2013 Tour Divide Race–Success At Last

When Sir Edmund Hillary came down from summiting Mount Everest he said to George Lowe: “Well, we knocked the bastard off!”. That is exactly how I feel about finally finishing the Tour Divide race on my third attempt. It took me 22 days, 1 hour and 29 minutes to travel the 4,418 km from Banff Canada to Mexico, but I finally got the long sought after photo, finishing 27th out of the 143 starters (40% scratched). With my extra side trips I averaged 208 km/day. Whew. Makes me tired writing that! Apologies up front … this is going to be a long post as it covers 22+ days of racing!

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Background

I have a chequered history with the Tour Divide race. In 2011 I tried racing South to North but unfortunately on the first day I got a very serious asthma attack which necessitated a hospital visit, disqualifying me from the race. I also ‘fried’ my lungs which meant that even though I rode another 800+ km, I couldn’t breathe deeply and pulled out at Steamboat Springs.

In 2012 going North to South I had a much better race, but unfortunately my mother broke her hip so again I pulled out in Steamboat Springs.

I had an OK but not great training period before the race, with some six weeks in NZ before the race and a good hard ride for 600+ km on the C&O Canal, I was ready physically and mentally for the race.

It was great chilling out in Banff for a couple of days before the race and then participating in the ‘Grand Depart’ where we all met at the YWCA and then headed out. With some 143 riders, it was the biggest start ever. There was a huge crowd as we left the Banff YWCA on June 14 and as we entered the Spray River trail I overheard some of the Parks Canada trail staff commenting that this was out of hand. I’m sure it will only get ‘worse’ in future years as the race’s popularity grows.  Here is me with my heavily laden bike before the start.

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Race Strategy

This year the conditions for the race were excellent—there was no snow on the mountains in Canada and Montana which meant that we didn’t face the prospect of pushing our bikes through 10+ km of snow over mountain passes. My goals were: (i) to finish; (ii) not to injure myself; and, (iii) do the best that I could. I was tempted to ride a conservative race and come in at the 24 day, 8 h (or 25 day depending on your point of view). On the other hand, I had unfinished business with this race and I didn’t just want to finish, I wanted to really test myself.

So in the end, I decided that I would ride as long as I could and aim for a minimum of 175 km/day. Since I’m not a particularly strong rider, my plan was to minimize the length of my rest stops and, whenever possible, ride an extra few hours in the evening. Another aspect to the strategy was to camp as little as possible and to spend nights at motels.  Recovery is the key on this race and nothing beats a good night’s sleep, except perhaps proper food.

The Race

As mentioned above, I finished in just over 22 days. The following are my daily distances and the amount of climbing that was done, based on my GPS. For the first twelve days I managed to keep above my goal of 175 km/day, which left me some slack for later in the race when I had some days short of the goal.

Day

Location

Distance

(km)

Climbing (m)

1

Banff-Sparwood

229

2579

2

Sparwood-Eureka

204

2641

3

Eureka-Big Fork

225

2289

4

Big Fork-Ovando

216

3149

4

Ovando-Helena

165

2486

5

Helena-Butte

114

2076

6

Butte-Polaris

145

2467

7

Polaris-Lakeview

243

2017

8

Lakeview-Coltar Bay

212

1745

9

Coltar Bay-Near Union Pass

176

2322

10

Near Union Pass-Atlantic City

194

1570

11

Atlantic City-Rawlins

213

1466

12

Rawlins-Steamboat Springs

226

Lots!

13

Steamboat Springs-Past Kremling

150

2337

14

Past Kremling-Hartsel

169

Lots!

15

Hartsel-Past Sargeants

172

Lots!

16

Past Sargeants-Del Norte

152

1678

17

Del Norte-Brazos Ridge

164

3316

18

Brazos Ridge-Cuba

241

2824

19

Cuba-Grants

198

1230

20

Grants-Collins Park

217

1768

21/22

Collins Park-Antelope Wells

393

3196

 

Total

4,418

43,156++

The race has a lot of climbing—over 50,000 m. The highest peaks come late in the race, when you are really fatigued. Unless of course you go South to North in which case you get them early. Even though Montana doesn’t have the highest peaks, there are a lot of hills to cover and they aren’t exactly easy…

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It was clear very early on that we were going to fall into a number of groups, aiming at finishing at round the same time. There was the top three—Mike, Craig and Jesse—who were aiming at something like 15-16 days (i.e. almost 300 km/day), then another group at about 18 days, others at 20, 22 (my group) and about 25. Then people who were going for > 25. It was pretty amazing to realize after the race that people you rode with on day two, were still with you on day 22. One of the funny aspects to the race was the way that the British Commonwealth riders did so well. The top five riders were Wales, Australia, South Africa, England and Australia.

DSC_0025This year we had a very special competitor: Billy Rice from Texas. He as attempting to do a South-North-South ‘back to back’ race.  Imagine, some 8,800 km of racing. Whew. I had the good fortune to meet Billy on the second day of the race—he had left 2+ weeks before and had hoped to get to Banff in time to join the Grand Depart, but had some mechanicals. In the end, he did a very short turn around in Banff and headed south, very soon overtaking some of the slower competitors. What an amazing athlete.

The scenery in Canada was spectacular, and the DSC_0033weather ideal for riding… This meant that I was able to do in only two days what took me three days last year. When I got to Elkford last year it was 23:00 and I was totally shattered from the cold, rain and snow. This year, it was 18:00 and I had a nice relaxing dinner before heading on to Sparwood for the night. Felt sorry for the restaurant in Elkford as they were full of hungry riders, most of whom were in a hurry and keen to move on!

In Sparwood I shared a room with Nathan from NZ. Aaron from Australia bedded down on the floor. Aaron trained with Ollie who won last year, and works for me now, so we had some things in common. Great guys who I would see more of over the next few days.

