Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Montana

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Thanks, Joan!

I wake up in the Lolo Hot Springs cabin around 5AM feeling like a hungover 80-year-old. My knees creak and my brain is fried. I click on my shoes and get out the door, feeling disoriented by the bright morning. The hours spent in the cabin feels like a time lapse. I hop on my bike and like magic, the shifting works again. I drop the cabin key off in a mailbox slot and I’m pedaling downhill all the way to Lolo.

These mornings it takes a few minutes to get reacquainted with my saddle. I have to sit for a couple minutes through the hot discomfort until my saddle and my seat become friends again. The pain in my knees remains. I trust it’ll go away eventually, everything does. For now, every pedal stroke is a grind.

Evan catches me at the gas station in Lolo and tells me that Kai has caught up with us and he thinks he past Lee sleeping on the side of the road. Sarah and Steffen are battling it out a hundred miles ahead. I feel like we’re not even in the same race at this point. Evan leaves first and I watch him pull away on the bike path to Hamilton. Even though the sun is shining, I feel a little sullen. I want to ride faster and I do sometimes but then my legs run out of juice and I just can’t keep up. I work on turning my attitude around. I tell myself to do my best and I remind myself to be thankful for so many things– my health, the weather, this place, my family, Nick, the trees, that rock, this road and on and on and it works.

I buy a box of snickerdoodles in Stevensville. They taste like dust. I stop at the Sinclair in Victor and ask the cashier if I can fill up some water. She says there’s only a sink in the restroom and I shouldn’t fill up there because that’s where people wash their hands. I thank her and fill up. Outside of town, Joan and Cindy are standing with a huge Lael banner on the side of the bike path. Joan tells me not to stop because she doesn’t want me to lose any time, but of course I want to stop to give her a hug! It definitely brings my spirits up. I’m through Hamilton and Darby quick. Kai, Evan and I all converge just outside of Sula at the start of the climb up Chief Joseph Pass. Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer are there to take our picture. A man cheers out of a van window that I’m doing great. For the first time in days I feel like I’m actually in a race. I tell him I feel better than I’ve felt in days and he says that probably has something to do with the weather. He’s right. It’s not nearly as hot as it’s been. Kai and I start hammering up the hill and Evan just smiles knowingly. At the top, I stop to fill water at a stream and Kai cruises by. Down the hill, I turn into Wisdom cause my legs are whipped. I buy a quart of chocolate milk at the general store and chug it out front while Nathan and Anthony stand by quietly. It hurts my gut, but I’m desperate for energy. I pat my tummy and say that I hope it goes straight to my legs. Anthony smiles and nods and says that it will. Nathan says I have a beautiful ride ahead of me, his favorite of the whole route. As I’m heading back out, Evan is riding into Wisdom and tells me to have fun riding into the headwind. I pedal out of town real slow. My legs feel like they have nothing left. Evan catches me quick on the ride out of town and then Kai passes us both. Finally the chocolate milk kicks in. Evan and I ride together to Dillon. In the evening light, the rolling ride through the valley is exceptional. The descent into Dillon is torn up for construction and we take our time. Evan splits off to find a motel. I stop to resupply at a gas station. The girl at the register is on the phone and frazzled. Their computer system is down. I give her a $20 for some chocolate milk and a sandwich and tell her to keep the change. I consider getting a room at the motel because it’s chilly, but decide to head down the road and take my chances with the cold. The wide highway is empty in the night. I pedal five miles down the road and pull my bivvy out in a field.

I wake up early and cold and move on. The ride to Twin Bridges is flat and easy with lots of signs for bikes, but it’s so early that nothing is open. I stop at the Sinclair in Sheridan and buy a Nesquick and heat up a double-decker burger in the microwave. Some lady is hollering about idiot tourists in Yellowstone and the cashier is friendly. I coat the burger in ketchup and mustard to mask the flavor, wrap it in a paper napkin and stuff it in my gas tank. It’s terrible. I climb past Virginia City, a phony western town, and rip down to Ennis. I buy a bunch of drinks and a turkey sandwich at the gas station. The attendant asks if I want mayonnaise and notices my cracked and bleeding bottom lip. I tell her about the race and all the sun I’m getting. She tells the other cashier gal and they get all excited and then show me where the chapstick is and then cheer me out the door.

I start pedaling the long, straight flat road towards West Yellowstone into a fierce headwind. It’s relentless. I watch my speed drop below eight miles an hour and I’m flailing out there. I start wondering if I’m even going to make it the 70 miles to West Yellowstone by tonight. Evan rides up behind me and I’m happy to have a friend out there. We agree that this is brutal. He says that Kai pulled over for a nap in the sun. He says if I want I can watch his wheel and we can fight this wind together. I don’t draft, but I stay within sight and it really helps to have something to focus on. I’ve never ridden with anyone for any extended period of time in a race. I usually relish riding alone, but I’m here to do my best and for the time being, riding with Evan and getting past the wind is the best that I can do. We get through it! Mountains offer some relief and the road turns a bit and everything gets way easier and more possible. We stop at the Sinclair in West Yellowstone. I copy Evan and buy some candy and also pack a pepperoni Hot Pocket for later. I spot Kai rolling into town as we’re packing up. We pay fifteen dollars at the Yellowstone Park entrance and pedal into Wyoming.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Idaho

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Near the top of Brownlee Summit, I see a rider slowly swerving back and forth across the road like a staggering drunk. In a couple pedal strokes I catch up to him. It’s British Lee. He glances over at me quick and straightens out his form.

 “Hey there. How are you doing?”

“I’ve been sick. I made the mistake of eating a burger and chips at the bottom of the hill and it’s all come back up.”

“You’ve been throwing up?”

“Yeah.”

