Welp – this year’s adventure seems all but chosen: http://crosswashington.weebly.com/ . This route crosses washington west to east, La Push to the Idaho border. A fit rider should make it in 7 days (+/- 3 in my case). The planner says it’s a quarter of the divide – 25% as long, 25% as tall (at the height of the elevation).
On my Tour divide trip last year, keeping my electronics charged was a huge pain. Some lessons learned below.
Charging Cables are a Single point of Failure
TL;DR – Cables fall apart *really* fast. Bring spares! Get electronics you can swap batteries on, especially batteries you can buy at a gas station.
For most folks, the electronics you bring on the tour divide are critical: you need them to see at night (lights), follow the course (GPS), or get help if you’re stuck (phone/SPOT). We all take care to make sure we get rugged devices, but it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic failure modes – dead battery.
I went into last year’s race feeling pretty self assured because I was rolling a SP PD-8 dynamo hub. I knew I’d have electricity to spare. As a backup, I brought a big battery bank. What I overlooked was that no matter how many electrons I had to push into my devices, none of that mattered if the cables wouldn’t connect. Oops.
For example: I was using my cellphones for navigation. This worked *great*, as long as I had enough battery power. I used a Sinewave Reactor to get USB power out of my dynamo hub, but no matter how long I had my phone hooked up to it, it never charged up because the damn cable wasn’t actually connecting to the contacts in the phone itself. Imagine riding along in the wilderness watching your power level drop and trying to fiddle w/ the cable to get it to charge while going fast enough to keep current running from the dynamo. In a word: impossible.
I’ve never had these problems on other routes – my dyamo setup worked great on the Oregon outback. I think it basically happens because of: the intense vibrations + long duration. My guess is that the internal contacts on the cables themselves just fall apart after a couple days.
Cables are a Single Point Of Failure. Once they start to fail, even being connected to a wall based power supply doesn’t help (much). I spent literally hours jury rigging my cables and phone so that they’d charge overnight. Put a snickers bar under the cable, and a shoe on top of my phone, then check after 5 minutes to see if the little lightning bolt was still there and pray to god it lasted all night.
So – some lessons learned:
Get quality USB cables. It sounds rediculous, but you get what you pay for in cables. Since I got back, I’ve been using Anker USB cables for charging. These seem *way* more durable. There are also other ruggedized cables out there. I brought one of these too, and ended up throwing it away, so on to point 2…
Bring extra cables. Even with ruggedized cables, I found I could rely on a cable for 3-5 days. Cables are cheap. Buy good ones, bring a lot. If you’re worried about weight & bulk, bring short ones. Don’t count on buying these on the road. You’ll get crappy ones for a lot of money (I spent $25 on a cable in Whitefish, MT). Better to carry more from the get go.
Have a backup charging plan. Does your device have removable batteries? Bring a spare. Can you charge your spares w/o a USB cable? Bring that too!
Bring devices you can buy batteries for. You know what’s faster than recharging your USB flashlight from the wall? Putting in new AAA’s.
Take care of the batteries you bring. Cold temperatures mean bad performance for batteries – keep them warm at night; Don’t drop them.
Bring fast chargers, and fast charging devices. If it takes you 8 hours to charge your batter cache, guess how long you’re stuck at a wall socket? Many chargers and devices have fast charging modes now – you could be on your way in half the time.
Get a ‘pass through‘ battery cache. If you can charge your device & your cache at the same time you’ve just increased the amount of time you can go before your next stop. Not many battery caches have this feature, do your research and _test_.
Figure out your ‘dead device’ plan. If your gps dies, how will you navigate? If your spot dies, how will you stay in the race? What do you do if your lights runout in the middle of the night? A small Backup light, a rudimentary paper map, and spare Lithium batteries are your friends.
Given how quickly my cables failed, I must say I’m *really* impressed with how durable my SP Dynamo, Sinewave Reactor and K-lite are. The K-lite cables and interconnects are exactly what I’d *like* to be charging my phone with. Maybe Kerry’s got something up his sleeve for the future for phones…
In the mean time, I’m going to start playing around with ways of charging my phone without using USB cables. Wireless chargers have notoriously low efficiency, but poor effeciency + highly reliable is better than a highly efficient cable that doesn’t work.
