Touring The Divide
Back in 2011 I competed in the Tour Divide MTB race from Banff, Canada 2,740 miles down the Rocky Mountains to Antelope Wells on the USA/Mexico border. The route boasts a knee-trembling 200,000 feet of ascent, and although I was one of the 50% of riders to complete the race in 28 days, I was never really satisfied with this result. Yes, I finished an event many have failed but at various times, but increasingly towards the end I suffered with extreme fatigue. Looking back on the ride, I can't be sure how much of this was through a lack of training, the right food, an inability to cope with altitude or changes in temperature. of course, the 2011 route will go down in history as one of the most affected by snow and consequently many detours were made to the route, but still, is that excuse enough?
With lingering doubts about my performance, I still harboured ambitions to return one day to have another attempt, but in 2013 the opportunity to return and just ride down a portion of the route at touring pace presented itself. Four of us were to start from Banff and ride down to Colorado before leaving the route and heading East along the Colorado Trail into Denver, a distance of 2,000 miles; a route that would once again allow me to test myself on the climbs but also cross the high passes I had missed in 2011.
Before leaving, we were all awed by Mike Hall's super-human time of just over 14 days. That's basically two week's for the whole route in the 2013 Grand Depart. Time to reflect. Sadly we could not follow in his wheels from the start as major flooding in Canada meant we had to start our ride in Fernie, missing Elk Pass and a traverse of the remote Flathead Valley - the second time I was going to miss the Flathead and around 200 miles of riding.
So on a sunny Monday in July, our intrepid group of 4 riders left Fernie pointing the bikes South for an 1,800 mile adventure. The first day was quite mellow as we largely rolled a downhill route to the Canadian / USA border at Port of Roosville. We crossed the border to find a campsite in the wonderfully named Eureka, Montana and eventually some food before settling down for the night.
The next day was to be more of a test and we left town with some apprehension to cross the Whitefish Divide (5,200ft) before descending to Glacier National Park and climbing up to Red Meadow Lake to camp at 5,600 ft. It was quite a long climb, with a steep section at the end but eventually we were rewarded with a beautiful campsite by the lake all to ourselves.
On the descent the following day Glenn, an American in our group punctured soon after leaving camp. In short order though we were back on the trail for the 30 mile run to Whitefish losing almost 2,500 foot of elevation in the process. I had been saying about how hard the last few road miles into Whitefish were after my 2011 experience but this time we cycled in easily - the ultra steep climb I remembered from before was just a mole hill!
The next couple of days we rode down mostly easy tracks through the Mission Mountains between Flathead Lake and Swan Valley. The one challenge we had was over Richmond Peak. Even when the Tour Divide race comes through in mid June this is still snow covered and known as a tough section. The ride from Holland Park was long and hot, but Richmond Peak was clear of snow and we barreled down laughing through the singletrack between the trees. At the trailhead where a dirt road started we paused for a few moments grinning and wondering what all the fuss was about. We could have pushed on to a late finish in Ovando but we elected to stop early in Seeley Lake to eat, camp and wash our clothes. We also took the opportunity for a dip in the lake before drying off in the evenings warmth.
The next day we sped into Ovando for a good feed before heading over Huckleberry Pass to Lincoln and then onto Helena and Basin for the next couple of days. This was definitely the toughest section so far, with a lot of hard climbs and rough descents from mountains that seemingly lasted forever. In Basin we made fast work of a burger, fries and a lot to drink before heading out to do a couple of hours before dark. We managed to find a rough bit of ground that was far from ideal but it did have the upshot of putting us an hour or so from Butte the next morning. We got into town at 10.00am the following morning with two of us requiring replacement tubeless tyres for differing reasons. We went to eat in a good old fashioned diner while Rob Leipheimer, elder brother of Levi, worked on our bikes. We were in no rush to leave as it was going to be hot for a few hours and we only had another 36 miles to our campsite. We had an interesting chat with Rob about the state of pro cycling, its recent history, Lance Armstrong and the future. I also asked Rob if Levi, himself a former mountain biker, might race the Tour Divide sometime. Rob did not rule it out but said Levi was currently deciding what he wanted to do in the future - and was doing some skiing expeditions in winter.
