Smoked out on the 2021 Tour Divide
Lael Wilcox rolled out of Banff just a couple weeks ago for her 2021 Tour Divide individual time trial. The first couple of days seemed to be going well, despite a run-in with a mountain lion. However, the wildfire smoke that blanketed Montana forced Lael to make a decision for her own safety. Find Lael’s reflection on the ride here alongside a photo gallery from the trip…
Photos via Rapha by Isaac Karsen and Ben Page for @hereorthereabouts
“There’s a mountain lion… There’s a mountain lion right there. I’m almost to the top of the last climb to get to Ovando and I just ran into this mountain lion. I don’t want to scare it, but I do want to get by. So we’ll just see how it goes.”
It’s midnight on the third night of my Tour Divide time trial. I’m aiming to get to Ovando at route mile 532 (kilometer 856), so I can sleep inside the church for four hours before continuing on. I’ve been sleeping inside every night to get out of the smoke. Wildfires are burning Montana and the air is thick with smoke. I convince myself that if I sleep inside, I’ll have four hours to recover my lungs before facing the next day of gray air. Earlier this summer, a 65-year-old woman named Leah Davis Lokan was killed by a grizzly bear while camped in the town square of Ovando. I called Blackfoot Commercial from the road asking if they had any rooms available.
“I’m a cyclist riding through on the Great Divide. Is there a safe place where I can sleep for the night?”
“Yeah, they’ve opened up the church and are letting bikers stay in there.”
I keep pedaling, up to Richmond Peak with a wide spread of fireweed growing along the singletrack ridge. I hit the top near sunset and descend in the dark. A couple of bike tourists about 20 miles out of Ovando cheer for me. It’s several thousand feet of climbing to get to town. The night is warm—nothing to worry about. Near the top of the last climb, my lights illuminate a pair of eyes. I stop. It’s the mountain lion. I’ve never seen one before, and I don’t know how she’ll react. We’re at a standstill and I’m talking to her.
“It’s okay. It’s okay. I just want to get by.”
I hear the chirps of cubs in the brush. I think she’s protecting them. I slowly edge forward. If she comes at me, I’ll hop on my bike and go straight down the way I came from. She takes the lead. Waving her long tail and guiding me up the road. I give her 15 feet or so, walking slowly and watching. I just want to get up and over to town. We reach the top and stand facing each other for a few moments before she jogs off the side. I get over the top of my bike and start heading down the hill, so relieved. My light illuminates the backside of another smaller animal sprinting in front of me. The white stripe registers. It’s a skunk. It darts off. More descending and flat washboard to Highway 200. I make it. It’s a little jog to the main square with the closed mercantile, a fake covered wagon, the post office, and a teepee.
Where’s the church?
I take my phone off airplane mode to see if I can find the church on Google Maps. No service. Okay, well, I guess I’ll just go look for it and if I don’t find it, I’ll come back and sleep in this covered wagon.
I continue down the route. Bingo—there’s the church. I roll up, carry my bike up the steps, and try the door. It’s open! I push my bike inside. It’s warm. I spot power outlets and a bathroom. Perfect! I can charge my electronics and get water. I go into the chapel, looking for cushions and find a couple of long fleecy ones in a pew. Nice! I start setting up near a wall outlet, plugging in my Wahoo Bolt, Wahoo Rival, iPhone, SRAM AXS battery and top off my power bank. I head to the bathroom to mix up a Gnarly Vegan Protein-Super Greens shake and change into my puffy pants. Back by the wall, I pull out my sleeping bag and lay it on top of the cushions.
“What are you doing here?”
I turn to face an old guy with scraggly long dark hair.
“I’m just riding through on the Great Divide. I called the town earlier and they said cyclists can sleep in the church.”
“Cyclists are supposed to sleep in the basement.”
I pop down the stairs to see about the basement. There are two old men lying on sleeping pads with their bikes propped up behind them.
“I’m only going to be here for four hours. I’ll just sleep upstairs.”
“Take off your shoes and you’ll make less noise.”
I head back up to finish my chores: drink my protein shake, brush my teeth, turn off the lights, and get into my sleeping bag. I close my eyes. My head is still spinning—rushing with thoughts of animals and smoke, jumping into streams with my shoes on cause it’s hot as hell, finding a sealed bottle of Coke that’s just about boiling, but drinking it anyway. I breathe deeply telling myself to rest, especially all of the areas that are aching.Rest your feet, your achilles, your calves, your quads, your hips, your shoulders, your neck, your wrists, your hands, and your head. Let your body sink into the ground. Let it melt.