Electronics were a huge source of comfort and courage for me on the tour – knowing that people were following my ride helped me keep going. Being able to ride into the night let me go farther. Having mine be so tenuous during 2016 was really aggravating. I remember almost running out of cell phone power when calling my family on Fathers day. Next time I go I hope to do better on this front.
Charging on the trail: Dynamo, Solar or Battery Cache?
First things first: Have a backup. Going Battery Cache only? Bring 2 (hell, bring 3!). Bringing a dyno? Don’t skip a cache.
Should I go battery cache only? It’s not a crazy idea. The trick is that you will likely need more power than you estimate: cache’s perform worse in the cold; your devices will need more power than you think (searching for cell towers or wifi). The solution here is to bring more, and the cost is weight. You should also consider how to keep your caches from failing physically: what happens if they get wet? Will it break if it gets dropped?
What about Solar? Solar is appealing because there are no moving parts. But… weather. And weight. Can you really haul enough panels to power what you need? How will you keep them oriented to the sun? It’s an interesting idea, but seems risky.
Why Dynamo? I love my dynamo lights – every time I move, I get power. But.. they do introduce (very minor) resistance, and they are mechanical and do fail. When they fail, they are really hard to repair. So… it’s also risky. If I had unlimited money, I’d bring this one as a backup.
End of the day, Dynamo seems the least risky and most flexible of all to me, and I have no plans to switch.
Racing the Tour Divide is all about sleep. Wanna go faster? Ride more, sleep less. To cover 190 miles a day, the winners ride 18 hours. If you’re lucky, 3 0f the remaining 6 hours are for sleep. Now imagine that with sleep apnea, a condition which keeps you from breathing correctly while asleep.
My own apnea is serious enough to drop my blood oxygen level down below 80% when sleeping at sea level. Sleeping at 5000 feet makes it worse.
What’s adventuresome soul to do? Mandibular Advancement Devices seem like a good choice for some folks, but if your apnea is more that moderate you’ll likely need to haul around a CPAP. As far as I know, nobody makes an extension cord long enough for the Tour Divide.
Enter the HDM Z1 Auto. It’s a small, light weight cpap built for travel. Thanks to the generosity of HDM, I was able to carry one this year.
The Z1 itself weighs about 10 oz – about the same as a light weight sleeping matt. The base, batteries and charger bring the total weight up to a bit more than 2lbs. Less than your tent. Less than a synthetic sleeping bag. And in terms of your ability to recover from a strenuous day, just as important.
The Z1 + the powershell is much less bulky than my home CPAP unit, and fit nicely stuffed into the bottom of my Revelate Designs Viscacha, or my Jones fork micro panniers.
Sleeping in the woods? The Z1 is battery powered. The lithium ion battery will last a full 8 hours when fully charged (watch out for cold weather though, might be worth moving the battery inside your bag if it’s very cold outside).
Charging takes 5+ hours, and doesn’t take place while using the Z1 itself, so if you need to stay outside 2 nights in a row bring a spare. Maybe future versions of this device will be able to charge the battery while the unit is in use. Until then, you might consider bringing 2 chargers (1 for the battery, one for the cpap) to charge up while you’re sleeping if electricity is available.
The Z1 is a bit noisier than my home unit, but this is a small price to pay for good sleep in the woods. I like to think that the sound from the unit scared off Bear 6 (the worst bear – the one I never actually saw) at the Red Meadow pass, where I was sleeping alone at 5,5000 feet. It also has a few small custom pieces that are important not to lose. Best to keep the custom hose adapter attached to the hose at all times, or perhaps bring a spare.
Particulars aside, the Z1 really lets me expand the range of adventures I can undertake. Getting good sleep lets me ride harder and stay happier than waking up night after night with a hangover from an oxygen diet. What’s most important though is that I was able to stay positive and focused on this incredibly demanding trip. A bad nights sleep for me is a recipe for pessimism, procrastination and a painful head – no way to keep on keeping on in the worlds longest mountain bike race. The Tour Divide is certainly one of the greatest adventures of my life, I’m happy to have had the Z1 along for the ride.