By the end of day two I was in Eureka Montana. I had no problems crossing the DSC_0035border, unlike Nathan and fellow Kiwi Peter who had to fill out lots of paperwork. I’m fortunate to be a Canadian when entering the USA, and a Kiwi when entering Australia. There was a huge array of bicycles outside the ‘Subway’ shop where the staff did a heroic effort to supply the horde of starving riders. Fortunately, I knew of a supermarket just down the road so I was able to resupply without having to join the Subway queue.

From Eureka it was up and over the hills towards Whitefish and beyond. I could not believe the improved conditions. The photo below contrasts this year—where I could pose by the lake, with last year, when everything was under snow.

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I met up with James Hodges who also rode last year at Red Meadow Lake and it was great to see him back. He also rode in 2011 which was the snow diversion year. There are some seriously committed Tour Dividers out there. I left James on the descent towards Whitefish. There were some ‘Blue Dot Junkies’ (i.e. people following our GPS tracks) offering chips and water to the riders during the descent. Since I was so close to Whitefish I didn’t bother stopping. After a great pizza dinner in Whitefish I went on through Columbia Falls and stopped for the night a Big Fork. I had the pleasure of riding with Gunther Desmerdt for a while. He was from Belgium and an incredibly strong rider, eventually finished in 20th place. There was also Ian McNab who is English. He really suffered as he worked in Antarctica and so was not used to the heat! Quite a few of us ended up in Big Fork where we resupplied before heading over Richmond Peak which, at 2168m elevation, is a major challenge.

I rode up and over Richmond Peak with Don Gabrielson, who is a Captain of a US Cruiser, and Luke Ragan, an EMT Nurse from Illinois. We called in to www.mtbcast.com from the top and did a joint call in. Don was riding for disabled veterans. Unfortunately, he crashed coming down into Lima and broke his pelvis in two places so didn’t finish, while Luke got a very respectable 15th place. Here are some photos from Richmond Peak.

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The group behind us, including Peter from NZ, crossed over in a lightening storm and there was hit very close to them as they crossed. I was fortunately towards the bottom so only got some rain anDSC_0121d hail, but it was pretty tough up top.  I continued on to Ovando which I reached about 22:00. Everything was closed but I found a nice place to crash—in a tepee!  Don and Luke arrived a few hours later, as did Sarah and a few other riders who trickled in during the night.

I was up at 05:00 and had a chat with people staying at the B&B across the way. Interesting fellow, he worked with Werner von Braun during the space program as an engineer at NASA.  They gave me a peanut butter sandwich and sent me on my way towards Lincoln—a 60+ km ride over Huckleberry Pass—for breakfast. On my way I passed Dave Rooney who had camped out past Ovando and was having some serious knee issues. He pulled out later that day.

Caught up with a few other riders in Lincoln and then headed up and over the hills towards Helena. It was much nicer riding it in the daylight than last year at night. I was with Nathan and Gunther for the final ride into Helena, and we then stopped at Pizza Hut to consume an obscene amount of food. When we found a hotel around the corner there was Don, Nick and several others so we bunked together sharing the few remaining rooms.

The next day was one of those short but challenging days as we had to cross ‘Lava Mountain’ between Helena and Butte. This is a very gnarly ATV track which sees us pushing our bikes, more than riding them. Nice to reach the other side in one piece.

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After lunch in Basin it was on to Butte and ‘The Outdoorsman’ bike shop. I needed to top up the Stan’s Sealant in my tyres but otherwise my bike was fine. The shop was very busy with others getting some major work done so I was in an out quickly. Saw Eric Foster there who greeted me with “I hope I never see you again!”. Not that he had anything against me, just that he was planning on 200 mile days before the race and seeing me reminded him that he wasn’t doing as well as expected.

I popped over to the hardware store and got some batteries for my GPS, then to the doctor where I needed a prescription for another asthma inhaler. Rather than push on that day, I overnighted at the Day’s Inn, with quite a few other riders as well! Had a brilliant dinner at the local Dennys, which also served me up a great breakfast the following day.

DSC_0024Fleecer Ridge beckoned the following morning, this was a very challenging downhill section between Butte and Wise River. The photo to the left was taken at the top and I was very careful to head down pushing my bike the entire way—last year I tried riding too much of it and did a ‘head over heels’. While some people can ride all of Fleecer, I don’t have the technical skills to do so. Nor is it sensible to do it: easy way to slice a tyre or hurt yourself in a crash.

When I reached the bottom I got the photo below with my riding buddy from last year Prentiss. He, and Ron, were both riding single speeds. One has to be mad to do the Tour Divide. Using a single speed qualifies one for being certifiable.

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We went on to Wise River for lunch where, upon asking what my vegetarian options were, I got the quote of the race: “This is Montana, we eat meat”.  In the end, they compromized and made me a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s mighty hard to be a vegetarian on the Tour Divide! But fortunately that night I made it to the Montana High Mountain Lodge where they gave me two delightful vegetarian dinners. They are a required stop for riders and offer great hospitality. The weather was packing in so a number of us decided to stay the night. It was funny, Ron was looking out the window saying things didn’t look that bad, but when we pointed out he was looking where we had come from, not where we are going, he realized that it was prudent to stay in the warmth and comfort of the lodge. Good call in the end …

The next day’s run to Lima was up the ‘Old Bannack Road’. I was pleased that I didn’t try this section yesterday as the rain would have made it extra hard work given the poor road surface. Hard to believe that 150 years ago this was the main route … From the summit it was a delightful downhill run to Lima, although a few miles out from Lima my front wheel started making very serious noises. Sounded like grinding stones. When I got to the cafe I took the wheel off, cleaned out the disc pad, and after tightening everything no more issues. Not a good place to have a wheel problem. At the cafe there was the usual cast of faster riders—Nathan, Nick, Peter, etc. who headed out while I was sorting out my bike and getting calories.

