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Scratching the Tour Divide 2023, Part 2

Scratching the Tour Divide 2023, Part 1

The morning of the Grand Depart was early thanks to a 7:15am start and our hotel being a 25 minute drive from the start. And upon arriving in Banff, I would need to repack my bike because driving it fully loaded on the highway seemed a bit reckless. As I have done for nearly ever gravel race, I packed oatmeal for breakfast. While I finished it, I was not exactly feeling hungry that morning. On the upside, my trip to the bathroom was uneventful.

On the way to Banff, I sipped from a Nalgene holding 16oz of water mixed with a packet of Skratch Hyper Hydration to increase my odds of staying hydrated throughout the day. It did not settle particularly well. In fact, once we parked, my stomach almost threw it and all of my breakfast back up. I diluted it further and eventually got it down safely.

Banff - Biking to Start
Biking to the Tour Divide's grand depart at the YWCA. So clean, so ready.

The organizers had put me in the third wave of riders, who all expected to finish within 17-19 days. Our group started without much fanfare and just like that, my Tour Divide race had started. My legs felt solid and I was immediately at the front of my group feeling strong. The tempeature was cool and the sky mostly cloudy. Pretty stellar weather for a race start.

The first part of the race is on a wide trail with a couple punchy climbs and loose rock, but nothing too terrible. The next section was single track and had a number of washout with sudden drops. Enough roughness that I saw two lost hydration bottles and a bear spray from the 40 or so riders ahead of me. About 12 miles in, I tooted...and there is no easy way to say this, the fart was not alone. Right in my chamois. Not a lot, but also not insignificant.

When I reached the trading post at mile 50, I snuck behind a dumpster and completely cleaned my chamois with water, sanitizer, and the TP I had on me. Also applied some vaseline as the irritation was unpleasant. More than you wanted to know, I am sure, but it was a 20 minute break I had not planned for. While there I looked at my fork and saw that the swooping single track we had done before this section had caused my wheel to completely shred the protective tape I had added. I added new tape, drank a chocolate milk from the store, and kept on trucking.

Around mile 68 or so, I developed stomach cramping. Was it the chocolate milk I bought at the trading post? A consequence of stuffing so much food and drink into my body while still not being fully recovered from my illness? Not sure, but it was mild so I hoped it would work itself out. Coincidentally, this is where the rain started in earnest and did not let up until about 10 miles from the day's end.

Mile 101 of Tour Divide
Selfie at around mile 101, just starting Koko Claims. Rather damp.

Mile 100 is the turn to Koko Claims pass. I was with a small group of riders and we all stopped to go pee, eat + drink, and adjust anything we needed before the long climb. The cramping had become increasingly uncomfortable and I considered just calling the race there as a small town was not far away. It was only 50 miles to Fernie though and Koko Claims is infamous, so I pushed on.

Koko Claims was worst than I imagined. Part of this was the stomach cramping. Part of this was the steady rain making all the rocks slick and loose. But, then, it is also just a horrendous pass to travel. This video by motorcyclists shows it rather well. Watch that and then imagine doing it after 100 miles of riding, in the rain, with a 50lbs touring setup. There are four separate rocky and steep sections where you have no choice but to pull/push your bike. After I finished the first one, I thought I was done. Nope. Another one. Assumed it was finally over. Nope. One more. And then the final one? I literally had to heave my bike over multiple rock steps.

And then you get to the top and have to go down the other side. Instead of rocky sections there were steep, sandy gravel bit with deep rain washouts. I am not exaggerating: -25% grade in parts. More than a few times you were off your bike and riding your brakes to not lose control as you walked/stumbled down. There were frequently sections that were ridable and one of these is where I crashed. The trail was nice and loose from the rain, so when the dirt collapsed under my rear tire, I went over the handlebars. I landed reasonably well but it still made my right neck and shoulder unhappy with a number of scrapes on my right leg and fingertips. The bike was in reasonably good condition, thank goodness. Right shifter was out of place but that was an easy adjustment. Drivetrain got a little dirty, but nothing a quick wipe with my rag could not handle.

Rock Garden on Koko Claims
The first of the Koko Claims rock gardens you have to hike-a-bike up.
At the bottom of the pass, there is a left turn that four of us went right past without even recognizing it as a possible route. Our bike computers' all beeped at us and I swear it looked like an old, unused trail that had been abandoned 10 years previously. As a group we just shrugged and listened to what are GPS told us. Eventually the faint trail turned into something more akin to single track, followed by another nutty descent on rocky terrain. And then we turned onto a real gravel road! Hallelujah! It had taken me nearly 3 hours to do the ~10.5 mile Koko Claims section with an average speed of 3.6mph. I think I aged about 3 days during it.

With 110 miles done, it was only 40 miles to Fergie, BC, my goal for the night with a promise of a hotel, shower, and warm food. After a bit of diarrhea, fork rubbing issues, stomach cramping, the brutal climb and descent of Koko Claims, a bike crash that made my right side crotchety, and the incessant rain I mentally latched onto reaching Fernie and recovering. If I could just reach that town, I knew a good night's rest would set me up well for day 2.

