Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Banff to Fernie

FERNIE, B.C., Canada – The first day was brutal. I had a late start leaving from Banff and wanted to get to the first night’s campsite before dark. I did it, but made some rookie mistakes along the way.

I was pretty warm riding but I didn’t remove layers and just kept sweating under an insulating layer I really needed to keep dry. I also didn’t remove the backpack during the short break I took, which made the sweat problem worse.

Normally it would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, but the temperature at that lovely lakeside camping ground was dropping fast. I was able to watch the damp air condense on everything (really, I’ve never seen it happen so fast) as it just got colder and colder. I had a dry insulating layer on, but it wasn’t enough.

I was shivering. 

However, at the campsite were my newfound travel companions for the ride to Elkford, where we parted ways: Jim and Leigh. 

They had a camp fire and let me camp near them, avoiding a separate $26 CDN camp fee. We talked about travel (Leigh has ridden through Danbury, CT, where I grew up, on a bike tour) and bikes and the weather. I was thankful for that camp fire. 

The next morning, I swept a thick layer of hoar frost from my tent that covered my shoes. We all stared menacingly to slowly-building glow over the snow-capped mountains to the east, awaiting the sun to warm the frosty ground. We talked about my titanium, alcohol stove and other things that escape me. I was still cold and had a shitty night’s sleep. 

We ate breakfast and packed up and we’re back on the good gravel road by 11. I ride with them to the next evening’s campsite, without making those first rookie mistakes. 

The days blend together, but there was mud, soul-crushing climbs, terrifyingly exuberant descents and endless, epic scenery. Looking in any direction was beautiful.

That night’s sleep, after a good camp fire and warmer and drier day, was also pretty bad. That sore throat was getting worse and my head was clogged with snot. My left knee was swelling and sore – some old injury of questionable origin that started 20 years ago and haunts me every now and then. 

Jim said my snoring was “beyond category.” We talked about bike races like the Vuelta Espana and Tour Divide while we packed up the following morning as the sun peeked over more jagged mountains.

The night before I heard a giant rockfall from somewhere in those mountains. The temperature rose sharply and we headed out for a good ride to Elkford. We stopped for snacks at the Peter Lougheed Trading Post and happened upon end-of-season discounts on snacks, soda and Gatorade. 

My cold was getting worse, but the knee was working with ibuprofen, which seemed to keep the swelling down. About every other year, my knee swells and becomes nearly useless for a few days, for no specific reason. Contrary to the myths about single speed (and fixed gear) somehow magically destroying riders’ knees, I’ve never had any physical problems from pedaling on a single-gear bike.

This day was long, with more soul-crushing climbs, harrowing descents, epic scenery and ending with me at a mental and physical breaking point. 

When we finally made it into the actual “urban center” of Elkford, my knee was not functional (walking was almost impossible) and I was at the early stage of the minor fever and accompanying headache that had me cold-sweating in a bed for 24 hours straight. 

I knew I was in trouble when I booked the room, so I opted for two nights. I hadn’t sleep well in weeks: the days before and during Burning Man, the few days after in Austin and Banff, and the few days on the Great Divide. It may not seem like a lot, but I was not in good shape. 

I finally emerged from that motel room with about a minute to spare before check-out time and had my first actual meal on a plate, at a table, since the breakfast poutine in Banff. I bought a few provisions and the nearby grocery store and had an easy ride to Sparwood. 

I felt well, but not 100%, so I got another hotel room and relaxed, heading out later for a close-by fast food burger. In the hotel room I aired out my sleeping bag, reorganized my gear a bit and took it easy. 

I needed the sleep. 

My plan was to ride to Elko, B.C., and make my dash for Montana the following day; maybe see some more of the Sparwood tourist things and of course, go by Tim Hortons. I didn’t see more tourist things, but I did go by Tim Hortons to fuel up with proper doughnuts and coffee. 

With fuel and improving health, I headed south on the Fernie Alternate version of the Great Divide, into strong headwinds under menacing skies. The headwinds slowly changed to drizzle, then a cold, steady rain. 

I found refuge at the Fernie Chamber of Commerce on a bench under an overhang. I added a layer and headed deeper into Fernie, with brief respite from the rain in a covered bridge where a cycle track or bikeway crosses the Elk River.

The rain picked up and I sought refuge in everyone’s favorite generic place to linger: Starbucks. That’s where I wrote the bulk of this and made travel plans for next weekend. 

So far every day has had its own unique joys and problems, ups and downs. I imagine that theme will continue. 

The first order of business tomorrow: bike shop. I want to return to the ways of the wire basket (I couldn’t figure out how to pack mine for flying) and I just realized I can’t seem to get the nozzle of my pump on the valve stem. 

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