How does a person sit down and write about a 2700 mile journey across America on a mountain bike, where the hours spent pedaling nearly equaled the total hours in each day? I always thought I understood the enormity of the adventure we were undertaking but it was always broken down into something smaller and easier to comprehend: two countries and six states, or the mountains and the desert, or even just the mileage between water and food resupply points.
The overwhelming number of memories which were created on the Divide are impossible for me to capture in words, or rather, it would be an incredibly long book of which I do not have the time to write. For me, racing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route as part of Tour Divide was a very personal experience. It was both uplifting and grounding at the same time, with many highs and lows. At the finish I was certainly more mentally and emotionally fatigued than physically. It is amazing what our bodies can adapt to given enough time, but the mind is something different. Over and above all the physical abilities and challenges, the mind must be willing to press on.
Unlike all other adventures I have ever written about, at first I decided I was not going to write about Tour Divide. It felt private and I almost wanted to say that you need to get out there and try things like this for yourself. However, after returning home and sharing our adventure with family and friends, I realised that these great stories definitely need to be shared. I made some marvelous new friends on the Divide, discovered wild and wonderful places and persevered through to the end with a determination that I didn’t know I had. I am not usually a philosophical person but maybe it is true, maybe the Divide can change you? Maybe these next few blogs are more for me than you: unpacking memories and making sure I have notes for the future in case my memory fails me. I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures as much as I had making them!
Just as I did when preparing for Tour Divide, and as everyday and every hour passed on the route, I will need to break it down into more manageable chunks. Bite size pieces to enjoy!
Having driven from Vancouver through places like Whistler, Lake Louise and the Icefield Parkway, by the time we got to Banff we were already blown away by the the majesty of the mountains. Compared to Australia… well you can’t really compare! I don’t think I could even name a ‘pass’ in Australia. Our mountains are more like hills that you drive over, not mountains that soar into the clouds which require a pass to sneak between a low point. More often than not, the pass was higher than even the highest point in our entire country. It was fair to say that by the time we got to Banff I thought we had seen it all. Oh how I was wrong!
Seb and I spent a few days exploring Banff, putting our bikes together and doing final preparations like confirming GPS routes and obtaining bear spray. There were dinners with newly made friends, test rides, nervous racers talking things out over pizza and eyeballing the bike setup of every rider which went past. After four days of what felt like a lifetime, slowly counting down to the grand depart, I couldn’t wait to get going. Seb and I said our goodbyes on the start line at the Banff YHA and after a fun group photo and a speech by Billy Rice, we were off! I was determined not to get caught up in the argy-bargy back of the pack but also not to blow myself apart in the first hour like Kiwi Brevet. I was soon at my own pace though, whizzing through lush and quiet forest and I was so happy. The sun was shining and I thought we couldn’t be luckier.
The first day turned out to be incredibly hard but I can’t complain too much because we didn’t have to hike over snowy passes or have five days of rain like previous grand departs are famous for. It was hard in it’s own way though. Not too long after we left Banff the sun disappeared and was replaced my menacing clouds. They threatened for a while and then got on with it, dumping cold rain which soon turned to sleet and then snow over the top of the first pass. The rain soaked through the first few inches of the road and created mud that stuck to everything. I tried very hard to limit my shifting but eventually I could not even shift into the little chain ring without chainsuck that ground me to a halt every time. I stopped to empty 6L of water onto my bike from my water bladder each time I reached a stream and this seemed to make it possible to keep moving forwards at least. Riders stopped talking to each other as the rain set in and everything seemed a bit more miserable. I found myself walking a lot of hills which I couldn’t ride in my middle ring, to save my knees. On most of these occasions Alice Drobna and I exchanged conversation as she passed me. She kept reminding me that I wouldn’t be walking if I only had one gear and no derailleur to fail. I kept thinking “Yes I would, how do your knees survive on that single speed?!”
Eventually I rolled into Elkford and met up with a bunch of guys at the supermarket. I was ready to stop but Simon Cross confidently declared he was continuing and everyone kind of followed his lead. A group of six of us started off towards Sparwood together. It was great to have a few people to look for and navigate the new Josephine Falls ‘singletrack’ section in the disappearing daylight. Doug Wenger and I rode into Sparwood together and decided a motel was a good option to get dry. We pressure washed out bikes at the service station and devoured subway for dinner. After de-mudding clothes and body, at around midnight I crawled into bed and tried to come to terms with the enormity of the day. I remember thinking “wow, if the whole Divide is this tough, maybe I need to back off already!”
I had been bitterly cold for most of the day and my ¾ rain pants had left my feet sodden and frozen. I had given my booties and puff jacket to a friend the night before the start, telling myself this was going to be a warm year! I had envisaged my Sealskinz socks being enough but they were not in this weather. I knew in two days I would have the worst and most painful chilblains from today’s suffering. I had also not drunk enough water at all. I did not pee all day until I got to Sparwood. I was so cold that there was no way I was stopping to take off ALL my layers to get off my stupid bib knicks to pee. Unfortunately I wasn’t aware then but my actions on day one made the next few days very hard on my poor body.
But day two brought sunshine and spectacular scenery and we never looked back. From such a horrid day one, day two could not have been more opposite. In the morning my knees took a while to warm up but as I got into the swing of things I began smiling and enjoying the climb up Flathead Pass. I felt really great and passed a few riders who were obviously not yet as warmed up or chirpy as me yet. I bumped into Jill Homer as we approached the ‘river road’ coming down the other side of the pass. I met up again with Doug and we ended up riding together for the entire day through to Eureka. We laughed our way through the crazy hike-a-bike wall and were awestruck by the Flathead wilderness. I felt so little and insignificant in that enormous and untouched place. Starting up Galton Pass I never saw more fresh bear poo than that day. We saw one black bear up the road who quickly disappeared into the trees as we yelled “Hey BEAR BEAR”. I had seen my first and last bear for the trip!
After laughing at the camera crew at the bottom of the Galton descent, saying I was the first chick (hadn’t they heard of Lael??), we zoomed through the US border control to enjoy pizza in Eureka and set up camp for the night in the town campground. I went to sleep listening to a strange mix of sounds including a gurgling river, obnoxious cars revving in and out of the 24hr service station and young drunk kids enjoying their Saturday night.
Goodbye Canada, hello Montana USA!