June 20-22nd are somewhat lost days. My phones were on the fritz (refushing to charge), so I have only a few photos. Also, this was the time of the Lost Wallet, so I really made pretty limited forward progress (I blew a whole day going from Ovando, Mt back to Seely Lake to try and find my wallet). But the 20th was also one of the best days of the whole trip – a whole raft of completely unrelated people were incredibly kind to me during the process of wallet retrieval. It really restores my faith in humanity, and impressed the kindness of Montana people on me.
On the 21st I rode with Bonnie Gagnon and Grant from Ovando to Lincoln Montana. Along the way we ran into the Florida Boys, a group of 4 who were touring the Tour Divide route at a more relaxed pace than we were.
I got to ride with Matt Bort for an hour or so – a more bicycle Buddha I’ve never met. He works, then tours, works, then tours, works then… well you get the picture. When I asked him where he was from, he said “the campground 15 miles back” – not exactly the answer I was looking for but it was just so Buddha perfect I decided it was as good an answer as I’d ever need.
Bonnie’s amazing – she was riding with a torn minuscis and using 130mm cranks to try and minimize the pain. I could pull ahead of her and Grant on the uphills, but man they blew past me on the downs. I wish I’d kept up Bonnie and Grant’s discipline, as I would have made it quite a bit farther down the road.
Lincoln is a tiny tiny town. When I rolled in I was a good half an hour ahead of Bonnie and Grant and I decided to stop at the first building I saw to wait up. Turns out it was a Drs office, and I walked in to say hi to the folks could see from the window. I told the Dr. that I had locked up last place, and he looked at me a bit incredulously:
“You’re not in last place, you’re ahead of 330 million people who haven’t even thought of starting this”.
Quote of the trip for sure.
The trip out of Lincoln to Helena was pretty straight forward, but I managed to take a fairly significant detour up a pass. This happened to me a lot – part of it was that I was ‘in the zone’, but I also blame the wind. Wind on passes has 2 modes: cooling you down (if it’s blowing down hill on to you), or pushing you up. The wind was so strong behind me on this pass that it was just obvious that up was the way to go. I had a lovely lunch on the pass before discovering I’d ridden 2 miles (and 4oo feet or so) off route.
Coming down off the pass I’d lost Bonnie and Grant, and when I pulled into Helena I stopped at a convenience store for some Ice cream to wait for them. I wasn’t there more than 10 minutes before Eric and Johnanna pulled up. They’re avid adventurers and intention trail angels, not to mention related to some of my Seattle friends. They offered to put me up for the night, and gave me a great dinner and breakfast send off. More examples of Montana goodness right there!
I left Helena on my own pretty early the next morning, but I wasn’t 5 miles out of town before I ran into the next Montana Friendly – Kathy M. She was just getting ready for a mountian bike ride, and gave me a bit of chain oil. Kathy sent me several encouraging emails in the next couple weeks, pretty amazing given that we only chatted for 3 or 4 minutes.
About 10 miles later, Nolan and Mykela caught up with me. A couple of 20 somethings out fast-touring the divide. Great company, nice to ride with and fun to talk to. They rode away from me pretty quickly on the technical session over the top of this pass (I walked almost all of it), but I caught them about 20 minutes later on the other side and we rode the rest of the way into Butte together. They rescued me from yet another off-route diversion after I descended 200 feet into an amazingly nice looking down hill. Ooops – only my pride was injured.
Butte is a weird place – I stayed in uptown, which is the older part of the city that thrived on mining back in the early part of the 20th century. To my eye, the thriving stopped quite some time ago. I stayed at the Hotel Finlen, and spent most of my time their sneaking around in a bath towel after the laundry was supposedly closed. Ahh what we won’t do for clean clothing.
In the morning I had more financial difficulty – I got breakfast at a Cafe that didn’t take credit cards. My ATM card was eaten by a machine in Helena, and I was cash free. Another 4 hours wasted trying to get a cash advance, and I missed my chance to ride on with Nolan and Mikela.
June 26th was Fleecer Ridge day – a long ride up to a harrowing down hill that had me nervous from the start. Riders talk about Fleecer Ridge in hushed, urgent tones. For good reason – it’s steep. Really steep. I’ve been on steeper glaciers, but I’m not sure I’ve been on a steeper hill. To make matters worse, the trail was basically Scree – loose rough gravel that afforded no traction. I walked the worst of it, and fell even though I was careful.
