On this, the 11th day of our Great Divide tour, I am sitting down in my friend Stacey's dining room in Helena, MT, sipping on a proper cup of coffee for the second time this trip, showered and fed and rested with a few hours to kill until my spare chamois arrives in the mail. My ass is a little sore, my tan lines a little more ridiculous, but all in all, life is good.
The journey thus far has been an adventure in every sense of the word: river crossings and washouts, wrong turns and wildfires, yes, but also incredibly kind strangers, unreal beauty, and the reminder everyday that this world we live in is so much smaller than we think.
We landed in Calgary on the 2nd, arriving on separate planes since Adam booked his flight later. Our bikes arrived safely too, with the only issue being that my cardboard box was entirely soaked in beer (from the smells of it, maybe an IPA?). Our Helena-based friends Stacey and Jeff were in the midst of a weeklong road trip, so they graciously offered to pick us up from the airport. We strapped our boxes to the roof of the truck, stocked up on a few days of groceries, and headed west.
Once we had assembled our bikes and packed our bags, reality struck. Throngs of tourists crowded the streets of Banff, eyeballing our rigs and general yard sale with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. Hazy smoke had already clouded the late morning sky, and the mountains towering above the city were barely discernable. Once we were ready, it was nearing 11am, and it was starting to get hot. It took us another half hour of riding around the Banff Springs Hotel before we found the trailhead. Finally, finally, we were starting this journey that had been so long in the making.
Stacey decided to ride along with us for the first two days, with Jeff meeting up with us to camp at night. Despite the late start, we wanted to make some miles and get to Canyon Campground some 56 miles south. I will say that the first few miles, despite being incredibly fun and fast and rolling, were a shade disappointing. There were just so many people. This was not what I had signed up for. But the more we rode, the fewer tourists we saw.
That is, until Smith-Dorrien Spray Road. We were warned that this road was a "super gravel highway," but we had not anticipated the amount of traffic, washboards, and dust that came with that. The gorgeous lakeside mountain scenery was hard to see through the dust-choked air, let alone enjoy.
Eventually we turned off that mess and headed into the peaceful forest. The smell of pine and smoke hung heavy in the trees. We rolled gently along well-maintained doubletrack, pristine lakes to our left, sheer mountainside to our right.
About 30 miles in, I started to feel weary. The previous day of travel combined with some mild dehydration and either a calorie or electrolyte deficiency was slowing me down. It was also my first day without a cup of coffee, and I fought a splitting headache up until 9 o'clock that night. I caught a second wind as we entered a blissful section of singletrack which tightly wove through prime bear country. We came upon Chris and Mandy, an English couple also riding the Divide, and it was fun to be able to share the experience with them for awhile. They blew past a grizzly scratching his back on a tree and tried to warn us, but either the bear took off before we passed or we cruised by unaware. Either way, it was an exciting start to the trip. By the time we got to camp at 7:30 that evening, we were both sufficiently spent. Adam had also been battling a headache, but it had morphed into a full-on migraine. We chowed down on Ramen and collapsed in our tent well before 9pm.
After that first day, the rhythm of our days improved substantially. In general, we're riding between 50-80 miles a day, starting by 8:30, climbing for most of the morning with water and snack breaks along the way, lunching at the top of passes, and cruising down descents that last for miles on end. We parted ways with Stacey just a few miles north of Elkford, a small Canadian mining town where we ran into a whole tribe of other Divide riders that we've seen off and on the past 10 days. There hasn't been a day that goes by where we don't see another rider on route, either north or southbound like ourselves. The cyclists and their rigs come in all shapes and sizes and from all corners of the world - from the U.K. to Austria and Massachusetts to Arizona, we have met an extremely eclectic and quirky subset of the cycling culture and it's been a blast getting to know new faces and mingle with different cultures, all amid some of the most spectacular gravel riding I imagine I'll ever do in my life.
That's not to say this trip has been easy. Quite the opposite. There have been climbs so steep, I can walk faster up them than ride. There have been descents equally as steep with washed-out gullies and brain-rattling washboards so frequent, all I can do is hold on and pray my bike doesn't implode on itself. Sometimes we stumble upon the most perfect (and free) campsite imaginable. Other times we're sleeping in a community park getting doused with sprinklers at midnight. It's all part of the journey, and I'm excited to see where the road leads next. As Elizabeth Gilbert would say, ONWARD.
If you're wondering about the title of this post, a roadie shouted out this kind compliment as he breezed past outside of Eureka, MT. I guess he didn't know there was a stud-etta among our group of five. I didn't really mind, especially after he told us about a covered pavilion where we could camp and take shelter from the lightning storm (which actually started a wildfire and caused the entire valley below to be evacuated). That same night we received free water and beer from an extremely friendly Canadian named Royce. Ah, the beauty of the road.