Tour Divide, Chapter 5

My camera charger died during this next bit, so these pictures are from earlier up in BC.



“had a huge 126 mile day…I was asking a local at a little pub/grill/bar what the Stemple pass looked like.  He said I couldn’t get to Helena on a bike using the Great Divide Route today.  Well I rolled into Helena seven hours later, in pain, starving..”


It’s amazing what a full night’s sleep in a real bed with real food and clean clothes can do for you. One of my most memorable and strong days.  I felt incredible on the first 30 mile trek to the next town, which consisted of rolling hills mainly. I really felt like I was racing, even though there was no one around for miles.  My bike was clean (for now), my shorts were clean (for now), and I wasn’t hungry (for now).  Best part, though, had to be the absence of bears at this part in my journey.

The hills gave way to a beautiful sea of green grass, waving lazily in the wind.  I was making my way through a valley now.  I ate a second breakfast/early lunch at a tiny little town that was barely a historical marker on the map of Montana. It was a quaint little tourist location off the main highway, and had fantastic views of the mountains that surrounded this little valley.  I had Avocado for the first time in what seemed like forever.

I’ve got to stop here and try to drive a singular fact home to anyone reading this.  Tour Divide, from the outside, looks like an incredible journey that humbles its participants and truly lets them appreciate the vastness of nature and the beauty of this part of the world, and allows a rider to dig deeper into his or her character than he or she perhaps thought possible.

Now while all of this is true to an extent, I do have to make one slight correction.  Tour Divide, from the INSIDE, forces you to appreciate the tiniest aspect of what most consider mundane. For example, Avocado. I hadn’t eaten Avocado since three nights before I left Texas. Yet, for days before this tiny stop in a tiny roadside attraction I had craved it.

Another observation I made is somewhat comical. I could be surrounded with the most beautiful scenery this country has to offer me, but all of it could be sullied by an excessively bumpy or poorly eroded road that stood between me and food. It’s hard to appreciate anything at all when you’re hungry.  Countless times I would marvel at the keen preservation of a particular dirt road and silently thank whatever forces were at work to keep this road washboard-free.  At the same time, an antelope gracefully bounds through a steppe scene that would make the best budgeted westerns uncomfortably tug at their shirt collars and think “I hope no one looks too hard at us…”

So when you’re reading this and think, “He just spent an entire paragraph describing the contents of his sandwich.  Why can’t he spend more time describing the beautiful visuals and colorful locals?”

Because I couldn’t eat the visuals and I didn’t eat the locals.  Now where was I…

Ah, yes, the sandwich. Peppered and sliced turkey, tomato, spinach, avocado, Swiss cheese, a touch of mustard, all on a home-rolled whole wheat bun. Garnished with sweet potato fries and washed down with an iced tea and root beer.  It was a glorious meal fit for any warrior of Valhalla.

With food in my stomach and wind at my back, I made fantastic time to Lincoln, Montana. Before that, however, I had to go through flooded farmland. The rains for the past few weeks had left entire pastures flooded.  Creeks were overflowing and I was dodging washed out sections of dirt road through this fertile valley almost every mile. County road crews were even brought out at one point to repair a one hundred yard span of road that had been completely washed away. I was able to slink by them with a nod and a friendly wave.

All around me was green. The trees, the grasses, sometimes the water. I rode my bike down roads now straddled with barbed wire fencing instead of tall evergreens.  That’s what makes the Tour Divide route so special, in my opinion. You can ride an entire day and see so many different  things.  There was rarely a time when I saw the same thing two days in a row.

Eventually I made it to Lincoln, where I stopped for lunch at a local BBQ dive. I sat with Simon, a cheery bloke from Wales. A very new father to a bouncing baby boy, he wasn’t just riding to finish.  He had a kid to go raise. He was a very strong rider who has been training for this race for months and months.

So we had very little in common in that regard.

We discussed the next part of the day over burgers and “chips”.  The BBQ joint felt like something out of a very bad hunting show.  Every inch of wall was covered in the best examples of taxidermy the county had to offer. These were sullied, however, by the neon signs for Bud Lite and Miller.  Antler chandeliers highlighted every drip of grease that fell from our burgers as we stuffed our faces. At the bar sat at least 5 local men.  Some were old, and some looked old. A picture-perfect well worn barmaid/waitress served us all. She must have been used to the coos of the old men, perhaps even enjoyed it to an extent, as she effortlessly combated their leers and facetious remarks with a dry wit and razor tongue.

It was these old men, with nothing better to do at 3 PM besides drink cheap beer and make sexual innuendos with old waitstaff (Some people just know how to live, you know?), that told Simon and I that we couldn’t make it to Helena today.  Not through Steple pass. Not on bikes.

While dealing with someone predisposed to my particular set of character traits, the quickest way to eat your own words is to tell me that I cannot do something.  Not that I shouldn’t, but that I was incapable physically or mentally to rise to and conquer a challenge.  This is a trait that is shared by everyone who rides Tour Divide.  Simon and I took it as an affront to our character.

After finishing our feast and ordering a bite to go, we began again.  I went on ahead, while Simon had to go drop off some mail. I got about five miles down the road before he overtakes me. Like I said, he was a very strong rider.

The road between Lincoln and Helena was a fairly good road.  Dirt on Dirt, a rut here and there, uphill for 20 miles or so.  I rode next to a large creek at one point. I passed numerous mountain homes.  The sun was shining down on me as I made my way up this road, up and up and up the pass between peaks.  Pine trees ran along the road with me.  It was really a perfect day for riding.

