Today we begin a three-part blog from Salsa sponsored rider Kurt Refsnider, telling the tale of he and his partner Caroline's tandem ride down the Tour Divide Route. Enjoy! -Kid
Tour Divided - Part One
It’s not often that I find myself even remotely frightened in the days leading up to a big race. A few butterflies? Sure, but serious nervousness? That’s pretty rare for me. But the week before the 2012 Tour Divide, I had butterflies the size of dragons jumping around in my gut.
In a way, it felt like I had just finished the 2011 Tour Divide. So much had happened since then, but the memories were still clear and the sensations of strained tendons and overworked muscles so real that it did not seem like a year could have already elapsed. I had no intentions on racing the Divide again any time soon, but my normally sane girlfriend Caroline threw a wrench into my summer plans and suggested in March that we race the Tour Divide on a tandem this year. As if the race isn’t tough enough to begin with!
To make a long story short, Salsa Cycles provided us a with prototype tandem frame and built it up with primo parts, White Brothers sent us a plush tandem-specific LOOP suspension fork, and Revelate Designs set us up with some beautiful and lightweight bags.
It wasn’t until early May that all this started coming together, so we felt lucky to have had a few combined years of Divide racing experience on which to fall back for planning purposes. We had just enough time to sort of learn how to ride the tandem, determine what sort of communication is important while riding, and figure out how to condense two bikepacking kits into one. Unfortunately, we also had just enough time for me to realize how tough 2,700 miles with a boatload of climbing was going to be on our oversized bike.
On the flight to Banff, I had ample time to stare out the little airplane window, marvel at how large the continent is, and ponder what was to come. I was afraid of the climbs. I was afraid of all the snowy passes in Canada and northern Montana that we’d be trudging over. I was afraid of the sticky, clay-rich, drivetrain-eating, soul-destroying mud that’s so common farther south on the Divide route, and I was afraid of mechanical problems more than ever, given the nature of tandems.
That being said, I couldn’t wait to get back out there, immersed in the spectacular scenery, sharing the adventure with Caroline, and enjoying the simplicity of life on the trail. I also had complete confidence in Caroline’s strength and stubborn optimism and wasn’t too worried about sitting inches apart from one another for nearly three weeks.
We made it to Calgary trouble free and sought out a quiet corner in which to unpack our two big cardboard boxes (one for the frame, one for the wheels) and get the big bike reassembled. Then we pedaled away from the airport, a good omen for any trip. Calgary’s impressive bike path system, combined with some directions from Google’s beta bike map, took us directly across town to a gracious host we found on WarmShowers.org. If you haven’t checked out the site, do so!
The following morning, we awoke to steady rain, and the forecast for the first few days of the race was looking chilly and wet (or snowy!). Reluctantly, we packed up the bike, donned our rain gear, and pointed Big Blue west toward the mountains. It proceeded to rain for almost the entire 100-mile ride, twice the distance of the previous longest ride we had put on the bike, and with infinitely more rain. I had been fighting a cold for the previous few days, so I was a bit low on energy during the ride, but even with that in mind and the fact that we followed pavement the entire way, I was struck at how much more effort it took to pedal a loaded tandem. The dragon-sized butterflies grew a little bigger…
Our travel schedule gave us a single day in Banff prior to the start. The weather was downright cold, but at least the sun was out. The forecast continued to deteriorate, and I started to worry that we did not have sufficient warm clothing to deal with three days of wet riding, snowy passes, and cold nights. We scavenged through all the rather laughable outdoor gear stores in town, finding very little that was appropriate or affordable, but the last shop we knew of had a huge rack of winter clothing marked down by 40%. I scored a light down jacket, Caroline a light fleece jacket, and we both grabbed another pair of warm gloves. We didn’t really have room for this stuff anywhere in our bags, but as it turned out, it would not be warm enough until central Montana for this to be a problem!
I was also feeling quite under the weather the day before the race. The cold, wet ride to Banff had seemingly set me back a bit, allowing my fever to spike and lungs to become congested. The prospect of several more long days of riding in similar or worse conditions worried me, and we actually discussed spending a few more days in Banff and beginning when the weather improved and I would hopefully be healthier. But the forecast also called for considerable snow accumulation on some of the passes we were to traverse, so in the end, we decided to start with the big group and hope for the best. In the end, this gamble paid off.
The morning of the race start came after a restless night’s sleep for me. My fever was gone in the morning, and my coughing had diminished, both encouraging signs. Racers gathered in front of the YWCA, forming a colorful crowd of anxious individuals milling about. The early miles of the race, always ridden at a regrettably high pace by many individuals, was a fun time to chat with old friends, meet new riders, and leave all nervousness behind. The ride had begun, so there was nothing left to worry about, nothing remaining to obsess over, and no reason to do anything but pedal and enjoy.