Without knowing it, I’m out. I wake up in the night and check the time. I’ve been out for three hours. I’ll give myself one more. Usually, if I wake up, I start packing and go, but I’ve made a deal with myself that I’ll rest for four hours to recover my smoky asthmatic lungs.
The alarm goes off. I get up and start packing—put my electronics away, shake up another protein-greens bottle, stuff away my sleeping bag and puffy pants. I’d planned to buy food at the mercantile, but at 5 a.m., it’s definitely not open. I look in a church supply closet and find a small packet of Goldfish crackers, some old Red Vines in an open cylinder, and some packets of spiced cider mix. That’ll work. I shake up a bottle of apple cider, stuff the Red Vines and Goldfish in my gas tank, and get on the road. It’s 38 miles (61 kilometers) over Huckleberry Pass to Lincoln. On the way down, I chase a bull moose with a huge rack. Part of the beauty of individual time trials is that the route is quiet. That’s when you see all of the animals.
A core aspect of bikepacking competition is time trials or FKT (Fastest Known Time) attempts. The idea is that you can set out on any route at any time, self-supported, with the intention of setting either your fastest time or the fastest time overall. These rides establish records that are meant to be broken. Many routes, like the Great Divide and the Arizona Trail, have group starts once a year, but there’s also the possibility of going after the record on your own time. The strategy is a bit different. You can try to optimize the weather or conditions, or you can simply fit it in when your schedule allows.
I first raced the 2,700-mile (4,345-kilometer) Tour Divide in June of 2015 at the Grand Depart in Banff. During that ride, I rode myself to the emergency room in Helena, Montana, and found out I have asthma. It flared up with bronchitis-like symptoms. I got an X-ray on my lungs to check for pneumonia. I felt limited on the bike but was able to continue and I broke the women’s record by two days, taking it from 19 to 17 days. After heading home to Alaska, the route woke me up at night. I knew I could ride faster. If I hadn’t gotten so sick, I could’ve made much better time early on. I went back to Banff in August of 2015 for an individual time trial on the route. Even though I got stuck in the mud for 12 hours on the Medicine Lodge Sheep Creek Divide outside of Lima, Montana, I was able to better my time by a day and a half, bringing down the women’s record to 15 days, 11 hours.
Six years later, I still think about the route. I still want to go after the overall record, 13 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes set by Mike Hall in 2016. You have to average about 200 miles (322 kilometers) per day for 14 days.
The US-Canada border was closed for 17 months, making riding the route unattainable because the first 250 miles (402 kilometers) are in Canada. I’ve been keeping my eye on the monthly announcements. If the border were to open by early August, I’d start a time trial with the intention of going after the overall record.
In late July, the Canadian government announced that the border would open to Americans on August 9th—just about perfect timing. Rue and I were in Alaska and I’d just finished a time trial on the 858-mile (1,380-kilometer) Trans Alaska Pipeline. I was fit and nearly ready to go. I got my Tour Divide bike rebuilt by Sara Jarell at SRAM in Colorado Springs. I needed to acclimate to altitude, so Rue and I hiked 80 miles (130 kilometers) of the Colorado Trail from Silverton to Durango. We got my gear and headed for the border crossing at Roosville on August 9th. I set out on a time trial the morning of August 11th. A small group, mostly women, cheered for me at the start of the Goat Creek Trail.
And I’m off—riding the 2016 Tour Divide route to break the record. The main difference between the 2016 track and later editions is the routing through Canada. On the singletrack sections, I find the older route a bit overgrown with some downed trees. It definitely feels like an adventure, and I’m thrilled to be out there.
My aim for the day is to make it to Butts Patrol Cabin, 191 miles (307 kilometers) into the route. I arrive around 2 a.m. to an empty cabin. I roll my bike inside, set my devices charging, mix up a protein shake, and lay down to sleep, my head buzzing. The cabin has a few foam mats, a treat to have something soft to sleep on. I hear small animals running around the cabin and get up to tuck my food into my bikepacking bags.