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It was a lovely afternoon and we had sunny, dry conditions for the run towards Lakeview and eventually Idaho. When this section is wet it can take *days* to cross it, so I was grateful for such ideal conditions. At mile 131 I came across Nathan and Nick who were camping. I told them I was going to ride until I was too tired to continue—one does not let such ideal conditions pass. I ended up getting to the ranger station at Lakeview about 23:00 and called it a (long) day there.  Camped out under the sign …

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The next morning I was off about 5:30 and around 06:00 I passed the Lakeview campground to find Peter from NZ pulling out with a few others. The weather was wet and cold with a headwind so I was glad that I had made the effort to cycle the extra distance the previous night. Peter and Nick told me that it was pretty hard going from their camp site. Before too long I made it to the border with Idaho. Great news as if one survives Montana one is most likely to finish the race.

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At Island Park had a great breakfast with a number of other riders—most of whom were finishing as I arrived—before heading out to tDSC_0076he Idaho Rail Trail.  This is a nasty bit of the ride where there are undulations filled with loose volcanic sand. Up and down, hard to find a good line for riding, and I hit several soft spots which caused me to fall over. During the ride I had Peter (USA) and Ezra blast past me at a great rate of knots. They were two of the younger riders in the race—Ezra was only 20—and really strong riders. Impressive athletes. How I hate this trail. Tedious, difficult and min-numbingly boring.

The best thing about it is that when it ends we are given a great downhill run where there is a campground where one can get water and recover from the ordeal. At the campground a few people chatted with me and told me that the previous night another Tour Divider had been there, but had been unable to walk due to knee problems. Poor fellow.

It was onwards towards Flagg Ranch and Yellowstone Park. I caught up with Ian and we cycled together. Good company, and fascinating to hear about his work in Antarctica supporting scientists and researchers. The mosquitoes were something else, and if your speed dropped below 5 mph (which it often did because of the hills), you were fodder for them. When we reached Flagg Ranch bought some supplies, and met up with Eric Foster again! He was having major Achilles tendon problems but was impressively soldiering on. It was a nice evening so Ian and I headed onwards. We were treated to sunset over the Grand Teton mountains, with the lake in the forefront. Just magnificent.

I pulled into Coltar Bay where I hoped to get a room. They were booked out, but I managed to get a ‘tent cabin’. This had two tin walls and two canvas walls. There were four bunks, but the springs were so old that I sank almost to the floor. I ensured a good night’s sleep by putting the mattresses on the floor.

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There was an all you can eat buffet so the following morning I went over, and arrived just as Peter (NZ) arrived with a few others. They had overnighted at Flagg Ranch. As we were getting more than our value’s worth, Eric Foster came in with Max Morris, also from Arizona. Both were walking awkwardly—Eric because of his Achilles and Max his knees. Max had a problem with his derailleur so converted his bike to a single speed—and did some 200 miles the same day. He is an amazing athlete but that was too much for him, and he ended up withdrawing. Eric soldiered on, in the end managing a very respectable 44th place finish.

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It was a brilliant ride from Coltar Bay on a newly paved road, DSC_0084and eventually we turned off towards Togwotee Pass. I rode part of the way with Kevin, Ryan and Shaun—until they all took off on me as they were much stronger riders. When we turned onto the main highway towards the pass Peter (NZ) joined me and we rode to the top. From the top it was very typical what happened … rather than give us a nice easy run downhill on a paved highway, they took us off onto some dodgy forestry road, with mud, still more climbing, but also spectacular views. As Peter (NZ) commented, the beauty of this place could bring tears to your eyes.

We had lunch at ‘Lava Mountain Lodge’ which specialized in ribs. When I saw the menu I said to the waitress that I have a difficult question to ask: “Let me guess, you are a vegetarian” was the answer. She accommodated me with lots of baked beans, bread and salads. Not bad at all compared to many of the meals I had! While we were eating Nick from Brisbane arrived and told me of how much he and Nathan suffered the day after I saw them before Lakeview. I left before the others and headed out as we still had to cross 2,808 m high ‘Union Pass’. It was hot and there was too much traffic for my liking, so I found myself choking on the dust. It was great to finally summit and start the downhill run, although every time I stopped I was inundated with mosquitoes. This galvanized me to press on towards the campground at ‘Green River’ which was well down the mountain, and hopefully less buggy. Once the sun went down I was rewarded with a brilliant full moon coming out from behind the mountains, capped with clouds. A million dollar picture—which I didn’t get as I did not have an adequate camera. I really enjoy riding at night, even when the road is as challenging as this one was in places. I eventually reached the campground about 23:30, and the others cycled in just after me so I had lots of company!

It was below freezing the following morning and I was off before 06:00 towards Pinedale. I met Luke at the petrol station and he told me he had got food poisoning so had been out for a few days. He also gave me the bad news about Don’s accident with the broken pelvis. After a hearty breakfast it was east towards Atlantic City and the ‘Great Basin’. It was a very hot and windy day and the going was very hard.  Ryan, Kevin, Shaun and Peter (NZ) all caught up with me and we had lunch by the Big Sandy river.  Very soon they left me in the dust and I pressed on. With the wind and the hills it was a very tough day.

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I eventually reached the main highway and I was very suprised to find the guys at the rest stop—of course they were just leaving as I arrived. Peter (NZ) bless his heart had spoken with a woman who was cutting the grass to ask if there was anywhere in Atlantic City where they could get supplies or stay. She kindly offered to open up the Community Centre for us so that is where we all headed. It was very hard going but I passed through South Pass City and then managed the final few miles to Atlantic City where I was pleased to find a stack of bikes outside the centre. Ian was about to head out into the Basin, but I was going to stay the night in the centre with the others. They were very hospitable—we were told to eat what we want and to leave money to cover the costs. Lots of ice cream and other unhealthy ‘foods’ were consumed over the next hours. It was great to also have access to the internet to see what was going on with the race.

