Tour Divide Day 3: Searching for “Why”

Tuchuck Campground to Holland Lake Lodge, 177 miles

I’m fast asleep on the floor of the pit toilet. It’s sometime after midnight.

I snap awake to a heavy banging on the door. It takes a second to remember where I am and what is happening.

“Please can I come in?” calls a voice on the other side. I think I hear a tinge of desperation in the tone.

It’s dark. I fumble around, flip on my headlight and reach over and turn the handle, unlocking the door.

Another rider barrels in, headlight on. Dueling headlights, neither one of us can see each other in the small, cramped space. We both turn our heads away, so not to blind each other. My stuff is all over the floor, so I start grabbing things, piling food, electronics, bike shorts, stuff sacks, water bottles all into one pile by the base of the toilet. It’s a roomy pit toilet for one person, but two is most certainly a crowd.

The rider says thanks. I can tell he’s relieved to be off his bike and what must have been a cold descent from the top of the pass. It’s clear he only wants one thing – sleep – and I can’t blame him. He lays out his sleeping bag next to me and is asleep within two minutes. Given the space constraints, his legs are draped over mine. As he sleeps, he tosses and turns, sighing heavily as he does.

I feel for him. This race is brutal on the body and the mind – for everyone. We are only two days in, and the toll is already becoming clear. I stretch my legs out, pushing his to the side, noticing my sore quads and hips. I am now wide awake.

So far for me, the weight of the race feels much more mental than physical. I am tired, of course – I have ridden for 28 hours and 300+ miles over the last two days. Still, I feel I am riding within my physical abilities. My power is respectable, and my riding speed is close to what I expected. I’m hitting my mileage targets so far.

That said, my mental game could use some help. Pushing myself to remain relentlessly focused – hour after hour, day after day – on the miles, time, logistics has already started feeling like a chore. But that focus is what is going to take for me to not only reach my race goals, but to reach the finish line period.

Day three hasn’t even begun, and it’s pretty clear that this is not a good sign for the days ahead. In the Trans America Bike Race, I remember, every day also brought some sort of a battle. There were deep struggles along the way, many dark moments and minutes and hours. But alongside those deep dark times, I also found so many periods of light and joy and transcendence – moments that made the challenges worth pushing through. Moments that hinted that the answer to that ultimate “Why?” was somehow quietly being answered within me.

I just needed to find my Why again.

My sleeping partner sighs deeply again, almost in pain. I’m not finding that shit while I’m laying here wasting time off the bike, I think. I fire up my headlight and gather my pile of everything, trying not to make too much noise as I leave.

It’s 3am and I step out into the Montana night. It takes me some time to re-organize my gear, but soon I am coasting back down the road. It’s not as cold as I expected, and the moon is big and bright. The rockier track soon turns into smoother forest service road. I reluctantly turn on my speaker to ward off bears; it doesn’t seem right to be blaring Pit Bull in the face of all this serenity but I do it anyway.

The only pass between me and Whitefish now is Red Meadow Pass, and it’s light by the time I start the climb. It’s a beautiful ascent, winding through thick forests with bear grass and other wildflowers lining the side of the road. The air is still cool, but I’m working hard enough to sweat a bit, so I’ve been able to shed my down jacket. Occasionally I can get glimpses of the rising sun between the clouds to the right. Once in a while there’s a small cluster of houses or cabins. My friend Kim from Whitefish is an interior painter, and I know she is painting one of these houses. I examine each one to see if I can tell which it is.

Soon, another rider pulls up to my left and says good morning. It’s David from Australia, who turns out to be the inhabitant of the second “Montana Hilton” available in the campground last night. After not riding with anyone for more than a few minutes over the last two days, it’s great to have company. David raced the Tour Divide in 2017 and has also toured on the route; this year, he’s looking to improve upon his time in 2017, which was just under 21 days. David generously shares insights about the route; I note to myself that this would be a good person to stick around with. (*Shout out to David, who ended up smashing his 2017 time, finishing in 13th place this year in just over 18 days.*)

David and I are talking as we round a bend, and suddenly there up ahead is a black bear in the road. He has his back to us. David quickly reaches for his camera, I immediately start yelling, and the black bear ambles into the woods before David can get a good shot. Ooops, sorry, I say. Ruined the shot.

Scared bear! Photo David Langley

We aren’t sure whether there is any snow on the road at the top of the pass, and around each corner we keep expecting it. It never comes. Red Meadow Lake is the reward at the top of the climb. It takes my breath away when it comes into sight, and I have to put my foot down to stare. In the morning light, the still water looks glassy green, almost the color as the mountains behind it. The mountains have little pockets of snow still, the remnants of winter, like cool whip dabs on the slopes. Fir trees line the shores. As far as I can see, a blanket of green.

It’s so beautiful that tears come to my eyes.

