8.30am day 16
Its 8.30am on day 16 of the Tour Divide and what looks to be turning into a hot day. Pie Town (yes that is the actual town name) has been and gone and I’m riding a dirt road heading for the haloed Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. I’ve only been riding for four hours this morning and already I’m fighting the sleep monster. First there are the hallucinations, seeing buildings or cars in the forest that on closer inspection turn back into trees, hearing people talking, seeing people that when passed turn into trees. Next comes the whiteout. This is the real indicator that I should stop…but there’s so far to go. During a whiteout I can’t focus, I’m aware the road is passing under my wheels, that corners come and go and I’m managing some sort of control but it’s just not registering. The ground is a blur of grey that blends into the horizon, there is just no sense of presence. Nodoz and some other caffeine rich snacks just seem to be taking to long to kick in and then it finally happens…I’m asleep, still peddling, still upright. It’s only for a second or two before I start dreaming. There’s a large beech tree growing right in the middle of the road, what’s that doing there. I’m going to fast, it’s down hill after all. Brake and turn…brake and turn. And with the fright and a massive adrenaline dump I wake up to find myself braking and turning to avoid this dreamtime tree. It seems self preservation beat the sleep monster and the adrenaline dump kept it at bay for another 10 minutes before I just need to stop for a sleep in the dirt. Surely 30 minutes will get me through so the timers set and I’m out like a light. Only problem is the ants didn’t think I needed to be sleeping and starting biting after only 10 minutes. Time to move. But what a difference that ten minutes made, buying me another eight hours of riding time.
So how the hell did I end up here, and who the hell said this would be fun…
Tour Divide is one of those epic legendary events that just seems to draw people in, it has been on my mind for a couple of years now and after 11 months of bikepacking North and Central America I found I had time to spare before returning to work. The body was in good shape, the bike was a bit tired but surely it could do another 4395ish km. So why not.
I went into this race not expecting it to be fun or enjoyable. It was just going to hurt and be a bit of a suffer fest. My goal was 18 days and depending on who turned up I might make the top 10. But how wrong was I. It was everything I expected and more. Yes a sure suffer fest with some very dark places visited as well as the physical pain that accompanies all endurance sports, but it was also immensely enjoyable and rewarding and this turned it into a pleasant ride and amazing experience.
I get asked the question all the time…how can riding a mountain bike over 4395km for over 20 hours a day for a couple of weeks in challenging terrain be anything close to enjoyable. It’s a simple answer really, you just become one with your bike and the environment. There’s no stress outside how far it is to your next resupply or sleep, your aching body and the bike staying in one piece. And all these stresses can be overcome by riding your own race, getting some sleep, eating as often as you can and looking after your body and your bike.
So I arrive in Banff after a pleasant ride up from Calgary with fellow TD rider, Zoe from France, after bumping into her at Walmart. So it looks like it’s going to be a social day or so before the start with bikepacking rigs at every turn. It seems that wasn’t an entirely accurate perception. With a friendly ‘Gidday’ to all I passed some would return a friendly smile or stop for a chat while others would just look at me with this, ‘what the hell are you talking to me for’ look on their face. I just put this down to some last minute pre-race stress and left them to it. I know the race was going to be a lonely old affair so I was quite keen to have some social time beforehand, alas it just didn’t quite pan out that way.
Salsa were there giving away steerer topcaps which qualified you for free pies in Pietown so with this safely tucked away and after a short final fairwell from the legendary Crazy Larry we were off. 145 happy riders leaving the Grand Depart with a common goal of getting to Antelope Wells. Only about 50% of us would make it though, it is definitely a race of attrition. With a target of 18 days I expected to be in around the top ten and headed out of town about there, surprised at how sedate the pace was…until we hit the first rises in the trail. Riders just started streaming past and I had to tell myself not to try and keep up, it’s a long way and riding within yourself is key to surviving. So how did it go?
4.30pm Day 0
Koko Claims…who the hell decided to put the route over here, the first brutal climb of the race. Sweats dripping off me, my bikes on my back and I’m grovelling up the road which looks more like a boulder field. Other racers are passed while they are resting. I though one guy was in a bad way but turns out he was just having a nap and probably didn’t appreciate me waking him up to see if he was ok. It’s 8km to the top and 3km of that is hike a bike. The decent is just as steep, it’s probably all rideable but it’s just not worth the risk so there’s more hike a bike. At the bottom of the steep stuff I meet up with Kim Raeymaekers from Belgium. He’s broken his seatpost, he’s got it going again but the seats about six inches to low, it looks like he’s riding a BMX. It doesn’t seem to slow him down any with us getting along at 35kmh as we head towards Fernie, where he can get a new post the following day. Turns out Kim knows how to ride a bike and came here to win but he’s up against it now. I expected to see him streaking past me in a few days time.