After the infamous ridge, I was looking forward to 20 or so miles of easy downhill to Wise River. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, a bit more rolling than down hill. I didn’t make it to Wise River until almost 9:30. Little did I know it was Friday night and a harley club had rolled into town. The place I was trying to get dinner was a disaster – my food took an hour to get, it came without napkins, and the accommodation was ‘someplace on the grass outback’. In the middle of the night, the harley gang stopped out and asked what I was doing. ‘Sleeping’.
Wise River to Polaris was mostly exciting because I was right in the middle of RATPOD. I spent a lot of time with people wearing plastic clothing and on plastic bikes, but they were lovely none the less. Late in the day I pulled into one of their rest stops and bought some Watermellon. Asking how far it was to the High Country Lodge, one of the riders said “You’re there now!”. It was early, but I decided to pull in there rather than push on to Bannak or Grant. Good thing too – Jo and Terry pulled in an hour later and we split a room.
Jo’s a fellow Seattleite a lovely and very determined person but perhaps slightly over packed by my standards. Terry was out from England after spending many years doing auto parts distribution, and was working his way up to bail out of the race.
We rode together through Bannak and Grant, but I pulled pretty far ahead as we were headed into Lima and they stopped a bit earlier than me. Lima is tiny and the cabin I stayed in I was sure would burn to the ground with me in it. Fire trap for sure.
In the morning I saw Jo and Terry as I was getting ready to go, but Gary Macfarland was the guy who was ready, so we rode out together. Gary’s an engineer down in Antartica for the New Zealand government. Great fun to ride with super nice. We came across one of the multitude of run down log buildings out on the prairie and stopped there for lunch. Dead wolf inside. We ate outside. Later that night a lovely couple drank beers with us at Island Park, the wife even brought us sandwiches since the kitchen was closed by the time we go there.
June 28th was one of the hardest days of the trip, but in terms of elevation, one of the smallest. The Rail Trail ride was about 36 miles long (only 25 or so on the actual trail), but brutal. Bead sized gravel, fairly deep, with mini-washboard from the ATVs that drive this. 2 rutted lanes with an island in the middle. Relentless washboard, with constant switching from side to side. If you think you know the kind of washboard I’m talking about… you don’t. Because of the tiny wheels of ATVS, the washboarding is closer together and seemingly deeper. It was horrible. Boring road at it’s boringest, more ATVs than I could shake a stick at, and horribly bouncy. Near the end I had my worst spill of the race, really banged up my hands. I limped into the Squirrel Creek ranch and had dinner with Candyce before heading to bed. Maybe the 29th would be better.
Waking up in Sparwood was hard. All my stuff was unpacked, and I had a very, very hard time getting rolling again: packed and rolling by noon was as good as it was going to get, with a Subway sandwich to tide me over.
My new tire worked great. I rode alone for the day. In the evening, I came across Butt’s cabin which was occupied by an angry Canadian with an Axe. I decided not to argue. He mentioned that there was a Planters Camp up the road giving out water.
The planters (Tree planters, hired by the forest service) was huge. A large tent (50 feet long 25 feet wide), smaller buildings and many, many tents and trailers. I spotted a tiny, 1 person tent and knew that another rider (Ralph) was camped. As I setup my spot, Mim the camp cook introduced herself and told us we were welcome and offered bean stew. YAY MIM! Ralph and I ate well, slept well, and had a great breakfast w/ the planters.
The next morning Ralph and I rode together for a while but ultimately parted ways. Riding alone turned out to be not nearly the problem I’d thought it might be, and I made good time. In the afternoon I ran into Stephen, a 15 year old who was riding 3 or 4 days of the divide on his own. He and I navigated the infamous Connector together and rode a stupendous downhill in the hail, then onwards to the highway leading to the US border. He met his Dad there, and I proceeded South.
Crossing into the US was a snap. Only 10 more miles to Eureka. Huge storm clouds loomed as I got closer, and there was a little squall of rain but I was so used to getting rained on by now it didn’t matter much. Eureka was smaller than I expected, only 2 hotels in town. The nice people at the Pizza place reccomended one to me and I stayed there. Later that night Ralph made it through the connector (on his own!) and I saw him briefly at breakfast.
