Tour Divide: A retrospect.
I started writing about three months after I finished Tour Divide, 2011, although by the time I finish this writing it will have been over a year. I have thought about writing about my experiences for a while, but I felt like it would be boring for the reader to sit through every pedal stroke. What’s the fun in that?
But then, what is the Tour? It’s exactly that. It’s not about where those pedal strokes take you so much as how they change you and the experiences you have between the pedal strokes.
So, below is my adventure. It’s really just a glimpse into what happened, but I hope it’s an enjoyable sight. Every once in a while, I’ll throw in an excerpt from my journal I kept during the ride. To start us off, here’s a piece from June 9th, a day before the grande depart.
“Last night in Banff. I went on a 40 mile ride today, no packs, with Daniel. We tried finding Lake Louise, but went in the totally different direction. We did find a neat trail system that ended at the end of a huge emergency airfield surrounded by a white forest with a carpet of extremely green soft grass. After this amazing vista, we rode on a sterile highway. I much prefer the forest.”
I was not ready for this. Let me make this perfectly clear, I had perhaps 4 or 5 training rides with a fully loaded bike. These rides were never over 50 miles a piece. I did one endurance race and one cross country race on the bike I would be using (Sette Edge frame, Sram X0 mix, Fox fork, mid-level Mavic wheels). I was confident that I built a solid bike. In retrospect, I would have enjoyed a larger diameter wheel size (Was running a 26″). However, I felt that any lack of equipment efficiency could be countered by mannish willpower and balls of steel.
When I arrived in Calgary, I boarded a shuttle bus to Banff, CA with a group of other Tour Divide riders. They were all older individuals, highly seasoned in endurance racing. Each had a unique story of how they found out about the race. As I listened intently to these men talk, joke, and get to know one another, it became increasingly obvious that I was in over my head.
Next to me sat a man who competes in 100 mile running races. Across the way was an individual who competes in multi-stage bike races and who has raced the Leadville 100 professionally. When it came to speaking of bikes, I was very impressed. Each one of the riders had their kit cut down and compressed as much as possible. Not a gram of weight was wasted. Their elaborate and unique pack systems complimented a slew of extremely expensive and custom bikes.
For example, one individual was running carbon 29″ rims. That set of rims cost him more than what I paid for my entire bike.
I was feeling in over my head, but I was in Banff now. There was no turning back.
But, why? Why was I doing this? Everyone had reasons. Some wanted to feel the rush of being truly in danger of death by exposure. Others wanted to take a wondrous adventure in the states. But me? I was the second youngest to attempt this race.
Let’s rewind a few months. It was Fall, 2010. I was driving to see my parents back in my home town. I can’t remember what song was playing, but I do know that my dog was in the passenger seat watching the trees fly by. I was about halfway home. I had heard of this race nearly two years prior, when I first started working as a bike mechanic. I had no idea what endurance racing was about back then. Two of my coworkers were talking about a race they had heard of; An insane mountain bike trek, from Canada to Mexico, along the continental divide. I was half listening, half fighting with a brake cable. One of them said, “Yeah, this one guy wins it every year. I hear he has to eat sticks of butter and stuff to keep himself going.”
Note: I don’t believe Matthew Lee actually eats sticks of butter. From what I’ve seen, he prefers Nature Valley cashew granola bars. But I digress.
As we all talked about how crazy the race was, I could only think of one thing. Those people are idiots. Why in blue-blazes would an individual actively ride their bike across the country like that? I promptly pushed the idea of this race to the back of my mind and went back to fixing whatever Walmart bike happened to roll into the shop.
I can only assume a seed was planted that day. Or, more aptly, a timed charge. Because a Seed would imply that the idea slowly grew, being nurtured by the sunshine of ambition and the waters of time. No, this was most definitely a timed charge.
Back to driving. Dog beside me. Whatever music was playing, I can be sure that it was obnoxiously loud. Something hit me. That charge exploded in a big way. I can only assume it was akin to the religious convergences experienced by devout worshipers. The kind that make these men drop everything to follow a path laid out in front of them. Or, you know, like Dead Heads back in the 1960s.
On second thought, there is a high probability that The Grateful Dead was playing when this happened.
Whatever nucleus of gray matter decided to throw up ambition and delusion into my head at that moment doesn’t matter. When I got home, the first thing I did was tell my parents that I am committed to doing this race.
