Sunday, September 21, 2014

Idaho Bike Ride - Smoke and Fire 400 route Day 1

Sawtooth Range, day 2

Idaho has long sounded attractive to me. While I didn't know anything concrete, I associated it with rivers and mountains and forests. 

After the Adventure Cycling Association mapped out a new touring routes for mountain bikes, I started to become more interested in a visit, but it was not enough to push me over the threshold. Then, in August, Norb DeKerchove from Boise told me about a route he and Tyson Fahrenbruck put together, entitled "Smoke and Fire", and that they suggested as a bikepacking event in September. Two days later, I had booked a ticket to Boise!

around 10 am Wednesday morning

"Smoke and Fire" may not be an inviting name for a bike route, but it reflects the fact that there have been many large burns along the route. The route actually features crisp air and blue skies, not smoke or fire, but reminders of fires were never far away and we crossed burn areas every day.
Fall colors in the Sawtooth Valley
Smoke and Fire loop overlaps to a substantial extent with with the ACA Hot Springs route, but the first and last days are very different and the second day has an extra single track section. The ACA map works for general navigation and I brought it along for an overview and as a backup. I wouldn't rely on GPS and electronics alone, they work great if they work, but anything that can break eventually will break. 

The total distance was 650km and I had about 45 hours moving time (3 full days, beginning Wednesday, and 1/2 day on Saturday), 9000m climbing (I did more than 1/3 of those on the first day). 

SF is an excellent choice for a first multi-day bikepacking trip: No difficult stretches with unpredictable timing, water is available everywhere, there are resupply options every day, and climbs and descents are on good surfaces with easy gradients. A road bike with wider tires, as used by randonneurs or cyclo-crossers, would work fine for this route, possibly even better (or  faster) than a mountain bike. The absence of difficult conditions makes SF a perfect beginner route.  

It is not pavement, but the majority of riding was on this type of road

 In contrast, Stagecoach has the desert on day 1 that has cooked many people (and even necessitated actual rescues), Los Padres has multiple days without resupply, Coconino has a brutal hike-a-bike climb, and all three require careful planning with water and dealing with heat. The bigger Colorado Trail and AZT combine all the challenges, and add potentially serious cold, snow, and lightning storms to the list. But on SF, 
I ran ahead of my optimistic plan most of the time, several hours just on the first day. So I took days 2 and 4 easier as it didn't make sense for me to finish before Saturday: My return flight was Sunday night.

Norb and Tyson's plan followed the by-now standard bikepacking race format: Map out a route, propose a full moon week as a focal riding date, have people register on for satellite tracking (which turns an otherwise lonely activity into a virtual spectator event), and see who shows up. It is not a group ride, you really are on your own and usually are not aware of any other rider after the first few hours or the first day. However, with a focal date, it becomes an opportunity for sharing stories and ideas with similarly minded people at pre (and sometimes even post-) event activities. And for people really wanting to crank this out, having the some competitor on the route to give you the extra push is helpful. In fact, even works for me: Who wants to be the slow old guy?

Arrival - Tuesday Sept 9

I had shipped my bike the week before to REI in Boise. Greg Tovey, another rider tackling the route, works there. It was very convenient and cheaper than taking it on the plane. United these days charges $200 one way for a bike - more than the ticket itself, which is $150 one way. And since LAX-Boise is a small commuter plane, United  wouldn't even guarantee that the box goes on the same flight.

I was surprised as the plane started the descent into Boise: Nothing green in sight, it looks just like Nevada. Not at all how I imagined Idaho! 

Indeed, Boise is a desert town at the foot of the mountains. It does not take long to be in a more forested area, but it will be a 1000 m climb. The city itself is pleasant as lots of trees have been planted, but just at the outskirts of town (such as the airport), it is desolate desert. 

Boise airport

After picking up my bike at a suburban shopping center (about 6 km from Boise proper), I rode to the city center where we had a pre-ride dinner/orientation/beer meeting. As I rolled in, I saw immediately a few familiar faces from California: Blake Bockius from Truckee, Forest Baker from Sunnyvale, and Jeremy Plum from Bishop. Although we live a few hundred miles from each other, we seem to run into each other regularly at bike rides. Blake, Jeremy, and I now have time to ride more after our kids are old enough to be on their own or even out of the house, and Forest and Brian are in the pre-kid age range (which, however, for Forest changed this year). 
table in foreground: Forest Baker, Blake Bockius (with hat),
Brian Pal from Seattle, and Jeremy Plum's back.

Long-distance mountain biking is a small community, I think I see Sharon Sell from Alaska (the woman with long blonde hair at the next table) who has been on other rides. But since she wasn't on the start list, I thought I was mistaken - except that she had moved to Boise. 

Pre-event meeting, Norb and Tyson in the background

The turnout was surprisingly large, 33 in total showed up, with the majority being locals. But there were also 5 from Montana, 4 from California, 2 each from Oregon and Alaska (so I was not the one that came the longest distance), and the lonely rider from Seattle. 

One of the fun parts of pre-meetings is catching up on people's other experiences on bike rides. Everybody has their own strategy, some really are racing for first place, others are trying to beat the course at their best ability, another group is just touring fast, and some are even slow tourers. 

