least, it definitely buoyed us up and kept us focused on additional opportunities to spot animals. Much later in the day we were lucky enough to see a pronghorn antelope doe and fawn. Our constant companions, and quickly not very inspiring, were Piute Ground squirrels, which would chirp in alarm and dive into their roadside burrows as we passed.
We each also spent a lot of time doing math in our heads. “12 miles down. We’re now about 15% done.” We often stopped for a breather at mile markers — important psychological and emotional milestones. Inevitably, as we’d pull up at a marker, one of us would announce the math: “We’re 30% of the way done.” “We just reached 45%.”
Just as we did with our Sierra summit rides, we had dedicated this challenging ride to honor friends and family who have been struck down prematurely or suffered a debilitating health issue while still in the prime of their lives. Today’s ride was dedicated to Pamela Marostica, who succumbed to Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the same aggressive brain tumor that took our friend Warren (and the main inspiration our bicycle ride across the US). I spent a lot of time thinking about what life must have been like for Pamela, her husband, Matt, and their daughters as Pamela battled GBM. When I began to feel sorry for ourselves about the pain we were in and how much more there was to do, it helped to put our self-imposed suffering into perspective. And it made me feel good to know that we are helping to raise research funds to fight this terrible disease.
Our Not-so-Secret Weapon
We would not have been able to complete this ride without our good friends Anne and Steve Janzer. We had arranged to take a several day break from our cross-country ride to meet up with Anne and Steve to visit the spectacular National Parks in this area: Bryce and Zion. Worried about us, Anne and Steve informed us that they would be taking one of their vacation days to intercept us somewhere along the route to re-supply us with water and to take some of our panniers. This meant that we didn’t have to carry every last drop of water we’d need and we could off-load about half of our cargo. We met Anne and Steve just a few hundred yards from the summit of HalfWay Peak (halfway to what, I have no clue). They took four of our eight panniers and we agreed that they would leave a gallon water jug for us at mile 43 and mile 58. Those two rest stops were fabulous stops.
Roughly twelve hours after we started, we finally rolled into Milford, Utah. It had taken us 9 hours and 53 minutes of active cycling to cover exactly 83 miles and climb a total 3,986 feet. We sent out texts and short Facebook blurbs to family and friends to let them know we were still alive, ate a dinner we barely remember and then crawled into bed. We had to get up early the next day to ride 60 miles to Cedar City.