What a much better race than last year! Before I started the race someone asked why I was there “unfinished business” was my answer. Unfortunately, I had to withdraw after 2,500 km when my 90 year-old mother broke her hip. However, since I had finished the hardest part of the race—which knocked out some 30% of the starters—and was 100% physically and mentally, in spite of not finishing I don’t feel I have “unfinished business”. I know that I would have finished in some 28 days. So I won’t be back next year, but if I can slip away for two weeks I’ll finish this year’s ride!
The following table shows the distances covered each day. But it does not reflect the main challenge: mountains. Some days you may only do a relatively short distance horizontally, but climb over 2.5 km vertically. With lots of bike pushing …
Here is an article on the race which gives a good overview, with lots of great photos and a video interview with the two race leaders at Bush Mountain Lodge:
Anyway, on to the race!
My race preparation was not the best: I did Ironman Brazil 12 days before the ‘Grand Depart’ from Banff June 8. At least I had my fitness up, even if I did only manage some 150 km on my mountain bike before the race. I paid for this with a sore back for the first five days of the race, then my body got dialed in and things went fine.
I flew from Toronto to Banff. While waiting at the airport I met Mike from St. Louis and Prentiss from New York who were also riding. On the bus I met Mike #2 from Washington D.C.—who I was pleased to find shared a mutual friend. I stayed at the YWCA—race HQ—where the riders had commandeered a large room for building bikes. It was great to meet the other riders and admire their bike porn. I must note that Prentiss was the ultimate: he had downloaded numerous photos from the Internet on people’s bikes and setups—he even had mine!
The night before the race we had a get together at a pub where we met even more of the riders. It was organized by ‘Crazy Larry’ the local ‘organizer’ of the race. There were some 105 this year, a record, including 10 women. It was fun to meet the riders from overseas and to socialize a bit. There were very serious riders, some of whom had done the race several times before, but most were like myself: doing our best just to finish.
I went to the start as the ‘Spray River Trail’ the day before to get a photo. While my bike may look lightly loaded compared to most bike tourists, I was actually one of the heaviest laden cyclists in the race!
The morning of the race we assembled at 07:30 at the YWCA for photos and the group ride over to the trail start. This was the one and only time we would see each other together as once the race started we would be spread all over the countryside. There was a palpable air of excitement and lots of laughs, particularly over Crazy Larry’s antics. He did the following video with the group picture.
There were three other New Zealanders at the race. Ollie Whalley (L) was from Christchurch (ex-Nelson) and an engineer working for my old firm Beca. He went on to win the race, taking almost 2 days off the previous record. Katherine Wallace was also ex-Nelson, but she is now located in Colorado. She was the second woman to finish, and also broke the old woman’s record. Nathan (R) was from Auckland. This year there was also a token Australian 🙂
Here is a brilliant interview with Ollie on Radio New Zealand after the race.
After the photos were taken we all rode off to the start, and the race was on!
I soon found myself towards the rear of the riders as the speedsters took off. Didn’t worry me as we have 4,418 km to ride. It was amazing how many people had bike problems. In the first 40 km I passed: a broken chain, a flat tyre, a broken derailleur, and someone whose rear hub was gone and the cassette was spinning freely (solution: use cable tires to attach it to the spokes and get out to a bike shop). The shape of things to come …
I was ecstatic to find Paul Attala waiting for us along the trail. He won the S-N ride last year and is a great guy. I stopped and spent 10 minutes chatting with him—which further cemented my position down the ranks. But I didn’t mind. He told me that when the race leaders came by one guy took a wrong turn and even though Paul told him he was wrong he wouldn’t listen. Soon others followed. Navigation errors can do a lot towards resetting your hard won efforts. So does forgetting things. As I was ascending Elk Pass I saw Mike #1 coming in the opposite direction: he had left his pack at the shop about 5 km back. I was to learn that he had a knack of losing things in the days to come … and for navigation errors. One raced called him ‘wrong way Mike’.
The scenery was magnificent, with mountains, streams and lakes. The weather sucked as it was raining most of the time. I was very glad for my excellent rain gear—including Gore-tex socks. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
One of the challenges of cycling in Canada (and Montana) was the presence of what are called large scale carnivores: bears, mountain lions and the like. Most of us carried ‘bear mace’ which we all hoped we would not have to use. But the idea of camping out in these areas was a bit daunting. So for the first night I decided to try and make Elkford which, although making it a hard first day, was better than risking being animal food.
