Tour Divide Rookie

Nicholas Carman1 4986

Six riders pass while I’m brushing my teeth. It’s sunny and crisp. I pull on my rainpants to warm up fast. I’m still in this race!

I pedal the first twenty with a lanky east coaster. He got all fired up to be back in America, bought a pizza at the bowling alley and rode until 4AM. Back up at 6, he pulls one ankle back at a time to stretch his knees and quads from the saddle.

And there’s huge John that tells me I’m awesome and he’ll take this cold morning over any hot day.

Not me. I like the heat.

Spirits are high on day three, but a lot of bodies are not holding up.

I feel pretty good, I have a deep, nasty cough that flares up worse when I laugh but I’m happy to still be out here. My legs are fresh.

It is a gorgeous gravel cruise up to Red Meadow Lake. I leapfrog a couple of Germans in matching red jackets and shoes. They hardly acknowledge me.

It is a long descent to Whitefish.

I pass a tiger of a man. I say hi as I pass and he growls something back.

What was that?

I’m ready to eat! I got nothing left.

Not until I’m down the road do I realize that I could’ve given this guy a snack. Or maybe I should just drop one on the road now and he’ll find it when he passes.

I don’t, but I should have.

 I see a cop and a cyclist on the side of the road leading into Whitefish. Is he getting in trouble? The cop smiles and waves.

Down the road he pulls up next to me in his car. He’s following the race, heard that I got sick and perks up knowingly when I tell him I’m skipping Whitefish to resupply In Columbia Falls. He sketches a map and gives directions to the grocery store. I know full well that I’m staying on the route, but let him draw the map anyway.

It’s an easy 10 miles to Columbia Falls, but I feel my breath shortening.

I buy salami, sliced cheese, potato rolls and chicken strips at the grocery store. I fill my bottles with two-for-one super green juice while ladies talk facebook.

I’m back on the bike pedaling into the afternoon on flat farm roads with a light tailwind. I am grateful that it’s easy because my energy is tanking. My breath becomes gasps and wheezes and I slow way down.

I start an easy graded climb. I feel I’m pedaling in slow motion. I’m in my easiest gear and my legs are hardly circling and they’re not tired. My lungs are too weak to fire my legs. There are hours of daylight left. I am so limited, but I know that even if I’m going slow, I’m still making progress and stopping now will not help and having a bad attitude will not help, and feeling powerless and frustrated will not help. I tell myself that I’ll do what I can. I’ll get up this climb in short gasps and coast down the other side.

I’m grateful for the fine weather.

A young couple in a very old truck pass. They’re the only people I’ve seen since Ferndale.

When I finally get up there, it feels wonderful to roll downhill. Free miles.

The longer I ride, the more my breath declines. It feels like breathing through a tiny coffee straw. I’m trying so hard, but no air is coming in.

I slow-mo the little ups and downs of the gravel road. I hear a couple of riders hollering. It’s huge John and Southern Josh. They’ve teamed up and we’re all happy to see each other. I pedal and talk to Josh for a few miles. I tell him I’m camping early and they crush down the road.

Soon enough, I pull down a turnoff marked private property no trespassing. I lay out my bivy and sleeping bag. It’s still light out, but I’m toasted. The mosquitoes are terrible. I burrow deep in the feathers to trap them out. I cinch my bag tight and crook my neck so my mouth is near the tiny air hole. I’m out. I’ll try again tomorrow.

In the morning I cough up loads of neon green mucus, feel some relief and get on my bike. It’s a great ride over Richmond Peak and I die on the pedal to Ovando. The bartender at Trixie’s Antler Saloon shares her cough syrup with me. She laughs because I sip it. She’s sick too.

I try again the next day. My mind and legs are sunny, but my chest and breath are on fire. I wheeze and cough. I realize I lost my bivy somewhere on the descent from Huckleberry Pass.

At the store in Lincoln, Beth Dunne catches me as I’m pulling out my sleeping bag to dry in the sun.

At last we meet, she says. I say hi, but my eyes dart around to find no coffee and I tell her I’ve got to go to the gas station quick.

I run over there and grab a huge coffee and three breakfast sandwiches out of the hot case. Checking out, the lady tells me that I’ve really got that windswept look.

Filling water in the restroom, I see that my bangs are shooting straight out of my forehead.

I don’t take my helmet off in public for the rest of the trip to Mexico.

Back at the store to buy medicine, Beth waves on her way out. She’s got a monster can of bear spray tucked into the back pocket of her hot pink jersey.

I call Nick. He thinks I have bronchitis. I decide to go to the hospital. Helena and Butte are my last chances and then there’s nothing on route until maybe Pinedale, Wyoming over 400 miles away. I decide on Helena. It’s about 80 miles from Lincoln over three passes. I should get there in the afternoon before the hospital closes.

I fill my bottles with ginger-lemon-echinacea juice and move on.