3 miles later my bike computer died.

I purchased my Garmin Edge 840 a little over a month before the Tour to replace my rather beat up Garmin 530. This new device was solar powered and had a fresh, longer lasting battery with improved GPS. I used it for every single ride the month before the Tour Device in all manner of conditions, including mud and pouring rain. Performed flawlessly, not a single issue.

I remember looking down at the bike computer's screen and seeing no numbers changing. It was frozen. OK, it happens, just shut it down and restart. I shut it down and the damn thing would not start up again. I tried multiple times and it was just dead. "Am I cursed?" literally came out of my mouth. The last I checked it was over 90% battery, but I still plugged it into a battery pack and waited 10 minutes just to see if that would help. Nothing. Switched to my second battery pack, waited, and still nothing. OK, so primary navigation was dead. I still had my phone with RideWithGPS on it and while not ideal, especially with pouring rain, it would work. A few other riders had caught up to me during my fiddling around with the Garmin, so I just decided to simplify matters and stay with them until Fernie.

On and on we went. The road had many many many many many water filled potholes. Occasionally, a stream overflowed and we had to go through bigger stretches of standing water or jump off to carry our bikes over a deeper part. My stomach continued being unhappy so I was just nibbling small bits of food (raisins, Spring energy gel, peanut butter cup) on a regular cadence trying to keep it from fully shutting down but fueling me enough not to bonk.

Night started to fall and I turned on my front headlight. We were going uphill at the time and it was still twilight, but it looked like it was not shining particularly bright or well. The crash had bent it up a bit, so I manhandled it back into place, but it was definitely flickering. It is dyanamo hub powered, so I just assumed the uphill portion was not charging it enough but things would improve on a downhill.

But during the downhill from our last pass, it continued flickering. Not exactly a strobe light but near enough. Checked the dynamo hub connection, the wire loom connection, etc. and all seemed intact. Our group had gotten spread out (everyone was pretty exhausted) and I was alone for the descent. A rocky, muddy, sandy gravel road with washouts and potholes at night with a flickering front light. It was less than fun. "How close is the road, how close is the road, I need to get off this." was echoing in my head.

And then, right ahead I saw the unmoving light of another rider on what finally looked like a level section. I slowed down to see if they were in trouble and I am glad I did as I did not notice the thick, gooey mud that had brought him to a complete standstill. A sudden fishtail and in a split second the lower half of my bike was incased with mud. 25-40lbs worth of extra weight I would guess. With an exasperated groan, I pulled out my phone to see that the pavement was barely a mile away.

So began a fun party at 10pm—after 145 miles of riding—where I would clean out gargantuan chunks of mud with my chainring cleaner and then pick up the rear end of my bike to run as fast as I could until the mud seized everything up again. Despite the hour and exhaustion, I did this with a certain amount of fervor. I could smell the proverbial barn. I also pulled out my headlamp as the dynamo hub powered front light was effectively useless and I needed light to see.

Thanks to the mud, I saw a half dozen cyclists in this section, more than I had seen since the beginning of the day. All I really saw of them were their front and rear lights, but you could tell no one was able to ride through. No grass on the sides of the road to escape either, just a wide road full of gooey mud. By the 5th or 6th cleaning, the mud had thinned enough that I was able to get back on the bike and throw down enough power to get going again. It was a short few minutes and I was finally on the pavement. Thank the gods.

Suffice to say, my bike and its drivetrain were a complete mess when I got to the pavement. I cleaned it up the best I could so I could shift again (chain only dropped once, yay, electronic shifting), pulled out my water bladder to drain the last remaining milliliters into my mouth, and started riding to town. I was completely thrashed and feeling like absolute shit; but the pavement, oh man, it was so nice to just go.

Muddy Bike
Cleaning up the bike in Fernie

During the ride towards town, I did a realistic assessment of how my race was going...and I hope it is clear from the above, it felt one small step away from disaster. Multiple mechanical issues, a crash that meant I could not turn my head to the right, and a gastrointestinal system that was barely functioning leaving me underfueled and dehydrated. My second day of racing was supposed to have 116 miles with 8815' of elevation gain, and I thought it highly unlikely I would make that in my current state. In fact, I suspected I would crash and burn both mentally and physically. So, I texted Tina to find out how far away she was from Fernie.

Dynamo hub is broken and Garmin stopped working. Also diarrhea in shorts today. Also crashed.

In Fernie, I went straight to Snow Valley Lodging. They had posted in the Facebook group about how they would be up late with food, a hose, and discounted lodging for Tour Divide riders. Two other riders were in the office before me, and I gotta admit that we all looked like we had been through the wringer. Wet, muddy, and chilled with am exhausted, resigned look.

