I will come back to this video later, but this is about 40 miles into the race, and it really captures the jaw dropping nature of the scenery. Really, the first 300 miles of the race had scenery similar to this … or we were climbing up and over the snow on one of the passes. The sharpness and sheer number of peaks diminished the farther south we went down across the border into Montana, but that is only because the entire area was uplifted more and more time was spent very high up on individual mountains climbing up one side and descending down the other side, frequently with miles of hike-a-bike through the snow across the top.
With my daughter Analise having just graduated high school and heading off to college at the end of summer, and with my wife Kristine wanting to visit Banff, Canada and my son Josiah always up for an adventure, it made perfect sense to do a big vacation as a family one last time before summer schedules start conflicting. And with the Tour Divide starting in Banff, it also made perfect sense for them to drop me off at the start and for me to do the race and then ride home to Alabama. So that’s what we did.
We had a great vacation along the way on our 3000 mile drive from Birmingham Alabama to Banff, Canada exploring the Badlands, Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, and even an unexpected visit to Yellowstone. We stayed in Red Lodge, Montana at a hotel run by a friend of a friend who was from Sylacauga but has been living in Montana for close to thirty years. Josiah and I left the hotel and rode up to a ski resort hitting the snow level towards the top and having to do quite a bit of hike-a-bike plus saw bear tracks. Thankfully, we didn’t see any bears because I had not purchased bear spray yet. The hike-a-bike through the snow in sandals was a good wake-up call for what lay ahead. I’ve included a gallery of some of my favorite pics from the vacation commute.
Once we made it across the border, we spent a couple days exploring Calgary with a foray as far north as Red Deer before heading over to spend a week in Banff. Half the time our jaws were just dropped in awe. We hiked through the snow at Lake Louise up to the famous teahouse with its spectacular view of the valley below and an upper lake surrounded by cliffs and glaciers and mountains. We saw and experienced so many amazing things and got along so well as a family that I told Kristine before the start of the race that no matter what happens this trip was already a win.
Josiah and I rode the first 10 miles of the Tour Divide race (the Spray Trail) together a couple days ahead of time climbing over the pass before dropping down into Canmore to make a loop back to Banff. We were inspired to do this by a local Canmore rider who we ran into who has completed the Tour Divide a couple times and said it was a great loop that he did almost every day. Furthermore, he rode with us and was an incredible guide pointing out so many things, including all the grizzly bear poop, osprey hawk nest, and incredible hiking trails we would have missed.
After getting some last minute supplies the day before the race including bear spray and food to make it the first 150 miles to Fernie with no resupplies, I made sure everything was ready and then went to bed early as the start time for my wave kept getting bumped up earlier. The Tour Divide has grown quite a bit, which makes it quite challenging to keep it as an “unorganized event” with almost 250 riders registered and 180 showing up for the start. This year, the Canadian national park service required us to start in waves every 10 minutes to spread out the groups. The day before the race, we were going to start at 8am, which they bumped up to 7am, which they eventually bumped up to 6:50am for the first wave, which I was in alongside eventual winner Sofiane Sehili.
I left the hotel and biked down to the start while Kristine got the kids ready and drove down to see the start. I ran into Michael B, fellow Alabamian, before the start who was going to go in one of the later waves. The start was at the YWCA which is near a massive hotel resort area. At 6:50am, there was no official start, it was just all of us in that first wave knowing it was time to go and off we went, dropping down by the spray River Falls which were loud and roaring and then climbing back up to the hotel as part of a parade start. The family had driven on down to the entrance to the Spray Trail to give me one last cheer and send off. It was so surreal because I knew this was last time I would see them for at least a couple weeks but more likely closer to a month since I had planned to bike home as well.
As far as the start went, it was pretty tame but I quickly slid to the back with almost everyone riding faster/harder than I wanted to ride. I wanted to make sure that I was gentle on the bike and careful on the turns to make sure that I didn’t have any mechanical issues or bio mechanical issues as long as possible in the race.
