ADVENTURE BY BIKE®
Today we continue with part two of Kurt Refsnider's account of he and Caroline's tandem ride at this year's Tour Divide Race. -Kid
Divided Together - Part Two
In past years, the Tour Divide race has been just that, a race, for me. I was always concerned about staying ahead of whoever was behind me, and gaining ground on anyone who was ahead of me. It was readily apparent by the end of the first week this year that things were different. We simply struggled to maintain our own pace, whatever that was. Staying ahead of whoever was behind us was more out of our control than I had expected. We could not push any harder than we were, even for short periods, without digging ourselves into a hole that would have been tough to get out of. This was an unexpected reality that took a while to really solidify in my head. What exactly was responsible for this remains uncertain, but it most likely had a lot to do with Caroline’s health.
Only a day or two after Caroline and I really began to fall into a rhythm, we found ourselves hammering up the long, paved climb into the Pioneer Mountains late at night. We both felt strong and hammered relentlessly until after midnight under a starry sky, but this particular night may have been our undoing. Deer and elk darted about in the woods just beyond the throw of our lights, and only a handful of cars passed on the remote road after nightfall. We snagged a few hours of sleep up high in a freezing little picnic shelter. Caroline struggled to stay warm that night, and by morning, her lungs felt irritated. Periodically, she experienced brief coughing fits; some severe enough to trigger her gag reflex and cause her to vomit a bit. Rarely was it more than an hour’s worth of food that came up, but she was losing calories nonetheless. And following one of these episodes, it was a challenge for her to eat. This went on for the remainder of the race, and at times notably reduced her energy levels. It was quite concerning to me, but she had no other symptoms, never really got any worse, and she just wanted to push on. And so push on we did.
Crossing into Idaho over Red Rocks Pass is always a milestone for Divide riders. The long, challenging state of Montana is left behind. The roads ahead are faster and generally less muddy. The weather improves, and there is not much grizzly bear territory remaining. And Divide statistics also show that if you make it to Idaho, you’ll most likely make it to Mexico. Caroline and I were in pleasant moods that morning. We had slept along the edge of the forest in Centennial Valley and slept well. We even had enjoyed a quick campfire to warm up when we stopped, a first for me on the Divide. The following morning, we paused at the Idaho border to take a few photos and eat a snack before pushing on.
Unfortunately, instead of improving, the weather only got cloudier and colder, and we soon had to contend with miles and miles of brutal washboards on a rail trail. The climb over the northern end of the Tetons was far longer and more tiring than I remembered, and the mosquitoes were far worse than I had experienced in years! This was not Idaho like I had remembered it. Caroline again struggled to keep her energy levels up that evening, but we eventually made it to Flagg Ranch, resupplied, and pushed on. Only at that point, her legs died, and I was forced to do most of the work for the last half hour of our ride. On a tandem, when one person bonks, you might as well just stop, because to continue moving forward, the other person has to exert him/herself so much that only a few additional miles can really be covered. By the time we stopped to camp, I was utterly exhausted, and Caroline was nearly asleep. It was a frustrating evening that really strained both of us physically and emotionally.
The following day carried us deeper into Wyoming and over Togwatee and Union Passes. The sun shone brightly, the temperature was mild, bears were out in force, and once again, the climbing got the better of our legs. More often than ever before, I was forced to simply stop, sit on the ground, and eat as much as I could get down. We both struggled a bit to eat on the bike. For me, this was because it took more muscle to control the bike and riding without hands was impossible. Caroline was afraid to let go of the bars for too long since she couldn’t tell when rough terrain, or even a single unexpected bump, was coming.
In the afternoon, we ran into some friends who were touring the route northbound, and it was great to see them enjoying their journey. The following day we ran into two other friends doing the same, as well as Fixie Dave and another northbound racer. It was great to run into all these folks and share stories and route information for a few minutes.
A night in Pinedale provided us with much-needed showers, a huge pizza, more food than we could carry for the next section of the route, clean clothes, and a comfortable bed. My legs were absolutely exhausted after another tough day. We were both looking forward to getting out into the barren Great Divide Basin the next day, but the forecast for 40 mph winds had us a bit nervous. It turned out that this wind would push us toward Rawlins at an alarming rate, allowing us to cover 180 miles that day, our biggest single push of the ride.
The following day, however, the route turned southward, the wind shifted slightly, and we found ourselves being battered and beaten as we struggled to make our way through the rolling hills of southernmost Wyoming. Caroline and I were both anxious to get into Colorado, but the wind seemed to have other plans for us. We were glad to have the company of fellow racers Dylan Taylor and Josh Schifferly during all this suffering. On one climb in particular, the wind was so strong that it forced us all off our bikes, and simply pushing into the wind while walking was a serious undertaking. Dylan nearly lost his bike to one incredibly strong gust. Eventually, distant trees came into view, providing shelter from the wind, but it took an agonizing three hours to reach them. Caroline threw up several more times during the afternoon, requiring that we stopped so she could cautiously eat on several occasions. I was also on the verge of bonking for much of the afternoon and evening, and our goal of reaching Brush Mountain Lodge seemed out of reach at times.
But we did eventually make it, and Matthew and Katie Lee were there to greet us. Matthew is the race organizer and a good friend of mine, and we'd filmed Reveal The Path together. He and Katie were temporarily acting as lodge caretakers. Another friend, Scott Morris, as well as photographer Eddie Clark, were there, and Dylan and Josh had arrived an hour or so ahead of us. Just like last year, it was a festive atmosphere and lifted our spirits after an absolutely crushing day.