In this heat that sounds awful. I pedal past him and he climbs past me at the very top, showing renewed vigor. And that’s the last I see of Lee. It’s all downhill to Cambridge. I buy a large pack of Hostess coffee cake at the convenience store and the man at the register asks if I’m part of the crew riding to Virginia. He tells me there were some guys in here earlier taking pictures of a girl. He says there’s a storm brewing and I might get hit pretty hard between here and Council.

I ride into a headwind to Council as the light fades. My progress is slow, but the scenery is stunning– green flat expanses surrounded by mountains. Idaho has some beautiful farm country. In the dark I climb to New Meadows. The road winds through the woods of national forest. I’m alone in the trees. I feel the chill of passing streams before I see them. It’s humid and cold. The terrain flattens out before Tamarack. In the night, industrial lights beam through the mist and expose a massive logging operation. I’m alone with the cranking machines. I pedal through New Meadows and I don’t see a soul, just neon signs above closed stores and vacant motel lots. Everyone but me is asleep.

Out of town, the road turns to gravel. It’s flat and wide open. I push the pedals a few miles and pull off on an overgrown, abandoned frontage road. I lay my bivvy over the gravel and tuck myself in.

I wake up in the night, shaking with cold with no choice but to get up and pedal on. Once I’m moving, I’m warm, but a couple hours down the road my eyes start blurring and then closing. I can’t keep them from closing as I’m descending alongside a logging truck. This isn’t safe. I stop, lift my bike over a fence and lay down to sleep for another hour. Awake to my alarm and groggy, I stuff away my bivvy and get back on my bike to move, but a couple miles down the way I know I need more sleep. I pull over and lay down for another 45 minutes to sleep in a ditch. This time it sticks. I ride the rest of the way to Riggins, past rows of sports fishermen, in the early morning sunlight. I buy breakfast sandwiches and hot coffee at the store in Riggins and clean and lube my chain out front. A passing lady offers me her old newspaper.

The day heats up. I follow the Salmon River upstream to White Bird and fill my water at the saloon. The town looks like it’s designed for tourists, but there aren’t any here. I switchback up a tree-less pass,  gravelly at the top, and zoom down the other side to Grangeville. I’m urgent to get in and out of town and down the road. I chug a pint of chocolate milk and a pint of vanilla milk and I’m out of there. The farm roads to Stites are straight and rolling with sharp 90 degree turns. I’m making it, but I’m boiling hot. My skin is red and actually feels like it’s scorching and I start feeling desperate. I stop at a gas station in Kooskia and ask for sunscreen and they’re sold out. They direct me to the supermarket down the street. A checker there personally walks me to the sunscreen section and I’m pretty sure I look like I need the help. I buy a gigantic bottle, the only option, and it gets me through the rest of the race. Outside the store, I coat my entire body with a thick layer of white sunscreen and watch it immediately soak in. The road out of town follows the Clearwater River, winding and beautiful, it becomes a living nightmare. As I ride upstream, I really feel like I’m not getting anywhere as the same scene loops over and over. It is such a gradual climb. I watch the river wind it’s way 90 miles up to Lolo Pass, the division between Idaho and Montana.

Two thirds of the way up, I click my shifter to change gears and nothing happens and again, nothing. I thought the battery would last me another thousand miles to Kansas, but I guess I killed it on day 4 in Idaho. I stop, thinking I’ll pull out my seat post and swap the battery and while I’m standing there, Evan pedals up. We agree that Lolo Pass takes forever. I tell him about my dead Di2 and that I’m thinking about switching the battery. His died yesterday. He suggests that I ride single-speed to the top, it’s a mellow grade the whole way. There’s a restaurant up there, I could charge it for a few minutes and he could get some food. There’s a hotel at Lolo Hot Springs, on the other side of the pass, and I could get a full charge there.

Sounds like a good plan and I’m happy to have company to break up the monotony. We ride together into the night. Evan is full of stories and he’s easy to be around. After the sun goes down, the air gets chilly. By the time we make it to the restaurant near the top it’s dark and closed. I’m carrying loads of extra food. I give Evan a cinnamon roll and we head for Lolo Hot Springs. If they’re closed up for the night, we’ll descend to Lolo. We get to Lolo Hot Springs near midnight and there’s a light on in the bar. I knock on the window and a young guy opens the door. He’s cleaning up for the night. We ask about rooms and arrange to stay in a couple of cabins across the way. I buy a cinnamon roll as big as my face and pedal across the street to find my cabin. I’ve never slept inside during an endurance race, but with my dead Di2, I’m tethered to a power source. I’m so relieved to find a solution. I unlock the door to my cabin. The bed spread is folded open, like someone just climbed out. I plug in my electronic shifting, set my alarm and don’t hesitate to crawl into the warm bed. The sheets smell like cigarettes. It’s my first night in Montana.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Oregon

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Top photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog; bottom photo: Josh Spice

 

Darkness on day 2, just past Prairie City

I feel sick to my stomach, disgusted by my slow pace. I’m losing and I feel powerless. I just can’t ride faster and I can’t get the miles done. Too many expectations. I want to ride 250 miles a day and I want to win this whole damn thing and I want to ride fast and I’m covering the distance, but I’m just not riding fast enough. Why can’t I ride 14 miles an hour? I’m struggling for 12. What I don’t realize is that I’m nearly 500 miles into the race by day 2. There is only one rider ahead of me and three sleeping in Prairie City. I lift my bike over a farm fence and hoist myself over to the other side. I pull out my bivvy, set my alarm for three hours and lay down. I close my eyes to rest, but my mind isn’t ready to sleep. I lay for fifteen minutes, easing my mind and I do feel rested, but I’m not ready to sleep. I want to go climb that hill. I need to. I need to keep my head in this race and I need to move. So I stuff my bivvy back into my framebag, hoist my bike back onto the road and start pedaling up the hill. It’s the right choice. Settling for disappointment never is. It’s dark and calm and rural. I pedal uphill until my map turns green for State Forest. And now I’m really tired and ready to sleep. I pull into a turnoff among tall trees. And this is where I’ll lay to rest. I feel comforted by the trees as if it’s the place I’m supposed to be. The day was hot and the evening is warm. I lay my bivvy over pine needles and reset my alarm.

