BANFF, AB (14 June 2019)Before the Tour Divide even got started I was scared. Surprisingly so. I didn't sleep the night before, anxiously pacing and when I was in bed I tossed and turned. I've faced numerous career challenges, toed the line at a world championship event, national championships and other big events such as the Leadville 100. At 63 I know myself well and it's normal for me to be anxiously excited but this was way over the top and very unfamiliar. Fortunately, Pat managed to get me to start line after a restless night. She has helped me every step of the way and came to my aid with words of support during the ride. This accomplishment would not have been possible without her.
When Alex Houchin rolled up prior to the start, I was excited to meet her and I hoped to get her to sign my frame bag. The Tour Divide is a 2,700-mile bikepacking race which roughly follows the Continental Divide starting in Banff and ending at the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. It is self-supported and the route consists of gravel roads with a tiny bit of single track and less than 10% pavement. Alex is famous for being the women's winner in 2018 as well as for her personal story as a native American. She was happy to sign my frame bag after she stuffed hers with all sorts of candy bars and other snacks.
Once we started rolling I calmed down. Everyone was in a good mood and chatted with one another. I was even able to share a few words with Lael Wilcox who was out to set a new course record this year for both men and women. She might have done it too except for a late snowfall in Colorado which made setting new records impossible this year. She abandoned her attempt shortly after crossing into Colorado as did several of the other leaders. There was a film crew attempting to film her attempt but were seemingly hindered by the resentment of others.
In all my reading prior to the Tour Divide I found only passing references to Elk Pass. It's the first serious climb of the Tour Divide but I expected it to be easy, otherwise it would have gotten more ink. Yikes, was I wrong! It was shockingly steep in places -- it was one of the few places I walked due to steepness alone! With expectations totally shattered I began to wonder, what I'd gotten myself into.
The first day of riding includes most of the single track there is on the Tour Divide, not counting the hike on the Continental Divide hiking trail in the Gila National Forest. The single track is fun but it also wears a rider down with short undulations, rocks, roots and other small challenges to negotiate. Still I really enjoyed the first day of riding and was rolling along when I came upon Max and Adam stopped by the side of the road with a rear wheel off one of the bikes. Max had a problem, his free wheel was disengaged from the wheel -- meaning the cassette spun freely in both directions without turning the wheel! When I stopped to asked if I could help, Adam Kiem said, "not unless you have the tools required to remove a cassette." I surprised them by simply stating, "yes I do." Normally to remove a cassette you need three things, a big wrench, a big tool called a chain whip and special cassette lockring remover. Instead of all of that, I carried a Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Driver which did the trick. Adam helped Max get going again and we rolled off not riding together exactly but we did bump into one each other several times in the days to come. The last I saw Adam was in Atlantic City. I really enjoyed their company but we had different agendas so our riding together was limited. I was super happy that Max, after completing his ride, stopped by the store in Hachita to chat. Despite a building restlessness to get to my own finish, I really enjoyed this opportunity to connect and was grateful he took the time to come see me.
The Canadian section of the Tour Divide differs slightly from the official Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) published by the Adventure Cycling Association. I don't really know the difference but I do know that the hike up to Koko Claims is not on the GDMBR. Our route takes a trail called Crossing Creek over a mountain from Round Prairie. It's a beast of a hike. I was very happy I trained specifically for this climb by doing hill repeats with my loaded bike on my back. Still, it was too long for me to carry my bike all the way up so I resorted, as many do, to wrestling my bike up and over the rocks. I was slower than Mikki and Larry at wrestling by quite a lot which is how we met. They came up from behind pushing vigorously on their bars and getting over the rocks quite effectively. I didn't know it at the time but I would ride off and on with Mikki for most of the rest of the tour, finishing just an hour behind him. Larry, unfortunately, abandoned in Silverthorn, a thorn indeed.
Besides Koko Claims, the Canadian section is known for the "Wall" and Galton Pass. The "Wall" was a steep, muddy, single track that required me to wrestle and carry my bike. It's much shorter than Koko Claims so, for me at least, it did not extract a heavy toll. I might have just walked up most it but was unable to wait with the bike on my back while another rider slowly wrestled his. It didn't matter that much as I had already walked most of the bottom part which is the worst of it.
