Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nearly stranded

Despite the daunting combination of heat, wind, desolation, remoteness, and lack of shade, food and water, I had been looking forward to the 140-mile trek across the Great Divide Basin. A big part of that has to do with my ancestry - my great-great-and-so-forth grandparents crossed the plains with the Mormon pioneers in the mid-19th century. They trekked across the Basin in the same area that the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route traverses today. And because of the aforementioned heat, wind, desolation, ect., little about the region has changed. I was excited to get out there and think about all the things they saw and felt, and draw inspiration from their struggle and perseverance.

I left Atlantic City at 5 a.m. beneath a beautiful sunrise and bid goodbye to the last tree for 135 miles. Shortly thereafter, I passed the Willie's Handcart Company historic site, a place where tragedy struck a group of pioneers attempting to cross the Sweetwater River in a winter storm in late October. A great couple that I met at the bar in Atlantic City, Marjane and Terry, told me that the company had been plagued with mechanical problems with their handcarts and had lost several oxen, and because of that had fallen behind schedule and got caught in a Wyoming winter. Many of them died or got frostbite. Pioneer tragedy was on my mind when, about 30 miles in, my freewheel started to slip.

After coasting down a long hill, I tried to pedal and nothing happened. I spun my legs wildly and the bike slowed down rapidly up the next hill. Panic began to set in. Even if I turned around, 30 miles was a long way to walk back to Atlantic City. And I was nearly 100 miles from the highway if I stayed on the route. Jeremy Noble, the closest racer to me, left Atlantic City the night before and was well in front of me. I was all alone. Just me and the pronghorn. Stranded.

Luckily, the hub finally engaged just before I stalled out. I pedaled wildly down a few more hills before I let it coast again. The freewheel froze up, again. More wild spinning would coax it back into gear, but I was beginning to realize that coasting or stopping wasn't a viable option. I might be able to coax it back to life, but what would happen when I couldn't? There were a couple of bailout options along the route, but even the best-case scenerios would put those places at a full day's walk. All of my romantic pioneer fantasies turned to pure stress.

I decided to continue forward on the route and hope I could limp it into Rawlins. It meant near-constant pedaling for 100 miles, which on Day 12 of this hard tour is a tall order. My legs are tired and they like breaks. A couple of times, I had no choice but to stop. I needed to tap into my water reserve, and I couldn't hold it any longer and wasn't quite willing to pee my pants. Each time I stopped, it took a few seconds to get the wheel to engage, but it did improve throughout the day. By the time I hit pavement on a remote county road, I could coast again for decent stretches.

I made it to Rawlins just before the bike shop closed, and talked to a woman there. She told me her mechanic wouldn't be in until 10 a.m. Thursday morning and she wasn't quite sure she had the parts to help me. Beyond the freewheel, I need another set of brake pads, new cables, new cassette and chain, etc. My bike's a bit of a junk show right now. But the freewheel has me worried. If the bike mechanic in Rawlins can't help me, do I risk 130 miles of possible stranding while limping it into Steamboat Springs? Do I have a bike shop in Utah overnight me a whole new wheel?

Because the freewheel just started slipping, and improved throughout the day, I may be able to go on with what I have. Steamboat is the mecca of Great Divide bike repairs, so getting there rather than having stuff done in Rawlins would be ideal. I'm bummed because the Rawlins stop means losing at least six hours that I would otherwise be riding, but worse things can happen. I could be walking a desolate road in the Great Divide Basin.