Tour Divide 2012 – Part 2: Montana

When I arrived at the US border the customs agent told me she had been expecting me: they were ‘Blue Dot Junkies’ following the race progress on the Internet. She told me I was in the low 40’s in terms of where I was on the race which was better news than I had anticipated. She also commented that I was in better shape than some riders: apparently at midnight the previous day a rider arrived who was hypothermic. When they couldn’t warm him up at the border post they took him to hospital. Broken bodies … one part of the Tour Divide story.

I saw a bar/restaurant just behind the customs building and so headed there. I had covered some 100 km on little more than a bag of chocolate covered almonds (at least it was a large one) and I needed calories. When I arrived I saw a Tour Divider’s bike parked outside—it was Prentiss from N.Y.! He had  just finished 2 x hamburgers, fries, 3 x mountain dews and all sorts of other high caloric ‘foods’. Unfortunately for me there was nothing vegetarian on offer, but I managed to convince herDSC_0175 to do me a pre-packages pepperoni pizza having removed the pepperoni. Not easy being a vegetarian on the Tour Divide… so I soon headed out for Eureka having called and booked a hotel room. The evening sun was shining on the fields with the mountains in the distance. This made the ride somewhat pleasant given the strong headwind I was facing …

After booking into the hotel I went to ‘Subway’ across the road. Closed. All that was available was petrol station ‘food’. I went down to the local grocery store where I met Adam from Olympia. They had a wonderful array of healthy food available, including lots of fresh fruit. I returned to the hotel and had a delightfully warm bath while eating dinner. Was able to chat with my wife Lis which was great. While in the bath I realized that I had not seen my SPOT GPS. It had fallen off my bike! I immediately rushed outside with my torch and, retracing my steps, found it on the ground outside the hotel. Phew. Did not want to lose that as it was my emergency lifeline, as well as providing a record of my travels.

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The following morning we were blessed with sunny weather and an easy start to the day riding along paved roads. This part of Montana is really lovely with the mountains in the distance. I really enjoyed the weather and the easy riding after the hardships of the last few days. Much of the race is mental as opposed to physical, and I had cashed in quite a few chips to see through the Canadian leg.

Of course things would not stay flat for long, and DSC_0185soon I was ascending up into the mountains through the pine forests, with great views of the river and mountains.  I passed a fellow from the local phone company and asked him if he would mind disposing of a couple of drink bottles for me. He said ‘is that one of those bikesdirect.com Motobecane titanium bikes?’ He had bought his road bike from the same company after considering buying one of these. He lamented having to work on such a fine day when he would rather be riding with me. And yes, he took my garbage.

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Eventually we climbed and climbed and, for a change, had to push the bike over a snow laden pass. There was a sign to remind us that we were not the only ones around. I was fortunate insofar as I didn’t see any bears at all in my ride. Although I did see a lot of scat as well as prints in the snow. There were quite a few landslides in the area which had taken out trees as if they were match sticks. I was very glad that I had not been around when they came down.  One depressing aspect to the ride was passing through huge swathes of forest that had been killed by beetle infestations. Made me worried for New Zealand with its reliance on Radiata Pines. If something like these ever took root it would be like Armageddon.

I crossed over Red Meadow Lake and reflected on the difference from 10 years ago when I was here in August.  It had taken two days to get here from Eureka and it was lovely green lush meadows. This year it was covered in snow with a long push. Contrast the two photos below (it is Fred Arden pushing his bike). By this time I had perfected my snow pushing technique—at least downhill. I would run with my bike and let gravity do the work. Lots to be said for still having my Ironman fitness in the race!

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Fred caught up with me later on and we also met up with Mike #2 on the run into Whitefish. It was about 22:00 when we arrived, Fred having gone ahead and Mike falling behind. I asked some locals where I could find food and was directed to a pizza restaurant. When asked what I wanted I said ‘calories’ and the waitress said that I was in the right place. Fred came in later and joined me. Several locals were aware of the race and chatted with us. So it is not as much of an underground race as we thought! The photos below are before and after the meal. Not a bad effort if I do say so myself …

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Although we had done about 140 km, Fred and I decided to ride on to Columbia Falls that night. He didn’t know how to switch his GPS to night mode so I led the way. It was a wonderful ride with a clear, star filled sky. I could see why they call Montana ‘Big Sky’ country, but I have to say that New Zealand is even better—I’m sure we have more stars and they are closer to earth!

