Claire and I are back home in Texas. We rented a car in Kalispell, Montana and drove to Denver via three national parks: Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. The beauty of these parks is hard to describe in words alone. Twelve-hundred miles of driving provided ample opportunity to think about what happened with my Tour Divide attempt. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, here are my thoughts …
First and foremost, it was an incredible experience! I would not trade any of it. Although I did not meet my goals, the lessons I learned will be invaluable for next time. (Did he just say next time?) If you recall, my first idea was to ride sections of the Divide this summer in preparation for racing the Tour Divide in 2016. That idea morphed into “Why not just do it this year?” My worst-case scenario was I would have a new bike and ride just a few days in some of the most beautiful country on earth. Well, that’s what I just did!
If and when I decide to tackle the Tour Divide again, I have improved my odds considerably. I have built the bike, and I have acquired all the gear. That’s more than half the work and expense of a Tour Divide attempt. To try again, I just have to arrange the time off and set aside funds to travel and subsist during the race. I’m already ready to go again!
Many who try to summit Mount Everest fail to do so during their first attempts; that does not mean those attempts are failures. They are just stepping stones to reaching their ultimate goal. That’s how I choose to look at my two “failed” attempts at the Tour Divide.
Anyway, looking back at my days on the Divide, here’s what I think:
My first day on the Divide was a good day although I did not make my mileage total. I wanted to make Sparwood (140 miles) instead of Elkford (110 miles). I wanted to make Sparwood so I’d only have to ride 125 miles on Day 2 because I did not want to camp in Bear Country. The Tour Divide route through the Flathead from Sparwood to the U.S. border travels through the most concentrated area of grizzly bears in North America.
With that in mind, I decided to make Day 2 short and ride to Sparwood positioning myself for a one-day ride to Eureka, Montana. A prudent idea at the time, but in retrospect, I should have just pushed ahead. I could have at least made it to Butt’s Cabin or camped along the way.
I left Sparwood thinking I would reach the U.S. border by the end of the day. I was carrying too much junk and not enough food. Early on in the day, I crashed during one of the many stream crossings. Although my rain gear kept me fairly dry in the rain, taking a spill and ending up on my back in the cold, cold water quickly soaked me all over. Although my bike seemed fine at the time; looking back, I realize this is where I bent my rear brake housing. From this point forward, I was riding/pushing my bike with the rear brake half-engaged. Game-changer.
After the crash, it was like I was moving in slow motion. Between the climbing and the “road” surface, I was pushing my bike a lot which depleted my energy quickly. Pushing your bike up mountains over incredibly rocky terrain is not an activity I was used to — it uses different muscles than riding and it’s a lot slower. Had my brake problem been known, I would have been able to ride more and therefore, cover more ground than I did. As it stood though, I reached Butt’s Cabin about four to five pm just as lightning began to strike and thunder boomed. Fifty-five miles in eleven hours. Eureka still 70 miles away. Once again, I was prudent and stopped at Butt’s Cabin. Prudent. There’s that word again.
Probably a good decision. It rained the remainder of the day and continued throughout the night. The temperature dipped to about 40 degrees, and there’s no doubt I would have been setting up my tent in the rain, soaked to the core, right in the middle of bear country. Or, I would’ve walked/pushed my bike all night long. None of those sounded like good options, so staying at Butt’s Cabin was probably a life-saving decision for me. Live to fight another day, right?
I left Butt’s Cabin in the rain with one Honey Stinger waffle, 4 cashew nut bars, and a bag of peanut M&Ms. 970 calories to make it 70 miles over two mountain passes (with my rear brake on). Not a great option, but the only option available. (Amazingly enough, I forgot about the peanut M&Ms and did not benefit from the 250 calories they would have provided! So, 720 calories were all I had.)
I started the climb up Cabin Pass almost right away. Although I was warm, my energy level was low, and I found it slow going. A group of 5-6 cyclists racing the Gravel Grinder 500K passed me as if I was standing still. At the time, I attributed it to my heavier bike, their younger age, and the fact they were riding a two-day race, not the Tour Divide. Looking back, this should have been a big clue to me something else was wrong (brakes!). As the time though, it just depressed me more to be moving so slow.
By the time I reached Cabin Pass, I was thoroughly soaked. I froze during the descent. I have never been so cold in all my life. I should have been warm on the inside, but my body had no calories to generate heat. Several times during the descent, I considered pushing the SOS button on my SPOT summoning the rescue helicopters. But, I didn’t and I finally made it to the bottom. Resuming the climbing and the lower elevations thawed me out along the Wigwam Trail.
During this time, I also had another problem. My iPhone was low on power. My on-board charging system was not working properly because I was moving too slow for the dynamo in my front wheel to generate power. Without going into a lot of geeky detail, I had to navigate by dead reckoning, turning off my iPhone until reaching key areas where I’d switch it back on briefly to make sure I remained on the route.
Also, it’s funny now, but wasn’t exactly funny then — throughout the whole day, I was in bear country. I kept up a constant chatter of “Hey, Bear!” “Hey, Bear!” (Making noise is the best way to avoid a bear encounter.) My “Hey, Bear!” chant sounded like I was saying “Hebert,” so I started saying “Hebert, Bobby Hebert!” “Who dat?” (Bobby Hebert was a popular Cajun quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.) I did not see any bear on this day, so my noise-making must’ve been effective! (I did see 3 bear going into Elkford.) (Also, on the way home, Claire and I bought a bear carved out of a single block of wood with a chainsaw. We named him “Hebert.”)
I won’t rehash climbing “the wall” as I’ve written all I’m gonna write about that in a previous post. It was incredibly hard — probably the most difficult physical challenge I’ve ever faced. At the top of the wall, fatigued beyond belief, I pressed on with 8 miles of rocky, slow climbing between me and the summit of Galton Pass.
Crossing the summit of Galton, I began the treacherous 3,500 foot descent. The road was so bumpy and rocky it was extraordinarily difficult to maintain control. Again, I wrote about this descent previously, so I’ll only reiterate what I said before — I thank God I made it off the mountain alive.
As I turned onto the pavement for the last few miles to the U.S. border, I was beyond running on fumes. In retrospect, I realize now I’ve never dug so deep just to survive. The Flathead took a huge chunk out of me, and it took several days to recover. Had I known about my brake situation, things might have been different, but I didn’t. Taking a rest day and deciding to decrease my mileage goals was the right choice for me.
I’m not one to second-guess my decisions. If anything, I am a decisive person, and once I’ve made up my mind, I typically stick with the decision. I’m happy with the decisions I made on the Divide. Looking back, from my perspective here at home, it’s easier to Monday-morning quarterback. I probably threw in the towel a bit early. I could have gotten my bike fixed in Whitefish, and then continued on the trek.
But, by that time, I had decided I didn’t want to tour. With that decision made, the most important thing to me was to get Claire up there to enjoy the journey home with me. And I’m glad I did — we had a great trip back to Texas.
I have no regrets. I learned a lot. I’m going back, and I’ll be more successful next time with these lessons learned in my hip pocket. I humbled myself before God, and I was reminded again how little I am and how big He is. Everyone should attempt to do something they aren’t sure they can do — because you can’t help but learn from it.
For those of you who followed via this blog or other social media — thank you for your prayers and comments. They helped me greatly during the struggle and they mean the world to me now.
Many have asked questions about my gear, so I’ll be publishing some info about that soon.
Stay tuned for more!