10.05pm Day 0
It’s my first real disappointment of the race. Food is nearly everything in this race so on arriving in Fernie just before 10pm. I go to the supermarket while it’s still open to resupply for the next 190km. Loaded up with food I head to McDonalds for some instant calories…but it’s closed. Here I was thinking a couple of Big Macs and a shake would set me up for the next few hours but no, I have to settle for some hotdogs and fried chicken at the 7eleven. I shouldn’t be disappointed, McDonalds is always terrible but after 14 hours on the bike the body’s crying out for some fatty calories.
I want to get into a sleeping/riding routine so head out of town hoping to camp at about midnight and start riding again at 5am. Camping is the easy bit, sleeping not so much. There’s to much excitement, I’m restless and keep waking up. I decide that if I can’t sleep I may as well be riding so I’m back on the bike before 3am and passing other racers sleeping on the roadside as I head into the Flathead Loop. This is all new country for me, having missed this section when we toured it. I’m not disappointed, it is just stunning. The beauty about these races is you see places and experience things at times you wouldn’t normally be there. Like the sun rising over towering cliffs then the sun setting behind mountain lakes and the stars slowly getting brighter until the moon rise makes them fade. It’s a pretty special experience.
19 hours and 315km later
The US border has come and gone so we’re now in the land of the big. Food is easy to get as nearly every town has a 24hr convenience store and it’s high octane stuff. After a few more mountain passes I’m approaching Whitefish and am a bit torn as to where to stop. It’s only 10.30pm and the suns just gone down but if I push on I’ll be in suburbia and the intensively farmed area on the flat lands so I decide to pull up early and see if I can catch up on some sleep. At least this night, like the rest to come, sleep isn’t elusive and I’m out as soon as my head goes down. Unfortunately the alarms going four hours later and it’s time to hit the road again…yep ride eat sleep repeat.
8.00am Day 5
It’s all about efficiency which means if you can do it while peddling you do. This includes eating and taking care of your dental hygiene. I might have got some strange looks from locals as I rode past brushing my teeth but there’s not to much decorum in these events.
12.30am Day 5
Wyoming at last but it’s getting colder and there’s a good frost forming. Having just dropped off the Teton Range I’m looking for somewhere to camp. Being just outside Yellowstone National Park I’m aware that I’m in bear country, plus I’d seen one earlier in the day, so I wanted somewhere I’d be able to store my food so pushed on a bit longer to get to a camping area. And was I in luck. The roadside camp had bear boxes and a toilet that was just spotless…and more importantly about 5 deg warmer than it was outside. It didn’t take much thinking to camp in that Hilton of a toilet. Oh the things we resort to.
1.30am Day 6
Bloody hell its cold. I’ve got every piece of riding gear on. The never ending uphill decent of Union Pass is behind me and Pinedale is fast approaching. My drinking tube is frozen and while on the phone to Karen the cold just sucked the battery dry. That means my maps gone so I get it plugged in and bury it deep under my layers to warm up. Luckily I can get it running again when I have to make a nav decision. Then I manage to get back on the phone to Karen. I haven’t seen another racer for three days and won’t see one for another two days so these phone calls are such a mental boost. While we’re chatting I spook a moose grazing on the roadside. It lopes across the road, hops a fence like it’s not there and disappears into the darkness. I finally roll into Pinedale at 2am, get resupplied at the servo and head to the church. Luckily they still leave their doors open for weary travellers. But I’m in for a treat, they have renovated and now there’s a shower, oh it’s bliss, the first shower in seven days.
12.30am Day 8
What the hell am I doing here. I want to go home. I’ve had enough. My ass is sore. It’s the middle of the Wyoming basin, 10km short of half way, there’s nothing here but sagebrush, my 220lm headlamp can’t penetrate the darkness. It certainly isn’t up to fast downhill riding. And then it happens. I nearly lose the front wheel in a rut I couldn’t see. While saving the crash I seriously aggravate my injured archillies. That’s it, I’m tired and I’ve had enough of this day and this race. Tomorrow I’m riding back to Atlantic City and going home. I miss my wife and am sick of the pain, cold and relentless biking. But first I need to sleep. It’s the first night I don’t set an alarm. I don’t care anymore. Despite the pain sleep comes quickly but strangely enough the internal alarm goes off about five hours later. I’m still in no hurry to get up though so contemplate what to do. Unknown to me at the same time a major late winter storm was smashing Colorado 200km to the south. This was later described as the worst June storm in 80 years.
