I've been done with the Divide for over two weeks now. I think my brain's recovered enough to write something half insightful about the race. Here we go.
I turn the pedals, grinding through thick, gloppy mud. Eyes up on the riders in front. Each has a dirty skunk stripe up their backs. Bikes and bags all gritty, zippers coated in dirt. Man what a mess. I wiggle my freezing fingers, trying to get some blood flow back.
A guy rides up beside me on the doubletrack. He’s on a geared bike with some overstuffed bags and a big backpack. We make the normal small talk - where are you from, have you tried to race the Divide before, who made your bags?
“Oh, a singlespeed?” The guy says, peering at my drivetrain.
“Yep.” At this point in the day, lots of people have asked about my bike. It’s getting on my nerves a little.
“What’s your name?” The guy demands. I tell him. “Huh. Well I’m gonna watch your SPOT. I’m curious how that works out for you. See you later.”
He shifts gears and spins away. I’m pissed. Does he have me pegged me as a DNF? I cram a Clif Bar into my face and keep grinding through the muck. Forget the jerk, beat him if you can. Look around, the mountains are beautiful.
Early that morning, I was clean, dry and full of pancakes. (My Warmshowers host Paul got up early to make breakfast and drive me to the start in Banff. He said he was going climbing anyway, but really he’s just nice.)
At the Banff YWCA the air was thick with cold mist and anxiety. People checked, double checked, triple checked their gear. Crazy Larry bounced around with a tray of Rice Krispies treats. During the group photo, the girl sitting next to me sighed and mumbled, “I thought this was supposed to be a low-key event. This is like Leadville or something.” The crowd hushed in a moment of silence for Mike Hall, then Larry sang out the Tour Divide riders creed. We repeated the words after him, but I forget it now.
We staged ourselves (where the heck was I supposed to go), then rolled out - a big wheeled mass of nervous happy terrified energy.
Three miles in, my Garmin freaked out. Power lost. Power lost. Power lost. Probably from leaving my cache battery out in the rain. I fiddled for a bit, while the entire race passed. Technology is the worst. I called it some names. Finally plugged it into the dynamo, carried on into the murky cold rain.
On a piece of slick singletrack, I tried to pass a guy wearing a bucket hat. My front tire slid off a root and I took a digger into the mud five feet in front of him. My aerobars took most of the fall. I apologized four times to the guy. That's what happens when I have too much fun mountain biking.
It rained, snowed, stopped, rained again. I passed a guy dunking his bike in a stream. He was hauling it up and down, splashing water all over the bottom bracket. Whatever makes you happy.
About 100 muddy miles down, it’s 8:00. I stop at the intersection. Keep going straight to Elkford, a warm dinner and a hotel room. The route usually goes through Elkford, but there's a bridge out. Turn right onto the new Koko Claims reroute to Fernie, which is some kind of burly hike-a-bike up a rocky-ass forest road. The road behind me is littered with broken derailleurs, Clif Bar wrappers and sad, muddy cyclists.
A couple guys are standing by the trailhead. I ask how far it is to Elkford. Four kilometers (they’re both Australian). They’re planning to tackle the climb, camp on the other side. Do I want to join? It’ll be better now than in the morning.
Montana told me not to stop in Elkford. “Only non-finishers stop in Elkford,” he’d said. Four riders zoom past me, so focused on a hot shower and dinner that they don’t even look at us. I waffle back and forth, wondering if I’ve got enough food to keep going. Of course I do, I’ve hoarded enough snacks for almost three days. We start hiking.
Two hours later, we might be close to the top. The trail was a steep, rocky stream for a while and now it’s covered in snow. About a dozen of us are walking our bikes through the dark. A lanky guy up front is hiking fast, hooting for bears every five minutes. His bear bell jangles from his handlebars. Where’s all that energy coming from?
I’ve leeched onto Ross, one of the Australians, because he has a headlamp. Mine bounced around in my accessory bag, turned on, and burned out. I’m dragging. I stop.
“I’m just gonna camp here,” I tell Ross, gesturing at a totally slanted, icy piece of ground nearby. Ross looks at me.
“Come on, now. We’re not leaving you alone on the mountain. Just five steps at a time.” Gosh, he’s really nice.
Many sets of five steps later, we’re finally at the top. A few feet down the other side, people are camped in a meadow. We all disperse, set up our meager shelters. I fumble with my bivy in the dark. Should’ve practiced with it. Montana wrote a love note on the front: NOT A BEAR BURRITO. DO NOT EAT. It’s extra cold up here. I put on all my clothes and crawl into bed with a frozen gluten-free burrito and a plastic bag of squished strawberry crumble that my Warmshowers hosts gave me last night.
I fall asleep listening to small, hard flakes of snow tip-tapping on the bivy roof.
In the morning everything is frozen, and none of us were eaten by bears.
Past Fernie, I’ve got such a bad cold I can barely talk. I can’t breathe hard, either. Tour Divide illness. I'm walking up a hill 20 miles from the Canada border, wheezing. Then my sniffles get loose. A fat drop of blood falls on my handlebars. Oh hell.
