Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - Idaho and Wyoming

It was just after 6 am when I reached the top of the Red Rock Pass and crossed into Idaho. It felt like a huge milestone to move out of Montana which I had been in for the last 6 nights. A fast descent with some nice woodland trails towards the end led to breakfast at the Island Park gas station.

Dean rolled up as I was preparing to leave so we had a quick chat before I hit the rail trail heading down towards Warm River. This section gets a warning in the ACA maps that extremely soft volcanic soils can be hard work. They are tricky for the first section, especially as the ATV's that have used the old railway line have turned it into a series of roller-coaster bumps, but fat tyres make this manageable. After a while the track improves and leads to a lovely trail descending beside the beautiful Warm River.

A few road miles led me to the Squirrel Creek Ranch where I topped up with burger, chips and ice-cream while chatting to a couple of English guys who were riding north touring the route. It turned out that one of them had worked with a good friend of mine in Antarctica, so we exchanged some stories of adventures we had shared with Stuart.

Back on the road I caught up with Luke Bodewes as the road started to climb towards the Wyoming state line. It was good to chat to Luke for a while as he had a lot of experience - this was his third time on the route despite being only 17 years old! We passed into Wyoming without any fuss - two state lines in one day meant that this one didn't feel as special as the last one.

We carried on through the woods and I stopped to dig out some food while getting attacked by a swarm of ravenous mosquitoes who chased me for a good few miles afterwards.

Soon after this I rounded a corner to see a black bear strolling onto the track. The bear became aware of me riding towards it and quickly spun round and retreated back into the forest. I slowed right down and as I came to the point where the bear had been I saw it watching from among the trees. I snapped a quick photo before riding on - a fantastic encounter with this beautiful creature.

The trail led to Flagg Ranch where I bumped into a rider who was doing the Trans Am Bike Race which intersects the Tour Divide route here. We sat down together for dinner in the rather posh restaurant and swapped stories from our rides. After a visit to the shop to restock I got back on the road.

The route skirts the edge of the Grand Teton national park and I had a superb view of these mountains from as I cycled past.

Tetons from across Jackson Lake
As darkness fell I found myself at the base of the Togwotee pass and began climbing with tired legs. I found a meadow where I could get off the track and bedded down for the night. Thoughts of bears were in my mind after the earlier sighting, but none came to disturb me. Instead I was woken by a truck coming down the track at 2 am. The truck stopped and shone a bright spotlight at me. I was waiting for the door to open and someone to come and tell me to get off their land, but was relieved when the truck drove on. I didn't sleep well for the rest of the night as I suspected they might come back.

The next morning started with a huge climb, first off road and then on, to the top of the Togwotee pass which I reached after about 3 hours of riding. At the top of the climb I stopped to change my disc brake pads - the only time in the race that I needed to do this. Unfortunately my brakes didn't seem to want to work with the new pads - I couldn't decide if the altitude was causing the problem or something else - it seemed like there was air in the system. I ended up having to let some hydraulic fluid out of the system to get them working without dragging continuously.

I picked up a couple of muffins and a coffee at the Java Mountain Lodge campground (rather disappointed that they weren't serving proper breakfasts at the cafe) then set off into the Union Pass area. This was probably the most frustrating section of the whole ride for me. Every summit seemed to be a false summit, there were no real views to get a perspective on where you were going and the track always seemed to be loose, slow and difficult to ride. After following this track for several hours I was really fed up, and was delighted when it finally dropped down to the Green River. I encountered a fierce headwind here which blew dust devils up from the dirt road. Reaching a paved road was a big relief even if there was still a headwind.

By the time I reached Pinedale I was both mentally and physically exhausted, so I checked into a motel and went out to search for food which I found, along with nice beer at the Wind River Brewery.

Next morning I felt a little daunted knowing that the Great Divide Basin lay ahead. I stashed an extra water bottle on the bike and loaded up with plenty of snacks then headed off towards Atlantic City. The first section had a fantastic tailwind and I flew along enjoying the views and the wildlife - vultures and pronghorns.

Atlantic City Mercantile is pretty much the only place to get food in this tiny former mining town. The interior is filled with antiques and has an old frontier town atmosphere. Dean was there when I arrived, just finishing off his burger. I also ate a burger and ice cream and ensured my water bottles were all full. Bailey Newbrey and Justin Chadwick arrived just before I set off, so I wished them well before heading off into the Great Divide Basin.

