Tour Divide 2014 Recap : Days 1-2 : Into the Cold Canadian Rockies

by Andy Amick on August 15, 2014

in Bikepacking, Tour Divide 2014

One of my reasons for riding the Tour Divide was to see places, magnificent places, that I had never seen before.  The Canadian section was at the top of my list, but instead I got mostly clouds, rain, mud, and snow.  That’s the short version of the story that has so many more details.

Banff

Banff before the Tour Divide start

Flying from Denver to Calgary was possibly the hardest part of the entire race.  The flight was fine.  It was the leaving my family at the airport that was so difficult.  All four of us were a crying mess, and it’s extremely difficult to walk away from your kids who are really upset and don’t want you to leave for 3+ weeks.  I managed to keep myself together enough to get through security, and that’s when the alone-ness hit me.  I was all by myself.  The only way I could get back to my family was to ride my bike 2700+ miles to the finish where my dad would be picking me up.  Stopping in the middle of the route was not an option.

Luckily, my friend Nic Handy was on the same flight and chatting with him about riding, bikes, and the race eased my mind a bit.  Thursday in Banff was what I had envisioned the trails to be – beautiful, tacky dirt, with trees and mountains surrounding everywhere.

Day One

eeyore, tour divide rainAnyone that knows me, knows that I bring bad weather to races.  Thunderstorms at 7AM in Colorado – yep, that was me.  Monster rains turning southeast races to mud in the early 90s – yep, that was me.  Riding the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in the rain – yep, that was me too :)

So I knew what was going to happen with the Tour Divide no matter what the weather forecast predicted.  Unfortunately for the other riders, there was a double whammy of my history and the gloomy weather forecast. Waking up to a steady, cold rain was guaranteed.

The funniest part of the morning was gathering at the YMCA before the start.  It was raining, we were about to ride into the rain for many hours, and they were riders trying to huddle under the awnings and not get wet.  I got a good chuckle out of that as I was standing out getting my pre-race soak on.

Crazy Larry assembled us for a group picture and then it was time.  Time to take off on the adventure I had been planning for so long.  It was here, and surprisingly I was calm and ready to start.

The first few miles flew by with some riders really pushing it, others taking it easy, and others having to stop to adjust bags due to the rain and mud.  Before I knew it, we were all at the washed out Spray River bridge which had been the topic of a lot of conversations pre-race.  With the rain falling, there were not Parks Canada or construction workers at the bridge so we were all able to walk across it instead of fording the creek.

At the far end of the bridge, a ladder was placed to walk up the bank.  It was wet, I was pushing a 60 pound loaded bike up the steep embankment, and I almost fell off several times.  Luckily, I kept my balance and didn’t fall back on the line of riders behind me.

Up next was the first real climb of the ride.  It was steep and muddy with big raindrops falling.  That’s when I realized that it was not big raindrops.  It was snow starting to fall.  For the next hour or two we had snow falling enough to cover the trail and make the puddles start to turn slushy.  Yes, I was finally riding the Tour Divide and getting the full experience in the first few hours.  At Goat Creek, Crazzy Larry took a video of the snow falling as we came out to a road intersection.

Somehow, I was in 13th position, on Friday the 13th, with a full moon rising that night.  Yeah, I should have known that the weather would not be cooperating any time soon given this situation.

The remainder of the day turned out to be a mixture of rain, a small window of sunshine, and more rain.  A few sections before Bolton Trading Post at mile 60 were fantastic trails that I would love to go back and ride when they are dry and I can see the scenery.

These same trails were also closed in and I was on high bear alert as I rounded corners expecting to see one ready to scare the pants (or bib shorts) off of me.  After these trails and finishing the first day, my fear of bears was not as pronounced.  From then on, I made a point to be bear aware, but not dwell on them being around the next corner.  It’s funny how our minds turn bears, camping solo, and other uncomfortable things into these huge demons.

After Bolton Trading Post, I rode with singlespeed Dan for a couple of hours.  The field had spread out and it was just the two of us riding over the top of Elk Pass and on towards Elkford.  Dan had a great attitude and was fun to chat with.  I wish I could have had more of his easy going mindset when it came to goals and plans for each day.  His approach was to simply ride his bike each day and not worry about trying to get a specific amount of miles or to a specific town.  It served him well as he ended up as the top singlespeed rider for 2014.

Day1_AfterElkPass

110 miles into the day, a small group of us arrived in Elkford and headed for pizza.  It was around 8PM at that point and was starting to get colder.  My original goal was Sparwood for day one.  After sitting down, seeing how cold it was getting, and not wanting to push it too hard on day one, I settled for staying in Elkford along with Nic, Washington Dan, and Durango Casey.

