36 Hours of Pain on the Tour Divide
During Neil Beltchenko’s rookie Tour Divide run in 2015, about 1,400 miles in, pain set in. Read the full story of Neil’s 36 Hours of Pain on the Tour Divide here…
It all started around 1:00 PM on June 19th, 2015, roughly 1,400 miles into what had been a pretty good rookie Tour Divide run. I was in the Great Basin, just outside the town of Wamsutter, a fracking hub in southern Wyoming. It was hot and I’d been dealing with extreme winds nearly all day. I was just about sick of it. I was nearly out of water, and would certainly run out before I reached the Love’s gas station just off interstate 80.
Great Divide Basin
According to Wikipedia, the Great Divide Basin, or Great Divide Closed Basin, is an area of land in Wyoming’s Red Desert where none of the water falling as rain to the ground drains into any ocean, directly or indirectly.
I had become rather relaxed about riding with no hands, or riding with only one hand in my aero bars. After 1,400 miles on a bike in seven days, I think many people would. That being said, it was neither the time nor place to be reaching for a snack in my comfortable one-handed aero position. I fell into a rut and tried to navigate my way out of it, one handed, while my left arm was reaching for a bar. As if it was in slow motion, my tire got hung up in the rut and my body weight could not correct it as a result. I was about to take a digger onto the dirt road.
I fell to the left, reaching my left hand and forearm out to brace for the impact. My bike and I fell together, meaning not only did I have the ground to deal with, but my bike could make it worse. The handlebar dug into my left thigh, and somehow my right knee dug right into the gravel. As the dust settled and the crash came to a halt, I quickly reached for my leg, which I thought I had broken. I squeezed it almost instantly, making sure nothing was broken. The pain quickly subsided on my thigh, but a large bruise would develop soon after.
The main issue was my knee. It was bad. Blood was gushing and there were a number of pretty deep gashes. I then assessed my forearm, which was also bloody. After looking at my injuries, I laid down and yelled out a good “f*ck!” After, I lay there for maybe five minutes thinking about how this was totally avoidable.
After a while, I finally got up to shake it off. My left thigh wanted nothing to do with walking, or pedaling for that matter. Along with my physical injuries, my aero bars were all sorts of messed up. One of them was bent pretty bad, and the other bar got knocked out of place. I calmed down and did what I needed to do: cleaned up my knee and arm with Wet Ones, threw some arnica cream on my thigh, and used my multi-tool to fix my aero bars to the best of my trail-side abilities.
I was still far from Wamsutter, and I needed water and rest badly. After dealing with some horrible 18-wheeler traffic, a stiff side wind, and complete dehydration, I got to the Love’s gas station. I stumbled in and instantly filled the largest fountain cup full of ice water and chugged. It was instant relief. I took over an hour off my bike, eating, doing a bit of route research, and trying to stretch out my thigh. I finally got back on the bike just after 6:00 PM.
That rest was well worth it. I felt great as the sun set and was hoping I could even catch Jay Petervary, who was sitting in first place at the time. Brush Mountain was my next checkpoint, and I decided that I would ride through the night and sleep there for a few hours. I arrived at 1:30 AM after a relatively uneventful night, aside from dodging kamikaze rabbits, which had me fly over my bars yet again. Interestingly enough, I did notice one freshly killed rabbit in the middle of the road, which had met JayP’s downtube and didn’t fair well. But I was in Colorado, my home state, and almost to the famous Brush Mountain Lodge. What could go wrong?
Brush Mountain Lodge
The lodge is roughly the mid-way point and a popular Tour Divide stop for most racers. Kristen helps racers all day and night, and truly is one of the best trail angels on route. She provides beds, food, and fluids for a small but worthy fee.
After Kristen treated me like gold, I went to sleep just as JayP was about to leave. It was the only bed I would sleep in and it was completely drool-worthy. I left the lodge at 7:00 AM with no real knowledge of what was in between me and Steamboat. Mornings are difficult, possibly the most difficult. You need to wear in your butt, warm up the legs, and motivate yourself after sleeping a short amount of time. While it’s a challenge, it is always rewarding. Sunrises on the Divide are a thing of beauty, and I was lucky to catch so many of them.
