The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Friday, June 12, 2009

NERD FILE: El Paso to Vancouver

For the last 2 months I have spent a unreasonable amount of time studying maps or glued to a speedometer being alternately fried to a crisp in the desert, huddled in snowy blizzards or sheltering in the tent from blood thirsty mosquitoes. I never seemed to learn, as Hol did early on, that knowing exactly how high we have to climb will not make the pass lower, that knowing the hourly wind shifts for each day will only make you more angry when the supposed brisk tailwind is slowing you to a crawl going downhill, and that the supposed water stops on the map only have a 50:50 chance of materialising in the heat. I still don't understand why map makers haven't yet come up with a symbol to mark a deserted trailer with a bourbon sluggin', gun totin' owner that differs from the one they use for 'town: population < 100'

Total Distance: 2753.6 miles
Days on the road: 53 [46 on the bike]
Total Time Pedaling:
192h 26m
Longest Day
: 115.2 miles, 7h 20m of pedalling
Highest Pass: Red Mountain Pass, Colorado 11,007 ft
Longest Climb: 5,100ft vertical gain from Durango to Silverton over Coal Bank and Molas Passes
Top Speed: 49.2 mph (dammit)
Worst headwind: Gusting 45mph 2nd day riding to Radium Springs, New Mexico
Coldest Night Camping: Fontenelle Creek, Wyoming -7 degrees C
National Parks: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, The Tetons, Yellowstone, North Cascades
Best signpost: Next to a Wendy's advert saying Home of the famous 3/4lb cheese triple we found a vet in Sedro-Woolley advertising the Home of the famous $25 cat neuter

Having chosen to ride up the spine of the Rockies also meant we took in our fair share of passes. In the course of crossing the continental divide 8 times we took in the following passes:

Coal Bank Pass, Colorado: 10,630 ft
Molas Pass, Colorado: 10,879 ft
Red Mountain Pass, Colorado: 11,007 ft
Indian Creek Pass, Utah: 9,100 ft
Francis Creek Pass, Utah: 8,400 ft
Bondurant Pass (The Rim), Wyoming: 7,900 ft
Craig Pass, Wyoming: 8,262 ft
Virginia City Pass, Montana: 6,950 ft
Badger Pass, Montana: 6,760 ft
Big Hole Pass, Montana: 7,630 ft
Chief Joseph Pass, Montana: 7,264 ft
Lost Trail Pass, Montana: 7,014 ft
Tiger Pass, Washington: 3,300 ft
Sherman Pass, Washington: 5,575 ft
Wauconda Pass, Washington: 4,310 ft
Loup Loup Summit, Washington: 4,020 ft
Washington Pass, Washington: 5,477 ft
Rainy Pass, Washington: 4,855 ft

High Points: Meeting someone who claimed to ride at 65mph on the flat on their bike and pedalled so hard smoke came off his wheels, seeing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for the first time, almost every down hill, every tail wind, 5 days off in Jackson with new friends and family.

Low Points: Agonizingly cold hands coming down in a blizzard into Silverton without warm gloves, the 4th puncture and wheel about to collapse after riding 108 miles with only another 7 to go Vernal, running out of water in the desert.

Luckiest moments: Our tyres delaminating and collapsing just as we pulled into Durango. We had just come flying down a twisting 4 mile descent dodging oil trucks and RVs and it was home to the first bike shop in miles and miles.

Scariest moment: Front tyre blowout after hitting a rock at 40mph coming down the main road from Lost Trail Pass, being chased by packs of dogs in New Mexico.

Thanks to my Dad for sending our gear over to El Paso, Charley and Kamala for getting us on our way, the hosting from Stuart and Veronica in Alburquerque, Jason and Devon for the bed and the survival kit in Durango, Breton for letting us sleep in his airstream in Montrose, KP for the free overhaul for Carlos in Vernal, Dick and Nancy for the brilliant guided tour of Jackson, Sally for our R&R base in Vancouver and many more who made it such a flippin' sweet trip.

So that is about it for now on the bike.

We are now ready to do a more leisurely return loop into the US. Having spent so much time in small town America, it's time to check out the cities courtesy of Amtrak and Greyhound. It's going to take a little bit of adjusting. Day 1 in Vancouver and looking for books to read, we strayed into 'Little Sisters' second hand bookshop. I faltered at the door at the rainbow feather boas and arty black and white male nudes, but Hol had dived straight in. The fact that I was genuinely looking for a copy of Lord of the Rings seemed apt, but I managed to just stop Hol before she engaged the assistant in hunt on my behalf.

We are told the US rail system is the preserve of over talkative freaks and weirdos and so I can only think we will fit right in. We have a couple of days in Seattle before a 23hr ride on the Coast Starlight to San Francisco on the 15th and then a 33hr ride on the California Zephyr to Denver on the 24th.

We have also got our final sea leg booked aboard the HANJIN Madrid. A little different from Lista Light as it weighs in at 69,000 tons, is 278m long and cruises at 27 knots. We'll be setting sail from Vancouver to Gwangyang in South Korea on the 19th August for an eleven day crossing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

So... we made it

2750.1 miles and 53 days of riding. I don't want to be melodramatic, but I think its safe to say that was an epic adventure.

