2016 Tour Divide – Final Thoughts

It’s been several months now since I returned from the Divide. I get constant reminders of the Divide from the Facebook group as people upload their stories, questions and plans for their next attempts. And I just received the awesome 2016 Tour Divide Participant Jersey that Bill Littmann created which was a good reminder that I promised a post on what worked and what didn’t. 

First what didn’t work:

At the top of this list is my memory. Maybe it’s an age thing, but there were several things that I just plain forgot about which impacted my enjoyment of the event. First, I didn’t remember everything that I packed. Most importantly, my neck warmer which is critical for preventing hypothermia and staying comfortable in cold weather. That first day I suffered in the cold, wet conditions. If you’ve never used a neck warmer when riding in cold weather, give it a try. It makes such a huge difference. You can pick one up at any ski shop. I think it was around day 3 that I remembered I had it with me. I’ve used a neck warmer for long brevets many times. It’s probably my favorite cold weather item and I forgot I had one with me.

The second thing I forgot was my secondary GPS tool, an iPhone app called Gaia GPS. I had pre-downloaded detailed maps for the tour divide, so cell service was not needed to see where I was. I was using my Garmin Edge 810 as my primary navigation tool. The problem with the Edge was that on occasion it didn’t have enough detail to determine the proper turn to take. There were several times during the first week where I went the wrong way and had to back track. I think it was somewhere in Montana where I hit a spot that had three options in front of me and I remembered that I had Gaia available. Sure enough, when I zoomed in, all three options showed on the map and I knew exactly which path to take. Checking my secondary GPS could have saved me a lot of time that first week.

 

Other things that didn’t work… my Garmin Edge 810. Not just the insufficient detail when zooming in on the map, but with all the rain, the charging port became corroded and it became very difficult to charge. No chance of getting it to charge while riding on the bike (which is something I’ve done many, many times), so I wound up ending my daily rides when I would get the warning that my 810 was about to die. This issue was probably creeping up over a much longer period of time (I’ve had that 810 for years), it’s just unfortunate that the failure happened during the Divide ride. I’ve since upgraded to the Garmin Edge 820, I hope it stands up to as much abuse as my 810 withstood.


Charging cords… yeah, both my cell phone charging cord and my Edge 810 charging cord had issues. Too many bends? I dunno what happened to them, but keeping things charged had become a problem for me. I know cords have a rating for the number of times they can be bent before they are expected to fail. Like my Edge, these cords were also probably close to end of life. I should have just bought new charging cords before the ride. I was able to find a replacement cord for my iPhone at a gas station in Lincoln, MT but the 810 uses an older mini-USB connector that just isn’t sold at convenience stores anymore (at least that I could find), so I had a double issue with the charging port and the cord for my 810. It was extremely finicky about taking a charge. 

My shoes. I used tennis-shoe style mountain bike shoes because I expected to do a lot of walking. Which I did. But the shoes I have really are not intended for the amount of walking I did and the front of the tread is now gone. Just gone. I never noticed during the ride, but in hindsight I have to wonder if the condition of my shoes contributed to the injury I sustained. Invest in high quality shoes that can stand up to miles of hiking.

 

My Big Agnes Double Z air mattress. It was a comfortable enough mattress, but required a lot of air to fill and it had multiple leaks the first night. Luckily I brought my air mattress repair kit, but I used all the patches I had for that first repair. It did hold up the rest of the trip, but it looked and felt like the punctures came from the internal support structure (there were some sharp edges that I could feel in the mattress). To help avoid re-puncturing it, I didn’t roll it as tightly as I had it at the beginning, so it was packed a bit larger, but stayed inflated.

My Revelate Designs “Sweetroll” handlebar bag. Yeah, it kept everything dry, so from that standpoint it was great. But keeping it from drooping onto my front wheel was an issue. I used some cord with a couple adjustable clips to pull it tight against my aerobars, but sometimes that would come loose and I’d have to stop to fix things. And when it was full I had problems with the ends interfering with my brake levers (including a couple times when it actually pushed a brake lever in). I wound up using a strap to pull the two ends together towards the front and away from my brakes. This worked, but was a real pain when I needed to get into the Sweetroll for something. I kept things I needed frequently in my handlebar bag (cold weather items like my arm warmers, leg warmers, full finger gloves, jackets, etc and other items like my water purification filter, stove, …) so I opened and closed it several times a day. Using that strap just slowed everything down. 

My “Find Me Spot” personal satellite locator. Notice the theme of problems with battery powered devices? My Spot died several times during the ride. It’s supposed to last about 5 days on fresh batteries, but with the super cloudy conditions and riding through sections of dense trees, I didn’t get close to that and didn’t even think about checking the charge and it died just before the last descent before leaving Canada. I discovered it wasn’t working on the US side. I had brought some rechargeable NiMH batteries, but those only lasted a day before dying the. Wouldn’t even last a full day on an overnight charge so I gave up on them rather quickly and went back to Lithium batteries. I think I was getting maybe 3-4 days out of new Lithium batteries, but there are several areas where my Spot wasn’t sending and I didn’t know. I think the Spot allows you to charge while in use, so I may try using those NiMH rechargeable batteries again, but keeping it connected to an external battery pack at all times. I dunno… This is where a dyno-hub would have come in really handy… 

Things that worked:

My full rigid Niner Air9 RDO. What a great bike! I never had a mechanical issue even with days of terrible weather. I was pretty good about keeping my chain lubed, but even discounting the drive train, everything else on the bike held up. Reading through some of the ride reports from other people, I was surprised by the number of people who had issues with their brakes. Having a brake problem would be crazy scary on some of the descents. I did replace my brake pads just prior to the ride and got a full checkup from Mike Cox at Curbside Cyclery in Ahwatukee, AZ (highly recommend Mike for all of your cycling needs). Mike gave me a few spare parts to take along, but I never had to use any of it. Make sure your bike is in tip top condition prior to the ride. I passed at least two people with broken chains on the first day!  That would have really sucked!

My Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 tent. This is a super light weight tent that is pretty quick to set up. It’s actually a 2 person tent, so I had plenty of space for the gear I wanted to keep dry at night. Everything I wanted to stay dry stayed dry which is impressive given the amount of rain we had (so I guess this also implies my ultra-light weight dry bags worked too, got them at REI, don’t remember the brands). 

My Evernew Ti micro-stove. This thing rocked. It’s an alcohol fuel stove that gets water boiling in a matter of minutes. I did use an aluminum wind screen around it which probably helped with heat retention. I had nice hot coffee when I woke in the morning and hot meals for dinner. And let me tell you, with that cold, wet weather having hot meals was fantastic.

My Revelate Designs Terrapin Seat “Holster” and drybag. I kept all of my night time stuff in this. Sleeping bag, air mattress, change of clothes, medications, that sort of stuff. Everything stayed dry. It was easy to take off and empty in my tent. Just a very convenient design.

My “Fred bar”. This is a short aluminum bar that mounts on the top of the headset just above your handlebars and is used to mount accessories, like aerobars. It was designed specifically for the Tour Divide. It raises the height of the aerobars and makes them very comfortable for long distance. I also used this bar to mount my Revelate Designs mountain feedbags. It was the perfect height to keep those bags out of the way. BTW, those mountain feedbags also go in the “Things that worked” category. So convenient, I’m still using one on my Niner today to hold my phone when riding.

This little tiny $1 LED headlamp from Walmart. I used that thing every night. It wasn’t super bright, but was enough for everything I needed. 

Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter. This thing worked great. The water tasted good and it filled my bladders quickly. It’s a bit larger in size, but I’d prefer a larger size and have confidence that I’m getting good clean water to drink. 

Things I’d do differently:

 Water management. I drink a lot when I ride and was afraid of running out of water, so I carried a 2.5L water bladder in a frame bag and a 3L water bladder in a camelback. I didn’t need so much water and wound up carrying a lot of extra water weight for nothing. There were probably going to be a couple sections later in the ride where I’d need both, but for the most part, there were enough fast running streams to keep my 3L Camelback full. I think I’d carry the 2.5L bladder again, but wouldn’t fill it until I knew I was in an area where water would be sparse.

Set an alarm. Several days I overslept. By a lot. Who knows how much farther I would have gotten had I gotten up earlier in the morning.

Bring a noise maker. I have one of those little “I’m going to pass you” bells on my handlebars. There were several areas on high passes that were just a bit freaky, especially when riding past some very large piles of fresh bear scat. So you can see me slowly riding through an area where there are dense trees on either side of the trail with my thumb constantly hitting that bell. “Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding,…” I really didn’t want any wildlife surprises. Part of me wondered if ringing that bell to make bears scarce was also just calling wolves or cougars to let them know I was there for dinner. I don’t normally listen to music when riding, but a micro speaker to stream some music through those sections would have been nice. Although the bell worked. I didn’t have any wildlife encounters. I did see one bear from a distance, but that’s how I’d like to see a bear. 

Incorporate a LOT of hiking into my training prior to the Divide. I really didn’t anticipate how much I would be off my bike hiking up steep grades. The problem with my Achilles was probably a direct result of a lack of cross training for hiking. And maybe my choice of shoes. But mostly lack of adequate training. This one could be tough to fix, at least where I live now. You need a nice long, steep hill to practice your hike-a-bike. You aren’t going to be hiking on flat terrain or descents, so finding a good long hill to emulate the experience is key. Maybe hiking up Usery Pass a few times… 

Some final thoughts…

I know the Tour Divide “Grand Depart” is intended to be a race and I thought I’d be racing when I went into it. But at some point I realized I really don’t want to race the Divide. I remember being a bit upset when my status changed from “racer” to “tourist” after spending a day holed up in Eureka, MT fighting a fever. The racers ride through a good portion of the night, but there is so much incredible scenery that you will miss riding at night. I also believe, rightly or wrongly, your chances of adverse wildlife encounters is higher at night or early morning. And quite honestly, I enjoyed setting up my camp and relaxing in the evening or stopping at a hotel, then going and having a nice meal at a local restaurant.  I enjoyed my slower pace plain and simple.

Don’t get me wrong though. Leaving with the Grand Depart is the way to go. You meet really great people that become good friends, but a good portion of those people won’t be racing the divide. Some because they never really intended to and some because they realized, like me, that it’s much more enjoyable to tour the divide than to race it and you will catch others who were hampered by physical or mechanical problems.  Amazing the variety of people who attempt this ride. 

Canada is an absolutely amazing country for mountain biking. If you get a chance to mountain bike there, take it! Montana is also beautiful, but it crushed me physically.

And the key question… would I do it again? Not in 2017 for sure.  I’m just getting my life back into a “normal” cadence. And not as a race. 2018 is quite a way off still, but you really need a full year to train right for this event. I have to be honest, I didn’t ride my bikes when I got back from the divide (road or mountain). I mostly sat on the couch and super-sized myself eating way more than I should have with almost no exercise for several months. It’s taken some time to get my motivation back, but I have started to get out again for short rides on a regular basis. I think about the divide often and what I missed by not finishing. I’ve never been someone to leave a goal unfinished, so who knows? The Divide gets into your head and it’s hard not to think about doing it again, especially after enough time passes that you don’t remember the pain…And there was most definitely pain!

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