Tour Divide Day 1: Embrace the Cuckoo

Banff to Fernie, 155 miles

Recap post here.

Because the race doesn’t start until 8, Brandi, Jimmy and I have time to eat breakfast at a coffee shop before we roll to the start line. Once we are full and caffeinated, we roll from town towards the YWCA in the still-early-morning light. We merge into a huge crowd of riders across the bridge.

Everyone is gathered in the parking lot of the YWCA. Such a huge crowd of people. I know the numbers – 150+ starters – but seeing the mass of riders and bikes is overwhelming. Loaded bikes strewn everywhere, across the pavement and the lawn. The nervousness is palpable.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Photo Cindy Hayes

Crazy Larry is already into his performance, warming up the crowd. My sister Cindy is there along with a crowd of other family and friends of many of the racers. We all pose for a photo, smiling and unsure where to look with the dozens of cameras. I see Lael and give her a hug. She looks calm, excited.

I feel nervous. I say to Jimmy and Brandi let’s ride to the trail start and wait for the big group there. The entrance to the Goat Trail is the legit starting point for the race, and I’m nervous about 150 excited riders funneling onto the narrow dirt track. They agree, we hug Cindy goodbye and we ride over.

A few minutes after we arrive, the group comes hurtling through the parking lot. I watch the sprinters pass, and there are a lot of them, then wait for a reasonable gap and slot in. Suddenly there’s the sound of hundreds of bike tires rolling on dirt. Snap, crackle, pop, good morning.

And just like that, “We’re racing the Tour Divide!” This thought is palpable. Everything feels fresh and clean, easy. I know it’s only fleeting, but I’m going to enjoy it.

I find myself by Lael for a minute. She is riding fast – certainly faster than me – and I watch her ride away. I know she wants this record, maybe the win, and I want it for her. Within only a few minutes, I notice that there are more women than I have ever seen in an ultra bikepacking race: Zoe, Hannah, Alexandera. Everyone says hello. We’re all fresh and happy to finally be racing.

My day one goal is to get to Fernie, 155 miles down the trail. There’s some tough riding ahead, and only one resupply point, so I’ve chosen to carry all the food I’ll need for the day. I have about 6,000 calories on my bike and I start eating right away. I’m pretty determined to take care of myself today. You’re eating for tomorrow, I tell myself.

Photo Brandi Blade

The day’s route is one of the most varied of any. We ride through meadows and past lakes and on bridges of over streams, on jeep track and wide gravel road and faint walking trails. Always in the backdrop the giant mountains loom – promising or threatening, depending on how you choose to see them.

To me, on this day, the promise feels like a good one.

We do a long stretch on swoopy singletrack. At first I’m alone, but then a line of guys line up behind me. I offer to let them by so they can go at their own pace. But because I am blasting a James Brown song on my grizzly-prevention loudspeaker and they are singing, they tell me don’t worry.

I am not a good singletrack rider, but the High Rockies trail makes me wish I was. It’s flowy, with lots of whoop-de-doos. I fail at keeping good momentum through corners, which has the effect of slowing us all down. Normally I would stress about this, but I just tell myself don’t worry – get through these sections that aren’t your strength and focus on what’s ahead. I finally do pull over, despite the protests, and let a few go by. Jimmy is there, which I am happy to see.

Around this time, I also find myself riding with Evan. I laugh. It’s a tradition, and a good one. Evan and I met each other in 2016 the very first day of my first Trans Am Bike Race. We made instant friends, chatting and laughing about our jobs and travels and racing. The next year, when we both raced it again, we found ourselves riding together, a mini reunion, on day one.

Evan went on to smash the Trans Am Bike Race record that year, and I know he’ll be gone from my sights soon this year too. Still, it’s nice to have this camaraderie. The friendships in this sport are often instantaneous, and they have a way of sticking. Shared hardships and shared joy make good glue.

At about mile 50, Evan and I hit Elk Pass and ride over together – or kind of. The first pitch is quite steep at the bottom, and we hike our bikes for a bit there. But then as we are back riding again and the grade begins to gradually follow the power line up to the summit, I watch Evan get a little further, then further into the distance.

On the top of the pass, the valley is spread out like a painting below, and I spend a few seconds at the top stunned at how far I can see. There’s a vague realization of how new and expansive everything seems right now, and how that in itself is a novelty. I wonder how things will feel in a few days. As I bomb down the rocky descent, I’m also subtly aware that I’m still cautious while descending as a result of the crash last year that broke my shoulder. I wonder whether my comfort level will change over the coming days.

So much to wonder about. And only one way to find out.