It may only have been 36 miles to Beaver Dam campground but the route continued to be tough. Only two of us, Susan, a Kiwi living in London, and myself managed to clear the long and sometimes steep climbs. At the campground we met four other Americans who were also touring the route having started on the 4th July.
The following day we climbed over Fleecer Ridge, which is reckoned to be one of the toughest sections. In truth it was not too bad and we decided it was over-hyped. Two years ago I was pushing through snow on the climb and ended up pushing through sage brush on the descent having missed the track down by a few metres. We rolled into Wise River for a stop before spending the afternoon riding up the beautiful Pioneer Highway to Polaris. We decided to have a rest day here in stunning Big Country scenery before pressing on. Matthew, another member of our party, had an earlier flight than the rest of us and decided to push on the next day.
During the day off a plan was hatched to ride into Lima, 100 miles away. Glenn had only done 100 miles on a road bike once before and for Susan it was 15 years since doing that distance in an Ironman race. I knew it was not a particularly difficult day by Tour Divide standards but an early start was still required. We set off at a really quick pace on easy roads and trails with 30 miles taking a confidence-inspiring 2 hours. Late morning in the heat we had stopped to filter water at a stream while we stopped for a bit of food and a break. The only shade was on the other side of a fence. As no traffic had been seen we hopped over the fence leaving our bikes at the roadside. Typically a SUV pulled up and a lady got out and I was expecting a ‘Get orf my land’ speech. Her first words were ‘are you thirsty, would you like some iced tea?’ She then proceeded to give us each a large bottle of iced tea before heading on to her ranch some miles up the road. This was just one of the many kindnesses shown to us on our trip. I know Americans do not always have a good reputation but out in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and many other remote places they could not be more friendly and helpful. A couple of days later we were offered a lift by another random stranger.
In Lima we again caught up with the group we had met at Beaver Dam who passed us on our day off. The next day we all pushed onto a remote campsite at Lakeview. Tomorrow we would be in Idaho after crossing Red Rock Pass. This was another place where I was expecting a short excruciating climb to the summit that never materialised, instead I just cruised up it with just a short grunt for the compulsory photograph at the Montana / Idaho border.
Our group decided to leave the route for two days to detour into Yellowstone NP. Despite some fine scenery I cannot say I really enjoyed it as the roads were really busy with other tourists and massive RV’s. We did manage to get entry to Yellowstone, camping and free coffee for $10.50 for the three of us which was certainly a bonus. Although all campsites were described as full, each site had some provision for 'arrive on the day cyclists'. Glen is a geologist and explained that the caldera in Yellowstone was due to an eruption 640,000 years ago and another one is probably due soon in geological terms!
After another day off we headed South over Togwatee Pass, but later had to abandon our intended camping spot as the site was closed due to increased bear activity. Bears are a common sight through the Rocky Mountains but I have covered about 4,500 miles in the Rockies and have still not seen one. I would love to see a bear in its natural habitat from a safe distance, but this was another missed opportunity.
We were able to cover some good distances over the next few days as the terrain became much easier and the run from Pinedale towards South Pass city was particularly scenic; something I did not recall from my previous visit. In Pinedale we managed to see a proper Wyoming rodeo which included young children having a go on sheep! Glen left us in Pinedale to return home early to manage a domestic emergency, leaving Susan and myself to continue into Colorado.
We reached Atlantic City (population 57) about lunchtime and had another large meal and food. At the little store where we purchased some food we were invited to stay in the back of the shop overnight. House rules - leave money in the till for any food we ate before letting ourselves out. This also served as the local internet cafe so a number of terminals were there for us to use. However, there was no running water and the owner went home to get us a few gallons of water and pointed towards an outhouse in the back. Wi-fi but no running water, go figure!
