Tour Divide Day 2: Near-Death on the Wall to a Montana Hilton

Fernie to Tuchuck Campground, Montana, 151 miles

At 4:30am, I head next door to the 7-11 in Fernie. There are already three other bikes outside, leaning against the ice machine and the trash can. I need to ride over three passes, clear 100+ miles and reach the US border before another food stop. I stuff Twinkies and honey buns and cherry pies in every nook and cranny of my bike, and fill my water bottles with Gatorade.

I’m rolling my eyes at my day’s diet, even as I cram cupcakes into my mouth and chug a cup of coffee while I shop the familiar aisles.  Resupply on the Trans Am Bike Race, which is the only other bike race more than a handful of days I have done, was a lot easier. Hauling a day’s worth (or more) of food on my bike is a new experience.

But hey, I think as I roll out of Fernie, I’ve got a handlebar bag full of Hot Tamales, Junior Mints and yogurt covered pretzels. Who am I to complain?

Photo Brandi Blade

The first pass takes a while, but the grade is mostly pleasant. A couple of guys pass me and say hello, but no one wants to slow down to chat. It’s only day two, and energy for most is still high.

I feel just okay. Not great, but not bad either. It’s another beautiful morning. I watch the sun come up and wonder how today will unfold. I’m hoping to make it another 150-ish miles, which would put me somewhere in between Eureka, Montana and Whitefish. Just focus on today, I remind myself.

I’m eating a honey bun about a mile from the summit when a north-bound tourist comes bombing down the hill. I put my foot down, which cues him to stop. He’s European, and he’s pumping his fist. “The next woman is just ahead, just ahead,” he says excitedly. “She just went over the summit a few minutes ago. You can catch her.”

Oh really? I ask. I take another bite of my honey bun. We chat for another minute and then I continue up the pass.

I figure he means Alexandera on the single speed. I saw firsthand yesterday what a strong rider she is, and I figure she must have come through Fernie about the same time as me and camped somewhere up the pass last night.

Observing my reaction to his encouragement, I note how it cues an emotional response in me of…nothing. No excitement, no competitive fire, or even kindling. Kind of strange, but I tell myself this reaction is a good thing, since racing anybody at 200 miles of a 2700-mile race is pointless. Still, there is a motivational aspect of being part of a race that can stoke a helpful competitive fire, even early on. Knowing other riders are around – in front or behind – can push you to go a little faster, do a little more.

Anyway, feelings are just feelings, I tell myself. Things always change.

The riding is varied and rugged here, just like yesterday. Between passes, we ride a fun section of faint two-track through meadows with high grass on either side. I blast Ke$ha on my speaker, as this looks to me like a place I would want to roam around if I were a grizzly. (And everyone knows, bears run far from pop stars with punctuation in their names.) The world feels lush and green and wild.

We reach a small section of soggy, noodle-thin singletrack with some sharp drops and stream crossings. I’m off my bike, and on it again. Then off.

Then shortly, there’s the Wall – jutting straight up in front of me.

The Wall, like Koko Claims from yesterday, is another route feature with a notorious reputation. They say the grades reach 50 percent at the bottom. Unlike Koko, though, this one is only about 400 meters long, so I’m not too concerned.

How hard could it be?

As it turns out, hard. Hard, if you get your bike wedged upside down on a downed tree within the first 15 meters of ascent. Hard, if you’re trying to pry your 45-pound bike from upside down to right-side up on a 50-percent grade. Hard, if you’re precariously balanced on a trail the width of your pinky and a steep drop to your left down to the river.

I think about taking a photo, then remember an article I just read about how many people have lost their lives taking selfies on precarious ledges. Don’t be a statistic, Hayes. Just don’t do it. I tug at my handlebars, breathless, then the seat.

Finally, after a handful of minutes that feel like an hour, I somehow wrestle my bike to upright. I’m breathing harder than I have since the race started yesterday, but I’m relieved to still have a bike with me. The rest of the climb is steep but straightforward hike-a-bike. I’m relieved when I reach the rocky track that announces the beginning of Galton Pass, my last ascent before the US border.

