Tour Divide - Part 1 of 3 Canada to Idaho

This post is part 1 of 3 covering my adventures during the Tour Divide Race. This covers the days between Canada and Idaho.

The Tour Divide is a 2,745 mile off-road race from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, N.M at the U.S. – Mexico border. The race follows the longest off-road route in the world and is considered to be the hardest bicycle race in the world.

I first learned about the race in 1999 reading a story about John Stamstad, a pioneer in ultra-endurance mountain biking, who was the first to race the route. The race immediately captured my attention and I fantasized about it for years. While the race continued to capture my attention, year over year, I never took any action. It remained nothing more than fantasy.

Fast forward 15 years and I found myself in the best cycling shape of my life. After a lifetime of being pack filler my racing dreams had finally become reality. All my dreams but one.

It was time. I had no more excuses. I was ready to take my riding to a whole new level. I was ready to take on the Tour Divide.

I told everyone who would listen about my plans. This was part out of excitement and part because I knew I was going to need all the help I could get. A race like the Divide requires tremendous preparation and commitment but also requires a lot of support from friends and family.

I had never done anything like the Divide before so I had a lot of work to do and just over a year to do it.

I spent the next year learning and riding. I did a couple 400 mile “sprint” races and some multi-day adventures on my own. I struggled, suffered, and learned a lot along the way. My gear selection was in constant flux.

Time flew by and the race quickly went from next year to next week to now. It was suddenly very real.

I boxed up the bike and hopped a plane for the land of hockey and maple syrup. I arrived in Banff a couple days before the race to put my bike together and get acclimated. I put all my packs on the bike and took it for a shakeout ride checking out the beginning of the route. All systems were go.

Day 1: Banff, AB to Elkford, BC
112 miles – 7,505 Feet of climbing - Strava

Race day morning, I loaded up the last bits into my packs and headed out to Tim Horton’s for breakfast. Tim Horton’s is the only place I could find open early enough for breakfast. (A common problem during the race) I downed a couple breakfast wraps then put a couple more in my jersey pocket for later and headed off to the start line with a fleet of butterflies going nuts in my stomach.

It was an amazing feeling seeing people on loaded bikes rolling through the streets of Banff all headed to the start. There were 150 of us all converging on the Y from all corners of Banff. (The race heads out from the YWCA hostel, but doesn’t officially start until a mile past the Y.)

The scene was chaotic. Nervous racers mulled about trying to stay warm while chatting with others. Everyone was trying to assess each other’s’ setups and experience. While racers tried to calm their nerves, friends and family ran around taking pictures and video to commemorate the event.

I had thought about doing the race North-bound as it typically provides better weather. But I really wanted to be part of the Grand Depart experience. Being among the mass of racers at the start is a magical feeling. I made the right decision.

Just as nerves were starting to boil over, Crazy Larry appeared and started organizing the group for a photo. Billy Rice then chimed in announcing that they wanted to organize the racers based on speed. All the people going after Jay P’s record were at one end, then everyone looking to make it to Sparwood, then those looking to make it to Elkford, etc. Lastly Billy chided anyone who didn’t realize it was a race should be at the very far end. The crowd chuckled.

Moments later we were off!

I tried hard not to get over excited and cook myself by pushing too hard too early. But I found overall people were going frustratingly slow. On gentle descents riders were riding their brakes and chatting with others beside them. I wasn’t looking to hammer, but this wasn’t a social ride. I certainly had no interest in doddling behind these people so I had to revert to XC racer mode. “On your left…”

I made good time while still riding a sustainable pace. As we hit our first pass it started to rain then snow. Uh oh. Then the sun then came back out as we descended the other side. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought.

A few miles later I saw another storm approaching. I pushed my pace in an effort to stay ahead of it and stay dry. While I avoided that particular storm cloud, the cloud was just the preamble. The storm continued to build until there was no escape. My efforts may have postponed the rain, but there was no avoiding it. Eventually, the storm engulfed us all. It was rain at lower elevations and snow at higher elevations.

My waterproof gloves proved to be anything but. My hands were soaked within the first hour of steady rain. I had tested them for hours with success, but the first real action and I might as well have been wearing cotton gloves.

The first resupply point of the route is the Bolton Trading Post around 50 miles in. I had enough food and water to get to Sparwood so I had no interest in stopping. I was shocked how many racers were stopping.