Still, I did eventually pass one rider and catch up to a couple others before losing sight of them at one of the spots where the somewhat “coarse” GPS track left the trail where there was in fact a side trail even though the actual race course likely just continued straight. I wasn’t sure, though, so I turned around and ran into Andrew Strempke (eventual first place singlespeed finisher) and asked him if we were supposed to hit some single track back there. He said “no” so I turned around and rode with him for a while.
Eventually, we made it to the spot where the race continued on what is called the goat trail to the right but I missed the turn and went straight having gone straight the day before with Josiah. Still, it was great to see the osprey hawk nest and the large hawk peaking over the side of the nest one more time. A few seconds later, Andrew and the other rider that I had passed caught back up and I pointed in the direction they were supposed to go while taking pictures of the osprey hawk nest. It took a really long time to catch up to them again, but eventually the three of us rode together for a bit. We made it to the reservoir, which was the first section exposed to the wind, and it was WINDY. Thankfully on the other side, we were sheltered from the wind on many fun miles of easy to ride singletrack. Eventually, this singletrack ended onto a huge, wide, washboarded gravel road that went on for many miles. We were starting to spread out, but you could see a mile or two up the road in places and it was awesome to see three or four riders ahead of me and a few behind me as well knowing that we were all tackling a 2700 mile race together.
I snapped a couple pictures because it was surreal to have this proximity of riders separated by just a mile or two tackling a 2700 mile race. It was during this time that I had a fortunate encounter with a rider wearing a Rapha kit moving a good bit faster than me and yet whom I caught up to fairly quickly on the next uphill. After he dropped me fast on the downhill and I caught up to him again on the next uphill, I realized that he was taking it super easy on the uphills to save his knees!
This really stuck with me for the rest of the race. If I had not run into him then it’s likely I would’ve been pushing it far too hard on the hills on that first day and probably had knee problems later. Even trying not to push too hard, I did in fact have knee problems about a week into the race, which led to my one single Alleve of the entire race. No other medicine at all other than antibacterial neosporin gel that I put on top of a small hole in my leg, but more on that on days 7 and 8.
The large gravel road went on for many miles climbing gradually but eventually we turned off of it and climbed a steeper single-track covered with snow in many places. This was the first snow hike-a-bike on the race, and I did it carefully not wanting to get my “waterproof” socks wet as I had to do the entire race in sandals due to a foot injury from getting hit by a car in 2017. I was impressed with how well the waterproof socks worked and made it to the crest which eventually took us to more absolutely amazing singletrack low enough that it had no snow at all.
Peter Kraft passed me through here and cheered me on and said it was amazing what I was doing riding home through Uvalde afterwards.
The singletrack was awesome and included a really cool swinging suspension bridge followed by a drop down onto a paved road. At this intersection was “Crazy Larry” who started hollering out “hey, hey, hey, I’m Crazy Larry”. I just said “hi crazy” and then wondered if maybe he doesn’t go by just the name “crazy” and kind of laughed and he asked “did people miss him”? I didn’t really know what he was talking about or the background behind Crazy Larry as I have somewhat tried to avoid obsessing over the race ahead of time.
I probably waited a bit too late to start researching everything, but I am an adventurer and explorer at heart and given that the race has been done so many times now it wouldn’t be a true exploration if I came into it knowing everything ahead of time. For me, it was a compromise between being adequately prepared and knowing what’s coming and also being pleasantly or sometimes unpleasantly surprised and doing my best to make my way forward no matter what. Along those lines, there were a few times that the phrase “hell or high water” came immediately to mind when things got tough.
About 50 miles into the race, there was a nice campground store that I had not planned on stopping at and didn’t actually need to stop at, but being on the conservative side of the things I stopped anyway. Next time, I will start out with the bare minimum and plan on a quick resupply here at this store. Still, it was a great first stop in the race and there was truly nothing between there and Fernie 100 miles later so I just ended up buying another bottle of water which of course I didn’t even come close to drinking given how cold it eventually would get.
