Tour Divide : Days 6-7 : Will I Ever Sleep Again?

by Andy Amick on September 2, 2014

in Bikepacking, Tour Divide 2014

For the first 5 days of the Tour Divide, I alternated between one good night of sleep and one bad night of sleep.  That was all about to change…for the worse.

Even though it was quite chilly when I woke up in Lincoln for the start of day 6, at least it wasn’t raining.  Lincoln was one of those towns that a TD racer enjoys simply because all of the amenities – restaurant, hotel, bar, and gas station – were on one street.  It was easy to find a hotel at 10PM the night before and easy to get re-supplied the next morning.

The cool morning air combined with my necessary coffee made for great riding once both achilles and my left knee, which started to ache the day before, warmed up.  The houses on the outskirts of town gave way to small farms and then to large ranches.  This was the Montana I was expecting.  Soon, the first climb of the day began and Alice shot up ahead with her singlespeed climbing power.  I settled into an easy pace to spin to the top of Stemple Pass.

Towards the top, there was a really steep pitch that I didn’t even try to ride.  With a fully loaded bike and sore achilles, I had given up on trying to ride anything that caused me to shift into my lowest 2 gears.  It was far easier to walk and catch my breath.  At the top, a few of us that had stopped for a snack watch a young rider float his way up the steep pitch like it was a flat road.  I later found out that the rider was Calvin Decker who ended up finishing in 2nd place overall.

Stemple Pass is one of the rare climbs on the Divide where the downhill actually goes down the mountain rather than holding a few small climbs as a surprise for you.  The downhill was fast, straight, and super fun.  So fun, in fact, that I managed to get a little air when going over some of the water bars.

Around lunch time, I found myself on a flat section between climbs.  I decided to sit down in the grass and take a lunch break to soak in the view and the not-rainy skies.  This was really the first time I had stopped for an official lunch because the weather had been so crappy to this point.  After my lunch of nuts, cinnamon roll, and a candy bar, it was time for more climbing.  It’s always about more climbing.

On the next downhill, the wind picked up bringing with it a light mist.  I was getting tired of the cold weather, especially cold wet weather that required me to wear rain pants.  Luckily, the mist was short lived and I didn’t get caught in a heavier rain this day.

riding to helena, meeting lindasay shepherd

As the mist stopped, I caught up to Alice who had been stopped by a train.  Literally stopped by a train that was sitting on the tracks.  We talked for a bit about the train and then we heard someone on the other side of the train walking around.  It turned out to be Lindsay Shepherd who was a northbound rider.

The three of use talked for a bit across the train until we decided to climb over the train.  Luckily for us there was a flatbed car that provided the perfect place to cross.  It’s not easy lifting a loaded bike up onto a train car, but we all managed, said good luck to each other and continued on.

Helena was only a few miles from the train with a mellow pass, Priest Pass, in the middle.  The ride into Helena was downhill and on pavement which is a wonderful thing after a week of fighting the cold and rain.  Just outside of town, Alice and I passed by a house with Tour Divide signs and bags of something on a table.  After we had passed the house, we both decided it was worth a second look so we turned around.

Helena Tour Divide, Trail Magic, dried mangoes

It was definitely worth a second look.  Score!  There were bags of trail mix, Swedish Fish, and dried mangoes.  Oh, dried mangoes are really tasty.  With a bag of goodies, we rode into town and decided to call it a day after only 65 miles.  The forecast called for more rain in the afternoon.  I was happy to avoid that and have some downtime to ice my kneed and achilles.

Note:  If I had it to do over again, I would have kept riding.  I don’t regret staying in Helena, but the smarter option would have been to keep going because the downtime didn’t really help.  In fact, the next morning was the most painful morning for my knees.

That night, in a warm comfy bed, I couldn’t sleep.  I think I dozed off for a few hours before waking up around 2AM, unable to go back to sleep.  Rolling out of town that morning was not fun at all.  Plus, my sore knee was now really really sore even though I had iced it the night before.  The day was going to be one of the biggest climbing days of the entire ride and I was struggling to ride out of Helena.  To make matters even worse, there was not a coffee to be had on the edge of town.


The climbing was slow going with the sore knee, little sleep, and no coffee.  After about an hour or two, I decided that I had to have some coffee.  I had packed a few instant packets in the bottom of my frame bag for “emergencies” like this.  I pulled over on the side of the road, dumped the instant grounds into my Platypus bottle and tried to make something that looked like coffee.  I hate cold coffee.  I really hate cold coffee.  It was my only option so I drank it down.

