Day 11: Lincoln, Montana to Great Falls

Biking long distances is clearly more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge.  Last night, I stayed in the Three Bears Motel.  The bed was comfortable.  The room smelled fine.  The neighbors were not particularly noisy.  With all these advantages I didn’t sleep a wink.  This morning I wanted to rename the motel the “Princess and the Pea,” after the princess who could not sleep because a pea was placed under her mattress to test her.

What was the problem?  I lay in bed stressing about today’s ride.  Today I needed to bike up Roger’s Pass on Montana’s Route 200.  Roger’s Pass, as the picture shows, is where I cross the continental divide.  All water dropped on the ground to the west of the divide sooner or later ends up in the Pacific Ocean.  All water to the east of the divide ends up in the Atlantic.

Rogers Pass

For those of you interested in history, Roger’s Pass is famous for having the lowest recorded temperature in the contiguous 48 states.  In 1954 at a mining camp on the pass the temperature hit minus 70 degrees.  You can read about it here.

The last time I biked across the country I did eleven different continental divide crossings.  I was young and a wee bit stupid.  Instead of crossing the Rockies once, I went up the backbone of the Rockies.  This time would be different.  Just one crossing, not multiple.

Most continental divide crossings are a physical challenge so I wanted to know what to expect.  Google Map and Earth tell you a lot, but local experience today still beats looking at computer images.  I asked four different people where I was staying in Lincoln what the pass was like.  Three out of four said they had never been up the pass and the fourth had done it a long time ago.

This was shocking to me because Roger’s Pass is a bit over 18 miles from Lincoln and the town of Lincoln has only one main road, that goes directly to the pass.  If these people had not done the pass, there must be a reason.  My brain went into hyperactive mode all night thinking of all the reasons why locals wouldn’t go there.

The reason, which I found out later, is that there is an alternative pass five miles closer than Roger’s that is very steep and has lots of switchbacks.  If you can manage to get over the alternative pass then you end up on the Interstate highway (route I-15).  Going over Roger’s Pass takes you away from the Interstate, which was something I was keen to do, but most people who live in Lincoln are not.

Roger’s Pass ended up being something pretty straightforward to bike up.  When the pass started I had 4 gears left and thought “this is going to be a piece of cake.”  Halfway up the pass I was in my easiest gear (smallest ring in the front, biggest ring in the back) and sweating hard.  I did make it up to the top without stopping or walking, but it was no piece of cake.

I took the obligatory pictures and spilled a little filtered Gatorade and water on both the west and east side of the continental divide sign.  Then it was time for the six mile downhill.  If you ever do something like this, make sure you have wrap-around glasses.

The wind and air pressure coming down was intense and my eyes were tearing up.  Having your eyes filled with tears when nothing separates you from going over the edge of a mountain except for a low guard rail is a hair raising experience.  I used my brakes a lot, which kept the speed down enough so that I could see.  Wrap-around glasses keep some of the wind and pressure off the eyes and let you go down the mountain faster.

The end result was that I made it up, over and then down Roger’s Pass.  There was a bit to worry about, but nothing worth spending 8+ hours in bed imagining all kinds of terrible things.  The mental pain was much more than the physical pain of getting over the pass.

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