Long after the sun had set, hours since my last stop, bumping my way along a dusty road in New Mexico, I was having a tough time focusing on the road ahead. My vision was blurred. My mind was foggy. I was heading north to Pie Town, an oasis for thru-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail, touring cyclists on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and racers on Tour Divide.
Despite the oppressive heat earlier in the day, I had stopped, not once but twice, to add layers to fend off the chilly desert night air. “Just a few more miles. Keep eating. Keep drinking,” I told myself. Approaching a small incline, I decided to push my bike, slow things down and try to shake the weary cloudiness from my mind. At the top I stopped, put on another pair of gloves, zipped up my jacket, and looked around. A near-full moon illuminated the arid, undulating terrain. I sucked in a couple breaths of cold air and reminded myself, “Only 2,400 miles to go. Better get on with it.”
While Mac McCoy and his team created the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route with touring in mind, it didn’t take long for swift-minded mountain bikers to start racing it for bragging rights. In 1999, Mountain Bike Hall of Famer John Stamstad was the first to establish a time for the route, then starting in Roosville, Montana, at the Canadian border and finishing at its current southern terminus in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. In just 18 days and five hours, Stamstad blitzed the course, enduring a blown-out suspension fork, frequent punctures, navigational errors, and swarms of mosquitos.
Since then other ultra-racing legends like Mike Curiak, Matthew Lee, Jill Homer, Jay Petervary, Kurt Refsnider, Lael Wilcox (pictured above), Chris Plesko, and Mike Hall have carried on the competitive spirit embodied each year by hundreds of tough women and men who race the route without any outside assistance.
Thanks to Mike Dion’s Ride the Divide documentary about the 2008 Tour Divide, interest and participation in the race has boomed. That year 16 racers gathered in Banff for the Grand Départ, and eight of them finished. In 2009, participation more than doubled with 42 starters and 16 finishers. After the movie’s 2010 release, those figures continued to climb steadily. In 2017, a whopping 197 racers toed the start line.
Many would argue that racing the route keeps a rider from taking in the splendor on offer and meeting the wonderful people along it. But as the late Mike Hall said in Inspired to Ride, a documentary about another ultra-endurance race on an Adventure Cycling route, the TransAm Race, “If you enjoy racing, then that’s what you enjoy. Going slowly isn’t necessarily more enjoyable.
I’ve been lucky enough to attempt, and unfortunate enough to fail, the Tour Divide on three occasions. In 2013 I found myself in Banff, Alberta, at the Grand Départ on the second Friday in June. Alongside were 142 other racers eager to reach Mexico but braced for the rigors of getting there. The Canadian section of the route throws an unsuspecting bikepacker into the proverbial deep end with arduous climbs, rugged roads, and remote stretches. Cold nights and wet days are routine, but most racers enter the U.S. in two to four days.
I rolled into Eureka, Montana, late on my second day of racing and parked my bike at the first restaurant I saw. Outside were other loaded bikes and inside was a smelly, hungry pack of fellow racers. Copious amounts of hamburgers, french fries, chicken sandwiches, and mozzarella sticks were ordered. Gallons of water and soda were consumed. Phones were charged. Hands and faces were washed. Tales were told. Then we headed out for more.
I managed to do this for 11 days before a knee injury forced me to stop. I did my best to enjoy the scenery, to soak up the wonder of the mountains, the plains, and the river valleys. I would rise early, pack up, and roll south. Stopping for breaks when necessary, I rode steadily, sometimes with others, often alone. At each resupply, a regrouping would occur. There we would discuss our exploits and plot out the rest of the day. We often stuck together, especially as afternoon turned into evening and thoughts turned to sleep. It was these shared meals, shared camp spots, and shared miles that solidified my love not only for the GDMBR but also for my fellow bikepackers. The foundations for lifelong friendships were laid along those dusty roads.
Also in the back of any Tour Divide racer’s mind is the fact that they’re all being stalked. Not by bears or mountain lions — though those stories are out there — but instead by friends and family on a website called trackleaders.com. Beginning in 2008, racers carried SPOT GPS devices that tracked their location via satellite at regular intervals. This enhances safety and ensures that racers complete the entire course. But perhaps more significantly, it has made the Tour Divide into a spectator sport. In 2009, Scott Morris programmed his Trackleaders site and made tracking racers more interesting with progress plots and checkpoints. “Dot stalking” as it’s called, because racers are simply a colored dot on the screen, can consume hours of a loved one’s time. In 2008, past racers, future hopefuls, family members, and trail angels could post to a race discussion thread on then-new bikepacking.net.
Then put on your reading helmet.
Starting in 2006, before the online discussion, Joe Polk’s MTB Cast call-in service added audio to the spectator experience. Racers could call a toll-free number and record a message recounting tales from the trail, encouraging each other, or simply venting the mania that creeps into a Tour Divide racer’s brain. Social media, Facebook in particular, now supplements MTB Cast and Trackleaders with many racers choosing to livestream video of themselves while riding or during breaks.
The reasons to race the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route are as varied as the roads and trails that make it up. The devotion is such that multiple facebook groups exist to discuss their love of the route, the gear used to travel along it, and to share route beta. I contacted one such group and put the question to them. “Why race the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route instead of touring it?” The replies speak for themselves:
“The simple, but hard, day-after-day focus on a single task: getting to Mexico as fast as your own human self can. Done right, it is a long meditation.”
–A. Jeffrey Tomassetti, 2011 Tour Divide racer, 23 day
“One thing I love about TD is that it is a world-class event that is very accessible to a committed athlete. Other sports have significant barriers to compete at the top. Love your football? You can only imagine a shot at the Super Bowl. Baseball? You can only buy a ticket to the World Series. Everest? Too pricey! Tour Divide, though, is right there for you to grab. Can you pedal a bike and carve out a month’s time?”
–JP Evans, 2011 Tour Divide racer, 24 days
“We choose to race because we learn things about ourselves in the crucible of this race. Touring would be fun, but racing allows us to explore our physical, mental, and spiritual limits.”
–Jim Goodyear, 2016 Tour Divide racer, 23 days
I’ve raced sections of the route, both southbound and northbound, three different times, but I’ve also toured a 530-mile chunk. My wife and I timed our weeklong trip so that we arrived in Ovando, Montana, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Adventure Cycling Association. While I certainly enjoyed the slower pace of touring, taking time to linger in camp, not rushing meals, and photographing ourselves frequently, that trip did nothing to extinguish my desire to once again race Tour Divide.
This story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Adventure Cyclist.
Thank you for a great article Nick! Watching an event enfold this year, many questions come to mind as things get very convoluted as they grow. Much criticism is thrown around especially directed towards Lael. When I rode Baja Divide last year I kept thinking: "Who is this chick?!" She is not human! How can she ride such a long distance in such a short time? In my opinion, anyone who either rides for pleasure (which is not always pleasurable) or racing GDMBR or any other long-distance trail, is a tough person. It's always easy to throw around opinions, sitting on the couch at home.
So, go out and ride and share the joy of it!
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Hey Nick, ineresting report and i have always had the impression that competing is quite different that teavelling, along a road. With time, and experience, i have learned that slowness at riding is the closer you can get to melt and blend with the surrounsing enviroment. The slower the best until perhaps there is no more movement, and then we are finally in real meditation. As long as there is a goal, touring will be just moving your body to different places. No goal, just the road.