The vast emptiness of the Great Divide Basin.

The continental divide is a line following the ridges for most of its length, but in the Great Divide Basin it splits, and the rain that falls in the Basin does not flow to either the Atlantic or the Pacific, but flows into pools where it is absorbed or evaporated. It was mid-afternoon by the time I left Atlantic City, so the desert heat was starting to reduce a little.

Most of the way across the Basin I had tailwinds which made it much easier to deal with. I think I only saw one vehicle in crossing the Basin, but I saw plenty of wildlife - pronghorn and mustangs being the most interesting of these. I also passed Dean who was taking it steadily on his singlespeed and Jose who had punctured.

As night fell I was treated to a fantastic desert sunset with the Wind River Mountains which I had passed in the morning just still visible on the horizon.

Desert sunset.
I rode on into the darkness eventually reaching signs of human activity as I approached the hydraulic fracking town of Wamsutter. Then I saw a bright white light approaching me in the distance. As it became nearer I realised it was another bike rider. It turned out to be the first northbound racer. We both stopped and said hi - he told me that he had just seen Pavel who was only a few miles ahead of me.

Soon after that I arrived at the 24 hour service station on the I80 interstate at Wamsutter. The Subway was still serving food, so I ordered a footlong sub and also grabbed some more snacks and a coffee before topping up my water and getting back on the trail.

I wasn't really sure how long to keep going, but I didn't feel too tired, so I carried on until about 2 am when I lay down beside a fracking depot for about 3 hours of sleep.

The next section was very dry and had no shade, so even though it was early morning it started to get hot very quickly. I disturbed a sunbathing snake on the trail which quickly slithered away into the undergrowth.

Not sure what kind of snake this is. Prairie Rattlesnake maybe?

After a long, gradual climb and some short, steep annoying climbs I rolled into Savery where I was surprised and happy to find that the Little Snake River Museum had laid on an honesty shop for riders. I ate some snacks and filled up on water while enjoying a few minutes out of the sun before continuing up the road to the Colorado state line.

Next section - Colorado

Tour Divide 2016 Kit

I've been asked about the kit I took with me on the Tour Divide, so here is a wee run down.

Bike: Shand Cycles custom steel 29er with steel Salsa CroMoto fork.

This bike is more than 7 years old and has been well used and abused.


The bike was originally singlespeed only, but for the Tour Divide I decided to add gears. I swapped out the Paragon sliding dropout for one with a mech hanger. I used an XT 1x11 setup with a 34t chain ring and an 11-40 cassette. This range of gears worked pretty well for me. I didn't change the chain at all during the ride and by the end it was pretty knackered and fell off the chain ring quite a few times (maybe a narrow-wide chainring would have helped this).

I kept the singlespeed White Industries ENO chainset and used a Shimano square taper bottom bracket - the previous one had lasted so long that it became seized into the frame. I had to take the frame back to Shand to get it removed - this was achieved with some heat which left the frame missing more paint than it already was!


The wheels were Hope pro 4 rear hub and SP PD8 front dynamo hub laced to WTB i25 rims. Tyres were WTB Trail Boss 2.4" front and Wolverine 2.2" rear, both tubeless. Hope Mono Mini brakes - 7 years old like the frame and forks but still working pretty well.


The dynamo hub was connected up to a Tout Terrain Plug III USB power converter so that I could charge my Garmin Edge 1000 via a cache battery. Unfortunately the Plug stopped working on day 2, so I had to resort to charging my backup batteries from mains power when I stopped at motels and buying AA batteries to run my emergency usb battery pack (although I only used 8 AA batteries in total). I haven't figured out what went wrong with the Plug yet - it's 3 years old and has some corrosion on the USB socket, so maybe it was just a bad connection? The green LED light is still lighting up.

I used an Exposure Revo headlight powered by the dynamo hub. This worked perfectly for Tour Divide type riding, although I deliberately avoided doing any hike-a-bike sections in the dark. Dynamo lights are not good at walking speed. I mounted the light on top of the front dry bag using a cut down plastic mud guard.