After the "Wall" came Galton Pass which was a good long climb on gravel. As I climbed, thunder clouds rolled in making a lot of noise. Big cold drops of rain started to fall like bullets from the sky. First one then a few more hit my helmet which added to the percussion music of the thunder. I arrived at the top of the pass before the rain was serious enough to get me wet. From there I quickly dropped to the hot dry land below. The descent from Galton Pass was too quick for my liking in a couple of places. The road is very rough and so steep that when I let go of the brakes my speed topped 30 mph in seconds. Twice I braked to a stop just to rest my nerves, hands, and brakes with rotors so hot they squealed. Finally relief came and I enjoyed a relaxed coast down the last portion of the gravel to meet the highway leading to the US border and the town of Eureka just beyond.
I dispersed camped twice in Canada. A dispersed camping is when you camp legally anywhere other than a designated campground. Most Crown land in Canada and national forests in the U.S. allow dispersed camping and have rules which govern how your camp should be situated and how you keep your camp (see sidebar). At the end of first day I dispersed camped with a group of people not far from the start of the climb to Koko Claims. The second was not far from the Flathead River with Bonnie, Grant, Justin and Mark. Most of the next day was spent riding with Mark. He and I had similar riding styles and I really enjoyed our day together. After the wall, however, Mark hit another wall known as the bonk which is when your body runs out of energy. He had no choice at that point, he needed to rest and eat while I pressed on. Fortunately for me, I got to ride with Mark again a few days later.
I first met Bonnie at the base of Koko Claims where she and Grant decided to press on up the Crossing Creek Trail at the end of the first day. It was about 8 PM and they decided to get a mile or more of the difficult climb to Koko Claims out of the way while daylight permitted. Bonnie is well known among Tour Divide participants for her determination and positive attitude often expressed in her posts on Facebook and Instagram. She is also the Facebook administrator for Tour Divide dot watcher page. Before she started up the Crossing Creek trail with Grant, I managed to get her to sign my frame bag! I'm very happy to have a frame bag with the scratchings of two inspiring women.
Toward the end of the second day I saw Bonnie and Grant walking up the climb before the descent to Butts cabin. Riding slowly past these two was Mark. After a brief chat with Bonnie I proceeded to catch Mark and we started riding together. Once we topped the pass we talked about where to stop for the day. Butts Cabin is popular choice among Tour Divide riders and we decided that it would be fully occupied at this point. Mark suggested we camp just outside of the cabin, while I thought that area would be a scent magnet for bears. Just when I suggested we pick a spot along the road, we came upon Justin setting up camp. We asked if we could join him and before we knew it we had an impromptu campground consisting of Bonnie, Grant, Justin, Mark and me. Not long after we were all snug in our tents and bivy sacks, a thunderstorm rolled through. For me this was a very satisfying end to the day. I could have easily stopped in Fernie for the day and enjoyed a shower and a hotel room. Upon reaching Fernie I felt spent. The steep difficult climb to Koko Claims had taken a toll. After I ate in Fernie, however, I decided to make better use of the long Canadian days and roll out of town to camp who knew where. It was therefore, a joyful happenstance to come upon Bonnie, Grant, Justin and Mark.
Things to know
Ride With GPS Tour Divide Route (copy) Be aware that the Tour Divide Race route differs from the Adventure Cycling Great Divide Route in several places. I don't know what the differences are because I only researched the Tour Divide Routes.
Camping opportunities are plentiful on the route because it frequently travels through public lands or very remote areas. There are also numerous campgrounds along the route. I dispersed camped both nights in Canada. For dispersed camping rules see, Dispersed Camping in U.S. National Forests and Leave No Trace Canada.
Flowing water is plentiful in Canada. I filtered all of my water but others just filled their bottles from clear running streams. I carried two and two thirds liters in Canada and Montana.
Day 1 Banff to Round Prairie, 104 miles, 6,715 ft climbing, 12:15 hours (10:22 moving)
Day 2 Round Prairie to Flathead River just shy of Butts Cabin, 103 miles, 8,332 ft climbing, 15:10 hours (12:23 moving)
Day 3 Flathead River to Eureka, MT, 75 miles, 5,620 ft climbing, 10:50 (8:23 moving)