I get nosebleeds a lot. Especially in the mountains. My fragile sinuses get too dry, then a vein cracks and bleeds for a couple hours. I have to stand over a sink and let it happen till the bleeding stops. I don’t have a sink right now, so I wad up some toilet paper and hold itunder my nose for a few minutes. It doesn’t exactly stop.
In Eureka I stop at Subway. Suddenly it’s hot out, I’m burning up in my wool tights. I call Montana and try not to cry when I hear his voice. “It’s just a bike ride,” he says, “you’ll be okay.” The Aussies roll in with some other people. Everyone’s filthy and beat.
I order a big salad with large bag of Bugles as my carbs for the day. Gluten-free life is rough on the Divide.
My nose lets loose again. I run to the bathroom with napkins up to my face. The cashier comes in while I’m hunched over the sink.
“You okay, honey?” She asks. “You’re awfully red in the face.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just doing this really long bike ride and my nose is dry.”
She eyes my pile of bloody paper towels. “Well maybe you should give up this biking thing.”
It stops, I leave and spin away from town on the pavement. Opens up again. I drip blood all along the road, stop in the grass. Some people driving past donate some napkins. I have to start riding again. It keeps dripping. I’m out of napkins. I tilt my head back, letting some blood drip down onto my bike. Hopefully no bears around. I think about stopping for the night.
The two Czechs catch up. Marketa is the female rider closest to me. She’s a little horrified at the state of my face. I decide to ride a little more. Can’t let her get too far in front.
A few more miles. Finally, a nice creek. I stop to camp with a guy from Alaska, go to the creek and use my one spare t-shirt to mop the blood off my face and my gear. I'll have to throw it away.
A rider passes the campsite. “Jeez, was that blood from you? I thought a bear was eating something back there.”
I force myself to sleep on my back so I don’t leak nose blood on my bivy.
Soupy mud on Richmond Pass. Foggy, freezing rain, everything’s totally soaked. My knees hurt. My stomach hurts from eating five jalapeño elk jerky sticks for lunch. At least I can talk and breathe today. A wind kicks up and blasts down the pass. I unclip and trudge next to my bike.
At the top, I layer my soggy puffy coat under my wet rain jacket and start to descend. Warm dinner soon! But my arrow’s not on the green line. Fudge. With numb fingers, I dig out my Great Divide map. Go through the boulders, singletrack starts. I shout at the map and cram it back in my frame bag.
The trail’s covered in snow. Of course. I ride carefully, feeling dark and moody. There would be a nice view over the edge if it ever stopped raining. Finally the trail opens up onto a road. Rolling faster down the hill. I’m frozen. Fingers won’t move, chilled to the bone. A few tears leak down, then I’m sobbing and shivering, yelling at the road again. What a load of garbage. If I was touring this route, I’d still be warm and dry in Banff.
At an intersection. Montana told me to carry on into Ovando if I could. I can’t. I’m done. I roll off route into Seeley Lake, stop at the first hotel and feel bad for tracking dirt into the office. They’re out of rooms. Tears well up again. I shuffle outside.
“Hey cyclist!” Up on the balcony, three riders are rolling bikes out of a room. “We got here at noon, cleaned up and slept all day,” one guy tells me. “The room’s a mess but you can have it if you want.” He hands me a key. Yes! I’d give him a hug if his bike wasn’t in the way.
The Kiwi couple on a tandem rolls up, looking haggard and muddy.
“Free hotel room!” I yell. “And the office has Twinkies!” It’s the little things.
The sun is out in the morning. I’m flying high on an honest-to-god Americano from a cafe in Seeley Lake. I run into Bucket Hat on the way out of town. He tells me that he got hypothermia on Richmond Pass and had to recover at the motel for 20 hours yesterday. He pedals away, excited for breakfast somewhere in Ovando. His pedal stroke is weird. Is he wearing water shoes?
I stop in Ovando at the place with all the bikes. A text from my dad bleeps onto my phone. “Stop at the Stray Bullet Cafe.” The what? He must Googling the places I stop. I look around. The Stray Bullet Cafe is right in front of me. Bucket Hat and a few other guys are sitting down inside, eating. I order eggs, potatoes, and cheese in aluminum foil to go.
“Are you on some kind of time crunch?” The waitress asks. No! But I feel like riding my bike today. I stuff the egg thing in my gas tank and the Blackfoot Angler takes a couple pictures. She’s excited that I’m on a singlespeed.
On Facebook she captions my photo with this: “She is the darling of the men’s race due to her petite size and that they all admire how tough she is being on a SINGLE speed and nailing it. But a lady she is, all that sparkle on her helmet….it’s nail polish!” It is. Montana sees the photo and says I look too clean.
Stoked on sun, I set my sights on Helena. I can make it! The day is beautiful, there’s a tailwind and I have a lot of chocolate in my trail mix! I strike a deal with myself. If I get to Helena, I can get a hotel room and some ice cream. Motivation!