On the bars an Alpkit Yak harness with a dry bag containing sleeping gear. Two Alpkit Stem Cell bags, one with my Canon G16 camera, one with food.  Frame bag is an Alpkit Possum containing tools, electronics and food. Seat bag is a Revelate Viscacha with spare clothes, maps, inner tubes, first aid kit, headtorch and anything else.


I just carried two 650 ml bottles in the cages on the frame. This was a lot less than most people seemed to carry - some had four or five large bottles attached to their bikes. Until I got to Wyoming this was enough, though I did fill up from streams in Canada and Montana when necessary. One of these times I used water purification tablets as the water didn't seem that clean, but the rest I didn't bother as the sources were high mountain streams.

I was able to tuck a couple of 1 litre bottles behind the dry bag on my bar harness for the Great Divide Basin then Colorado and New Mexico. This worked pretty well, though there were a couple of times the bottles bounced out when I hit a nasty section of washboard.

Sleeping gear

In the dry bag on the front I carried a Terra Nova GoreTex bivvy bag, a Thermarest Neo air mattress and a Rab Neutrino 200 down sleeping bag. As a bit of a luxury I carried long johns, spare thin socks and a merino long sleeved base layer. Most nights I was really comfortable for sleeping, although in Montana there were a couple of cold nights when I would have preferred a warmer sleeping bag.

Tools and Spares

When deciding what bike to bring and how to build it up I had gone for as many reliable options as I could. This and a healthy dose of luck meant that I didn't have any mechanicals apart from the chain coming off (easily fixed) and one puncture (caused by leaning the bike against a spiky cactus and fixed with a tubeless repair plug).

I carried enough tools to fix most problems I considered likely to occur: Gerber multi-tool with pliers and sharp blade, Park Tool I-Beam 2 multi-tool, Park Tool Mini Brute chain tool, spoke key, Weldtite tubeless repair kit, pump, chain lube.

Spares were limited to 3 sets of brake pads (only used one set), two inner tubes (used none), spare chain links, inner gear cable.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - Montana

Montana is huge, the 4th largest of all the States of the USA, and this is reflected in the amount of time the Tour Divide spends in the "Big Sky" state.

The border guards let me into the USA after a quick glance at my passport and asked how I was doing. I told them that my knee was giving me problems and they asked how I was going to cope - after all I was only 2 days into a ride that was probably going to take 20 days. I had no idea how I was going to deal with my knee, but my first objective was to get to Eureka where I could find a bed and some food.

Welcome to "Big Sky Country"

The ride to Eureka was mostly flat, but there was a strong headwind so I struggled. I arrived at the Ksanka Inn feeling a bit sorry for myself and checked in even though it was still early and there was plenty of daylight left. I got some dinner and bought a bag of ice to put on my knee.

After a slightly disrupted night of sleep (I woke to find the ice had melted and the bed was wet) I got back on the bike hoping that the rest and ice would have helped my knee. The pain was bad and started to be unbearable within a couple of miles. I had to change something, or else quit.

I found a wall to sit down on and adjusted the angle of the cleat on my shoe. I was pretty sure this wouldn't help as the shoes and cleat position had been fine for the last year. When I started riding again the knee was still sore, but the pain was bearable now, so I carried on.

On the next climb I caught up with three other riders including Dan Golob. We chatted away up the next climb, which was great for taking my mind off the pain in my knee. It seemed that the pain was actually subsiding quite a bit and I was able to put a reasonable amount of power down.

Dan Golob with the mountains of the Glacier National Park behind

After crossing the pass at Red Meadow Lake the trail led downhill to the town of Whitefish. As I rolled into Whitefish I kept my eyes open for other riders who had stopped to get food. Sure enough I quickly spotted Greg May and Hughie Harvey outside a shop and dived in to grab some food. This gave me a big morale boost, as I was worried that my knee would have meant that I had lost touch with lots of other riders I had seen the previous day.

From Whitefish there was a long section of fairly flat dirt and tarmac roads, and I passed a few riders on here. As I reached Ferndale I started looking out for somewhere I could get dinner. I stopped to ask a local who told me where there was a pub and a shop slightly off route. Greg May rolled up just as I was about to head to the pub, so we went to check it out together.