The closing stages weren't easy ones. We hadn't looked to closely at the map of the Northwest of the USA before but it looked to us like that page of the atlas had been screwed up, thrown in the bin, retrieved and then been just slightly uncrumpled and left, well... lumpy. However, we were keen to get to Vancouver for Nick's birthday and so rode 21 consecutive days from Jackson Wyoming over 5 states and many, many mountain passes. Knees, bike and bums did surprisingly well at holding up despite noises, both literal and metaphorical, from all. Money saving for the upcoming city times meant we also stuck to camping on rec grounds on the edges of towns with no showers and such. Canned chilli dinners became more frequent as fatigue after long days stifled our 'one pan' creativity. Smells got worse, clothes crustier and conversation mono-sylabbic as we gradually retreated into a pedaling machine not all that fit for the civilized world. Scorching days of up to 100 degrees beat down on us for longer as the sun rose earlier and set later the further North we got, and we found ourselves desperate for shade at the end of the days. The damper climate also bought out the insects. This all compounded with an attack of hay fever and consequent sleepless nights meant that we were spandex zombies as we autopiloted our way through the suburbs of Vancouver.

But determination was very high and with fitness levels at a peak we were eating up 90 mile days regularly. The challenge of time brushed all doubts to one side and whatever our aches and pains were telling us we were set on living it up in Vancouver to see in Nick's 28th year. After two days of feasting on Greek, Japanese and Belgian meals, cookies and cakes, sparkling wine, cocktails, Tanqueray and tonics and pints of Guinness it was well worth the rush!

So for all the drama above, the last couple of weeks of the trip were as spectacular as any. Following fast flowing rivers out of Montana we found hidden green valleys sprinkled with European villages with cherry and apple orchards, vegetable patches and wild flowers, whilst the snowy peaks of Canada loomed vast in the distance. Our most surreal night was definitely when we returned to our campsite next to the river to find preparations in full swing for a local paramedics training afternoon. 50 civilians were being made up to look as if a drunk gunman had gone on the rampage whilst panicked students tried to save their lives. We couldn't have asked for a better afternoon's entertainment. When you have a very friendly 10 year old with a hugely realistic gun shot wound to the face asking if we had been to see the live Dr. Who show in London there is little that seems wrong with the world. We even got a free BBQ dinner after telling people our tales.

Then we crossed over into Idaho for 2 days and followed the Pend Oreille lake. It looked on the surface like Lake Maggiore until we found a roller disco on the other side playing Hall and Oates on loop. We both got very excited on seeing such a huge expanse of water after being so land locked for so long. This was only just pipped as highlight of Idaho by seeing a rotund (pushing 20 stone) woman whizzing about on rollerskates in a white wedding dress. Our one night in Idaho we found a camping spot right by the lake in the town of Sandpoint. It was prom night, there was a brew pub and it was folk night at the local whisky bar. It suited us very well. The night ended with Nick getting chatted up by a local girl who 'accidentally' split some of her drink over him whilst I boogied to the tunes in a whiskey haze. After much dropping in of the word fiancé we ended up getting invited to a tofu breakfast which was hastily skipped in the morning when we woke up with steaming hangovers and a 65 mile day in front of us. The only consolation was that 3 pitchers of Mick Duff's IPA meant we were probably the only people ever to stay in a tent within 20 feet of the main east to west coast trainline of the US and get a solid night's sleep.

Washington was as mixed a state as the whole journey thus far. Everyday brought on the challenge of a new mountain pass and varying temperatures. Just when we thought we were well entrenched in the green, forested lands of the North we cycled through another dry and boiling desert and popped out the other side to climb up to snow level Alpine mountains again. Very confusing. Then we finally hit the North Cascades National Park. Our final land mark for the trip and the 6th mountain pass in 5 days. We conquered the 17 mile 4,000' climb to Washington Pass (5575') smoothly and so pushed on for another 75 miles of a headwind that meant you had to pedal hard downhill and fight to stay vaguely out of the middle of the road. Huge Alpine covered mountains with steep dropping valleys and water spilling out over rocks everywhere you turn. It was a magical and dramatic day of awesome passes, enchanted streams and terrifying wind. The perfect accompaniement to our current reading of Lord of the Rings (you can imagine how flippin' cool we look in a campsite reading matching editions of The Hobbit and Fellowship of the Ring of an evening). Once we made it through The Cascades the mountains gradually became foothills and before we knew it we were on flat farming plains that stretched out towards the Pacific. For the first time in weeks we didn't have a huge mountain range blocking the path in front of us.

On the last day we had 46 miles to cycle over the Canadian border and through the suburbs of Surrey, Guildford and Richmond into the heart of Vancouver. We ended up cycling over 70 miles as we struggled through road closures and one way systems. The closure of the only bike friendly bridge into the city meant we got stuck on the very bike unfriendly freeway for a while before hauling Carlos over a giant suspension bridge, squeezed between a huge drop one side and rushing trucks on the other. All in all it was a pretty terrifying day that eventually took us to a spot in the sun overlooking the Pacific only to see the ice cream van pull away as we walked towards it. It was only after a pitcher of beer and a plate of Nachos in our hotel before we could calm down and really contemplate what we had just completed.

It seems strange to have finished it now. We lived on the bike for just under 2 months checking wind, inclines, tyre pressures and applying copious amounts of vaseline to all manner of regions best not discussed. Arriving in a big city is a huge shock to the system but a good one. It feels like we have made it half way round the world and when we looked across the harbour and saw a Hanjin container ship that is sister to what we will be setting sail in for South Korea it felt like a big milestone. Time to rest.

More photos here for those who are interested:

Wyoming and Montana: snow, grizzlies and geysers
Idaho, Washington and British Columbia: alpine wonderland, more mountains, Nick's new shiny red cycling top

Also, Nick will be posting a nerd file of cycling trivia sometime soon.