Wednesday, 13 December 2017

How not to follow up the Tour Divide

I was hoping that an upside of the Tour Divide might be some uber fitness I’d be able to bring to some end of year riding.  I obviously got to the end, but quite a bit more damaged than I’d really bargained for.  The groin and ankles showed some measurable recovering in two weeks of convalescence, limping around Arizona, then California.  But on returning to Oz my hands appeared just as useless as they were when I finished.  To give you an indication of what they’d become, let your fingers go totally limp, then try to insert your hands into your jean pockets - no straightening digits!  The muscles responsible for finger straightening (the lumbricals) were one of the sets of muscles I had zero control over.  Cupping hands (to cup water), gripping zippers, and cutting food (extending forefinger down the spine of a knife) were all in the too hard basket and required workarounds.

Back in Oz, having not touched the bike for a couple of weeks I was keen to at least turn the legs over.  That first ride greeted me with a rude shock - actually multiple tinglings in my hands accompanying every little jolt and corrugation.  After a week of this, reason finally sunk in and I decided that hammering hands that were clearly trying to recover was not a smart thing to do.  This resulted in a lifestyle choice I’d not taken since my teens - extended time off the bike.  For months I’d catch the bus to the city, and the train home, sometimes catching glimpses of people on their commute.  It didn’t take much of this before I’d muse, “I used to be one of them”.  Riding became a distance memory.

Despite being assured by those in the know that all would probably return to normal in the hands department, tangible improvements were almost impossible to realize.  As weeks passed things seemed to be happening on the left hand, but the right was stubbornly unresponsive.  Only after about 3 months did the right suddenly decide to “wake up”, and assuage fears that I was dealing with something permanent.  At about the four and a half month mark things were looking up; I could stick hands in pockets and cup water, and the tingling was almost gone completely.  Time to ease back onto the bike.

You can guess what happened next.  Daydreaming on the M7 whilst following the flight of a bird I never did get to identify resulted in hands bumping off the bars, and the rest of me bumping along the concrete like a sack of spuds.  Thus ensued the pain in my shoulder I’m still dealing with 2 months post accident, now 6 months post Tour Divide.  What a shocker, but all in a first world kind of way.  At least Anita and I are still in convalescent solidarity (she is still on the blood thinners), and we can take solace in being useless on the adventure front, together.

Saw the quack two weeks ago.  Could they have fit any more screws in there?  The prognosis is slow;  “come back in 6 weeks”.  Physio now under way to regain movement in a shoulder that is pretty damn frozen at the moment.  I’ve signed up for the Audax version of the 3peaks at the end of Jan (perhaps optimistically), so at least there is that to work towards, although I’ve finally relented to the trappings of the virtual trainer to get things moving - by the time I’m allowed back on the bike proper (mid Jan), 2 weeks prep “off the couch” isn’t likely going to be enough for the 250 km loop. 

Hopefully next year will be a better one, for both of us. 

Not that I consider completing the Tour Divide equivalent to climbing Everest, but I can appreciate the irony - with apologies to Gary Larson.
PS:  if anyone is interested in a somewhat verbose (lengthwise) view of my Tour Divide experience in pictures and some video set to music I thought appropriate, here are some links - each version in 2 parts, which can be watched on Dropbox;

87 min version;

67 min version;

Dave out.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Tour Divide 2017, day 21, Silver City, Antelope Wells

Incredibly, today would possibly be the last day I dragged myself from slumber, painfully dressed, had a Snickers breakfast, packed, and rolled out.  But it wasn't in the bag by any measure.  Whilst there was a lot of tarmac to cover late in the day, first we had to deal with whatever the rugged Gila mountains had in store for us.  There was still 100 km of lumpy profile to deal with, the most challenging of which was likely to be a 10 km segment of the CDT; the continental divide walking trail.  

The first kilometres had us drifting through some heavy smoke in places, with burning stumps still visible, the remnants of what we hoped was a control burn. Further up the track kilometres of freshly pruned scrub confirmed this.  Just like during the difficult day between Abiquiu and Cuba, there was considerably more lumpiness in reality than was evident in the profile.  Lots of steep pinches to burn the legs, and rutted descents to torture ankles, hands, and basically rattle everything that hurt.