The previous day the bearings in my dynamo hub failed. I didn’t realise it at first. I just knew something wasn’t right with the bike. The drag was heavy and it just wouldn’t roll on, to the extent that it slowed down while rolling downhill on a sealed road with a tail wind… I’d wanted to get through the Basin on this day and get a motel in Wamsutter, that obviously wasn’t going to happen now. I pushed on to South Pass City (population about 8) before I checked the bike properly and discovered the problem. I contemplated riding on to the next on route bike shop in Steamboat Springs but quickly dismissed this as a completely stupid idea given it was 380km very remote kms away. On top of a broken bike I was feeling mentally and physically drained so I decided that was the end of my race, I rung Karen and told her my wheel was busted and my race was over. With a very puzzled sound to her voice she said, “just go and buy another one and get on with it”. As easy as that. Just get on with it.
I didn’t even know where the nearest bike shop was so had to ask the locals. I was in luck, Lander was only 30 miles away and there was a good bike shop there. A quick phone call got me an assurance they had a wheel and would start getting it ready. But it wasn’t just the wheel, I’d lost my ability to charge anything. This was an issue because I was using a mapping app on my phone for navigation so I needed to buy a gps as well. And my main front light and tail lights were out of action too. I had my headlamp and that would have to do but needed to get a tail light. So six hours and $800 later I was back on the trail and heading into the basin without anyone passing me. I knew I was sitting 10th and wanted to hold this spot, but had lost a big chunk of the 8 hour gap I had. Little did I know at that stage that it was a completely mute point.
But this didn’t answer my question the next morning. Actually in some ways it did, I’d just spent $800, I couldn’t justify that to ride one more day so I gave myself a good talking to and got on with it. And I’m glad I did, the ride through the basin was pretty special. It was cold and there were thunder storms passing through, but they just seemed to miss me. The light was moody. The wild horses were curious. There were Antelope everywhere. The place was just completely wild.
12.30pm Day 10
Shall we have a beer, I say. After all there’s nothing else to do. Sure, why not, is the reply from the others. Beer and pizza for lunch in the middle of an endurance race sounds like a great idea. Well it does when you’re holed up at Brush Mountain Lodge because the ground is covered in snow and the road is impassable mud, unless you want to carry your bike for 16 miles. And the snow showers keep on coming.
Let’s rewind a bit. It’s 9pm the previous day when I arrive at the Lodge with Peter Sandholt, who scared the shit out of me when he snuck up behind me just down the road… but I digress. I didn’t expect anyone to be there so was surprised to see the deck covered in bikes. What’s going on. Inside we’re met by Billy Rice who fills us in on the situation. The storm arrived the previous day. The first five racers attempted to cross the pass, four made it over but not without some seriously close calls. The leader lost the trail in the dark and snow and thinking he was going to die turned back and withdrew from the race. The next two racers, Lael and Josh, attempted the crossing about 12 hours later. The weather was still completely shit and a mile past the lodge they hit the mud and made the call to return and wait for a freeze and planned to go at 3am the next morning. Kai and Evan soon joined them and decided they liked the sound of that plan so waited as well.
Peter and I were soon joined by another four riders and suddenly the lodge was bursting at the seams. But that didn’t phase Kirsten, the Lodge host, and a short time later we were each feasting on a large pizza and talking about what to do. I wasn’t getting up at three and couldn’t see a freeze happening, it had started raining again, so decided to get up later and see what it was like.
The storm was still raging following day and it was an easy decision to stay put. The pass topped out at 3020mt and was 16 miles and 1000mt higher than the lodge. I didn’t think I could physically carry my bike that far anyway, not to mention the risk of being at that altitude in that weather with race gear. I was here to race, but it wasn’t worth dying over.
