Tales of a Cyclotourist: Beartooth Hwy

One of the switchbacks on the Cooke City side of the pass

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.

[dmalbum path=”/velominati.com/content/Photo Galleries/[email protected]/Beartooth/”/]

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.

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35 Replies to “Tales of a Cyclotourist: Beartooth Hwy”

  1. Jens was only a 1/2 mile ahead of you? Damn, you’re fast. Gavia, no sheeit.

  2. Great post. So good that no-one will have the temerity to even question whether Photo 30 is evidence of Rule #22 non-compliance …

  3. Absolutely stunning Marko! I’m off on a trip around the US next month after my velomi-hottie becomes Mrs Velomi-hottie and there are sooooo many spots we’re going through that are screaming out for a little 2 wheel pain. Anyone tried sneaking a bike onto a honeymoon before and survived?

  4. Montana: Oh, how I miss those Western skies. And Jens at the end: nice touch!

  5. @david


    How could I not take a pic of the Jens sign? There are few states in the U.S. that are hardcore enough to have a town called Jens, Montana is one of them.

    I think you’ll be okay as long as her bike is at least as nice as yours, if it’s not, it’ll never work out. Congrats btw, and have a great honeymoon.

    yeah, yeah, yeah. I had to represent with my Garmin cap for them linking the blog to their site. Albeit if they saw that pic they’d prolly think me a wanker, tie me up with a turtle-neck, and have Farrar crush me with his massive guns.

  6. beautiful! and thanks for adding another to my bucket list. That bucket of mine has so many ‘have to do’ rides that I will be lucky to do a portion. Nonetheless, i have a feeling this one will get it.

  7. A big thank you for this post/images, what a welcome thing to wake up to. From now on my hardman dreams (no comments please) will be in the mountains not the traffic of L.I. The cap is the only disapointment, if only it had been Campy, Molteni even Raleigh but hey you are forgiven for the awesomeness of the rest!

  8. @Marko
    Montana’s very hardcore. There are, what? Three National Forests and two designated wilderness areas along that short strip, aren’t there? And such a smooth road!

    I drove that road in 1989, just after the big fire at Yellowstone and again in 2004 when I moved from Pullman, WA to Philadelphia. I never got a chance to ride it on either occasion, though it definitely deserves to belong on anybody’s list (and, as you say, near the top of the list).

  9. @Souleur
    it’s nice not only for the ride but pretty centraly located in the country. one could also tack on the Chief Joseph highway and Yellowstone and make for a fantastic 4-5 day cyclo-vacation. Perhpas a Velominati tour, summer 2011?

    damn me and my Garmin cap! point taken. i don’t ride campy but a Molteni cap would be sweet. Perhaps I’ll pick up a Brooklyn one or maybe BMC. Glad you like the article.


    So just after the ride I drove down through Silver Gate into Yellowstone and car-toured that for the day all the time wishing I had more time as there are fantastic roads to ride in the park, thing is though, as you know, Yellowstone is choked with fat people and rented RVs who are so busy looking for wildlife they may not see a cyclist. On my way home I took the northern route through North Cascades and saw a ton of cyclists, then continued through the Methow valley, again, stunning cycling opportunities. The pinacle though was making a stop through Glacier N.P. and driving the Road to the Sun. The summit was closed due to landslides caused by heavy rains this year so I was only able to drive up to within a mile or so of the pass. What a phenomonal road that would be to ride but the guvment doesn’t allow cyclists past the flats as it’s so narrow.

  10. @Joe

    Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in, er, I mean, uh, if you find yourself near southeast Idaho (or Jackson Hole, WY) on your endeavors look me up and I’ll take you and yours for a ride “Around the Block

  11. @Marko
    Oh, man! Don’t stop: this is too good for my soul. Love Glacier and North Cascades. A lifetime ago, I wrote a thesis on the history of wilderness trail construction in the PNW, and made a point of doing a lot of “research” on the ground. I grew up a coastal Cascadian, but spent four years in the Inland West and grew to love that, too. Sounds like a great trip, all in all.

