Tour Divide: Not a Race for Asthmatics

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What a great—if short—race. To cut a long story short (which follows below), I got disqualified on Day 1 when I had to go to the hospital due to an asthma attack due to the smoke from forest fires in Arizona and New Mexico. I got myself north of the smoke and rode the course as far as Steamboat Springs for a total of 1,000 km. However, the chest infection I got after the asthma attack made all those 3,000+ metre passes too difficult and I decided at Steamboat to call it quits for health reasons. Had a great time and saw great country. Would have loved to continue but health has to come first. So much for the short version. Read on for the details …

I caught an early morning taxi from my parents condo in Toronto downtown to bus depot where I hopped the 06:00 Greyhound to Buffalo Airport. I then took the long way to El Paso: Buffalo-Fort Lauderdale-Austin-El Paso. I was impressed that my bike arrived and I found my way to the hotel where Paul Attalla, a fellow Canadian was staying. We had agreed to share a ride to the start point at Antelope Wells. Nice guy who was doing this as a 40th birthday present from his wife.

The next day we were collected by Frank who worked at a local bike IMGP0014shop. After a short stop to buy some provisions (including new shoes for me) before we drove west to Antelope Wells.   We visited the thriving metropolis of Hachita where I had hoped to find a parcel at the Post Office. However, it wasn’t there. But I did get the photo below of Paul and Frank.  We headed on to Antelope Wells where I got the photos below—including the great warning about local wildlife (there are also scorpions, spiders and biting ants).

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Paul and I organized our gear and then IMGP0026headed over to Tim’s place to camp for the night. Tim was a border guard who lived in a supped up trailer. We decided to camp in his shed, and were joined by Denis, Frank and Russ late in the day.  We had a nice evening yarning with Tim, and watching the basketball championship game, after being treated to an amazing sunset.

IMGP0031In the morning others arrived and everyone assembled their bikes and did some testing. We then lined up at the border and at 08:00 we were off on our adventure! There were 14 of us travelling north, and 75 heading south.

We almost immediately broke into three IMGP0033different groups. There were about six very fast riders, another five of us in the middle, and then a few slow ones.  Except for the speed demons, many of us made lots of stops over the first miles to adjust our bikes, gear etc. I spent some time chatting with Niki who was a 2D film artist working in Hollywood, Pete from California, as well as Sandy from Texas and Craig from Colorado.   The road was paved and the cycling easy, but it was already quite hot and the day was to top out at 38.5 C (101 Fahrenheit).

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Stopped at Hachita and got something to drink—I didn’t use the local facilities… Pete was there at the same time and Niki rode up as we were leaving. The three of us were to play leapfrog for the rest of the day. We continued north and then eventually turned west off the paved road to an unpaved road which ran parallel to the interstate. I immediately donned my dusk mask since the dust was bothering my breathing a bit.

IMGP0037I caught up with Paul again at the local shop and Niki again rolled in as we were about to leave.  The heat was bothering all of us, and it was only getting worse. As we headed north Paul took a wrong turn and didn’t hear me calling out to him so I continued on the correct route – I saw him turning in the distance. Boy was it ever harsh country.

IMGP0038There was no water, but I was prepared having cycled through ten years ago, I was carrying six litres. The riding was not difficult of itself, but there were moderate winds which amplified the discomfort of the heat. The further north we got the more difficult I was finding the riding. I just couldn’t catch my breath. I knew I was having the onset of an asthma attack but my inhaler didn’t seem to be working. Anyway, I just kept riding forward since there was no other option open to me.

I managed to do 170 km and get to a paved road about 40 km south of Silver City but I was in very bad shape. I just couldn’t breathe and so I had nice long rest. Pete came by and kept me company and then we set off for Silver City. However, it was clear after one kilometre that something was very wrong so I took the tough decision to immediately head to the hospital. It was tough because the rules of the race meant that by flagging down a vehicle to take me to the hospital I was immediately disqualified: we are only allowed to go forward under our own power, even if it is a medical emergency.