So here we all were. The who’s who of the bikepacking race scene and us race newbies sitting around eating and drinking all day, and getting a bit of cabin fever. But the recovery it provided was absolute gold. The only problem was there was a lot of talk about the impact of the storm on the rest of the route and if it would clear at all or be buried in a couple of feet of snow. I should have known spring snow doesn’t hang around and this clay mud dries out quick, but I was nearly sucked into pulling out of the race. It didn’t help that I was still feeling a bit homesick and it would have been an easy option to see Karen sooner rather than later. Lael, Kai, Evan and Kim all made the call to withdraw and take an alternate ‘touring’ route. That meant I’d effectively be in fifth place so I just had to keep going.
By late afternoon the rain had eased to occasional showers and the mud was slowly drying out. Five of us decided to have a crack at continuing in the morning.
Fast forward to 3.30am, 36 hours after arriving at the lodge and 60 hours after the leaders had left the lodge and we were away. What a beautiful blue sky day it was to. It was rideable all the way to the snowline, the hike a bike through the snow was only 6km and mostly on the downhill side and it was a great run into Steamboat Springs and as a bonus the good people at Orange Peel Bikes managed to fix my seat. Things were looking up. It had taken us 6 hours to cover the same distance that the leaders covered in 24hrs.
I was back to riding by myself again though. The other four, Peter, Luke, Bear and Stefanio, were way to fast for me and after the previous day of constant eating I lost an extra 20 minutes riding time by having to repeatedly purge my bowels. Good thing the US Forest Service puts toilets in seemingly random, but clearly very strategic locations.
So Just like that I was back in 9th place. 200km later I saw these guys again after they had stopped at Kremmling for supplies. It wasn’t long before they disappeared into the distance again though. Bloody hell they were riding hard, but stopping more which gave me hope. I knew they would stop in Silverthorne for a motel so I decided to push on for another 30km, then have a shorter sleep and get another 20km on them before they got going in the morning.
The following day the race was definitely back on. What I’d covered in 20 hours took the front four two days so their lead was back to the pre-Lodge lead. Kai, Evan and Kim had seen the progress we’d made over the pass and got back in the race, leaving the Lodge six hours behind us. Overnight I’d put a couple of hours on the fast four. So with seven very talented and fast riders behind me I seriously felt like the fox that was getting hunted down by the hounds.
Boreas Pass, 28 hours after leaving Brush Mountain Lodge. The struggles of the front runners can
still be seen in the now set mud.
I couldn’t ride faster so the only way to stay ahead was to sleep less and ride more. Oh how I started missing that sleep, three odd hours a night just want cutting it. And that was going to get less as the finish got closer.
6.00am Day 13
From here on it’s all new country to me. We hadn’t toured this part of the route so I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I had the clue sheets about resupply points, which seemed to be getting further apart, but I was still a bit unnerving riding into the unknown, but I did get to see my second moose of the trip. About six hours later I got reminded of just how unforgiving this area can be. I was still 30km from Del Norte and had just run out of water. That 30km didn’t seem to far but the stinking hot head wind took its toll. By the time I arrived in town I was as dry as a dry thing and the drink machine at the servo/subway got a hammering. There was one advantage to that hot wind though, my sleeping bag was getting quite wet but about 3 minutes of hanging it on the bike and it was bone dry again.
With the next reliable resupply 300km away it was time to do some serious eating and stocking up before tackling Indiana Pass, the highest pass on the route. But it didn’t look to bad, a 1200mt climb over 36km. Only an average 3% grade, it sounded almost pleasant. But 36km of climbing into a howling head wind increases that grade and
made that climb absolutely brutal.
Indiana Pass. I sure was glad the snow plow had been through this road.
And then just to rub salt into the wounds the decent kept going back up as well. I was so pleased to get over the final rise and roll down to Platoro just on dark. I wasn’t going to stop but I needed water so went searching and there was the holy grail. The lodge had its open sign out so I went on in and next minute I’m eating a burger and chips. They’d seen my dot coming down the pass and cooked me a feed before I arrived, plus they had a supply of iced cinnamon rolls that topped up my food supplies. It was truely bliss and fuelled me through another four hours of riding.
6.00am Day 14
New Mexico at last. I’ve never been to New Mexico and am quite excited about it but it’s not what I expected. I was thinking desert and flatlands, instead it’s beautiful riding through hills and trees, but the waters getting more scarce. And I’m still being hunted down. I knew Peter had broken away from the chasing bunch and expected to see him later today.
5.00am Day 15
There’s stags everywhere. Big Wapiti (Elk) stags with big heads of velvet. I’m high on the Pedregosa Mesa and have been back on the bike for an hour or so. The suns about to come over the horizon and it seems like every open bit of open ground has a Wapiti grazing in it. They aren’t to worried by my passing and just amble off into the forest. But this was a herd of nine stags I’d just spooked, one decided to head my way, cutting onto the track a few meters in front of me then legged it down the track with me hard on its heals. What an amazing experience. In all I saw 23 Wapiti in the first two hours of riding this morning.
