During ORATB last year when we were riding long stretches of gravel roads on fat tires, I got it in my head that if one were so inclined one could gravelpack a big loop, combining the two local favorites of Around the Rock and Around the Block into one aesthetic circle of the Tetons and Palisades.
|ORATB and RockBlock both included the lovely Fall Creek Road.|
It was an unusual thing for me to want to do because I’d already traveled every inch of the loop but the novelty was in squishing them together. I hadn’t heard from anyone who had done it before and that appealed to me too.
I looked back over previous ride stats for both loops and felt pretty okay about it. Around the Rock is a big ride, half gravel, half pavement, that cuts through the northern foothills of the Tetons then follows the entirety of the range through Grand Teton National Park. It customarily ends with a climb up Teton Pass after the rider is already good and shelled. Around the Block is a 107-mile paved road ride, although there are a couple of gravel alternatives one can seek out. When I rode it in 2014 we started the loop by climbing Teton Pass. Ironically, by combining the two routes I was able to avoid the pass altogether, which I joked was the entire point.
Frequent restock points meant we could travel pretty light; we just brought basic sleep set-ups and enough snacks to keep bonking at bay.
|And so it begins.|
We set out north from Driggs at dawn on Saturday. As we meandered the back roads of Teton County I compared the experience to my 2015 Around the Rock ride. The fact that we were riding two weeks earlier than the annual group ride meant everything was much greener, there were more wildflowers, the peaks held more snow, it was a little cooler, and barely anyone was driving Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road, which can be dusty and hectic in the high season.
Those first 70 miles to the park entrance were fine, kind of boring. We didn’t talk much and the lyrics to annoying songs eddied through my brain. I picked a lupine stalk and threaded it into my handlebar bag. We were moving more slowly than the last time I’d ridden it, but I wasn’t too worried about that, assuming we’d pick up the pace in the park by drafting. Last time I was alone without anyone to help me face the wind.
|The road into GTNP was closed from one direction but not the other, and a car managed to strand itself on a big snow patch. I followed suit.|
We made it to Flagg Ranch in good spirits. The resort there is interesting because it’s a hub for several long distance bike routes. We met a couple that was touring from New Orleans and a man racing cross country from Oregon to Virginia, and if we had waited a week we’d encounter Tour Divide riders heading south down the spine of the continent. At Flagg Ranch, we were strange not because we were riding loaded bikes, but because we were out for such a short jaunt.
Around the Rock, which has only a paltry amount of total elevation gain, is really not a hard route. The things that make it suck are the ever-present wind and the cumulative discomfort from so many hours on the bike. There was a light headwind through the park and we were definitely feeling it as we motored around Jackson Lake and past the Cathedral Group. I remembered why I pledged to only do ATR once: it's monotonous and uncomfortable.
|Real pretty though, if you're into big mountains, I guess.|
We hid from the sun in Moose for a while and watched the stream of tourists in heavy hiking boots or yoga pants, taking selfies and talking about bears and bison. National parks are kind of the worst.
The Moose-Wilson Road wasn’t as bad as I expected, because Cy pulled my grumpy ass most of the way. We made it to the Stagecoach with little ado, ordered beer and street food, and flopped down on the grass. Fooster and Sean, who were riding downhill laps on the pass, joined us.
|Perfect campsite, right next to the road but completely unbothered.|
Traveling down Fall Creek Road in the midmorning light was lovely, albeit cold. We saw a big badger hovercraft across the road and watched him flatten his body and hiss at us from the creek bank below. Any closer and I would have been nervous of his aggressive bulk.
There was a firm headwind in the Snake River Canyon that meant instead of the fast effortless miles I expected, we were toiling on the slight downhill and I was too cold to take off my jacket. When we discovered that the gas station in Alpine was under construction I had a meltdown, convinced that the rest of the day was going to be much harder than anticipated.
"The only guarantee on every trip is that if I say something will be easy or short or downhill, it's fucking hard," I fumed, low on blood sugar.
Then we found a little fireworks store where I drank a restorative iced coffee and immediately felt like I could crank through the miles around Palisades Reservoir. Also the headwind mellowed, because Idaho is better than Wyoming. I was feeling good about Pine Creek Pass. Cy was falling apart because he doesn't have old lady strength, so I kept pace with him. We only wanted to present one target for the deranged drivers on the pass. I want to give a word of thanks to people in cars who see two cyclists death-hugging the shoulder and slow slightly instead of trying to thread the needle, full speed, between the riders and an oncoming RV. To everyone else: fuck you.
We turned off Highway 31 onto 9500S and moaned with relief: no more scary highway riding. The psychological repercussion of riding 130 miles at the mercy of bad drivers was even more exhausting than the physical toll of the effort.
|It is just so aesthetically pleasing though.|
Threading our way through quiet valley roads as the cold wind whipped at our backs for the first time all day, we were grateful to be back on the good side of the Tetons, only a little worse for wear.