Astoria, June 4, 2016

Sixty racers meet at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon with the intention of racing to Yorktown, Virginia– 4300 miles away. No one will make it there tomorrow or the next day or the day after that or even in two weeks time, but we’re all hell bent on getting there. Going into this race I have confidence that I could be a contender, but standing in this crowd, it’s hard to believe. These guys are bigger or stronger or sleeker than me. They’re roadies and in my grey cotton t-shirt, I’m not. I tuck my t-shirt into my shorts to be more aero, but mostly I look like a third grader getting ready for gym class. I spot Sarah Hammond across the plaza and in that moment I know she’s competition. She has a tight bikepacking kit and a fierce presence. But there’s no way she’s carrying two massive burritos like me and I’m not planning on stopping.

Nathan Jones stands on a concrete block to give final pre-race instructions. My mind is buzzing and I’m not really listening.

“Do not interfere with other riders… Ride your own race…We’ll have a neutral start until we cross the bridge at mile 5. I’ll lead you through it.”

This is my day. I can’t imagine finishing this race and I can’t imagine what the days will be like, but I know I can do it. We all line up behind Nathan Jones and his copper colored handlebar wrap and start pedaling. If it wasn’t a neutral start I might just go bananas. I love hammering on day 1 because it’s the only day I’ll have fresh legs. I pull up near the front next to Sarah. We’ve never met but we talk like we have. I remember her words:

“The food in America is terrible.”

“The drivers are hostile to cyclists in Australia.”

“The only difference between road biking and mountain biking is that on a road bike you can see long straight distances.”

“I like coaching women in Australia there are only two levels of female riders– novice and expert.”

“But you have loads of experience.”

I feel her tongue-in-her-cheek on that last comment. She’s an outright confident person and in this moment she knows she can stomp me.

Nathan Jones pulls over after the mile 5 bridge and we start for real. I’m hungry for miles. I stand up on my bike and start cranking. This is the only day we’ll ride in any kind of a pack. It’s a busy summer Saturday morning on Highway 101 and the beach front bike path. Neither the cars nor the pedestrians like us, but we’ve got to get through. It’s a race! I ride a few minutes with Jay P and Mark Seaburg and they’re friendly. I pass all the guys on the climbs and they cruise past me on the descents. Sarah hammers past me 20 or 40 miles in and is out of sight in a flash. She’s so fast!

It’s hot and just getting hotter and it’s going to keep getting hotter for days. The first 100 miles are fast and fun. I tell myself I’m going to have a good first day, then a good second day, then a good third day and then a good fourth day all the way to a good seventeenth day cause that’s what it’ll take to win this thing and I believe it. I leapfrog a few times with Brian McEntire. I’m a rabbit up the climbs and he rolls like a bowling ball down the descents. I’m breathing hard and my legs feel good, but my mind is starting to lose it cause I need to eat. It’s just too hot. I start taking bites of my massive burrito. I don’t want to stop, but I have to because it’s so hot. I fill my bottles with gatorade in Rose Lodge and turn inland. I buy chicken sandwiches and strawberry cream pies at McDonalds in Corvallis. At dusk a man flags me into an impromptu aid station near Harrisburg, but I keep going. Tatooed Kai pedals away from the aid station and passes me and I like the feel of this guy. It’s amazing how much you can sense from a person just sharing space for a moment. He’s calm and smiling.

I’m alone past 200 miles. Someone calls out to me in the dark, snaps a photo and pedals up. It’s Josh Spice! The last time I saw this guy was in Spring of 2013 in Alaska when he lived in a dry cabin in Fairbanks. He’s since shaved his big beard and moved to Eugene, a short pedal from the Trans America Trail.

“I’m packed light like you, with a little bivvy and some snacks. I’ll ride with you over McKenzie Pass through the night if you want.”

“Awesome!”

It’s dark and warm and we’re afraid of nothing. We chatter and pedal through the night. I’m over 230 miles in and feel lively, but not fast. I have slowed way down, but I’m happy with all my miles and Josh’s company. He’s ramped up about the race and entertains the idea of sticking with it, of riding another 4200 miles. It’s giddy. I know I want to get near McKenzie Bridge before I sleep. A rider flies past us up the climb, his flashing lights veer around a corner and then they’re gone. Evan, the ER doctor from from Portland, catches us, makes a couple of minutes of conversation and cruises by. We fill water from a garden hose. And then it hits me on the climb. If I keep riding with Josh, I’ll never get sleepy. This early on in the race, I want to get sleepy because I want to lay down and rest for two hours to reset. I want to get up and ride strong tomorrow. Josh totally gets it and we part ways. What a nice way to spend the first night! I mentally unwind over the next ten miles and pull over on a small road between Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge at 2AM. I’m still wired, but I talk myself down and have little trouble sinking into a restful sleep.

Up by 4AM, I’m not really rested and I’m not really tired, but I’m ready to charge ahead. The feeling is so familiar that I don’t hesitate to pack up and get moving. The rest of the climb up to McKenzie Pass is easy in the early morning. It’s green and lush on the west side and volcanic rubble on the east. I fly down hill past dozens of Sunday morning cyclists. After day 1 of the Trans Am Bike Race, the leaderboard is all but determined. In the next 4000 miles, I’ll only see five other racers. Ultra distance racing is a lonely pursuit and I like riding alone. In fact, I don’t see another racer at all on day 2. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re racing when you don’t seen anyone.