The following morning is when I first notice the smoke, riding over Cabin Pass and Galton Pass and crossing the border at Roosville. It’s the quietest I’ve ever seen—no cars, no line, no noise. I turn on my phone and receive about 30 text messages. Folks are worried because my SPOT tracker stopped showing my location the previous evening near Elkford. I ride the next 10 miles (16 kilometers) on country roads to Eureka and stop at the Stein’s Market to resupply. I buy batteries for my SPOT tracker, Mucinex for my lungs, and hot food from the fried case. I swap out my batteries and upload my rides from my Wahoo Bolt to Komoot to verify my ride. I get back on my bike, riding under the hot smoky sun.
The next focus is my fire detour. The regular Great Divide route goes over Whitefish Divide and Red Meadow Lake. The area is closed because of the Hay Creek Fire. There’s a $5,000 fine for entering the area. I worked out a detour with Cricket Butler, owner of the Whitefish Bike Retreat and one of the original Divide racers. Essentially, the detour is an out-and-back up Mount Marston that matches the distance of the Divide route and tacks on an additional 1,500 feet (457 meters) of climbing. This felt like a safeguard if anyone questioned my detour—it was actually much harder than the original route. I didn’t really care about the time lost and difficulty, I just wanted to make this ride happen and felt it’d be a shame to give it up for 54 miles (87 kilometers) of closed route. Scott Morris of trackleaders.com, and Matthew Lee, the unofficial Tour Divide race organizer, approved this detour.
Mount Marston Road is very steep and rough with a fire lookout on top. I make it up there in time to see both the sun and moon blazing orange through the smoke. The sight is both breathtaking and terrifying, a scene out of science fiction. I put on some layers and my lights and head back down the mountain. It’s another 10 miles (16 kilometers) of rollers to get to Whitefish Lake and around twice that from there to Whitefish. I’m planning to get a hotel room to get out of the smoke and let my lungs recover. My breath is short and my voice hoarse and dry.
Around midnight, I see two sets of lights coming toward me.
“Funny seeing you here!”
It’s a man and woman on gravel bikes and they turn right around to ride with me. I don’t know them, but all of a sudden, it feels like a party.
Right away, the woman tells me that she’s originally from Canada. She moved here to get married and the bicycle is what taught her that she’s strong enough to be on her own.
“That’s a great story!”
The young guy asks, “So, what’s the strategy?”
“I’m going to sleep in the Best Western.”
The ride along the lake is mostly downhill and it’s surreal to roll over the hardpacked sand in the night, our lights illuminating the bright road. There’s no traffic at all and the air is warm. I put on my down jacket for the mountain descent and I’m sweating like crazy, but I don’t want to stop, so I just push up my sleeves and unzip a little.
We start passing houses and make it to the lights of town. The railroad tracks and the route go left to Columbia Falls. We cross over the bridge and detour about a mile to the hotel. A couple of photos and fist bumps out front and then I go inside to check in. I take my bike on the elevator to the second story, put everything on chargers, drink a protein shake, take a shower, and get into the King sized bed.
Four hours later, I’m back on the go, stopping at Safeway to buy food for the day—a couple of deli wraps, drinkable yogurt, a bottle of Coke, Greek yogurt bars (the closest I can get to Lithuanian sūrelis), and a pint of ice cream that I’ll let melt and drink down the road. My arms are full of food and I drop the clamshell boxes of deli wraps. Both open up, spilling my sandwiches on the supermarket floor. It’s six o’clock in the morning. The store is quiet and clean. I pop the wraps back in the boxes and head to the self-checkout. Back at my bike, I’m chugging yogurt and putting my sandwiches in bags and then into my cargo shorts, jersey pockets, mag-tank, and jerry can. The truth is, apart from a great bike, the biggest need you have on the Great Divide is food. My next ressupply is Ovando, nearly 170 miles away.
Across the bridge again and back to the Divide, I turn toward Columbia Falls. The early morning light is opaque and the sky is white with smoke. Where you’d normally see dew on the fields, it’s grey—almost like Kansas in The Wizard of Oz. Everything is in grayscale. I see deer in the trees and the pastures. One leaps high over a barbed wire fence, the other squeezes between the barbs. A guy pops out on a white Specialized Epic and says he lives right down the road and wanted to see me come through. Down the road, another is waiting beside his sedan with the trunk popped.
“Do you want any food or water?”
“Hi! I’m okay.”
“I’m friends with the woman you rode with last night.”
I don’t want to stop and I can’t accept anything anyway, but it’s nice to see a friendly face.
