You would be a fool not to walk [fleecer ridge]. 7.8k feet to 6.5k feet in less than a mile.
It was a cold night. I woke up with my sleeping bag encrusted with ice. Cold hummus and bread was my breakfast while I prepared to start climbing again. Today was the day I crested Fleecer Ridge, an infamous climb/descent for the Tour. Fleecer was a mountain in southern Montana that we could see in the distance from atop its ridge. I had no idea what to expect from Fleecer Ridge. The documentary showed Mathew Lee carrying his bike down a somewhat tame downhill with flowers and green grass around him. The sun was shining and birds sang and everything seemed not nearly as bad as Mathew had made it out to be.
Everyone joked about riding down fleecer. Everyone also understood that this was a fool’s errand.
But before I could get a glimpse of the over 1,300 feet descent, I had to get there. The clouds had not dissipated from the day before. The climb was made on the same road that I slept next to the night before.
It was a rather uneventful long uphill climb. That is to say, until I began to reach the apex. There the snow banks pushed their way into the road. But soon the road was gone and I was rolling through patches of grass and dirt, dodging banks of snow and climbing over rocks. Soon the climb was too steep for my tired legs and I had to dismount and push my bike over one final crest. My shoes were soaked from walking through the snow, and occasionally I would slip on a hidden rock.
A darkened sky was above me, and a mixture of mud and snow were below me as I pushed my bike up the final incline. At the top, I could just about see where the road attempted to come together again. But I was more interested in the vista. It’s something I’ll never quite forget.
Snowbanks littered the top of this ridge, with craggy rocks jutting out from a cover of short defiant grass. No sun was out today, just a darkened atmosphere looming low above the mountain peaks in the distance. It really felt like I had stepped into a whole new world.
I would have taken a picture, if I hadn’t lost my camera charger a few days back. But justice couldn’t be done. A picture can’t capture a blistering wind or the movements of clouds. It also can’t capture just how cold my feet were.
So this was Fleecer. The reputation it has was completely justified by this scene. Dark, cold, jagged, monochromatic, and beautiful.
I began to ride again, but this time it was actually fun. I was picking my way through rock outcroppings like a real mountain biker. Only certain times on the Tour did I ever feel like a real mountain biker. I know this seems odd, since the entire course is extremely hard in its own way, but I can point out four or five instances where I forgot I was on a cross-country epic and my focus was brought in to this small section of single track goodness. I would start to lose myself, forget that I was carrying forty pounds of gear, and simply have fun bouncing between rocks and focusing on the single track in front of me.
And on top of Fleecer was the best of it. I forgot for a moment where I was. All that mattered was winding between huge rocks and snow, balancing and hopping over obstacles, and just having a fantastic time. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.
The world came back into focus and I thought “You know, all these tales of Fleecer being so terribly steep and technical, maybe they were all just full of HOLY S@*#$—-”
Hitting my brake I saw what the stories were really like. The incredibly steep face of Fleecer, the one no one rode down. It was easy to see why now. Incredibly loose, incredibly steep, very rocky; all of these describe a tenth of what this downhill was. All the joking done in Banff about riding down Fleecer now sounded so juvenile and idiotic. Especially not with our gear.
So began the methodical descent. It felt like bouldering, but with forty pounds of gear and a bike to contend with. It took perhaps twenty minutes to make it down the steepest portion. I was finally able to mount my bike where the road buried itself into the ridge, but even here it was very steep.
The sun started peaking out from the clouds on this side of the ridge about the time I was clear of the rocks and on a solid short-logging road again. I crossed a small creek twice on my descent through evergreens and green undergrowth, my speed growing after every hairpin turn down this tiny mountain road. Soon after another turn I caught sight of a vehicle on the road. It was a short-logger and his dog. I nodded and waved at him, and he waved back to me. He seemed very perplexed at the idea of another human individual this high in the mountains, much less one on a bike.
