Site icon Dominic Irvine

My Tour Divide Experience

It’s a thought that seems incomprehensible at the start “I’m about to race a little over 2700 miles.” My longest previous distance raced was a shade over 900 miles and on-road. When this ride is compared with the high remote mountains of the continental divide, it seems like little more than a casual training ride. The Tour Divide was simply incomprehensible to me – even having dreamed about doing it for over two years. Instead, my focus throughout was on completing each of the GPS route files I had created and getting to each supply point. This, I could get my head around. At the start, I anticipated that whilst only 10 of us (it looked like being 16 in the run up to the race), some of those riders would disappear into the distance and give me something to chase. I expected to spend the first few hours chatting to other riders and a sense of camaraderie as we headed off into the rugged flatlands of New Mexico. I was wrong. Within little more than 10 pedal strokes I found myself at the front riding into a light headwind. My time trial position seemed to allow me to slip through the air more easily than others and it was little more than 20 minutes before no-one was in sight behind me. As the sun rose it got hotter and hotter. The maximum temperature I would record that first day was 43C. The first 65 miles or so are on very flat, good quality tarmac. I thought I would be struggling to keep the power down but in fact struggled to keep it up.

I had made it to the start that morning by an incredibly generous act of support  from Michael Jolly who, despite having decided not to race this year at the last moment and not wanting to let me down drove me from El Paso to the start. He saw me off and disappeared back to his home in Houston. I remain stunned by his kindness.

I stopped at Hachita for some water before continuing. At the next stop I was very thirsty and filled up my hydration bag and bought a coke. Already I was consuming lots of salt tablets and noticing some signs of struggling to eat. The dust from the trail dried my throat terribly and unless I drank small amounts repeatedly I could not swallow properly or at all. As the day progressed and about 60 miles out from Silver City I started to spit out the food i was chewing, something that in the past I would attribute to a lack of salts. In this instance I thought I was on top of the electrolytes. My speed slowed as I slowly ran out of energy. I genuinely began to believe I was going to have to bail without even getting the first route file done. I then ran out of water. My face and jersey were white with a crunchy layer of salt. What followed was a miserable few miles. I rejoined the tarmac coming into the first refuelling stop in SIlver City and scanned every property I passed for a tap. I found one around the back of a community building and without knowing whether it was drinkable guzzled a few mouthfuls. At the first gas station there was a water machine, I put my money in the slot and pressed the green button. In the full glare of the sun, the water that came out was unbearably hot so I went into the garage and bought some coke and sat outside trying to replenish my energy levels, still unable to eat. I bought some Haribo style sweets which turned out to be unpleasant. I rolled down into the town and was met by a couple of riders looking out for my arrival. They were by a gas station and I stopped there to buy food, which was a mistake as my intended grocery store was further on and much better stocked. The biscuits, sweets and jerky I bought were unappealing and I realised I could not afford to shop so carelessly again. Part of the problem was not recognising much of the stuff that was on offer. Coming from the UK, I was not familiar with gas station food. It took a few shopping experiences to figure out the food I liked eating and there were many occasions what I bought I simply could not eat so unpleasant was the taste (hot dogs with cheese inside them spring to mind as a particularly grim eating experience).

Having restocked, I faced my first diversion. I was very concerned about being disqualified because the promised emails of re-routes or facebook posts never arrived. I was still unable to eat. I could manage a few sweets and was able to drink coke, but it was a miserably slow ride. On the map I saw there was a motel at Lake Roberts with a possible grocery shop. I pulled in and bought more coke, washed my face and sat outside trying but failing to consume the coke. I washed my face under a tap which normally really helps, but on this occasion it made little difference. It was only 8pm but I was shattered. I saw they did rooms and with some shame and disappointment I checked myself in. I showered, washed my kit and put it in front of an industrial sized fan to try and dry it, but it was so noisy I had to turn it off. I drank some coke and was still struggling to eat and neither could I get off to sleep. I was in bed by 8:45. I dozed fitfully for an hour or so before the guilt of having stopped so early got to me and I decided to pack up and get going. At midnight I headed into the dark.

It was pitch black and I had absolutely no sense of the terrain I was riding through. I knew it was uphill simply because it was harder work. My stomach started to settle down and I started to graze on some food. After a couple of hours I felt very tired. I stopped, put on some layers and lay down beside the track and slept for 10 possibly 20 minutes. This was the start of the sleep pattern that would dominate the rest of the race. A couple of hours later, I had to do the same thing again, this time I stopped for just 5 minutes. It was very cold and I had to wear all my layers before falling asleep.

