In 2009 I learned of an underground race known as the 'Tour Divide'. It’s a 4,418 km solo mountain bike epic from Banff, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. My interest peaked a year or two later after watching a documentary on the event called 'Ride the Divide'. Check out the trailer at www.ridethedividemovie.com. But be warned, this film is very much the romanticized version of what to expect.
The race surges over relentless mountain passes (nearly 200,000 feet of elevation gain), totally exposed to the elements, 24-hours a day. Riders haul all of their own food, spare parts, clothing, and camping gear. As for the rules, they’re simple – stay on track, respect the intended solo nature of the event (no outside support), and the first person to the border at Mexico wins. There is no entry fee and no prize purse. It is a true adventure in every sense of the word.
And I should know…
My cycling story began at age 13 when I cycled across Canada with my father. Since then, I have become the youngest Canadian to complete the Race Across America, have cycled 25,000 km from Alaska to Argentina, represented the national team, ridden a stationary bike for nearly seven days straight, and more.
I saw the Tour Divide as a way to get back to nature. There was also an added draw of having to fend for myself, to be nature’s guest. It had been awhile since I had not depended on a support crew, was spurred on by watchful eyes, or drove towards something other than a shiny medal. This time it was personal.
On June 8th I lined up at the YWCA start line in Banff with approximately 100 riders kitted out with custom ragtag bikes, and varying eccentric/ loner personalities. Other than a few handshakes and a group photo, this would be the last time that I would ever see any of them. From the word “GO!” I was determined to do well…so says my video blog entry. But like anyone, of course I wanted to win.
Within the first 20 miles a rock slashed the sidewall of my front tire and I limped to stay within the top ten. Day two and three saw us hike-a-biking over 27 miles of snowy mountain passes through Montana. It would be a relief to walk a little if I wasn’t always soaked. At the bottom of a decent, I remember trying to light a fire to calm my shivering but couldn’t coordinate the effort with my fingers. The only option was to get back on my bike and speed up the next pass.
Concerns for grizzly bears and snow were soon replaced by fatigue and nagging injuries. For me, it was Achilles pain and blood blisters on both of my big toes. Word down the line was that one rider had rocketed off a cliff and busted up his bike, another was in hospital for fluid accumulating in his lungs. Others appeared to be dropping out because of mythical injuries, probably more related to exhaustion, mixed with intimidation for what lay ahead. But none of us were out there to judge.
The difficulty of the ride often extended into the night. Rain and wind would pelt my bivi sack. And when it didn’t, there was always the challenge of trying to calm my body down from the altitude – elevated heart rate and a persistent cough being the main symptoms. A few times I felt inclined to bring my Spot GPS tracker into the sack with me, my finger on the SOS button just in case. A few others have already had to use it, I told myself.
The course doesn’t let up much through the flat sections. The route crosses a 189-mile area known as the ‘The Great Basin’ in Wyoming where there are no services. I survived off of a couple of gas station burritos and the hope that I would stumble across a water source. The lack of water becomes an increasing challenge through Colorado too. Riders have to be resourceful. One humbling moment saw me digging into a muddy field filled with cows. I dug until I could filter some murky water through a handkerchief. The possible nightmare of Giardia loomed heavy the next few days. But it was not to be, for me.
After 21 days, the mountain climbs cease and all that is left are 130°F temperatures and a desert dash to the border My tires were worn thin by this point, puncturing often from cacti needles scattered along the road. Thankfully, signs soon started appearing for the border. I’m almost there.
The tiny outpost appears like a mirage. Secretive black military helicopters and fighter jets circle high above, no doubt cautious of my approach. I walk across a painted line on the road and shake the customs agent hand in Mexico. He speaks something to me in Spanish, though I have no idea what. I signal to him that I am turning around and going back. He is understandably confused.
On the other side, a U.S. border agent asks if I would like my picture taken. “Sure,” I tell him. Gazing around at the small cluster of buildings, I reaffirm that there is nothing here. I’m going to have to hitchhike back – over 100 miles to the next town. Whatever, the hard part is over.
I have never felt so proud.