We arrived in Columbia Falls just afterDSC_0211 midnight and asked a local where to camp. He directed us to a park which had an excellent barbeque area. We unrolled our sleeping bags there. It also had an excellent toilet facility, water and there was relatively little noise. Perfection.

In the morning I headed up the road to a cafe for breakfast where I met Marco and Elena from Italy who had cycled in from Whitefish that morning. After a huge breakfast I was on my way towards Holland Lake. Little did I realize that this lovely sunny day when I was relatively well rested and well fed would be one of the worst days of the race for me.

The morning ride was fine and at lunch time I came across a cafe where there were quite a few riders taking a break. I pressed on to the next town where there was a shop – about 2 km off route – where I met Al from Scotland. Got some supplies and then headed into the mountains.

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As the day progressed I became really fatigued. To the point where I pulled off the road and lay down on a side path and took a one hour sleep. My get up and go had got up and gone. Felt better afterwards but was still firing on three cylinders.

Continued the climbing and then, on a descent, found that I had no rear brake. It looked like a stone had somehow got thrown up into the disc and this had accelerated the wear on the pad. Not good as I had some huge descents to do the following day. While I had a spare pad, I had never changed a disc brake pad before so lacked the confidence to do so. I said a prayer to God that I could use some help and lo and behold when I turned a corner there was Adam the bike mechanic having a rest break. He advised me on how to change the brake and so I was soon on my way again with two working brakes. As a footnote, the brake pads lasted for a total of three days and had to be replaced again in Butte. The Tour Divide is seriously hard on gear.

With my lethargy setting in I found myself alone and not making very fast progress at all. This was very serious wilderness country and so I decided against camping out.  This meant that I would have to ride in the dark but I wasn’t too worried as I had a good light.  Unfortunately, as darkness descended the weather deteriorated and I found myself riding in some very very heavy rain. As in monsoon intensity (or so it seemed). That’s OK as I had rain gear (which eventually got saturated) so I could cope riding a night, in the wilderness, in the heavy rain. Then my bike broke down.

I’m not sure exactly what the problem was but I think that the mud got into the rear cassette as well as the front chain ring. When I tried to change the front gears, the chain would kink as if it has a frozen link and the crank would lock. I was seriously afraid of breaking the chain—not what you want to do under circumstances like this. On the rear I could not find a gear where it was not slipping. In the end I managed to get it working as a single speed which was the wrong gear for riding in, but at least I could ride. With my headlamp reflecting a lot of yellow eyes in the forest (deer) it was all a bit unnerving. So I undid my bear mace and cycled with it in hand.DSC_0235 Then of course I came to a section of single track … and the rain intensified. What a night. Obviously I made it through at at about 00:30 I reached a paved road. There was restaurant a few miles up the road so I decided to head there. It was of course closed but I saw a shed on a neighbors property. It was dry and so I let myself into a corner of the shed and rolled out my sleeping bag to get a few hours rest. The rain came down in buckets so I was glad I had shelter. What a day.  And all this for only 150 km of riding!

It had stopped raining in the morning and I made my way out about 07:45 so the farmer wouldn’t be offended by the interloper. The restaurant was open and I found Marco, Elena and Fred there having breakfast. They had arrived about 22:00 the evening before and, after getting drinks and food in the bar, camped out on the back porch of the restaurant—much to the chagrin of the owners. They headed out before me and after breakfast I made my way over to Holland Lake and climbed in the rain towards Richmond Peak. 

This is a mammoth climbDSC_0248 as you can see from the photo of my GPS. The green ‘triangle’ is the peak I am climbing (I’m about half way up). But as you can also see, once you crest you are rewarded with a wonderful downhill run! I had done some work on my bike in the shed and at least I had my gears working again; I would not want to have done it on a single speed, even though a number of racers were.

Richmond Peak is very dangerous—and this is from someone whose wife says lacks any sense of self preservation. You end up traversing a slope which is about 45 degrees, with trees below you, snow around you, hoping that you don’t slide down with your bike and injure yourself. The photos below don’t do justice to this. At least I was crossing in daylight.

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But I eventually made it across. It wasn’t easy. At the top there were quite a few different trails that riders had taken DSC_0264and it was not clear which was the correct one. When I spoke with others it seemed that taking the wrong path was the most common outcome. I ended up with some very serious bush bashing and having to chuck my bike down an embankment.  But at least there were some trees to brake the fall … then it was a ride down a narrow trail with a steep slope on the side. Richmond Peak. What a challenge.