The wide open countryside of New Mexico I found hard going. You could see for miles ahead. At times there was a stiff headwind which meant knuckling down and grinding through it. Whilst dull riding, some of the rock formations were amazing as were the antelope style creatures prancing across the plains. I felt like I was drifting along and my motivation was poor. And then I realised I may not make Pie Town before the cafes shut and without this feed stop, I would face a tough 70 mile grind into Grants where the next shops were to be found. This motivated me to knuckle down and pick up speed. I made it with about 30 minutes to spare and enjoyed a delicious bowl of chicken and ham stew with some cornbread. I drank some more coke. The owners kindly made me up some turkey salad sandwiches to get me through to Grants. It was so uplifting to eat proper food again and my spirits began to pick up. Eventually, after what seemed like endless amounts of track coated in very fine dust I joined the road into Grants and enjoyed a magnificent sunset whilst listening to an audiobook. In Grants I headed off-route to head to Walmarts which I knew was open, but on the way passed a garage with enough of the right food to replenish supplies. As it was late evening, I decided to stop in a motel again as the prospect of a bivvy did not appeal but a comfortable bed and hot shower and a chance to wash the dust from my kit did. Just after 1am, I packed up once again and headed off into the very early morning having had insufficient sleep. This failure to set out a specific time I would stop and sleep was a mistake. I simply did not stop enough anywhere resulting in way too many micro sleeps.

Time ceased to have much meaning. It was just something that passed by. I lost any sense of morning or afternoon – there was just riding, riding and riding. I struggled to remember which day was which or even the towns I was riding through. My reference points were where I was going to buy more food. Another pattern was emerging this time relating to riding style. I would invariably stop far too much in the morning, either to change layers as the day first cooled before dawn and then warmed up post dawn or to adjust something, or to swap food around or to put things on charge or simply to check the map. This day was no different. I took my first micro kip of the day lying on a gravel mound which had formed a really comfortable armchair shape on one side. It was just as the sun was rising. I grovelled my way to the Laundrette cum local food store, restocked and carried on. It was a dull day of road riding. My tyres were pumped hard to reduce rolling resistance, which helped, but not with the relentless nature of grinding out the miles in hot sunshine.  Another diversion around the Gila National Forest provided motivation from frustration at missing out what many said was a fabulous section so I decided to smash out the miles as fast as I could This turned out to be around 60 miles in 3.5 hours. At the end of the detour was a very busy section of road with lots of people returning from the nearby lake with their speedboats. It felt dangerous to be on the road. The gas station at the end of my route file was a very well stocked grocery store and I was able to buy a good range of food and some great (if a little dry) sandwiches.

The sheer height over which I was riding in the mountains gave me a nosebleed. It was not too bad but over the next day or so it bled several times. In the end I used a small piece of tissue in my nose to create a surface on which the blood might clot. I’d remove it and all would be well for a while and then the nosebleed would again. As dusk came on, I was descending a steep track in the mountains, a bear emerged from the side of the track and somewhat startled by me did a 180 degree turn back into the woods I missed it by inches. I continued riding into the night but was very anxious about finding somewhere to stop that was likely to be safer than just bivvying in the woods. I found a ranger station on the map and headed for that, but there was no one there and no accessible building to use as shelter. So I stopped nearby and setup camp. I did not bother with the tent and spent a cold hour failing to sleep as a result of bear anxiety. I realised I was making a mess of my bivvy. I had not hung my food up nor had I put up my tent. I had open food near me. I needed to get my act together. After a restless couple of hours I abandoned and decided to ride on.

The day that followed was probably the hardest of the ride. Most of it was at 3000+metres and involved some long climbs, some of which had an enjoyable technical element, which whilst hard, was much more enjoyable than the gravel roads. The sun was shining and the scenery epically beautiful. However my slow progress meant I was inadequately stocked with food and I realised I had to ration my supplies – one fig newton per 45 minutes was what I settled on. Normally I would consume 6 – 8 per hour. The problem was made worse by the way the Garmin was electing to calculate remaining distance. Rather than give me actual distance, it took to giving me distance based on how the crow flies. This confused me as the distance never seemed to get much less. When I realised what was going on – it took me a while to figure this out. I was in trouble. On the basis of the distance shown I had rationed my food per hour. What I thought was 17 miles to go turned out to be 32. At this stage I had no water or food left. The water filter had turned out to be ineffective. It took far too long to filter water and kept getting blocked. I wasted ages trying to get small mouthfuls of water. That last 32 miles to Platoro and the Skyline Lodge was evil. After a fast road descent, I ground my way up a long gentle incline on roads rough with deep washboard, in the hot sun and dense dust clouds from passing vehicles. I was ready to stop at the Skyline Lodge but wanted to get to Del Norte as there was some talk of more forest closures due to fires and the detour looked epic. Instead, I ordered a meal and two sandwiches to go, refilled my water bottle and set out up the incredibly long and steep climb. As dusk drew in, a herd of Elks crossed my track. These are huge animals. This was a remote climb amongst exquisite red coloured hills and stunning lakes. I found this climb so hard as I was beside myself with tiredness. The hallucinations set in with a vengeance. The plants on the side of the road became gardens of suburban houses and I found myself talking to people who weren’t there or planning to stop by buildings I could see but vanished as I got close. I ended up descending at snails pace fearful of the number of times I was drifting off and the damage I would do to myself if this happened at speed. I never got as far as Del Norte that evening, just a few miles short. But I could go no further. I pitched my tent on the verge of a road at 1am and struggled to put the fly sheet on. I could not think straight. The sleep was not great as I was anxious about being on the side of the road. I need not have been as no cars passed. At 2:30 I awoke, felt sick, groggy and pretty awful and very unhappy with it all. I realised it was because I was hungry, I simply was not eating enough. It took me over an hour to pack up. I determined I would get to Del Norte and have a proper stop, some decent food, coffee, get warm, hatch a plan for the day and make some calls home. I really needed an emotional lift and my wonderful wife  is the person best placed to do this.