The first pass flies fine. I catch Beth. She can’t believe I’m going to climb four passes when I can’t breathe enough to speak. I tell her I’m going to the hospital. She jokes that I’m so fast I could probably take a day off and still catch them. We laugh. I’m lucky she’s so nice.

She pushes on and I slow down. It’s the same story: energetic legs and no air. By the time I get to Helena, I’m cooked.

I head for St. Peter’s hospital. It’s two miles off route up a couple of steep hills.

On my slow pedal there, a lady in an SUV honks at a skateboarder crossing the street. Belligerent, he leaps right up to her window and starts yelling. She ignores him. He steps right in front of her car and tells her to back up– her wheels are past the crosswalk.

Back up! Back up!

He’s flailing his arms. She pretends not to see him. Cars stack up behind her.

I keep pushing the pedals. I pass the brick capital buildings and make it to the hospital. I follow the signs to the Urgent Care and bring my bike into the entry hall. I sign in at the front desk.

What are you here for?

I’m having trouble breathing, I wheeze.

We recommend that you go to the Emergency Room, but if you really want to be seen here, you can.

I tell him I’d rather be seen here. I don’t have insurance and I think it might not cost as much. I fill out paperwork and sign for a fifty dollar copay. He prints out a hospital bracelet and puts it on my right wrist: Lael Wilcox F 7/18/86. I leave it on for the rest of the race.

I go to the hall to get my water bottle and wait on the floral couch in the empty, windowless room. A young, frank blonde in scrubs calls me in. She asks my height and weight and why I’m here. I tell her I’m having trouble breathing and think I might have bronchitis. She takes my blood pressure and pulse. It’s 80 beats a minute. She leaves.

The doctor comes in. We talk. I tell him about the race. He puts his stethoscope on different locations of my back and ribs and asks me to breathe deeply. I can’t. In this quiet room, I want to cry, but I don’t. He decides he wants to x-ray my chest.

The nurse comes back in with a gown. My top and necklace need to come off, but my shorts can stay on. We x-ray and I wait. He’s back with the print. It appears that I don’t have pneumonia, but my lungs are cloudy. He leaves.

The nurse comes back with a machine. It’s a box with a long tube and it hums. She tells me to hold the tube up to my mouth and breathe long and slow inhales and exhales until no mist exits on my exhales. She leaves.

I breathe and watch the mist. Humid air broadens into my lungs. My breath deepens and my heart slows. The mist stops and I switch the machine off.

She comes back. How are you feeling?

Much better.

My voice is rich and I feel calm. The nurse’s eyes open wider. She purses her lips, nods her head and exits.

The doc is back. He asks about the treatment and is happy with the success. If it hadn’t worked, he planned to check me for a blood clot. Since it worked, he’ll give me a prescription for an albuterol inhaler.

Have you had productive coughs?

Hmm?

When you cough, does anything come up?

Oh yeah, loads of bright green phlegm.

Well then, we’ll put you on antibiotics.

He asks when the race starts again.

I tell him it’s still going on.

Oh.

He tells me the fastest way I’ll get better is if I rest, but he knows how athletes are. So I can go ahead and ride my race, but if my condition gets worse, I need to see someone.

I smile and agree.

On my way out, I ask about low income programs. The front desk gives me paperwork and instructs me where to drop them off, before 5PM Monday to Friday. It’s 7:25.

Wow! I’m back out and I can breathe and I don’t have pneumonia!

I go right to Walgreen’s to get my prescription filled.

The pharmacist tells me it’ll be ready in twenty minutes. Really?! Yes, really, she smiles back.

I pedal to the outdoor shop to try and replace my bivy. It’s closed. Oh well, the sky is clear. I should be fine sleeping out tonight and I’ll buy one tomorrow in Butte. I pedal back to the grocery store, fill up on chicken strips, carrot juice and cough syrup. I chug a liter of kombucha and pedal back to Walgreen’s.

The pharmacist feels bad that the prescription is expensive. She tried for the cheapest options, but they’re just not cheap. I’m so happy that they exist and I can breathe, that I don’t care at all. She gives me instructions. I take the antibiotics right away and I’m out of Helena before 9PM.

I pull over on the climb out of town to pee. A young rider rolls up. I wave big.

Do I know you?

No, but I’m riding.

We pedal together. He’s loaded– with all the bags bulging and a backpack. He’s springy with a big smile. His knee was hurting for the first few days, but today he felt great. He’s been hammering away and what a relief it is to climb standing. He’s from Tucson and Arizona is his favorite state. He can’t wait to get to New Mexico because that’s his second favorite state. He can’t wait to get to Colorado because then we really start climbing high. And he’s excited about tomorrow because we’ll climb our highest yet. This kid is great! I tell him about the Helena hospital and that I tried to get a new bivy cause I lost mine.

Is it red?

Yeah!

He spotted it on the descent from Huckleberry Pass. He stopped, hoping someone dropped a fancy light weight down jacket and was disappointed when it was just a bivy. He almost left it, but didn’t.

Hooray!

