The Kootenay Gravel Grinder

It was 6.50am on Saturday morning, and Alex and I were at the 7-Eleven in Fernie grabbing a spare pair of lithium batteries for the Spot Tracker. I had no idea how old the batteries in the Spot were, and I was about to go and line up to … race? take part in? ride? the Kootenay Gravel Grinder.

Race details had been kind of sparse, and organisation levels minimal. There was originally a 7 am Grand Depart from the clock tower in Cochrane but then it turned out the Cochrane riders wanted to leave on Friday, so they decided to start then instead. So someone else decided to leave Fernie on Friday as well. And I decided to join the small crew who were planning to have a Petit Depart on Saturday at 7 am in Fernie, rather than joining the guy who was leaving Fernie at 6 am, or the guy who still left Cochrane at 7 am on the day of the original Grand Depart. There were maybe eight to ten of us out there riding at approximately the same time, and everything was as clear as mud.

All I knew for sure was that I wanted to be at the Fernie Aquatic Centre at 7 am, and I’d like to have my Spot tracker working because I might be riding on my own in the wilds of British Columbia for a couple of days. When I got to the Aquatic Centre three other bikepackers awaited. Two knew each other, the third was on his own. And so Alex took our pre-race photo, and we set off. And then started to get to know each other.

Amy and Tony lived in Bozeman, Montana. Amy spent her summers in Antarctica at the McMurdo station, and this was her second bike-packing race, after doing the Idaho Smoke and Fire previously. Tony was studying snow science engineering of some sort. And Chip was a hydrologist from Spokane, WA, who had raced the Tour Divide northbound, and toured it southbound, among many other bike races and tours – he rounded out our group.

We all settled into a pretty similar speed. We were just being sociable at first, and I felt like my legs had more to give, but the pace was comfortable and it seemed like a good idea to conserve energy for now. This would be my biggest effort ever if I pulled it off. It turned out we all had similar time goals – to finish within two days. And it was great fun socialising and getting to know other bikepackers.

We stopped for lunch on a bridge and chatted to a friendly couple with bikes, who had a cabin nearby. Well, mostly Amy chatted to them. This was to become a theme of the trip. Amy is excellent at chatting.

As I lay my bike down on the bridge, I eyed the big gaps between the bridge boards and pondered how easy it would be for something to fall into those gaps, and that I should be careful. At which point my Nuun tablets fell out of my seat bag and rolled into the river. Damn.

We’d gone up and over one pass to hit the Corbin mine road, then up and over Flathead Pass, which also seemed fairly non-eventful. Well, the descent was rocky, but what flows like a river in June when the Tour Dividers ride through was fairly manageable in July. I crashed just once, and that was because I was busy staring at the mountains instead of looking where I was going.

Cabin Pass was a fun climb which brought us to Butts Cabin. Notorious among Tour Divide riders, it always used to be the goal for the big hitters on Day One. These days the course has changed, and most of the big hitters ride straight past. It was still fascinating to see in person a cabin I’d read so much about.

Butts Cabin was also where we lost Tony for good. He had been falling further and further behind, and here he told us he was going to just keep going at his own pace. We assuaged our guilt with a promise that we’d buy him a Pepsi at the Grasmere store and stash it behind the store for him – with the assumption that we’d make it there by the 9 pm closing time, and he wouldn’t.

And so now we were three. Next up was The Wall, an infamous connector created so the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route could be directed through the Canadian Flathead instead of taking the more boring and direct road route from Fernie to Roosville. I’d heard so much about it, it was great fun to actually experience in person (and it’s not THAT steep, despite what some folks say).

As we pedalled up Galton Pass it started to rain. Light at first, then heavy rain. This isn’t what the weather forecast said! It was all lies! I mentally shook my fist at the heavens and hoped that the rain would at least be short-lived. I had gambled on the forecast and brought only my super light wind jacket. I was saturated by the time the rain eventually let up. Wet gloves, wet feet, muddy backs. Oh well, it was warm at least.

There was a good little climb to the top of Galton, but not wildly hard (not as steep as Sulphur Mountain, and not too rocky). It was nice to have Chip along, with his route knowledge, and his generally calm, reassuring presence – and interesting to hear his thoughts on how our ride through the Flathead compares to the rest of the Tour Divide route.

Then we were at the top of the pass, still happily pedalling together. We briefly snacked, were attacked by mosquitos, descended. Amy fastest with her suspension, me just behind, and Chip a little further back, but not by much.

We were out of the Flathead without having seen a single bear! Although we’d given them plenty of warning of our presence, so any sensible bear would have easily cleared out of the way.

At the bottom of the pass, we put on our lights and rode into the dusk along the highway. The Grasmere store was closed. But with fast rolling sealed roads and easy gravel, we made it to Kikomun Creek Provincial Park campground around midnight and found a spot to settle in until dawn. We decided to set alarms for 5 am, and then set up in our bivies.

