You’d think something described as the ‘toughest mountain bike race on Earth” should have rung some alarm bells. Well, for some reason it didn’t. Maybe the idea of enough climbing to summit Everest 8 times? Nope. How about the thought of grizzly bears, mountain lions and rattle snakes? Nope. For some reason, none of these things were enough to dissuade my dad and I, who are amateur bike packers, from participating in this year’s Tour Divide. If you don’t already know about the 4400km race that runs from Canada to Mexico down the continental divide you can find out more here.
My Dad and I have had an interest in the race for many years. Inspiration being provided by books like “Dividing the Great” by John Metcalfe, “Be Brave, Be Strong” by Jill Homer and the Mike Dion movie “Ride the Divide” (2010). Both avid mountain bikers, it was inevitable that we would give it a crack eventually. Late last year, when some summer plans fell through for me in New Zealand, I rang up Dad back in Australia, and gave him about eight months’ notice that 2018 would be the year we would go and ride. “So, start planning,” I told him. I then jetted off to Japan to work the ski season and left that plan mulling about in his head. While I was thoroughly preoccupied with shredding chest deep powder every day, Dad was doing his head in, shopping for bike parts, bikepacking bags, maps and gear.
My experience with bike packing consists of the 85km Old Ghost Rd in NZ and a 1200km tour from Niseko to Tokyo. I was therefore a little bit prepared but still nervous about how much bigger this ride was going to be. Dad on the other hand, had even less experience, only having done a couple of two-night trips on some local rail trails. However, for some reason, we thought it would be a great idea to jump straight in the deep end.
So, what was it like to ride the Tour Divide as amateur bike packers?
Prep and Planning
Aside from a couple of Revelate Design bags from previous trips and some camping gear we pretty much started from scratch. We built new bikes for the trip. Matching, 2017 Niner Sir 9’s. We chose a steel hardtail 29er for the durability, ride quality and efficiency. However, we are mountain bikers who normally ride 4” duallies so we chose the new Sir 9 with its modern, more aggressive geometry and paired that with 120mm Rockshox Pikes up the front. With such a large investment, we still wanted them to rip when we got home from the trip, and kept that in mind as we built them up. A lot of people choose to go for a less burly setup, rigid forks and drop bars with big tires and a few at the start line had even burlier setups on dual suspension bikes. Ultimately with such a long and varied route there are always going to be compromises. Our bikes held up amazingly and suited our style really well. There were no regrets on the bikes.
While I was busy getting pitted in Japan, Dad was agonizing over the golden triangle, weight, price and suitability. On everything from stems to frame bags, tents vs. bivvies, lights and sleeping mats. There wasn’t a night I didn’t have a message asking for my opinion on a 3 gram difference in stems etc. In hindsight, I would say this: If you’re going to be competitive, weight is very important. You would also need to train and practice way more than we did, and you would find out pretty quickly what works for you and what doesn’t. For our goal of 35 days, weight gave up a little ground to comfort. And even if we made the wrong decision on something, we could live with it. During the preparation phase, these decisions seemed so important, but looking back now, the weight difference between two sleeping mats or the battery life of our lights, had little impact at our pace. Overall, I do feel that we nailed most of our set up. If you have questions about specific gear or setup leave a question in the comments and I’ll let you know why we chose something or what did/didn’t work.
We chose to ride the route SOBO (southbound) which is the traditional way. It was great starting the race with around 200 other riders and a lot of spectators. The atmosphere was amazing. However, I think I would still be hard pressed to choose between SOBO or NOBO (northbound). There are a lot of benefits to riding NOBO, prevailing winds, getting the heat over and done with, more time for the snow to melt, meeting everyone going SOBO, finishing in Banff, etc. It would certainly be cool to see more NOBO starters.
As it was, we flew into Vancouver five days early, and meandered our way to Banff in a rental truck. The jet lag from Australia was brutal and this down time was mandatory in my opinion. I had lived in British Columbia for a couple of years, so we had plenty of people to visit on our way to Banff. We even stopped by my old workshop to assemble our bikes, very handy. However we didn’t get any real time on the bikes before the start, unlike a lot of people who choose to ride from Calgary. There are plenty of awesome mountain bike trails between Vancouver and Banff, we just chose not to ride and to get as much rest as possible before the main event.
