Signs of Bear Everywhere (Day 1)

BANFF, AB (14 June 2019) At the end of the first day of the Tour Divide a group of us camped in one of the worst places possible. Based on my reading, a good campsite would be away from rivers and streams which some researchers call bear highways. A good site would also be free of attractants such as garbage. About a dozen of us camped right next to a river where the waste of an apparent drinking party and bonfire was littered about. The first 100 miles of the Tour Divide Bikepacking Race may have taken a toll on our collective mental acuity or perhaps most of us just didn't know better. Mostly, it seems, we were doing what other racers have done before us.

The Tour Divide is a race which travels the backbone of the Rocky Mountains from Banff Canada to the Mexican Boarder. The exact route varies slightly each year and in 2019 the route covered 2,745 miles. There are no entry fees or prizes but there are rules. Each year competitors have the option to start the race with a group or individually at any time. The largest group start is called the Grand Depart and is slated for 8 AM on the second Friday of June in Banff Canada. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no grand depart.

The rules of the race prohibit private support for all racers. Racers are not allowed to prearrange mechanical support or resupply. All racers are allowed to take advantage of all publicly available services such as stores, restaurants and bike shops. Racers are allowed to accept emergency assistance and parts excluding food. Racers are tracked using tracking devices and the website, Track Leaders.

If one infers the rules from reading Facebook, however, they might reasonably conclude they are draconian and arbitrary. For example, it seems to be commonly accepted that racers cannot give material assistance to each other. The rules, however, explicitly state emergency assistance is permitted which illustrates how dangerous it is to rely on information from Facebook. Also the rules appear seem to clearly state racers are not to except food or water, however, tucked away in an FAQ on the rules is something called the serendipity exception. If a stranger happens to offer a racer some token amount of food or water, the racer may accept it without disqualification or relegation. In practice, this exception is so reasonable it calls into question the rule itself. Let's face it, it would be rude not to accept such offerings in most cases. Likewise, it is rude and perhaps even damaging to relationships to shun people you know who happen to live along the route -- yet there is no exception to the rule prohibiting visitations that I know of.

The start of the race was nervous. I didn't sleep the night before and would not have even made it to the start if not for Pat's kind embrace to help me sleep. The group of nearly 150 racers milled about as friends and family took photos and offered last minute encouragement to all.

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. 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. She would go on to be the first women finisher and set the women's single speed record for the Tour Divide, finishing in 18 days and 20 hours (also making her the second single speed finisher overall).

The first few miles were glorious

The first day of the race was glorious. The Canadian Rockies appear as tall jagged rocks tearing out of the earth amidst a sea of green trees and running water. For most of the day there are other cyclists in sight all flowing along the gravel roads and rocky single track of the route. Sometimes I hear a cyclist ahead yell "hey bear" or just a loud single "hey!" This practice of yelling "hey" when the trail was narrow or visibility ahead was limited is something I did periodically in the days ahead. Today there was enough of this by others. There were also numerous signs of bear. Most of these signs were in the form of steaming piles left in the middle of the trail. I also noticed some signs of digging and two completely deconstructed pine saplings. As I recall black bears are known to break up and chew small pine trees and to me it looked as if one tree had just spontaneously exploded. Throughout the day the bears watched us pass, unseen by me and most everyone else.

A small group of us stopped for lunch around 12:30 PM. In this group was Justin Heckman and Mark Carter both of whom I got to know in the coming days. Also having lunch with us are Marty, Sam and Glen. Lunch was a Subway sandwich which was purchased the day before. Everyone seems a bit tense and there's not much conversation. Sam and the Marty appeared to be well acquainted and did most of the talking. I'm feeling anxious because it seems like more than 45 miles should be behind us at this point. At the time I didn't realize we had been gently climbing all morning. It's not long before everyone is packing up and getting ready to roll another section of single track before the first significant climb of the Tour Divide, Elk Pass.

The single track on the Tour Divide mostly appears on the first day. After that there are short sections in Montana, Colorado and finally on the Continental Divide hiking trail in New Mexico. I missed a turn flowing too quickly on some single track earlier in the day which is why I was moving too slowly on a narrow section and nearly fell off the edge. The impatience of a rider behind encouraged me to pull over at the first opportunity. Besides I needed to adjust my gear yet again. I must have tightened the straps holding my gear to the front of my bike a dozen times that first day. The route of the Tour Divide turned out to be rougher than expected.

Just before the climb of Elk Pass and 60 miles into the day a group of us arrived at the Bolton Creek Campground and store. It's the only resupply opportunity on the first day so it's not surprising to find Mark, Justin and the others here. Glen MacTavish was here and would go on to finish on July 8th. Sam Jenkins completed the Tour Divide on July 17th. Lucas would go on to end his adventure on June 24th in Lima. John Schilling was also here and arrived for a quick stop just as I departed.