Peter (NZ) flicked the lights on about 04:30 and so it was yet another early day for riding. I had popped out during the night and was amazed at the intensity of the wind and the almost horizontal rain. I later heard from Chris (Ohio) that he was out in the Basin and the winds hit some 80 km/h, he took shelter in a ditch near a snow fence.  Once one made it up the hill out of Atlantic City the ride was quite pleasant, and of course I was passed by a number of riders. I stopped for water at Dignatus well and it seemed like only a few others had also stopped. The Basin can be unforgiving so I made sure I had the full complement of 7.5 l of water for the 200 km or so of this desert ride. My trusty bike got me through without any major problems—besides boredom! Pity I’m not a stronger rider who could have kept up with the others.

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After exiting the basin there is a long, straight paved road ‘Mineral X’ road. It was great to be on pavement after the sand of the Basin. There was no traffic so it was still quite lonely. Unfortunately, one of the riders got hit by a truck on this road. They didn’t expect to find riders … and one fellow I think got a broken arm because of the carelessness.

I made it to Rawlins and bumped into Peter (NZ). We went looking for a room and found that the town was full! In the end got a room in a one star hotel which still beat camping out again. Peter went off to find the others and was given the offer of a room in a much nicer hotel so he crashed there. Good call. I supplied up at the supermarket and got ready for the next day… which last year was my hardest.

The ride out of Rawlins consists of climbing DSC_0093up over 2,400 m high ‘Middlewood Hill’. It isn’t a particularly hard climb, but the winds are unrelenting. In fact, I concluded that the State flag for Wyoming should be a windsock—shredded by the wind of course. Things weren’t helped by the fact it hit 40 degrees C. I was so glad to see the last of Wyoming.  Anyway, it was a case of head down, work hard, and just keep pedalling. As per usual, I was on my own and I didn’t see a single other racer. The highlight to the day was reaching ‘Brush Mountain Lodge’ about 15:00. Kirsten is a lifesaving angel who has put many the racer back on their bike to finish the race. As I approached she said ‘welcome Chris’—having been following my slow moving SPOT GPS tracker. With an amazing fruit smoothie, cold watermelon, and two vegetarian burgers, before too long I was refuelled and ready to go. Peter (NZ), Shaun, Chris (Canada), Kevin and Ryan rolled in and it was great to have their company. But I wanted to make Steamboat Springs that night so I was off as soon as I could.

I made it over the 2,816 m divide and head down towards Clarke. The trail down from the top was absolutely miserable. Lots of rocks and debris which one had to navigate around—hopefully avoiding cutting a tyre or crashing. I took it very slowly and made it down in one piece (the next day at the bike shop I met Chris (Ohio) who had ridden it hard, and broken his steering tube!).  The shop at Clarke was closed by the time I reached it, but there was a fellow touring northbound who invited me to camp. Nope. Steamboat Springs beckoned where I had already booked a hotel so as to inspire me to press on. It was a delightful late night run along a good paved road with the stars and moon above me. Perfect cycling weather.  Of course just before Steamboat they took us off onto an unpaved road with some hills.

When I got to Steamboat after 226 km riding I was knackered. There was a late night pizza shop which gave me some much needed calories before hitting the hotel.  Just as I was checking in, Peter (NZ) arrived! What a rider. He had left the others at Kristen’s—they were enjoying the hospitality too much—and pressed on, crossing the pass just as it was getting dark. We had a look at the Internet and saw that the others were making their way down in the dark. Ouch. I would not want to ride that section at night. Recipe for disaster. I did some much needed laundry at midnight and so it was quite late into bed …

In the morning I took my bike into the shop for servicing. It had done well but needed a new chain, brake pads, and some more tyre sealant.  It took them a while so I was not heading out before 11:00. There was an excellent trail which was a delight to ride on. Then it was upwards towards Lynx Pass. It was really hot, 40 degrees again! As I went uDSC_0097p (and melted down) the ‘sleep monster’ hit me. I really needed some rest. Unfortunately there was nowhere to rest in the shad. So in the end, I parked my bike against a post and lay down in the sliver of shade and collapsed into a very deep sleep. I felt great when I woke up and energized attacked the pass, enjoying a lunch break at the top.

It was a day of climbing, but I was grateful in a strange way for the heat. Last year I was battling this section with mud which made it almost impassable. I really enjoyed the downhill run to Radium … and hated the subsequent uphill climb over the divide.  Ryan blasted past me, hoping to make Kremling for dinner. I plodded on and camped out at Williams Fork Reservoir at 23:00. I was surprised not to find other racers there.

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Was out before 06:00 the following morning, just as Chris (Ohio) passed by. He was riding strong and were it not for setbacks like cutting his tyre on Fleecer, cracking his steerer tube before Steamboat, he would have been way ahead of me. Later that morning Peter (NZ) caught up with me and we cycled together for the rest of the day. We summited Ute Pass where the photo below was taken. We enjoyed the downhill run into Silverthorne. We stopped at a car wash and gave our bikes a good clean—they needed it! It was surprisingly difficult to find a restaurant for breakfast but we eventually managed to find a cafe where we had our usual huge breakfast/lunch. As we were leaving Kevin rode up—it was great to see him again. Nice guy and strong rider.

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It was getting hot—the temperature topped out at 45 C that day—and we stopped in Silverthorne and bought hats with neck coverings. Then it was onwards to Breckenridge where I got a new cassette for my bike—should have done it in Steamboat when I changed the chain. I like Breckenridge and we were able to get lots of ice creams and drinks to cool us down before heading onwards up Boreas Pass. Peter soon left me and it took me a long time to make my way to the top.  This really was a day of climbing, but unfortunately my GPS stopped working so I don’t know exactly how much.