As you can imagine, they had a few questions of their own.
“But, what is it called?”
Tour the divide? Race the divide? I don’t really know.
“Will there be other people with you?”
I don’t know.
“Is there help along the way?”
“Where does it start?”
Somewhere in Canada.
“When does it start?”
I don’t know. Summer-ish?
“Is it on roads?”
Maybe? Does the Divide have roads?
“When did you decide this?”
Thirty-ish minutes ago.
My lack of answers did little to ease their worries. I had a lot of research to do and a year to train. A few months prior to this life-altering drive I participated in my first endurance event, an Olympic distance triathlon. Since then I had been doing what races I could do/afford.
I began doing research. Using the powers of the internet, I found the name of the race, the website, read the history, bought the DVD documentary, read blogs, forums, etc. From all of this, I cobbled together a list of what I would need and burned up some plastic getting it all to my house.
Built a bike. Got a tent (That got mailed back on the third day of the race), packs, survival equipment, etc etc. For those who are interested, I’ll list a few of the items I took with me.
Head lamp (Petzl)
20 Degree C sleeping bag, synthetic
Kershaw Blur, knife
Leatherman multi tool
Topeak bike multi tool
Boxing Tape, Gauze, quick clot (Boxing tape works great for setting sprains and making splints)
Pieces of chain, spokes, two spare tubes, patch kit, pump (That failed me, miserably)
One bib. One pair of track shorts. Two shirts. Helmet. Lots of socks. Vibrams.
Camelback Mule, 100 ounce bladder
There are stories regarding each of these items. Each piece I brought with me has its own tale of hardship and ingenuity. Except the quick clot, thank goodness.
But let’s get back to Banff. There’s not much to say before this, because there wasn’t much preparation. Isn’t that fun?
I spent three days in Banff. Some of the most memorable (in a good way) days of the trip. First off, I wasn’t riding my bike 90+ miles a day. Second, it was one of the prettiest places of the whole Tour. I’d ride my bike on local (and awesome) single track trails IN TOWN, have elk burgers for dinner along with hard cider with other riders. We’d joke and laugh about the hardships we thought we would come across (Bears were brought up more than once, rest assured). The entire ski town was surrounded by incredible giant mountains, the likes of which I had never seen.
Did I mention it was 60 degrees during the day? Which was a full FORTY degrees colder than it was back in Texas? And at just over 4,000 feet of elevation, I had no trouble adjusting to the altitude.
However, as much fun as I had there, I was happy to see the 10th of June come. Grand Depart. Nearly 70 individuals at the Grand Depart. Some had gone on ahead in the days prior. Another group started in Antelope Wells, NM, at the border of Mexico and the US. They were the Northbound group. The smarter of the two groups, in my opinion. Much better weather and end point if done south-to-north, in my opinion.
The morning of the grand depart I was up at 6 AM. Grand Depart was scheduled for 9 AM. I ate lots of food, packed my bags, repacked my bags, nervously used the restroom, took out my equipment for a triple check, repacked, repooped, forgot my gloves, was given a pair of gloves by Crazy Larry, checked my bike over, put on my shoe-covers, helmet, gloves, arm warmers, tights, and headed out the door into the 45 degree air.
I’ve been nervous before races before, but that morning took it to another level. Jittery, nervous, anxious, all those words really fail in light of that morning. Thinking in hyperbole, it was like you injected coffee and Red Bull into me, spun me in circles for a minute, threw me into a crowded lecture hall wearing nothing but tighty-whities and a pink tube-top, and told me I was about to take a final for a class I’d never once been to.
Everyone was standing around outside, kissing goodbye to loved ones, taking pictures, etc. We were all waiting for Crazy Larry to lead us to the trail head, which was a dirt trail winding around mountains to the south of Banff behind a huge resort.
Looking back at pictures taken of me at the start, I see so much stuff. What a noob.
At the start, some individuals took off like ROCKETS! Others piddled along like bumble bees. I like to think of myself as a healthy in-between. Like a bird. Or a meandering gazelle. It didn’t take long for everyone to split up based on their speed. The first part of the route was a beautiful old double track route that led out from Banff. It was damp, cold, and overcast. All the foliage seemed so old. I remember thinking about bears a lot on this first day.