It feels great to cruise right through main street in Columbia Falls without stopping. I have plenty of food and everything else I need. I keep rolling on backcountry roads and the day is heating up.
I spot a spigot in Ferndale at the fire station and stop to soak my clothing and head, chug a bottle of water, and fill up the another two. It’s going to be a cooker.
Half an hour down the road, a couple is out front of their house cheering.
“Do you need some water or a bathroom break?”
“Yeah! A bathroom break would be great.”
I don’t feel like I could accept water, but surely using a toilet instead of shitting on the side of the road is more ethical.
“You’re so fast! I planned on riding to meet you in Ferndale, but you’re already here.”
“I feel great!”
His wife leads me to the bathroom.
“We have one right here in the garage for cyclists.”
Back out and much relieved, the woman tells me that they also have a house in Tucson. “You don’t know us, but we know a lot about you and see you spend a lot of time there.”
“Yeah! I love it there. I’m planning on buying a house there this fall.”
“Really?! If you need help, we know some great real estate agents.”
“I’m working with Sara White.”
“Oh, Sara! She’s a good friend. I stayed with her and Brian while I was going through a divorce.”
“Yeah, she’s been super helpful. When you talk to her, tell her I say hi and that I’m serious about buying a house. I’ve just been busy.”
They laugh. “We know!”
The guy leads me over to a sign that says “Antelope Wells 2351” with an arrow pointing down the road. That’s where I’m going.
I get back on my bike and say goodbye.
“Hope to see you in Tucson!”
“Yeah, that would be great!”
Climbing the next pass out of Big Fork, I see a bikepacking couple lying on the road in the shade.
“We’re just taking a break.” It’s getting hot!
I stop at the top, uncap my pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and drink it. When I bought it, I thought it was strawberry. Turns out it’s white chocolate raspberry. It still tastes good—even a little cold, what a treat!
I ride down toward Seeley Lake and then I’m rolling through the woods and I’m thirsty. I stop by a bridge, walk down to the creek, and jump in with all of my clothes on. I scoop up a bottle of water and chug it, refill both and add Gnarly Fuel20. It’s Cherry Cola flavor and tastes great.
I start making my way up Richmond Peak. I’m up at the top at sunset, then down, then see the mountain lion and the skunk, make it to Ovando, spook the basement bikepacker, sleep, scavenge snacks, chase the moose down Huckelberry Pass, buy corn dogs in Lincoln, and I’m on my way to Helena—three mountain passes in 61 miles (98 kilometers) and they’re tough and rough. I jump in another creek fully clothed and make it to town. I resupply at the supermarket, packing half a dozen fried burritos for the next stretch.
One of my favorite moments of the whole ride is rolling through downtown Helena when a couple of bikepackers yell, “You’re a gay icon! You’re a gay icon!”
For some reason, this absolutely tickles me.
A block down the way, at the pizza place, there are 10 or so people cheering for me with cowbells. I smile and wave and cheer back at them. It’s late afternoon. I’m heading for Grizzly Gulch and then over Lava Mountain. My goal is to make it to Basin to sleep in the post office—driven to get out of the smoke.
A young guy rides up to me.
“Hi, Lael! I just wanted to come meet you. How are you dealing with the smoke?”
“It’s pretty bad, but I’ve been trying to stay indoors to recover. Just doing my best to keep going.”
He works at the bike shop in Helena and loves meeting Divide riders and hearing the stories. After a mile or so he says goodbye and turns back.
A middle aged guy in a white Jeep pulls up.
“You’re an inspiration, man! You’re an inspiration.”
I wave and smile and thank him. He turns back to town.
I drink a Sprite at the top of the next climb and descend the sandy road before starting my way up Lava Mountain. This one’s a beast. After climbing gravel, the road turns onto a trail. It’s sandy and rooty and steep. I’m on and off the bike and I know it’ll take time and I’m patient. The night air is warm, the moon is orange, and every now and then I get a tiny glimpse of the sky, but mostly it’s just covered in smoke.