I tell him I’ll trade him some cookies for it. He says he’ll take a high five instead.

How long do you plan to ride?

As long as I keep breathing, I’m going to keep riding.

How about you?

At the top of this climb.

He pulls over up there at sunset. We exchange bivy for high five and I keep on it.

It’s nice out and I can breathe! I keep going. I have no idea what’s ahead of me. I’m exhilarated to be moving. Hours pass in the dark. The track gets narrow and steep– too steep to ride, so I get off my bike, put my headlamp on and start pushing. I’ve got energy for this.

I hike up Lava Mountain. I can breathe. I’m warm on the up and layer up for the down.

Just past Basin, I pull out my sleeping bag and bivy and lay down on the side of the freeway. It’s 3AM. I set my alarm for five.

At daylight, I see a German redcoat spin past. He doesn’t say hi. I’m groggy, but good, like the morning after a great party– hung over, but smiling and maybe still a little drunk.

There are a few hours of little ups and downs to Butte. It’s sunny and I’m there mid-morning. Montana has some fantastic main streets– broad and open and brick. Butte is on a hillside. I circle up and around a few blocks looking for the grocery store.

I down a liter of kombucha and take my coffee to go. As I’m sipping it from the aero position, Kiwi Rob pulls up. He just has to unload; last night was the second to last worst cycling night of his life and the night before was the worst. He’s got a raspy voice and cough. We pass a gas station. I’m stopping. Rob says he’ll stop too. I say I’ve got a few things to take care of– hoping Rob won’t tag on to me. He gets it and says he’ll keep cruising on.

I rinse my shorts out in the restroom, clean my chain with a paper towel and load up on chicken fingers and pizza flavored burritos.

I’m back on pavement to dirt up Fleecer Ridge. I pass German Red on the way up and catch Kiwi Rob on the way down. We’re all in Wise River together.

I microwave a couple of burritos to take with me. Rob and German Red drink pints of half and half. The mosquitoes are terrible. I walk to the trash to throw my soda can away. German Red asks what’s wrong with my feet because I look like I walk on eggshells. I smile and say they feel fine, but really I feel like he’s picking on me and I don’t like it. I’m glad they pedal away before me.

The road ride is so easy after Wise River, but I’m losing energy fast. My breath is short again– getting shorter by the hour. I thought I was better! I thought the hospital visit was magic. I was wrong. I use my inhaler, but it gives me little relief. As the day wears, I pedal slower and slower.

The climb up Crystal Park is very gentle. It’s a picture perfect day. I’m riding too slow to escape the mosquitoes.

Eddie Clark pulls up next to me in his red pick-up.

How’re you doing?

I’m having a hard time breathing.

You’re still making great time. You know, Mike Hall had a hard time breathing too– all the way through Montana. And then he got better and really stepped it up for the rest of the race.

Really?

Yep.

It’s a long climb, but there’s a huge descent on the other side.

He pulls away to get a few more shots. I slowly pedal on. I’ll make it over Crystal Park and camp on the other side.

I descend to a river and check the water, looks fine to drink. The mosquitoes swarm. I pull out my sleeping bag, burrow deep and am asleep before 9PM.

Lael?

I peek out of my bag to find a huge man hovering over me.

Yeah?

I just came from the High Country Lodge. We’re just five miles down the road. I’ve been following your SPOT expecting you to come. And then you didn’t. I came to make sure you didn’t ride into the river.

No, I just couldn’t breathe, so I stopped for the night.

We’re just down the road if you want to come sleep in a real bed.

I’m fine here.

Well, then maybe we’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.

Yeah, see ya.

He gets back into his jeep and drives away. I really don’t think I’ll see him for breakfast because I’ve packed loads of food to make it to Lima. I open my framebag to snack on some fritos and go back to sleep. I wake up in the night and see a healthy white fox hanging around my bike. I sit up and holler. Hey! Hey you, fox! Get out of here! He takes his sweet time leaving.

I don’t hear my alarm in the morning. By the time I wake up, the sun is high and it’s well past 6AM. I start packing up and realize my framebag is empty, save an old pack of potato rolls and my spare tube. That white fox stole it all! I had a large bag of fritos, a 12oz pack of salami, and four Probars. What a feast! I check my bag for damage and it’s perfect. That sneaky fox must’ve reached his hand in there and snatched everything out.

I pack up and start pedaling down the road. When I pass the High Country Lodge, the owner is waiting in the road with his cell phone, ready to take my picture. I tell him about the white fox and we laugh. He invites me in for breakfast. I hesitate, I really want to keep on it, especially because I got such a late start. I do have those potato rolls.

How far is it to Lima?

104 miles. Come on, my wife’ll make you breakfast. It’ll be quick and painless.

I cave and pedal the half mile up the driveway and he follows. It’s a wooden lodge with huge picture windows.

Wow, this place is beautiful.

And to think, you slept on the ground. He laughs heartily and my pride flares.

It was nice out there.

I figured you were long gone and just didn’t turn on your SPOT.