Galton Pass is tough – lots of steep pitches and physical riding. In the saddle and out. It’s getting warm and I think about eating a sandwich in the shade. Then I remember I don’t have a sandwich, just Twinkies, and that I’ve just wasted time getting up the Wall, which are minutes I have effectively taken away from myself in sleep tonight. I also realize that nearly another day has gone by and I haven’t taken a photo.

The negative voices trickle in steadily. They subside a bit as I bomb down Galton Pass and hit the pavement. The border appears quickly, and I chat with the guard for a while about the race. He wishes me luck and waves me through. Twelve miles to resupply in Eureka, Montana.

I hold a dirty little secret from my fellow TD compadres: I love to ride on pavement. Among many of the racers, there’s a collective disdain for the trappings of civilization, with paved roads symbolic of that. For the most part, the route’s concessions to society are purely utilitarian – just points for resupply before heading back into the wilderness.

I get it. The wildness of this route is incredible. Still, the sealed road is a bit of luxury I embrace. I love how the tires roll smoothly. I love how the miles go by. I love letting my mind wander and watching the countryside drift on either side. I appreciate not having to concentrate on what I’m doing to keep from falling over.

I smile the entire ten miles from the border to Eureka. I wave at the few cars that go by and wonder if there will be a Slurpee machine in Eureka. It’s warm now, and I’m looking forward to a bit of blissful air conditioning.

If I’m a diva for it, then sue me.

I lean my bike outside of the Subway in Eureka. I order two 12-inch subs and eat one in a yellow booth with my helmet still on. I fill and refill my large cup from the soda machine. I won’t hit another resupply until after Whitefish tomorrow, so I need food for the next few hours of riding, before going to sleep (wherever that may be), breakfast when I wake up, and riding fuel for the morning.

As I pack my bags, a family gathers outside looking at my bike. The woman asks me what I am doing, and when I tell her she calls her son to come out of the convenience store. He’s 19. His eyes get bigger and bigger, and he asks me questions – about packing, training, food, sleep.

This is right up your alley, his mom says. You should totally do it.

You totally should, I say enthusiastically. There’s only a hint of doubt in my voice, and I hope neither of them hear it.

As I ride out of the parking lot, I notice several riders checking into the motel. On a normal bike tour, I think, this is the early-evening time that you would arrive in town, happy and thankful for a solid day of riding in a new place with beautiful views. You’d be hungry for a burger and a beer. You’d check into a room and crank the air conditioning. You’d scroll through photos on your phone, re-living the tough and beautiful sections. You’d lay down on a pillow and…

I cut that inner monologue short. This is racing, not touring, and that’s just an unhelpful line of thinking at this point.

It’s after 6pm, and it’s starting to get cooler as I ride out of Eureka. The road continues south on pavement for a good portion of the way up the next pass, Whitefish Divide. There are small waterfalls and streams gushing out of embankments, and I can see peaks with snow in the distance.

My mood lifts, and I’m thankful for the day, the effort and the beauty of the two countries I’ve been in today. I crest Whitefish Divide on a dirt road while there’s still plenty of light in the sky. Dusk begins to throw shadows as I head down the hill and start to think about a sleep spot.

Only about six miles down the rocky descent, Tuchuck Campground appears on the right. It’s not dark yet, but with close to 15 hours of riding in hand today, it seems a reasonable place to stop. There’s no one at the campsite, and there’s a beautiful stretch of grass next to the river.

Perfect. I set up my sleeping bag and bivvy quickly. Equally quickly, a swarm of mosquitoes forms a body halo around me.

Damn it. I scoop up everything and wander back towards the road.

I head towards a forest service pit toilet in the middle of the campground. Upon further inspection, it is clean, warm and well lit – perfect for a night’s sleep. I laugh at how giddy I feel to have discovered such luxurious accommodations. I can even air my shorts out while I sleep. It’s getting chilly and I spread all my gear and food out inside.

About 30 minutes later, I hear the sound of another bike wheel spinning into the campground, then a knock on the door. “Is anyone in here?’

“Yes, I’m here,” I answer.

“Is that Alexandera?” the rider asks.

“No, it’s Janie.”

“Ah, hello. Okay, let me look around for another Montana Hilton,” he says, then a few minutes later, “I found another one. Fantastic.”

I turn the light out and fall asleep laughing. We’re all in the same boat – or pit toilet, as it may be – out here on the Tour Divide.