The Rocky Mountain Roadhouse appeared to have fallen through a time warp from the 1980's but the locals seemed friendly. We ordered food and beer while a couple of regulars came over to investigate these strange looking cyclists. Sonny and Kelly were real characters and although slightly worse for wear both were in generous spirits. Kelly dispensed pearls of wisdom "never trust anyone" while Sonny handed me $20. I found it very awkward to accept this gift from Sonny who had a few minutes earlier been telling us that he lived in a caravan in the woods. The $20 paid for most of our dinner and we headed on to the shop where things only got stranger.

As we were doing our shopping we noticed there was a guy walking around with a squirrel on his arm. He explained that the squirrel had been born blind, so he had raised it and looked after it. Bizarre - especially in a shop with ammunition on the shelves - most customers of this country shop would probably shoot squirrels as vermin.

Blind pet squirrel. Ammunition on the shelves above the owner's shoulder.

It was heading towards bedtime and we rode over the next hill searching for a suitable bivvy site. Eventually we rolled into a junction with some flat grassy verges on the trail and noticed there were already three people sleeping there, so we quietly bedded down.

Bright moonlight at the bivvy spot

The next morning involved a huge climb over Richmond peak, but this was rewarded with amazing views of the Rattlesnake Mountains and then a descent with some fairly nice singletrack. My knee was settling down and felt alright for climbing, but it was now quite painful for standing up, so I didn't enjoy the singletrack descent as much as I should have done.

Richmond Peak singletrack with snow patches

Ovando was the next town on the route. It's maybe a bit generous to describe it as a town - the sign on the way in reads "Pop: about 50 Elev: 4,100 Dogs: more than 100". They are some of the keenest followers of the Tour Divide and a photographer greets pretty much every rider who comes into town. Photos are then posted on internet forums for the dot watchers at home to see. I quickly devoured an ice cream and compared notes with Arthur Kopatsy, a French rider living in San Francisco who was also suffering knee problems and had stopped there to try and recover.

I also got a burger from Trixi's Antler Saloon which I found a rather depressing establishment where the only other customers were ladies sitting on stools nursing cans of light beer while feeding money into the gambling machines.

Climbing the Huckleberry Pass

Back on the route I climbed into the evening light over the Huckleberry Pass and on into Lincoln where I checked into a motel.

The next morning's riding took me over the hills to Helena, capital of Montana where I sheltered from a thunderstorm while I filled up on burgers and chips and met Jose Bermudez, who claimed to be from Texas, but spoke with an English accent - it turned out he had grown up in London.

From here it seemed logical to aim for dinner in a place called Basin, but when I arrived there I was told by a local that the whole town was closed and there was nowhere to get food. I rode on towards Butte - a decent sized town where I was sure I could get a meal late at night.


The route followed a stream bed which had been completely turned over by gold miners. I pondered how gold mining is essentially a transfer activity (in economic terms the same as burglary) - because there is more than enough gold already sitting in bank vaults to meet all the needs of the world the only end served by mining it is to enrich those who mine it and reduce the wealth of those who hold stocks of gold. Essentially it's a great waste of resources at huge environmental cost.

When I arrived into the town centre of Butte at 11.30 pm I was upset to find that everything was closed except for an Irish bar which didn't do food. I checked in to the only motel I could find that was still open and ate a couple of bags of crisps from a vending machine.

Next morning I hit the Café at Park & Main for a breakfast which fulfilled all my dreams - a huge heap of hash browns with eggs and bacon followed by a mountain of pancakes. This really set me up for the day of riding which lay ahead. The first hill of the day included a notorious descent called Fleecer Ridge. This is super steep and pretty loose, but doesn't have many corners and is therefore rideable. I rode it and enjoyed it, although there was a sketchy moment with my brakes fading on the final steep pitch.

Blue flowers giving the illusion of a lake near Helena

The Wise River club provided a well timed lunch stop where I caught up with Dave Stowe. We rode side by side up most of the next road climb, with Dave's dry sense of humour keeping me entertained and helping to forget about riding for a little while. The next descent was all on tarmac and very fast, but a cold rain had started to fall, so it wasn't too pleasant.

Dave and I arrived together at the Montana High Country Lodge where Russ greeted us warmly and handed us each a hot cup of coffee. I got my third hot meal of the day here and signed Russ' Tour Divide riders sheet before heading out into the damp evening.