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There was a nasty single track section called the ‘Gold Dust Trail’ after Boreas DSC_0111Pass which meant that rather than having a nice fast run down to Como we had to navigate this gnarly, rock strewn path. I crashed a few times which did not put me into the right state of mind.  Lugging my bike over fallen trees didn’t help things. One of the challenges with the Tour Divide is that you are fighting fatigue all the time, as well as poor nutrition, and sometimes you just want a break from the hard riding—be it mountains, poor roads, or trails like this. But the Tour Divide wants to break you … not give you a break.

I eventually got to Como and went to the ‘Station’ which is run by David, an expatriate Englishman and a great Tour Divide supporter. Peter (NZ), Shaun and Kevin were there finishing off a meal. I didn’t have much of an appetite so I got a bowl of ice cream to raise my spirits, and some vegetarian sandwiches to go. I then made one of my quick exits to get on the road again, while the others finished their meal. After a nice easy section the road turned nasty. Not only was there a headwind, but there was a very soft and sandy surface which made cycling really hard. More than once I miscalculated my line and the bike ended up slipping out from under me in the sand and crashing. My poor mood worsened. Peter (NZ) caught up with me and that made things more tolerable. As we approached Hartsel he put down the hammer to try and make the shop before it closed. Shaun and Ryan also zoomed past me with the same intent. When I got to town I found them as well as Chris (Vancouver) and others at the bar/restaurant having dinner. I joined them and we had a great evening together. We then headed over to the Hartsel Lodge where we crashed for the night. A very posh hunting lodge it was the nicest place I stayed—and very reasonably priced. It was great to have internet and a land line, although the heads animals on the walls I found very off putting.

It was another early start and we were back at the Hartsel cafe by 06:00. I wolfed down my breakfast and was off while the others dallied. Of course this meant that they passed me later on and I spent the rest of the day cycling alone. That was the problem with aiming for a fast finish but being a slow cyclist: I put in many more hours in the saddle than others and spent most of the time riding on my own.

This was a really hard day. I felt unwell most of time. While initially I ascribed it to the increasing altitude, when I eventually caught up with the others they had also felt off as well so we probably had minor food poisoning in Hartsel—or perhaps it was the water. Anyway, it was really tough. I climbed over 1000 m during the morning and the sleep monster caught up with me again. As I was descending to Salida I couldn’t take it any more and so pulled off and took a powernap under a tree. Unfortunately, while I was sleeping an afternoon storm rolled in so I arrived in Salida with light rain.

I didn’t need to stop so headed through town, gratefully accepting water from a fellow watering his lawn. It’s an enigma to me why people living in desert areas insist on having grass. At Poncha Springs the rain was still with me so I popped into a cafe where I had a delightful milkshake and amazing apple pie. That is one thing I miss about New Zealand: one does not get pies like in the USA. By the time I finished it was raining heavier so I donned my rain gear. 10 minutes later I took it off again. One of those days …

The afternoon’s challenge was Marshall Pass which is DSC_0113a long climb on an old railway grade. The rain made the road quite muddy in places so it was tedious, but it could have been much worse. There were quite a lot of fire crews in the area and they offered me water and energy gels which I politely declined, as they needed them more than I did. I found the ride surprisingly easy and just plodded my way over the pass. I was rewarded with a very nice and fast downhill run to Sargeants on a dry, good road. Always nice to have these. At the shop I found ‘the guys’ who had blasted past me at Hartsel that morning. They were finishing dinner and deciding what to do. In the end, the cabins at Sargeants beckoned so they stayed there. Since there was a few hours of riding left I opted to go on and they were impressed. Not really. The only way I can keep up the mileage is by doing more hours since I was nowhere near as strong as they. It was ‘free’ miles for the first bit: downhill on a paved road so I was pleased I made the call. About 10 miles from Sargeants there was broken down car which I stopped to see if I could help. Then it was onwards to Doyleville where I turned off to start the climb.

I was astounded by the mosquito population. By far the worst of the race. I could not stop for 30 seconds without swarms of them inundating me.  Don’t know how anyone could live here. I continued on and up as the sun went down, with the goal of doing 50 km from Sargeants. About 35 km into the ride I got a super sharp pain in my left (good knee) which would not go away. It was quite the shock so I tried walking it off, to no avail. So I just went off the road and pitched my tent for the night next to the road, in the hope if would settle down by the next day. One has to be an optimist to race the TDR, and be willing to camp where one can. In this instance my optimism was tested as during the night I was wakened by Coyotes howling in the distance…and then by Coyotes ‘coughing’ in the not so distance. Anyway, I obviously survived, but between the knee and the wildlife I did not sleep well.

I awoke to a beautiful and cold (-2 C) morning and was packed up by 06:00. The knee was settled, and a few Tylenol as well as an anti-inflammatory helped make it good for riding.  I headed up towards Cochetopa Pass (3,068m) and as I was part way up Peter (NZ) rode up, having departed Sargeants at a very early hour. I enjoyed his company and he took the photo below. Lis and I got a similar photo 9 years ago.

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The day deteriorated weather wise and I decided to go slightly off route to La Grita to take a bit of shelter, and possibly get food. I was pleasantly surprised to find Peter (NZ) there along with Chris (Vancouver). While the store was closed, the owner lived next door and had kindly opened for them. It was great to get ice cream and cold drinks and to relax for a while with the others, before they blasted out of there towards Del Norte. I eventually did the same and the weather got really bad with intermittent rain, but very very strong winds—the kind that you have to lean your bike on an angle to get through. There was some fun single track, but by the time I got to the airport outside Del Norte it was  a struggle not to be blown off the road. When I turned and it was a tail wind I was pushed along at 25-35 km/h without pedalling. No wonder I suffered.