I stop at the first convenience store in Sisters and am happy to see an old man with a burrito stand inside. I order a couple of chicken and rice burritos to go and buy some snacks and drinks while he makes them. I really don’t care what I eat. I just know that I have to have lots of food on the bike. Consuming 10,000 calories a day while riding through 100º weather isn’t delicious, but it’s what I have to do if I want a chance at winning.

The old man grins a row of gold teeth as he passes me two paper bags, each holding the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen in my life.

By the time I get passed Redmond it’s sweltering. I stop for Redbull and Gatorade at a road side stop before Prineville featuring a massive fried chicken case. In Prineville the bike shop owner takes my picture and his lady friend cheers me on. My skin is roasting and I’m not wearing sunscreen. Huge mistake! I pedal over Ochoco Pass. Some kind soul from Mitchell has set out a water cooler and a spray hose for Trans Am Racers. I fill up and drench myself. What sweet relief! The route doesn’t actually pass through Mitchell and I figure I’ll skip it and resupply in Dayville or John Day. I’m still carrying 1 ½ chicken burritos from this morning. They’re some of the worst burritos I’ve ever tasted, but once I eat them, it doesn’t matter.

The stretch of road leading into and out of Dayville is my favorite in Oregon. The colored rock and winding river look prehistoric. My legs are slow and I tell myself that when I find a store, I’ll get something good like chocolate milk. It’s Sunday and everything in Dayville is closed. An old man cycletourist cheers me on and offers water. I don’t want to stop, so I wave and pedal on. The heat diminishes into the night. This is an opportunity to start riding faster and I try to start pushing the pedals because that’s what I think road riding is all about. I want to be faster and I just can’t seem to do it and it’s starting to bother me. My slow legs are paying for yesterday’s speed. Everything is closed in Mount Vernon and then closed in John Day. I missed the last gas station by 20 minutes. I find a half bottle of coke and a mostly full gatorade and I pour them into my water bottles and move on. Then I’m to and through Prairie City and my mileage is short, but the day is over.

I wake up in the trees shaking with cold, stuff away my bivvy and pedal on. I eat the last of the cold shredded chicken burrito on the ride to Baker City. The day is already hot by the time I get there. Smiling Evan in his reflective jersey catches me at the convenience store.

“It’s so hot out there!”

“I know, forcing down food is the worst part about it. Yesterday I had a moment where I was choking down dry lunchables in the heat. We’ve got Hell’s Canyon coming up. Make sure you don’t miss the last store before the big climb. It’s at the bottom of a descent. Last year I missed it and had to ride back to it.”

He’s in and out of the store fast and effectively drops me. He raced the Trans Am last year. I chug a canned coffee, pack some fried food for later and get out of town. Evan was right. It’s an incredibly hot ride, but a stream follows the road. In a flash, I jump off my bike and run over to the stream. Fully clothed, socks shoes and all, I submerge my whole body. My brain stops boiling and I feel great and that’s my game plan for the rest of the afternoon. Every time my clothes dry out and my skin starts to fry I take a quick plunge in the water. I pick up drinks in Richland and stop at the last store before the dam. Out front I spot a couple loaded touring bikes, some of the first I’ve seen on the route. I say hi to the guy and our eyes both get wide in recognition. It’s Jamie from Silver City! We go right in for a big hug. I met him last year after I finished racing Tour Divide. He’s full of bike love and positive energy.

“Hey! I didn’t know you were racing this! You’re doing awesome.”

“Thanks! So great to see you. Are you guys riding the Trans Am?”

“Yep. We started in Astoria a couple of weeks ago.”

Too cool to run into a friend in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Jamie offers to pay for the gatorade and cookies I’ve picked out. At the register, I ask the man if there’s a good place to fill up some water.

“I’ll fill them up for you. Do you happen to know a rider with the initials LW?”

“That’s me!”

“No, not you, another guy.”

“Oh, Lee?”

“Yeah, probably. If you see that guy, run him off the road! He came here earlier and I asked him to kindly move his bike off my porch. He said he didn’t have to cause nobody is in my empty store anyway. I ran him right out of here!”

I see that he’s tracking the race.

“Isn’t there a girl up front?”

“Nope. She was going about 4 miles an hour in the heat just like everyone does, but then a guy came along while she was climbing the hill and passed her like she was standing still.”

The man is still fuming. I thank him and then thank Jamie and get out of there. I guess Lee isn’t too far off.

It’s like riding into a furnace. I jump in the river one last time and then the road gets steep and keeps climbing. Along the dam, I cross a bridge into Idaho.

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2016 so far

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Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bikecentennial in Missoula, Montana, July 16, 2016.

January

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Baja Divide route research

 

February

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Bus back to Tijuana and ride it all again.

 

March

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We flew home to Alaska from Mexico and rode fatbikes around the state.

 

April

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We worked at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, built the Ruby and got 50 third graders on bikes.

 

May

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I rode from Anchorage to Haines, ferried from Haines to Bellingham and rode to Astoria.

 

June

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I won the Trans Am Bike Race from Astoria to Yorktown.

 

July

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Bike-train-plane trips in the east coast and the Montana Bicycle Celebration and then I turned thirty.

Now we’re back in New York planning to publish the Baja Divide route this month and then…

Colorado Trail? 

The 1000 Mile Adventure Route in Czech and Slovakia?

Ride dirt in Georgia and Turkey?

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The people of Baja California

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Baja is diverse and mixed. It is California in Mexico. It is a mountainous desert dotted with oases and surrounded by the sea. The beating hearts of this land reflect its warmth through kindness. They seem to know us before we arrive.

Read my story about our friend Pancho on the Revelate Designs blog.

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Advocate Hayduke in Baja California

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I’m riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke in Baja California with Nick. 

I’m happy to be back in Mexico, traveling on the bike and riding fat tires in the sand. And we’re having fun.