The garage in Del Norte was a haven. I found some breakfast cereals in pots, bought some milk and had a normal breakfast. A large hot chocolate put some warmth into me. I realised my problem was simply a lack of energy. I bought loads of food and struggled to get it into my bag, but I was determined not to run out again (how wrong I was). I bought some WD40 and spent some time degreasing and re oiling the chain. I brushed, oiled and wiped the chain several times a day but the build up grime was significant and I thought a more thorough clean was necessary. I tried to buy another power bank as by now I was experiencing difficulties keeping everything charged. After this stop I felt much more normal and human. Although I kept going, I struggled to maintain a really competitive approach. This was because the second NOBO rider was so far behind that they were irrelevant and the SOBO riders were so far away as to seem too remote. I was also locked into a world of problems I was trying to manage, hydration, nutrition, sleep and the tediousness of the way the garmin was behaving. I decided to cut myself some slack and allow myself to ride into the day at whatever pace felt appropriate.

What followed were some amazing views. However, 90 minutes into the day my quad started to play up. It was very very sore. I could not put power down and could not ride out of the saddle. It was painful and very demoralising, but what could I do? I had to keep riding even if only to get to safety. I needed to get on top of the injury. I needed to find out if I continued whether I would do myself some permanent damage or whether the pain might subside. I got to Salida that night and decided to stay in a Motel and I arrived at half past midnight to be met by a very very grumpy owner. I washed my clothes, which stank and crashed out at 01:40. I awoke and got myself going by 5:00 am but none of the shops were open. I rolled up and down the main street until I found someone who directed me towards the MacDonalds. But on the way there I passed a garage that had opened and had the usual small grocery store attached. I bought some advil as I had used up all my ibuprofen. The guy in the shop insisted on giving me a lecture about taking grapefruit juice with the pain relief. I called a medic who was wonderfully calm and discussed the injury and possible treatment. I also called a physiotherapist for advice. I bought some sports tape but it would not stick so went back in and bought a crepe bandage and strapped it round the leg.

Not racing – just surviving

I realised the game had changed. I was no longer racing, just surviving. I was utterly dejected and miserable for a while as I processed this realisation. I shifted my aim to recovery. Who knew how things would be over the next few days? I took a very pragmatic approach “it would be what it would be.” I simply had no clue how much harder it was all going to become.

During the ride I tried to post a few pictures every day or so to allow others to see where I was. Hours, even days would pass without mobile phone signal and then for a brief moment I might pass through an area of signal. My phone would go mad as messages arrived on what’s app, text, email, facebook, instagram and sometimes voicemail. I found them all an intrusion and initially I would read them as I was riding. But as time went on I could not cope the the information overload.

The consequence of the quad injury and my inability to ride out of the saddle with an altered seated riding position was a whole heap of pain. I normally rode out of the saddle up climbs so this was a real blow. This generated some very severe saddle sores and the skin was rubbed raw and ended up scabbed and acutely painful. I could not cope with the pressure from driving down with my leg and the pressure on my sores. I found riding out of the saddle had become possible (if a little sore), and so the only way I could make progress for what I noted in my audio log as 250 miles, was by being out of the saddle. Unfortunately this was into a headwind in the Basin and meant my pace was very, very slow. This was a miserable time. Another thing I had noted over the previous few days was the amount of fluid retention – I’m guessing because of the altitude. The consequence was I felt very flabby and my skin felt heavy (it settled down in time).

