The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is the longest off-pavement cycling route in the world, spanning 2,744 rugged miles of the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta to the New Mexico-Mexico border in Antelope Wells. GDMBR contains 200,000 feet of vertical climbing, through the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The route tops out at 11,910 feet, at Colorado’s Indiana Pass.
- UNSUPPORTED: The Tour Divide Race (TDR) provides no assistance with resupply, lodging, navigation or bicycle maintenance. TDR provides no racecourse checkpoints, race officials or prerace meeting.
- SELF-SUPPORTED: Racers may purchase commercial goods and/or services (including lodging) in towns. Prerace reservations are prohibited. Preplanned or emergency shipments to a commercial address are permitted. Racers may ride together but may not draft or share gear.
- SPECTATING: Planned visitation by friends or family is strictly prohibited. Locals may spectate. (TDR publicly publishes live GPS tracking of racers’ progress and time-delayed racer call-ins online.)
- COURSE DEVIATIONS: Racers must ride GDMBR and, where appropriate, pre-established course deviations or alternates. In the event of a mechanical failure, racers may hitchhike to a bike shop but must return to the original breakdown spot.
- PACE: Male and female racers must ride no less than 1.5x the respective male and female course record paces (or be relegated from “racing” to “touring” status).
- DISQUALIFICATION and RELEGATION: TDR reserves the right to disqualify or relegate any racer.
“The ancient people perceived the world and themselves within that world as part of an ancient continuous story composed of innumerable bundles of other stories.”
LESLIE MARMON SILKO, Interior and Exterior Landscapes
JUNE 22 (DAY 11)
“Endorheic”: from the ancient Greek “éndon” (“within”) and “rheîn” (“to flow”). An endorheic basin is a closed drainage basin. Water flows within, but not out.
~~~ The Great Divide Basin, Wyoming ~~~
“Slurrrrrp!” I suck the final droplets of steaming hot water from my hydration pack. I have tried, and failed, to conserve the little water I brought. I blow into the rubbery water nozzle, then suck the very last drop of water from my pack.
I am fifty-five miles deep into Wyoming’s endorheic Great Divide Basin, and I am out of water. I continue to pedal, slowly turning the dusty crank arms on my mountain bike.
By now, my thoughts have slowed down, and so the knowledge does not register. I stare vacantly at the lonely sagebrush dotting the desert landscape. I seem to see into everything, as the high desert stretches for miles in every direction of this gigantic, sun-baked bowl.
A beautiful wild horse parades in the distance, its mane whirling in the powerful wind. Descended from the Spanish Conquistadors’ horses, its ancestors have had half a millennium to adapt. I have had no such luck. In fact, my luck ran out the moment I forgot to refill my water in Atlantic City, the ghost town on the lip of this 3,600-square-mile basin.
The Basin keeps water from flowing west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic. “I have run out of water in a closed hydraulic system,” I croak, not recognizing my own scratchy voice. I can barely utter the words, because there is no water in my mouth. The roof of my mouth painfully scrapes my tongue. There is nowhere safe to sit my tongue.
I cry, but there are no tears. There is no water, period. I removed my contact lenses hours ago, fitting glasses to my face. My eyes are waterless, drawn to every miniature muddy puddle, as though they could themselves drink the scant moisture from the land.
Dave offered me water. Brett offered me water. And I refused. To accept water would be to violate THE RULES. Tour Divide is a self-supported race; racers MUST NOT SHARE PROVISIONS.
Dave scolded me for my pride, my stubbornness, my adherence to senseless rules. To cruel rules. The kind of rules that can kill a woman. For the first time, my spirit revolts against the spirit of the race: why is this race self-supported, anyway? It is inhuman, inhumane. Is it not a greater triumph to help fellows in need, and to be helped when in need? I do not think these thoughts so much as feel them, in every shriveling cell of my drying body.
I have fifty more miles to ride, alone against the wind.
JUNE 12 (DAY 1)
The wise take joy in rivers, while the Good take joy in mountains.
The wise are active, while the Good are still.
The wise are joyful, while the Good are long-lived.
CONFUCIUS, Analects 6.23
~~~ Banff, Alberta ~~~
Joy shakes me awake. I start, then blink. “It is time, honey,” my bunkmate coos in her Australian accent. Only young women and old women stay in hostels. The old ones are always spirited, like Joy. Joy’s son, John, is about to race his mountain bike from Banff to Mexico, across the Great Divide – a mountainous continental divide slicing vertically across the Americas, separating water running to the Pacific from water running to the Atlantic, Arctic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Joy followed John here, his fierce devotee. “I’ll follow you,” Joy whispers in my ear, her blue eyes sparkling ruefully. As she folds herself back into the lower bunk, I feel a flash a familiarity, as I always do in those moments that determine my life this way or that.
This is one of those days.
Today I undertake the Divide.
Last night I let the last pieces go – my civilian clothing and my laptop. I am used to loss. I am used to leaving. But I have never endeavored to so totally leave the world behind.