The downhill was brief, as they all are. They love me and leave me. I rode down the dirt road leading away from the ridge a while until I came to a highway. Ten minutes on the highway and I was at the tiny town of Wise River. Wise River had a general store, a restaurant, a few abandoned buildings, and this was all on “main street”. Main street was a highway, one that was taken between the larger city centers by people who wanted to skip the hectic interstate or perhaps wanted a more scenic route through the mountains.
In other words, it was tiny. But it had food, so I’m not complaining.
It was here that I met one of the more colorful locals on my trip. I put my bike against the outside of the restaurant and walked inside to find a nice rustic looking diner/cafe/tinytowneatery. I sat down across from another group of cyclists. They were riding the a road route across the country. We chatted about the ride, and they congratulated me for having stamina, strength, courage, good looks, cutting wit, and devilish charm to compete in Tour Divide. I bid them adieu and ordered the special: chicken fried steak, french fries, salad, bag of chips, lemonade, iced tea, and water.
The cook was in the kitchen singing Beatles songs excellently. He asked about my trip and what my goals were. He even gave me extra french fries. God’s got a special place for that man in heaven.
It’s neat to have so much support. I am going to try for Polaris today….
…Polaris did not happen.
Freshly fed and rested, I decided it was time to move on from Wise River. I had a big climb ahead of me before I hit Polaris.
Polaris is a town in southern Montana. Doesn’t really make waves on any normal map. No real tourist attractions permeate the town. It’s not the oldest, the smallest, the safest, or the prettiest town. In fact there really isn’t anything in Polaris.
But Polaris was the last town on the second ACA map. This second map is huge. It encompasses nearly all of Montana. After making it out of Canada in record time, it was great to send one map back and crack open a new map. But Montana is a huge state, and it’s also where the energy of starting this adventure dies for most. Statistically Montana has the highest number of drop-outs for this race. It doesn’t help that riders spend nearly 600 miles of the ride in this state. It’s also very rough terrain compared to some other states.
So making it to the end of a map is a big deal. It puts things into perspective. It lets you think about completion.
However, as my journal entry states, I did not make it to Polaris. And here’s why.
On my climb there was rain and a headwind. I was riding along a highway that cut up and up and up between mountain peaks. It was a very long climb and very taxing on my tired body. I had to push my bike up some of the steeper switchback sections of the mountain highway. The weather turned cold and the sun shied away soon into the climb. It took a few hours until I found level ground in the form of a plateau.
By then there was no sun. Grey skies sprinkled icy rain as I rode through this plateau. The weather gave everything a blue tint. I saw a park where you could stop and dig for your own gem stones and crystals. I saw a few cars coming and going, and at one point I crossed a group of cyclists heading the opposite direction. They looked at me funny, as if something was wrong with me.
Soon though I began a gradual descent, which was soon replaced with a not-so-gradual descent. In and out of turns I weaved, until I hit my brakes and skidded to a stop. A sign in front of me said “Elkhorn Hot Springs –>”
Hot springs? After freezing rain all day? I decided to check it out. I rode up the inclined road towards the main cabin to inquire about food and/or hot springs. They were used to riders stopping and treated me very nicely. They gave me a room and pointed me to the hotsprings.
It was actually a giant swimming pool fed by a natural hot springs. There were numerous native Montanans enjoying the dramatic temperature gradient. The water was around 95 to 105 Fahrenheit depending on how close you were to the feed-pipe. Compared to the 40 degree air, it was a pleasant shock. My legs were starting to feel the miles. Waking up and riding every single day with little to no rest can get to you.
After a quick dip, I decided to splurge and buy a steak, a piece of pie, and a beer. I found my bed soon after. Before I went upstairs, however, the bartender told me that he had to drive a racer to the airport just a few days prior. He had pushed hard and gotten severe saddle sores that had become infected. He sat in the same chair as I did for hours contemplating whether or not to continue on, but he probably didn’t eat the steak.
It was a good steak.
That morning I woke up, grabbed my bike, and headed to the road.