Tim Krueger wrote to me in September to offer bikes to us. I met Tim and his wife Odia in Las Vegas at Interbike. They seemed like really kind folks. I only have one bike at a time and they gave me one and it’s great. The Hayduke is a steel 27.5+ hardtail. I was hoping to ride the titanium frame, but it wasn’t available in time for this trip. Advocate is a new company that released three bikes this fall.

The Hayduke is a great bike for this trip because it has three inch tires and a suspension fork. We’re riding sandy jeep roads and rough mountainous tracks. It rides like a Jeep, the tires float like a fatbike when I need them too, but it’s not burdensome for climbing and technical riding. Having a new Rockshox Reba fork is pretty sweet compared to the crusty old fork on my blue bike. I was concerned the bike would be really heavy, but it’s not a tank. Nick tried to convince me to tour on my white Pugsley four years ago and I refused. This is not the same white bike. It’s kind of a mix of all the bikes I’ve ridden in the past five years, even the Hooligan. I may look to build some 29 inch wheels for it in the future with carbon rims. 

Nick is designing a dirt route through Baja that we’re riding and hoping to share. We’re really excited to ride with friends next month visiting from Missoula, Seattle and Anchorage.

I also have an Instagram account, follow me @laelwilcox for pictures from the road. 

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ferry-bike-Banff

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In my dreams, I’m convinced that I’m still chasing the Tour Divide record. I wake up every night for a week, convinced that I’m still supposed to be out there. It takes minutes to tell myself that it’s over.

I pass through Albuquerque to visit some friends on my way back to Anchorage. I lived in Albuquerque in 2013 and helped open a restaurant. On my visit, I find out the owner is opening a new restaurant in Austin, Texas. The wheels start turning.

I’m tired, but I’m not going to be tired for long. I could work in Austin. If I’m going to work in Austin, I could ride there. If I’m going to ride there, I could ride the Divide again. Am I recovered? Not now, but I think I will be in two weeks.

It’s a risk and risks are opportunities. I’m trying to think bigger every year. I was really sick during my June Divide ride. I couldn’t ride well because I couldn’t breathe. It was frustrating to feel so limited. I know I gave it my best effort, but I also know that I can do better. Knowing is not the same as doing. I’m curious to be out there alone. There are so many things that could go wrong. I could get sick again. There could be terrible weather or forest fires. But there’s also a chance that I could do better. I don’t want to wait around until next June to try again during the race. I don’t know what I’ll be doing next June. We might be traveling. I don’t want to arrange my schedule to wait around for a race. I’m ready for this now, well not now, but maybe in two weeks.

I definitely want to ride to the start again. It’s a good way to get my legs moving and gauge my recovery. I book a ferry ticket from Whittier, AK to Bellingham, Washington. The ferry only runs once every two weeks, so I’m leaving next week. I’m committed. I spring the news on my family. Their disappointment haunts me. Everyone dries their tears for my birthday party and my grandmother gives me an Alaskan Grown t-shirt. I tell her I’ll wear it every day and I’m not kidding.

Nick and Christina ride me out to Girdwood the next day. It’s so warm that we’re still in shorts and t-shirts at 11PM. We see a bear cross the road on the way into town and camp at the municipal park. They pedal back to Anchorage in the morning. My mom, sister, and her kids meet me in Girdwood to go see animals at the conservation center. Tamra meets me for a hike and drives me through the tunnel to Whittier. When I check in for the ferry, they tell I’m really pushing it. 

I’m late?

Well, I wouldn’t say you’re early. 

I tie my bike up in the car deck and bring my sleeping bag up with me. There are lawn chairs on a covered deck to sleep on. The ferry is like summer camp. Everyone is friendly. My friend’s cousin is on board and two other bike travelers. The more I pedal, the smaller the world gets.

It’s a five day ride. We stop for a few hours in Yakutat, Juneau and Ketchikan. It’s my first trip to southeast Alaska. I run in Yakutat and Ketchikan and bike to downtown Juneau. The other passengers are concerned because I almost miss the boat on the way back from Juneau. They’ve already got the crew involved, but I make it back in time. I jump rope on the ferry deck and read Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer to get inspired for my ride. I quit drinking beer. I’m putting all my eggs in one basket. I want to ride my best.

We dock in Bellingham. There are awesome bike trails right out of town. I ride paths and Highway 11 to Burlington. I pass a couple of cyclotourists and raise a hand to wave. Looking over, I realize it’s Hope and her boyfriend from Anchorage. They’re riding and moving to Seattle. It’s rad to run into friends on the road.

I head west on Highway 20– a killer ride. I pass Sedro-Woolley and Concrete and ride some of the Skagit County Bike path. It’s blackberry season. They’re huge and sweet and everywhere. I stop at the shop in Marblemount. There’s lots of big hair and trucks. Two girls look me up and down as I stroll the aisles. The family from Florida that I slept next to on the ferry pull over to say hi. They’re on their way back to Florida and their son would love to ride like me.

I camp on the side of the road in North Cascades National Park. It rains in the night and the morning is sunny. A truck with a rack and four big bikes pass me on the climb. I see them a few miles down the road in a parking lot. Are there trails here? They flag me down. They’re broken down and there’s no cell service. They’re trying to make it to Canada to downhill for the weekend. They give me their AAA contact and account information and I say I’ll do my best to get to town and get them rolling again.

I feel good on the bike. My energy is back. I climb twice and descend to Mazama. It is fantastic country. I stop at the shop and the pay phone is out of service. As I’m going in to ask for a phone, I spot the downhillers out the window of a truck. They’ve hitched into town, got their situation sorted and are all smiles. I walk next door to the bike shop and ask about my creaking bottom bracket. The friendly owner, Merle, says it’ll be no problem. When I tell him I’m from Alaska, he asks if I know the Westhusings. I grew up playing soccer with Kaley! They have a second home here. Do I know Greg Matyas? Of course, he’s great! I ask if I can leave my bike while I go for a run and he directs me to the town singletrack. I run through sandy pine forests that are groomed cross-country ski trails in the winter.