2.00pm Day 15
Why is this laundromat here, it’s the middle of nowhere, like 85km from the nearest town. But I’m not complaining, there’s a store attached and they have cold drinks and ice cream. But while I’m eating my ice cream Peter rides on past. He’s smoking and this was the last time I’d see him until after the race.
8.00pm Day 15
Oh for the trail angels. While rolling into Grants I’m flagged down by a couple waiting at the rail crossing. They’ve been dot watching and know my name, offer a powerbar and a Gatorade. I tell you after the last 110km of every sort of hot wind and cold thunder showers that drink was just bliss. And to top it off I got to chat to some locals that are passionate about the race and just make you want to keep on going. This was the second lot of trail angels I’d met. The first was in the middle of nowhere on day five where I ran into a young women putting out a sign and a supply of Powerade. This area is renowned for its limited water supplies so these would be very welcome. After a quick chat I discovered she’d driven a bloody long way to get there and one day wanted to be one of the dots. The generosity of these people is just amazing and never fails to leave you with a good feeling.
2.30am Day 17
The finish feels so close, 250km is close isn’t it. I just want to get it done. I’ve just finished some of the nicest riding on the route though the Gila Wilderness and am coming back into civilisation so I get to check trackleaders for the first time since Platoro. The chasing hounds are at least 8 hours back still deep in the Gila so I can relax about them.
But in front it’s a different story, Steve Halligan and Peter Sandholt are only 20km in front of me…what happened to Peter? He had been over 12 hours ahead. Maybe I can catch them? Especially if they stop in Silver City for a sleep. And then it happened, the CDT trail, a 12km up hill technical single track with at least 3km of hike a bike. So that’s why they were so close.
By the time I come out the other side and head into Silver City those two have carried on. It’s obvious they are pushing on to the finish without a break. Theres no way I’m going to catch them and there’s no way I’m going to be caught by the hounds on my heals if I don’t stop. It’s an overwhelming sense of relief. All the pressure has been taken away, I don’t have to chase anyone, I can just relax and enjoy the ride. The last breakfast is a slow feast of a double serve of McDonalds hot cakes chased down by a few hash browns and muffins. So after eating my fill and unloading some salami sticks from my framebag and that god awful looking McDoanlds burrito that looked so good on the menu board to the homeless guy it was time to hit the road again for the final 200km. Next stop Antelope Wells, but not without another 30 minute roadside sleep in the dirt, a couple of nodoz, ibuprofen, Pepsi’s and ice creams.
Sunrise was always a special time to be riding.
Now this is more like the New Mexico that I’d been expecting
And sleeping in the dirt is becoming the norm.
12.30pm Day 17
Hachita, New Mexico. It’s a dusty desert town that’s seen better days. There’s not much here, a general store, a rundown Spanish looking church and a splattering of clapboard houses. It’s hot and getting hotter so I’m grateful for the ice cream.
This photo was sent to me by a dot watcher and pretty much sums up the metropolis of Hachita.
The significance of Hachita is its only 73km from the finish at Antelope Wells. What a way to finish though. 73km of 42degree hot dry desert. 73km of straight roads with nothing much to look at but the passing mile markers and yucca trees. The trees provide the only entertainment, they look surprisingly like people doing weird shit in the desert.
Move on. Nothing to see here.
There it is. Antelope Wells. Its done. Well…nearly.
Its satisfyingly underwhelming. The border control post is closed so there’s no one here.No one to celebrate with but that’s satisfying in its own way. The only shade is behind the signpost. I’ve got 15 minutes alone to contemplate and absorb this journey before my ride shows up. And what a journey it’s been. I’m stoked with my 5th place and my time of 16 days 8 hours 24 minutes is well ahead of what I thought I could do.
The following day
The body is wrecked. All I want to do is eat and sleep. There’s no skin on the bottom of my toes, the chafing on my ass is making sitting pretty uncomfortable. My legs protest if I walk more than 50 metres. But I’m getting to hang with other racers in this desolate place. What more could you want.
This is a much easier way to get around while hanging out in Hachita with Stefano, Steve and Peter.
A big thanks also to all those who were dot watching. Maybe next time I’ll get to watch your dots?