I haven’t been able to sleep. Every night I wake up, thinking that I still have more miles to ride to the border.
“No, Colleen already picked you up, it’s over,” I tell myself. Then the sun comes up and my legs are rubbery.
Tour Divide was monstrously hard. I thought that I understood how difficult it was going to be, but based on my past experience, that just wasn’t possible.
I always thought “Yeah it’s a long ride, but there’s hardly any singletrack. It’s all dirt road. So it’s probably not that bad.”
I was so far off.
Editor’s note: Montana is a former intern at Bicycle Times and longtime friend-of-the-mag, so we were especially proud when he completed the 2,700-mile Tour Divide this summer in his first attempt. No stranger to big rides and crazy adventures, Montana ultimately finished ninth overall on his singlespeed Surly Krampus in 22 days, four hours and 21 minutes. You can follow along with all his adventures on his blog, The Skrumble.
We had the worst Grand Depart conditions so far. It was 45 degrees and dumping rain in Banff, and it stayed that way almost until I made it to Wyoming.
The first two days I rode like I was in a cross country race. Dan (who eventually won single speed) and I were cruising. Gotta pass people, gotta make time. My knees are a little cold, but I don’t have time to stop and put on my tights. We’re bike racing.
By the third day, my knees were destroyed. I couldn’t pedal my bike uphill.
The next day, it was excruciating to spin on flat pavement. The pain swirled around both patellas, like someone was trying pry my kneecaps off with a hot screwdriver. I was going to have to drop out and go home.
I started walking up the pass outside of Swan River and almost cried. Because I’d always just assumed that I would finish the Divide, and now I was breaking. My right achilles creaked. And the rain kept falling.
I walked and soft-pedaled another 70 miles to the Hungry Bear BBQ at the base of Richmond Pass. I ordered a burger and coffee at the bar.
“It looks like we’re going to have early spring-like conditions for the rest of the week, with temperatures 25 degrees below normal, and snow in higher elevations,” said the TV weather girl.
Oh god. Everyday I told myself the weather would break tomorrow. And now there it was the five day forecast. Little cartoon rain clouds that were certain that everything would stay horrible. I had to escape Montana. Better get moving.
I start walking up Richmond Pass. A few hours later, check the GPS, looks like I’m almost at the top. People kept talking about this thing with such foreboding. It hasn’t been so bad.
I start pushing through the snow. The sun sets. I click on my headlamp. The rain turns to a wintery mix. I stomp along the steep off-camber slope, my heavy bike sliding in the snow, occasionally knocking me over. Still not too bad. I should be over this thing pretty soon.
Then I make a turn at the top, and the trail disappears. Gone. Absolutely no sign that a trail ever existed.
The purple line is still on my GPS, a friendly little path. I look up, the weak beam of my headlight overpowered by the heavy rain. Nothing in front of me but a dark, wet, steep scree field.
I pull out the damp ACA cue sheet. “Occasional downed trees and rocks in trail during next 3.8 miles; use extreme caution in slide zone at point where road has failed.”
At point where road has failed. The understatement of the trip.
I start shuffling along the slope, 60 pounds of bike and gear trying to push me down into whatever is a few hundred feet below. I throw my bike over a wet log, it clatters and bounces, I try to stop it from sliding down into the void, it pulls me. I dig the handlebar into the mountain side. I trip, fall into the damp rocks.
Check the GPS, still on the line, sorta. My bike falls on me again, knocks me down. I start to panic. Don’t panic. I’m wet and freezing, but my knees are on fire.
Keep moving forward. The bike knocks me over again, I slide into a pile of snow. Don’t panic. The rain snow falls harder.
Suddenly saving $20 by renting a Spot tracker without an SOS button seems like an unwise decision.
“Just fucking let me off this fucking mountain!” I yell into the void. The rain drowns the echo.
Don’t panic. Forward. The only way to end the nightmare is to keep moving. My bike slips on a wet stick and knocks me over again. Stand up, walk. Follow the line, keep moving.
Almost an hour later, I stumble off the scree slope. Back on a trail. Thank god. I push downhill through the snow, the snow piles start to shrink.
Then I’m on a gravel road, hood covering half my head, jacket zipped, doing 40 miles an hour down the pass in the rain, shivering and thinking of anything warm, coffee, Colleen, our cat. Think warm, be warm. The wind screaches through the vents in my helmet.
Miles of dark descending, then the road flattens. I roll off to the side of the road, set up my tent, pull off my soaked clothes, and crawl into my clammy sleeping bag.
Three hours later the sun rises. I pull on wet socks, muddy rain gear, eat a crushed Mrs. Freshly’s cherry danish, and try to find the sweet spot to sit down in between saddle sores.
Every day of riding Tour Divide was crushing- and at the end of the day all I had to look forward to was a damp sleeping bag and some Neosporin on my ass. And I really, really looked forward to that.
After Richmond Pass, I bought Crank Brothers flat pedals in Seely Lake. Then I rode 130 miles to Helena, where I bought a pair of hiking shoes. I sent my clipless shoes and pedals home, and my knees slowly started to get better.
By the fifth day of riding in the mud, I’d worn a giant hole in the seat of my rain pants. The zippers on my framebag were clogged and starting to separate.
When I hit the top of the pass before Basin, Montana, it was still raining, and the sun had just set. I yanked on the zipper of my rain jacket. It split apart. The only thing that was keeping me warm and dry. Nothing to do but keep moving forward. I stuffed a garbage bag into the neck of my puffy coat and started the 15 mile descent.
In Steamboat, the Crank Brothers pedals where already falling apart, so I replaced them with some Shimano Saints.
By the time we were in Wyoming, Klaus, Alice, Max and I were riding together a lot. We’d try to drop each other occasionally (mostly Max or I would try to get away), but it never stuck.
But eventually the gang split up- I left Klaus in a Mexican restaurant in Del Norte with an all you can eat buffet and the World Cup on TV. Max rode into a mud hole outside of Pie Town, took four pedal strokes, and ripped his derailleur off. And Alice, who was way faster than all of us the entire race, got a hotel room in Silver City, while I rode on into the night.
After Dan rode away outside of Lima, Montana, I spent the next 2,000 miles trying close the gap with him. Never happened, but it was great to have someone to chase. He stayed a half day ahead the whole time.
I heard a few people say “Once you get out of Montana, you’ve made it.” Total bullshit. It never gets any easier. In New Mexico, where I expected to be warm and dry, Alice and I got caught in a monsoon. It was the second to last day, and the hardest ride of the trip.
When there weren’t passes to climb, headwinds pinned me down to five miles per hour. Sometimes for eight hours straight. I don’t usually have to wear sunscreen, but even with SPF 50 on, skin was frying and peeling off my arms. I put a piece of tape over my bike computer, because looking at the odometer was too depressing. My mouth turned raw from all the processed sugary crap I had to eat.
And the last 10 miles into town, thinking about hot food, were always the worst 10 miles of the day.
The Divide isn’t something you can do as a personal challenge. You have to truly love being on your bike to finish. The race seems to spit out people who don’t pretty quick.
It was the most painful, best thing I’ve thing I’ve ever done. The route is harsh, and the mountains don’t care. It’s really beautiful.
I can’t wait to recover enough to get back out there. Maybe next week.
I don’t think I would race the Divide again. There are too many other places I’d like to check out, and too much cool singletrack to ride.
But at the same time, with what I learned out there, I think I could cut a lot of time if gave it another shot.
Learn more about Montana’s bike setup and what gear did and didn’t work for him in his follow-up post.