The Tour Divide is a 2750mile race down the spine of America, the Rocky Mountains. The ride begins in Banff, Canada before crossing in to the USA and crossing the mountains on a series of forgotten mountain passes and dirt back roads on its journey south to the Mexican border.
The Tour Divide represents, in my eyes, the pinnacle of unsupported long distance bike racing. It was the event that first introduced me to the world of ultra endurance back in 2008 when I read an article in a magazine about Jenn Hill who rode the Divide on a single speed in one of the first editions of the race. I was intrigued but the event was still a long way out of reach for me. Fast forward a few years and Mike Halls incredible rides down the Divide, breaking the record and setting a new standard for long distance racing and I knew I’d be racing one day.
Despite my experience in long distance bike races and bikepacking I lined up at the start line feeling like a novice. There is something about the magnitude of the Divide that is intimidating. Stories from the Divide become something of a legend to those who have not ridden the route. Richmond Peak, Bannack road, the Basin, Marshals pass, Indiana Pass and the final push through the desert to the finish become landmarks etched in your mind, challenges to overcome along the way.
I decided on a conservative plan of attack, my unsure mind telling my body to try and survive above all else. I set out gently for the first few days, making sure I backed off on the climbs and conserved energy where I could. The benefit of being intimidated by the route was that I trained harder than I have for a number of years, and that training began to tell as I found myself at the pointy end of the race.
I struggled to get into the race mentally for the first 5 days, I slept early every night, reluctant to sleep in my bivvi and partial to the comforts of a hotels room. I rode fast in the day but leeched time at night and started to be taught the lessons of the Divide. I soon discovered that the ‘tough’ parts of the Divide, the mountains in my mind, were not actually that tough. It’s easy to over think a challenge in your head and build it into much more than it is.
Here’s the thing about the Divide, it’s not the tough bits that are tough, it’s the bits in between that you just don’t expect. Union Pass proved to be an excellent example of this. The morning began shivering in my bivvi bag under the shelter of a campsite foyer before the climb of Togwotee Pass in sub zero temperatures. Togwotee pass and Union Pass represented the first serious altitude of the race tipping above the 2500m mark. As a resident of the flattest part of England this was set to be a significant challenge, at least in my mind. However, both ascents passed with relative ease with only a few signs of the harsh winter that the mountains had endured. But then that’s where the Divide fights back, it lets you over the hard parts with ease before relentlessly smashing you just when you let your mind relax. The climb of Union pass was relatively easy compared to the 7 miles of exposed ridgeline and never-ending descent. The trail on the ridge undulates and the wind was bitterly cold, winter was clinging on in the form of large soft snow banks and the track surface was soft and heavy going. In my mind it was an easy downhill cruise into Pinedale, but the reality saw me sat on the edge of the trail wearing all my clothes shovelling in handfuls of jelly snakes as the cold sapped the last of my energy.
The first half of the race had gone in a blur, most of the time I wanted to be anywhere but on the Divide, however upon reaching Pinedale the halfway point was suddenly in view. I managed to focus my mind and focus on the end goal rather than the unachievable brute that the divide had once been. The Great Basin represents the half way point of the Divide and the first really long section with no supplies. I set out from Pinedale at 2am with a days worth of water and food to cross the desert. You’d think the Desert would be hot but I began in -8 degrees wearing all my clothes including my down trousers and jacket. The Divide is always fighting you and as I was soon to learn it gives you a little before pulling the rug out from under you again. I passed through the Basin with a massive tailwind and barely making a dent in my water supplies, if this was one of the tougher parts of the Divide then things were looking up. I rode over 200miles before I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and collapsed into my bivvi bag at the side of the trail a few miles from the Colorado border.
Brush mountain Lodge represents a safe haven on the Divide, Kirsten welcomes in riders of the Divide, provides shelter, food, clean clothes and a warm shower. I was very much looking forward to hitting the reset button for an hour before heading onwards into Colorado. To my surprise I found the runaway leader of the race, Sofian, sat in the lodge and began to hear the horrors of the previous night. The bitter wind that had pushed me through the Basin had pushed a storm front ahead of it that had met the mountains just as the leaders had reached it. Sofian was caught in a blizzard on Sand Pass and had found himself lost in the snow. He returned back to the safety of the lodge and subsequently scratched from the race. Josh Kato also pushed on into the storm, bivving up on the mountain, before forcing a path through the 20inches of fresh snow. That effort ultimately cost him the race as he dug deep into his reserves and ended up with severe breathing issues. The Divide gives, then takes it away.
I arrived at the lodge about 3 hours after 3 riders left to cross the pass. The front edge of the storm had left the road from the lodge saturated and they were forced to carry their bikes the 12miles to the snow line. As I sat warm, showered and digging into my second helping of Pancakes it began to rain again, a quick hard shower before the sun came out once more. I set off up the pass and was walking through the sticky mud after a few hundred metres. By the time I’d made it a mile my bike was totally clogged with mud and unpushable and my shoes were so heavy I could barely lift them. The sun was drying the mud into a thick clay which stuck to everything, even carrying the bike was impossible due to the weight. I stopped and pondered the situation; the Divide was fighting back again. As I pondered Lael Wilcox rounded the corner dragging her bike behind. We stood and chatted about the ride, the conditions and the petty politics of the ride, before coming to the conclusion that we should turn back to the lodge clean the bikes and wait a few hours for the mud to become more passable.
