After all the buildup it was a relief to finally get this thing under way. Another crappy night's sleep (still jetlagged) led to ushering my uncomfortably laden rig through the Brewster Hotel doors for the last time and ambling down to the 'Y', whence assembled riders were mustered by Crazy Larry into a vague horseshoe assembly for photos, an oath pledged by all (particular emphasis on no drafting) and rolling out. Most were dressed for rain, given prior history, but I was more optimistic, given recent forecasts.
We rolled out en mass down the lovely Spray River Trail, which sugar coats the reality of what is to come. Once the river is crossed the track soon became narrower, pinchier, gravellier, and wetter, as rain started to make its unwelcome presence known. I was having issues with securing a set of sneakers to my seat bag, so stopped a few times to reconfigure things, and adorn light rain jacket, before finding my position amongst a rapidly thinning field. And then before I knew it I was virtually on my own, in dense forest, on a heavy track, wending my way through rapidly changing perspectives, with nearly every corner revealing the walls of stunning foreboding mountains looming over head, their peaks largely obscured by the heavy fog of bad weather. But I was upbeat. Despite the poor conditions, these were exactly the vistas I had come for. I was on the Tour Divide!
After several hours of heavy progress the trail finally attained the shores of the magnificent Spray Lakes Reservoir, with accompanying views and conditions reminiscent of my minds eye of Fiordland, complete with strong cold headwinds laced with increasingly large droplets of whipping precipitation. Time to swap my lighter wind jacket (Outdoor Research) for the full monty heavy weather jacket (Ground Effect), a strategy also adopted by several other riders stopped on the trail.
I was expecting bad weather, so was packed (a little heavily, perhaps), accordingly. The heavy and light outer shell jackets would be swapped depending on temperature, and when a lull in precipitation allowed. Other items which would stay on for much of the rest of the first day, in fact the first week, included my 3/4 length rain paints (also Ground effect - absolutely fantastic!), Gore-tex weatherproof outer socks, which kept the wind off otherwise wet ankles, a set of fleece flip-top gloves/mits (allowing easy temperature regulation) and some gore-tex glove shells (Outdoor Research). I'm not great when conditions are cold AND wet, so for me, all these items were absolutely essential. The other item I had in my repertoire that was fantastically useful was a shower cap I'd procured just the day before departure. It wasn't the most stylish item, but I suspect that when it was really coming down others wished they had made a similar investment. The cap went on and off about 10 times that day, also great for temperature regulation on the fly, and great for blocking out cold wind of a morning.
An hour or so later the trail delved into gloomy heavy single track, complete with energy sapping and drive-train destroying bogs and many downed trees to be negotiated. Trench warfare dispensed with we hit a long sodden gravel road sector that would take us to the first resupply point on the route, the Boulton Trading store at 100 km. About 10 riders coalesced on this stretch as the wind howled in scenes not out of place in Alaska. Two of us ended up riding predominantly together at this point, the other, coincidently, another Australian, a country boy, Heath Wade, from Yass. Heath and I eventually rolled into Boulton where another 20 riders were mooching around. We kept our stop brief, just a top up of bladders and quick rearrangement of kit before rolling out again.
We stopped briefly a little later just below the crest of a hill for a pee. Heath got moving again a little quicker than I, and as I rolled over the other side of the hill saw the turn off for Elk Pass, the major obstacle for (the standard) day 1, our first crossing of the continental divide, taking us from Alberta into British Columbia. That was the last I saw of Heath for the day, assuming he was up the trail. Unknown to me he had missed the turn, would have to about-face, and was now behind me.
The climb up Elk Pass was a heavy spongy bog along a power line trail -quite unremarkable - but the views over the top and down the other side were anything but. Breathtaking! I remember thinking that all the travel, jet lag, stress and preparation were worth it for this experience alone.
On the long undulating descent through bog-filled water bars I caught another rider, Wade Greene, from Colorado. Our paces seemed to match quite well so we struck up a conversation. As discussed with Heath, my main focus for the end of the day was finding a willing accomplice to join in getting over the re-route pass, "Koko Claims", into the adjacent Bull Valley. The re-route was necessitated due to downed bridges in the Flathead valley, where the town of Sparwood (at approx 230 km) was my original destination. The alternative resupply town of Fernie would be way out of range for me, which meant camping "with the bears", somewhere along the route. I'd promised Anita (and myself) that any sleeping rough in grizzly country would be done in the presence of others.
Before getting to the Koko Claims turnoff (approx 170 km), however, another obstacle presented. As we got closer to the town of Elkwood (now off-route by 6km due to the re-route), logging trucks had churned the road into a paste consistent with an inch of wet cement, for a solid 15-20 km stretch. This made progress extremely difficult as more rainshowers fed the mix. I had a real fear of accruing a drive-train issue here, realised by at least one rider I passed, walking with a rear derailleur that had been torn off. Somehow, Wade and I were lucky enough to get through this mess and rode most of the sector between obvious rain showers as the Koko turnoff approached.
Everyone was apprehensive about the re-route pass given what had already been posted on social media. At 2200 m it was way higher than Elk pass, with the snow line starting at approx 1800 m. But the real issue for the 10 km ascent was reputedly long stretches of unrideable rocky inclines, and that's before the inevitable slug through the snow at the top. We had ridden pretty hard for most of the day to arrived at the base of the climb in good time; approx 6:30 pm. Perfect! Should be able to knock it off before dark.
Wade and I were both fearful of accruing achilles injuries so had lugged sand shoes explicitly for this stretch. We agreed to take it nice and slow. That 10 km took us approx 3 and a quarter hours to negotiate. It's hard to put into words just how difficult segments of the pass were. Long steep inclines paved with rubble, baseball to basketball sized, some segments with water gushing straight down them. It would have been a challenging passage with a 10 kg pack, but pushing and dragging a 25 kg bike it was something else. Like mountaineering at altitude, a few steps would be taken, the bike pushed/dragged to the next awkward stance, brakes locking it into position, a few heavy breaths taken, before repeating. It was totally exhausting and interminable.
We finally gained the top in fading light and proceeded to slide our way down some tight and narrow shoots. On one of these I had my first minor crash of the Tour. Shortly after I misread another and had to abruptly yank my left leg out of cleats to break my fall, tearing a muscle in my left quad as a consequence. My whole body was heavily fatigued and increasingly susceptible to injury. Some of the stream crossings here were pretty full-on too. Ironic that the re-route to avoided water crossings gave us a dozen of these. We finally hit a cryptic junction that lead to a dirt road out of there. Under lights about 5 of us cruised for an hour before pulling up stumps at approx 11 pm in a vague clearing and threw down camp. I was so exhausted I crawled into my bivvy fully clothed. Day 1 summary - horrendous!
(196 km and 3055 m elevation for the day).
Descending Elk Pass