As I reached the bottom of the driveway I saw Luke Bodewes and Dean Anderson coming down the road towards me, so I waited to say hi to them. Luke headed up to the Lodge for refreshments, but Dean skipped it, so we rode on together. The rain soon turned quite hard, so I thought about a place that Russ had mentioned to shelter for the night. Dean was also keen to get out of the weather so we headed for the group use shelter at the Bannack village state park.

The rain persisted for most of the night, so I was very glad to be camped under a giant canopy. Unfortunately the next section involved dirt roads that were notorious for becoming extremely hard going when wet. Dean, Jose and I found ourselves on this rather nasty stretch in the worst possible conditions.

The mud stuck to tyres and clogged up the bike so that the wheels wouldn't go round. My technique for dealing with it was to pick up a piece of sage bush from the side of the trail and use this to scrape the mud off the bike. Some sections were worth trying to ride, some were definitely not and just had to be pushed. After a couple of hours I emerged onto a tarmac road and was very thankful it was over.

Sticky mud

Soon I was back off the tarmac and onto another muddy section. I passed Dean and Jose who were attempting to unclog their bikes and then had to stop and do the same to mine. I pushed for a while and then was able to ride a bit. Every so often I found hope that the mud was coming to an end, but this was quickly dashed as a section even worse than the previous bit was encountered.

Looking back into a beautiful hell. Muddy footprints leading up the pass

The sticky mud road rose up to a pass which I pushed up with huge clods of mud clinging onto my shoes. I cleared the bike tyres at the top hoping that the descent would be rideable - it was, just but soon after the track deteriorated again. Thankfully this proved to be the last section of mud and the road turned into a gravel track that followed a river down a canyon with a tailwind.

Cursed mud nightmare road

The trials of the day were not over yet - the route turned right into the wind for the ride into Lima, making what looked like a simple section on tarmac into another torment.

The diner in Lima was a blessed relief - I don't know what the staff must have thought of the muddy cyclists who fell through the door that afternoon, but we all arrived looking half dead and with big appetites. Here Dave Rooney popped in to introduce himself and explained that he had arrived in Lima at 8 am with hypothermia after attempting the muddy Bannack Road in the rain in the dark. He had to check into a motel to get himself sorted out. The mud had also broken the quick release on his rear wheel by jamming between the seat stay and the tyre, but he had managed to bodge a repair with zip ties.

From Lima on it was a fairly pleasant ride into the evening with a classic "big sky country" sunset. I camped at the pleasant Upper Lakeview campground where I was later joined by a couple of other riders.

Farewell from "Big Sky Country"

The night was beautifully starry, but not as restful as it should have been as I woke up several times shivering. In the morning there was frost on my bivvy bag and I was happy to start riding to warm up and climb to the Red Rock Pass and the state line.

Next section: Idaho and Wyoming

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - Canadian Section

After some photos and chat in front of the Banff YWCA the ride out to the start commenced. Sarah was waiting at the trailhead for a last goodbye - I stopped for a quick hug and kiss and then set off down the trail.

For a while I was in the middle of a big bunch of riders, but within a few miles this had thinned out. The rain started and set in pretty hard. I stopped to add a waterproof jacket, probably leaving it a little longer than I should have done.

By the time I arrived at the Bolton Trading Post 60 miles in I was cold and soaked. I grabbed a coffee and a microwaved sandwich and put on some more clothes. Then I set off over the Elk Pass which included the first steep uphill push of the ride. After a while the rain eased off and there was a chance to enjoy the scenery.

Some nice downhill cruising was brought to a halt by a section of sticky wet mud. My rear tyre was picking the mud up and lumps of it were landing on my helmet. The mud got worse and my tyre was throwing it into my chain so that the chain derailed repeatedly. I couldn't ride and had to get off and push to the next stream where I used the water to rinse the bike off.

After this I was extremely careful to avoid the wetter patches of the trail and managed to keep myself moving. At one point I saw a couple on the side of the trail who were touring the route and had succumbed to the mud. The chain on one of their bikes had broken multiple times and they couldn't get it to stay together. I wished them luck and pressed on carefully.

Soon I arrived in Elkford, where I washed the mud off my bike at a convenient garage, grabbed some food and carried on over the next hill.