Finally we got to the last major technicality that separated us from Silver City, the CDT, which had us pushing bikes up steep scree almost immediately. My frail ankle, tendons and groin weren't enjoying any of it!  The effort did, however, avail us of views across unusual terrain we'd not seen before, with oddball succulents in poses and colours as though drawn by Dr Seuss.  Having gained elevation some delicate singletrack wound across ridges and gullys, sometimes forcing another walk up steeper pinches.  We'd stop and rest in the shade of trees here and there.
Finally, after an exhausting first half of the day, at about 1:30 pm we rolled into Silver City.  Miro knew its layout well, having raced the Tour of the Gila on multiple occasions.  I envied both Craig and Miro as they elegantly lifted an extended leg over the back of the bike whilst coasting to a halt before dismounting.  I stopped then did my signature move of painfully dragging my leg awkwardly across the top tube frame bags.  I hobbled into the restaurant behind them and sat with Craig and Miro as an ensemble for the last time.  Miro even had a couple of visitors drop by to wish him well.  As we ate Craig was having his bike serviced at the bike shop 'round the corner.

We had approximately 200 km to crunch to get to the Mexican border, largely on tarmac, and largely flat, and we had till 8 am the next morning to get it done if we wanted to finish inside of 21 full days.  Anita and I exchanged a few texts.  She was in the country, was following progress and was ready to come pick me up, cautioning me not to leave too late given the time other riders had taken to reach the end.  The wind direction was hardly ideal, but not awful either, most likely a cross wind for most of the journey.  Whilst it was pretty hot in the sun we didn't dither too long before kicking off and were back on the road at 4 pm.
The section out of Silver City is on tarmac, and a little way in we got flagged down by a car carrying bikes in the opposite direction.  Three kiwis jumped out who'd recently finished, including Rob Davidson whom I'd chatted with back in Banff, and who finished 5th outright (in 18 days, 10 hrs!)  Also present was a Belgie, Ben Steurbaut who'd smashed it in 16 days 13 hours, despite breaking a fork descending Fleecer Ridge whilst in the lead.  Having replaced it he then broke his frame, and still managed to finish (3rd outright!).  Obviously built for this sort of race.  We exchanged congratulations but of course hadn't quite finished ourselves.  Back to the grind.   

We turned onto the last dirt sector with the angling sun and a brief taily allowing us to appreciate the beauty of the New Mexican desert, punctuated by more oddball Dr Seuss plants spotting the landscape.  It was still warm and we had the odd break in a ditch quenching thirsts.  A mini bottle of warm coke lugged by Craig mostly fizzed all over the ground.  Passing through the vast property of Thorn Ranch we were escorted by the local friendly black dog for a few kms.  Just out for a run, it seemed.  

Darkness came and with it the route angled more into the wind.  At Separ we turned and paralleled the highway on a side road till at last the dirt was left behind for good, with nought but 100 km of empty sealed road to deal with.  Foggy glows would periodically light the black horizon, and in time turn out to be an oncoming car, a property light, or even, eventually, the tiny outpost of Hachita, where a tiny store had remained open for us.  Belgie Ben manned the till until Jeff Sharp, the manager, arrived.  It was still warm so I indulged in three ice blocks and a coke.  We stayed about 30 minutes, hobbling about the shop, chatting with Ben and Jeff and generally procrastinating.  

Finally we set off on the final leg, getting passed only by Tour Divide related vehicles.  First Jeff passed us en route to picking up the two women, Ricki Cotter and Lee Craigie, who were finishing just hours ahead of us.  On their return leg their car pulled over and once again congratulations and hugs were passed round.  It was nice to put faces on names of riders (and initials) we'd only occasionally been privy to on Trackleaders.  Next car to pass us heading south was Miro's pickup, and last car to pass us, just 10 km shy of the border was Anita.  Timing!  I'd been waiting for this moment and endured so much for so long to have it realised.  It was so good to see her here, on the opposite side of the globe, waiting for me.  With 3 miles to go and the border lights glowing from the other side of the rise, we'd agreed that Craig would ride as hard as he could to the finish.  Craig was clearly the strongest of our trio and deserved to finish ahead of us.  Miro and I just limped it in, side by side, as best we could.

Arriving at the gates at just on 3 am was quite emotional for all of us.  I burst into tears when embracing Anita, as seems to be my custom.  Over 30 minutes we exchanged hugs, took photos and tried to celebrate with a beer or Coke.  I was so stuffed I really didn't have the energy to drink anything, but just enough to slowly break the bike down and help load it into the car.  Whilst doing this it stuck me how little you actually need to travel 4400 km through mud, rain, dust and snow, from one side of a country to the other.  But you do need a good dose of gumption, which I think all three of us, in fact everyone who rolled the dice, had to conjure in order to realise this outcome, this conclusion, which I think I'm still coming to terms with a week after finishing.

