Rain is falling. Again. The outskirts of Glacier National Park are obscured in thick, white clouds. Soupy mud is splattered everywhere – on my bike, my legs and back, in my face. The sun is dropping. At least, I think it is. It hasn’t been seen in 24 hours. But there’s extra gloom in the sky. Night is coming. In the distance, the soft glow of Whitefish, Montana interrupts the encroaching darkness. The mountain town looks like a postcard – warm and inviting against the stubborn clutches of winter. I speed up, looking forward to a hot meal. Another rider pulls up and asks the question we’re all asking ourselves. “Are you going to get a room here tonight?”
I read the notes again. And again after that.
I match the notes to the map. Sometimes I zoom in on the satellite image, hoping to see something new. “Is that a barn? I wonder if I could sleep there.”
Once in a while, this exercise fills me with confidence. But often I am left daunted and tired.
The Tour Divide has been dominating my energy for 2 years. And now, it’s just a few weeks away. I’m equal parts excited and terrified.
I look over my gear list, and 2nd guess everything. “Is this the right bivy?” “Are these lights bright enough?” “Do I really need this?” I back off, and let things settle. I worry about something else, for a time. But the Tour Divide comes back, and soon I am deep into the notes and the blog posts again. I find something new in a ride journal I’ve read 50 times before. “20 miles outside of Eureka, there is a campground with a pavilion.” I mark the place on the map. “18 of those miles are paved.” This is a good find. I start planning, scheming. “I could grind that out in the rain, and sleep under that roof.”
Eventually my brain fills up. Place names and distances blend together. I confuse myself with questions. “Is Grants north of Cuba? No, it’s south. Isn’t it?”
I step away from the computer and the maps and go ride my bike.
As helpful as all the planning and studying has been, ultimately it will dissolve into the realities of the trail. Rain and snow will obliterate daily mileage goals. Headwinds and heat will cool off burning ambitions. Fatigue, indifference, and hunger will hinder progress.
But none of the external possibilities matter. If it’s going to rain, it will rain. If the road is muddy, it’s muddy. If there is snow, then there’s snow. I can’t control the weather. I can’t control the condition of the road.
But I can control my bike.
And in the end, the only thing that matters is riding the bike.
The gear in my bags won’t matter. The lights on the bars won’t matter. The little gems I’ve found, all the waypoints I’ve added to the map, and the pacing plans I’ve developed won’t mean anything once I am on the trail if I don’t ride my bike. Every day, wake up, ride.
I can control my bike. And I can control how uncomfortable I am willing to be.
For a moment, the wind shifted, and the world was quiet. But only for a moment. The howling headwind stood in my way, intent on stopping my way south. Sage and blackbrush and cheat grass filled the horizon. A lone pronghorn watched my fruitless fight with curious patience. Wamsutter was 40 miles down the road. Sunshine poured from the sky, unfiltered, thick, and warm. Washboards rattled my teeth and broke my cadence. It had been 3 days since I had seen another rider. I wondered if I’d see anyone ever again.
Will I be willing to ride through town, knowing that I will spend the night shivering in the woods instead of sleeping indoors? Will I be willing to peel myself out of bed an hour earlier than I wanted to? Will I trade a slow-cooked burger at a cafe for the quick, poor-tasting food from the gas station?
Yes. Of course.
I’m at home. Warm, dry, and comfortable. It’s easy to make those sacrifices now. It’s easy to imagine riding past Whitefish in the waning light and gloomy storm. But in the moment, the allure of glowing windows, safe, warm, sleep, and a hot meal will be tremendous. Maybe staying inside will be the right call. Better sleep. Wake up early. More energy the next day. “But what if it’s not the right call? What if it sets me back?”
And so it goes. Speculation. What-ifs. The brain of a bikepacker before a big event is a crowded, noisy place.
It’s all for naught. Mostly.
I like to think that somewhere along the trail I will be presented with a situation that I rehearsed. And that I will, in that moment, make the right call. Whatever that call might be. The Tour Divide is a long race. And it’s important to play the long game. Maybe an early night, with good sleep really will set me up for a big day tomorrow. Or maybe riding extra late tonight will line me up to hit town just as the stores are opening in the morning.
Until I am out on the trail, there’s little I can do beyond speculating and studying that will get me to Antelope Wells. Except the one thing that will actually get me there – riding my bike.
“There’s water at that trailhead?” I’m back at the screen. Back at the ride journal. “That is very good to know.” I make a note on the map. Another waypoint. Another place to chase down during the race. It’s raining again. It’s been a wet spring. “I think all this rain is trying to tell me something.” I go back to the map. Back to the Internet. “I wonder how many of these campgrounds have toilet blocks.”
It is likely that all the planning and speculation will be useless. In the moment, I’ll do whatever I think I need to do. But for now, it’s all helping me to know how to react to the many moments that might occur. Knowing that there’s water nearby, or that a campground 12 miles away has a good toilet block might keep me moving faster and longer than I otherwise would have. Little gains add up over 2700 miles. The difference between an 18-day finish and a 20-day finish is only 15 miles a day.
So, I’ll continue to plan and and to study. I’ll keep riding my bike. And I’ll keep preparing for the countless what-ifs and could-bes. I’ll keep imagining riding through the highs, the lows, and the flat pavement in between.
Ahead, a cracked paved road vanished into the horizon. The golden light of sunset was gone, replaced by the cool hues of the coming nightfall. My eye lids drooped with fatigue. But I was alert. Watchful. I scanned the horizon for the lights of the border station at Antelope Wells. My knobby tires hummed on the pavement. They were the only sound I could hear. The temperature dropped mercifully. I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. “Can I get there before dark?” I wondered. Just then, a light. A building. More lights. My cadence increased. A chain-linked fence and the border sign I’d dreamed of seeing for ages appeared suddenly. The line on my GPS ended. I coasted to a stop, unsure how to feel. It was over. It was over.