On the way down I met up with Fred. As we rode down the hill were were also joined by Mike #1. I told them that I needed to head to Seely Lake where there was a hotel and food. The last two days had really knocked me around and I needed to regroup mentally. They joined me and we stayed at a dump hotel. But at least I was able to hose down my bike and get lots of calories. And a good night’s sleep. While there I met a rider who had ‘trench foot’ from all the rain and was trying to recover. He would later bail.

The next day I was a new person and did a marathon ride of 200 km to Helena.  It was a brilliant morning and I really enjoyed the ride to Ovando where I had an early lunch. On the way I met two DSC_0267US Forest Service workers and chatted with them. To help the racers, one had gone to Richmond Peak and cut down some trees that had fallen across the path. I had wondered who the good Samaritan was … When I got to Ovando there was a great restaurant who made me a brilliant sandwich and the best berry pie I’ve ever head.  Some tourists snapped a photo of me. I used the opportunity to post to Washington one of my Garmin 800 GPS’ which had failed. Let’s here it for redundancy. During lunch a woman came over and asked if I was Chris from New Zealand. Blue Dot Junkie. She gave me an update on the race, who was where etc.

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When I got to the town of Lincoln I was pleased to see that they were big supporters of the race, with hotel signs welcoming us. After taking in some calories and sending e-mails I headed out pressing on towards Helena. It was about 16:00 when I left town and cycling in the afternoon is my favorite time of riding.

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As we ascended the road turned off onto a trail. And what a trail it was. Very hard riding. I was shocked when after about a kilometre I found a house! I could not imagine taking a vehicle along this trail except in winter. There were some serious puddles and in one I found myself come to a complete standstill as I rode through. I ended up hugging a nearby pine tree which saved me from a very serious dunking. Usually I curse these trees as they tend to knock me over rather than save me!

During a descent I found a leg warmer on the road. I recognized it as coming from Mike #1 so I picked it up. Later, I came across Fred camping next to the road, using the sign as a laundry hanger. He and Mike #1 had left Seely Lake at 06:00 but had become separated. Fred was impressed that I was going to press on to Helena. It was a fine evening, I was not overly tired, I had calories, so why stop?

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It got dark about 22:00 but the road was acceptable so I didn’t mind too much riding in the dark. I took a wrong turn but corrected myself with my GPS otherwise it was just the same old story of climbing, climbing and then, for a change, climbing. By 00:30 I was getting quite tired and thought that I should camp out even though it was really remote. However, the place that looked ideal had two pairs of green eyes staring back at me which spooked me a bit: they were the height of deer but deer have yellow eyes. I decided to push on and get to Helena instead. I was told later by two hunters that they were probably coyote, but they could also have been wolves. Either way I’m glad I didn’t hang around. There was a good downhill

Eventually I reached the top at Priest’s Pass where I put Mike’s legging next to the road and scratched out his name. I put some sticks across the road so he would find it. He did—although he missed his name and thought someone had picked it up and dropped it again. So much for getting recognition for my efforts. It was a good long downhill run to DSC_0281the main road, but there was some serious rutting which almost threw me off the bike a few times. I made it out in the end and then at 01:30 into Helena. I found a petrol station with a 24 h grocery and stocked up on calories. The proprietor directed me down the road to the State Fair Ground where I pitched my tent next to the duck pond about 02:00—some 18h after leaving Seely Lake. A long but good day.

In the morning I was back at the petrol station for breakfast at 07:30 and DSC_0285then headed into Helena to start the ride over to Butte. As I was leaving town I saw a sign ‘Mexico of Bust’ and stopped to take a photo. A fellow came over on his bike and chatted: it was his sign and he offered to take my photo. I’m pointing to the ‘Bust’ on the sign because after riding 200 km the day before, and getting some 5:30 of interrupted ‘sleep’ I felt that bust was more likely than victory!

From there it was up and up and up over lava mountain. I recalled this section from 10 years ago as being particularly DSC_0298nasty, and my memory served me correctly.  The road turned to a trail which turned to a track which turned into a river course. It was horrible. But at least it wasn’t raining. I could see the imprints of tyres in the dried mud and thought how absolutely horrible it must have been to be up here in the rain.