I was testing my theory about it being warm enough to not use a sleeping bag – while simultaneously testing my new bivy, an Outdoor Research Helium. It was not warm enough. I slept a little, then woke up, cold. I put on all the clothes I could find and wrapped a bag around my feet. That helped a little, and I dozed lightly for a few hours. The tones of my alarm at 5 am came as a relief – I was cold and happy to get moving, quickly packing up and getting my things together. Chip was doing the same, and although Amy may have preferred to have some quality snooze button time, she too started to emerge into the dawn. Even though we started to get things together fairly quickly, it was still 5.30 am before we started pedalling.

It was easy riding at first, as we dropped down to Lake Kookanusa and marvelled at the sunrise. We climbed on easy gravel, then flew downhill on more smooth easy gravel into Cranbrook. I pulled ahead a little, but then waited. Having company was more fun, and this scarcely felt like a race. There didn’t seem to be any point in deliberately trying to drop my companions, who were proving to be great fun to ride with.

We took photos at the Cranbrook clock tower, then I dragged them to Tim Horton’s, where we flabbergasted the people behind the counter with the vast amounts of food we consumed and purchased to take with us. One more convenience store stop to stock up a little more, and I found myself a salty caramel Haagen Daasz to eat as we rolled out of town and into the wilderness.

Out of Cochrane, we rode on half-built rail trail and random farm roads, and I learnt a hard lesson about taking one-handed photos with a cell phone. I was fine, but my phone landed on the road and completely refused to turn on again. Argh!

In Fort Steele we stopped for the others to do one more definitely final resupply, as I sat in the shade of a tree, completely failing to convince my phone to turn on.

Then uphill, on gravel. Then the gravel turned into rocks, and the day got hotter and hotter, and the sun beat down, and I started to worry about just how much trail we had ahead of us, and was there any way we could make it? Was I going to die of heat stroke? Would my water run out? My legs felt strong, but my behind was not feeling happy. It hurt to sit. Eventually, my poor swollen sit bones went numb, which was at least an improvement.

I stood and pedalled, I sat and pedalled. I rode away from the others, but then stopped at waterfalls along the way to douse myself in water. A man driving a truck stopped to chat to me, then passed on the news to Amy and Chip that I was dripping with sweat. I was not dripping with sweat, I was dripping with freshly killed waterfall!

I felt lonely out on my own, and decided to stop and eat some of my Tim Horton’s panini. Not from hunger so much as a suspicion that I needed the calories. By now my tongue was feeling sore and abraded from eating too many bars, and too much rough and sugary food. I longed for soft, simple food, and wished I had another Tim Horton’s sausage biscuit. Or five. And then Amy and Chip appeared. I leapt to my feet and cheered them! I had once more been toying with the idea of breaking away and finishing alone but realised I was enjoying riding with them too much, and there was nothing to really gain by heading out alone – sure, I might finish sooner, but I would lose the shared experience.

And so we climbed. The end of that pass is a hike-a-bike. Rough, steep. But then the descent begins. First on ATV trails – oh so much fun. Then onto a wide open road that got more wide and open, and we passed the Top of the World Provincial Park and from there it was simple coasting. Almost effortless, except for the need to pay attention and avoid the darned potholes. I slipped into my biggest gear, dropped to the aerobars and churned. Amy was close behind me, stopping to take photos then catching up again. Chip was further back, struggling, and going through a rough patch.

We stopped at the bottom of the road, at a river, then regrouped before moving on to Lussier River to refill our water bottles and cool off a little. Then there was a slight climb into Whiteswan Provincial Park. It was gorgeously easy riding, so smooth. Riding next to the lake was lovely and cool, the breeze was wonderful. It was starting to get later too, and the lower sun helped.

Then we turned off and started to climb. A gorgeous winding forestry road that climbs up above the river, looking down to a beautiful valley, stunning peaks everywhere. I was enjoying the cooler air and easy terrain, although it was here that Amy started her ‘accidental’ attempts to nobble the only other female competition and knock me down the hill at the side of the road. This was a cut throat competition, and there could only be one winner!

And then descent, and we finally started to go south, towards Fernie. But it was getting late, and there was a long way to go.

Moving on, I tried not to think about it the distance ahead, but started the mental countdown once we had 100km to go. One by one I checked them off. Tried not to think about it. Accidentally checked the number on my GPS. It hadn’t changed in minutes. Doomed, we won’t get there forever! The rough road we were on was climbing steeply, what’s going on? My half-hearted route research beforehand had given me only the vaguest idea of the elevation profile up ahead, and what I could remember didn’t seem to match what was happening. Gradual but persistent climbing, and rough, so rough. Sitting hurts. Standing is hard work. Washouts, piles of avalanche debris, flood damage of all sorts. We climb. Streams to cross. We get wet feet pedalling through them.