After pedaling about three hours that morning, I was rudely introduced to Mill Creek Road. While I tried to do as much research as possible, there is truly no better way to learn than to experience. I never thought a descent could be so horrible. My hands gripped my bars, squeezing on the brakes so hard and for so long that I had to stop nearly every mile. I found myself shaking my head, thinking to myself, “why did I sign up for this, again?” Baby heads and cruddy road would soon flow into pavement, and eventually the town of Clark, and the road to Steamboat Springs. But something didn’t feel right on the pavement. My bike was dragging pretty bad. I thought it was my bottom bracket, or possibly my rear hub bearings. I decided it couldn’t hurt to take my bike into Orange Peel to get a quick one over, so I did.
Located directly on route as you enter Steamboat from the bike path, this bike shop sees a lot of Tour Dividers, and is very popular as it sits roughly halfway. They treat Tour Dividers with respect, and they expect the same. After taking off some bags so they could work around my bike easier, I made my way to the health food store just down the block to re-up on snacks and eat lunch.
It was just after noon and I didn’t want to spend much time in Steamboat, especially on a busy Saturday. After checking in with them, they could not find any drag issues, but thought I should change my chain, so I obliged. It didn’t work. The new chain was having all kinds of fits meshing with my cassette, so we took it off and threw the old chain back on. As far as the drag I was feeling, it was my SP Dynamo hub. There wasn’t much we could do at the time, so I continued to roll with it.
I took off and got to the south side of town before I noticed I had forgotten a big part of my kit in Steamboat. I left my saddle bag in the bucket at Orange Peel, and when I got back to the shop they told me that one of their employees had gone chasing after me to return it. I decided to stay put and wait for him to show up. I was bummed I made the mistake because lots of time was wasted in the process.
Finally, I left steamboat around 1:30 PM, just as Josh Kato was rolling in. I knew he was on my tail, and I also knew I needed to improve my pace to get a solid lead over him through the relatively fast state of Colorado. It was another hot day, certainly above average, with minimal clouds in the area. It wasn’t “moving fast” weather. I was secretly hoping for a rain shower, but at the same time, I was pleased with dry conditions.
Traveling out of Steamboat was rather quick with well-maintained county roads, but the amount of tourists between the town and Stagecoach State Park was a bit ridiculous. I had a number of encounters with poor drivers, something that can be very dangerous. In 2010, Dave Blumenthal was struck by a car descending into Clark and died as a result of his injuries. It goes without saying that the Tour Divide is dangerous, but you have to be a defensive rider all the time.
Dave was a 37-year-old Vermont man who had thru-hiked Vermont’s Long Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He passed away in Denver after an accident with a vehicle along the GDMBR. Dave is survived by his wife, Lexi, and his 10-year-old daughter, Linnaea. His was the first and only Tour Divide death. Rest in peace, Dave.
Afternoon would quickly turn to early evening, and I was in pain again. My legs felt heavy and my body felt crushed. I was at my breaking point and I really just wanted to get through these crowds, and Colorado in general. I started to climb and descend Lynx Pass when I had another moment. Way too many of these moments were coming so close together. I started to ask myself if this was normal or just bad luck.
I heard a motor just as I was riding around a blind sweeping right hand corner on the descent. Like any of us would do, I hugged the corner on the right, abiding by normal traffic rules, to make sure the driver had enough room. All of a sudden, I saw a large touring motorcycle – the BMW type with the big cargo boxes on the sides. The biker was clearly in my path, basically taking away any room for me to go ahead. I either had to hit the large rock outcropping on my right, or hit his handlebar. Half a second later, my only option was to stay the course, as I noticed the end of my handlebar was basically hitting the outcropping. It was up to him to move or I was going flying and likely to be run over by the guy right behind him.
Luckily, he moved, and we avoided a collision by maybe two inches. Right on his tail was his buddy, and four more of them after that. I yelled “F**K, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” I had just escaped a near death situation, and I was furious. After collecting myself and finally getting down to the Colorado River, I was ready to settle into the Trough Road climb, one that Jefe warned me about. Again, I had no idea how hard it would really be. The climb wasn’t bad, it was short, but the mosquitoes were ridiculous.