The first vehicle stopped and he chucked my bike on the back of his truck and took me to Silver City and I then got to the hospital. My blood-oxygen level was down to 85% of normal. No wonder I was having problems. It seems that they had an influx of people with respiratory problems due to the Arizona/New Mexico forest fires and the particulates in the air.  After four hours of treatment I headed to the hotel where I caught up with Pete. It had been a hard day for everyone and Niki had already decided to bail.

The doctor advised me not to head any further north as the air quality was much worse. I called a hotel ahead on the route and this was confirmed by a hotel. So I went to Plan B: I got myself to Alamosa Colorado—well north of the fires—and then rode back onto the course at Del Norte. My goal was to try and ride 150+ km/day along the course. I may be disqualified but I still wanted to ride my bike.

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I was stoked to be back on the road again as I headed north from Del Norte.  It was the desolate, desert areas that are just the tonic I was looking for to escape from the demands of work. It is absolutely amazing to be riding your bike through wilderness with nothing around you except the sound of your breath, the wind, and the crunch of your wheels as you pedal along.

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Of course life isn’t perfect, and neither was the riding for the wind was a headwind and the road, well let’s just say that quickly brought back memories of my desert rides 9 years ago… You are cycling along and suddenly you hit a ‘sand trap’. The surface is very loose and deep and even with wide tyres the bike comes very rapidly to a stop and—you fall over. After repeating this too many times it becomes a bit tedious, and so in the end I rode through the scrub next to the road for extended periods, choosing the risk of a puncture over the sand traps.  I made good progress and even stopped for photos of some of the amazing rock formations.

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After a while I came out from the desert and was rewarded with a tree lined IMGP0068valley which had water. I filled up my bottles—one learns to collect water at any opportunity—and purified them (hopefully) with my Katadyn tablets.  Riding the divide really is a relatively simple act: you just need food, water, a good bike and lots of energy. Oh, and a suffering gene. Particularly when these yahoos zoom past on the dusty roads in their pickup trucks without slowing down. I became very adept at spotting them in the distance and putting on my dust mask, but it was still bothersome.

IMGP0077Another wonderful part of the ride is the salubrious accommodation that one has. If you are lucky you may end up in a town but more often than not you find a sheltered place next to the road and crash there. Unlike the ‘weight wenies’ who travel with nothing I took a tent as I had learned that there is nothing worse than being tired, cold and wet when riding the divide. Tents give such a great respite…

The day after Del Norte I started some serious climbing and I realized that my lungs were anything but recovered. IMGP0081 They were OK up to about 7500 – 8000 feet (say 2500 metres), but above that I really had a hard time. This photo was from Cochetopa Pass (10,032’) which was the first big climb of the day. This was the site of a toll road built in 1874 which shows that what is now wilderness was once the main route to California!

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What goes up must go down and I enjoyed a great ride down from the pass, particularly because the atmosphere thickened and I could breath easier! Had a break at the road where I got this self portrait. From there it was uphill again—slowly—before another great high speed descent to a paved road and, eventually, Sergeants.

There was a shop at Sergeants where I wanted to get something to eat and drink and that reminded me of another challenge when riding the divide: organic vegetarians who are dairy free have real difficulties. After some time I ended up getting a tin of pears—unfortunately in heavy syrup—which was literally the only thing I could eat. I was looking forward to Salida that night, a funky town where my wife Lis and I had visited before. There was only one small challenge, the 10,842’  high Marshall Pass. Fortunately, it was the site of an old railway line and so although the climb was long, it was not overly steep.  As the photos below show, the scenery was spectacular.

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I summited the pass and found that there was still snow and mud. This was only at the top but the downward ride was not very fun. The road was in terrible condition with large stones and water damages, so one could not get up to any good speed without risking loss of control. I envied the southbound riders who would come up this hill slowly and then down to Sergeants on a much better surface. A fast downhill ride is one of the rewards for the uphill slog …

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I got to Salida and went immediately to ‘Absolute Bikes’ who are one of the top bike shops anywhere. They did some important surgery on my bike, replacing the shifter and sorting out a problem with my tubeless tyre. They really are a fantastic group of people and I cannot thank them—or recommend them—enough.  Since it was getting late I grabbed a motel in town and enjoyed an excellent dinner of vegetables at a local restaurant. I’m always impressed with Salida. A really neat place with great people.