In the mean time Kai and Evan had reached the lodge and as we cleaned the mud off our bikes we filled them in on the conditions of the road. We sat and we ate and we waited for the road to dry, instead it rained again. The fight or flight instinct is a strong one and as the 4 of us sat there in the comforts of the lodge our unspoken fears began to come through. The mud was impassable, there was too much snow on the pass, if that pass was bad what would it be like on the higher passes further south? Maybe we should take the easy option and just tour the route? Fatigue and fear are an interesting combination and it’s not until hindsight kicks in that you realise what was happening, we were making any excuse to not head over that pass convincing each other that this was the right decision. We delayed out departure until the next morning, surely the weather would be better then. It wasn’t, it was worse, the tail end of the storm bringing a fresh layer of snow to the lodge and surrounding mountains, more excuses to stay put.
Then the others arrived. Those who had been over 24hours behind began pouring into the lodge. The negative blinkers were well and truly on those of us who had arrived the previous day and this was compounded by the fact we were giving away and positions in the race. The next morning 5 riders left the lodge, 5 riders who were way behind in the race before Brush Mountain Lodge, but had now left ahead with renewed confidence. Something stirred in my mind, I was beginning to see the light again. There was no reason not to continue, so that's what I did.
The mud had finally dried and the riding up to the snow line was easy. The sun was out and the push through the snow was pleasant, the mountain became a molehill and the hindsight set in. The extended stay at the lodge hadn’t been too beneficial, my body had entered recovery mode and it took a number of hours of riding to loosen up again. I pushed on into Colorado and rode through to 1am before another cold bivvi at the side of the road.
I ticked off Boreas Pass with ease before being battered by a savage wind all afternoon. A poor night’s sleep resulted in a poor mental performance and I found myself stopped eating pizza at 6pm in Salida. I met Kai and Lucas and we decided on an early night and a shared hotel room, the reasoning being that it wouldn’t be sensible to cross the second highest pass of the race at night. Instead we woke at 1am and crossed Marshal Pass at dawn, a magical experience but I couldn’t stop a nagging feeling that I should have continued the night before. Loosing time was beginning to bother me, I was surviving this thing and my body was feeling strong, my mind was beginning to focus and shift from flight to fight. The stop at the lodge meant a regrouping of the field and so I found myself near Kai, Evan and Lucas for most of the next day. Each rider’s natural pace and routine meant we were never really riding together but always stopped in the same places. It’s nice to dissect the day over a gas station sandwich with another rider, but the downside is group decisions are not always the fastest. 3 tired minds often opt for the easier option, whereas a solo mind can push on easier. Again, I found myself stopping early and sharing a room, taking the easy option.
Indiana Pass is the highest point of the race and again we crossed at dawn. I felt the effects of the 4000m altitude, a dull head ache and shortness of breath, but it was short lived as we descended. By now the final state was in touching distance and we rolled into New Mexico. Kai, Evan and myself shared another room in Abiqui before an essential resupply at the local gas station at 6:30am. I wanted to be alone now, my mind focussed on the end goal and rueing the lost time of the past few days and weeks. My body was feeling stronger and stronger, it was adapting to the conditions, I’d learned exactly what fuel it needed, how much sleep was required and how to keep the furnace burning. The temperature was rising and with it the niggling aches and pains subsided, only now did I realise how brutal the cold had been in the first days of the race.
Once more I rode until I could no longer keep my eyes open and slept at the side of the road. A morning diner breakfast fuelled me up for the ride to Pie Town where, as the name suggests, I ate some pie and a large lunch. Two sit down meals in a day does wonders for the legs and they felt incredibly strong as we headed into the Gila Wilderness. The Beaverhead work station offers the only opportunity for water for 200miles. Kai and I had met once more in Pie Town and rode the afternoon next to each to each other riding until 1am once again. The work centre office offered some shelter for a rest, I tried the tiled floor but eventually opted for an office chair for my last 2hours of sleep on the Divide.
The last day of the Divide hit me hard. I was riding strongly but the realisation that this was the end hit home. As the sun rose, I couldn’t hold the emotions back and pushed hard through the tears. I realised that I was loving it, despite the fears I’d overcome it and was relishing being able to push hard. The Divide had one last kick in the teeth in the form of a section of the Continental Divide Hiking trail, a rough undulating section of single-track, but that focused my mind from the impending fatigue, and I pushed on to Silver City. All that remined was the last push to the boarder through the desert. I put my head down and pedalled through the heat of the afternoon and into the evening. I closed my eyes through each of the mile markers that count down the final 45miles to the finish and pushed hard convinced that the riders behind were closing in on me. You don’t see the finish until you are upon it. Its hidden by a small rise in the road and before you know it it’s there, the end. I freewheeled up to the border just before midnight to silence and darkness. I was alone and finished, so I sat on the curb and waited for a lift.
Check out this short 2 part video of Josh's Divide ride :