Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Tour Divide 2016 - Colorado



I had been looking forward to Colorado. It was the only one of the US states on the route that I had visited before. My previous visit had also been with a mountain bike for the Singlespeed World Championships in 2009. On that visit I rode some fabulous trails, met some great people and ate and drank great food and beer. My expectations were high, and Colorado was not about to disappoint!

First of all there was a long steep climb up a gravel track in the late morning heat. As I went up I was passed by three vehicles coming down - the people in each of these cheered as they passed me. This was motivation enough for me to keep riding up the steep sections instead of pushing. Eventually I reached the Brush Mountain Lodge, where I was met by Kirsten, the famed trail angel who plied me with a giant heap of blueberry pancakes as well as melon, lemonade and water.

Billy Rice and his kids were in residence, having just held a debrief of Juliana Buhring's RAAM team. It was Juliana and the team who had just left and had been cheering me on up the last climb. Billy has ridden the Tour Divide route several times, including a double (Northbound followed by Southbound) and on a tandem with his 16 year old daughter Lina. He offered me some sage advice about the challenges coming up in the next couple of days which I tried to absorb while inhaling yet another pancake.

Leaving the awesome Brush Mountain Lodge - photo by the amazing Kirsten.

Soon I was on the way again over the hills to Steamboat Springs where I decided that my brain and my legs were done. It hadn't been a very long day at only 185 km and 12 hours moving time, but the 330 km effort from the day before and the lack of sleep had taken a lot out of me. I checked into a very dated looking motel where the Swiss owner was determined to tell me his life story even as I was falling asleep on the desk.

After a quick shower I headed out to find food. The curry house across the road was just closing when I got to it, but the friendly Australian guy running it gave me a free portion of rice which was perfect for the next morning's breakfast. I did manage to get an amazing steak from a restaurant a few blocks down which set me up for the next day's hilly ride.

The next morning started with a few road miles and then a climb to the pleasant Stagecoach Lake followed by some more climbing over the Lynx Pass and then some fairly technical descending. Billy Rice had warned me about the Radium section being like an oven and I was about to hit this in the early afternoon. The route descends into the Colorado river gorge before climbing steeply out of it. The walls of the canyon reflect the heat and make it into a furnace. Fortunately I was feeling pretty strong at this point, so I kept on riding and made it out in a reasonable state.

The rather lumpy profile of the Colorado section.
I was keen to get some food in before the final climb of the day, so I made the 2 mile detour into Kremmling where I enjoyed some tacos and ice cream before climbing the Ute pass which was all on tarmac, but still pretty steep in places. The view from the top was made more impressive by the storm over the Eagles Nest Wilderness.

Evening storm from the Ute pass.

After a swift descent there was a gradual uphill to reach Silverthorne which was lit up by double and triple rainbows which made it much more enjoyable.

Rainbows on the way into Silverthorne.

It was properly dark by the time I reached Silverthorne and I was delighted to find an Indian/Nepalese restaurant still serving food and beer. After pakoras, curry and lots of rice I set off to find a bivvy spot beside the Dillon Reservoir.

Dawn beside the Dillon Reservoir.

After a peaceful night beside the reservoir I headed on to breakfast in Breckenridge. Here Colorado bike infrastructure impressed me as there was a tarmac cycle path all the way there - albeit with a slight headwind and uphill gradient that made me feel that I'd really earned my breakfast by the time I rolled into town. Some locals spotted me and shouted out "go Tour Divider!" so I stopped and got their recommendation for the best breakfast in town. Amazing Grace provided me with coffees, hot food and muffins which got my body ready for the day ahead.

Breckenridge is renowned for being a high altitude mountain town - many athletes use it for high altitude training, so it was no surprise that the next pass was to be a high one. Fortunately the track up Boreas pass was a good one at a nice gradient and I even chatted to a local who was out for a morning mountain bike ride as I climbed the pass.


The highest Divide crossing on the route.

After the obligatory summit photo I set off down, passing some skiers who were carrying their skis up from the track to get in some turns on the remaining snow patches - a very Scottish activity! They had parked their van right in front of the signpost for the Gold Dust Trail. I only overshot the trail by a couple of hundred metres and was quickly on my way down this lovely piece of singletrack. Part of the trail follows an old water race which was built in gold rush days and this makes for a lovely bermed route across the mountain. Other sections are rooty and rocky and overall it really lived up to its billing as the best section of trail on the whole Tour Divide route.

I arrived in Como just as a torrential thunder shower began, so I passed a few minutes buying and writing a couple of postcards in the museum before continuing into South Park as the rain stopped. The empty spaces of South Park were periodically broken up by abandoned subdivisions. It seems that small parcels of land have been sold off for housing, but since land isn't exactly scarce around there they have virtually no resale value, so if the owner decides to move on the home they have built is simply left to rust and rot.

After passing through many empty miles I reached Hartsel and was glad to be able to get some lunch in the characterful Highline Cafe and Saloon. I chatted to a fisherman who had been driven off the river by the thunderstorms while I ate and drank then hit the trail again heading over the hills to Salida. The descent to Salida was long and exciting with some dangerous sections of loose gravel, big drops into the gorge and no crash barriers. I was glad I was tackling it in daylight rather than having to do it in the dark.