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There were major fires near Del Norte and I saw lots of fire crews as well as an evacuation centre. Just that day 19 firefighters in Arizona had been killed so it was on everyone’s mind. I wanted accommodation which was at a premium but I managed to get the last (smoker’s) room at a 1 star motel. Kind of reminded me of the Bates Motel in the movie Psycho. I then went in search of food and when I saw a gaggle of bikes outside a restaurant I knew I had found the place. It was “the guys” who had all arrived well before I did and were finishing off dinners. Great choice of restaurant as they had vegetarian food! What a luxury. Peter (USA) rolled in—he had got food poisoning so had take some time off. Was fun to catch up with everyone. They didn’t have rooms so I let Peter (NZ) take my floor while the others eventually went to a B&B and someone’s house (which was very bizarre with skulls as decorations …).

The day after Del Norte was the the big one for climbing: the morning started off with a climb over Indiana Pass (3,630 m), and then you had a few more mountains as well. By the end of the day I had climbed 3,316 m which—when one is already fatigued—is a lot of climbing.  I was passed by Shaun and Ryan early in the morning, otherwise just climbed and climbed on my own to the top of the pass. I was disappointed that there was no sign announcing the pass, but we were rewarded with beautiful alpine meadows and views to die for.

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There was an active mine at the top, as well as many falling down buildings evidencing early mining activity. Would be fascinating to know the stories of these places. From there is was up and down—seemed mainly up—until I reached Platoro where there was a lodge. DSC_0123I arrived to find Peter (NZ), Shaun and Ryan finishing their lunches. They were most accommodating and the cook made me a very nice vegetable rice stir fry for lunch, along with the usual grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk. The portions were huge so I took some with me when I departed. There was also a pay phone so I used the opportunity to call my mother in Toronto. It was Canada Day and my friend Sharon was there as well so it was great to chat with both of them, before heading back out on the road once again.

As I headed out towards New Mexico Chris (Vancouver) and Peter (USA) caught up with me. I asked if they were going to take the ‘La Manga Pass Challenge’. Peter wasn’t aware of it so I explained … Before the race started one of the riders (Cjell Money) had raced up the 3,118 m high La Manga Pass in some 38 minutes. He wrote his time on a dollar bill and deposited it in a tube at the top. He challenged other riders to beat his time. Peter loved the idea and so decided to take the challenge. This is a photo of him at the start line. He pumped up his tyres, got psyched up, and then FLEW up the mountain. He did it in some 32 minutes (took me well over an hour). I’ll be surprised if anyone can beat that time. What an amazing athlete, although he did confide in me the next day that he really blew himself up with the effort! With my leisurely plodding pace it wasn’t anywhere near that hard.

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It was a short downhill run from La Managa Pass and then we turned off the road and onto the back roads to take us to the final state: New Mexico. DSC_0135It was a pleasant evening with the sun shining, the kind of evening that makes cycling fun. Unfortunately the road was really poor so that kind of negated the positive vibes from the weather. And then of course the weather began to pack up.

I had a chequered history with this portion of the route. When I toured it 11 years ago I got caught in a lightening storm on Brazos Ridge, which is next to the Cruces Wilderness Basin. To cut a long story short, I thought I was going to die. It was pretty terrifying. The following day the road was impassable mud which trashed my bike. So once the sun set and a lightening storm moved into the distance I had a definite sense of deja vu. Fortunately, the lightening stayed in the distance although it did rain on me, making the trail not the best to ride. The 1 km or so of loose stones that I had to push my bike up didn’t help my frame of mind. Anyway, I set myself the goal of reaching the campground near Diablo Creek which at 23:00 I reached, to find Chris (Vancouver) and Peter (USA) there as well! Was nice to have some company and not to camp alone. It was a hard day…

I was off early and enjoyed the sunny day and riding through the beautiful scenery. As usual, the faster guys who were able to enjoy more sleep caught up with me, first Chris then Peter (USA) and finally Kevin. Kevin had ended up camping out on the ridge during the storm. Poor fellow. He was suffering, as evidenced by my ability to keep up with him—he is a much stronger rider than I could ever hope to be.  For once I would get ahead of him and during my regular breaks he would catch up. We were rained and hailed on after Hopewell Lake but continued our way to Canon Plaza were we stopped at the small shop run by Sylvia which supplied food to the racers. That’s Kevin on the left, Peter (USA) took the photo. If you’ve seen the documentary ‘Ride the Divide’ you’ll recognize Sylvia.

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I had my usual short stop and left the guys. The course took us through Vallecitos which was a very desolate town. Every house was run down, and each had a sign ‘beware of the dog’. The town was famous for riders being chased by dogs—so I had my ‘bear mace’ cocked and ready for action. It must have been too hot as they were not to be seen. This part of New Mexico is so poverty stricken it is quite depressing. I’ve no idea how people get by. When we got to Abiquiu it was quite the opposite, with a trendy cafe and lots of money around. Incredible how travelling 50 km can take you to a different world. Peter (USA), Kevin and I went to the Mercantile and got some food. Of course it was easier for them as they were not vegetarian … We got out our maps and looked at the logistics of the next few days. It was clear that if we could make Cuba that night, some 125 km further, the logistics would be a lot easier. So we decided to give it a shot. Even though there was storm brewing Cuba way.

I left early and enjoyed the ride out of town past the Abiquiu Reservoir. Due to forest fires the usual route south was closed so we had a paved road all the way to Cuba. An impressive dam had been built but the effects of the ongoing drought was clear as the water level was way down. One wonders about the future of some of these towns given the drought.  About 10 miles in Peter (USA) blasted past me. He ended up calling it a night in Gaillina, about half way to Cuba, while Kevin opted for Cuba, only one-third of the way. I’m a goal oriented person so having decided to make Cuba that is where I would go, unless there was a very good reason not to! The fact that I was cycling towards a lightening storm didn’t meet that criteria, and so I pressed on—being treated to the most amazing pyrotechnics I’ve ever seen. Horizontal lightening is amazing.