One Minor mishap after riding out of Eureka – got off on the wrong road and headed up the highway for a mile or two, but I figured it out and got back on the back roads. Nice, mostly solitary day of riding to Red Meadow Lake campground. I ended up running into The Boys from Florida (TJ, Thomas, Kyle and Matt) on and off all day: they weren’t on the race but were riding the route for a couple months. After teaching Tuchuck campground earlier than expected, I decided to push on to Red Meadow Lake, which I expected would be a big campground with people. On the way my new pedals started to squeak – it took several hours for me to diagnose what was causing the problem and decide it wasn’t really a big deal (very annoying though). This was the day where I decided it was better to meet people than make massive mileage, and I ended up talking with a family at a park service cabin and a kooky old guy hunting gophers.
The road up to Red Meadow was a bit creepy as the evening wore on, and I saw lots of bear scat.
Once at the camp ground, I discovered it had all the amenities (vault toilet, bear boxes), but none of the people I’d imagined. I was really worried about a bear coming into camp, but put all my food away in a bear box and got to a fitful sleep. Around 1:00 AM Nick Wagers rode into camp. I was happy he wasn’t a bear. I woke up to cold and a bit of wet snow – packed up and got going.
The route out of camp was a long, solitary descent – I got off on the wrong track again but figured it out after a while. I stopped in Whitefish (big town) for some Bike Repair and electronics ( new cables so phones would recharge). The nice mechanic ended up breaking my Derailleur Hanger because it was cracked (probably from all the huffing and puffing on the Connector), but I had a spare in my kit so I was able to keep riding. I also met Kathy and Richard (?) of ItTakesTwoToTandem that say, lovely folks on a cross country tandem ride. On the way out of town I found Ralph again, and we made our way to Columbia Falls where we had a lovely Mexican meal in a strangely well decorated restaurant.
The ride to Swan Lake was great, particularly the descent – one of the best of the whole trip. Not too difficult, and it just kept on going! So much so that I kept right on going past the turn off to Swan Lake. The mosquitos were so intense when I stopped that I had to apply Deet just to get my map out. Really. Swan Lake was my first major experience with Trail Magic – that thing that happens when strangers help you for no good reason. I rolled into the Swan Lake Guard station to see if the cabin was avaliable, and the people who were staying there invited me to eat some food before they even found out my name. They had an extra bed in the cabin, and so they fed me and housed me for the night. It was a lot of fun, and I really appreciate meeting the Mengs!
In the morning, the Meng’s saw me off with some coffee and I headed down to the Swan Lake general store for provisions.
After 2nd breakfast and restocking, I headed to Holland Lake. The trail was fairly rough and unused in some locations. My bear spray bounced off my bike, and I had to walk up and down the trail 4 times before I found it laying very close to the route I rode but hidden in the tall grass of the trail. I wasn’t leaving without it. After chatting with a couple of hikers, I knew I was about 20 minutes behind several other riders, so I rode hard to catch up and finally found the at a casino (common in Montana) near Holland Lake. The lake has a lovely resort (for >$200 a night) and a camp ground, so I resigned myself to camping.
But… on the way in I saw some kids playing at what looked like a large lodge, so I decided to say hi. Lucky me – the lodge was huge and the people invited me to stay and have dinner with them (I think the wife was impressed by my Ibex clothing 🙂 ). Amazingly good luck as they were lovely to talk with and the accommodations were amazing. I did laundry for the first time on the trip.
Seely Lake and Ovando were up next. Another long solitary ride to Seely Lake, but once I arrived I found John and 2 other riders just leaving the BBQ place I wanted to stop at. I ate quickly and bolted out of town, trying to catch them. I didn’t catch them until Ovando where we stopped for the night. It was at this point that I realized I’d lost my wallet and couldn’t pay for the Pie I’d just eaten. Gregor (one of the 3 riders I saw earlier) paid for my pie, and I snuck my sleep setup onto the lawn in back of the Hotel and huddled up for the night to the pleasent sound of drunken fishermen on a friday night.
Thus begins the story of the Lost Wallet – one of the more amazing strokes of luck during my trip. It’s worth a read if you haven’t read it already.