Riding Fast and Riding Slow

From the Continental Divide we stared into the endless rolling pasture that is the Great Plains. Rory and I rode into and out of Eastern Montana full throttle, with a brief detour into Alberta.

The Great Plains are, without exception, brutally flat and brutally windy. The Rockies end abruptly, dropping into wheat fields, pasture, straight highways, and small towns of less than 1000 people. At times a tailwinds push us along, and the lack of climbing makes the miles between small towns virtually disappear. More often than not we’ve encountered crosswinds that rip across the flat landscape, making progress both physically and mentally painful. Sometimes the shoulder of 70 mph US and state highways is wide enough to echelon; frequently it’s no more than a two feet wide–half of which is grooved by rumble strip–and we both suffer in the wind.

(As a footnote: Rory’s front-loaded bike drafting my rear-loaded bike creates some hilarious echelon situations. One person swerves and our panniers bounce off each other. It feels like the sumo wrestling of biking.)

Pacing ourselves through this flat purgatory between the Rockies and the Upper Peninsula has been challenging. Touring is about seeing new landscapes and meeting new people, but touring is also about getting from point A to point B. Some days are beautiful, and some days we make new friends, but others are nothing more than a slog, moving ourselves from one meal to the next with little in between. Balancing the competitive need to ride more miles faster while allowing enough time to stop for coffee and meet people in those towns between breakfast and dinner means that I constantly feel that we’re riding either too much or not enough.

The flatness and sparsity of this leg of our trip have pushed us towards more miles. When we reached Medora last night on the tail end of back to back centuries, I could barely shower before falling asleep in my still damp bivvy. Over the past nine days since we “rested” in Glacier (as much as a 12 mile hike counts as a rest), we’ve increased our average daily mileage (not including rest days) from 58 to 77. In the past four days we’ve averaged 97 miles a day.

Pushing physical limits is both exciting and rewarding, but it also leaves less time for exploring. Since we left Glacier it feels like we’ve met fewer people and I’ve taken fewer pictures, though this could be due to the areas we’re riding through and not the number of miles we’ve ridden; as we approach the Midwest we find fewer Warm Showers hosts with whom to interact and fewer viewpoints at which to stop. We’ve also met two eastbound Northern Tier cyclists–John and Zach–who are putting in long days, though they tend to ride more slowly and steadily than we do. It’s temping to keep pace, to ride someone else’s tour that isn’t our own.

In any case, we may have reached an upper limit on mileage, though as we plan our days through North Dakota I catch myself pushing for the next mile marker. An inconvenient 50 mile day followed by a 60 mile day can be combined into a single 110 mile effort, but perhaps inconvenient is just the wrong perspective.

That said, fully loaded double century? We’ll see.

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