Nope, I slept in.

He smiles and nods and wakes his wife up so she can make me breakfast.

Hot coffee?

Yes, please.

While I’m waiting on my breakfast, I decide that if I have trouble breathing today, I’ll quit the race, take a few days off and continue touring the route. My intention is to ride the Great Divide. If I can’t race, I’ll ride.

The lodge owner shows me pictures of all the riders coming through. He has me sign a board of this year’s racers– signature only please or else there won’t be room for everyone.

She’s ready for you in there. He gestures to the kitchen. I walk in and ask if I can take it all to go instead.

Sure.

His wife raises her eyebrows and looks at him.

Just put it all in plastic bags.

She dutifully puts scrambled eggs, pancakes and breakfast sausage into individual ziplocks.

Orange juice?

Can I fill my bottle?

Sure.

He tops it off. I put the breakfast bags into my gas tank. He takes pictures and I pedal away.

On the road, I eat scrambled eggs with my fingers. I wrap the pancakes around the sausage links and wash it all down with orange juice. It’s damn good.

Beth catches me down the road.

Hi Sicky!

Hi Beth.

I tell her about the fox and High Country Lodge. She says the owner gave her a huge cuddle and said it was from her husband– he’s in the lead pack. Thinking of a High Country cuddle gives me the willies. She breezes past me, but I catch her on the climb. It’s broad cow country and we’re over 7000 feet. The descent narrows and winds around features. It flattens out on dirt farm roads. I turn onto pavement and into a headwind for the final stretch to Lima. I stay aero and push it in.

And I’m there. At the gas station, I run into Australian Simon and American Brendan.

You’re killing it! He smiles at me.

Thanks! I can breathe.

I buy eggrolls, jerky, fritos, cheese curds and pepperoni slices. I fill my bottles with iced tea and coconut water and I’m back out. The road out of Lima is a stunner up to a water reservoir. I’m not stopping anytime soon. Gas station eggrolls are weird.

Before dark, I spot Brendan blowing up a sleeping pad on the top of a hill. You camping for the night?

Yep.

Well, I’m sure I’ll see you in the morning.

He smiles and waves. I never see him again. I would never camp with the wind at my back.

I keep on it past the Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge and up and over Red Rocks Pass. I lay out to sleep on the other side, set my alarm for four and this time put is right next to my head, so I’ll be sure it hear it. I’m tired, but not winded.

I have a cough for the rest of the race, but I can breathe, so I pick up my mileage. I make it to Union Pass the next night. I’m up and over the pass and to Pinedale by early afternoon. I pedal to the grocery store at the end of town and resupply. I turn on my phone as an afterthought as I’m heading out of town and get a text from Nick: Go see the people at the Great Outdoor Shop.

I call him. He explains that I’ve been riding the 2014 Tour Divide route. We dowloaded the route in early May before I left Anchorage to ride to the start. An updated route was published at the end of May while I was riding from Alaska to Banff. Unknowingly, for a ten mile stretch leading to Union Pass, I followed the old race route. Nick has been in correspondence with the race organizer– I can still ride for the record, but may be disqualified from the race. I’m so happy that I can breathe and that I’m physically able to ride, that I don’t feel too disappointed. I just need to get the right track because the route through the Basin has changed.

The guys at the Great Outdoor Shop welcome me in. The owner takes me to his apartment upstairs. He’s loaded the current Tour Divide track and has it ready to go. I plug my Garmin etrex20 in and he gives me instructions before heading back downstairs. They’re busy. I try to load the track, but when I turn the gps on, it freezes. The owner is back up the stairs to help. The same thing happens when he tries. He leaves again. I try over and over– removing the batteries and restarting the gps. I delete the track and reload it. The owner is back and forth– he suggests we try to load the track, let it sit for fifteen minutes and see what happens. I sit and stare at it and magically it loads! We cheer.

I pack up to pedal away and realize my rear light is loose. An employee at the shop helps me tighten it.

And then I’m really off. All told, I spent an extra three hours in Pinedale. I start pedaling like hell to Atlantic City. I make it there in the dark. Loud Lady Gaga echoes out of the bar. I go in to fill water. The locals are tanked– lots of white russians and liquored cokes– lots of laughing and some dancing. One lady clears the remains of a potluck.

I fill four liters and am back out into the night. I aim to camp in the Basin, rise early and make it through before the heat.

I’m up at four, pedaling in the dark. It’s calm in the Basin. The sun rises to expose a sea of green. The route cuts onto doubletrack and then fainter doubletrack, but I see tire prints. I’ve heard this is a cursed place, but this morning the broad expanse is comforting. It’s open green scrub as far as I can see. And before long, I turn in the direction of Wamsutter 26. It’s a harsh turn into a headwind, but I don’t care too much. I’m riding. I can breathe. I got the right track.

I pass an older guy in the Basin and then I catch Kiwi Rob

You’re doing quite well. You must have had some good days.

Thanks, Rob. I tell him about the track mix-up. He tells me about the big party in Atlantic City.

