The 5am alarm call intruded into my sleep in a manner not dissimilar to those annoying people who push in front of you at a crowded bar to get served first. I was under pressure now as I had to match the get-going ritual of two others and these boys were good at it. Despite years of practise and time and motion analysis I’ve never managed to optimise my morning bikepacking ritual to match the speed of others. I don’t know where I lose time but invariably I’m stood there with my pants halfway up my legs, toothbrush dangling from mouth looking at a set of tapping feet and listening to the tuts of the impatient.
Today was no exception and I waved the others off somewhere near 5.30am and retreated back to the cabin for a second poo. On leaving I noted that it was significantly cooler than previous days. Within five minutes I stopped and replaced fingerless gloves with warmer ones. Five minutes later I added a second pair of socks. Another five minutes saw a fleece under my rain jacket. Then my feet got too hot so I had to stop and remove socks. I must have lost twenty or thirty minutes to all of this trail faffing and lost more at Grassy Lake Reservoir where I decided I was hungry again and faffed in my bags for some food.
The time bled to messing about had been lost on me and I was surprised that I hadn’t caught Geof and Davy. So pressed on at speed towards Flagg Ranch where a second breakfast eagerly awaited me. A dirt road gave way to tarmac and then the line on my GPS disappeared up a steep bank and into bushes. There was no discernible line on the ground to follow and so I consulted maps on my phone which gave no other clues. This caused a minor panic. I was utterly committed to following the full Tour Divide route and claiming my finish (were I to get there). This meant no deviations whatsoever, yet the GPS line clearly went nowhere. I carried on round on the road and found the entrance to Flagg Ranch where I was reunited with the GPS trace. So in a fit of paranoia I followed it through trees and scrub back to the steep bank and then returned to the lodge.
Turns out that the line was a minor anomaly that had not been corrected after the entrance to the lodge had been expanded. But I was not taking any risks.
I met Davy and Geof at the lodge entrance. They were leaving having feasted upon the resident breakfast buffet. I hadn’t realised just how much pissing about I’d accomplished on the way and how much time I’d given up. It was clear I needed to up my game so I waved them off (again) and set about the tepid breakfast offerings at speed only to be frustrated by a waiter who wrote my bill in his best handwriting and then waited for his tip. I know all the arguments about these guys relying on tips to supplement a low wage, but the only service he had provided me was the inscribing of my tariff on a piece of paper in slow time and its handing to me. I didn’t feel this warranted additional recognition and he clearly didn’t feel that all my loose change was sufficient renumeration. I won’t be getting a Christmas Card from Flagg Ranch.
A long section of road saw me catch Davy and Geof at a gift store with meagre pickings for the day’s fuel. We sat in the sun as Davy constructed peanut butter bagels and Geof continued the relentless stream of sarcasm focused upon myself. A bike race was being run in the area and small pelotons of fit looking riders buzzed past. One of them had Jason of Fleecer ridge crash fame attached to it, clearly taking advantage of a drafting opportunity. We debated whether this was within race ethics or not, a moot point as he scratched a few days later.
We were now in the Grand Teton national park having skirted Yellowstone. The clear day delivered a fantastic set of vistas that I did little justice to with my hasty camerawork. I’m constantly frustrated with the photos I take on endurance races, always rushed and never doing full justice to the scene I’ve witnessed. I like to get other riders in shot but they’re racing and are mostly riding out of frame. Equally I am in a bit of a hurry and so all cameramanship goes out of the window. Half my shots have trigger fingers in them and others are poorly exposed.
We rode undulating tarmaced roads through the park and I caught Dylan on one of the climbs. He’d finished the race the year before and was back trying to beat his time but his achilles had got the better of him. His plan was to ride to a medical centre nearby, seek attention and quit the race. I found it hard to know what to say, there was nothing I could do to fix his leg and whilst I don’t mind riding with injury, it’s probably not a good idea to encourage others into this folly. I wished him well and fucked off up the road in as caring a way as I could.