I run back to my bike and take the singletrack out of town. I roll through Winthrop and Twisp, old western towns. I climb to the Loup Loup ski area. dark clouds menace so I lay out under the roof of the pit toilets at an empty campground. It rains a little and is clear in the morning. I descend to Okanagan and buy tacos and a burrito from a food truck. It’s an agricultural valley in a hot, dry desert. I climb to Tonasket and stop at the food co-op. As I’m heading out I hear, Lael? 

It’s me, Danny Watts. 

No way!

Danny is a childhood friend from Anchorage. As four year olds, we played together instead of going to preschool. Danny lives in Seattle and spent the weekend in Eastern Washington on a house boat with twenty friends. He works as a sales rep for a juice company and gives me tons of juice. We take a picture for our moms, hug and part ways. 

I roll past historic shop fronts in Republic in the early evening and start up Sherman Pass to camp. In the morning, I’m up and over to Kettle Falls. I leave my bike at the gas station to run along the dammed lake. I daydream about racing my bike around the world. From Chewelah, I head east to 49° North Ski Resort and camp next to the railroad tracks just shy of Newport. I’m in Idaho in the morning, to Sandpoint in the afternoon and in Montana by nightfall. I roll through Libby for coffee in the morning. It’s over a hundred degrees as I pedal high above Lake Koocanusa. I don’t find swimming access until early evening. Then I’m back in Eureka, back on the Divide route. During my Tour Divide June ride, I spent five hours laying in a field trying to breath in Eureka. It’s surreal to be back, almost like waking up and revisiting a nightmare and no longer feeling scared. I camp in the city park and run along the Pacific Northwest Trail in the morning.

I cross into Canada in the afternoon. I ride the pavement to Sparwood and get back on the Divide route. I camp just past Elkford. I continue on the Divide to Banff, stay with Keith and Leslie for a week and get ready to go back out. It’s like I never left.

Tagged , , , ,

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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and then we start

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Josh Daugherty leaves the left lane open on the first day of the Tour Divide 2015.  Photo via klite.com.au.

You can’t win this race in a day, but you can certainly ruin it for yourself and others. We’ll try to organize this start to ensure that doesn’t happen to anyone.

All 150 riders stand together in the parking lot of the YWCA for a group picture. Well over six feet tall and larger than life, Billy Rice commands the group. I turn to find Alice Drobna, the female single-speed record holder from last year, standing right behind me. I recognize her from pictures. I smile at her and lift my hand for a high five. She looks at me quizzically, but tags my bare palm with her leather glove.

Billy Rice continues:

If you’re planning on beating Jay Petervary and riding two hundred miles to sleep in Butts Cabin, come stand over here.

A dozen riders huddle in the far end of the parking lot.

A nearby rider snickers. There’s only room for four or five to sleep in that cabin

If you’re planning on sleeping in Sparwood, please make your way to the center of the parking lot.

I’m standing in between the Butts Cabin beating JayP group and the Sparwood group, catching up with a Colin Saman. Colin is riding the Tour Divide on a fully loaded cargo bike. He’s an ex-roadie and one of the strongest riders I’ve ever encountered. I met him in the spring of 2013. He’d recently quit road racing and was on a road trip to move back to California. He stayed with Nicholas and I when we were living on a farm in Albuquerque. We spent a few days riding fatbikes along the Rio Grande together. Now Colin spends most of his time picking up produce from local farms with his cargo bike and connecting directly to consumers. He’s the vegetable man. He must be carrying at least a hundred pounds of gear for the Tour Divide.

If you’re planning on riding the Elkford, please wait at the end of the parking lot.

If you didn’t know this was a race, get back there! Billy Rice waves his hand past all of the riders to the end of the street. Everyone laughs.

We depart.

It’s about a mile from the YWCA parking lot until the official start of the Tour Divide. Billy Rice warns that if we pass JayP before the start line, we should consider ourselves on an ITT. It’s cool out. I’m shivering in shorts and a t-shirt, but I know I’ll be hot soon. I pedal casually in the lead group up a steep hill to the start. “On your left”, the lady calls. Alice pushes past us on the left. “Whoah, Alice” a guy replies.

I have to get my cadence, she hollers back.

It’s a race. We’re all nerves.

And then we start.

Good God, it’s fun and we’re ripping trail. 

I find myself close to Chanoch, a Trek sponsored Israeli rider. I know him from traveling in Israel this spring. Someone complains about the first hill we have to climb. Chanoch jokes: this trail goes from east to west, right? A southerner tells him, No, buddy, it’s north to south. Chanoch says he knows. The southerner says it must’ve been the accent that threw him off. I glare at the southerner. Chanoch speaks perfect English. He’s spent a decade driving around the US and competing in mountain bike races. He’s well versed in America. I’ll be happy to ride alone soon. 

Ten miles in, we emerge from the doubletrack Goat Creek Trail to connect with the Spray Lake Road. There’s a crowd with cowbells cheering. It’s a steep hill to the crossing. I stand and climb to the top, almost losing traction, but stick it. Crazy Larry is at the top and yells: It’s the first woman! I aim straight for him and reach up for a high five. He claps my hand loud and starts hollering with excitement. 

This is too fun. I’m having the ride of my life.

Thirty or forty miles in, it starts raining. Then the rain freezes. It’s cold. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. Crazy Larry pulls up in a van next to me. He asks if I know the number one reason why people drop out of the Tour Divide.

No, I don’t know.

They get sick in the cold. They don’t want to stop to put on more layers. They just try to push through.

That makes sense. If you get too cold, you lose all of your energy.

He nods. Do you have something to sleep in?

Yeah. I have a sleeping bag.

What kind?

I can’t think of the brand. The model is Summerlite. It’s a 32 degree bag, but four years old, so more like a 45 degree bag.