Next up was Elk Pass. This was already quite muddy from the rain and riders ahead. Racers were still pretty tightly packed at this point. In an attempt to save energy I walked the steeper parts of the climb watching other riders pass me by. I had to keep reminding myself that it was a long race and battling for position on day 1 just didn’t have the payoff to justify the energy being spent.

The descent was a bit rough, but still quite fast. During the descent I heard a strange clank sound. I couldn’t figure out what it was. I slowed slightly and did a quick assessment of my bike and gear and concluded it was nothing.  All was good until about a mile later. “Shit. My tent poles are missing!” They had jettisoned off my bike during the descent.

I spent the next hour going up and down Elk Pass and couldn’t find them anywhere. I now had a tent that was completely useless without poles.

This was my first mistake of the race. That morning I had moved my poles from my backpack to my handlebars. I decided to strap them to my handlebar bag instead trying to keep my pack as empty as possible. They were very snuggly attached back at the hotel, but after taking my rain gear out of my handlebar bag to wear, everything was much looser. I should have known better.

With a useless tent, I needed to change my plans. I had planned to ride about 20 miles past Sparwood. Now I needed a hotel.

I got to Elkford at 6pm. It was way too early to stop, but I knew I could get a room here. I had no idea if I could get a room in Sparwood. So I stopped.

Day 2: Elkford, BC to Eureka, MT
151 miles – 10,340 feet of climbing - Strava

The next day I needed to make it to Eureka as this is the next town with a hotel. I got up early and was on the road by 5am.

It was extremely cold and the fog was thick. I had to push hard just to keep warm.  I made it to Sparwood surprisingly quickly and had to wait for the grocery store to open. Fortunately, there was a pancake breakfast fundraiser that was just getting going when I arrived. I gorged on pancakes while waiting to resupply.

I felt good early, but by the time I got to Sparwood my right knee was pretty sore. I couldn’t apply much power with my right leg.

In preparation, I had put 2,500 miles on this bike with this exact setup. I never had any issues. Why now?

I sucked it up and did my best to ignore the pain. After the first pass it was getting pretty bad.  I soldiered on.

On the descent, the trail turned into a river. And I don’t mean water was flowing down the trail. I mean an actual river and the trail were one in the same. We were now riding/walking down a river up to two feet deep. This went on for miles.

Before Cabin Pass I decided to raise my saddle to see if I could find a more comfortable riding position. After raising it, the pain was dramatically better almost immediately. I sure wish I did this earlier.


Next up was the wall. I had read a bit about it, but didn’t really know what it was. The wall is a stretch of trail that Matthew Lee built co connect up Cabin Pass to Galton Pass. It involves a nearly vertical scramble straight up a narrow muddy trail. With a loaded bike, it is quite a chore to get to the top. Fortunately it’s not super long.

The final climb of the day, however, was very long. Galton pass took forever.  It was midnight by the time I reached the summit and it was getting cold. I put on extra layers then bombed down the descent. This descent in the dark was a blast. Going 30 to 40 miles per hour for over 30 minutes at night was exhilarating.

At the bottom of the descent, it’s a short paved section and then the border.  We were back in the United States! This turned out to be my longest ride of the race. After 150 miles I was beat, but pushed through the remaining 15 miles to Eureka looking forward to a hotel room.

As we rolled into Eureka, I was quickly disappointed. There are two motels. One was full and the other was closed for the night. I had to camp. I did my best to set up my tent without poles. It was half tarp and half bivy, but it worked well enough to allow me a couple hours of sleep. Thankfully, I got a break, and it didn’t rain.

Day 3: Eureka, MT to Whitefish, MT
98 miles – 5,933 feet climbing - Strava

After an all-too brief nap, I was back on the bike and racing towards Whitefish. I had found a store with a lightweight tent in stock. The only catch is they closed at 5:00.

There was a steady stream of riders jockeying for position as we rode over Whitefish Divide. However, traffic thinned out dramatically on the backside of the divide. Once I started the descent I was immediately alone.

I didn’t spend nearly as much time studying the route as I should have. When I saw the ride was going to pass through Red Meadow, I imagined a flat lush meadow. It turns out Red Meadow is actually Red Meadow Pass and one nasty climb. This caught me off guard.

At the top of the pass it started to snow just in time to make the descent extra cold. I bundled up and barreled down the other side.