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Wet and tired I reached my goal of Cuba at midnight. The petrol station was able to help with food, but not accommodation. DSC_0144I found a shop selling sheds with open doors—if that is not an invitation what is?—so I opted to camp out in one of them for the night. Good call as there was a heavy storm during the night and the rain beat heavily on the roof.  Bad call as just after 05:00 a policeman came by to put something in the rubbish tip next to the shed and inquired shining a torch into the shed what I was up to.  Satisfied with my answer “bike racing” he suggested I may like to move on so I did, arriving at McDonalds for breakfast (and Internet access) before they opened. It was a great spot as Peter (NZ) came by, Chris (Vancouver) and Ezra (who had broken a crank and had to go off course to Santa Fe to get a new one.

I had a very slow start to the day as I was pretty tired after riding for 18 h and then having only some 5 h of sleep. But I was off for the 200 km long hot ride through the Navaho Indian reservation. It was a long and lonely ride, but fortunately the winds were not headwinds as that would have made it unbearable. Ruggedly beautiful, it was also desolate and I don’t know how people can survive out here. I was grateful for a break after 90 km at a grocery shop where I could get some more water—and ice cream.

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Since the riding was so easy—even if it was stinking hot—I got to Milan about 17:00, with my target destination Grants only another 10 miles or so away. There was a petrol station where I stopped off for a cold drink and to try and get some cash. The latter had proved problematic as my credit card had a hold put on it and I had impressed on my wife the importance of getting this lifted as otherwise I would be totally stuffed—my second credit card’s PIN number didn’t work. Fortunately she had sorted the bank out so I was overjoyed to get enough cash to see me through to the end.

The ride from Milan into Grants was a bit depressing. This was the old ‘Route 66’ and the construction of the Interstate nearby had led to this part of town being bypassed. Motels and other businesses were closed, and even those open offered rates as low as $19. I cycled on to the new part of town by the Interstate exit and got an excellent room at Motel 6 for only $39.  After a great meal at Denny’s I had an early night. In fact the meal was so good, I went back the next day at 05:30 for breakfast.

The ride from Grants to Pie Town started off through the ‘El Malpais National Monument’. It was a great road and we had some amazing rock formations. It was a great road, no traffic, with great scenery. An absolutely delightful ride.

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Being the Tour Divide one doesn’t have such nice riding conditions for long … so too soon for my liking we turned off onto the county DSC_0158road to Pie Town. On the positive side, it was hot and dry which meant that the road was not muddy. On the negative side, it was hot and dry so when traffic (of which there was surprisingly a lot) passed I was enveloped in a cloud of dust. Portions of the road were extended sections of soft sand which would quickly bring my bike to a halt, and sometimes cause me to fall over. Not fun.  Anyway, not option but to just push on and I was overjoyed to eventually reach the thriving metropolis of Pie Town and get away from this blasted road.

Being the Fourth of July—i.e. American Independence Day—I was not optimistic about finding anything open. However I headed up the highway and the “Pie-O-Neer” restaurant was open! I was treated to a vegetarian quiche (really!) and consoled myself with two pieces of excellent pie. Then it was time to start on the last map of the Tour Divide route. As I headed south I passed the ‘Toaster House’ (so named because of all the toasters hanging outside) Kevin was there. He had just arrived and lamented that nothing was open. When I told him about the restaurant he grabbed his bike and was off for food.

From Pie Town the route goes through a long, lonely area—the ‘Gila Wilderness’. With no towns, limited water stops, it is quite challenging. Unfortunately for me, it had also rained so I was presented with the very difficult New Mexico mud for a number of sections.  The photo below doesn’t do it justice but suffice to say that the song ‘Slip Sliding Away’ played through my head continuously. It was hard going and the bike got very mucky.

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As the evening fell, there was another lightening storm ahead of me. I was more worried about the water than the lightening as the mud can be abominable. My goal was to make it to Collins Park, which was just before a diversion we had due to the forest fire concerns. Once darkness fell I just kept on going and in a few sections found large—like 50-100+ m long—‘puddles’ of water which I had to move around by taking the bike off the road through the bush next to the shoulder. This, coupled with the light rain, made the going slow. Then I hit it: a serious mud patch, which stopped my bike dead.

The best description of the mud is to say that it makes peanut butter seem like olive oil.  Not only does it totally bung up your bike—sticking to the tyres, filling the areas between the tryes and frame, but your feet become as heavy as lead with the mud sticking to them, and growing by the step. I pulled my bike off the road and even the grassy area to the side was muddy! In spite of getting a stick and removing the mud from my bike and shoes, within a few steps they were covered again. It was 23:00 so I decided enough is enough and I pitched my tent in the grass next to the road to wait for light when I could hopefully find a way out.

It was better the next morning as I was able to use my tent peg to get rid of most of the mud and to find workable paths through the grass. I was comforted to see that other riders had had problems in the same location, as evidenced by the tyre marks and muddy footprints. Progress was slow—and my tent peg was regularly used to remove the mud—but progress there was. I eventually got to the point where I could ride more than walk. The photo below shows the mud on my tyres … it was horrible.

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As mentioned above, we had a reroute to avoid the road closure at Beaverhead Work Centre. We had no details, just an e-mail with simple directions and the suggestion that we approach this with an “adventurous spirit”.  There was a lot of climbing—we went over 2800 m high—and then we were presented with a really nasty road going down. The storm which gave me so much mud had washed out the road. Nathan and Nick were actually on the way down and there was landslide behind them. I got a text message from Matt Lee asking if we were stranded … and they cancelled the reroute after we got through. Here are a few photos of the route. I was not impressed, but fortunately I made it through without major damage. Took me 9 hours to travel 50 km.