After climbing and climbing and climbing, Alice and I made it to the top.  We enjoyed the downhill into Basin where another bacon cheeseburger was waiting for me.  I lost track of how many bacon cheeseburgers I had on the ride.

Butte was the next town on the map.  The new alternate into Butte promised a longer but more scenic route.  It was a nice ride along the river and then up through the forest.  Much better than the previous route that took the interstate.

Along this new alternate, Alice and I ran into a herd of cattle (there are more cattle than anything else on the Divide).  Most of the time, you can ride towards the cattle, make some noise, and they will disperse.  Every once in a  while, one will stand on the side of the road and stare you down as you pass.

On this day, we had the cow that couldn’t figure out how to get off of the road.  The cow would run off the side of the road only to come back onto the road a few hundred yard later.  This happened over and over.  The poor cow had to be getting tired.  We were laughing so hard, we could barely ride.  Just when we thought the cow had figured out how to stay off of the road, it would run back into our path.  Eventually, the cow stopped running and just stood in the grass to the side of the road so we could pass.

Once in Butte, we re-supplied our food and headed to the Outdoorsman to have our bikes looked over.  The shops along the route do an amazing job of making sure the riders bikes are running smoothly.  After all of the rain, mud, and snow, I just needed a drivetrain clean and a new set of front brake pads to get me going.

We left Butte in the late afternoon with the goal of getting to Wise River that evening.  It would make for a 135 mile day with 12,000+ of climbing.  Definitely an epic day.

First, we had to conquer Fleecer.  Unfortunately, I had read the map wrong and thought Fleecer was only 15 miles from Butte.  It was actually 30 miles with another large climb between Butte and Fleecer Ridge.  Oops.

Downhill to Fleecer Ridge from here.

The extra climb wasn’t all that fun.  However, the downhill, a screaming downhill, made up for the extra miles of uphill.  The sun was just starting to sink lower into the sky as we began making our way up to Fleecer.

I decided to refill my water bladder a few miles into the climb.  I hadn’t run out of water yet, and I wasn’t planning on doing that any time soon.  At the campground where I refilled, we stopped to talk to a man in his RV.  He worked construction nearby, but rather than stay in hotels with the other guys, he took his RV into the mountains to enjoy some peace and quiet.

We talked about our families, his work, our gear, and the route in general.  These 5-10 minute conversations with strangers were some of the best parts of the ride.  Meeting people who don’t ride bikes, sharing stories, and making a small connection with them makes you feel a little less alone as you ride down the spine of the Rockies.

The remainder of the climb wasn’t too bad.  My legs were starting to feel the 12,000 feet of climbing I had already done that day.  The sunset as we were approaching the top.  The final push, literally a grinding push up some super steep trail, was in complete darkness.  The sky was awash in starts as I stood on top of the exposed ridge away from any kind of town.

I could have stayed there a bit longer, but there was a downhill to conquer and it was getting cold.  The downhill of Fleecer Ridge is really steep.  So steep in fact, that a lot of people claim it’s unrideable.  Well, I wanted to give this downhill a go and see if it was as tough as people claimed.

Once we found the downhill route, it wasn’t all that bad.  It was steep and rocky, but definitely rideable.  Since it was dark, all I could see was the trail in front and I couldn’t see if it got steeper.  It did.  Now the stories were making more sense.  It was really really steep with a lot of loose rocks.  I was still going to ride this thing.  I made it about 1/3 of the way down the super steep section when I decided it might be better to walk down in the dark.  Walking wasn’t much easier.  Due to the steep pitch, I had to use both brakes to prevent me and the bike from sliding down the hill.

It was now after 11PM and there was still another hour of riding to make Wise River.  The night was really cold and the downhill followed a creek making it even colder.  Finally, we hit pavement and came upon Wise River.  It was nothing more than a few buildings and nothing was open at midnight.

There was a little “campground” behind one of the buildings.  It was a bit rough so Alice and I decided to head up the road and camp on the side of the road.  Big mistake!  We ended up in a low lying area with lots of tall grass.  And what happens when you have a low lying area with tall grass and a moist evening?  Yep, everything was covered in dew and my bivy and sleeping bag were soaked through.  It was a miserable night compounded by the fact that I didn’t get any good sleep for a second night in a row.

There was no way I could continue like this.  I wasn’t even out of Montana yet.  The lack of sleep was starting to wreak havoc on my mind and body.

About Andy Amick
A little bit nutty in general, a lotta bit nutty about bikes. Each of his boys received a bike helmet for their first birthday and the three of them have been biking together ever since.

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