Heavy white curtains of clouds drop low over the forested hillsides slowly descending into the Spray River Valley. The day is still dark and early yet the reality forecasted with but a quick glance out the window, at least for a bike rider, is bleak. It is gonna be a cold wet day, there is no doubt about it. There is nothing like starting a race with your rain gear on, it speaks volumes for both the fickle state of the weather in the mountains and the tenacity and determination of bike racers. Certain types of races always have some strong association intertwined with them from year to year, the cold year, hot year, the fast year, the year so and so won. No doubt this year’s Tour Divide will be remembered as the wet and nasty year.
The first day worked hard to hold onto that title, with rain and snow soaking the trails, drenching riders through layers of high tech materials, soaking them to the bone. Only a few brief hours of partly cloudy skies and no rain broke up the monotony of constant precipitation. The real asskicker was the return of rain before sunset, that continued through out the night into morning, and into the next day, and into the next day and into the next day….No exaggeration is needed to say that in those first 5 days I can count the hours gone without wearing rain gear on one, OK maybe just barely two hands. It was constant state of cold, wet, gritty. Pushing big miles, waking up from 1.5 to 3 hours of sleep the whole body shivering, shaking, with only the weak voice of a single mind to insist on getting up, throwing a leg over that top tube, gently perching that sore ass atop that dreaded saddle.
It became a familiar mantra that I repeated to myself every morning, “get up, get going, it will get better, it has to get better”. Although my body, meaning my swollen knees, puffy ankles, my chaffed butt, my sore muscles and tired back, would get looser, faster, smoother through out the day, the weather remained a beast. Making its climax between Butte and Wise River. Leaving Butte at 8 PM, with warnings of snow up high and a drizzle of rain falling from the swirling purple sky, I knew I must be mad, but I was not about to give up the lead I stretched by sleeping so little and pushing so hard. Madness it was. The descent down to the highway crossing turned out to be slushy mess that ate momentum and forced me to walk. By the time I crossed the highway I was looking at midnight on my watch and Fleecer Ridge loomed dark and scary, high above, deep in the clouds.
Huge white missiles streak hard and fast in front of my lights. Not so much snowflakes as frozen projectiles bent on impact. The air is alive with wind and snow and I can not see more than a few feet in front of me. A myriad of thoughts crash through my head as I crawl up the last mile or so to the top of the ridge, “am I gonna make it?” “could I bivie in this and not freeze?” “will there be any warm place open in Wise River when I get there?” “if I die up here they will say he was going too light and was made crazy by the race” “maybe I really am insane?”
I make the top, glue my eyes to the red line of my GPS and push over the ridge, walking and walking with inches of snow clinging to the tops of my shoes, to my shins, accumulating on my shoulders. I plunder on trying not to let the nagging questions get the best of me. I am very aware of the fact that I am cold, deep down cold and only ignoring it for I have no choice but to get down and get warm. I make it to below the snow line and gingerly ride the rest of the rain soaked rocky descent, careful to keep the rubber side down and not to go fast enough to increase the windchill. I arrive in Wise River at 5:30 in the morning. The sky is just starting to show signs of getting lighter with the coming dawn, but the dull grey shroud of rain dominates the morning sky. I find warmth and shelter in the small post office lobby, and nod off a few times.
I get up after 7:AM and wander over to the Wise River Club, the door is locked, sign says opening late due to equipment maintenance. I turn back towards the Post Office just as a shudder passes through me and my body starts to convulse with shivering. I turn back and knock on the door. They let me in and rush me a cup of hot coffee. I can not keep the cup from rattling on the table, I can not stop shivering. They send me up to take a hot shower, dry my clothes and make me breakfast. There are real life angels in Wise River, I know they saved my life. I end up sleeping in a warm soft bed, getting my body temperature back to normal, it feels amazing, simply amazing. Still I wake up two hours before my alarm goes off, my heart thumps hard in my chest, my mind snaps awake; race is still on, I have gone soft, get up, get moving before anyone catches you.
Within the hour I am packed up and gone, the sky still holds pockets of rain, but there are also pockets of sunshine, almost warm glowing sunshine. I push hard using the guilt of stopping, sleeping indoors to fuel my mad rush for the next town, Lima, MT. Along miles and miles of dirt roads that can all turn to gumbo mud I am lucky enough to make it through without much issue. The sun still manages to produce the first sunset I have seen on the whole trip, it fills my heart with hope and I pedal on with gusto, making it through almost every patch of goop without walking much or losing time.
Not long after the light of the day fades from the horizon I begin to climb Medicine Lodge Sheep Creek Divide. Determined to get close to Lima tonight for an early resupply in the morning. As the climb ramps up in pitch I can sense the surface of the dirt changing, within seconds my bike is picking up mud and I hop off to prevent total shut down. Only it is too late. The soil has turned to that peanut butter sort of mud that sticks and sticks and makes your bike nothing but a big messy anchor. I try to rally my forces and push hard, but the mud shuts me down. I scrape the mud off, wash the bike in streams. I feel a scream of pure desperation gathering in my throat. I try and use the energy to just keep pushing, dragging the bike through the mud. Then is starts to snow, again. I swear I was as close to cracking right then and there, as ever before in my life. I muttered to myself “what do I do, what do I do?” only there is no answer forth coming. only more mud, more snow, more wind. In a move of pure heated frustration I hurl myself and my bike into the sage brush in mad sprint for release. Some how it works, the snow laden sage manages to strip my bike of mud and my legs of flesh, but it works and I madly dash forth and down in elevation till I can once again return to riding my poor hammered bike.
I cruise down the road feeling like I just survived a fight with a mountain lion. Triumphant and yet completely beat down exhausted. I manage a few more miles towards Lima and eventually collapse under a tree along the side of the road. The warm dry wonderfulness of that morning’s recovery from the Fleecer disaster that was only a short day ago, is wiped clean. I am cold, wet, covered with dirt, grit and mud and seriously wondering what the hell I am doing out here anyways? So far after 5 days on the trail, I am feeling like it is Divide 5, Jefe 0. The asskicker is in charge and the asskicker is the Divide itself.
As I slip into my bag, in my wet grit covered clothes I repeat to myself…..”It is gonna get better, it has to”:……