After Salida it was uphill again for a few hours before hitting more desert riding. 

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I stopped in Hartsel for lunch. The diner was not overly friendly, but at least they had a vegetarian hamburger. I even managed to get a side salad (100% lettuce) instead of French Fries so I considered it quite a feat. The shop was far more friendly and the proprietor asked if Matt Lee was racing this year. When I told her that Matt had sat out due to his second child being born she IMGP0113said she would give him a call. Matt is a legend—having won the Tour Divide six times—so I’m not surprised she knows him. I had hoped to get a fruit juice but they only had Gatorade. Big mistake. I had an ulcer in my mouth after finishing the bottle. I don’t know how people can drink the stuff. I took a wrong turn heading out of town but after a few miles corrected myself and doubled back for more desert cycling towards Como and Boreas Pass.

The road was waterboard with lots of loose materials so it was very hard riding, and the headwind didnIMGP0116’t help matters. However, it was just one of those times when you put your head down and pedal and just zone out. I was surprised to see a herd of horses run across the road in front of me, and more surprised when they stopped and watched me ride by. During my ride I also saw deer, antelope, coyote, hares, and lots of ground squirrels, chipmunks and other rodents. Fortunately no snakes.

Como is an old railway town with some interesting old buildings. I arrived there about 19:00 and was planning on heading up and trying to cross Boreas Pass before it got completely dark. Unfortunately there was a sign which said the pass was closed. I spoke to two locals who said that there was 12’ of snow on the Breckenridge side of the pass and there was no way of getting through until it was ploughed. Bother.  They advised me to ride to the town of Fair Play and then to cross Hoosier pass which, being on the main road, was always open.

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I followed their advice which was a mistake because when I got to Breckenridge the following day I contacted theIMGP0124 county and they said that the road had recently been ploughed, although it would not be an easy ride with the mud. I would have liked to have done the pass but by then it was too late. While Hoosier Pass was 11,539’ high, at least the road was good on the way up to the pass so it was not overly difficult cycling: just wish my flipping lungs would have worked a bit better. Even better was the downhill run to Breckenridge where I was able to hit 70+ km/h. That would not have been possible on Boreas Pass!

From Breckenridge to Silverthorne there was an excellent bike path and I had a tail wind for a change so made good time. Then it was north from Silverthorne and up and over another pass. There were lovely wild flowers by the road and amazing views from the top. At the top I met two tourists riding the route and we chatted. They were towing BOB trailers so I counselled them to check out Boreas Pass since if BOBs and mud do not go well together. Later on I met another two tourists, who had been inspired to do the ride by the film ‘Ride the Divide’. When I mentioned the race was on and they would be meeting the racers they were quite excited at the prospect.

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My lungs were really bothering me with all these climbs and time spent at altitude. I had a minor chest infection after the asthma attack and it was IMGP0142seriously hard work. The rest of me felt great, I just had continued trouble breathing. I continued on towards Kremling with the goal of reaching Radium and camping there for the night. However, the weather turned very nasty with lightening and I decided to stay at Kremling which was a good call: as I got close to the town the wind was so strong I was having to lean into it at a 30% angle just to stay upright.

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More mountains the next day, with stunning views. What was particularly impressive was the story of how they managed to build a railway line through this valley, creating a trans-continental connection through Denver. It bankrupted the original investor, took many times longer than expected, but in the end the engineers did the impossible. Very humbling when I think about what we do today.

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The highlight of my day was Paul Attalla caught up with me! I hadn’t seen him since Anteope Wells. He was riding 1 h off the course record of 17 days 23 hours and was going so well. He was pleased to have someone to ride with for a while, even if I was slow, since he had been alone for a week.

Paul told me how he had also had troubles the first day in the desert, getting heat exhaustion and throwing up. It was so bad he considered bailing from the race, but it is good that he didn’t. He confirmed that it would have been folly for me to go north from Silver City as the air quality became really bad and he ended up having a cough from it. I was impressed at his abilities and he was riding so strong, even though he was doing almost 250 km/day. What an amazing athlete.