There’s a long fast dirt road stretch where I chat with a few guys – one from Australia, one from New Zealand. At 100 miles in, we make the famous turn onto Koko Claims. There are numerous spots on the Tour Divide that have already taken on legendary status in my mind – either because they are especially hard, or dangerous, or both. Koko Claims is one of them. I have many of these spots marked on my cue sheets, though I almost wish I didn’t, because just knowing they are there creates a deep anxiety of anticipation.

What I will come to realize over the coming days is that most of these obstacles themselves don’t justify the looming anticipation. My fears are really about the unknown, I’ll come to see, not the thing itself. The thing itself is manageable. It’s my mind that can create mountains out of…well, let’s be honest, they’re still mountains.

Koko Claims, however, does live up to the hype. Unfortunately, I have misunderstood the details of the hype.

What I think I know about Koko Claims is that it is a 2-4-hour (depending on which reports you read) continuous, uphill hike-a-bike through essentially one large rock garden. In believing this, I plan to be very smart by bringing a pair of Nike Frees with me to wear for this section to avoid turning an ankle on the hike through boulders.

At the turn onto the Koko Claims road, I immediately reach a hike-a-bike section. Here we are, I think. I get off my bike and spend the time to put on my Nikes and securely fasten my bike shoes to my saddle bag. They’ll be hard to get out later, but I don’t want to lose them either.  However, just after clearing that section, there is a ride-able stretch. I get back on my bike and realize that Nike Frees are terrible choice of footwear to use for this rooted, rocky section. But still, I think I know what Koko Claims is, so I keep them on.

I keep riding. And still riding. This goes on for much longer than I expect. My feet are bouncing off the very small platform created by the SPD pedals, and my bike seat keeps jabbing me in the crotch as I get hustled around. I keep having to put my foot down and adjust my position. Around every corner I think I’ll need to hike, but I keep being able to ride. My feet continue to slip and bounce over the roots and rocks. I’ve never quite looked forward like this to a hike-a-bike before.

This mostly-riding stretch goes on for about 2.5 very tedious miles. We round a bend and – okay! – there it is, the hike-a-bike through the avalanche field. It is indeed incredibly steep. Take a handful of steps up, drag your bike beside you over boulders, wish you had done those gym workouts with a little more gusto, hold your brakes, stop for breath, repeat. This goes on for an hour and a half or so.

Lael pushing up Koko. Photo Dylan Morton – IG @made_of_salt

At the top, I am joined by Zoe and Alexandera. Another thing I didn’t understand about Cuckoo Claims, as it is now known in my mind, is that the initial descent is nearly just as gnarly as the uphill. Zoe and I drag our bikes down the sandy, rocky boulder fields – pumping the brakes, simply trying to keep the bikes and all our luggage from hurtling down the trail away from us. Alexandera rides most of the boulder sections, and we find her filling up water bottles at a stream at the bottom.

At the bottom, the track is faint, and Zoe and I make a wrong turn together. I realize within a half mile or so and call her back. We continue on another long dirt stretch, relieved to have that obstacle behind us.  I wonder whether that was really epic, relatively speaking, or if we will face many more obstacles like that.

Time to get your mind in the right place, girl. Embrace the Cuckoo.

There are still a lot of riders around, which I enjoy. I pass some. Some pass me. Probably most of us are bound for Fernie that night, though some will continue past to get miles into the night. The last pass before Fernie is magical. It’s 10pm and the light is just starting to wane as I go up. It feels like a celebration of summer, a welcome to the first day of the Tour Divide.

I suddenly realize that I haven’t taken a single photo all day. That’s embarrassing. Still, I don’t think I should stop unless I have several things to do. Still, beauty. I stop and snap one measly photo. I turn on my lights for the first time, partly to justify the stop.

I roll into Fernie at 11pm. I don’t feel particularly tired, at least not as tired as close to thirteen hours in the saddle would suggest, but I also don’t feel interested to carry on. I note this feeling. “Only” thirteen hours on the bike a day is not going to cut it if I want to meet my time goal, the sterner part of my brain says.

On the other hand, it was a good day of riding. I check TrackLeaders quickly and see that Evan has arrived an hour or so earlier. Traditional.

The couple who own the motel next to the 24-hour 7-11 are sitting outside at a rickety table, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the cool late-Friday evening. We chat and make the jokes about a ride around town being a long way, how they’re actually the smart ones, about all the dirty, tired riders they’ve already seen, myself included. I wish I could stay and talk longer. I take the key with a keychain from them and head to my room.

Day 1 of the Tour Divide is complete.