Riding the Ice to Hyalite Canyon Reservoir:
March 1, 2009
A few months back Torie and I drove as far as we could up Hyalite Canyon, parked our car and hiked up to a beautiful set of waterfalls on the other side of the reservoir. On the way up I kept mental notes on the length and pitch of the road up trying to determine if it would be a good route for a fixed gear ride. I concluded that, yes indeed, it would be a blast to ride. I just hadn’t considered doing it in the winter. Then the time just seemed right. A storm finally came through few days ago and dropped some long awaited snow, and today the temperature dropped from the high forties into the low thirties. Perfect for a day trip on my fixed gear cross-bike with studded tires.
Hyalite Canyon Road is about eight miles south and a bit west of downtown Bozeman, Montana. The way there is fairly flat, with just a subtle constant uphill pressure on the pedals. The roads take you first through the edge-lands of Bozeman’s growing city, with condos and subdivisions speckling the first few miles. There’s hardly any traffic out here and the roads are in decent shape with substantial shoulders for most of the way. So the riding is pleasant.
Further outside the city limits the view turns decidedly Midwestern with irrigation equipment littering the fields out to the horizon, horses romping in the early spring Sun, and birds of prey resting their wings on any branch that might give them a clear view of a potential dinner. In my immediate view small ice-lined streams crisscross the roads every quarter mile or so with gentle swishing and gurgling noises announcing their presence.
When I finally turn onto Hyalite Canyon Road about 8 miles from town, the farms quickly fade away and are replaced by lodge-type buildings huddled around the banks of Hyalite Creek. I can’t see it yet, but I know it’s there from the subdued, if impressive, roar coming from somewhere behind the trees.
As I look straight ahead, my neck cranes to see the tops of mountain peaks in the distance. Smaller hilltops fill my near vision and offer their own wisps of intimidation. Somewhere back behind all this lays Big Sky, the resort village too costly for most friends here to ski. They seem to prefer Bridger Bowl. It’s the local favorite and only 15 miles from downtown. Another quarter mile down Hyalite Canyon Road and I find a sign disconcertingly hung directly over the permanent “Fire Danger” sign. It’s roughly conditioned 3’ x 6’ vinyl sheet that says plainly: “Studded Tires, Chains, Recommended," and then the bottom of the other sign still proclaims, "Today!”
Thus far the roads have been a mixture of wet asphalt littered with the occasional crusting of snow or ice. I grow to enjoy the constant “zzzzzzrrrrr” of the carbide studs singing on the blacktop. But I already feel the temperature dropping in the canyon, and the road responds with fewer and fewer glimpses of pavement. The next sign provides another warning of sorts, “No Passing – Next 9 Miles.”
Here I cross over a cattle-guard that stretches across the road. For the uninitiated it’s a horizontal row of steel beams buried in the ground with a void beneath. It’s designed to keep livestock from venturing beyond its gaping maw and the fence on either side. This is “Range Stock” land, where ranchers lease the rights from the federal government to let their cattle ruminate whatever might grow on this rocky soil.
Beyond the cattle guard the road narrows to one lane going up and another coming down, the shoulder disappears, and Hyalite Creek suddenly appears just beyond reach on my right side. Now the snow and ice create a few new sounds from the studded tires. The snow muffles them almost completely, but the ice has a completely different effect. This sound is more akin to dragging the back of a kitchen knife over a metal cheese grater. There’s more articulation in the rhythm. I think my friend Roscoe would be jumping off the bike to digitally sample these sounds for use in his recording studio. Their cadence and slowly changing dynamics help me pace the pedals as the road’s pitch quickly turns upward.
The road is now in the shadows of the ridge-line on either side. Here, it’s all ice. Sun soaked trees promise a warm greeting once I get to the top of the pass. I can see them occasionally as the road twists and turns, but that won’t be for another 45 minutes or so.
The cars passing give me wide berth, as they carefully make their own ways up the narrow pass. Some clearly have studded tires themselves, some do not. The latter will likely have a fun slalom of it on the way back down. Every once in a while a gaggle of young students passes by and screams encouragement out the windows. “Go dude! You’re doing great!” “Looking good man.” And even a refreshing, “There’ll be a warm PBR waiting for you at the top.” It’s nice to be in a community where riding a bike in a precarious place manages some level of respect.