We stopped for dinner near sunset, and supplemented our bars and food with delicious, perfectly ripe wild raspberries. The valley was amazing and beautiful, and felt so terribly remote, despite being so near civilisation. We hadn’t seen anyone since Whiteswan, and that seemed a long time ago. We could be lost here forever as the world ends.

We put our lights on, as the sky finally darkened. We yelled for bears as we start flying downhill on a rough gravel road. Well, Amy and I yelled for bears. We informed Chip that his cries are too feeble, so we would protect him with our fierce Amazonian bear yells. He didn’t have bear spray either, saying he’d never had any trouble. Neither have I, but I feel compelled to carry bear spray, just in case. Either way, we didn’t see a bear for the entire ride. I think we were making so much noise between us all that any bears would have heard us from miles away.

Frogs were a different matter. All over the road, they hopped and walked, all sizes of frogs. We tried to dodge them. Along with the potholes. Amy got a moth down her shirt, and for a moment we were all laughing hysterically in the darkness as she tried to get it out.

After climbing for so many hours, we got to descend for hours. As it got later and later there was talk of stopping and setting up camp for the night. I advocated for continuing – I’d rather just get to Fernie and then sleep, rather than having another cold night’s sleep here. I guess my cold bivy setup might be good in some ways, it certainly encouraged me to keep moving. The others gave in, and we rode on together.

Finally we were into logging terrain. The road got smoother and smoother, wider and wider. Less claustrophobic and overgrown. And then we turned off our road and started climbing up the final pass into Fernie, towards Hartley Lake. Both Amy and Chip’s GPSs were registering more kilometres ridden than mine, and so Amy had been optimistic we were nearly there. But we were not nearly there. We had the final pass to climb over, but we were only 30km from Fernie now! But 30km is a long way when it’s after midnight, you’ve been riding since 5.30 am, and you’ve already ridden 230 kilometres of rough road that day.

We rode on. The pass was not so bad. Climb, descend, it rolled up and down, taunting us. The last few kilometres to the pass were brutal and steep, but because they were the last, it seemed ok. We were all so tired that we wavered all over the road, sleep drunk and unable to keep a straight line. And then we were at the top. Was this really the top? Yes. Warm layers on. And we descended, concentrating fiercely. Onto pavement. Rear lights on. Down low and hammering on the flat, on this easy sealed road. Fast, fast.

As we made our way through town drunk people wearing crazy hats yelled at us. Where is our welcoming committee, our legion of fans? There is no-one. Just us. We arrived at the Fernie Leisure Centre once again, and took a finish line photo. It was 2.33am on Monday morning. 43.5 hours since we began. Or 1 day and 19.5 hours.

And thanks to Amy and Chip for all the photos. We’ve ordered some parts to try and see if we can get my phone turn back on and try and retrieve my photos, but nothing is guaranteed, they may be lost forever.

Oh, and you can read Chip’s lovely story telling of the ride here.

5 thoughts on “The Kootenay Gravel Grinder”

  1. 269km/4100m is a very impressive day in the saddle! Well done.
    I enjoyed the ride write up as well. I hope you get yor phone sorted so you can retreive your photos.

    1. Thanks Dave – it was a pretty rough 269km in parts too! And I’m still holding out some hope for the photos – my IT gadget repair man is going to try a couple of possible fixes.

  2. Great ride! That would be a 3 day ride for me. ;)

    My go to saddle for LD riding is the Selle Anatomica. I don’t wear padded shorts or use any lotions and potions with it. My longest day was 300kms on it and I was fine.

    1. Yeah, I’d heard lots of great things about the Selle Anatomica – I’d used mine a bit, and hadn’t loved it, but decided to throw it on for this ride. We don’t get along. My preference is to not use padded shorts or potions either – I got through my 10,000km tour around Europe fine with just my Brooks saddle and wearing random clothes. I switched back to my Specialized saddle for my recent 500km of ridiculousness 10 days ago, and found it was better than the Selle Anatomica – I still had issues with swelling in the flesh around my sit bones, but they took longer to kick in, and in general the saddle felt better. I am beginning to suspect that the main issue is needing more long days in the saddle to get my body used to such treatment, and the best solution is more time in the saddle. But I’m still tossing up what my best saddle option is, and if I can find something that will work better for me! My old Brooks is a sprung version that won’t work with a seat bag, but I’m contemplating getting a new one.

      1. I use B17’s a lot and they work great as well. Not as well as the SA for me, but close enough. I don’t find any functional butt interface difference between the B17 and the sprung version. I also don’t notice any benefit to the springs from a comfort point of view and I’m 190lbs without gear.

        One sure fire solution to saddle issues is to ride singletrack tours! When you are only sitting down half the day you don’t need to find “the perfect” saddle. When you are gravel grinding a great saddle to butt interface is key!

        My butt doesn’t toughen up with extended riding so if I am going to be sitting a lot I have to nail the saddle choice.

        Good luck. Once you get a great saddle setup for bikepacking it makes everything else better. :)

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