There’s plenty more to gawk at on the descent. We pass Upper Whitefish Lake and bomb downhill on miles of forest service roads. As we get closer to Whitefish, we see cyclists from town making the early morning ride up the road and we wave hello.

Photo David Langley

Coming into town, we spot Alexandera up ahead. She can only go so fast on the flat road on her single-speed, so David and I catch up pretty quickly. I say hi and try to fist-bump her as I go by, but we miss. There are so many dudes in these races, it’s so nice to see women.

David asks where I am going to stop for resupply and I pick a coffee shop I know in Whitefish, which is a few blocks off route. I get an espresso and two sandwiches for the road. My friend Kim finds us there and gives us hugs, and a small crowd gathers watching us pack up for the next stretch.

We’ve already ridden 50 miles this morning, and people are just now heading out on the roads to the lake or church or breakfast. David stops to get some drinks at a shop in Columbia Falls, a little past Whitefish, and I carry on, assuming he will catch me a bit later down the road.

It’s Father’s Day, and I check my phone for service. I decide I’ll call my dad at the next stop. This will be my third time calling my dad to wish him Happy Father’s Day during a cross-country bike race. I think about all the worry I have caused him over the decades – with my sometimes-risky travels, sports endeavors, and occasionally ill-fated adventures – and wonder if he hopes it will run its course at some point. Nah, I think, he’s probably got it figured out by now. Despite the fact that I know they worry about me, both my mom and dad are always supportive of these ventures, which I know not everyone can say. And I think they like the stories (most of them anyway) – at least once I’m done and safely home.

I ride the pavement with happiness, as usual. Traffic is low and the roads run through neighborhoods with the occasional small rolling hill. I pass Alexandera again; she smiles as I come by and we connect on the fist bump this time. I meet Stefano Romualdi and we head off route together before Huckleberry Pass to a small market to resupply for the afternoon. It’s getting warm and I drink two cokes.

On the pass, it’s social hour. Stefano soon passes me again. Stefano is Italian and has limited English. He keeps apologizing for it, but I’m amazed that he is brave enough to race across a country in a self-supported race where he may never encounter someone who speaks his native language. I wonder if I would do the same. He keeps telling me that I am “really fast,” and I finally realize that he thinks I am Lael, so I have to disabuse him of that notion.

Near the top of the climb I finally get to meet Kim Raeymaekers, who had some mechanical troubles on day one and is working his way back up the field. We have mutual friends but have never met in person, so he slows to chat for a bit before carrying on.

The relationships in this sport can be as ephemeral as the short moments it takes to make a catch and pass. Still, I realize, each one makes a lasting impression in my mind.

Photo David Langley

There are no views to bring me to tears at the top of Huckleberry Pass, and it’s hot there. After the descent, there are now dozens of miles of forest service roads to reckon with – none of them particularly tough, but none particularly remarkable either. Riding the somewhat confusing maze of roads, it finally hits me how tired I am from the 5 ½ hours of sleep in two nights. I think about taking a nap. Instead I put on a playlist from the 90s and rock out to angry-white-guy anthems. I sing Offspring and Green Day and Oasis out loud for what I realize, even at the time, is way too many hours.

Eventually the terrain changes a bit and we ride a stretch of faint double-track. I meet Aaron on his singlespeed. He is having some knee issues but is game to chat for a while, which makes time go by faster.

Soon we are on the paved road headed towards Holland Lake campground and lodge. I meet up with Alexandera once again. I remain impressed with both her strength and speed on the bike, and efficient use of time. We chat for a while and talk about sandwiches. I ask her for route advice, and she tells me just to make it out of Montana and I’ll be fine. I can tell from the way she talks when I ask her about her own race that she is focused and determined to reach the finish line knowing that she gave it everything she could.

Even though I am not feeling the same inspiration, the thought crosses my mind: maybe I can feed off of her motivation.

There’s a tourist lodge called Holland Lake Lodge up ahead, where I have decided to stop for the night, even though it’s not close to dark yet. Stopping there is expensive, and indulgent, and perhaps not the best decision from a racing perspective. But I’m tired and hungry and want to sort out my split thinking. Maybe a rest and some good food will help.

Stefano is there when I reach the lodge, and we eat dinner at the bar. David comes in just a bit later and it’s like seeing an old friend, even though we just met today and saw each other a few hours ago. There’s no cell service, so I still can’t talk to my dad, which makes me sad. I send him a text and hope he understands. Despite my dirty and smelly state, I eat a fancy steak. My right hand already has nerve damage, so I have trouble cutting the food, so after furtively looking around to make sure no one is watching I just eat with my hands.

When I’m done, I take a shower and look out my window at the lake. The moon is bright outside and the bed is soft. I set my alarm for 3am to hit the road again. Things will be better when I wake up again.