Crazy Larry’s friend laughs. Do you have something to eat?

Yeah, I have like seven sandwiches.

Where? 

In my framebag, gas tank, and jerry can.

Don’t get too cold and don’t forget to call Crazy Larry. He gives me a sticker with a 1-800 number out of the window. I slide the sticker into my pocket and forget about it forever.

Crazy Larry speeds away.

I pull over to get into my rain suit. 

I cruise past the Boulton Creek Trading Post. The sun comes back out. I keep my pace up. My lungs start to heat up. Then they start burning. I figure they’re just opening up, that I’m just getting used to the elevation. I’m breathing hard, but I’m having fun.

It rains. We ride through mud. 

I pass Elkford during a sun break. I spot menacing clouds and I don’t stop.

I cross paths with three ladies on dirt and they hardly say hi. It starts hailing. The big stones bounce off my nose. I lose the track. I track back and forth three times and finally find a narrow path pushing straight up a hill.

I make it to Sparwood in the early evening. I walk right into the bathroom of the Subway. My face is covered in mud. I wash up and fill my bottles.

I order two meatball foot longs and a foot of the sub club. I ask the ladies to cut the sandwiches into four pieces, skip the paper wrapping and put the pieces directly into plastic bags. I know it’s weird, but it’ll make it easier for me to eat them on the bike. They work together. One lady holds the plastic bags wide and the other stuffs the sandwiches in. They’re already a mess. I buy cookies and chips and drink soda and split.

Out front, a rider asks if I’m continuing on. I grin wide, of course, are you?

No, I’m just a rookie. This is the second longest day I’ve ever had on a bike. I’m sleeping here for the night. We part ways.

Back on route, the sky clears. I follow a river on pavement to a mine and turn back on dirt. Night falls. I climb.

Around midnight, I encounter icy water and downed trees. There’s no way around them. I walk straight through. The road is a cold stream. It takes me an hour to be through with it.

I’m breathing hard in the cold night, but I’m happy to be climbing to warm up. Stars overhead comfort me. With no rain in sight, I can sleep out.

Around 1AM, 183 miles into the route, I decide to call it for the night. I pull out my sleeping bag and bivy on the side of the road and doze off.

I wake up a few minutes later gasping. My breath is short. I try to slow it down, to fall back asleep, but I can’t. I lay there for another hour, focusing on my breath, trying to slow it’s pace, but I feel like I can’t get any air. I hear another rider pedal past, deep in conversation with invisible bears. I decide to get up and ride. It’s just after 3AM.

My breath is labored, but I’m riding fine, my legs feel fine. I figure I’ll buy cough syrup in Eureka and I’ll be fine. Over the morning, it get worse and worse. I have three passes to climb before the border at Roosville, MT. I don’t see anyone all morning. Corbin passes fine, Cabin is a little labored, but by the time I make it to Galton Pass, I feel terrible. I’m wheezing hot, stale air. I have to stop several times during the steep quarter mile singletrack push. This can’t go on. Even when I make it back to the road, I’m too exhausted to pedal. It’s not even steep. I’m powerless. I get off my bike and start pushing. My speedometer drops to 0 miles an hour and my trip mileage restarts. I’m hunched over my bike gasping. It’s a beautiful sunny day. I walk for five miles. I have no idea how tall the pass is, but I don’t stop to look. Hours pass. Finally, a rider catches me. It’s Rob from New Zealand. He hops off his bike and starts pushing next to me.

You’re suffering.

I can’t breathe.

It’s only another K and a half to the top.

He gets back on his bike and pedals up the hill. I keep walking.

Chanoch and Joe Fox catch up.

Chanoch hollers when he sees me: What, did you only sleep two hours? You’re crazy! You need to sleep six hours.

I look at him lamely. They pass. I tell them I’ll see them in Eureka.

I make the top and speed down the other side. I’m achey all over, but it’s nice to be back on the bike. I descend to the border.

The border guard is incredulous. Where did you come from?

Anchorage.

All the way from Anchorage? Where’s all your stuff?

This is it.

He asks about my raspy voice. I tell him I’m having a hard time breathing. A stack of cars line up as we chitchat.

I struggle through the ten mile road stretch from Roosville to Eureka. I call Nick on the way, keeping my left hand on the bars as I talk. Something is wrong. I can’t breathe. He tells me to relax, to get to Eureka. From there, I need to take a nap. I need to take it one hour at a time.

I feel like my race is over. It’s taken me all morning to cover very little distance. I can hardly move.

Joe Fox, Chanoch and Rob are all sitting for Subway in Eureka. 

You don’t look so good.

I don’t feel so good.

I buy some Dayquil and a huge soda. They push on. I tell them I’m going to take a nap and see how I feel in a few hours.

I pedal past a forest service office and into a grassy field. I pull out my sleeping bag and lay in the sun and focus on my breath. It is short and labored. Within an hour I’m coughing up loads of bright green mucus. It’s a disgusting relief. I can breathe a little easier.

I lay in the field for another three hours. I call my family and tell them I’m sick. They support me– I’ve already had a great ride through Canada. They’ll be happy to have me home early.

I go to the supermarket to buy juice. I’m feeling whipped out, but much better. I call Nick and tell him I plan to ride a few miles down the road, sleep out and see how I feel in the morning. I’m not ready to give up. He tells me I’m the best person he knows.

I load up on cough syrup, ride down the road and set my sleeping bag out next to the train tracks at sunset.

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Camels on wheels

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Camel tracks down three thousand feet from Arad. Pavement along the Dead Sea, then to the Small Mahktesh. Headwinds.

I’m in the mix of riders again. I leave Ilan Tevet and Nir at the gas station. I pass Klaus, Ingo and Shai sitting for sandwiches. I climb past Omri on the Ma’ale Akrabim ascent. Our lights dot the darkness.