After a few more miles of pavement, we turned onto a long powerline trail climb where I was caught and passed by Ezra Ward-Packard, a type 1 diabetic who raced for Team Novo Nordisc, which did many of the same races I did all across the south back in the 2010s. He caught me near the top and wasn’t too far ahead when I saw him take a nose dive over the bars into a huge mud puddle. There had been a pole or rut underneath the mud that caught his front tire. After seeing him fall, I dismounted and walked way around the puddle and thanked him for his sacrifice while he cleaned all the mud off his brake rotor. He caught up to me a few minutes later as we made our way along the rolling part of the powerline trail through so many horses, which explained all the poop everywhere that didn’t look like any kind of poop you would expect to see. Ezra dropped me pretty quickly and was doing really well in the race inside the top 10 when a tooth infection flared up quite badly forcing him to abandon in Colorado.
Up next was the first major obstacle of the race — Koko Claims. The early start meant we would be hitting Koko long before sunset. In fact, it was quite hot climbing scrambling up the rocks and waterfall, which they claim is a road. It was so steep and loose and wet (in parts), plus 30+% grades on some sections meant hefting your bike up onto some rocks, slamming the brakes tight, and using the bike as a prop to get your feet onto more solid footing and then repeating the process many more times to get to the “flatter” 10-15% grades which were still unrideable and not great to hike in sandals. At one point early, I could see Ezra hiking and rounding a corner out of sight. He was probably a good 10 minutes ahead of me yet Koko was slow enough to close that gap (visually) so that I could see him after he spent 10 minutes hiking up a tiny portion of the course. It would take me at least that long and I would never see him again. You can see in the picture below that I took looking back down the waterfall. When I saw Ezra, I was at the bottom of it. 10 minutes later, I took this pic up where he had been.
Towards and across the top, there was quite a bit of hike-a-bike snow which went from being sporadic with rideable muddy sections to constant hike-a-bike snow for the first half mile of the descent from the top. I was getting pretty cold by this point as my feet were completely soaked through the waterproof socks and no longer had the exertion from the climb to keep me warm. Intermixed with everything was some pretty deep stream crossings and puddle “lakes” from snow melt.
Eventually, though, the double track OHV “road” turned onto a nice long rolling fast downhill. My bear spray bounced out on one particularly fast section so I had to slam on the brakes, stop, turn around and bike back up to the bear spray which thankfully hadn’t gone off and secure it back on the bike. This was the only time it would fall out, but that’s partly because I was really paranoid about it afterwards and constantly checked it to make sure it was secure in my bottle holder, where it still is now in Texas as I voice dictate this post well over 3000 miles later.
After retrieving the bear spray I continued looking forward to getting close to Fernie, but before that would be a long double-track climb after sunset as it was getting dark. This was a cool climb alongside a fast flowing river coming down the mountain, which reminded me a lot of the river-based dirt roads in the TNGA (North Georgia) area. Andrew caught me through here having to push the pace harder with his singlespeed gearing. We chatted about whether to stop in Fernie or not, and I mentioned I was hoping to finish the race in 16 days, and he mentioned that plenty of 16 day riders have stopped in Fernie on the first night.
It started to rain through here pretty good, and I knew I was done for the day. So when I made it to the super friendly lodge where they had hot soup and food and coke for free for all the racers and a 40% discount on the room, I was not going to pass that up! It was great to charge up all my electronics earlier than expected, get a few hours of sleep, and hope to ride even longer (perhaps all the way to Whitefish) the next day. That was definitely not going to happen as I would soon find out, but more on that tomorrow…
Maps and Data
Pickuta photo album
See even more pics from the entire race along with the exact time/location where each was taken on the tracking website I created called pickuta.com. If you are on a phone or small screen web browser, click the “hamburger” triple bar icon in the upper left to slide out the photos and turn on/off the tracking markers: https://pickuta.com/album/258