We had set our alarms for 3am but Andres's alarm went off at 2am. Wrong time zone apparently. Fifteen minutes later, unable to get back to sleep I said "lets just go"? Andres agreed so we jumped up, packed our bikes and were on the road at about 2:30am. We weren't trying to be tactical, there was simply no point in not riding now that we were awake.
We rolled along slowly to warm up. It was very cold and for someone from Uraguay, bloody freezing so Andres kept stopping to add layers. I just pedalled along steadily and he would catch back up. We passed someone packing up their bivy in the darkness outside Grave Creek campground. I said "hey" but couldn't make out who it was in the pre dawn darkness. (Turns out it was Brett Stepanik who said he had a rubbish sleep as it was cold and the river noisy)
We had been climbing constantly now for a few hours and as dawn began to break got our first glimpse of the type of country we were riding through. Forest again.
After three and a half hours climbing we crested the Whitefish Divide. There had been an avalanche come down the left slope and it had bowled over half the forest on the right hand slope. Quite a sight for someone not used to snow country and the power of avalanches.
We donned all of our warm gear here for the descent. It was still hovering around zero so we knew we would suffer but a least it was downhill and we would be making miles at a decent rate again.
We had to stop about 30 minutes later to revive frozen fingers and faces. It was seriously cold but the views were beautiful.
The road went downhill for many miles and we pedalled easily at about 30km/h. Soon, Kintla Peak in Glacier National Park reared it's cloud shrouded head on the eastern horizon.
We passed several people walking along this section of road. All were cheery and one almost lost his silly golden retriever to us. It kept chasing along with Andres despite the owner yelling for it to heel. I stopped as I could see this stupid pooch was just going to bound along all day with us and Andres followed suit so that the frustrated owner could get a hold on his dog. It was funny to me but I could see his blood was starting to boil.
Turning up Red Meadow road we soon caught up to Rob Orr again. He had slept out and wasn't having a very good day but as happens on the divide, he seemed to take inspiration from our presence and pedalled off over the hill in front of us.
The climb was quite steep and having been on the bike for six and a half hours already, my legs cried "enough" and I hopped off to walk one of the climbs. I found this gave my legs a nice rest and seemed to stretch some muscles. Getting back on felt like bliss again and I pedalled to Red Meadow Lake for a photo stop. I didn't end up getting one that took in the enormity of the lake and mountain so the following will have to do.
As we passed the little campground by the lake we got a few "woohoo, go the divide" cheers. Blue Dot watchers were everywhere!
The road now pointed down again and we covered some serious ground fast, dropping down from Red Meadow Lake. The road lower down had recently been graded and was very loose and very dusty making for some hard work despite the downhill grade. My Spot stopped working somewhere here and I had to replace the batteries after just two and a half days of use. The same brand of batteries that I replaced them with lasted for the next 18 days. Go figure.
The last few kilometres into Whitefish were along Whitefish Lake and were stunning. The shoreline was lined with holiday homes and I just wanted to stop to take it all in. My stomach had other ideas and we headed for the first resupply just outside of town, the Alpine Village Supermarket. In here, apart from the iced coffee and ice creams I found some burritos in the deli. I bought three and they were so good that I went back for another one!
Resupplied, we didn't bother going into Whitefish as it would just be a time suck. But where to push on to tonight? There was Columbia Falls and Big Fork. Ferndale was also an option. Because of our early start we had covered more ground than my modest plan called for and the only sensible thing to do was to resupply in Ferndale then push on into the wilderness toward Swan Lake.
From Whitefish to Fernadale was all sealed or really good dirt road and basically flat. I enjoyed pedalling along at speed with the nice tailwind. looking back towards Whitefish we could see a huge thunderstorm on the hills. While we enjoyed a dry, dusty run down from Red Meadow Lake there would be riders under that storm having a miserable mudfest. Timing.....
As I rode along I did a systems check. Knees-good, backside-good, ankles-good, hands-good. Apart from the obvious tired legs there wasn't any part of me complaing yet despite the 600km (372mi) and near 8000m (26500ft) of climbing so far. I was very happy with how things were going.
Then, I wasn't. About an hour later I started to notice an ever so slight squeak in my left heel. Oh, no. Not the dreaded achilles tendon. Lots of riders have issues with their achilles simply from overuse. It wasn't too bad, being just a squeak and there was no pain involved but I knew I had to tend to it.
We came to our last chance of resupply at Ferndale and rode slightly off course to get to the excellent Ferndale Market. This gas station/grocery had everything a hungry divide rider needed. We fed ourselves, stocked up and used some wifi to check the Trackleaders page, Hey! We were pretty well out the front of the TD conga line making it's way down the divide route! A quick count saw us in about 15th or 16th place. Not bad out of 150 odd riders.
I resolved to ride on and camp but first there was another 1000ft climb to get over. I took it easy on my heel and tried to modify my pedalling technique to limit the amount I flexed my left heel on each rotation. It felt better but there was still a "squidgy" sound that I could hear or feel internally from the heel. Andres was happy to pedal gently along with me. He realised that we had made excellent ground today and it was time to soft pedal for a while. Others smoked past us but true to Andres's opinion, they blew knees, ankles and heartlidges in the coming days and I caught some of them before the end of the race, despite my ailment. He caught all of them.
We decided to camp slightly off route, near Swan Lake. There was a river and a bridge and we thought we could wash up and refill our Camelbaks here. Just after we stopped and were about to set up camp two slightly drunk guys pulled up in a car. They got fishing rods out and told us about their plan to fish right near our camp. Being friendly I was chatting to them and they said "yep, we grill 'em soon as we catch 'em". Great. We would be camping right next to fish guts and the smell of grilled fish! We decided to move on and eventuall almost rode all the way into Swan Lake, about 5km off route. We found a small cabin by the side of the highway and set up camp there. It had a water hand pump that worked and we were set for the night. A family was camping in the main cabin and I felt secure in the knowledge that someone would hear me scream if a grizzly tried to snuggle up with me.
I told Andres that if he was up beofre me in the morning to just go. This was a race after all and he was under no obligation to wait. I wasn't sure about my heel and he was still riding strong so I didn't want him to feel bad about leaving me. We were all here to test ourselves and I knew Andres was going to be strong, with a chance of finishing very well.
This resolved, we ate then hit the hay. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.......again.