Sde Boker, 1AM

I fill water from the bathroom faucet in the center of town and there’s Yam.

He’s fine except his brakes don’t work. He’ll wait here for the shop to open in the morning.

Will you continue tonight?, he asks.

Yeah, but just for twenty minutes.

He raises his eyebrows. He says It’s going to be muddy over there. He knows these trails. He lives nearby. I shrug and head out.

I cross the highway and continue onto a bike route signed by a red camel on wheels. The trail narrows to singletrack. It’s hard to follow in the dark. I pull over and sleep.

——————————

I’m up before five, back on the singletrack in the dark. An hour later, I find myself back at the highway crossing with a sign to Sde Boker. I must have turned myself around in the dark looking for the track. I laugh and turn back. At least it’s getting light.

These singles take time. Looking for a farm field crossing, Niv finds me. He smiles tired morning warmth. We ride together. The trail is chunky. He’s hungry, but he waits for me. Chivalry.

At the gas station we split. In line for my usual coffee and carrot juice at Aroma, there’s Yam. Wide eyed and smiling.

I made the right choice. Right?

Hmm?

I took the highway. It was muddy, wasn’t it?

No, it was fine.

That’s not what he said. He points across the lot at Niv, who’s refueled and on his way out.

How’re your brakes?

Oh, the shop doesn’t open until 9, so I left.

Yam sips coffee at a deck table with two friends in bike gear. They’ve come to accompany him.

I go back inside for my carrot juice. A lady steps out of her car and approaches me. She’s shy and excited like a little kid. She’s been following my SPOT. She came to tell me that I’m doing great. She came to give me a boost and makes me take a banana and an orange.

You need vitamins!

On the road I leapfrog back and forth with Yam. His friend asks about my bloody nose.

Sometimes, when I work really hard, my nose starts bleeding.

So, you’re used to this?

Yeah.

The road to Mitzpe Ramon is easy until a rocky hiking path into town.

I fall. I scrape my knees and my saddle noses into my left shoulder blade.

It hurts. I slow my breath and tell myself that I’m okay because I am. I’m alone.

Yam & Co catch me looking for the track entering a neighborhood. Nearing the center of town, at the edge of a cliff ringing a massive crater, the track points up a short hike to a lookout. I stop to stare at the red line on the GPS.

Well, it looks like we’re heading up this.

I’d rather drink a coke, says Yam.

Yam & Co peel off and roll into town.

I shrug, grab my chainstay with my right arm, and heft my saddle onto my shoulder. I climb to the view.

I rejoin the gang at the gas station.

Wow, you’re really a rule follower.

Well, if I make a mistake with the track, it’s an honest mistake.

We shrug.

They tell me to look out for them at the campground in the crater. They’re setting up an impromptu feed station for Yam and I.

I buy an armful of sandwiches and chips and juice. The attendant points at my bloody legs and asks me if I want to go to the hospital.

No, I’m in a race!

Wide-eyed, he looks away.

That’s okay. I don’t know if I’d believe me either.

I walk outside to pack my bike and find two wadded up green apple power gels in my helmet. That’s the last I see of Yam.

I hit a stretch of the Israel Bike Trail that I’ve already ridden three times because it’s awesome. Easy breezy.

I stop at the campground to fill water and toss trash. I lift the lid and find a pink cotton turtleneck. Score. I use the shirt to wipe the blood from my shins and the grease from my chain.  Then I blow my bloody nose in it. I put the shirt back in the bin as a camper rounds the corner. I’m really glad she missed the show.

It’s hot. I fill a 3L bladder of water.

Back on route, I’m sinking in the wadi. I take air out of my tires and dump most of the water. Much better.  

I pass the Zofar detour, then the Zukim detour at sunset. Onto Pharan. The moonlight illuminates the ash white roads. I climb and descend.

I’m close and I know it, but I’m tired and I’m slow. I stop and sleep.

——————————

3:30AM

I wake up from a dream about Commander Zohar in outer space.

I get on my bike and enter Pharan in the dark, following a vehicle through the gate.

I fill water from a hose with a spray nozzle. The kibbutz gate is down.

How do I get out of here?

A delivery truck pulls up. Great, he’ll let me out! Not a chance; he’s stuck on the other side.

Well, someone has to open it. We wait. Impatient, I put my bike on my shoulder and start climbing the gate. At the top, I lift the bike over and drop it down the other side. The trucker makes as if he’ll help me and sure enough, the gate opens once I’m up top. We laugh. I leap to the pavement.

Back on route, I eat the last of a bag of dried cranberries. I pedal dirt roads along the Jordanian border. It’s easy, but I’m brain-dead. I need to eat. I stare at the blue arrow creep along the magenta line towards the outlet mall in Yahel.

While I’m fumbling with the menu, trying to order coffee and sandwiches at Cafe Cafe, Nick blazes up to the window.

Hey!

We sit and have coffee together and I’m all the biggest grins.

I better get moving. I’m in a race!

 

Staircase hike up Ketura Ascent. 

Single-track to Ne’ot Semadar.

Fill bottles with fresh peach juice at the cafe.

Down the Israel National Trail to the circus tent hiking shelter at Shaharut.

Sit in the shade on the porch and chug water.

Eat cracker and cheese stuffed pita pockets.

Gravel climb past the Uvda military base.

Up top are those trails. Magnificent and fast. If the weather holds, these trails are nothing but fun. Go ride them!

Push to Timna, to the top.

Turn left at the lake.

Exit at the park entrance.

And there’s Nick waiting to ride me to the beach.

Tailwinds all the way in.

And there’s Niv on the beach in the night. He’s really hungry, but he waited for me to finish.   

We sit down together, on a white couch. Next to Nick and across from Niv and Erez, I open the menu. It reads like a novel, only from right to left. I don`t read from right to left.

What’s good here?

At least it’s got pictures.

 
Nicholas Carman1 4680

 

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