Day Two

We woke up to a light mist which soon turned to a drizzle.  Day two was going to be a 160 mile slog from Elkford to the Eureka, MT over three passes and through the Flathead Valley.  You know, just the longest ride I had ever done, fully loaded, in the rain, with bears.

My motivation for getting to Eureka was simply that I didn’t want to camp in the Flathead area known for it’s high concentration of grizzlies.  With more experience camping in these areas during the TD, I don’t know if I would have the same push to get through in one day.  It’s easy to say that now as I sit in a comfy house writing.

Our group of 4 rode up and out of Elkford on our way to Sparwood around 5:30AM.  The first few miles are up a steep paved road on the way to the local mine.  This provided a nice warmup to the chilly morning before we turned on the new for 2014 re-route to Sparwood.  The new route had a few bits of singletrack and was mostly doubletrack which was actually fun to ride in the mud and the drizzle.  After this section, it was back to dirt roads for a few miles and then pavement as we rode into Sparwood to load up on breakfast, coffee, and supplies for the rest of the day.

After Sparwood, there is a 30 mile section of pavement that gently climbs up to the base of Flathead Pass.  Casey and I were riding together at this point and we would be companions to push each other all the way to the border this day.  The climb up Flathead Pass was pleasant and it felt good to be climbing into the mountains, especially since it wasn’t raining at that point.

Flathead Pass downhill

The downhill, aka the river, was a different story.  The ACA maps mention that “you will get wet”.  I was expecting a few areas of runoff and maybe a creek crossing or two.  Instead, we had a downhill that had turned into a flowing creek.  The first crossing of the stream/downhill got my feet completely soaked.  After that, I just accepted that I was going to be wet and the downhill was made up of flowing water instead of dirt and rocks.  The next 30+ crossings of the flowing water couldn’t get me any more wet.

Flathead Valley, Butts Cabin

The downhill eventually flattened out and we rode through a bunch more puddles of water that covered the entrée path until we got onto forest service roads.  This is when the skies opened up and the rain started falling.  Casey and I put our heads down and pushed toward Butts Cabin which was going to be our lunch stop.  Along the roads, we saw a moose that wasn’t too keen on getting off of the road.  That was the only interesting and enjoyable part of this stretch.  With the cold rain and mud, I was beginning to get really cold fingers and toes.  That’s when we rounded the corner and found Butt’s Cabin with a fire blazing out front.

Day2_ButtsCabin

It was the most beautiful sight and the sun even poked out for a few minutes while we were there.  While drying out the rain gear, gloves, and feet, we got to chat with the people that were camping out next to the cabin.  They were there for a birthday weekend of bear hunting.  Needless to say, they were very interested in knowing if we had seen any bears.  There’s nothing like talking to bear hunters in grizzly country when you’re nervous about bears to give you the extra drive to keep on riding.

Casey and I left Butt’s Cabin with dry clothes and full from our lunch stop.  Ten minutes later it was raining as we started up Cabin Pass, but those few dry minutes were really enjoyable.  This would be the them for the remainder of the day.  We would mostly dry out and warm up just before the rain started again.  After climbing up Cabin Pass, we bombed down a very fun downhill and made our way to the notorious connector trail.day two connector trail, tour divide, galton pass

Pictures don’t do it justice.  It really feels like climbing up a vertical wall, all while fighting a 60 pound bike.  And to make matters worse, we had to do it in mud and rain.  The technique was push the bike forward a few feet, grab the brakes, and try to walk up the grade without sliding down.

I don’t know how long that connector section took.  I wasn’t looking at the time.  I was only trying to get through the section and onto the last climb of the day – Galton Pass.  From what I had read, Galton Pass goes up without any false flats and has the same profile going down.  A downhill that was steep and fast was my motivation for climbing up the pass.

Darkness fell as we were slowly making our way up Galton.  It got steeper and steeper as it went.  That’s when I decided to walk the first of what would become many climbs.  It was completely dark at this point and light rain was falling as we walked/pedaled the upper switchbacks.  Finally, the GPS showed the top of the climb.

It was around 10PM when Casey and I crested the top of the climb.  After a quick snack and putting on all of our layers, we started the downhill.  Unfortunately for Casey, he didn’t have really bright lights for descending in the dark.  I told him I’d meet him at the border and I pointed my bike down the steep road that led to the bottom of Galton Pass.

I love night riding and I love downhills.  There may have been a few sections of this road where I was a bit out of control and carrying too much speed, especially considering I was 130+ miles into the day, it was wet, and I had no idea what was up ahead.  At least it kept me alert while I flew down the hill into the cold night.

The downhill dumped out onto pavement for the final miles to the border.  I had a moment of slight panic when the road sign had the border listed as 15 more miles.  That’s when I realized I was still in Canada and it was 15 kilometers to the border.

Whew, I could relax and cruise into Eureka.  I got this.  I’m going to make it to the border!

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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