I collect my only remaining possessions, mentally categorizing them by function: clothing, sleep system, navigation, personal maintenance and bike maintenance. I tuck each lightweight item into one of three large bike bags – a frame bag, a seat bag and a handlebar bag. I pull on my new clothes: spandex bib shorts, zip-up jersey and a cotton cycling cap. I slip on my carbon cycling shoes and neoprene shoe covers. Finally, I hoist my ancient hydration pack onto my back. I bought it nine years ago, when mountain biking was not yet a part of me.
Twenty pounds now evenly distributed between my bike and my body, I hook my shoes into my pedals and roll downtown, searching for breakfast in the cold glow of Banff’s beautiful sunrise.
Downtown Banff is empty. I pedal slowly, cultivating my calm while sipping in the thinner air. Sulphur Mountain dwarfs rows of unpeopled retail chains, which sit at 4,500 feet. I scan the streets for racer/writer extraordinaire, Jill Homer, who is racing Tour Divide a second time, after setting a women’s course record six years ago. Her book – “Be Brave, Be Strong: A Journey Across the Great Divide” – enlivened me to the possibility that I could complete the world’s longest mountain bike race. Only a handful of women have.
I stop at a bakery. I am the first customer, but other racers soon stream in. I gobble and guzzle my fare – a chewy blueberry muffin and steaming dark coffee. Other racers order quiche Loraine and turkey sandwiches. I do not eat animals, not since childhood.
“Are you in the race?” a tall, thirtyish athletic woman asks me in an Australian accent. “Yes,” I squeak, looking up, “you?” “Yeah,” she answers, looking down, “we’ve done a lot of bikepacking races. How about you?” She pats her partner’s sculpted forearm. Before I can answer, the gangly man smiles warmly, extending a gloved hand. “I’m Seb, and this is my wife, Beth.” I return the handshake, incredulous, “are you two riding together?” “No!” Beth replies, a little too quickly, “we would drive each other mad, and besides, I like to ride at my own pace.” Her eyes narrow at Seb. Seb looks away, at my bike, “I love your setup – real nice! You seem to know what you’re doing.” I grin, “I’m glad I got you fooled.” We break into nervous laughter.
I examine my twenty-pound bike – an elegant carbon frame, large (29”) diameter wheels, durable tubeless tires and a front suspension fork. Aero bars extend out over the front wheel, running perpendicular to flat handlebars. Large rotors fan out from the wheel hubs, part of a powerful hydraulic braking system. The rigid rear and big wheels will enable me to hold momentum up the many forest service and gravel roads of the Divide. The thick, tubeless tires will prevent tire punctures and absorb the shock of long and rugged mountain descents.
This machine is engineered to ride the Divide, and ride it fast.
“I should have gone with a rigid fork,” I mutter, “lighter.” “We’re rigid,” Beth smiles, “it’s also lower maintenance.” As they get up to go, I note their matching cycling kits. It will not be easy for them to lose each other.
In truth, I do not know what I am doing. I have never ridden more than four hundred consecutive miles in my life. I remind myself that I do have mountain bike racing experience. I spent the better part of my twenties discovering and discarding every USA Cycling race format – cross-country, downhill, Super D and endurance. I joined the Pro ranks for a season. I became a state champion and placed well at a few national races. I consulted coaches. I was poised to professionalize, and then a different mountain presented itself.
I was once an athlete, my body an object for sports science and technology. Progress was a quantitative affair: heart rate and power graphs, body fat measurements, digits on a scale, grams of protein consumed, VO2 max, and – most importantly – minutes and milliseconds from start to finish. Equations predicted my output with frightening precision.
Now is different from then. I do not want to know what is to come. I have programmed the Tour Divide course into three GPS units – my way of preparing for my own unpreparedness. I will not know the Great Divide until it knows me. “Elpis,” the Greek word carved into the back of my compass, can mean “expectation” or “hope.”
My yearlong training for Tour Divide was a training of the spirit. I rode my bike on icy farm roads in single-digit temperatures. I raced on gravel roads across three Mid-western states, foregoing sleep. I mountain biked the high elevation Colorado Trail in stormy July, alone. Hypothermia, sleep deprivation, altitude sickness, raging storms and stabbing loneliness taught me a numberless thing: to endure, and to glimpse the beauty beyond the suffering.
These are things to myself, to remember through everything. I stuff baked goods into the drawstring feedbag fastened in the free corner between my stem and right handlebar. It is time.
~~~ Start Line, Grand Depart ~~~
We congregate in the parking lot behind the baronial Banff Springs Hotel, an old grand railway hotel. Its castle-like facade faces Mount Rundle, which juts into the purplish blue haze above. Canadian, Australian and European accents clutter the cold air. We barter in backstories, but our minds are already someplace on the Divide.
A friendly bike rep from Minnesota hands me a Salsa Cycles top tube cap, “it’s good for a free slice of pie in Pie Town.” I must look confused, because he adds, “You know, the little town with pies in the middle of New Mexico, when you’re almost done!” I clasp the red top cap, finally feeling the weight of it all. I wonder whether Pie Town is even real. I tuck the strange coin into my feedbag and line up for the group photo. I pose like a girl in a sea of soldiers – body small and soft, auburn hair braided into long pigtails, freckles dusting delicate features, almond eyes set in a round face and a smile like an orange slice.