The race starts on the second Friday of June every year and we arrived on Thursday morning. Rolling around Banff we could see plenty of other bike packing rigs, leaning against a pub or café or someone would be rolling down on the other side of the street. You’d just sort of eyeball each other as you rolled by. It was a weird, tense vibe. But once everyone was at the start line, it got much friendlier and the stoke was real.
The morning of the race I awoke early, with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I felt like I was on an old steam train that was slowly leaving the station. Building up momentum as it went, flinging me into the race and beyond. The anxious part of me felt that the momentum would build until it was out of control and derailed, but the excited part of me started getting cocky and raising our goal from 35 days to perhaps 28?
Every single day of this ride was hard. Even days when we were riding on asphalt, there would be 40 degree temps or a blasting headwind. If the trail trended downhill for 50km it turned out to be tire deep, washboard gravel. We’d be slugging through snow at 2500+m. It would rain all day for days on end, lightning would be striking all around us, we would climb 3000+m in a day. We’d scream along and clock up 50km in 2 hours only to be abruptly slowed by wheel clogging mud which decimated our pace to 3km/h.
Expectations were constantly thrown out the window and re-evaluated. One day we’d manage 100 miles, the next only 50. Sometimes our projected finish looked like 28 days, sometimes 38. The winds were never predictable. When we started meeting NOBO riders, they’d tell us they had been battling a headwind all morning so it should be a tail wind for us. But that rarely ever eventuated. Storms would come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.
We had to take every day is it came. Luckily we slept well, because every night I would go to bed wondering how I was going to do another 140km tomorrow and then somehow, I would wake up and get back on my bike and turn those pedals.
Perhaps our biggest hiccup along the route was when we lost a day and a half in Whitefish, because Dad developed a chest infection and fever. Luckily Mum had suggested he carry a course of antibiotics with him and we were able to push on after a rest. The closest I came to quitting was about 10 days in, in Butte, MT. It had rained on us for 4 days straight and almost all our gear was wet, even some stuff in the dry bags. We would get so hot and sweaty on the uphills and then almost hypothermic on the descents. After 4 days of this, I was so miserable, that as I stood in the candy isle of Safeway, a puddle forming around me, I thought, “This sucks! I really want to quit and go lie down in a motel across the street”. Somehow, we managed to keep going, though the next day we called it mid afternoon and checked in to the High Country Lodge for the night, where we washed, dried and warmed up.
We spent only 3 nights in motels or lodges. The rest of the time we bush camped or set up our tent in RV parks. I think I only had 5 showers in 35 days and one of them wasn’t even warm.
Our game plan each day was to push reasonably hard for 100km and then spend the rest of the daylight crawling out as many more Km’s as we could. We discovered it was best to hit towns in the middle of the day, to avoid wasting too much time or the temptation of not riding on and paying for an expensive motel room. Most days would be between 12 and 14 hours long, with up to 3 hours of stops at restaurants or gas stations, eating food, warming up, resupplying etc. With the long summer days, we only had to use our lights twice.
To match the bad times though, there were plenty of good times as well. The views were spectacular. There were some amazing sections of single track which were super fun on our bikes. Great long descents, a couple of really strong tail winds where we were getting pushed at 25km/h without even pedaling. And of course, the people we met along the way. This was probably one of the best parts, and one of the main reasons I would consider going NOBO. After we took a day and a half off in Whitefish, we fell behind the group of riders that we had been leapfrogging with for the previous 5 days. It felt a bit lonely at the back of the pack in no man’s land like that, but we eventually caught a few other riders, started meeting NOBO tourers and racers, and even just fans of the race.
In Salida we looked so miserable that a local invited us to pitch our tent in his yard, then his friends came over and they serenaded us with songs he’d written about bikepacking.
Some other highlights were; hearing Ben Weaver perform in Ovando. Early mornings in the basin, it’s really beautiful out there before the wind and heat picks up. Kirsten’s hospitality at the Brush Mountain Lodge, this is a must-do stop. Bob in Horca who gave us each an arm full protein bars from his home when he found us looking for the store, which wasn’t open. Descending down Ute Pass after a really long hard day. I could go on but hopefully some of the photos speak for themselves.