I rolled into Salida and checked in to the very friendly hostel, then went for a huge pizza and a beer at the Moonlight Brewery which left me feeling very full and happy.

The next sections on my route card showed some alarmingly large numbers in the height gain column, and sure enough I was onto the big road climb up the Marshall Pass as soon as I left Salida. After turning off the initial tarmac section the pass went up a long way on the gravel and I was certainly ready for a break after cresting the top. A nice and not too tricky descent brought me to the tiny settlement of Sargents "Eleveation high, population low" and the Tomichi Creek Trading Post. Unfortunately I was a little too early for lunch, so I made do with microwaved breakfast rolls and coffee. While I was finishing my breakfast David Stowe arrived. I hadn't seen him for a few days, so we caught up with how we had each been going on the trail.

The rest of the day passed by as I crossed the Cochetopa and Carnero passes on dirt roads dodging thunderstorms. As the light was beginning to fade I passed a sign for the Ghost Ranch and reached an interesting section of trail which wiggled around some hills before dropping into Del Norte.

I found Jose and Pavel at the fuel station in Del Norte. Pavel had been knocked off his bike by an old man driving a truck, and was not looking too good. He had had to get a lift with the police to Del Norte where he had replaced his broken handlebars at the bike shop and then the police had driven him back to where he had been knocked off so he could continue his ride. He must have lost a few hours to this as well as having very sore ribs and being a bit concussed but he was determined to carry on an find somewhere to bivvy. Jose headed off to the motel and I followed after having a microwave burrito for dinner.

The motel was like so many others down the divide, looking like it had not had any money spent on it since the 1970's but at least it was cheap.

From Del Norte the climb of the Indiana pass ramps up almost straight out of town. Planning for the divide I had been a little apprehensive about the altitude on this section. The top of the pass is at nearly 12,000 feet (3,600m) which is seriously high for someone who lives at sea level like me. The route also remains above 11,000 feet for almost 40 miles. Fortunately having been on the trail already for two weeks meant that I was fairly well acclimatised to high altitude and I didn't suffer too much apart from feeling a bit sluggish on the steep uphill sections.

Top of the Indiana Pass, high point of the route at 3,630 m (11,910 feet).

The top of the pass gave stunning panoramas of the surrounding mountains, but also a view of Summitville - a site where the mountain had been torn apart by gold mining from the 1860's until the 1990's. The most recent firm to exploit the site was wound up leaving massive environmental problems including run-off of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The US government stepped in declaring it a federal superfund cleanup site and spent $155m on decontamination. The work goes on and there is still a lagoon of scary red liquid below the old mine workings.

Marmots on rubble at Summitville.
After staying very high for a long time there was finally some descent through fantastic scenery to reach Platoro and lunch. This tourist town has a couple of restaurants and I picked the Gold Nugget Cafe where I had a good burger and an excellent bread pudding with whisky sauce.

Red Mountain helping Colorado live up to its name.
The day was hot by this stage, so I was able to justify a stop for ice cream and a quick snooze at the gallery in Horca. Here Pavel passed me just as I was about to set off, but I overtook him on the road climb up the La Manga Pass. I think Pavel was suffering from the effects of his crash the previous day.

After cresting the pass, leaving the tarmac and crossing a narrow-gauge railway I reached the New Mexico state line - the final state on the ride!


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.

Drivetrain

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!

Wheels

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.

Power

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.

Luggage

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.

Water

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.

Moose!

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!

I'll be putting up a description 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

Tour Divide 2016 Kit

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Kidnapped! Trail April 2016

Kidnapped!

I recently re-read R.L. Stevenson's book Kidnapped, which tells the story of how a young Scots lad is taken to sea under duress and makes his way back to Edinburgh after the ship carrying him founders on rocks near to the Isle of Mull.

I was curious as to the route he would have taken, and started looking at some maps to get a bit more detail than that given on the map shown in the book. The idea then occurred that this could be a great route to do by bike - even if getting to the start might be a bit awkward.

A plan was made, a date was set and a fellow adventurer, Nick was signed up.

Map from R.L.Stevenson's book
As it turned out the plans I had  made for getting to the start by train proved unnecessary as Sarah and Nick's other half Mary were both keen for a trip to Mull and happy to drive back. This also meant that full on bikepacking style - how I had originally envisaged completing the trip would not be necessary and we wouldn't have to carry sleeping kit.

Sunset over Mull from the ferry
Sarah and I drove up from Edinburgh on a Thursday evening and caught the last boat from Oban to Craignure, sailing into the sunset. We then completed the long drive  down the single track road on the Ross of Mull to Fionnphort where we met Nick and Mary at the Fidden farm campsite - a beautiful spot on the beach.

After we had set up the tent I went for a wonder to the tidal island of Erraid – this is where David Balfour, the protagonist from Kidnapped is washed ashore after the shipwreck. Low tide was to be at midnight, so I set off at about 10 to cross the sands to the island. Once I got there I propped up my bike and got my camera out to take a picture of the starry sky. Then I noticed that there seemed to be fingers of light shining up from the horizon. There were no man made lights in view, so I quickly realised that this must be the aurora borealis.


