The last push up the Tally Lake bike trail hurts so good.
Pete Thomas celebrating the sting of victory at the Tally Lake overlook.
A n overlook peers out over Tally Lake, Montana’s deepest jewel of water. The mountain bike trail that leads to it is as beautiful as you’d expect—lined with western larch, Douglas fir and beargrass. But the flora isn’t what sticks in my mind–it’s the brutal toll required to earn the vista. Each time I approach the precipice, my nervous system involuntarily responds with, ‘Oh shit, I have to go up that?!’ Thanks to Strava, this hill has a name. “Sting.” And it does. To climb it clean is a rarity.
It’s June and the trail is perfectly tacky. An hour into a mostly uphill ride, I approach the culminating series of stair-step climbs and know it’s go time. I’ll give ’er all I got, but honestly have no idea how the next minute will go.
A short dip leads into the climb, so I coast into the incline. Momentum quickly snuffed by gravity, I ease into my “granny gear” and focus. It’s easy to spin out at first, so I pedal deliberately, mindful of each rotation. This is no race, but a game of precision, strength and a bit of luck.
Each time I approach the precipice, my nervous system involuntarily responds with, ‘Oh shit, I have to go up that?!’
Adjusting my body to maximize traction across both tires, the steepness forces me to shift forward to the not-so-padded part of the saddle. Chest tucked close to the bars, I’m basically stuck in the bottom of a pushup to lock in my position. It’s ugly, but working.
Like most epic climbs, it’s an obstacle course, so I look ahead, carefully choosing my line. Maneuvering over step-ups, I use controlled micro-movements, careful not to overreact. As I pop up and over each rock and root, I concentrate on maintaining a gripping motion from my rear tire. If I lose momentum for a nanosecond, I’m done. My mantra: “Keep rolling.”
Two-thirds up, the grade is getting meaner and my speed, slower. Legs sapped, I struggle to keep my front wheel from “hunting” back and forth. I’m tempted to give up–and why not? Most would walk. But cleaning this hill is a benchmark worthy of a trophy, or at least a cold beer. I didn’t spin out at the beginning, I made it through the midsection, and now I’m sooooo close.
My body is toast, my mind hitting on half cylinders, so my heart steps up as the pilot. Almost hypoxic, I try to control my breathing. I focus on the 5 feet in front of me as lactic acid courses through my quads. Every part of me is screaming and I can feel my pulse through my temples. I check out and go to that other place, where I divorce “me” from “me.” I shift into external cheerleader mode. “Come on Pete, you got this!”
I know that this is the moment, the one that both haunts and beckons me each time I contemplate this route.
And just when it seems the pain will never end, I roll past the crux with an unworldly groan. Like a deflating balloon, the intensity fades, replaced by low-level resistance. As my head haze clears, I take in the amazing vista that marks the ride, my hard-earned prize. I look across at mountains in all directions, Reid Divide (a great ride for another day), a deep blue Tally Lake, and up Logan Creek–completely stoked. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve found success here. Today it is sweet, but no doubt, I felt the sting.
Pete Thomas is a longtime Whitefish local who enjoys a life blending adventure, creativity and quality time with his wife and two daughters.
Photo by: Marc O’Brien
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