On Thursday I arrived into Steamboat Springs at 19:50. My plan was to ride to Clark. But everything hurt and I was tired. It hurt to ride out of the saddle, it hurt to sit down and ride and I was getting cold and again, too hungry. I stopped in a garage, bought a sandwich to contemplate what to do. I was so sore standing I booked into a motel online, and then realised it was 5 miles the wrong way. So I rode down the high street and tried a couple of places until I found a room. It was the last one, a suite, hideously expensive but I was done. I dumped my stuff in the room road back up main street to a grocery store and bought a huge amount of food. I got back to the room and ate greek yoghurt, some granola and drank chocolate milk and ate some wraps. It was here that I caught onto the idea of bagels and wraps as a really easy to eat source of carbs. But it was 21:00 before I got to bed. In the morning I ate some more of the same before heading out. The ride into Steamboat Springs was both beautiful and tedious. It was as if someone suddenly picked up interest in the route and added in sections of small track that looped all over the place (round a lake) before dropping into town via every available track along the way. It felt unnecessary and after hundreds of miles of gravel track, out of kilter with everything else. In hindsight it was lovely riding. As with every other night, my time in Steamboat Springs was too short and my sleep insufficiently restful. It had been a very emotional day. My head was all over the place. I simply could not get going and kept stopping way too much. I had to stop and set myself a goal for the day to get myself motivated so decided on reaching Clark. I was in a lot of pain from saddle sores and my quad. My nose kept bleeding. My mouth was sore with mouth ulcers – too many hard boiled sweets. My throat was dry from the road dust and swallowing was difficult. My forehead was covered in spots – a usual problem from wearing a helmet for too long. I had some pins and needles in my little finger on my left hand. The soles of my feet were sore and bruised from out of the saddle riding (I moved the cleats back which helped). Overall, I felt very low and miserable.

Friday started off OK. My intention was to do 200 miles, but 24 hours later I was miles off. 8 changes of clothes in the first couple of hours did not help due to changing weather. Eventually the day warmed up and I was into normal summer kit. A long 10 mile climb had to be done out of the saddle the whole way because of the saddle sores. It was during this climb I did the interview for the Telegraph Newspaper. The washboard was unbearable seated – it made me cry out with the pain. I arrived into Wamsutter in the early evening and had a long pit stop, eating lots and buying lots of food. In fact I was so hungry I bought the food to eat first and then went back for the food I would carry with me. For the first time I bought some sandwiches from Subway. I intended to ride the 65 miles left to get me to 200 miles and stop, but the savage headwinds and out of the saddle riding put paid to that. Shortly after Wamsutter I passed the race leader. We took a selfie and had a brief chat before we continued our separate ways.

I rode through the night stopping for micro naps. It was grim. It was made worse by struggling to find the right path in the night. The main track was clear, but the route had me go left where there was seemingly no track. I ended up returning to the main track several times as I attempted to figure out what was going on. As it turned out, the track was indeed next to nonexistent and was little more than like a small animal track winding its way across the countryside for what seemed forever. As dawn broke, the wind picked up and what was already unpleasant became a miserable grind at a snail’s pace. A few rain storms added to the misery. I stopped in Atlantic City (if a handful of houses can be called a city). I bought some coke and some chocolate bars in a gun shop. I was shattered and was experiencing the most intense bouts of hallucinations I have ever experienced. During the night, my vision had started to go. I would see two rocks in front of me and as I got closer they would merge into one. It was as if my ability to see with binocular vision or to work in parallel had simply come to a halt. It was a weird experience. I realised that the competitive streak in me was driving me to push myself to a desperate state. I felt like I had dropped to 20th or 30th place as a result of the conditions in which I had been riding and was desperate to stem the damage. In Atlantic city I rolled on a mile or two further but had to stop as I was falling asleep too often on the bike.

The ride to Boulder was one of those where the end never seems to come. The scenery of Wyoming was incredible but I was not enjoying anything. The headwind was still tough and I was overly tired. I stopped to have a kip in the sun but on waking was suddenly really scared about my condition and was very disoriented. I had wanted to get to Pinedale but Boulder was as much as I could contemplate – I was simply so uncomfortable. On the way into Boulder I realised I had not enough food to go much further. There was no value in arriving into Boulder until the shops were open. So I stopped in a lovey sheltered place off the side of the road and for the first time had a really good bivvy. A thunderstorm awoke me in the middle of the night but rather than get up, I rolled over and went back to sleep until 5am. This was a great decision. Once I got to Boulder I had a really good feed and stocked up with lots of food. I freshened up in the washroom which felt so good. A few miles further on I arrived into Pinedale and decided to get a coffee and yet more food. I realised I had not really eaten enough all the way through the basin right up until Boulder. The difference a good feed made was incredible and I recognised this. The difficulty was always making sure I had enough food on me to last the actual riding time rather than the estimated riding time. So many times I got this wrong.

Heading up into the mountains after Pinedale I still had no bear spray yet kept passing warning signs about bears. I determined to stay in Motels not least because my anxiety over no protection from bears was high and also the quality of the rest was marginally better. My ride to Lava Mountain Lodge was good. As I was riding over the high pass, I noticed a grizzly going the opposite way in parallel to me, no more than 10 meters away. He seemed unperturbed by my presence so I decided not to stop but as soon as possible to buy some damn bear spray! The descent to Lava Mountain Lodge was a lot of sliding around and some walking due to the muddy track and old snow drifts. There was evidence of heavy rain, and whilst I had experienced the occasional shower the ground told a story of some seriously wet weather. At Lava Mountain Lodge I ordered two meals, bought some supplies and a bear spray! My plan was to make it over the next peak before stopping. A SOBO rider in the bar warned me it was a lot of walking, and so it turned out. Deep mud, old snow banks and heavy rain combined with a steep slope meant a long hard hike a bike section.

