Beartooth Pass

Words: James Selman | Photography: Daniel Wakefield Pasley | Date:

This ride could be a top five. Maybe three.

Riding in the brisk Portland Sunshine on a March day waiting for the rains to come again, I contemplated how amazing it would be to ride Beartooth now, today. How if I could, if the roads were passable, even with snow piled six or ten feet high on either side, with perhaps a storm approaching, I would ride it. As long as it was passable, you would ride it. You just would.

I know I am exaggerating, but, only slightly. And let it be known, nothing about this ride is slight. Important Cameras get lost on rides like this. You loose yourself in the vastness of rides like this. Rides like this are meant to be big and amazing and amazingly big. I want to use “the E word”, but let’s go with larger-than-life.

We rolled out of town in the misty darkness of a July morning and crossing the Yellowstone River, were greeted by a handful of deer walking the streets of Gardiner, Montana. We climbed gently out of town and rode under what Teddy meant by National Park, an amazing stone archway at the Northern, and only year-round, entrance to Yellowstone.

After little more than the slight climb we expected, we stopped to take in the clear blue skies that contrasted with the white cliffs of giant steaming thermals. With 3 miles down and 120 odd miles and 11,500 feet of climbing to go, our pilgrimage began in earnest.

We head East towards Route 212, the road that will take us all the way to Red Lodge, MT 123 miles away. Climb slightly and descend. A big Buffalo blocks the road in a valley that we all described as “majestic”. Cole doesn’t hesitate and rides around the large stoic beast. Hahn, Ira and I stay back, giving him time. His size shrinks the road. He soon moves on. We move forward to the first big climb.

As we ascend, our host for the day, Carl (who has the physical presence of a Big-10 wresting champ) mentions that there are THREE LEVELS to the climb up to Beartooth Pass, and this climb is not one of them. We look at him for a moment and try to imagine where LEVEL ONE might be, as it seems we’ve already conqeured at least two levels?

We are less than 60 miles in and about 4 miles from Cooke City. Greeted with a little dirt and spirited Vitamin G on the ramparts, we get a little sting of adrenaline and sprint into the bustling but small town of Cooke City. We regroup and Cole acquires a superb fishing fly at the local general store while food is discussed. Some settle in for BBQ, others have a quick meal of PB&J and decide to keep going.

Carey, Ira and I partake in the latter and slowly head up and out of town where we are quickly treated to an amazing decent that takes us to a crystal clear river. A cold foot bath and face wash beneath 11,000 foot peaks became completely necessary as the mountain sun had hit its highest point of the day. We collected as a group in the icy waters and moved on to the road known as Beartooth Highway.

As we began to roll, Carl turns and says, “This is LEVEL ONE.” I took stock of my computer. 77 miles. Wow. 43 to go? And 25 of it climbing? Is that right? We put our heads down and rolled past the first summit saving our energy for LEVELS TWO and THREE.

Right before we hit the summit of LEVEL TWO, Hahn encourages me to take the wood cut sign that reads, “Top of the World”, from Ira who has been at the front most of the day. I take part and take the prize, but realize I’ll pay for my actions. Ira jumps back and is on for the long haul and I follow. But what follows, I have only experience a handful of times on rides. When rides become something else.

I’ve been lucky enough to ride in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, Colorado and Oregon. Lucky enough to ride parts of Roubaix. Been on the slopes with fans at the top of L’Alpe and in cars with professionals training on the slopes of the Col de la Madeleine. But never have I ridden the Grand passes of anything in Europe, the switchbacks upon switchbacks. But on this day, in this weather, I feel like I got pretty close, to both.

I stick to Ira’s wheel as we hit the last and final level of Beartooth Pass, LEVEL THREE. This road is impassable during the winter the map says, so there is always construction I’m sure at some point during the summer months to repair and replace the surface mother nature lovingly pushes and pulls with ice and snow, heat and sun.

A light mist has started and the next obstacle is the road sign manager who’s holding her sign in the STOP position. Our faces must have shown like kids at a candy store for she smiles and lets us roll through.

The Gods have given us the road, a pass, empty and ours. We climb. Switchback. We trade. Switchback. This repeats itself over and over and over. There are no cars. The earth is ours. Ira uses all of the tarmac. I am almost dropped. He yells back to me that I can do it. I hold it together. We climb. And climb. We can see the bends above us. Huge straights of limp rubber bands flowing amongst rock and mist and tundra.

Still no cars. A bit of rain now. A bit of tail, then head wind. It is glorious. It is so open. You can’t feel anything except that you want it to end, but then again, actually you don’t.

We pass other cycling tourists. I suppose backhoes, dumptrucks, a few cars? I can only remember waving to Snowflake huddled in Dave’s car. You think you are at the top, than you see another 5 corners, than another 3. Is that the end?

Ira surges and I try to follow, but I’ve been beyond my limit for some time now, and the “11,500 feet” sign at the top is his. I reach him and I grab him in a huge bear hug. It’s one of those types of climbs. We should have taken pictures, but we bundle up and head down, one of those unsaid, understood moments of, “We are two miles up in the air, anything can happen and happen fast.”

We bomb the descent. Being on steel again, and having 16 miles of pure ripping long switchbacks was just amazing beyond words. We pass car after car. I try to stuff my face with the last bits of blocs and bars. My water is out. We are back in Montana.

Bonk sets in at the same time a lucky tailwind shoots us into Red Lodge. Gas station. The door. The metal bell. Take out the credit card. Peanut Butter Crackers. Coke. Water. Protein bar. Beef Jerky? Yes. Ira and I sit on the concrete stoop and don’t say a word, just eat. We coast to the cabins to meet everyone.

The Rapha Continental, as Carey said this Summer, “has been built upon” rides like this. Cameras get found on rides like this. Your spirit for why you ride gets found on rides like this. Anyone who saddles up on two wheels needs to ride a ride like Beartooth Pass. You will be satisfied with its existence. You will be satisfied with its bigness. We most certainly were.

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