We get to Wamsutter quick. The shopping center is a Love’s gas station with and Subway and a fried chicken joint. It’s a zoo in there. I end up with eggrolls and taquitos from the hot dog roller, fritos, cheese and Clif bars. I fill my bottles with orange juice.

Taking his first bite out of an ice cream cone, Rob turns to me:

Well, I’m glad we’re past the Basin.

Yep. See ya.

I step on my bike to pedal away. I see his eyes flare up. Five minutes down the road, Rob is back. We ride into a stiff headwind on a hot afternoon.

Well, this is awful.

It’s not that bad.

Not that bad?

Look Rob, I was really sick. I couldn’t breathe. I had to go to the hospital. I’m just happy to be out here.

I’m actually hoping that Rob will just pull ahead. I don’t want to deal with a headwind and a bad attitude. He changes his tune. He tells me stories about last year’s divide, about the riders and the stops and how great he felt at the end. We pedal into the headwind for about thirty miles together and the time passes pretty quickly considering how slow we’re moving.

I only packed two liters of water out of Wamsutter. Huge mistake. I’m dry pretty soon and I don’t know where I’ll find water next. I see a sign for a well and follow it. Rob pedals out of sight. I open the shed and it’s a well with a pump and tubes and no access to water. I zoom in on the gps and see we cross Cow Creek up ahead. It doesn’t sound too promising, but I’m hoping. When I cross it, it smells like urine and is totally dried out with salty remains. It’s hot. The air feels like riding into a hair dryer.

Kiwi Rob is ahead. It’s Sunday. I pass tons of little oil rigs bobbing up and down into the dirt. I’m getting desperate for water. I know I’ll make it, but I’ll make it much better if I get some water. I stop at an oil rig with a couple extra buildings. I see tanks that look like water, but are marked oil. It’s a big deserted operation. I start poking around the buildings– first a big noisy one with massive machines, then a smaller one with a desk. I find two little bottled waters with a couple of sips left. I chug them and get the hell out of there.

Fifteen miles down the road, I spot an old RV and a truck. People? Sure enough, three shirtless dudes sit in the back of a pick-up sipping Coors Light. I stop.

Do you guys have any water?

Do you want a beer?

Sounds great, but I can’t I’m trying to ride this race.

From Canada to Mexico?

Yeah.

They bring me a cold liter of water. I drink half of it right away.

How come none of you carry enough water?

It’s a long stretch.

Maybe we should start selling it. That New Zealand guy just passed. He said some young girl was right on his tail. He was in a rush.

Yeah, I better go catch him.

Go America!

We laugh.

Are you sure you don’t want to pack a beer for later?

Naw, thanks though.

How far have you ridden today?

I look down at my odometer: 136 miles.

Their eyes get big. When did you start?

About 4.

We’ve been shearing sheep since five.

They bring me another pint of water. Grateful, I pack it.

I start back again into the wind. Within the hour, they pull up next to me in their pick-up.

We’re headed to a water reservoir to swim. You sure you don’t want to just put your bike in the back of the truck and come with us?

I can’t. I laugh and wave them on.

The wind is some work, but when my mind starts bitching, I just look at my hospital wristband from Helena. If I could do that, I can definitely do this. And I charge on.

It’s steep ups and downs into the evening, past cows and not much else. I see trees in the distance and then houses. Great! I descend to a river and pavement. The signed gas station and museum are closed. I approach a lit house looking for water. It’s fully fenced. I walk around looking for the front door and find it, but I see a man in a truck pull out from behind, so I run over to stop him.

He rolls down his window.

Sorry to trouble you, but could I have some water?

Of course. He tips his cowboy hat and gets out of the truck. He takes me around the back to a pump.

Fresh cold water straight out of the ground. Would you like ice?

Oh no, that’s fine.

Are you part of that race from Canada to Mexico?

Yes.

A feller from Uruguay was here earlier, drank three glasses of ice water before he said more than two words. He was headed for the Brush Mountain Ranch. Are you going there?

I don’t know. I plan to just head up the road and camp somewhere.

He says I’m welcome to stay in the yard, but the mosquitoes are terrible.

They sure are– I feel them biting as we stand there.

His words are slurred and his eyes watery. He warns me of the drivers. They look out for deer, but not bikes.

I ride a little into the night, but I’m whipped from the wind. I pull over to get my headlight and realize I forgot it somewhere. I camp near the base of the climb on the side of the road. I lay in a patch of grass, but the mosquitoes are so bad that I move over to gravel– it’s a little better, but pretty bumpy.

I wake up around midnight and consider getting back on the it, but can’t face so many hours of darkness with no light. I sleep until the sun breaks.

In the light, the climb is a beauty and I’m up to the Brush Mountain Lodge in no time. Kirsten waits for me out front and gives me a huge hug: so wonderful to meet you! She makes me feel like a dear old friend.

She invites me in. Rob is just leaving with a twinkle in his eye that he got me caught. I flare up– I want to move too.