We rode together to Radium and then started IMGP0151uphill at which time he took off. A ranger came driving by and she took this photo of me. As you can see, the day was not the best for riding with a fair bit of rain. She advised that the road was closed ahead due to a washout, but I wasn’t concerned as cyclists can go many places vehicles cannot.

The climb from Radium was very long and very hard. In fact, it was by far the hardest climb that I had to date. My breathing was not only laboured, but the road condition was, well, best described as toothpaste. It was sticky, gluggy, and made cycling very difficult. I took comfort from seeing that Paul had to dismount in places and push his bike. The photo below left is looking down at my front tyre—you can see the caked clay around it. The one on the right was taken when I had no traction at all and had to dismount. What a bothersome ride to have on the flat, let alone going up a mountain. Anyway, it was pedal/push your way up and in the end I reached the top and was rewarded with brilliant views.

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IMGP0176 There was a longish ride at the top which was up and down rolling terrain along roads that were not very good, before reaching the end of the road where there was a gate. I had to chuckle at the ‘Closed Due to Unsafe Conditions’ sign.  We could apply the unsafe conditions to a lot of the divide ride!

I took a wrong turn at the exit and was on this excellent road when who should I see coming cross country but Paul! He told me that a river crossing was washed out and he had spent almost an hour trying to find his way around the 8’ deep water. We rode together a short while but my lungs were bursting so he took off to try and make Steamboat Springs by 17:00 when the Post Office closed: he had a parcel with his maps waiting for him. 

As the day went on the weather got worse and just outside of Steamboat a lightening storm struck. I pulled into someone’s car port to wait out the rain as I had learned previously that these sorts of afternoon storms are not to be toyed with. I don’t know what it is about Steamboat and storms but when I passed this way in 2000 a similar situation arose, but then I didn’t have as good wet weather clothes.

I had texted my wife to book me into a motel in Steamboat so I was pleased to have somewhere with a hot bath awaiting my arrival. I had decided that after 1,000 km it was time to call it quits. My lungs were just not up to the continued riding through the mountains. Disappointing, but at least I managed to reach one of my micro-goals of 1,000 km.

It was a great ride and I would love to do it again, but I don’t think that my lungs are up to it, at least without further treatment for my asthma. As I write this two weeks from starting the race, only 6 of the 14 riders who started in Antelope Wells are still riding. Some have had mechanicals breakdowns, some physical breakdowns, others just decided it wasn’t worth continuing.  Paul has reached Whitefish Montana and should make Canada tomorrow. I hope that he manages to set a new record because he deserves it: what an athlete.   Even though this is my first DNF (did not finish) I have no regrets about starting, or failing to finish. Thanks to Matt Lee, MTB Cast, and all those who came up with this amazing race.

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8 responses to “Tour Divide: Not a Race for Asthmatics

  1. Wow! I am so impressed with you, Chris. Against all odds you still pushed on! That shows what truly an amazing spirit you have. I am so proud of you. You really know how to push the limits haha. I really laughed at how you described the salad you received at Hartsel, as being ‘100% lettuce’. Haha, that is so typical of restaurants nowadays. What was the reason behind there being so much snow falling during summer?

    • Hey Kyle. Boy are you easily impressed! It was an epic year for weather, with the fires in the south and snow in the north. It was unheard of to have snow this late at Boreas Pass and Breckenridge. Just made the race that much more interesting!

  2. Well done Chris. 1000km ! wow. It was only because of your determination and love of cycling that u kept going against the odds of asthma and a chest infection…
    I enjoy reading your stories, love how you enjoy the views and the people you meet along the way… as much as you enjoy the challenge of pushing yourself.

  3. Alison Chadwick

    Well done Chris – I am Sharon’s sister and always interested to hear about your adventures. Sounds like an epic journey.

  4. Well done Chris! thanks for sharing your journey.
    Lisa Polak

  5. Thanks for the great account of the event.
    I am looking at attempting this ride – I have some local NZ Brevets to do first but all things going well…

    Best wishes for future adventures!

    Rob.

  6. Pingback: Tour Divide 2013 – Letter of Intent | Chris Bennett’s Triathlon Blog

  7. Pingback: Endurance Athletes and Health | Chris Bennett's Triathlon and Cycling Blog

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