We followed the Tour Divide route to the letter. This year there was unfortunately a re-route around the Santa Fe National Forest due to fire closures, but aside from that we saw every part of the route. The race route is significantly tougher than the touring route, the GDMBR. Some days we’d catch up with some tourers and eventually ride off on them, only to find them already sitting in the bar at the end of the day. Fish Mountain and Koko Claims were particularly nasty alternatives from the GDMBR.
I had budgeted about $70 USD a day and managed to stay well under that most days. We paid for maybe 7 nights of accommodation the whole time, from campsites to lodge rooms. Some days we hit two restaurants some days none. I probably averaged one sit down meal a day and usually ordered two mains or at least one and a dessert. And then about $15 a day on bars, and nuts and other snacks.
Food was challenging for us. We got pretty sick of bars pretty quickly and some of the gas stations have pretty limited selections. Both of us have crazy fast metabolisms, so we have to eat a lot, and constantly. Frozen burritos were good for a bit, until they started giving me an upset stomach. Then I switched to cans of baked beans, chili or ravioli. I usually had some cheese sticks, various bars, some dried apricots, chocolate, jelly beans and some almonds on board. We never got in too much trouble with food, but there were some pretty miserable meals. Buying extra sandwiches at lunch, to carry for dinner at bush camp, worked well when we could. I really lived for when we would hit restaurants and get to catch up on calories, with a couple of servings of good home cooked food. There are some great Mum and Pop type places along the route.
At the start of the race I had preloaded an iPod with 8Gb of podcasts. I finished them all just after halfway. I think I might have listened to around 200 hours of podcasts to help keep me entertained and/or distracted on this journey.
We rolled into Antelope Wells after a 160km day, battling soft roads, headwinds, heat, tarantulas, rattle snakes and lightning storms.
Our finishing time was 34 days, 10 hours and 30 minutes. After such a hard day it was awesome to stop pedaling, but it didn’t really feel that different to any other day when I finally got to go to bed and stop spinning my pedals. I was super stoked but not that emotional. I’m really proud of our effort, stoked that we hit our goal so perfectly even with a few hiccups. Despite a few little things it all went pretty smoothly. I did get a flat on the last day which was pretty comical now looking back on it.
There is nothing in Antelope Wells aside from the border compound. Not being from the USA, we didn’t have anyone who could do us a favor and pick us up. Luckily, there is a local fan who runs a small business picking up and providing for riders and hikers on the CDT and GDMBR. Jeffery picked us up, we spent a night at his ranch and then he gave us some bike boxes and drove us to the Greyhound bus stop in Lordsburg the next morning. We had initially given ourselves around 43 days to do the trip and had vague plans to ride another 400 odd miles to Phoenix if we finished in time. Pretty soon after starting I knew that we probably wouldn’t want to do that. We ended up in Phoenix, AZ seven days before our scheduled flight back to Vancouver. We managed to bump our flights forward a few days but it wasn’t easy or cheap. In the end getting out from the finish of the race was expensive, and ended up using the rest of my budget that I thought I’d managed to save. If we did it again I would just buy flights once we got to an airport.
Before I started the route, I didn’t understand why people choose to do it again especially if they already have a successful finish. Now that it’s over, I understand. I can’t say I’m ready to give it another crack any time soon, but the seed of the thought is there, and I can see how it might grow and take hold in the coming months or years. It was also great to ride with my Dad. We had forced ourselves to stay together by sharing a single GPS and Spot tracker. We definitely annoyed each other at times, but other times like when I wanted to quit in Butte, it was super helpful to have someone else there to keep pushing me along. We kept each other company and helped each other through the tough times, a real bonding experience for sure.
Our once new bikes are pretty trashed. There is raw metal all around my head tube from the bags and cables rubbing. The 12 speed Eagle GX drive train along with my rear tire is ready for the bin. I ruined my Exped mattress. setting it up on a cactus one night. I literally wore the seat out of my riding shorts. My gloves are full of holes and my shoes are on their last legs (although they were already well used). A brand-new set of cleats have worn out. My sunnies got destroyed by grit and mud. Both of us lost weight that we didn’t have in the first place. But it was all 100% worth it. What an amazing ride!