The first few uphill miles go by easily. I learn to pick my line through the differing road crustings. Once I settle into one particular type or the other the ride is unremarkable. However, it’s the frequent transitions in and out of snow, ice, wet pavement, and loose icy gravel that are the challenge. Here’s where I can feel the studded tires make the difference. They bite into the ice giving a secure feeling. It’s worth mentioning what an extra level of confidence in such situations can do for your attitude. I also learn to use a tactic developed on icy city streets for staying upright. Rather than ever leaning the bike into turns or other direction shifts, I concentrate on shifting my weight while keeping the bike absolutely perpendicular to the road surface. This gives the best bite for the tires, allowing more of the studs to have constant contact with the road. It’s a very different, somewhat antithetical skill, and it works my abs and back much more than the traditional method of road riding.
About five miles up the pass the pitch increases again and I can feel my body settle into the work at hand. My thighs are burning and my arms and neck are tightening up. I’m just trying to turn over the pedals and stay upright at this point. Several times during this section I imagine the Hyalite Reservoir, (my goal,) is just around the next curve. As I get higher the Sun is visibly blanching the peaks of the range, and I fool myself into thinking I’m almost there.
Three miles later I’m laughing at myself as I slowly reel in the summit. It’s here somewhere dammit! Finally, the parking lot comes into view and the frozen reservoir beneath. It’s been an hour and thirty five minutes since saddling up. The area around the lake is teeming with activity. There are at least 50 people ice fishing, and hundreds just cavorting around the overlooks. Many of these people are simply having parties up here. Little gatherings perched on carved out sections of snow peering down on the lake.
I pass a busload of college kids who immediately recognize that I'm riding a fixed gear bike and they break out into hoots and hollers even offering to give me a ride back down the pass if I need it. One crew has beach chairs and they appear to be conducting a formal wine tasting…. fine glass goblets and all! For Bozemanites, it’s just another excuse to be outdoors on a gorgeous Sunny day in March.
A fisherman asks if I want him to take my picture, and I oblige. Then I chomp down a granola bar, and try to take swig of water. Unfortunately the temperature has dropped enough in the past hour that the bottle is frozen shut. It looks like an icy luminary, with a complete shell of the bottle visible inside. I rap the thing against my Trek’s frame and break it up. Keeping hydrated in the Montana mountains is no joke. I drink half the bottle and also realize my camera's iris is now frozen partially closed. I look at my watch and see it’s now ten before 5:00 P.M. “Gotta roll Bill!” I mumble to myself, and hop on the bike for the downhill run. In the fifteen short minutes since I hit the top, the Sun has gone down behind the mountains measurably. Everything but the very top of the west-facing peaks is in shadow. With the Sun goes any semblance of warmth and my hands immediately start to feel the sting.
I’m happily still very well connected to the road, even as I speed up in the straight sections of the pitch to 30 or 35 mph. I am catching up to some cars as they gingerly use their low gears to creep down the mountain. Now, more hoots and well-wishing from passersby, albeit mostly slurred at this point.
There are suddenly little ruts in the road, no more than an inch in height where the slush has frozen into razor sharp hills and valleys formed by passing car tires. These are extremely hazardous. I carefully settle both bike tires into the center of these being careful not to hit the edges. Sometimes no matter how hard I try my front tire falls into one, and I can feel the tension and stress careen up my arms. My body is at full alert trying to see, feel, and sense the slightest change in road conditions. About halfway down the mountain, as two cars pass – one from each direction - I try to move over as far to the right as I can and my front tire does a little Tango thing…. "step, side, slide, side, dip!" I over correct and in my struggle to regain control my left cleat pops off the pedal. This can't be good. A lot of the control that you get riding a fixed gear bike, (and I will say considerably more control than riding a freewheel,) comes from the contact with the pedals and, by nature, the rear wheel. But lose that contact, and things get dicey real fast. Purely by accident I manage to skid the rear wheel by locking up my right leg, while my left leg flails in the mid air, and wham I’m back in the middle of the road right behind the passing car. Whew!
But that proves to be the worst of it. I’m down the pass in less than a half hour, and home before six. What a great experience. I think the whole thing is a testament to studded tires. I paid a lot for the Schwalbe Marathons, about $70 each. This ride proved them worth every penny.
Don’t miss the mapping session recorded during the ride with my Blackberry Trimble/Allsport GPS software.
And the synopsis video I slammed together of the ride.