The subsequent days saw us riding deep into familiar Colorado territory. The scenery was spectacular, and the climbs long, and nights short. Each evening, we struggled to make it anywhere close to our goal for the day. Caroline continued to battle with coughing fits, my calves more often began to protest on long climbs, and finding food that sounded good to eat became more difficult. We were both already tired of eating nearly continuously it seemed, and we often missed open hours at ideal resupply points. Conversely, I really enjoyed the sunrises and sunsets, we were having fun comparing stories from our rides in 2011, and we still were managing to average around 140 miles per day. That being said, by the time we reached Del Norte, Caroline’s cough was worsening, and we nearly decided to spend a day there so she could rest.
We arrived in town after a brief but challenging struggle against a 30-plus mph headwind in the San Luis Valley. The gas station and Subway provided shelter and lunch, so we sat, ate, and debated what to do. After a good meal, Caroline decided that we should push on rather than resting. She seemed to be in the mood to simply get the ride over with. With our timing for resupplying in Platoro or Horca looking bad, we wandered through the gas station and picked out enough food to get us all the way to Abiqiui, well into New Mexico. A bit of extra food was added to the pile to replace whatever Caroline might vomit back up. The cashier, familiar with the race, asked us about life on the tandem as he scanned the items. Then his computer beeped, signaling that he had reached the maximum number of items allowable in a single transaction, something he had never seen before. $108 later, our bags and pockets were bursting at the seams, and we headed off into that awful headwind.
The steep, relentless grades of the 4000’ climb up to Grayback Mountain and Summitville provided far more of a challenge than remembered from years past. Our lowest gear didn’t seem low enough, there wasn’t enough traction to stand on the pedals and use some slightly different muscles, and all the extra food weight we carried was clearly noticeable. Eventually, though, the grades slackened, the forests grew thicker, the air cooler and calmer, and we neared the high point on the route. As the sun set, we popped above treeline and were treated to a beautiful panorama of the easternmost San Juan Mountains. After nearly six hours of slogging uphill, we dismounted, put on some warmer clothes, snapped a few photos, and enjoyed a small feast. Platoro, our destination for the night, still seemed far away, but we managed to make it there by midnight. We slept among the trees at the edge of town and were gone in the morning before anyone else was stirring.
By mid-morning, we hit the rough, rocky jeep trail that leads into New Mexico. We stopped at the Carson National Forest boundary sign, which sits at the New Mexico-Colorado border, to celebrate. Northern New Mexico is a fabulous part of the route, though quite challenging. But it was also the beginning of the final state we had to traverse. Brazos Ridge and its beautiful meadows came and went. Only the aspen stands, normally a vibrant green, had been completely defoliated by tent caterpillars. Saddened by this, we pedaled on into the afternoon heat. Our legs tired as we climbed over the low ridges along the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Sweat dripped off our bodies under the intense sun. Our water ran low, but we were luckily able to supplement it from a nearly dried up creek bed, and later restock at a campground.
Caroline’s energy level dropped by early evening, and I was not feeling too strong, either. We both became grumpy and frustrated, resulting in several hours of silence. The long descent off the plateau toward El Rito began soon, raising our spirits slightly. But we were running low on food, and the prospect of having to ride the rest of the way to Abiqiui in the morning without anything left to eat did not sound good. We pushed a bit to reach the Snack Shack, a tiny shed in an equally tiny town.
“Honk for assistance,” the sign read. In the dimming twilight, I could just make out someone beside the house set back a ways from the road. Caroline laughed as she tried to find our horn. Then the person waved at us and eventually came over on an ATV. The jolly woman opened up the shed, and we grabbed $20 worth of food off the shelves stocked with chips, soda, candy, crackers, cereal, and tins of sardines. We immediately ate the ice cream and drank much of the soda before going back for more soda to take with. We took some sardines and crackers for dinner, and thanked the woman before getting back on the bike. She chuckled and wished us well.
Our moods were much improved, but with it already dark, the sleep monster wasted no time in returning to do battle with Caroline. The stretch of pavement disappeared quickly, and we rode through the infamous Dog Alley of Vallecitos without incident. Between the two of us, we have now ridden through there four times without being chased by a single dog, so I do not understand why the place has become so notoriously dangerous. I navigated the rutted roads beyond with care, but as the ruts deepened at one point, we clipped a pedal and slid against the side of the rut before toppling over. Our speed had been quite low, and I managed to stay upright, but Caroline was sent to the ground. I pulled the bike off her and helped her up.
She was fine, but I felt awful. The part of riding a tandem that makes me the most nervous is crashing and injuring the stoker. Caroline put so much trust in my judgment, letting me descend at speeds that seemed recklessly fast to her. We never went down at speed, but we did fall over a few times, usually while dismounting unexpectedly in snow. This time the ground was a bit harder to land on, so I was relieved she was uninjured. We decided that since it was already near midnight, we should just sleep right there and ride the last few miles of ruts into El Rito in the morning. We hiked back off the road far enough to be out of sight, set up camp, and managed to choke down our sardine-and-cracker dinner without too much difficulty before falling asleep to the chorus of dogs down the hill in El Rito.
----------TO BE CONCLUDED NEXT THURSDAY!
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous West. Now a professor at Prescott College, I teach students about the geologic wonders that surround us. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country and enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. And when driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity, quietly spinning the cranks, staring out over the handlebars, and watching the scenery evolve while wondering where I’ll next be able to fill up on water. Kurt's Going Nuts: http://www.krefs.blogspot.com