I was passed by yet another rider while pushing my bike up a steep part in the road very near to the top of the pass.  A strong yet tiny rider from England, he was riding up the road fast. He was part of the front-pack of riders, but had mechanical difficulty near Whitefish.  I was happy to see him pass me and looking so strong.

He hurt himself going down Fleecer Ridge a few days later, and had to drop from the race.

I know, you guys are still stuck on the fact that I was walking my bike up a climb.  I will admit that I did this plenty. The extra 1 or 2 mph of spinning up the hill doesn’t make up for the break I give my cycling muscles.  I put my pride away on this ride. I rode to finish, not to impress anyone.

I caught the Englishman on the downhill, though.  He was racing a carbon fiber Cannondale Flash 29er, fully  upgraded.  The bike cost him easily ten-thousand dollars (what’s that, like six or 7 thousand pounds?). His wheelset alone cost more than my entire bike setup. But I digress. We rode together down that pass, hitting 36 miles an hour (60 KM/H?) on old, rutted, twisty jeep roads in the amber afternoon light.

The original route had us heading back into the mountains after riding down the pass.  However, due to snow, we were re-routed through a town called Marysville. Which is good, I had had my fill of snow so far. Walking 20 or more miles through it would have ruined my day.  Sure, there was no snow on this route, but the climbing was still there.  The powers that be would have hated for us not to get our money’s worth on the climbs.

Marysville is a tiny mining town.  There is nothing there but dilapidated tiny houses, closed shops, a mine, and a shuttle service to get the mining men from the towns down below to work.  After reaching the end of the jeep road coming down from Steple pass, I had a beautiful ride on pavement for 12 or so miles.  This route was part of Montana’s Scenic Drive highway system.  Winding through golden pastures with the sun peaking through sparse cloud-cover making shapely shadows across the fields, this road lived up to its namesake. Snow-capped mountains made up the background of the scene.

Twelve miles later, I found the road I needed. An old ranch road, potted and rutty, cut through the picturesque scene.  Barbed wired fences separated me from the grassland.

At this point I was tired. I had to stop and eat my extra burger I packed with me from Lincoln. And with that description, I have to segway into another calming and beautiful thing about Tour Divide: Eating on the side of the road.

Don’t get me wrong, there were moments where I wanted to be in a Dennys eating my body weight in bacon and bragging nonsensically to my best friends how dry my socks are. But even at its worse, I could only get so far with this fantasy before coming to grips and realizing that the hypothetical Dennys didn’t hold a candle to what was before me.  This may be snow covered passes or high steppe deserts; it may be borderland ghost towns or bear infested woods.  No matter how bad it got, I was always happy to be there and to see what I was seeing.

But sometimes, I got an even bigger kick from finding a nice place to lay down, eat, write in my journal, take a picture, and enjoy what was around me. I found peace in eating. It was a strong reminder that, no matter how bad things get, I can always look forward to left-overs on the side of the trail.

And it was these left-overs that gave me the strength to keep going.  I was headed up.  Up this road as it twisted among farmland and threw me upwards at a startling rate. It was a very rough climb up to Marysville.   When I arrived, the sun had already set behind the mountains. The vans of mining men were loaded up and headed down.   As I rode through the town, my first impression was that it was a ghost town. Dilapidated houses, boarded windows, no lights; it seemed like this town had seen much better days. I didn’t see a store, only tiny residential houses.  I didn’t bother exploring.  A dog came out from a darkened corner to bark, sniff, and say hello. I saw a few parked cars outside some of the houses, but I’m not certain the last time they had been used.

As I double-checked my route, a bus of workers rode by on their way down. I was used to getting odd looks at this point.  I was wearing my white Jamis jersey over a tight base layer and a black bib over tights.  My helmet was red, my bike muddy, and my scruff turning into full-fledged beardiness. Their gapes reminded me of how ridiculous I looked to the everyday passerby.

I followed the bus onto a roughly paved mountain road that took me winding and twisting down the side of the mountain.  It was twilight now, with stars beginning to timidly peek out from under a beautiful purple Montana sky. By the time I got to the bottom of the mountain, the sun had set completely and I had another 20 miles until I hit Helena.  There was nothing ahead of me but pavement.  I made good time thanks to the words heard in Lincoln. That, and I was out of food. Helena meant a dinner of some sorts.

Hunger plays an incredibly important role in my mood.

Helena was lit up that night. I remember riding along the rolling hills, and at every crest I’d see the bright lights of the city.  They would disappear as I dipped into another tiny groove in the patchwork of fields and barbed wire. I finally rolled into Helena along a major road at 11:30 PM.  I was exhausted and starving.  I was also singing. I take great pleasure in proving people wrong. My friends really appreciate that about me, honest.

I bunked that night in a small motel room shared with Simon.  He had arrived an hour or so before me, eaten, and was watching a show on Discovery hosted by an Irish man.  The Welsh had words to say about the Irish. I didn’t pay him much mind, as I slipped him a $20 for the room and went off to find food at the grocery store.  It was the only thing open at this time of the night.  I dined on pita bread, turkey, avocado, and three root beers.




2 comments on “Tour Divide, Chapter 5

  1. The English guy who passed you after Lincoln was Paul who lives in Germany. He quit in Island In the Sky just after reaching Idaho with a bad knee. It was an American guy who had a bad fall descending off Fleecer Ridge.
    I was travelling the same pace as you early on, was in same motel on same night in Seeley Lake and Helena for instance.

    • Nicholas says:

      I remember Paul telling us he lived in Germany. He told me he tripped on fleecer, and that’s when his knee pain started. I heard of another person falling, but did not know who he was.

      Thanks, though. I remember a lot of the trip, but not everything.

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