Caroline was in a good mood, chipper and talkative. We were both particularly amused by how fast we’d pass people on the descents, only to be rapidly overtaken by the same riders on the next steep climb. It made it nearly impossible to have conversations that lasted more than a minute or two. And that was the pattern of our socializing with other riders for the remainder of the race. The rhythm of a tandem rarely matches that of a solo rider, and we spent very little time pedaling with others.
The first miles of Canada passed quickly and easily. The sun periodically shone between heavy grey clouds, but by early afternoon, rain and snow showers moved in, and during the muddy slog over Elk Pass, snow began to fall in earnest. At the same time, some apparent food poisoning struck Caroline, forcing us to stop every hour so she could run off into the woods at the whim of her uncomfortable stomach. At lower elevations, the snow turned to rain, and the track turned to sloppy mud. Farther south, the rain showers became more widely dispersed, and we were treated to beautiful evening and sunset as we rolled into Sparwood. We opted to stay in a motel there in hopes that it might help my recovery a bit, and having a toilet close at hand ended up being convenient for poor Caroline.
The headwaters of the Flathead River was the challenge for the following day. It is a rough, remote section of the course, supposedly crawling with mountain lions and grizzly bears. This year, it also offered three snowy passes, a few full-to-the-bank streams, and abundant rain and snow. Caroline and I were both a bit tired from the start. Garret and Eric, with whom we had shared the motel room, caught us on the climb up to Flathead Pass. We chatted briefly, and then they quickly disappeared. Soon we were pushing our big bike through snow, thankful for the tracks left by the 15 or so riders in front of us. The second pass of the day offered more of the same, and it was then that storms rolled in, pelting our faces with sharp, stinging snowflakes as we again pushed the bike. By the third pass, fresh snow had accumulated to a depth of 6-8 inches and continued to fall. Somewhere behind the clouds, the sun set as we crossed the high point. We paused to put on the rest of our warm clothing and trudged down and into the coming darkness.
By the time we had to switch on our lights, we hit snow that was thin enough to ride, and thus began the steep, sloppy, excruciatingly cold descent to the US border. Caroline struggled to stay awake while shivering as I tried to keep the bike upright in the slimy mud. Lights of traffic on the highway far below finally came into view, a welcome sight after a long day in such remote country in dismal weather. I couldn’t help but worry about all the riders behind us who would be forced to bivy out there in the Flathead. But shivering soon overtook me, and I focused my mind on the last few Canadian miles. The border agents quickly got us through to the U.S. while giving us mugs of coffee and tea to drink as they checked our passports sometime shortly before midnight. Across the street, several other riders had gathered in the bar for a welcomed hot meal. The owner had stuck around a couple hours late just to help out us pitiful cold cyclists. We were more grateful than she could probably comprehend, and I think most of us probably tipped her nearly the cost of our meals.
After a warm night in a motel room in Eureka, Caroline and I refueled at a gas station and headed south. I was still nervous about my health, but thankfully, it had not deteriorated any after two cold, wet days of riding. However, after only couple miles on the third morning, we had to stop so I could tape up one of my Achilles tendons. This wasn’t at all unanticipated; given the challenges these tendons have given me in past long races. What was unexpected, however, was that a couple days later, I removed the tape, and the tendon cooperated for the remainder of our ride. Caroline’s stomach seemed to have recovered, and we spent the day hammering. We felt great on the climb over Whitefish Divide, and again on the climb up Red Meadow Pass. We cruised through the five miles of snow over the top, having mastered the two-person pushing technique the previous day. It turned out that putting Caroline in front so I could push with a full-length stride was the most efficient hike-a-bike method for us.
Midway through the day, my right wrist began to swell and hurt considerably. The Rohloff twist shifter had become very difficult to turn, and this apparently had quickly led to a tendonitis flare-up. Once in Whitefish, Caroline set about ordering dinner at a BBQ/pub joint, and I pulled out our tool kit and tore into the shifter and the shift cable attachment box at the hub. A number of drunken Calgarians who were vacationing in Whitefish gathered around and marveled at the bike and our ambitious ride. I tried to be friendly, but I was frustrated by how sore my wrist had become. A thorough cleaning and lubricating of the shifter and cables seemed to help a bit, and some big pork sandwiches arrived just as I finished.
After dinner, Caroline and I attacked a long stretch of pavement, hoping to cover big ground before midnight. A brisk headwind soon kicked up, seeing to it that we didn’t move as quickly as we had wished. But it looked like the wind was blowing the stormy clouds off to the east, signaling an end to three days of foul weather. By 11:30, Caroline was struggling to stay awake, and as we neared a tiny crossroads of a town, we decided to stop and sleep under the eaves of a little white church. We laid out our sleeping pads and bags, washed up with some wet wipes, and ate as much as we could. Caroline was asleep and snoring as soon as her head hit the pillow. I, on the other hand, remained awake, listening to howling coyotes and barking dogs. Once I dozed off, it seemed like I was awakened by something every 15 minutes. When the alarm beeped obnoxiously a few hours later, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all. Not a good way to start another long day.
