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.
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