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I was treated at the top by amazing views from an alpine meadow and then began the descent. Since the trail was a lot like the other side, I pushed my bike for quite a bit—did not want to risk an injury. Eventually reached a road and then was treated with a great downhill run into the town of Basin, where it was time for food. As I rolled through town to the restaurant I noticed some bright yellow clothes, it was Mike #2! We had lunch together and I called the Outdoorsman bike shop in Butte—we both needed repairs (my rear brakes were almost gone again). They told me that they closed in 2:30 which meant it would be very hard for us to make it there in time, but we decided to try.

It was very hot as we rode towards Butte. The path followed an old railway line for much of the way and the heat was reflecting off the ground and baking us. Eventually we reached a road at 17:00, 20 miles from Butte. I decided that I could ride 20 miles in under an hour, having done it recently in my Ironman Brazil race (albeit not on a heavily laden mountain bike) so I dropped into my aero bars and hit the gas pedal.  I was helped by the downhill run into Butte, and hindered by some headwinds, but I did the 20 miles in 58 minutes, arriving just as they were locking the door. Mike said afterwards he was impressed that I had that much in reserve.

The Outdoorsman in one of three bike shops recommended along the route. It is run by Rob Leipheimer whose brother Levi is a professional racer who was on Lance Armstrong’s team. The shop is decorated with jerseys and other paraphernalia from Levi’s career.  I met Prentice at the shop as well as Billy from Texas who had just replaced his seat. I could relate: that day I had developed a sharp pain in my right backside—so bad that I had spent much of the day standing in the pedals or in an aggressive aero position. I was surprised as I had used the seat before and had no such problems.

They worked like Trojans on my bike, replacing the brake pads and also fixing the shifting. Gave it a very good clean as well which was sorely needed. Rob is in the photo to the right cleaning my wheel. They did not charge at all for labour, just parts—and also gave us drinks and food. Great shop run by real enthusiasts.  Mike #2 arrived about 6:20 having taken a wrong turn, they let him in and tried to fix his bike which was having serious cable problems.

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I opted to stay at the Days Inn which was connected to the bike shop. Mike and Prentiss were going to cycle on and camp out. I enjoyed a hot bath and a pizza, as well as chatting with my wife in New Zealand.  The following morning I headed over to a local clinic to get my chest looked at: I had been battling a chest infection for a few days and my antibiotics were not having any impact. As as asthmatic I have to be quite careful about these things. It was diagnosed as viral—which explained why the antibiotics were not working—but she said that overall the chest was pretty clear so I was good to go. After resupplying I headed back to the bike shop and changed my seat, then headed into town and got an AT&T SIM card for my mobile phone in the hope of getting some coverage. I bumped into Mike #1 at the hotel. He had ridden back to town as he decided he needed a rest day. Good call. We had been through some hard times …

As I headed out of town I met up with Fred and Mike #1 who had just arrived and were searching for the bike shop. DSC_0308After giving them directions I headed out and up towards Wise River.  It was lunch time, but the morning ‘chores’ were necessary. As usual, there were a lot of ‘ups’ but the scenery was beautiful and, above all, I was really appreciating the isolation. This is, to me, a real attraction of the course: you have a lot of time to be alone in nature, appreciating your surroundings without all the ‘noise’ of day-to-day life.  Things are really simple: you eat, sleep and ride. If you get hungry, you pull over to the side of the road drop your bike and enjoy your meal—even if it is only a tin of mixed fruit cocktail.

  The challenge of the day was ‘Fleecer Ridge’. We headed up into this alpine meadow and the directions were to the effect ‘head towards the fence post at the right’. Good reason to have a GPS to guide you. This was then followed by a section of single track with views to die for.

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The challenge was that one had to descend to the valley below. As I began to ride down the hill the gradient got steeper and DSC_0320steeper. Just as I was thinking that I should probably get off and walk gravity made the decision for me: my bike flipped head over heals. I do wish that my limited self-preservation genes would activate themselves a few seconds earlier than they do as this is not the first time—or probably the last—that something like this happens. So I walked the bike down, or to be more precise, held onto it to prevent it taking off down the hill. It really was incredibly steep. I pity those riding northbound who would have to climb this beast.

After the descent I reached the road and headed downhill towards Wise River. There were people fishing in the late afternoon sun and it was such a DSC_0325peaceful, tranquil valley. When I reached town at 19:00 I went to the hotel and got a room.  Yes, it was a short day but I needed to have a good meal. As I was finishing Fred and Mike #2 rolled in and they also got rooms. They were followed by James from Washington D.C. so we had quite the gathering! After an overpriced meal I enjoyed getting to bed and ready for the morning where I planned a marathon ride.