After hours of punchy climbs and descents, I rolled into Whitefish. It was 6:00. I had missed the tent store by an hour. Frustration was in overdrive. My choice was push on without a tent until Helena or call it an early night again. I chose the latter.

Day 4: Whitefish, MT to somewhere near Holland Lake, MT
97 miles – 5,954 feet climbing - Strava

The store opened at 9 and I quickly bought a Big Agnes Fly Creek 2. This is the 2-man version of the tent I had brought with me. It’s an awesome tent. But so is the tent I started with. Grr.

On my way out of town I stopped at the post office to mail my old tent home. I could get some replacement poles later.

With the drama behind me, it was time to focus on making up some time. I skipped resupplying in Whitefish as I wanted to get some miles in. Plus Columbia Falls wasn’t that far and I could resupply there.

It didn’t take long to get to Columbia Falls. This was the last stop for a while so I needed to get some food. Just as I stopped some lady pulled up in her car and said “Are you Troy?” Thrown aback, I cautiously acknowledge my name. She went on to say she was a friend of a friend and had been tracking my dot and just wanted to say "hi".

After an awkward exchange I ran into the store only to discover they had no electricity. No electricity means no sales. And they had no ETA for a fix.

I had broken one of the rules I learned early on when I started bikepacking. Never pass up an opportunity for food. I could have loaded up on food in Whitefish, but I wanted to get back on the move quickly.

I heard rumor of a grocery store on the other side of town so I set out to find it. I took the long way there, but fortunately I was able to find it and it had electricity. I bought more food than I could fit in my packs so I quickly ate what didn’t fit and then was back on the bike.

I passed a few riders during the day which helped me keep pushing. I was well behind where I wanted to be and focused heavily on the need to catch back up.

Thus far, bugs had not been a problem. However, shortly after Ferndale that all changed. The mosquitos were insane. Mosquitos were the thickest I’d ever seen. (Unfortunately, they only got worse as the race continued.) The climbs were tough enough on their own. But I now had to ride an extremely fast pace to keep the swarms of blood sucking insects at bay.

I had planned to push through to Holland Lake, but between the mosquitos and losing track of the remaining mileage I gave in and set up camp for the night.

I heard a few riders go by in the night. I always hate when this happens. This game of leap frog was extremely common throughout the race.

Day 5: Somewhere near Holland Lake, MT to Lincoln, MT
120 miles – 8345 feet climbing - Strava

The next morning I set out to have breakfast at Holland Lake. It turned out to be much farther away than thought. I found a sign for another restaurant 2 miles off route and ate there. I’m glad I did as Holland Lake was still a ways away and even farther off route.

Next up Ovando. I had been told they had no food or water. Fortunately that was a bad source. I was pretty hungry by the time I reached Ovando. The Stray Bullet was closed, but Trixie’s Antler Saloon was open (FYI they’re Cash Only).

Ovando is a really cool town where everyone is super supportive of the Tour Divide. There’s camping in town, a small motel, a store and a couple restaurants. All understand what we’re doing and are super helpful. I wanted to stay the night there, but decided it was still too early. I should keep moving.

The ride to Lincoln took longer than I expected. (Another common theme). I arrived around 2am. I stopped at the first hotel, rang the bell and apologized profusely for getting the manager out of bed. He was super cool about the whole thing and not only gave me a room, but gave me a discount. At that point, I would have paid extra.

Day 6: Lincoln, MT to Basin, MT
101 miles – 11,081 feet climbing - Strava

I slept in so I could have breakfast in town. Most places along the route don’t open until 7am. I had breakfast, grabbed some groceries and then was back on the road.

I ate lunch and loaded up on more supplies in Helena and headed out mid-day with the goal of reaching Basin. I caught up to two other riders on the climb out of Helena and rode with them for a bit. I talked one of them into pushing through to Basin which was farther than his original plans. We didn’t arrive until around 2am and the final descent was bitter cold. I had all my clothes on and was shivering.

We found an RV park in Basin and set up camp for the night. The next morning we discovered they had an indoor lounge area that was unlocked all night. We could have crashed in there and been both warmer and more comfortable. Next time.

Day 7: Basin, MT to Wise River, MT
102 miles – 7,674 feet of climbing - Strava

I met a couple more riders the next morning over breakfast. But our timing was off so, again, I was riding on my own.