Tough call

I had a surreal and sad moment on this section. There was one bar of signal on my mobile phone, not enough to make a call but enough to message. I was trying to exchange Whatsapp messages with daughter. I was failing to be a good Dad. She had failed an exam and needed some support. She was working in Sri Lanka some 12 hours apart in time. The rain hitting my phone screen was creating garbled messages or opening other apps. Sending messages required holding the phone over my head to shield it from the rain and attempting to tap out messages. My daughter was frustrated at my short responses, but each of these required an epic level of effort to create. There was no way of communicating the harshness of my environment, the lateness and the impossibility of communicating to someone sat in a warm room in the day time thousands of miles away.

Rain and more rain

It was very cold at the top of the pass and I was getting hypothermic. As I descended I was getting very worried about whether a bivvy was such a good plan given the conditions. At about 2am I passed Togwotee Lodge and saw someone behind the reception desk. I went in and found they had a room – it was an easy decision. I checked in and got my flysheet dry from the previous evening in Boulder. I was 9 miles short of where I wanted to be but warming up and drying out.

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I awoke at 5:30 and was ready to go by 6:15. I was tempted to wait for breakfast at 7am but instead, my race head took over and I headed out into torrential rain. The 9 miles of track down to the road I would follow into Yellowstone was through deep gloopy mud and lots of flooding. Many sections had to be walked, but eventually I made it to the road. I was feeling good but in need of food. I stopped at a camping site with a cafe and after some incredibly slow service and a miserably sized portion of breakfast and a grilling by SOBO riders about the conditions ahead of them. I resumed the ride and I was for the first time in days back into full race mode. I was on my tri bars, hunkered down and zipping along at a decent lick. Pausing briefly to pay the park fee I rolled into Yellowstone and to my next bear encounter. There was a traffic jam on the road where tourists were stopped to watch the mother and cub stroll across the grassy plain between two clumps of trees. Shortly after I stopped at a gas station with an excellent range of groceries and felt very ready to go. The race was back on!

Monday, 22:50 and I recorded my audio dairy having been through a roller coaster of emotions. Feeling on top form whilst riding up a hill shortly after entering Yellowstone, my gears stopped working. I stopped, checked the rear mech as sometimes on my road bike it stops and just needs a gentle tap to get it going again. No such luck. I stopped in a layby to check all the connections in the Di2 system including removing my seat post to check the battery connections. As a stop gap solution I tried to shorten the chain to make it a single speed but screwed this up and ended up with a chain way too short. It would only work in the 36:12 – the gear it had failed in – and then only if I released the rear mech past the stop point. I was so angry with myself for making a problem worse and so angry that the battery seemed to have given up the ghost I used this anger to fuel my focus. I attacked the rest of the day’s ride. But gradually the strain took its toll. The last 36 miles were on a simply pointless and unpleasant old railway track comprises of a soft sandy surface. Itr runs parallel to a quiet road just a few metres away. These 36 miles in the big gear in soft sand were hellish. I had to be out of the saddle grinding it out the whole way. I arrived into Island Park at 22:35. My intended fuel stop had shut 35 minutes earlier. I tried the door in desperation but it was no good. And then the manager opened the door and asked if I was a Tour Divide rider. I was covered in mud, smelly and looked awful, but he cheerily invited me into buy whatever I needed. I could not believe my luck. I was standing outside packing my rucksack and eating a yoghurt when a small chap walked across and enquired whether I was looking for a room. He had  a small motel and there was space. I needed no second invite. I checked in and set about cleaning myself up, eating and then sleeping. I made the mistake of leaving a gas fire on full when I went to sleep and woke up in airless room much in need of oxygen. It was 02:30 and I decided I would get up and get on with it. I felt awful. I was very tired. I could not see how I could keep going with the single gear I had.