Mountains around Elkford

I hit my first navigational problem - the GPS trail I was using had 10,000 data points, but spread over 4,200 km that's not actually all that many. There was a network of small trails in amongst the forest roads and it didn't seem all that clear which way we should go. I took what turned out to be a dead-end path and had to retrace my steps, wasting a few minutes.

All was well though and I arrived in Sparwood well before closing time at the burger stop. I scoffed a couple of burgers and plenty of fries as it went dark outside and discussed sleeping plans with the other folks who had made it. Most seemed to be heading for a motel as it was raining on and off.

Terex 33-19 "Titan" with my bike looking very small beside it.
I had spotted a (somewhat hard to miss) dumper truck which is supposedly the biggest in the world and decided that underneath it would make a good place to sleep.

I slept pretty well under the Titan, and was in the Tim Horton's coffee shop by 4.30, ready for day two of the ride.

During the next road climb I started to feel pain in my left knee, so I stopped to do some stretches which seemed to help a bit. The day involved a lot of climbing - 3 large passes and my knee started to feel worse the more I rode.

The descent of the first pass was very cold and wet for my feet as the track had been washed out by the river in many places. At one point it seemed like the wet section was over, so I stopped to wring the water out of my socks. This proved a complete waste of time as five minutes later I was splashing through another deep river crossing.

Yes, that's the trail. You just have to share it with the river.

The next pass came and went and then the trail took a turn off the forest road onto some interesting looking singletrack. This led to the famous "wall" section which involves a mandatory push/carry for a few hundred metres.

The start of the "wall". Bloody steep! Up you go!

I met Jacqui Bernardi here who had just discovered that 3 of the 4 bolts holding her chainring in place had fallen out on the trail and was going back to look for them. Unsurprisingly she didn't find them. I heard later that she managed to borrow a bolt from another rider and managed to ride for another day to the nearest bike shop with just two bolts and some zip ties holding her chainring in place.

On the final ascent I struggled upwards with my knee feeling like it was full of shards of glass. I knew the top of the climb was not far away, so I kept going and finally made it there. A 1,000m descent followed which felt like bliss by comparison, and this led to the road and a few miles later the Roosville border checkpoint and the United States.

Next section: Montana

Tour Divide 2016 - Summary

4,351 km (2,704 miles)

49,608 m height gain (162,756 feet)

18 days 15 hours 51 minutes

That was hard! Really hard.

Every one of those 19 days on the trail was tough in itself. All of them were well over 100 miles, the longest was over 200 miles. The height gain is the real killer though - the biggest day for height gain was over 4,000m (13,400 feet).

Taken together with no rest days this amount of riding is brutal.

At the end of day two I was in serious trouble with knee pain and thought I might have to quit. Fortunately I made some changes on the morning of day three which made the pain bearable. After that it steadily improved. From then on I felt stronger as the ride went on and never felt that I was in serious danger of not finishing.

Saddle sores, foot pain, hand numbness. These are the long distance cyclist's almost inevitable complaints. They became more or less tolerable at various points, but never threatened to stop me.

I lost a lot of weight in the first week. After that I made a real effort to eat plenty and never passed up an opportunity of a proper meal. Also it became much warmer so my body didn't need to burn as much energy keeping warm. My weight stabilised and from then on I felt like I was stronger than the other riders who were doing a similar pace to me.

The weather varied from cold rain (not quite snow) to desert heat. I slept under beautiful starry skies and awoke with frost on my bivvy bag.

I watched the sun rise and set almost every day of the ride - so many beautiful moments.

The seasons changed from late spring in the north to high summer in the south, and the days grew shorter as I moved towards the equator. The moon moved from first quarter through full and ended as a waning crescent.

Parts on the bike which started out new gradually wore out. Fortunately the only bits I had to replace were the brake pads, and those only once. The tyres, chain and cassette were all toast by the end of the ride though.

Finishing was an amazing feeling - some slight sadness that it was all over, but most of all relief that I would not have to get up and ride a bike the next day!

Here are the links to descriptions of the different sections of the ride for those who are interested in the detail (or just looking at the pretty pictures).

Part 1 - Canadian Section
Part 2 - Montana
Part 3 - Idaho and Wyoming
Part 4 - Colorado
Part 5 - New Mexico

Tour Divide 2016 Kit