Day 1 - Wednesday Sept 10

The start was planned from the city center at 7 am and coming from the suburbs, I just barely made it on time. It felt like a big peloton rolling out, led by Norb. Big enough of a group to cause difficulties with city traffic! 
Norb DeKerchove (left) and Bart Bowne

Within a few minutes, we were out of the city and along a bike/running path along the river. There was a group of folks on the side already handing out beer cans, which made for a fun atmosphere, but it was about 12 hours too early. 

First hour in the ride, the front group (what am I doing there?). Jeremy Plum, followed by Blake Bockius on the left, Forest Baker, followed by me and Dylan Taylor or Brian Pal, on the right. Picture by Kurt Schneider
In no time, the pavement turned into dirt and a climb and distances between riders grew. With morning energy and full of excitement, quite a few people started cranking it up, probably more than was good for them. The first stretch on dirt had babyheads and loose surface, entirely rideable, but you'd pay for early exuberance later on and I got off and walked a bit rather than trying to push through.

My mid-morning, the landscape started to change as we had gained some elevation. Still dry, but becoming more attractive:

Speeds started to converge by mid-morning and one of the early climbs I was riding with Gary Meyer from Oregon and Amy Chiuchiolo from Montana. While I didn't see much more of them during the rest of the ride, they were never far ahead or behind. 
photo by Rob Huguez
I found the climb to Prairie around km 75 surprisingly hard and took a longish break at the Y-Stop store. The morning also saw the first black forest:

which has an entirely different feel compared to riding in Germany's Black Forest:
Germany, not Idaho, family tour on the Schwarzwald - Murgtal Radweg
The route passed a reservoir and it was just as empty as the ones in California. It had a boat launch area, but the docks were nowhere near the water anymore. 

 Before 4 in the afternoon, I was in Featherville, about 150km in. That was 2 hours ahead of schedule and changed my plans: A slow moonlight ride to climb Dollarhide Summit (about 2650 m) and camp well before the top (too cold to stay at the top and then descent 1000m in the morning). But at this rate, the moon wouldn't even be out before I get to the top! Blake should be able to finish that route in less than 48 hours (which he did, with hours to spare).

A lot of other people were in Featherville around the same time and in fact crowded in the same little restaurant at the end of town. I slowly digested a double cheeseburger and rolled along thinking about what to the rest of the day, but presumably it would involve going over the pass. 
Greg Tovey

Idaho locals Greg Tovey and Bart Bowne  seemed to know that this was a fast route as both had mounted aero bars:

Aero bars are surprisingly practical on a mountain bike when there is a lot of flat riding or easy gradients on smooth roads. I found myself being on them a lot when I did the Great Divide Mountain Bike route. Aero bars are less useful for more typical mountain bike routes with narrow or technical trails and lots of up and down, so I haven't had them on my bike for years. However, for this loop, they are a good choice. 

After Featherville, the route stays along the South Fork of the Boise river for a long time. It was still early and kind of hot, so I took a swim in the river before the sun set and felt much refreshed (and a lot cleaner) afterwards The only unusual animal I saw on that ride was also along that river (but I didn't take its picture): A gigantic moose bull. 

I started the real climb up Dollarhide summit around sunset, but no moon in sight. So I just had to keep going. Riding in the moonlight is one of my favorite parts of the ride and best if that can be combined with a climb so I can ride without any lights. I passed a number of people in the dark, some had already made camp for the night. Still, no moon. 

Dollarhide is a gentle climb, but it goes up fairly high for somebody coming from sea level (top is around 2650m). The combination of altitude and coming late in the day made it a hard effort for me (at the top, I had done about 200 km for the day and 3400 m of climbing).  I was wishing for a steeper gradient that justifies getting off the bike and walking, but it never gets steep enough. I walked a few times anyway to give my legs a rest, which were plenty tired and clamored for walking to use muscles a bit differently. Near the top, I caught up with Bart Bowne who had gone too deep or too hard earlier in the day and now was paying for it, feeling nauseated and barely able to move. When you hit that low point, calling it a day or at least take an hour or two rest is about all you can do. A good rest, some food and water, and the next day should be ok. Probably exactly at the same time of day as Bart, I had one of those moments on the Black Canyon climb last year: The darkest hour 

Around 10.30 or so, I got to the top and finally there was the moon! It had been hiding on the other side of the mountain all along. But now it was all downhill, so I needed my lights anyway. Temperatures were dropping quickly, and even with all my layers, I was getting so cold that I stopped repeatedly. One of my best ideas was to use the armwarmers as extra gloves on the descent, but my hands were icy anyway. Miserable descent, but I knew there were hotsprings somewhere near the bottom. A strong sulphur smell indicated that I was getting close and they were easy to find: right next to the road, and connected to the river. So around midnight, I was soaking in the Frenchman's bend hotsprings. Was a fantastic night out with the full moon. Great moments and abject misery are never far apart on these type of rides. 

After soaking in the hot springs for about 30 minutes, I rolled on for a little while until I found a good camping spot. They were no longer easy to find as this is near Ketchum and there is a lot of private property. But I found a nice flat meadow next to the river, behind a shack that said "US Property". I crawled into my sleeping bag and was nice and comfortable, although it was a rather chilly night (but that was something to deal with the next morning). 

To be continued.....

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