I noticed my BB was playing up so tried to fix it but realised I was screwing it up so stopped immediately having learnt the lesson from the gears. I set off riding and had to walk quite a few sections due to their steepness and my fatigue. I was stopping every half a mile for a sleep. In short, I was wrecked, physically and mentally. With the sun rising I passed a beautiful lake and stopped and slept some more. Shortly after I realised I had a chunk of chain with which I might be able to give myself an easier gear. I think it took the extra sleep to give me the thinking power to spot this solution. The trouble was how to release the KMC quick links. I figured I could use the kevlar thread I had for repairing a damaged tyre wall. By threading it around the link and then tying one end to the frame and wrapping the other around a bike tool I could squeeze the link together to release it using the thread. In so doing I released all the quicklinks and using the spare section of chain created a proper length of chain again. Better still, the battery started working and the gears changed happily up and down the block, This was great until they stopped working again but this time leaving me in 36:44, a gear I used only on the steepest slopes. I think the warm sun on the downtube may have liberated a little more power from the battery. It was after going through these repairs that a very kind stranger had seen me stopped for sometime and brought me some coffee and a banana and a stick of cheese. I could not believe it and was so grateful. I realised I was putting myself under so much pressure because of trying to race. I decided I had to forget this and just focus on keep going. I’m not sure whether this was god or bad as I ended up going so slowly anyway because of the gears. Looking at the profile I figured the new gear I had would be ideal for the climbs. I failed to read the scale on my cue cards – I was in for a couple of flattish days, ideally suited to the bigger gear I had been stuck in the day before. My progress was so, so slow. Eventually I figured out, the only way of making progress on the flatter sections was to scoot, or to spin my legs violently up to 7mph and then coast and then repeat. This felt so embarrassing, wrong and pathetic. But by this time I knew the part I needed was being sent to Wise River, two days away, and if I wanted it, then that’s where I had to get to. I cannot begin to describe how mentally wearing this was to go through. Not difficult – just so very tedious. I planned on riding to the next food stop and to carry enough to get me to Wise River. I was however still very tired and crashed several times from falling asleep whilst riding. In the end my food stop became my end destination for the day. The rain meant the tracks were very muddy. I arrived into food stop with an hour to spare, bought some food and went to the diner to eat. A SOBO rider wanted to chat and catch up, which was nice because I’d spoken to no-one for some time, but I recognised I needed to get on. I did think about stopping in the motel, but decided I had to push on because of the distance the remained to Wise River. This was a good decision as I only just made it to Wise River before they shut. My aim was to get 100 miles done, which does not sound much, but on that gear, it’s tough. I rode a further 7.5 miles up a long climb which took me to 98 miles and passed a campsite. I rolled into the site at about 22:30 and saw one of the standard campsite toilet blocks you find in the National Parks. It comprises of a large room with a toilet in the corner. The room was clean, dry and most importantly had a robust door. There was no-one at the campsite, so I camped inside the toilet which meant no worries about bears or about rain. It was a reasonable nights sleep with only the chemical smell from the toilet making it clear where I was. At 03:00 I woke up and got going.

On the final day of riding into Wise River is I crashed  and bent a shifter in. Fortunately it was not damaged but it was yet another crash whilst sleeping that caused it. At Wise RIver the charger and replacement chain were waiting for me. I plugged into the charger and within minutes the Di2 was working again. I stayed in the bar / motel that had received the part for me and safe in the knowledge my problems were over, fell to sleep. The total distance ridden as a badly geared single speed was 370 miles.

I got up at 3:15 and took ages to get ready. I then realised I had no food at all for this day, as yesterday had taken so long. This meant a fasted ride for 65 miles over Fleecer ridge, an epic hike a bike section of the trail followed by another big climb. It took 5.5 hours. I was so hypo I started coming a cropper from a lack of energy. At the outskirts of Butte at the very first place I could find I bought some food and sat outside eating it. I was shaking with hunger and tiredness. It took some time for that food to kick in. But the bigger problem I had emerged shortly after leaving Wise River. My BB seemed very loose. I did not have an end cap tool so fashioned one out of a tyre lever so I could tighten up the chainset. This seemed to work for a mile and then it all felt very sloppy again. I decided to get to Butte and let a bike shop fix it.

It’s over…or is it

When Ed, the shop owner removed the chainset the BB on the drive side fell out. The bearings were fine but the BB was too small for the thread on the BB shell. I thought it was game over. I felt sick, and upset that I had put in so much work to get to Butte and now it was all to no avail. I called my wife. She was incredibly supportive and suggested a new bike. After consulting with Ed, the one bike I could use was a 1200 dollar cannondale 27.5+ alu hardtail, 1 x 10 spd. We swapped my forks and front wheel and saddle onto this bike enabling me to run my dynamo and keep things charged. We fitted the bags as best we could and 5 hours after wandering into the shop I left, headed for a grocery store, stocked up on supplies and hit the trail once more. Given the cheapness of the new bike, I decided I had better be a little gentle with it in order not to break it. All I wanted to do now was get to the end as quickly as possible. I am so grateful for the incredible amount of support I have received during the process of changing bikes.