Kirsten says she’s making blueberry pancakes. Would I like a plate?

Can I take some to go?

Are you in a rush?

I just like to keep moving.

I can see that. You’re making great time. You rode from Alaska, right?

Yeah, it was awesome!

You have to at least tell me some stories.

I concede. She’s wonderful, but time is miles or sleep.

Do you want to take a shower?

Oh wow. That sounds great. And then I hesitate. Time is miles. No, I’m all right. Let’s sit and have coffee instead.

We sit for an hour. She brings me butter and foil to wrap up my pancakes. I tell her about seeing a hundred bears on the Cassiar Highway and crossing the Highway of Tears. I tell her about Israel and South Africa and learning about people and justice. She tells me I remind her of Jesse C. from Australia. He arrived at Brush Mountain in a fresh white jersey as if he’d just had a shower and laundry. He carried speakers and blasted dubstep and blew a whistle to ward away bears.

She tells me about the six guys that slept at the lodge the night before. They had four different ways of pronouncing my name and they know I’m coming. Have I met Andres? He’s great! Martin eats a lot– four cheeseburgers in one sitting and a huge plate of pancakes and six eggs for breakfast. The only person she’s seen eat four cheeseburgers is Billy Rice on his yoyo back from the border last year. Where does all that food go? We talk about Team Riceburner– Billy and his daughter Lina riding tandem We agree it’s the coolest and we’d never do it.

I ask if I can pay for breakfast.

Not a chance. You’re broke!

How about ten bucks?

Nope. Just write me a letter.

I will I promise.

She gives me a big hug and sends me on my way.

I fire up and over Brush Mountain. I make it to Clark in no time and stop for drinks. A lady on a loaded Bike Friday is excited to see me.

Are you the first woman?

Yep.

You look great. I just saw Martin and he looks like shit.

She takes my picture and tells me about her northbound divide ride. New Mexico was tough! It should be much better now because she just got rid of 15 pounds of gear in Steamboat Springs. I compliment her Bike Friday and she beams with pride.

You know, people say little bikes can’t do much, but I can do it all on this little bike.

She’s a believer.

It’s an easy pedal to Steamboat. The route passes straight by Orange Peel Cycles and I stop to get my bottom bracket checked out. I’ve been hearing some creaking.

It’s roached.

Can you change it out?

No problem.

They lend me a town bike to run errands. I buy a new headlamp and lots of juice and five prepackaged Indian sandwiches called nanwiches from the Vitamin Cottage. The checker asks if I’d like a small box.

You don’t have bags?

No. She rolls her eyes at me.

So I cart a small box around on my handle bars like a delivery boy.

Back at the shop they’re still working on my bottom bracket. Then the mechanic asks if I’d like more sealant while he’s at it.

Should I?

Yes.

Then he tightens my stem bolts and takes it out for a test ride.

You need new brake pads.

I’ve got a spare pair that he installs.

He charges me for the bottom bracket and $25 for labor. I buy some Probars.

Don’t you ever get sick of those?

I go through phases. Sometimes they’re disgusting and sometimes they’re delicious.

And then I’m off.

I pass an older group of ladies on old mountain bikes. One catches me.

Where are you riding?

I’m riding the divide.

Us too!

Cool!

The ride out of Steamboat to Radium is a treat. I make it past the river at sunset. I follow good dirt roads in the dark and lay out near some lakes.

I’m up and over Ute Pass in the morning. I buy pizza at the gas station and I’m gunning for Breckenridge. A couple of older folks on longboards cheer me on at the dam. A commuter pulls up next to me on the bike path. He recognizes me because of my helmet. He tells me I’m wonderful and to keep going.

Nick’s cousin Brent waits for me on the bike path, a few blocks away from his apartment. The encouragement is awesome.

Boreas Pass is a breeze. I hit the Gold Dust Trail on the other side. A stream runs down it. I take it slow and eat my last nanwich on singletrack. Back on the road, I see a big man and a little girl next to a truck on the side of the road.

It’s Stella and Andy! They’ve come from Denver to cheer me on. Stella has a sign; Andy an Alaskan flag hat. They’re great.

Tailwind to Hartsel. Breakfast burritos and Moutain Dew and I’m headed for Salida. I descend in the dark and keep on to Poncha Springs. I buy a refrigerated Bomb Chimichanga, a cold breakfast sandwich and bag of Gardettos from the gas station. I camp across the street under a big tree to protect myself from the wind.

I’m up at 4 and straight out for Marshall Pass. It’s well graded. A truck and two men wait for me at the top before 6AM. It’s Nate’s cousin from Anchorage and his brother. I can’t take their sandwiches, but seeing them is a nice surprise.

Cochetopa and Carnero Passes make for a magnificent ride to the La Garita Wilderness.

Eddie Clark shows up to take pictures just out of Del Norte. Excited to see him, I wave big and then hit the soft shoulder, fall over and scrape my knee. I stop for a sub in town. As I’m leaving, big Joe Fox and Andres from Uruguay show up. They’re shocked faces make me smile. These guys are nice.