I left the hotel at 06:00 and headed south along the paved road. Climbing of course. My goal was to have breakfast at the Elkhorn Hot Springs. However, when I reached there they said that breakfast was over and all the food had been eaten. They didn’t even offer me a glass or Orange Juice. I was told to head down the road to the Grasshopper Inn who would be able to help. Not the best customer service, but an exception to my experiences in the USA.

I saw a sign by the road offering food, lodging and internet to Tour Divider’s so I decided to head there instead. I knew I had found the right place by the sign: not many use a bike to attract customers. I had a great breakfast at the ‘High Country Mountain Lodge’ and they even gave me a packed lunch. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. It was the most friendly and supportive place I found on the route. Had I known this I would have ridden over from Wise River the previous night. I found out that Marco and Elena had been through a few hours earlier, and was able to check e-mails and call my parents.

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They took two photos of me which are much better than from my cell phone camera!

Christopher B @ Montana High Country Lodge

Christopher B Pioneer Mountains

As I cycled south from Polaris I met an English tourist riding north. He briefed me on the riders he had seen. As we chatted he commented that he had been unaware of the Canadian section. So I gave him my map so that he could do the entire length. Not that I envied him ….

The ride from Polaris to Lima was very remote: some 160 km with no supplies whatsoever. Just to make things interesting, it was a blistering hot day with a really strong headwind for about 2/3 of the ride. That which does not kill you makes you stronger! The land was dry and covered in scrub so there were no trees to offer shade, or to break the wind. At least the road was good. I stopped for lunch at a junction and wind actually blew my bike off the traffic sign post that was holding it up. Not fun!

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In late afternoon I finally crested the summit where there was a sign that this was the ‘Old Bannack Road’ from 1862 which DSC_0344connected Utah with Montana. Unfortunately, it was a false summit and I had more climbing to do before I finally did reach the high point and begin my descent. It was late afternoon and the sun cast shadows of me and my bike. I do like riding at this time of day.

Long descents are a well deserved reward for a long ascent, but compared to the many hours it takes to get to the top, they are over too quickly. Not in this case. I had some 40 km of largely continued descent. What a luxury. I was treated with the afternoon sun setting on these brilliant rock formations. A down side was that there were lots of cattle lounging around on the road, and cattle dung, which meant that I had to dodge them at times. The calves were even harder to dodge and more than once I had to skid to a stop. Cows are so dumb.

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I made it to the Interstate service road around 22:00 and then followed that into Lima which I reached at 23:00. It was quite cold and I was hungry but of DSC_0347 course everything was closed. I needed calories and fluids but fortunately being America there was a 24 h source: a vending machine. While paying $2 for a bottle of water is not my preference, beggars cannot be choosers—especially at that time of day. I pitched my tent in the RV park—where there was another Tour Divider—and after 219 km of riding over 17 h I collapsed into a well deserved sleep.

In the morning I went to the Cafe and ordered my usual breakfast for two. James from Washington D.C. came in. He had camped out up the valley with Fred the previous evening. I headed out, stopping at the post office to send a few more redundant things to my P.O. Box, and then headed towards Lakeview and the Red Rock Lake Wildlife Refuge.

This section was especially daunting for me as 10 years ago we were devastated by the mud which sucked our bikes in and was closer to peanut butter/cement than anything else. It was horrible. However, the heat and wind had dried out the road so it was nothing like the previous experience, and I felt spoiled with such a (comparatively) fine surface. Of course this was mitigated to some extent by the blistering DSC_0350strong wind, but I’ll take wind over mud any time. James passed me after about an hour and I had a quiet ride. We caught up again in Lakeview where I sheltered in the ranger station for 30 minutes to get away from the wind. Unfortunately some of the food I bought in Lima was inedible so I was having an extra challenge with nutrition.  Anyway, all one can do is to pedal on—and up—towards Idaho.

As I approached the crest a car stopped to chat. The driver asked if I was racing and shared that he had ridden all of Montana. He offered me a cold apple which was gratefully received. I have NEVER had such a delicious apple in my life.  Another fellow snapped this photo of me as I was cresting, and I got the souvenir to the right saying goodbye to Montana. Having survived Montana my probability of a successful finish to the race increased markedly.

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