Photos: Anthony Smith
Like some 190 other cyclists, I started the Tour Divide in Banff, Alberta last June. And like the majority of starters, I bailed out far, far from the finish line at the Mexican border. In fact, I pulled the plug just 700 miles into the 2,800-mile race. I know, I know: I shouldn’t be allowed to publish this account because I didn’t even finish. So, please, just consider these the notes of a mere tourist.
The Week Before
You can’t imagine how much I have to do to get ready. I’ll be riding on mostly dirt trails, carrying all my gear, riding 14-18 hours a day, ascending an average of 8,000 feet a day, self-supporting, and navigating my way along the continental divide through mountains and deserts.
The to-do list is massive: Spare parts needed, directions needed, packing, gear selection. With days to go I read a blog of another rider, written six month before the race, in which he worries about how behind he is in his race preparation. Procrastinating? Dude you don’t know the half of it. Two days to go and I have not even signed up for the race.
Though I’ve been training in earnest for eight months, I don’t commit to the race until the week before. The idea is to get ready, mentally and physically, without any outside input. It had to be my decision alone.
We’ve all had anxiety dreams where we forget to study for a college exam. This is a real life nightmare: The start is supposed to be at the YMCA in Banff at 8 AM on the first Friday of June. My girlfriend and I drive by at 7:30 and see the group lined up. At 7:50 when I roll back to the start line, though, the hundred-plus riders have vanished, seemingly departed without me.
I hastily kiss my girlfriend goodbye and take a spectator’s pointed finger as the direction to ride. My GPS is not yet on, as I had figured I would follow other people in the first hours. Instead I spend the first hour passing people while trying to figure out why the race seemed to have started early. As the rain falls on me at mile 28, I calculate that I am 1/100 of the way to Mexico.
The first day ends with rain and mud, and I’m lucky to find a motel room at 10 that night, the last one available. I share it with a bike shop owner from Chicago named Bailey.
The second morning I leave the hotel at 6 and ride until midnight. I cross the US border, scarf a burrito, and then pass through a small town at 10 PM. I could stay in a motel but, feeling strong, opt to press on in the darkness.
A drizzle falls so I search under concrete bridges for a resting place, but find them all crowded with river rocks, probably put there to keep transients like me from setting up camp. I find a big tree a hundred yards off the road, deciding it will protect me from the rain. I strip down and hop into my sleeping bag for five hours.
As darkness is just turning to light my alarm wakes me up. Standing naked, I see a person thirty feet away. Oh no, I think, it’s a landowner and I am going to get shot. I freeze, unsure if I should move to find my shorts. I wait and watch as the guy pulls a bike out of the grass and rides off.
That day, I spin further into Montana and have a solid day of riding, stopping to get some bike work done in Whitefish. I eat lunch and have a coffee before leaving town. About a half hour outside of Whitefish things get strange really quickly. I make it to Columbia Falls, just barely, with my energy seeping away. I stop to eat an apple and check my GPS. The apple rolls away when I set it down on the pavement and I can barely chase after it. Whoa. Two kids look at me cautiously.
I limp a few miles to a nearby motel and can barely move for the next 12 hours. It takes me twenty minutes to get out of a hot bath and my body is oddly bloated. The next morning I ship seven pounds of excess gear back home and then ride on after a hearty breakfast.
Hello Darkness My Old Friend
I amaze myself by riding for 12-16 hours daily with nothing to entertain me but the road in front of me and a constant mental calculation of distances, hours, and speed to gauge my overall pace. Will this take me twenty days? Twenty five? There’s constant math.
Hoping to think about something else, I plug in an iPod and decide I must listen to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” After wading through dozens of random tracks I finally hear the classic lines that never fail to give me goose bumps. Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. I try to learn all the song’s words and understand their meaning. I play the song 17 times in a row on an unending 3,000-foot climb, but fail to remember more than eight lines before I give up. My brain can’t exactly crack the code: Do we like the sound of silence?
Richmond Peak and the Laundromat
Day four starts with another drizzle as I climb a Montana peak and then turns to freezing rain and mud on the descent. It’s perfect hypothermia conditions so I reserve one article of clothing in my bag, an insulated jacket, in case I really lose it. My hands are lumps of ice.
At the bottom of an hour-long downhill I go off route to find a small town. A coin-operated Laundromat is my savior. As my clothes spin dry, I take a life-saving hot shower. It’s noon and I’ll still ride another ten hours before sleeping in the town that the Unabomber once called home.
I’ve been riding since dawn and after a dinner stop in Helena, Montana I decide I’m going to ride all night to catch up on some needed miles. Rain is in the forecast, but so is sun the following day. I ride until midnight and the rain falls hard. I’m not sure whether to stop or go over the next big climb.
I run into a wayward racer named Bobby who is riding the wrong way with a dim headlight looking for a lost friend. We team up and ride over a dirt track that is as rough as we have seen, turning as it does from a trail, to mud, to rocks, to a creek. I loan Bobby a spare pair of dry gloves and he splits a Red Bull with me. It’s so dark that it feels like we are, together, riding into a deep tunnel in the earth. At one point I fall into a mud puddle up to my neck. We are hanging it all out as far as we can, and doing so feels surprisingly good.
Any artifice of the race is gone—we are just bodies moving purposefully forward. We make it over a 5,500-foot pass and find Bobby’s friend. I press on to a campground for a 5 AM coin-operated hot shower before crashing for a couple of hours.
In Butte, Montana I rendezvous at a café with a handful of riders who I’ve come to know from a week of brief interactions along the road, like the couple blazing south on a tandem and the thick accented dudes from the Czech Republic.
As I roll out of Butte the next day, though, my ride ends. The mojo that has sustained me through cold rain and endless climbs fades away suddenly in the face of compounding issues like poor bike choice, useless numb fingers and too much gear. I’m more exhausted than I even know, but the idea of stopping to catch up on sleep doesn’t cross my mind. One thing I know is I am on or off, in or out—there’s no middle ground. Stopping would mean I’d lose out on the camaraderie of riders I’ve been getting to know. More critically, I’d be unplugging from the race. It’s the ticking clock that gives the ride meaning, miles traveled are my reward.
Mike Hall, who will set a course record for under 14 days, is halfway to Mexico. I stop living under the shadow of a clock and depart the racecourse. Feeling like a fugitive, I buy some shoes and street clothes and then find my way to a hot springs. I soak my body back towards semi-normal and sort through the pieces of the race. Six months later my hands work again. A year later and the Tour Divide and all it entails–call it the vision that was planted in my brain–still remains.