Are you riding on?

Of course! You?

We’re staying in the motel here. We’ll get an early start in the morning.

Well, I’m sure I’ll see you then.

No, you won’t.

We split ways smiling. I climb halfway up Indiana Pass before I camp. The rest is a quick morning ride. I stop for soda in Platoro and plan to resupply in Horca.

When I toured through in 2010, there were feet of snow over the pass and Horca had a small store. The store is under renovation, but there’s still a cafe. I order pancakes, a barbecue sandwich and a cheeseburger with fries. It takes over an hour. I sit on my hands impatiently and drink buckets of Dr. Pepper. I can feel the daylight dissolving.

Back out, a thunderstorm breaks as I climb La Manga Pass. I put my rain suit on for the other side. I’m still sick and trying to keep my heat.

The Brazos Ridge is muddy and slow, but still beautiful. I cross paths with a biker.

Lael! We’re all pulling for you.

Mike gives me detailed directions for what to do if I miss the hours for Bode’s store in Abiquiu and six dollars to spend at the snack stand in Canyon Plaza. He drank chocolate milk there. He is excited.

I still have chocolate milk on the brain when I get to Canyon Plaza in the dark. I can feel the pack of guys chasing me, so I keep on it. The dogs are mean in Vallecitos. I camp just above El Rito.

I’m at Bode’s at 6:30AM for the store opening. I buy two massive bacon breakfast burritos. I’m full of energy because I’m in New Mexico. I love it here.

I charge up the 4000 foot chunky climb. It’s my favorite part of the whole ride.

A girl pops out of an SUV on the other side, almost near Cuba. It’s Liz Quinley, a high school friend from Anchorage. She’s living in Albuquerque and drove out to find me. She pulls out a huge cutout cardboard pink dot with the initials LW attached to a rake. Too funny! We pose for photos.

On the pavement, I pump up my tires for the first and only time of the whole race. I have a long paved stretch ahead.

On the descent, I cross paths with Banff Keith and Whitefish Crickett. They’re touring northbound. We all sweaty hug.

I buy taquitos in Cuba at the gas station because the McDonald’s line is too long. I’m on pavement and into a headwind to Grants.

I camp by a barbed wire fence on the roadside in the Navajo Reservation. In the morning, I snag my sleeping bag on the barbs and tear a huge hole. I send it and the maps home. It’s warm enough to sleep in the bivy and it’s awesome to ditch the gear.

The road ride is windy, but pretty. I make it to Pie Town in the early evening. The Pie-O-Neer is closed, but I can’t help but peek through the window. I’ve heard a lot about this place.

As I pedal away someone is hollering.

Wait! Wait! A lady in a headscarf waves her arms frantically.

Wow! It’s Kathy. They’re closed, but she invites me into her kitchen for pie. It’s the only meal I sit down for during the entire race. I eat a slice of peach and a slice of apple crumble and a slice of chicken pizza. Stanley warms up a cup of coffee. Kathy sends me with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and a cupcake. Am I strawberry girl or a grape girl? I don’t know. How about one of each. I sign a sheet for Salsa to register that I’ve had my pie. I spot Josh Kato’s name at the top of the list and tell Kathy that he won.

He did? I’m so proud of him. Those fast guys never stop anymore. Back in the day, Mathew Lee himself used to sit on this counter and eat a whole cherry pie with a fork and then go win the race.

She shows me pictures of Josh Kato smiling over pie.

She and Stanley walk me out.

And then I’m headed into the Gila. Shortly after dark, my wheels start veering into the ditch. I’ll sleep now and wake early to ride.

I get up at 3AM and pull my rain clothes on to warm up fast. My vision is blurry and I feel terrible. I realize if I don’t get some more sleep, I’m going to have a really bad day. I stop two miles down the road and pull out my bivy. I climb right in and pass out. I even leave my shoes and helmet on. Awake at 6AM, I feel great.

The Gila is always up and down. It takes all day. I cross a major road and two couples cheer me on. I don’t know them, but they’re sure nice.

I hike and ride the five mile section of the CDT. It’s pretty, but I’m in a rush to get off before it gets dark. I can see the pavement, but the light is waning. I hit a patch of rocks and fall. I fall hard.

Oh no! Oh no! I yell. I was so close. My knee is streaming blood and my shoulder is very sore, but mostly I’m just bummed. I’m so close and that really hurt. I take some Ibuprofen and get back on my bike and start spinning slowly. My knee aches.

I fell and it really hurts. I think I’m going to camp early and deal with this tomorrow. I don’t want to see anyone.

Don’t stop. Go get something refreshing to drink and pull yourself together. If you have to sleep, sleep on the road out of town.

My friend Lucas pedals a few blocks from his house to meet me on the route and we descend to town.