I left Butte late in the afternoon determined to get some miles under my belt and to begin to explore what riding this bike was like. The first climb taught me that the BB was too low, the crank arms repeatedly caught on the ground and the ride was harsh. The gears were neither easy enough for the steepest sections and considerably short of what was needed to go quickly. The grips were unpleasant and I realised in the first few hours I would have to change them. It was like going from a Ferrari to a basic airport hire car. It did the job but I really noticed the difference. The riding position was so upright I could never shelter from the wind. The pressure on my wrists was significant and uncomfortable. And it was slow! But it worked, and I was rolling along. All I had to do was ride another 725 miles on the bike. That night I had a great bivvy. It was a small layby type place of a steep gravel track. I followed all the best bear practice, eating away from my tent, hanging my food in the trees and keeping my bear spray with me at all times. I woke in the night to find what I believed was the ground shaking. I thought at first it was me but I could not stop the ground moving. There was no noise, so I figured it was not a landslide. I suspect a tremor, but I also half wonder whether I was experiencing some muscle tremors in my whole body. I simply do not know. My best guess is the earth tremor. I went back to sleep.

I left at 4:30am and headed up into the mountains for some really nice technical trails comprising of rock gardens, stream beds, rooty sections, challenging climbs etc. It was very slow going but a really enjoyable change to the gravel and it suited the new bike’s handling characteristics and tyres. As I descended down one section of track I got plastered in cow muck which stunk. I passed a motel just before the 100 mile point and decided I needed to get cleaned up as a night under canvas stinking of cow muck was not going to work for me. It is quite hard to ride when you are filthy. I was also able to air everything as well. Listening to my audio files I sound so much more relaxed – it’s as if I have cut myself some slack and believe it.

Yet more

The new challenge for today was a broken tooth. The first to go was one on my upper right hand jaw. Over the ride more of it collapsed. The following day a molar on the upper left hand side crumbled. Whilst there was little pain, I was really beginning to wonder how much more I could take.

One of the major mountain passes was just grim. Narrow track with a steep drop and at the top lots of banks of unrideable snow. It went on forever. One real frustration was the way the route went deep into the heart of grizzly bear territory. Warning signs everywhere banning any form of motor vehicle and advising care – and yet Tour Divide racers head into these areas alone. Spending the night in such an area is not very restful. Having followed all the procedures – which takes a lot of time – there is still an element of fear as to what might emerge during the night. I wanted to keep riding but kept falling asleep so instead of the 165 miles I had planned after 120 I stopped, pitched the tent and slept. By now I was sleeping a little longer at night and more willing to let myself lie there rather than rush to get up. In addition to the slow grinding ride, the Boa clip on my right shoe failed, or rather the fabric eye through which the cord passes gave out and now the clip will not tighten properly. So my left shoe was like a loose slipper. I planned to buy new shoes as soon as I could but never went past anywhere I could get them. It was a very annoying problem to have as clipping in and out was made more difficult. In Helena, I swapped the grips at a remarkably disinterested bike shop and bought a much better water filter at a camping shop.

I was still up and away at 02:50, it was raining again. When I awoke this night I really felt like I had had enough. This was a horrible day of heavy rain. Montana had some of the worst riding of the whole trip. So much mud and rain. Each mile was hard won. This day turned out to be the day that scared me the most. Soon after starting riding I once again found myself stopping too many times for nap. On one occasion I stopped to go to the toilet and rode off leaving my rucksack behind. It took me 4 miles to realise this. I rode back at a frenetic pace as to lose my rucksack would be the end of the ride, so significant was the kit inside (let alone my passport). I found it and resumed the route. I was high up on the mountain side and it was cold. I started to shake and realised I was heading into trouble. I was very tired, shaking with cold and it was raining. I was on my own, no phone signal and no-one had passed me since the previous day. I stupidly rejected the idea at first of putting on my down jacket for fear of it getting wet and being of no use that night, but then I realised if I did not put it on, I may not make it through to tonight. With a down later under my waterproofs and having eaten a handful of sweets I lay down to have another sleep and to warm up. It worked. But I still had a big descent to get to the next town and as I was running out of food – I had to get there. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill I was shivering badly again. I stopped under a tree with a dense foliage to keep the worst of the rain off me and slept. I awoke, feeling a little better and started to ride only to realise that I had made a navigation error and was off course by about 2 miles. I returned to the right route and ground out a slow pace to Ovando. The problem had arisen once again because of a lack of food. The day before had taken me much longer than I expected and so I did not have enough food. I had to ration myself to a few beans and a biscuit every hour. My stomach cried out for food as I approached each half hour – the time I had allocated to eat. With insufficient energy I found it much harder to stay awake and to stay warm. I headed into the shop to get some coffee and food. I asked if I could get my down kit out and dry it on their floor. The owner very kindly offered to tumble dry it for me and I had deliciously dry and warm down once more – such generosity and kindness. I got my kit together and headed once more into the mud and gloom. I felt really miserable heading over the pass and determined when I got to the next town I was going to stop, have a proper sit down meal and have a few hours off. The sun came out and the temperature soared and the world felt like a different place. There was no restaurant so I stopped at a gas station / grocery store and bought loads of food. I decided to use the rest stop to dry everything out as I was sat in a sun trap outside the garage. On finding out what I was doing, one chap offered me the chance to have a shower and clean up at his house, I declined, because I was feeling better and wanted to make some more progress. Properly fuelled and riding on the road for a while, I made good progress. I stopped again in the next town for more anti friction cream and bought yet more food and sat outside eating it. Things were really improving once more. I really felt like I had turned a corner. The sky was blue and clear. The only downside was too many insects and not having my fast bike for these road sections. I headed into the evening and the bivvy.