The last pass of the day, I’m riding with Jeremy, the lanky bear bellower from the first day. I've got two rolled-up wet wipes plugging my nose, but Jeremy doesn't laugh at me too hard. We’re rolling through a gorgeous green meadow dotted with wildflowers. The sun is setting over the hills. We’ll make it to Helena for sure. Ka-chunk. My cranks catch, then spin free on nothing. Chain popped off the cog. I put it back on. That sucker’s loose, dropouts won’t slide back anymore. I hop back on. Ka-chunk. Again. Oh hell. Don’t panic. Just keep riding. We’ve got a tiny pass, then 10 miles of highway to Helena. Ka-chunk. Guess I’ll need to visit the bike shop tomorrow.
I pedal gingerly up and over Priest Pass into a bright mountain sunset. Zoom down the pass in the dark - the two Czechs are changing brake pads at a switchback - catch Jeremy at the bottom and spin as fast as I can into town (12 miles per hour). The Czechs fly past without a word, bear bells jangling.
By 12:30 I’m finally in a hotel room, soaking my dirty clothes in the bathtub and eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dinner. My mouth is too ripped up from chips and Clif Bars for anything else. 130 miles. Hotel. Ice cream. Tomorrow I’ll lose a bunch of time because the bike shop doesn’t open till 10:00. But right now I’m happy.
The top of the infamous Fleecer Ridge is actually kind of delightful. The air is crisp and cool. Little wildflowers bob in the breeze. I set my bike down on the grass and take a picture of the trail dipping over the hillside. Hop on, start riding down. It’s not so bad. What kind of fools walk this descent? The trail turns, then plunges. Oh. I get off and scramble down.
The dirt hits pavement in a few miles. I start climbing. Ow. Stabbing in my quad, by the knee. I stop, massage it, stretch. Good to go! Ow. Damn, that hurts. Sit down, soft pedal to Wise River.
Lunch at one of two bars in town. It’s nice in there, warm and dark. The flightless Kiwi tandem comes in, sits down at my booth. The waitress plops my lunch on the table and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t seem pleased to have two more customers. We take our time eating, and Denise chips away at the stony waitress with aggressive politeness. She warms up to us and fills our bottles. I have to fill my own water bladder though - she says that a Divide racer accused her of putting a hole in his bag. Dang, people can be rude.
There are a few locals at the bar. “You headed to Polaris?” They ask. Yep. “I wouldn’t take the road! That’s a big hill!” Was there a helicopter shuttle we could take?
“Yeah, some people have to walk that one,” Geof says. I can’t tell if he’s joking.
When we roll out, the Kiwis drop me fast on the pavement. That’s okay. The clouds loom closer, so I stop and put on my rain jacket. After Fleecer, I’m looking forward for some gradual climbing. It gets a tiny bit steeper, I stand up out of the saddle. Holy god I can’t. Knives in my quad. I sit and pedal. That still works.
A few more miles, I can’t stand and climb. I can barely sit and spin. What’s a singlespeeder who can’t climb? Sad.
The top has to be here somewhere. Low heavy clouds piss rain. I stop, pull on my rain pants, limp a few steps, try to stretch. I take a couple Advil, but nothing feels better. Tears sting my eyes. Gotta keep riding, can’t camp up high in the rain. I’m so mad. This would be a nice climb if I didn’t feel like cutting my leg off above the knee.
At the top, I descend through freezing rain, pass the turn to some hot springs and feel sad that I have to skip them. The Grasshopper Valley opens up, wide and dotted with a few big houses. There’s a fire station and a post office. I spot the sign for the High Country Lodge. Divide Riders Welcome! Montana said I shouldn’t waste time stopping here for the night. I can hardly pedal up the long driveway. Nope. Stopping.
The owner Russ welcomes me into the big living room full of forest creatures. The Kiwis and Alex the Australian are there already, discussing the difference between a New Zealand elk and a Montana elk (there is none). Alex is limping a little, too. The lodge has a big board for riders to sign their names. I mark mine down, then see that the Czechs have already been through and carried on down the road. My window to catch up is shrinking. I plop myself down on the couch and wallow in self pity, gazing into the glassy eyes of a moose on the wall.
The food is amazing - roasted chicken and mashed potatoes. They even find a gluten-free roll out in the freezer (lucky me, Russ and Kathy's daughter has a sensitive tummy too)! I think about asking for seconds, but nobody else does. So I stay quiet and enjoy my gluten-free brownie for dessert.
Denise, who’s a physical therapist, checks out my quad after dinner. She recommends some glute exercises. I’ll never do them, but I’m grateful for the advice. I call Montana. He says I’ve probably lowered my seat too much a couple days ago. Or maybe my knees are suffering because I’m hauling three extra pounds of tortillas and pepperoni. Food hoarding. I tell him I feel bad for staying inside four nights in a row.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Just do what you need to get to the end.” He’s too good.
I’ll just get up early, start riding and hope things feel better. I don’t have anything better to do.