Back in Wyoming, right after I crossed the border from Idaho, I had a similar encounter where the climb was so steep, if you went anything slower than five miles and hour you would get eaten alive. As I climbed up the steep road I tried my darndest to climb fast, but I could only go so fast after eight days on the Divide. Maybe the worst was switching into my night riding gear, and having to stand still for a few minutes while doing so.
It’s the little things like tiny mosquitoes that really get on your nerves thoughout a race like the Tour Divide, but like most things they come in waves. After my mosquito encounter, I finally made it down to the Colorado River Valley, just outside of Kremmling. I knew I would be set on food so I bypassed Kremmling and started riding into the night.
When night settles in, you start to feel much smaller than you do during the day. It makes you feel a bit vulnerable and uneasy, at least during the first few nights. Once you settle into your routine, you don’t even think about it. You aren’t really even thinking about where you’re going to eat. You just ride, or when you need to pee, you just go. Sleeping is much the same.
Flash back to Butte, Montana, JayP and I decided to sleep under an I-15 underpass. It was loud, and kind of dumb, but it was cover, and it had been raining. That night I woke up to a car rushing by and it scared the bejesus out of me.
Fast forward to the night of June, 20th, and I was thinking about calling it quits for the day. I passed Williams Fork Reservoir, a nice looking area, but a bit too early in the night to lie down. It was also extremely loud, so I kept on trucking. Not knowing the route, it was tough to gage what type of sleeping environments were ahead. If the map told me anything, there was not much but grazing land and most of it looked to be privately owned. When looking for camping, I generally try to find solid cover with soft, flat ground. The evening glow of my lights showcased sage country, nothing but sage and more sage. There was also not much flat land off the side of the road I was on, just the occasional little turn offs.
After looking around with my head lamp, kind of being obvious if anyone was watching me, I finally found a flat spot. The road had fences on each side, so there wasn’t much room for me to explore. I went almost to the fence line and plopped down in the sage. It was not a very comfortable spot, but I was hidden really well with some extremely large sagebrush surrounding me. I may have been 10 or 15 feet off the road.
The first car I had seen in hours came driving up right as I had settled in. They had their brights on, not something uncommon, but I worried they could see me. Then I realized that this truck is not just a passerby, but rather someone looking for something. My heart started pumping as they stopped right next to me. A person took out their flashlight and pointed it literally right at me, then above me and all around. “Surely they can’t see me, can they?” I thought to myself.
The driver then took off down the road again. Whew. Somehow, I think he may have seen my light from his house. He then decided that it would be a good Idea to check on it. I would likely do the same thing. Just when I thought I could rest, he came back down the road flashing his light on the hill side, and again, stopped right next to me. I was as buried in sage as I could get, but maybe he could see my handlebar sticking up. I tried to stay as still as possible, not moving an inch while my heart was beating through my rib cage. Finally, the person in the truck turned off the flashlight and sped down the road. I laid there thinking about getting up and leaving, but decided against it. I passed out around midnight.
Make My Day
“Make My Day” gives Colorado residents the right to shoot and kill an intruder if they believe the person intends to commit a crime and use physical force, “no matter how slight.” That extraordinary right stops at the door, thankfully. Front porches and backyards don’t count. (this has always scared me, even if I was nowhere near property, or likely on their land).
Over the course of 36 hours, I took a huge fall that banged me up pretty good, was dehydrated beyond belief, had a rude awakening on Mill Creek Road, blew out my SP dynamo bearings, forgot my saddle bag in Steamboat, avoided tourists driving like idiots, dealt with scorching heat at elevation, had a near death encounter with a motorcycle, swatted at hundreds of mosquitoes, and had a run-in with what I think was a local ranch owner.
Did I drool that night? Absolutely. Did I get up in the morning and have a better day? Yes, indeed. It wasn’t easy and sometimes it wasn’t fun, but it was rewarding and certainly noteworthy. All that being said, good luck 2019 Tour Dividers, may you not have to endure a more painful 36 hours on the Tour Divide than I did!