How well do you suffer for days on end? If you are considering throwing your hat in the ring for the Tour Divide Race you might want to ask yourself that question.
The Tour Divide is the world’s longest unsupported off-road cycling race. It runs 2,745 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells New Mexico along the roof top of the continental divide. The route has a total elevation gain of over 200,000 feet. For those of you who are distance challenged, that is equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 7 times. And, what goes up must come down, so you will certainly have your fill of wild, heart-in-your-mouth scrabbling down rocky, rutted slopes. The good thing is, Mother Nature changes the trail every year, so you certainly won’t have to worry about getting into a rut (at least not the psychological kind). This is definitely not a race for the weak at heart. Or, if you make a habit of traveling against the grain, you can start in Antelope Wells, New Mexico and ride backwards to Banff.
The route is about 90% on unpaved roads and trails mostly in wilderness areas. On any given day, you could be riding on high quality dirt roads, gravel, or an unmaintained trail. It is more likely you will see a mountain lion or grizzly bear than a McDonalds. The route is not marked with road signs so you better know how to navigate circuitous back country roads without directions. The weather is unpredictable and extreme. You can expect to start pedaling through white out conditions, and end up slowly baking in the dry desert winds. The roads are often impassible, so you might want to practice carrying your bike and gear up hill. And don’t think you are going to pull up to a nice little hotel each night or belly up to a snack bar along the way. This race is 100% self-supported. That means you have to carry or find your own food, supplies, gear, and do your own bike repairs, often in the middle of nowhere. The winner will be the one who, teetering on the edge of physical exhaustion, fighting an emotional roller coaster, and unable to sit down without groaning, gets to the finish line first – without cracking.
This race requires both physical and mental stamina. You might be in the saddle for 16-20 hours a day. Your legs are going to be screaming. Your arms will be numb. You’ll be dirty, starving, thirsty, tired, fed up, and exceptionally cranky. And what happens if you want to give up? Well, you can slam down your bike, stamp your feet, swear, throw your gear, scream at the top of your lungs, cry yourself sick, throw a good old-fashioned tantrum, and then – when you are all done – you are still going to be 100 miles from the closest sign of civilization. So, unless you want them to find your sun bleached bones scattered over the desert in a few years, you will wipe your eyes, blow your nose, tune up your bike, gather up your gear, and start pedaling again.
The pay back for this self-abuse is that you will see isolated rivers valleys, mountain forests, wide open grasslands, high desert, quick (or not so quick) snapshots of wild animals, and beauty beyond your wildest dreams. All this will be seared into your memory for the rest of your life.
So how, long does this race take? If you want to win, you will have to travel between 183 and 196 miles a day for 14-15 days in a row. The official course record was set in 2012 by Jay Petervary. He made it in 15 days, 16 hours and 14 minutes. Mike hall rode the route faster in 2013 (14 days, 11 hours and 55 minutes) but he had to make detours because of forest fires. To put it in perspective, one hundred and eighty miles is from Condon to just beyond Butte – but you have to ride it on along Richmond Peak, through Sunday Mountain trail, past Morrell Falls, up Cottonwood Lakes Road, down to Highway 200 though Ovando, over the pass to Helena, and so on… Then, after sleeping on dirt for 4 hours, you have to wake up tomorrow and do it all over again.
This course is tough on equipment too. The weight of your gear multiplies the stress on your bike. More stress on the bike means more things break. You might want to have some experience in fixing things. More gear also means more work for you, so, you have to balance the desire to have French press coffee each morning, with the fact that you have to carry that coffee press every one of the 173,923,200 inches along the way yourself. Under those conditions, the extra pound might have to pulling your hair out in no time. You might want to opt for an ultralight sleeping bag, a water purifier, and freeze dried food instead.
Some of the riders travel with no gear other than the clothes on their backs. They can be found sleeping under parked cars, and drinking from cow ponds. But even that plan has its downside. In some places along the route there is no available water source for 100s of miles. Even a fully loaded hamburger from McDonalds only has so many calories.
The race starts every year on the second Friday of June. The racers travel right through the Swan Valley, and many drop down into Seeley Lake to inhale the largest quantity of calories in the least amount of time possible, grab a tire tube, defrost, get a warm shower, fix their bike derailleur, or quickly purchase a Smartwool underlayer for added warmth. If you keep a sharp lookout you just might see a thin, exceptionally dirty, rather smelly young man or woman with a great tan, nosing around Seeley Lake looking for possible food sources, bathrooms, and bike gear. My suggestion is to be very nice to these people and point them in the right direction. They likely just post-holed 5 miles through snow, carrying their bike and gear. They are probably sleep deprived, cold, hungry, and tired. The good news is… they will most likely be polite and have a big smile on their face