We stop at McDonald’s. I drop almost $30 on nuggets and cookies. That’s a whole lot of McDonald’s! I buy a couple of 5 hour energies and we roll out of town. It’s midnight.

It’s a beautiful, calm night with a huge moon and I’m ready to pedal to the end. Lucas rides me up the first big hill and it feels like we’re on just a nice little night ride. He turns back. He has to work in the morning. I keep on, full of heart.

I really start losing it around three in the morning. I’m tired. How can I stay awake? I stop and pull out my headlamp. I turn it on bright and shine it straight into my eyes thinking maybe it will stimulate them. It’s a total failure and I have blind spots at the sides of my vision. What else? I decide to sing songs in my head. That doesn’t work at all. I start singing songs out loud. It works! I sing whatever song I can think of– mostly songs from elementary school because I actually know all of the words. If I start singing a song that I don’t know the words to, then I trail off and start falling asleep again. I sing until the sun comes up and in the daylight I feel fine.

60 miles to Antelope Wells: wow! It’s all straight flat road and seems strange after so much remote and beautiful country until 13 miles from the finish, a bobcat crosses the road. He walks slowly and pauses, looking over his shoulder at me. This may be as remote as it gets.

Eight miles from the end, a car pulls up. It’s Joe Fox’s dad. Joe is about 15 back and his dad is going to the border to wait. And then it hits me: Oh yeah, I’m in a race. And I start sprinting like hell all the way to the end. I feel great, like I could ride forever.

I sprint all the way to the Mexican side of the border. The guards stare at me blankly. I zoom into my gps.

This is it?

Yep.

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23 thoughts on “Tour Divide Rookie

  1. Hi, I wanted to say that I loved reading this – totally brilliant!

  2. Julie Weis says:

    Beautiful, Lael! -Julie

  3. Casey Jones says:

    Your story brings a tear to my eyes and warms my heart more than you can ever know.
    Thank you!

  4. mike L (Albuquerque) says:

    Super story Lael. Thanks so much for sharing! It was great just to follow your pink dot but especially neat to hear your thoughts. And congrats again on your repeat ITT record.

  5. Gary and Patti says:

    Beautiful, Lael!

  6. Andy D says:

    Terrific story. Seeing you on the trail was one of the highlights of Stella’s summer. She’s happy to know your birthday is only two days after hers. Enjoy Interbike and the ride to Austin.

  7. “I tell him I’ll trade him some cookies for it. He says he’ll take a high five instead.”
    The whole read is Awesome sauce but this is Awesome sauce Stoke version.
    Thanks.

  8. mujozen says:

    You are awesome, Lael. I love the syntax of your writing. I love your ‘see ya later, no you won’t’ attitude. Curious to know, what songs did you sing? Funny, I sing the same when I get too sleepy. Childhood songs are the best! I look forward to reading about your ITT record ride!

  9. Harum says:

    Thank you for writing, Lael! I’ve checked this blog so much for your updates I feel like I’ve memorized your previous post. Can’t wait to read more of your adventures.

  10. Jim Winchester says:

    What a great rainy Saturday here in anchorage ….. Yoga class, farmers market, fire island…..and your tour divide vol1 !!
    Like others- I am moved.
    Can’t wait for vol 2!!

  11. It’s great to read your story, Lael. I beamed when I noted places we’d cycled in the same areas: the dam below Breckenridge, Hartsell, the Basin, a few others. Such wonderful memories you have! You have a great eye for details that I think many will appreciate. Best wishes on your continued adventures. You can breathe.

  12. Helena Kotala says:

    I loved reading this! You’re awesome.

  13. nin says:

    This is amazing, Lael.
    Thanks for sharing!

  14. Awesome write up. I loved tracking the race

  15. MG says:

    Go Lael! You have such a beautiful spirit, I hope everything you touch in life turns to gold.

  16. Mike McElveen says:

    It has been such a joy following you this year and contemplating what makes you unique amongst all the athletes I know. You are undeniably physiologically gifted, but I think its your capacity to be a sensuous, feral being in the midst of the struggles of a competition that set you apart. If I ever attempt the TD it’s that capacity that I will strive for. I can never attain the other. Brazos Ridge, excited, six dollar Mike.

  17. allison says:

    What an adventure!!!!! Thx for spouting this out & taking us “spectators” along for the ride! Here’s to many more revolutions!!!

  18. Mike says:

    I get the feeling that you could have written much more. Perhaps a book someday? I have used your story to inspire others. I hope you don’t mind.

  19. lnarachi says:

    Amazing ride and your writing is really fun to read ! Thanks for sharing

  20. Zachary Davies says:

    Saw the video of your AZT tour and then your blog. Loved reading this account! Your writing reminds me of your packing style – stripped down and designed for distance. Kept me engaged all the way to the end.

  21. Saw the video of your AZT tour and then your blog. Loved reading this account! Your writing reminds me of your packing style – stripped down and designed for distance. Kept me engaged all the way to the end.

  22. Great read. Congrats on your Trans America win, hoping you’ll post about that experience.

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