The riding ranged from easy gravel roads, to winding trails, to a horrible muddy section under power lines with snow. The latter was the site of a hard crash coming down due to the depth of the ruts. Broke my front water bottle cage on the impact, as well as being slightly battered. Over the first week I typically crashed about three times a day, but this was one of the worst. Fred Arden did a head over tails crash in the same section so it could have been worse.
I reached Elkford at 23:00, soaked to the core, to find the hotel full, so I camped at the campground with a number of other riders, enjoying the hot shower. Early the next morning I headed out to Sparwood, the last major town before the US border. At one point there was a landslide across the road. As I carried my bike over it, I found a Tour Divider’s map lying on the ground. I picked it up in case it could come in useful. A few miles later I saw someone cycling in the other direction. Yes, it was someone looking for a map …
I arrived in Sparwood late morning and went to the local hotel where I had brunch. When I sat down I saw a head torch on the floor. Looked like a Tour Divider’s so I picked it up. JD Pauls from Hamilton Ontario came out of the toilet and I asked him if it was his. Yes. Good thing I found it! After brunch and shopping for supplies, I popped into the laundromat to dry out some of my gear. Then it was back on the road again.
It was pouring rain and there were some minor puddles to cross on the road. Even though I was wearing full rain gear, I was somewhat damp. I felt sorry for those using plastic bags to try and keep their feet dry. A wasted effort. We also had snow to cross. One advantage to being mid-pack is that there was a clear path to follow, with packed snow for the wheels and places to put your feet. No so for the race leaders—which makes their achievements all the more impressive.
There was one memorable section where the trail was actually a river bed. Seriously. Look at the following photos. That is water on the trail, and very large stones. I rode a very short part of it and then gave up. Just too dangerous. I was told that another rider dislocated his knee on this section when he crashed. What do you do in the middle of nowhere? Fix it yourself. He put it into the frame and after several attempts got it in again and rode on. I know it sounds incredible, but also in character for obsessed Tour Divide racers.
We were quite strung out by now but occasionally came across other riders. At some point JD and I caught up and we rode together. I had decided to stop at a certain point but he was for pushing on to Butt’s Cabin. We pulled each other along and made the cabin about 22:00. The cabin was full of other riders, so we camped out. It was very cold and two locals were there with a roaring fire, which I gladly partook of. Three years ago Matt Lee did a marathon run the first day and made it to Butts Cabin – some 185 miles – at 02:00 on the first day. It was occupied by these locals, but they said they let him in. Very kind of them!
Day 3 was raining again, although it later cleared, and we had another long hard day. An added dimension to the ride was the need to lug our bikes over trees that had been felled across the road. By now we were way up the Flathead Valley and it was very remote and isolated. It was a logging area and the views across the valleys were magnificent. It is just so peaceful being alone in the wilderness.
At one point I bumped into Mike #2 from D.C. He had taken a wrong turn and was coming back down the road. His bike was causing him some problems so he tried to sort this out while we took a break at a bridge. It didn’t work too well and he effectively was riding a single speed. Not fund given the climbing we were to do.
The riding was quite easy and I decided to be bold and try and shoot a couple of videos.
In preparing for the race we all heard about ‘the wall’. This was a vertical section of the trail—yes vertical—where we had to drag our bikes up. It took me 60 pitches of my bike (i.e. find a foothold; hoist bike vertically; hold in place; find new foothold) to get over the worst of it. You didn’t want to make a mistake: there was a river right below. The following photos show what Mike #2 and I went through on this section of the race. They don’t do it justice.
By this time I was out of water. I had also run out of food. They have these ‘5 hour energy’ drinks so I thought it was time for a boost. On the Tour Divide they last 30 minutes if you are lucky. That gave me the boost to get me up and over Galt Pass which was quite a haul: about 6 km of snow to push my bike through. I lost Mike #2 on the ride up, and passed Fred who was pushing his bike. Adam-a bike mechanic from Olympia-cau ght up to me and we pushed our bikes over the top together.
My asthma was acting up a bit with the combination of hard breathing and below freezing air, and I got a bit worried—especially as Adam vanished off into the distance. However, I pressed on and after an interminable time came to the end of the snow. I was rewarded with a great downhill run which was a real hoot after all the uphill slog. This bottomed out a few miles from the border which I reached around 18:00. What a difference. There was sunshine and warm air. Goodbye Canada and hello Montana. The state where many Tour Divider’s dreams are vanquished.