Our primary challenge for the next day was making it through the Mission Mountains. The route traverses the east side of the range, crossing innumerable small drainages and a few larger ones, along a path that never seems to end. I recalled struggling through this section in past years, so I was a bit nervous heading into it. Within half an hour of getting the wheels spinning, it was just getting light, and drops of rain began to fall. More rain! We had thought we were through with this! By the time we reached the top of the first big climb, it was pouring, and on the following steep descent, we both began shivering uncontrollably. Somewhat fortuitously, a brown bear in the trail ahead of us created a bit of excitement and a boost of adrenaline to distract us from the cold, and soon we were again climbing and overheating in our rain gear. An hour later we had to stop to replace the rear brake pads, and by lunchtime, we were finally nearing the end of the Mission Range. It had been an arduous morning, but it felt good to make some solid headway.
We grabbed a quick lunch and a few provisions at a lodge just off route before climbing up Richmond Peak. This bear-infested area was covered with snow for a few miles over the top, and with the trail traversing a steep, snowy slope, riders are often nervous heading into this section. We were pleased, however, to have the sun finally back out and shining on us, and we had ample daylight remaining to make it over to the other side. The snow atop was indeed steep and slippery, and for some reason, I was able to manhandle the tandem alone through the tougher sections faster than Caroline was able to walk, so I did just that. By the end, my arms were exhausted and my wrist aching, but hopefully all the snow along the route was behind us.
We rode over mellower terrain for the remainder of the evening, enjoying the soft light of a fair-weathered evening before bivying under a pair of spruce trees next to the post office in the village of Ovando. Nothing was stirring when we arrived, and nothing was stirring when we departed early the next morning.
Another breakfast of gas station pastries and a Slim Jim, cold, damp air, sore bodies, and soaking wet bivies were what the first twenty minutes of the morning delivered. Mornings on the Divide are always very unpleasant for me, and this one was no exception. We were often both a bit grumpy after getting up, and the first hour or three were often quite quiet on the bike. This particular morning we were a bit more communicative as we together enjoyed the beautiful lighting and wisps of fog spread out upon the lush, green valley. I was looking forward to a good breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and hashbrowns in Lincoln, but we first had to get over Huckleberry Pass.
The climb is not particularly long or steep, but from the first switchback, my legs protested. My calves, in particular, seemed to lose all strength, barely able to hold my feet level as I pushed down on the pedals. We stopped several times so I could stretch and walk a bit, but nothing seemed to help. I downed 500 calories of sesame crackers and candy bars, but that made no difference. We just plodded along as I did the best I could to keep pedaling. Halfway up the climb, a grouse blasted out of the bushes along the road, scaring us in the process. He landed just up the road, and after we passed him, he proceeded to run behind us, lagging by 20 or 30 meters, for a good quarter mile. I’m not sure what he was doing, but he provided enough entertainment that I forgot about my aching calves. Soon we were over the pass and flying down toward breakfast. Unfortunately, it was not the last time my calves would behave so obstinately.
A big, salty breakfast hit the spot as we spent a bit of time in town taking care of a variety of chores. We picked up food, did a little bike cleaning, mailed our extra warm clothes home, and chatted with fellow racer Ryan Correy. His feet were taking a beating, and he seemed frustrated but determined to push on. He was one of the few racers we saw for the next week! Ninety minutes after arriving, we rode out of town in shorts and short sleeves, feeling strong and ready to take on the steep climbs before Helena. After a slow morning, we had a great afternoon, got a quick fast-food dinner, and continued on through the low mountains of central Montana. Scattered showers kept forcing us in and out of our rain gear, but eventually, the clouds moved on, leaving a beautiful, starry sky behind.
The first part of the climb up Lava Mountain presents an unrelentingly steep gravel road, and at the end of the day, this did both Caroline and me in. For the better part of half an hour, our lights darted around in the woods along the road, searching for a good place to sleep. I didn’t think it would rain any more, but we wanted to find something decent to sleep under just in case. Eventually my light struck the side of a little old cabin of sorts, and it had just enough of an overhang above the porch that we might stay dry should it rain. And rain it did! Within a few minutes of falling asleep, a steady rain began and lasted for most of the night!
Following these first days of the race, we began to fall into a rhythm. Hours passed by quickly, the events of days began to blur together, and we accepted the fact that we seemed doomed to a schedule of one decent-feeling day followed by one in which we struggled significantly. Days that we thought should be relatively easy, such as the relatively flat and fast roads from Wise River to Lima, were consistently tougher than expected. Days with numerous, long climbs, were even more tiring than we predicted. But the weather improved, allowing us to pass through potential show-stopping mud sections without difficulty. Our big blue bike continued to work flawlessly, and my wrist began to improve as the shifter action returned to normal.
----------TO BE CONTINUED NEXT THURSDAY!
Enjoying Kurt's tale? Be sure to see him in the film Reveal The Path!