The following day we decided to get up early and head for Rawlings 135 miles away. Two years ago when racing I had not managed to get to Rawlings across the Great Basin in one day, probably due to accumulated tiredness. Of more concern was the fact that Susan had never ridden this far before. Initially the trail was very quick but it soon became quite rough and the small hills kept coming one after another. We also had to ride about a mile off route to get to a reservoir to filter some water. Just after the reservoir and back on route we began a 4 mile climb that was not too bad and which we got up easily enough, but the long descent took ages. The surface was badly washboarded and it was difficult to keep pedalling, yet I was very pleased to get to the road for the 45 mile run into Rawlings where we arrived just as darkness was falling. We both felt a sense of achievement for different reasons.
The next day was incredibly hard as we headed towards the Wyoming / Colorado border. I recalled from 2011 this being 'real hard', as Sean Kelly would say, and wondered if this was due to big saddle hours and fatigue. It wasn’t. The profile for the route makes it look reasonably mellow but in reality it is all up and down, and often steep, from the top of Middlewood Hill into Medicine Bow National Forest. We elected to camp just beyond a water source mentioned on the map but when we got there the stream was dry. Fortunately, a couple were there in a caravan with loads of water and kindly allowed us to fill up. We also met up with Roberta from Hawaii who was riding the whole route and Clive and Viv from England who were riding from Vancouver to Patagonia on heavily laden Thorn bikes.
The next day was a short day into Brush Mountain Lodge where it was great to catch up with the owner Kirsten who looks after passing Tour Divide riders who updated us on the 2013 race. We also talked about the memorial for Dave Blumenthal. Dave died during the race in 2010 on the other side of the mountain from Brush Mountain Lodge in a collision with a truck, Kirsten was probably the last person to see him alive. I had heard that Moots were going to put up a white bike in his honour but it seems his wife, Lexie, was not happy with this. Instead she preferred a small memorial at the last place he slept, in remembrance of his life rather than his death. A rider who had spent time with Dave in 2010 was racing again in 2013 and he took some wind chimes to hang up at his last camp spot. As in 2011 it was with sadness that I again rode up the road towards Steamboat Springs knowing a life was tragically cut short on this very road. I was very quiet within myself that morning but we did not manage to spot the wind chimes.
By the time we reached Steamboat we knew we were well ahead of time. We had made good progress due to lack of bike issues and good weather. In addition the 3 days we gained at the beginning and the two long days in the saddle allowed us a few days R & R. So on our days off we took the luggage off our bikes and went to see the local trails. In my mind we were about done despite it being a few days riding to Breckenridge. The roads became busier and we saw our first bit of road-rage when riding side by side on a quiet, wide road.
Despite some high altitude riding I was feeling fine and the miles passed easily enough. We had another 3 nights in a hostel in Breckenridge and again rode our bikes on local trails without luggage. It was ‘Breck bike week’ and with MTB racing, activities and demo days it was good to be around.
Sadly, we had to leave the day before the Tour of Colorado came through. Our flight was at the end of the week so we left Breckenridge and cruised easily up to the 11,500 Boreas pass with our new American friends, two of whom were stopping here while two continued on to Mexico. We rode the Gold Dust trail that was snowed in when I came through in 2011 and on into Como and Hartsel. The next morning Susan and I waved goodbye to Roger and John who continued South while we turned north east to pick up some new sections of the Colorado Trail back to Denver. The scenery on this linking section was as good as anything we had seen on our route down from Canada, remote and a lack of services.
The final day was just 27 miles of mostly nice singletrack. Although we had a lot of elevation to lose the last 15 miles included two extended climbs totaling 7 miles, but soon I was on the last 6 miles down a forestry road and I was able to reflect on the journey. How wonderful it is to just ride all day, stop virtually where you want, and meet kind and friendly people. I doubt I will ever race the Tour Divide again, it is hard, but I do hope to return to the Rockies once more.