I’m finally cruising down to Basin along a river. I make it to I-15 and turn right into town. It’s after midnight. There’s loud music and people milling around the entrance of the bar, smoking cigarettes. Drunk ladies are yelling at each other. I start thinking I might not be able to stay here. I realize I overshot the post office by a block and backtrack to find it. It’s pretty tiny, but the door is unlocked. I look over my shoulder to make sure I’m alone and I roll my bike inside. It’s warm—a perfect spot to spend the night. I pull out my gear and go through my routine. I find a half-full bottle of water on the post desk and use it for my protein-greens shake. I set my alarm for four hours and sleep. My knees are aching in the night, but the carpet feels comfy. The lights stay on, so I cover my face with a sleeping bag.
Four hours later, I’m ready to go. It’s light enough to see. I parallel I-15 for a few miles and start riding up river grade. There are two more good climbs to Butte. The air is increasingly thick with smoke and I’m struggling, but I’m making it. At the top of the first climb, I see a woman walking her dog.
She calls out to me, “I don’t know if we’re doing ourselves any favors here, spending time in the smoke.”
She’s right, it’s awful.
I descend and climb right back up.
The ride into Butte is down singletrack and the trail is in great shape. I hit the steep streets down to the pavement, to the Safeway to resupply.
I buy chicken strips, potato wedges, and the stacker sandwich. I drink yogurt and iced coffee and I’m ready to ride—first the road pass, then Fleecer Ridge to Wise River, then Crystal Park to Polaris, then Medicine Lodge Sheep Creek Divide to Lima. I have to find somewhere to sleep inside. If I can just stay out of the smoke, I can make it. I call Montana High Country Lodge. It’s only 90 miles away, but I could get there early and sleep early and keep moving. I call and it goes to voicemail and I leave a message.
“Hi! This is Lael Wilcox and I’m riding through on the Divide. I’m trying to get out of the smoke. Do you have a place I can sleep for the night? Please call me back.”
As a backup, just one more mile down the road in Polaris, there’s a post office. Maybe I could stay there.
I ride out of town to the east. The sky is white-grey. The fields are white-grey. There are the faintest outlines of mountains, but you really can’t see them. I hear my breath wheezing and I’m just not getting much in. I feel my chest tightening.
All of a sudden, it hits. I can’t do this. I’m riding directly toward the Alder Creek Fire, 13,462 Acres (54,478,781 square meters) and only 10% contained. The road out of Wise River parallels the wildfire boundary. If I continue, I’ll be breathing the burn for days. My lungs are shutting down. This is not something I can overcome. This is out of my hands. These are not conditions for breaking the record. These are not conditions for spending time outside. This place is a health hazard. This is the new reality of the American West—wildfires and smoke season. This is a tragedy.
I start to cry. I know I have to stop, but I hate to give up. Up to this point, I’ve done everything I can to keep moving forward—sleeping indoors, resting longer than I usually would, taking Mucinex, taking my inhaler every three hours. The air has just gotten so much worse. A huge component of bikepacking is overcoming challenges and finding solutions. The only solution is to stop riding.
I call Rue. I call Gus Morton. I call it off. I cry some more.
I stop at the Three Bears Alaska mega supermarket on the east side of town. I wait for Isaac, Gus, and Ben. I tell them how I’m feeling, that I can’t breathe, that I have to stop, that I’m disappointed. They film me and they don’t intervene. They give me space to think and once I’m resolved, I turn off my SPOT tracker and it’s over.
We drive to Wise River together to see the Alder Creek Fire. Plumes of smoke spiral into the air. Both a helicopter and a fire truck make trips back and forth to the river to transport water over the flames. It looks like the end of the world.
We drive 800 miles (1,287 kilometers) back to Boulder, Colorado, near the Great Basin, through Pinedale, and it’s dark smoke the entire way. I wouldn’t have gotten out of it for days, if ever. I wouldn’t have made it and I would have done much more damage.
My greatest takeaway is the destruction of the land and how it impacts our quality of life. People live in all of these communities and it’s dangerous for them to spend time outside. A large part of my sense of freedom and well-being is laced into moving in nature. That is where I feel my best and have my best ideas. It’s what I’m always dreaming of. This freedom is not possible in burning land. The air is damaging. It’s not safe.
I don’t want to be in a place where we can’t connect to the natural world.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route provides a guide to ride gravel through the Rockies. I love riding this land and chasing this record. Ultimately, these are just bike rides and adventures. I’m grateful for my time out there and accept the need to quit the effort. I definitely learned a lot and I’m already excited to get back on my bike.
Find more of Lael’s writing at her author page, and dig into past content, interviews, and routes featuring Lael published here on the site since 2014 at #lael-wilcox.
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