Using the logic of the "adventure map" whereby no matter how hard it was, as long as you didn't die then you had a good adventure; then yes, it was a bloody terrific adventure on many levels.  It certainly wasn't easy, or clean, or even enjoyable for protracted segments, but it was ours, and we shaped it in our own way and owned it, and that in itself is probably enough.  I honestly don't know if I'll be back for another shot, or for just touring sections of it.  It's still too raw and confused.  My toes and finger tips are still numb, both hands are almost useless, showing the classic symptoms of compressed ulnar nerve damage (ulnar neuritis, or the appropriately named handlebar palsy) which will likely take months to redress, and my achilles and groin injuries still have me hobbling round like a very old man.  

So be careful what you wish for if you are entertaining thoughts of doing the Tour Divide.  Chances are you'll find yourself challenged in ways you can't imagine.  But that, in and of itself, and the inescapable task of addressing these uncertainties and pitfalls is part of the allure, and heightens the sense of accomplishment you'll feel crawling out the other end.  Not to mention experiencing the splendor of some pretty amazing scenery.  It's raw, it's out there, it's waiting!

(302 km, 2560 m, approx 15-16th overall in 20 days 19 hours)

PS:  if anyone is interested in a somewhat verbose (lengthwise) view of my Tour Divide experience in pictures and some video set to music I thought appropriate, here are some links - each version in 2 parts, which can be watched on Dropbox;
87 min version;
67 min version;


Thanks to Greg and Ray for crunching the numbers!

Tour Divide, day 20, Toaster House, Beaverhead, Gila


The mornings were still cold necessitating several early stops to strip off layers, but the scenery was spectacular, dominated by growing silhouettes of the rugged edges of the El Malpais wilderness and the Sawtooth Mountains, which guard Pie Town, coming into view.  In contrast with the more rolling higher altitude hills of Colorado, New Mexico was increasingly a more eroded landscape punctured by jagged little teeth.  We got to Pie Town about 8:30, skipping the pie shops altogether (not open till 10) for the sanctuary of the Toaster House.  

The Toaster House is an institution for passing walkers and cyclists, kept afloat with donations, and magically packed to the gunnels with snacks, cold drinks, laundry facilities, mattresses and shaded seats.  Miro made coffee and we munched on snacks and relaxed, indulging our preferred state of procrastination, until we really felt we should kick on, at least before the pie shops opened, which would have delayed progress even further, and before the nastiness of the heat became too much.  A hot one was clearly on the cards.  The next major resupply town, Silver City, was 300 km away.  We clearly wouldn't make that, especially given the jagged route profile ahead, not to mention the uncooperative winds, but hoped to get as close as possible.  

We passed through dry forest, then open desert, at one point coming across an unexpected water stop, courtesy of a local farmer who'd stashed half a dozen 4 L bottles of water inside a signposted barrel.  More trail magic!  Back into forested gullys where dry stream beds were a counterpoint to streams in previous states that always seemed to be running.  The heat was on and periodically we'd take a break under the shade of a tree atop a rise.  The trail finally changed tack, and shortly afterwards we crossed paths with some north-bound riders who reckoned we'd have tail winds for the next 30 miles.  A-grade!  

We descended down a spartan valley with a taily at our backs, and generally hard buff clay under our tires.  Apparently this is one of the sectors impassable after rain courtesy of the trail transforming to peanut butter.  Paul Lester was a victim of this very phenomenon last year, getting marooned at the same spot for several days.  As Miro pointed out, days of uncooperative wind were preferable to rain in this part of the Divide.  

The final water point of the day was the Beaverhead Workstation, featuring a famous Coke machine.  Naturally, when we finally rolled in just before dark there was a conspicuous piece of paper stuck to the outside indicating it was out of order.  Not that I had any coins anyway.  
I was keen to make an extended evening push from here into the Gila mountains, but Craig was the voice of reason, suggesting that we still had time to finish comfortably inside 21 days.  I wasn't so sure he was correct, or even that the day count was correct, but we'd come this far together so I trusted that he had a better idea of where we were placed than I did.  
We got ourselves over one pass in the Gila, and noticed disconcerting clouds of smoke down where we were headed.  Now I was nervous about whether another re-route might have been issued that we'd failed to receive notice of, reception having been fairly scratchy.  But what could we do?  We dropped down into the valley and camped in a relatively open area just off the trail, but with a few trees overhead to ward off the dew.  I was so conditioned to crawling into my sleeping bag filthy by this stage that it hardly even registered.  Almost inconceivably, this might be my last night on the Divide - all things going well, the following day might be our last on tour!

(216 km, 1953 m)