After Colter Bay the road veered left and headed up into the Teton Wilderness via the Buffalo Valley Road. It was a relief to leave the busy main road which had been rammed with motorhomes and pickups dragging inconceivably huge caravans. Davy and Geof signalled their relief by putting the hammer down and I watched them disappear up the hill.
Entering these type of races requires some form of tactic in order to finish. I am the veteran of many failures and as a result tend to ride with a single strategy of staying out of the red. This is based on no science whatsoever, more experience. Early in my endurance racing career I would put in the occasional effort to be first up a climb or stay with a group of riders. But later in the race I’d be on my arse begging for food or a trip to Dignitas. I am convinced that these small efforts can take a big toll on one with my physiology, whatever that is. So now, I don’t do them. I have a mental power meter that dials down my legs as soon as I stray out of the amber zone. I saw the effect these efforts had on other riders during the race. A brief period of heroics was paid for by hours of grovelling near the end of a day. Not going to happen to me.
Davy and Geof were doing a decent pace and I was going to leave them to it. I clicked up a few gears and tried to admire the scenery, but as usual trees were getting in the way. So I stopped and pissed on a few of them which did nothing to improve the view. Things got a little better at Turpin Meadow where I caught the others feasting on peanut butter bagels. A steep dirt road climb had slowed progress and allowed my spinny tactics to come to the fore.
Continuing onwards we hoovered up several more riders. Jason, Alex and Josh increased our number to six racers. And being six males ..increased our pace. So for the second time that day I waved everyone goodbye as they hooned off up the tarmac leading to the Togwotee Pass. No way was I sticking with that pace as I knew I’d pay for it later. Geof and Davy waited for me at the top in order to take the piss.
At this point I was resigned to slipping back and letting them all go. But the three of us stuck together as the route left tarmac and turned into the trees..and snow drifts. The pass had suffered a decent amount of snow in the weeks preceding which had not entirely thawed. What should have been a fun filled off road descent into trees became a bike dragging snow littered type two fun fest. We half rode, half pushed our bikes down into the valley, progress dictated by the path of the sun and its ability to remove the snow drifts.
On reaching the valley floor it became clear that it was really very cold. Being late in the day we had a quick conflab and decided it was high time to seek lodgings. The Lava Mountain lodge was not far away and presented an ideal opportunity which we took, arriving some time near 6.30pm in the evening. The guy on reception was attentive but a stickler for his process. We booked a room for the three of us but this required a lot of repeated questioning, forms, button pressing and “have a nice day-ing”. Finally we got our keys and were able to shower then take residence in the restaurant.
Other riders filtered in as darkness encroached. They looked desperately cold. Nick Skarajew had ice in his beard and Dave Stowe was not his normal smiley self as he shivered in reception trying to answer the room interrogation requirements. That evening I think the lodge had 10 Divide racers in residence.
Geof and I ordered Tiramisu to go for breakfast. They handed us a tiny square of something creamy in a large polystyrene container. I was too polite to ask for another. We retreated to the lodge shop and stocked up on chocolate bars and various other processed foods. Pickings were slim and our next big shopping spree would be in Pinedale, many many miles away.
But I needed to get to Pinedale in shopping hours. My GPS was constantly losing signal and needed to be replaced as navigation was becoming a real chore. Additionally, despite parting with the tent I still had little room for additional food and water. I’d been using an ultralight Sea to Summit sack to carry supplies but long days in the saddle were uncomfortable with the thin straps digging into my back. Beyond Pinedale we had the Basin and it would be folly to enter without litres of spare water.
Determined to leave on time with the others I carefully planned and laid out my kit. Breakfast foods were unwrapped and placed in eating order. The bike was cleaned, packed and checked. I had to forego an arse inspection being in a shared room but surreptitiously slathered it in Witch Hazel. This was working in keeping the saddle sore at bay. The theory being that it opens the pores and keeps the pimples at bay.