The next day was quite simply hard work. I was tired of trees. I was tired in general. I had had enough of being on my own. I was filthy. I smelt. My skin was becoming irritated by the mess I was in. I had not eaten a hot meal in days nor had a coffee. My wrists hurt and I could not feel part of my hands and there were still many many miles to go. The number of times I wanted to pull over and walk away from the ride was untrue. By 23:30 I was absolutely out of it but managed to find the wherewithal to stop and do it properly, hanging my food up etc. This was a close call as I almost just lay down to sleep, which would have resulted in waking very cold and also put me at risk of the bears. I managed some reasonable sleep.

The next day took me through Fernie, the best food stop of the trip. Fernie to the US border was fine, and the first climb out of Canada was uneventful apart from the snake I did not notice on the ground and over which I rode. It startled both me and the snake and it slithered away clearly a bit miffed. I stupidly stopped thinking I might get a photo before realising that the snake may see this as an opportunity to pay me back for squishing it. So I rode on. A mother bear and cub crossed the track. A little later so did a Moose. I had some big crashes on the single track because of forgetting to remember that the new bike had the brakes setup the opposite way to the UK. I’d squeeze the left hand lever to lose some speed and instead cause the front wheel to dig in, stall on a root or some such and catapult me over the bars. Once through the single track I was able to enjoy the now magnificent mountains on either side. A couple of riders coming my way warned me of a grizzly bear the other side of the ridge.

When I left Fernie, I had given myself the objective of a bronze standard of 70 miles, silver 80 and gold 90. But in fact I only managed to hit 50 miles. – where originally I planned to stop for the night. This was because of Koko claims, the most ridiculous part of the whole route. A steep scree slope which cannot be ridden and lasts several miles followed by a traverse across the top of the ridge in a series of undulations some of which are rideable and some not. On the way I passed a cabin erected for people on the route. I fancied a kip there but it was filled with a group of cyclists out on their own adventure. They gave me some cheese, a gel and a biscuit which I gladly accepted, acutely aware of the likelihood of running out of food yet again. The descent of koko claims is just as bad. I tried riding some if it but crashed. I also spent a tedious 45 minutes going off-track having clambered over the remains of an avalanche. Bits of trees and rocks stuck out everywhere and in the dark I could not find the track on the other side. I had to do a series of searches using my bike as a reference point as the reflective strips could be seen easily in the light of my head torch. I found my way down and decided I would get as low as I could and then stop an have some rest / sleep. At the bottom of the hill I decided not to bother with the tent and just to sleep outside. I awoke to find a layer of frost over everything. It was -3 degrees.

The final day started with the usual need to sleep every five minutes before settling into a solid day’s riding. Riding the reverse way up a single speed track is another challenging aspect of riding NOBO. I stopped to refuel at a centre in one of the forests that I did not expect to sell food. It was great and meant I got to the end without becoming hungry again. A bear stepped out onto the track in front of me and the standoff slowed progress as did the realisation that all my devices had next to no power and it all became a bit stressful trying to ride fast enough to keep the dynamo working. I smashed out the last 15 miles for no other reason than I was keen to finish and more importantly wanted to get to a clothes shop before it shut so I could buy some clothes. At the end someone was there to take my photo and also gave me a lift to the hotel. I checked in and then headed to a shop to get some clothes. I walked in and having explained my need left the shop assistant to select me a complete outfit. I handed over my credit card and walked back to the hotel, showered and put on my new outfit and headed out for a hot meal and a beer. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I was just glad that it was all over.

Scenery and wildlife

The write up above contains little or no description of the scenery. It was at times majestic, at others, intimidating and sometimes boring, especially when in thick misty forest for hours at a time. The picture gallery tells the story of the countryside. It misses out the worst scenes, because often I was so taken in just trying to get through them, taking a picture was not a priority. There was much wildlife. I have referred to just a few examples of what I came across but there was so much more.

Finally

At the end of this ride I have very mixed emotions. Intense frustration that so many things went wrong and also a sense of achievement having overcome the hurdles to finish. It feels like unfinished business. However what is absolutely certain, is I am the lucky recipient of the most incredible amount of love and support from my wife, friends and family. If I was in any doubt before (and I wasn’t) I cannot be in any doubt now.

The Results

142 people started the race on the 9th June 2018. 131 headed southbound and 10 north. 63 people finished SOBO and 3 finished NOBO. I was 10th overall and first NOBO finisher. My time was recorded as 19:10:51. The second placed NOBO finished in 23:02:09. The SOBO leader finished in 15:02:08

 

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