After ten miles of hilly doubletrack through the forests of Alberta, I exited onto a dirt road. A few of the families, as well as Crazy Larry, were waiting for everyone here. They had drove to this point, only twenty minutes from Banff by car, to cheer us on again. I stopped and had a small interview with Crazy Larry. His little borrowed camera shoved into my face, he drilled me on why I was here, and how I like it so far.
I was loving it so far. After I left them and hit the dirt road, I felt like I was really warmed up. The next section was fast, with some clean downhills on this very wide, hard-packed dirt road. It led us to a giant lake. Our path led us around the rim of this lake, across a levee, and back into the dense forest. This lake was beautiful, absolutely breathtaking. The water looked cleaner than what I drank growing up. I stopped by a few riders who were all taking breaks next to the lake. We sat on a large piece of land that hung over the lake, perhaps thirty feet above. We snacked and joked around, taking pictures for each other and planning the rest of the route. We were thirty miles into the day.
I loaded up my packs and headed down the levee and into the forest. Coming off of the levee it was rather steep and bumpy. It was so bumpy, in fact, that my lunch for that day fell out of my bar-mounted stuff-sack that I had not properly secured.
I didn’t realize this, of course, until I was completely out of the woods and ten miles down a thirty mile section of road. Wonderful.
Then I ran out of water. I sat on the side of a highway over looking a large valley, wondering where I was going to find water. Thankfully, a mile down the road I came up to a snow-stream that was rolling down out of the mountains that bordered the left side of this highway. I filled my pack and hit the road again.
By the time I reached the little grocery store before the first pass of the day, I was absolutely ravenous. I bought perhaps twenty dollars worth of junk food, which included candy bars, cokes, bottled tea, chips, and even packaged jerky. As I sat outside of this place on a stone bench, soaking up the sun and feeling thankful for the food, a few other riders stopped by to say hello. They were planning on getting over “Elk Pass” soon, and wanted to get a few people together to do it.
A pass? What’s that? More-so, I saw some weird white stuff in the woods. It was cold, wet, and disappeared in your hand and was replaced with water. Does anyone know what that stuff is? I didn’t really like it all that much.
After gorging on junk food, we attacked the pass. It started with jeep roads that went up and up and up. Eventually these became absolutely packed with that white stuff I mentioned earlier (I learned later that this was what natives call “snow”). The road switchbacked all the way up until we could see the top from a power-line clearing. The clearing had less snow, since the sun hit the pass directly, but that just meant it was very muddy.
From snow to mud, we pushed onward. In the mud, though, we could at least ride our bikes a little. After another hour of navigating we were finally at the crest of the pass. I was extremely excited for this. This was my first real “pass downhill”, and I was excited to see how it would play out.
About half a mile of weaving around snow, ice, mud, and downed trees, I hit a patch of snow with my front tire and crashed doing close to twenty miles an hour.
Nothing was hurt, bike or body, just a yard-sale on the ground and a bit of hurt pride. I quickly gathered my things and made a mental note about snow: it is slippery.
Once down the pass, I had another thirty miles of rolling hills to Elkford. It was uneventful, save for a few elk and moose I saw on the way in. The sun had set and it was starting to get rather cool.
After nearly three hours I made it to Elkford. I found a little RV park, grabbed a spot of ground away from the trees, threw together my tent and went to bed for the night.
I went to bed proud. I had made it, all one-hundred fifteen miles. The longest single-day ride I had ever done. I did it. And I had a wonderful dinner of trail mix to celebrate the occasion.
Started out just fine,
but soon at mile thirty
lunch was lost from bags
Very hungry, bonking.
Contemplated eating elk
Drank from flowing stream
crisp, cool, clear, clean, and quenching
At mile sixty
delirium, lack of food
gas station, thank God
Gorged on junk food
am totally justified
pork rinds and candy
Met with tour riders
They want to take the pass now
before the sun sets
A lot of climbing
Then the mud, then the bad snow
can’t feel my poor feet.
We conquered Elk Pass
Thirty miles to Elkford
They sure do like “Elk”
Night time animals
My loud whistle keeps me safe
from dark silhouettes
So tired. So hungry.
Where is this blasted elkford?
climb hills, descend hills.
Are those lights? Is it?
Elkford! A bed! And good food!
What? No Vacancy?
Bike to RV park
One Hundred Fifteen Miles
Trail Mix for Dinner