  12. @Steampunk

    Sounds like a cool thesis project, makes me wonder what you do. My thesis was about how the Makah tribe’s (Neah Bay, WA) sense of place is brought up in contested terrain arguements related to public lands (primarily fishing and whaling but also Olympic N.P.). Great stuff. Like you, seems a lifetime ago but has no less importance to me now than then.

  13. @Marko
    I’m a university prof””environmental historian who also dabbles in the history of science and technology. Have been trying to find the right angle to work up something on the history of cycling that would let me use grant money to buy a new bike. It hasn’t happened yet…

  14. you fella’s thesis projects are alot better than mine. At least with you all you may have gotten out into the backcountry and ridden in your studies. Mine was exercise program benefits for stage IV congestive heart failure and primarily a meta-analysis which was alot of library time.

    I am in flynn for summer 2011 out there if it goes

  15. Whooa, Steampunk, dude you should have broadcast that long ago with the peeps here I am sure your thesis proposal could be thought up in about 2 seconds. Lets see just off the top (probably too simplistic, I have no education but just to get the ball rolling):

    Comparative weights of Pre war (WW I) racing bikes to contemporary carbon fiber bikes and why they weigh the same?

    Or: Tire pressure and world record times: would early times be equal to current times if Dunlop’s could have been inflated to 120 psi?

  16. @Marko
    Marko, awesome report. Makes me long for that ride again. My advice was 20 years old, but man those pictures look exactly like I remember it. I did the ride back and forth from Redlodge in two days; Rode Redlodge to Cooke; crashed there overnight with my mom and dad, ate pancakes at Outlaw Jim’s the next morning and then rode back. There’s a great outdoor burger joint there somewhere in Redlodge and a burger has never tasted so good in my life.

    Frank’s suggestions, at least when it comes to cycling, are usually spot-on so I took him up on it.

    Why qualify it like that? I’m Dutch. Dutch == Awesome; Awesome == Always right; Frank == Dutch. So you can easily rewrite that to say, Frank == Always Right.

    The math is sound.

    @Steampunk, @Rob

    Uh. Yeah. Jeeze. Rob, I like your start. I would go here: 1930’s era, pre-derailleur bike vs. top of the line modern carbon ride. Measure same riders on both bikes in climbing, descending, and flat riding. Plot that against a table of measurable improvements in technology and speeds of racing. Based on that data, we can then extrapolate that the delta between that and today’s speeds are due to improvements in diet, training, and doping.

    BOOM. Problem solved. NEXT.

  17. @frank

    Kind of like when you suggested that you drive the rental car from the airport to the hotel in Geneva and we ended up on the pedestrian/trolley only mall in the city centre? I felt like the Griswalds on European vacation with 4 ski-bags strapped to the roof. Classic! I’ll never forget that shit.

  18. @frank You see Frank because I am American and have no education nor the burden of white imperialist colonial superiority (“Dutch == Awesome; Awesome == Always right; Frank == Dutch Frank == Always Right.”) and therefore no reason not to say I do not understand any part of your thesis except that you like doping!

    I’m automatically with Marko on this one and I have yet to suffer the joy of a road trip with you!

  19. @Rob@frank
    I dunno, lads: I might need a really big grant to get all that gear. And then I’ll likely need a team of riders for the tests, complete with training sessions in Europe””oh, and some really sweet team kit. I wonder where I could find all that…

  20. @Steampunk Uh, well, trial test run on the Keepers 2011 tour Belgium and final tests on the Velominati 2011 tour in Montana – Wyoming?

  21. @Steampunk, @Rob, @Marko

    And, for authenticity, we’ll also need to full wool Velominati kits for the 1930’s bike testing.

    Steampunk, you get the grant, I’ll get started straight away on the wool kits.

  22. I rode Beartooth to the west summit from Red Lodge last summer. I live at 20 ft of elevation. The summit of that is at 10950 or so. It was insane. 4 hours to get up, 1.25 hours to get down. So much fun. I might drive back up there this summer. I love it up there.