After acquiring an entire room to myself for two nights, I rinsed off my bike with the hose and went up to the room. First order of business was getting some more Skratch Wellness into me. Scratching the race was definitely on the table and looking like the right choice, but I was not going to fully commit to quitting until I tried to address the myriad of issues I was facing. First and foremost was trying to get my stomach and intestines working again. Hydration seemed like the first step.

Unpacked my bike to get things cleaned and dried out on my room's table. Grabbed a small bowl of chili and a bun from the Snow Valley Lodging peeps that went down without trouble, which was encouraging. Took a shower and found a bunch of cuts and scratches from the crash and mud, which I cleaned up best I could. Got another Skratch Wellness in me and tried to start the Garmin bike computer again but it remained unresponsive. I left it opened up with the faint hope that drying it out might help. Took a handful of acetaminophen for my neck + shoulder as the endorphins had finally worn off and it was quite painful.

Skratch Wellness packet and glass
Skratch Wellness. Probably what kept me from needing an ER visit.

And so, shortly after midnight I headed to bed with an agreement with Tina to talk early in the morning about where she should come get me. Food and Gatorade were on the night stand so I could continue working on fueling and hydration throughout the night. Thus ended my first day on the Tour Divide.

Woke up before 6am and started assessing my problems. Intestines were still not happy but I was tolerating carbohydrate-rich liquids so there was still a chance. Discovered the wobble had caused my wheel to partially wear through my feed bag straps, which was yet another problem to solve. Spinning my front wheel, I could definitely still see a flicker in the dynamo light, so I emailed the people I bought the light from asking for advice as the connections still looked fine to my eye. The local bike shop did not open until 10am, so I walked 10 blocks to get coffee hoping some caffeine might help clear up my backed up digestive system (you know, coffee, the magical elixir of life that solves all problems). On the way back from the coffee shop, I found a bakery and got a couple treats. While they were super tasty, my stomach immediately cramped up from eating them. ::slow sarcastic applause::

Back at the hotel, I took off my front wheel to start working on repairs to the worn areas and also clean up the light connectors. The light still did not improve so it was either the light itself or the dynamo hub. Right when the bike shop opened, I called them to see what front light options they had for night riding on gravel roads and trails. They had one possibility that might work, but I would probably need to purchase an additional high capacity battery since I could no longer rely on my hub for charging things. Magically, my bike computer started up again and I was able to save the first 110 miles of the race it had actually tracked. Was a bit dubious about its reliability though so I was considering purchasing a backup option from the bike shop too. Still, finally a step in the right direction?

Note: I did not notice at the time, but when I got home to Boulder I plugged in the bike computer and it refused to charge despite my best efforts, so it was definitely NOT reliable.

I was trying not to be quitter and Tina pointedly asked after all this, "Do you want to keep going?" and my answer was a pretty solid no. The first day had sucked, parts of my body were in serious pain from the crash, I was going to need to buy a number of new things to keep racing, and the real cherry on top was that I was unable to eat food without feeling incredibly ill.

My ego is trying to write checks my self preservation is trying to void.
I think I need to be smart and realize that I am not well and while I could pull off a recovery, I feel pretty shit right now and might make things rather worse.
I am literally sitting on the floor drinking a hydration mix as I cannot eat.
::sigh:: please come fetch my sorry little ass.

Tina arrived around 4pm and after with one final check-in to make sure I wanted to quit. Given I was on the stairs sipping water with painful intestinal cramping, I gave a solid yes.



Here I am a week after we arrived home in Boulder and while I know it was the right decision to scratch, it still does not sit particularly well. No one shows up to the start line of the Tour Divide intending to quit after the first day. 7 months of prep and training with quite a bit of money invested in this endeavour only to have it end after 150 miles–just over 5% completed.

But it took four days for me to have a normal bowel movement and I ended up losing 6 pounds of weight because I was primarily subsisting on liquid calories for three days. My neck and shoulder are better, but those also took a couple days and numerous pain relievers before they felt ok. And, as mentioned above, the bike computer was borked and had to be returned to Garmin. The dynamo hub powered front light is functioning normally again, and the current theory is water got into the hub causing issues. I will need to be doubly sure of it before any future bikepacking races.

Realistically, I think if I had headed out on day 2, there was a 95% chance I would have turned around and come back to Fernie or ended up calling for assistance. I was not well. And with that 5% chance of making it to the next stop, it was like digging a hole and deciding when you hit bedrock to pull out the dynamite. That is not where I wanted to put myself.

And oh boy, I think I may have dodged a bullet a little. The conditions on this year's Tour Divide have NOT been kind to riders. So much rain, hail, mud, cold, and destroyed equipment. But that one day taught me quite a bit. That one fierce day of riding tested me so much more than the months of training beforehand.

Will I attempt the Tour Divide next year? If you had asked me the first two days after quitting, it was a solid "Hell no." But four days afterwards, I was already considering what I would do differently. New approaches to training and also the gear I would bring is on my mind. I made good choices based on what I knew, but doing that first day and watching the riders this year, there are things I definitely wish to change on my setup. Also, I feel I left something unfinished out there.