Basin to Butte was pretty quick. But I decided I needed to have someone look at my brakes. They were squealing like mad and had no power. There was a long wait at the bike shop so I dropped off my bike and went to get some food.

While waiting for my bike, I chatted with some other riders and said I was going to continue on to Wise River. In unison they replied with an ominous “But you’ll be riding Fleecer Ridge in the dark.”
It was easy for me to show bravado since I didn’t even know what Fleecer Ridge was. It turns out this is a STUPID steep descent that is a long and treacherous walk in the dark. As it would also turn out, Fleecer Ridge wasn’t the problem, but the doubletrack right before Fleecer was the problem.

On the climb up to Fleecer Ridge, I was startled by a rustling in the bushes right next to me. Not knowing the cause of the noise, I immediately assumed threat and tried to speed up to get away. However, instead of going faster, my pedal caught the edge of the deep rut I was riding in and I crashed hard.

I never saw what startled me, so I have no choice but to assume it was a cougar getting ready to attack. By crashing, I’m sure he dove directly over me and then ran off in fear. At least that’s my story.
I was in quite a bit of pain after the crash, but managed to make my way to the Wise River Club to get a room after midnight.

They people at the Wise River Club are absolutely amazing. They were out of rooms so some of the employees gave me their room.  Then they opened up the kitchen and made me the most incredible fried chicken dinner ever.

Day 8: Wise River, MT to Banack Rd, MT
88 miles – 4,612 feet climbing - Strava

The next morning I discovered my crash had been worse than I thought. I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg. I hobbled around and made my way downstairs for a leisurely breakfast.

With a full belly, I managed to convince myself that my leg would loosen up after a few miles of pedaling so I continued on my way. It, actually, did feel better. Though the feeling was short lived. I made it about 40 miles before I was no longer able to pedal with my right leg. The pain was just too much to bear.

I stopped for lunch at the High Country Lodge in Polaris. The thinking was a short rest was all I needed. I was wrong. In hindsight, I should have stayed the night and iced my knee. But like an idiot, I tried to keep riding.

I managed to get my right leg clipped in, but I couldn’t apply any force to the pedal. I had to pedal with just my left leg. I made it another 30 miles or so and had to call it a night. I set up camp alongside the road and helplessly watched people ride by.

Day 9: Bannack Rd, MT to Lima, MT
53 miles – 2,033 feet of climbing - Strava

The next morning I woke up to see Jon, a fellow racer, ride by my camp just as I stepped outside. I ran into Jon often during the race despite our very different strategies. He would stop earlier than me and start earlier so it was pretty common to see him ride by in the morning only for me to pass him later.

With my knee struggles, this was the darkest point of the race for me. I was in excruciating pain, barely moving, and under constant attack by mosquitos.  The anger, frustration, pain and itching was overwhelming.

Despite my pain, I was also hungry. I decided the slight detour to Dell would be worth it as I would get food earlier. While the extra mileage didn’t do my knee any favors, I’m glad I did it. The Calf-A in Dell had the most amazing rhubarb pie. I tried a lot of pie during the race and this was the best pie I’ve ever had. I should have taken some more to go.

When I finally pulled into Lima, it was still very early. I got a room at the only motel and a bag of ice. I didn’t want to quit, but was pretty convinced I would have to.

I pinged a couple friends who are doctors and asked their advice over Facebook. To my surprise they were more than willing to diagnose and make recommendations. Based on my descriptions the popular conclusion was a bruised kneecap along the inner edge and bruised ligaments. Ultimately they said if I could take the pain, I likely wouldn’t be doing more damage. This made me feel better.
I spent the day icing my knee, taking large amounts of Alieve, and watching racer after racer pass me by.

Day 10: Lima, MT to Island Park, ID
85 miles – 2,507 feet of climbing - Strava

The next morning I told the hotel manager I’d likely be back and headed out to “test” my knee. Confidence was low that I’d make it around the block let alone to Mexico. It was pretty painful from the start and didn’t really improve. I took solace in the medical advice I had received and convinced myself I could handle the pain. With constant screaming at myself to keep pedaling, I was mostly right.

I made it to Island Park, Idaho and decided I needed to stop and ice my knee again. I got the last hotel room and resumed my icing regimen. 

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  1. Cool writeup Troy, looking forward to reading the next parts.

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