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After battling my way through I arrived at the ghost mining town of Mogollon where Peter (NZ), Shaun and Ryan were just finishing their lunch. Was nice to see them again, even if it was for only a few minutes! It made me feel better that they had also found the day to be really hard. It transpired that they had camped the night before only a few miles from me—having missed the worse of the rain and resulting mud.

It was a steep climb from Mogollon—what else?—but I then enjoyed the long descent to the highway where I turned south towards Silver City. After refuelling in Glenwood, and chatting with Lis in Australia on the pay phone, I continued my ride, eventually reaching Silver City about 21:00. There was a Pizza Hut where I grabbed dinner, and then went to McDonalds where there was free wifi. I had to make to decision: spend the night or press on.  I figured that there were up to seven riders spending the night in Silver City. These were the guys who I would say hello to as they were leaving lunch, or would catch up at the hotels when I eventually arrived in town.

With only some 200 km to go to the finish it was tempting … so I succumbed to temptation. I bought some food at the petrol station, including 2 x 5 h energy drinks, went to a car wash and got rid of the mud from my bike, and at 23:00 set out for the border.  It was a brilliant evening for a ride. The temperature was only 22 C, there was a clear and starry sky, and the wind was from the NW so it was often a tail wind. I had a fast ride along the main highway south, then turned off onto the unpaved road which would take me to Separ.  It was an incredible ride and it was such fun to be zooming through the countryside with such stillness around me. Except for one location where soft sand almost threw me off the bike, it was uneventful and about 03:00 I sighted Separ. I stopped for a rest and called Lis who had been wondering what was going on with my SPOT GPS still moving. I told her I was going for the border—or at least for a long as I could before I ran out of energy.

The worst bit of the ride was the 12 km or so adjacent to the interstate. I was at a trough with energy—soon to be solved with another 5 h drink—but also the road was rutted and with lots of soft sand. I couldn’t find a good line. However, when I exited the road and turned south I was stoked: I had some 110 km of paved road and then the race was over. I had an amazing sunrise over the desert …

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About 08:00 a pickup truck passed me and stopped. The driver was on his way to Antelope Wells to pick up some riders and take them to Tucson. I had about 50 km to go so asked him to come back in the afternoon and pick me up. I then continued south, as fast as I could. Even though I was heading for the finish line, I wanted to finish as strong and as fast as I could. I even looked over my shoulder to see if any of those I had leap frogged were catching up. They weren’t. The only people I saw were the US Border Control vehicles.

Eventually the pickup truck came back tDSC_0173owards me and stopped. Nathan and Nick jumped out! They had finished the night before. Everyone kindly agreed that if I would pull my finger out they would head back to Antelope Wells and wait for me.  So I did my best and cycled hard, even though I had already been riding for at least 24 hours.  Nathan grabbed this photo of me. Not very aero, but definitely working hard.

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I officially finished at 09:29 on Saturday July 6 for a race time of 22 days, 1:29. While I tried to avoid an asthma attack, the guys snapped a few photos and then put my gear in the truck. On the way out from Antelope Wells we passed Shaun and Ryan heading south. My 25+ h ride had moved me to 27th place, having passed Shaun, Ryan, Bryan, Chris (Vancouver), Peter (USA), Ezra, and Peter (NZ). Kevin finished slightly later. Glad I made the effort, although I was totally shattered!

With Hugh in the truck there were 3 x kiwis and 1 x Aussie. We then drove to Silver City where we picked up Arron to add one more Aussie and drove to Tucson and the next night I was in Toronto.

So ended the 2013 Tour Divide. A great experience and worth all the effort.  A very big thanks goes to my wife Lis whose untiring support made this possible …

7 responses to “2013 Tour Divide Race–Success At Last

  1. I am so very proud of you, Chris. It actually brought tears to my eyes when I heard you had finished and done so well. I know how much it meant to you.
    Mom in law.

  2. Great blog! You’ve been on the TD 3 times. What have you learned about kit setup you’d maybe do differently? How did the Camel Uno work?

    • Glad you found it useful James. I’m definitely doing a reflection on the race – i.e. what finally went right – in the next month or so.

      The Camelbak was perfect and I’d recommend it to others. I was able to store my purification tablets and electrolytes in it, and unlike others, never suffered from bladder punctures. Highly recommended.

  3. Emily (ever your friend and JPA)

    What a journey (physically, mentally) and beautiful photos. Amazing accomplishment, Chris. There is nothing you can’t do.

    • Thanks for your support as always! Pity I couldn’t come and see you in Austin after the race. Hope you and family are settling into Portland OK. Your confidence in my abilities will be sorely tested in two weeks. In a fit of optimism (hubris?) I decided to do Ironman Copenhagen on August 18. What better way to recover from the Tour Divide then to try and teach myself to run a marathon and swim 3.8 km? My excuse is that I was going to be in town anyway … and after the TDR a 13 h race doesn’t seem so daunting. Yeah, right. Lis and I are in Switzerland right now for our 25th wedding anniversary trip and one could not find more of a contrast to flat Denmark to try and train in. Anyway, should be an interesting adventure!

  4. Great write up Chris and I am so happy you finished. Your one of the great personalities of the TD Wish I had been able to keep up but you were just too strong. So many times I read your descriptions of a place on the course and said “oh man, I remember that!”. Really well done.
    Got home and after days of continuous pain that was not getting better, had an MRI of my ribs done (crashed on descent out of Helena). Turns out I fractured a rib and tore cartilage between the ribs. Its an every day reminder now of the price one has to pay to get to Antelope Wells.

    • Hi Mike! Great to hear from you. I was cheering you on as you headed south and I was really glad to hear that you finished. The cracked rib explains why you were having problems on those hills. As always I enjoyed riding with you. It’s great that me, you, Fred and JD put our 2012 disasters behind us!

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