Viewing Elk Pass as an elevation profile on a computer from the comfort of my couch, it looked like a nice steady climb -- the type of climb I love. Like most things Tour Divide, it was not what I expected. There were short sections so steep I walked the bike because I was unable to maintain enough forward momentum to keep my balance. The sun's rays were heavy on my back as I slowly pedaled up the last long climb of rock and grass to the top of the pass. This was the second indication I had that the Tour Divide might be more difficult than I had anticipated. The first was the way the roughness of the route kept shaking my gear loose. It's beginning to sink in that I will be camping on this side of the Koko Claims which most will agree is the most difficult single challenge on the route.

Photos of the racers on day one, posted by Tim Johnson

The route was mostly downhill from the top of Elk Pass to Round Prairie where a group of us camped for the night. It was fun playing with others on the rolling hills of gravel road surrounded by fresh mountain streams and tall green pines set against the backdrop of the jagged rocky mountains. Nathan and Joe were being particularly playful at this point and we pedaled hard over the top of small rises to gain the momentum required to propel us most the way up the next.

I let off the pedals and started to coast when I saw two cyclists ahead apparently investigating a problem with a bike. It was Max and Adam trying to figure what to do about Max's bike. The freewheel on his bike had become completely free which meant that when the chain turned the gears, the wheel did not rotate. In other words, the gears where disengaged from the wheel making pedaling useless. Honestly I didn't even know this was possible but Adam seemed to know immediately what was wrong and asked me if I carried a means of removing a cassette. He seemed shocked when I immediately said I did. Normally to remove a cassette it requires a special tool, a large wrench and a chain whip. The later is a rod with a piece of chain for holding the cassette in place as you turn the nut holding the cassette with the special tool and the wrench. All in all these tools would be bulky and weigh several pounds so no one carries them. Nor did I carry such tools but I did carry a cleaver small metal tool that made use of the your bike chain and bike frame to replace the chain whip and wrench respectively. Once I showed Max and Adam the tool and explained how it worked, it was matter of seconds before Adam had the cassette off the bike. There are tiny rods called paws on the freewheel on the hub of the wheel. Max proceeded to pull these out with some difficulty using a multi-tool. I stopped him and got out a regular pair of needle-nose pliers which allowed him to pull out enough of the paws to engage the gears to make his bike rideable again. Meeting these fine men was a highlight of my tour. Adam was from Australia and Max was Scottish living in Alberta. Unfortunately, the periodic need to stop to adjust my gear meant that biking at the pace of others was futile. Instead of trying, I resolved to simply enjoy it whenever it happened to work out.

Bonnie rolled up not long after I arrived at the turn to Koko Claims called Crossing Creek Trail. Bonnie is a Tour Divide celebrity. She maintains facebook pages devoted to the Divide and posts frequently and openly about what is going on in her life. As a result, most that meet her feel as if they already know her. I experienced this awkwardness immediately but I was also determined to get her to sign my framebag. She's so sweet she didn't hesitate to put me at ease by telling me that she is used strangers being familiar with her and, yes of course, she would sign my bag. It was then about 8 PM and there we were at the base of the most difficult climb on the Tour Divide, Koko Claims. It's much to steep and rocky to ride so to complete the climb you'll have to hike your bike to the top, also known as hike-a-bike (HAB). It's also long so this HAB takes hours. I told my good friend Evan that if I make it to the top of this climb on the first day, my Tour Divide is going well. If not, then well, we'll see. Bonnie too was thinking over her options trying to decide if doing part of the climb was worth it in order to make the start of next day just a little bit easier. Complicating that decision might be finding a place to camp partway up the climb. I thought there would be a one or two good places based on satellite imagery examined carefully months before but that does not give you a picture of the slope. Bonnie decided to go forward to make it at least partway up the climb while I decided Round Prairie would be my home for the night.

Day 1 profile

Round Prairie is the worst place I have ever camped while in bear country and I suspect a resident of the area understood the dangers of camping here. Even though Round Prairie has been a popular resting place for Tour Divide racers since the climb to Koko Claims was added a few years ago, it strikes me as a mistake to camp there. Nevertheless, I was there, tired and perhaps there is some safety in numbers with about a dozen of us tenting there for the night. A local resident or tourist was perhaps doing us a favor when, around midnight and again at 4 AM, they drove a car through the area blasting music. They may have been intending to keep bears from approaching but I did not leave my tent to ask. Before nightfall and after safely securing my food, I met Sue and John from New Zealand. This was their very first time camping in an environment with predators which could pose a threat. I hope I didn't scare them too much with my five minute lesson on bear safety. To their credit, John did a great job hanging their food. Sue had developed a problem with her bicycle but would get through to a bike shop and complete the Divide with John on July 16th. Perhaps we were all good with handling our food that night or the efforts of the locals to keep bears away worked -- either way and despite the signs of bears everywhere, the bears left us to slumber peacefully that night.

On to Day 2

Things to know

The Route

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)


The tool used to remove the cassette from Max's bike was a Stein Mini Cassette Lockring Driver