Tales of a Cyclotourist: Beartooth Hwy
It's been called the most beautiful highway in the world. That, as with most things, can be left to debate. What's not debatable, however, is that the Beartooth Highway, which runs from Red Lodge Montana to Cooke City Montana via Wyoming, is a great place to ride a bike.
I had the opportunity to ride part of the highway to the summit on my way west to the Tour de Blast. Back in the day I had led backcountry skiing trips in the area but had never been there in the summer, let alone with my bike. So when I made plans with the other Keepers to join them for the TdB, Frank suggested I detour south of the interstate to ride the Beartooth. Frank's suggestions, at least when it comes to cycling, are usually spot-on so I took him up on it.
I passed through Red Lodge, 5500 feet (1697m), and drove the highway to Cooke City, 7572 feet (2307m), the evening before my ride. This was a good opportunity to see what I was in for the next day. The road starts its ascent to 10,947 feet (3344m) right off the end of the main drag in Red Lodge. The road surface is phenomally smooth new blacktop which is barely wide enough for two cars to pass without pulling in the side mirrors. This was the case for 80 km over the pass and down about 1/3 of the other side. Thirty kilometers down on the Cooke City side of the pass, the road was under construction for about a 15 or 20 km stretch. Heavy equipment and road workers had the road torn up to one dirt lane for most of this stretch. It was at this point I had to make a decision. I either had to turn back and ride the Red Lodge side or drive back up through the construction in the morning and start the ride about 25 km short at the Top of the World Resort, 9400 feet (2865m) and ride to the summit from there.
I opted to drive back up from Cooke City in the morning. Although it meant considerably less riding it allowed me to ride the much more scenic side of the road. It's not that the Red Lodge side is hard on the eyes it's just the Cooke City side stays in the high alpine environment longer and is more dramatic. This side of the road is also steeper which I thought would be a more interesting test for my flatlander legs. As it turned out, the flatlander legs did fine on the average 10% grade. It was the flatlander lungs trying to suck oxygen at altitude that challenged me. I didn't remember being as winded during my backcountry skiing career. All it took was a glance at my right thigh and I was up the road without a problem.
The ride was spectacular. It was not a stretch for my simple mind to imagine myself riding the Passo di Gavia as I passed through corridors of snowbanks 3 meters high. Marmots stood and watched me pass by from their rocky perches. Tourists gave me strange looks and even snapped pictures as they drove slowly past in their climate-controlled SUV's (I was the only cyclist on the road that day for some strange reason). My Beartooth experience even came full circle as I saw a couple skiers hiking a ridge getting ready to earn their turns on an early summer corn harvest.
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All in all I'd love to go back and do it again from both sides and from the bottom. As it turned out, it was the perfect yin to the Tour de Blast's yang four days later. What the TdB lacked in weather and views, Beartooth Pass more than made up for in both categories. However, the TdB provided for great commeraderie with friends which was lacking on my solo ride up Beartooth. No worries, it's a rare day that all the pieces of a perfect ride come together and this day was, for me, as good as cycling gets.