You can’t win this race in a day, but you can certainly ruin it for yourself and others. We’ll try to organize this start to ensure that doesn’t happen to anyone.
All 150 riders stand together in the parking lot of the YWCA for a group picture. Well over six feet tall and larger than life, Billy Rice commands the group. I turn to find Alice Drobna, the female single-speed record holder from last year, standing right behind me. I recognize her from pictures. I smile at her and lift my hand for a high five. She looks at me quizzically, but tags my bare palm with her leather glove.
Billy Rice continues:
If you’re planning on beating Jay Petervary and riding two hundred miles to sleep in Butts Cabin, come stand over here.
A dozen riders huddle in the far end of the parking lot.
A nearby rider snickers. There’s only room for four or five to sleep in that cabin
If you’re planning on sleeping in Sparwood, please make your way to the center of the parking lot.
I’m standing in between the Butts Cabin beating JayP group and the Sparwood group, catching up with a Colin Saman. Colin is riding the Tour Divide on a fully loaded cargo bike. He’s an ex-roadie and one of the strongest riders I’ve ever encountered. I met him in the spring of 2013. He’d recently quit road racing and was on a road trip to move back to California. He stayed with Nicholas and I when we were living on a farm in Albuquerque. We spent a few days riding fatbikes along the Rio Grande together. Now Colin spends most of his time picking up produce from local farms with his cargo bike and connecting directly to consumers. He’s the vegetable man. He must be carrying at least a hundred pounds of gear for the Tour Divide.
If you’re planning on riding the Elkford, please wait at the end of the parking lot.
If you didn’t know this was a race, get back there! Billy Rice waves his hand past all of the riders to the end of the street. Everyone laughs.
It’s about a mile from the YWCA parking lot until the official start of the Tour Divide. Billy Rice warns that if we pass JayP before the start line, we should consider ourselves on an ITT. It’s cool out. I’m shivering in shorts and a t-shirt, but I know I’ll be hot soon. I pedal casually in the lead group up a steep hill to the start. “On your left”, the lady calls. Alice pushes past us on the left. “Whoah, Alice” a guy replies.
I have to get my cadence, she hollers back.
It’s a race. We’re all nerves.
And then we start.
Good God, it’s fun and we’re ripping trail.
I find myself close to Chanoch, a Trek sponsored Israeli rider. I know him from traveling in Israel this spring. Someone complains about the first hill we have to climb. Chanoch jokes: this trail goes from east to west, right? A southerner tells him, No, buddy, it’s north to south. Chanoch says he knows. The southerner says it must’ve been the accent that threw him off. I glare at the southerner. Chanoch speaks perfect English. He’s spent a decade driving around the US and competing in mountain bike races. He’s well versed in America. I’ll be happy to ride alone soon.
Ten miles in, we emerge from the doubletrack Goat Creek Trail to connect with the Spray Lake Road. There’s a crowd with cowbells cheering. It’s a steep hill to the crossing. I stand and climb to the top, almost losing traction, but stick it. Crazy Larry is at the top and yells: It’s the first woman! I aim straight for him and reach up for a high five. He claps my hand loud and starts hollering with excitement.
This is too fun. I’m having the ride of my life.
Thirty or forty miles in, it starts raining. Then the rain freezes. It’s cold. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. Crazy Larry pulls up in a van next to me. He asks if I know the number one reason why people drop out of the Tour Divide.
No, I don’t know.
They get sick in the cold. They don’t want to stop to put on more layers. They just try to push through.
That makes sense. If you get too cold, you lose all of your energy.
He nods. Do you have something to sleep in?
Yeah. I have a sleeping bag.
I can’t think of the brand. The model is Summerlite. It’s a 32 degree bag, but four years old, so more like a 45 degree bag.
Crazy Larry’s friend laughs. Do you have something to eat?
Yeah, I have like seven sandwiches.
In my framebag, gas tank, and jerry can.
Don’t get too cold and don’t forget to call Crazy Larry. He gives me a sticker with a 1-800 number out of the window. I slide the sticker into my pocket and forget about it forever.
Crazy Larry speeds away.
I pull over to get into my rain suit.
I cruise past the Boulton Creek Trading Post. The sun comes back out. I keep my pace up. My lungs start to heat up. Then they start burning. I figure they’re just opening up, that I’m just getting used to the elevation. I’m breathing hard, but I’m having fun.
It rains. We ride through mud.
I pass Elkford during a sun break. I spot menacing clouds and I don’t stop.