  23. Awesome post, and well ridden. For those of us who follow your site in Europe, and who aspire to be Velominati one day, when we’re all grown up and have outgrown our mid-life crises…. it’s great to hear that you have some big rides out there across the pond. We have it spoilt here in Europe (admittedly, not really in the UK) with the Giro, Vuelta and Tour… the roads in the pyrenees, alps and dolomites are literally smeared with pedigree (I think it’s pedigree… it might be ectoplasm, or at least processed EPO… that’s if you can get past the crudely painted cocks and ‘Lance go home’ motifs) that you never feel like your climbing the hills for the first time. Your photos were great… really captured the sense of space, fresh air and solitude… Chapeau! And loved the sentence “All it took was a glance at my right thigh and I was up the road without a problem”…. I rode the etape course two weeks ago, in the rain, and mid-way up the Soulor met the witch with green teeth – or was it the Man with the Hammer? (ok, I bonked, really badly)… for the first time in my cycling career, I had to dismount mid-climb, and stand – gasping, panting – over my frame, humiliated, whilst one of my cycling ‘buddies’ just rode past and whispered “Harden the fuck up, loser”…. if only I’d had the bib shorts to remind me – when I looked down – of Rule #5, I’m sure I’d’ve been ok…. luckily, several hot chocolates, gel bars, and humble-pies later (no longer was I the victor of Ventoux I was in 2009) I managed to find my balls again (they’d fallen out and were caught in my jersey pocket next to my driving licence and pump) and the ride the remaining 80k to the summit of the Tourmalet: in fog, in rain, in the dark. Those bastard French. Those Pyrenees are big buggers, and the weather sucks. VERY jealous of your ride and photos. I must go and train harder, as I obviously haven’t earned the right to climb in good weather. (Did I mention the hail? the HAIL on Hautacam? In June? Those wankers)… but watch July 22nd: it is going to be an epic stage

  24. @roadslave

    Thanks for the compliments roadslave but I must say your comment probably has at least 300k of more climbing than my post. Great comment “I think it’s pedigree… it might be ectoplasm, or at least processed EPO… that’s if you can get past the crudely painted cocks and ‘Lance go home’ motifs”. Next time I’m over in the Beartooth I’m bringing some white spray paint for a huge dick and balls. But I’ll save some for the summit so I can paint “roadslave is hard”.

  25. @Steampunk
    I have an upcoming post that you’ll be interested vis-a-vis cycling history in the Mountain West (25th bicycle corps, 1890s). Could be a few weeks while I dot the i’s and cross the t’s on the dissertation (first things first). Coincidentally, I am also an environmental historian and historian of science…email at josh at velominati dot com and lemme know who you really are. Maybe we can bring bikes to Phoenix next spring…

  26. @josh
    Small world! I just sent you an e-mail with my Clark Kent details. Looking forward to your piece; dissertation can wait! Hadn’t thought of packing a bike down to Phoenix, but now you’ve got me thinking about it.

  27. Marko! Killer post. That is what cycling and this site are all about; a chance to blow people’s mind with a great ride, a great story and great photos. Put me in coach. I want to go there. I will be in Laramie this Fall but it must be a long way from the Bear Tooth Highway. I’m glad you had an excellent bike to do the ride on too! Well played all the way around. And nice new avatar. I gotta change mine, it’s too weird.

    @roadslave Excellent…bonking is cool.

  28. @john
    Thanks Bra. Oh how sweet it would have been to have you and Bethtani there. Blue skies and perfect temps for climbing, And dry, really really dry. We’ve started a rumor about a Velominati tour 2011 for the area. You know how those things go but we pulled off the TdB so perhaps us peeps can make something happen.

  29. @Marko
    you can ride glacier…just have to start early and the route is from west glacier to going to the sun to st mary’s and back through hwy 2…it is called the highline hammer…been going on for 30 years the first sunday in august…not an event, but an annual occasion

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