Aurora from Erraid
I caught a couple of pictures before rushing back to the campsite to check that Sarah had seen this too. She had, but by the time I was back the sky had clouded over and the aurora had all but disappeared.





Day 1



Next morning Nick and I commenced the route, with a long stretch of tarmac to begin with. Soon we were pushing our bikes up the slopes of Ben More, following a dashed line on the OS 1:50,000 map which barely existed on the ground. This led to very wet feet, and a col called Craig MhicFionnlaidh. From here we descended, mainly riding but sometimes pushing our bikes over rocks and through bogs to Loch Bà where we picked up a good land rover track that led us back onto tarmac where we wrung out our socks before continuing to Fishnish and the ferry to the Morvern peninsula.

The short ferry crossing dropped us off in Lochaline, where we continued briefly on tarmac past the impressive Ardtornish house and then up a good track to reach Loch Teàrnait and the Leacraithnaich bothy which was in good shape and looked like a nice spot to spend a night. From here the track deteriorated to either a tricky to ride singletrack or a pathless bog. We spotted a badger out hunting in broad daylight near an abandoned croft. The trail eventually brought us to Glen Sanda and a tricky descent to the sea and the enormous super-quarry.

We marvelled at the huge machinery and scars on the landscape as we skirted the quarry on a good land rover track that followed the coast. As we left the quarry we abruptly dropped onto a coastal singletrack. From the OS map it’s normally impossible to know what a trail will be like. I had no information about this costal singletrack apart from a dotted line on the map. It turned out that the trail involved some pushing (or very arduous riding) over shingle on the beach, some rock climbing along the cliffs where we couldn’t get round the costal promontories and some squelching through bogs and being snared by brambles. It would have been harder still if the tide had been in – we would have been forced to climb over more outcrops on the rugged hillside.

Eventually we popped out onto the very scenic road at Kingairloch and the remaining 15 easy miles to the Corran ferry, passing a flock of feral goats grazing on the way. The short (and free for pedestrians and cyclists!) ferry brought us to the busy A82 which brought us to Ballachuilish where we finished for the night.

Ready to go on day 2


Day 2


It rained all night, and was still raining in the morning. In fact it had snowed down to about 500m above sea level, so the mountains were looking impressive where we could see them above the clouds. We elected not to start with the route up Glen Duror and down to Ballachuilish that I had originally planned. The day was going to be long enough without this hilly, and – I expected – boggy start.

Nick climbing up the Chiarain path

We followed the road to Kinlochleven and by the time we arrived the rain had stopped. We stocked up at the Co-Op and then set off up the Chiarain path, climbing on mostly good singletrack past the Blackwater dam and then on to the bothy at Loch Chiarain. As we climbed the cloud lifted and the sun came out revealing the stunningly white peaks of the Aonach Eagach to the south.


Tom near the Blackwater Dam


Looking at the north side of the Aonach Eagach
After the bothy the trail became more technical. Most of it was close to the limits of what I was able to ride, with occasional peaty puddles that sometimes turned out to be only a few inches deep and sometimes threatened to throw us over the handlebars. The trail got worse as we descended to Loch Treig, so it was with great relief that we emerged onto the good land rover track here. By this time I had realised that our progress was not what I had originally anticipated and started to think about modifying our route, so after we climbed to Loch Ossian we deviated away from the planned route which would have taken us over the Bealach Cumhann to Loch Ericht.


Buchaille Etive Mor and the Black Mount across Rannoch Moor
Instead we climbed on a track which was labelled on the map as “The Road to the Isles” which took us past Corrour Old Lodge and then down to Loch Eigheach near Rannoch station. This diversion must have saved us a couple of hours compared to my original route, but missed out a visit to Ben Alder Cottage which is one of the possible locations of “Cluny’s Cage” where David Balfour and his companion Alan “Breck” Stewart stay in the book. The route did offer a spectacular panorama, with Buchaille Etive Mor visible across the Blackwater Reservoir as well as Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries with a fresh coating of snow on the summits.

Nick with the Grey Corries
The rest of the day’s riding was on good tracks and roads, but involved a fair bit of climbing. First we went over the Lairig Ghallabhaich to get from Loch Rannoch to Glen Lyon and then on tarmac over the Lairig an Lochain to descend to Loch Tay and Killin. From here we followed the cycle path to Balquhidder, where Sarah and Mary were waiting at the Mhor 84 hotel having booked us in for dinner.

Day 3


There was frost on the tent for the start of day 3, but it soon warmed up as we rode down the glen – a quick stop to pick up a bacon roll and a bridie at Mhor Bread in Callander keeping the fuel levels topped up. We took bike paths, tracks and back roads through Doune, Dunblane, Alva, Dollar and Dunfermline before eventually emerging at the Firth of Forth.

Spectators on the side of the trail
David Balfour had to take a boat over the Forth, but we were able to roll across the Forth Road Bridge. Soon we were in Cramond for the “official” finish of the route. Sarah and Mary were waiting to meet us and pack our weary bodies and mucky bikes into the vehicles to take us home.