I woke up this morning shaking. Yesterday’s raw introduction to the Tour Divide was having its consequences. But if I lingered in my sleeping bag too long, continuing to circularly debate the sanity of this trip, I’d miss my jump on the day. It always helps the mental game when you can knock off some significant mileage before lunch. So, I psyched myself up, put on wet socks and bike shorts, then spent way too long packing up my bike. There’s got to be an easier way to do this!
Once the legs got moving and I warmed up a bit, I was able to enjoy a crisp and fairly quick 30-mile ride into Elkford. I pulled up next to a few loaded bikes parked in front of the only open diner I could find. A pile of carbs and protein was in my future! Word on the trail was that a rider had already crashed pretty badly and had to be carried out on a stretcher. He was coming down Elk Pass yesterday, a steep muddy downhill that follows a line of electrical poles, and his front wheel somehow flew out of his fork. He did a face plant, got knocked out, and was later discovered by another rider who pressed the “SOS” button on the poor guy’s Spot Tracker. Apparently the fallen rider was on a cyclocross bike. For the uninitiated, a cross bike is not your typical Tour Divide rig. It’s lighter than a mountain bike but has much narrower tires, making it difficult to safely bomb descents. I had breakfast yesterday morning in Banff with a cross rider. Could this be the same person? A selfie of the guy, face all bandaged up, was already floating around Facebook and someone was passing their phone around so everyone could see. Yup. Same guy. Sobering.
After breakfast, it was game on. I felt great and cruised up the hill out of Elkford with little effort. The weather was fantastic. Redemption from yesterday’s slog fest! After a few miles the road turned to single track and I got lost a couple of times. CURSE YOU Matthew Lee and your jaunts off into the middle of nowhere! The Tour Divide GPS track had been condensed to 10,000 points to fit on a standard Garmin, and consequently, not every bend on the trail is detailed. This results in the occasional need to bushwhack and backtrack to rediscover the route.
The town of Sparwood was next, where I grabbed a burger and fries at A&W. Some Italian riders had also found this modern oasis. We chatted for awhile and then were interrupted by a couple of worried parents wondering if we had seen their son. His Spot Tracker had stopped broadcasting this morning and they were unable to reach him on his cellphone. We looked over the maps a bit, and I said I’d keep an eye out. He had two green bags on his fork, I was told.
The Spot Tracker surely came in handy for that downed rider on Elk Pass, but those things are also great for worrying family and friends back home. When the “little blue dot” on trackleaders.com disappears for awhile the worst tends to be assumed. My guess is that this kid just forgot to turn it on—like I almost did this morning.
A few miles out of Sparwood I entered the Flathead Wilderness, considered to be one of the most remote and scenic sections on the entire route. The Flathead is quintessential British Columbian forest. Super and Natural. The evergreen trees have a unique tall and narrow shape. Add a some low fog to the mix and the place has an almost mystical feel to it.
I summited Flathead pass, began a rocky descent, and then encountered something that gave me pause. The trail disappeared and in its place was the Flathead River! It looked like the trail had eroded pretty significantly and was now completely under water. While I was working out my plan of attack, none other than the father-daughter tandem team, Billy and Lena Rice, rode up behind me. We scratched our heads for awhile and then decided it was time to get our feet wet. The Divide “yo-yo” champ was clearly psyched by the prospect of an unexpected adventure, and his attitude was contagious, so we waded in. The water was cold but invigorating in the way that only a sub-alpine mountain stream can be.
For me, encountering obstacles like this is what makes the Tour Divide worth it. This ride is about more than just riding your bike in a pretty place (although that’s definitely part of it!). It’s about the challenge of utilizing particular physical and technical skills while under pressure. You have to draw on resources from both your body and your mind, to think creatively and intuitively, and then act decisively. In these situations obsessing about shaving off extra miles and out-riding your fellow Dividers fade into the background. Instead, the immediate test demands your complete attention. You have to think about where to step so that you don’t roll your ankle and fall in. You have to determine which direction to push or carry your bike so you don’t submerge your hubs or bottom bracket. And you have to maintain enough forward movement so as not to get too cold.
Romantic notions aside, I will admit that trudging down a stream at three miles an hour starts to get old a few miles in. And after awhile I lost Billy and Lena, my extreme-river-fording companions, and didn’t have anyone to be adventurous with. Shlepping a tandem fat bike presents its own kind of challenge, I guess. Fortunately, dry road eventually reappeared and I cruised the last twenty miles or so to my campsite at Lower Harvey Road.
After such a long day in the saddle, I would like to say that I just went straight to sleep, but the day’s adventures were not yet over. Hunkered down in a bivvy under a tree was another Tour Divide cyclist who had taken a turn for the worse. I could hear him hacking up a lung in there. According to a couple camping nearby, the rider had stumbled in earlier that day, panicked and gasping for breath. They volunteered to drive him out but their offer was met with some ambivalence. Understandable. No rider wants to throw in the towel on Day Two. Not after having planned and trained for months—perhaps years. They suggested that I go talk with him about his options, which I did, and he reluctantly agreed that he wasn’t going to make much progress without being able to take a clean breath. I could tell the decision to end his ride was agonizing, and I felt for the guy. We had actually met briefly in the lobby of the YWCA the day before the race began and had made a connection. We both had the same bike shoes.
I tried for awhile but couldn’t get a cell signal to call Kate. My pre-programed GPS Spot Tracker message would have to suffice for tonight: “Done for the day. No bears. No crashes. Miss you!” An optimistic message, I think, considering what befell those other riders. As night fell, two Moose, a mother and her baby, wandered through camp.