I cross paths with three ladies on dirt and they hardly say hi. It starts hailing. The big stones bounce off my nose. I lose the track. I track back and forth three times and finally find a narrow path pushing straight up a hill.
I make it to Sparwood in the early evening. I walk right into the bathroom of the Subway. My face is covered in mud. I wash up and fill my bottles.
I order two meatball foot longs and a foot of the sub club. I ask the ladies to cut the sandwiches into four pieces, skip the paper wrapping and put the pieces directly into plastic bags. I know it’s weird, but it’ll make it easier for me to eat them on the bike. They work together. One lady holds the plastic bags wide and the other stuffs the sandwiches in. They’re already a mess. I buy cookies and chips and drink soda and split.
Out front, a rider asks if I’m continuing on. I grin wide, of course, are you?
No, I’m just a rookie. This is the second longest day I’ve ever had on a bike. I’m sleeping here for the night. We part ways.
Back on route, the sky clears. I follow a river on pavement to a mine and turn back on dirt. Night falls. I climb.
Around midnight, I encounter icy water and downed trees. There’s no way around them. I walk straight through. The road is a cold stream. It takes me an hour to be through with it.
I’m breathing hard in the cold night, but I’m happy to be climbing to warm up. Stars overhead comfort me. With no rain in sight, I can sleep out.
Around 1AM, 183 miles into the route, I decide to call it for the night. I pull out my sleeping bag and bivy on the side of the road and doze off.
I wake up a few minutes later gasping. My breath is short. I try to slow it down, to fall back asleep, but I can’t. I lay there for another hour, focusing on my breath, trying to slow it’s pace, but I feel like I can’t get any air. I hear another rider pedal past, deep in conversation with invisible bears. I decide to get up and ride. It’s just after 3AM.
My breath is labored, but I’m riding fine, my legs feel fine. I figure I’ll buy cough syrup in Eureka and I’ll be fine. Over the morning, it get worse and worse. I have three passes to climb before the border at Roosville, MT. I don’t see anyone all morning. Corbin passes fine, Cabin is a little labored, but by the time I make it to Galton Pass, I feel terrible. I’m wheezing hot, stale air. I have to stop several times during the steep quarter mile singletrack push. This can’t go on. Even when I make it back to the road, I’m too exhausted to pedal. It’s not even steep. I’m powerless. I get off my bike and start pushing. My speedometer drops to 0 miles an hour and my trip mileage restarts. I’m hunched over my bike gasping. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I walk for five miles. I have no idea how tall the pass is, but I don’t stop to look. Hours pass. Finally, a rider catches me. It’s Rob from New Zealand. He hops off his bike and starts pushing next to me.
I can’t breathe.
It’s only another K and a half to the top.
He gets back on his bike and pedals up the hill. I keep walking.
Chanoch and Joe Fox catch up.
Chanoch hollers when he sees me: What, did you only sleep two hours? You’re crazy! You need to sleep six hours.
I look at him lamely. They pass. I tell them I’ll see them in Eureka.
I make the top and speed down the other side. I’m achey all over, but it’s nice to be back on the bike. I descend to the border.
The border guard is incredulous. Where did you come from?
All the way from Anchorage? Where’s all your stuff?
This is it.
He asks about my raspy voice. I tell him I’m having a hard time breathing. A stack of cars line up as we chitchat.
I struggle through the ten mile road stretch from Roosville to Eureka. I call Nick on the way, keeping my left hand on the bars as I talk. Something is wrong. I can’t breathe. He tells me to relax, to get to Eureka. From there, I need to take a nap. I need to take it one hour at a time.
I feel like my race is over. It’s taken me all morning to cover very little distance. I can hardly move.
Joe Fox, Chanoch and Rob are all sitting for Subway in Eureka.
You don’t look so good.
I don’t feel so good.
I buy some Dayquil and a huge soda. They push on. I tell them I’m going to take a nap and see how I feel in a few hours.
I pedal past a forest service office and into a grassy field. I pull out my sleeping bag and lay in the sun and focus on my breath. It is short and labored. Within an hour I’m coughing up loads of bright green mucus. It’s a disgusting relief. I can breathe a little easier.
I lay in the field for another three hours. I call my family and tell them I’m sick. They support me– I’ve already had a great ride through Canada. They’ll be happy to have me home early.
I go to the supermarket to buy juice. I’m feeling whipped out, but much better. I call Nick and tell him I plan to ride a few miles down the road, sleep out and see how I feel in the morning. I’m not ready to give up. He tells me I’m the best person he knows.
I load up on cough syrup, ride down the road and set my sleeping bag out next to the train tracks at sunset.