As if on cue, Crazy Larry cries, “You are all my personal heroes!” We turn to face the wiry man with the wild eyes and wide mouth. Nobody knows what Crazy Larry does, except that he is here, year after year, playing the unofficial parts of this unsanctioned race – announcer, cheerleader, reporter, organizer, fan and heckler. “Tour Divide will test you more than anything! You will be changed!” It is hard to see his long face behind his tousled hair.
Racer Billy Rice interjects, “Okay, listen up!” His sixteen-year-old daughter, Racer Lina Rice, stands beside him, holding their “Team Rice Burner” tandem bike. “Two-week finishers line up first, then three-week finishers, then four-week finishers.” Billy pauses. “If it’s gonna take you longer than that, well, maybe someone should have told you this here is a goddamn RACE!”
I line up at the back, where I fidget with my pocket-sized GPS tracking device. We all have one, positioned to face outer space, unobstructed. The orange tracker communicates with satellites to establish our GPS coordinates, transmitting our respective locations to Internet tracking software, which then relays our exact locations to a public website. To human observers, we will appear as little pink (woman) or blue (man) dots on a digital map.
Crazy Larry counts down from ten, and then we are off, anxiously packed together on Spray River Trail, a decommissioned roadbed. Giant spruce and pine trees rise up all around us. A few spectators ring cowbells. I spot Team Rice Burner up ahead, tackling a steep hill on their tandem. Father and daughter stand up in unison, dancing on their pedals.
I ride briskly, watching Kananaskis Country (“K-Country”) unfold before me, a panoramic view of national and provincial parks. The next town (Elkford) is 110 miles south. Behind me, a skinny, youngish man relates to two other men, “I grew out my beard, and now my girlfriend won’t kiss me.” I glance over my shoulder, “I like your beard.” They ignore me.
It is not until I am riding across Canyon Dam that I realize I am alone. The dam stops Spray River, generating the Spray Lakes Reservoir, its water artificially pooled and stopped. I pedal harder. My leg muscles contract, pushing my feet into my shoes. My shoes flex around my cleats and into my pedals. My cranks turn in their bearings, chain ring teeth sliding into the chain. My chain tensions and bites into my cassette. My tires grip the dirt, propelling me forward.
This machine is my own.
~~~ Boulton Trading Post, mile 60 ~~~
The sun is shining when I arrive at Boulton Creek Trading Post. A dozen racers eat at picnic tables on a raised stage. Nobody can tell me where the restroom is. Embarrassed, I park my bike next to a cyclocross bike and pee in the bushes. I stare curiously at the cyclocross bike, which is basically a road bike with thicker tires. ‘It cannot possibly be in the race,’ I think.
The general store is small but well stocked. As the young Cashier rings me up, I lean on a shelf, which promptly caves beneath me. I sway on my feet, as candy and shelving clatter to the concrete floor. “I’ll clean it up!” The Cashier orders more than offers. I look tired. I am tired. I am frenzied.
Outside I find a spot in direct sunlight, next to a boyish Texan, who does the talking for all of us. I swallow a cheese sandwich, chasing it with big swigs of coke. Next, I plunge an ice cream bar into my hot coffee. “That is an interesting snack!” the Texan beams. The fatty, sugary gook melts in my mouth, liquid calories, quick energy.
At the adjacent picnic table, Crazy Larry interviews a female racer. I recognize her immediately. I saw her last night, while waiting in line at the Banff Post Office. She was shipping her belongings back to Bend, Oregon. I could not guess her age – maybe thirty-five, maybe forty-five. She has a startling presence – an uncommon intensity and poise about her.
“So Alice,” Larry moves the microphone to her chapped lips, “will you set another blazing single-speed course record?” Alice looks at me, “not if I keep riding with this lot,” she smiles confidently. “I should just let them burn themselves out. I learned that lesson last year. I started too fast.” She is irritated and tired. I can tell, because I am, too. I get up to go.
However, my GPS unit has other plans, sending me circling Boulton Creek Campground. Before I can right my course, the Texan and his crew ascend Elk Pass ahead of me.
~~~ Elk Pass, mile 65 ~~~
The clouds roll in. Hail stings the bare back of my neck, as I and another Minnesotan climb Elk Pass Trail to Elk Pass, the first crossing of the Continental Divide, at 6,443 feet. My fingers tingle, and then go numb. The Minnesotan reminds us we had it worse last winter, “I biked late every night right through the snowstorms, because it’s the only time I could get away from my family.” He trails off. Is he feeling the warmth of his family or the cold of those Minnesota nights? It is hard to tell. Once the snow starts, I lose the Minnesotan.
I crest Elk Pass and take Elk River Road – a series of rollercoaster hills trending downhill. As I descend the first hill, I barely notice the cold ripping through my clothes, because my attention is trained on the group of racers huddled at the bottom. As I approach, I am forced to skirt my bike around a cracked helmet and the cyclocross bike, now mangled. Through the throng of racers I can just make out the still body of a man.
Now stopped, my body grows even colder. My fingers no longer work. Reluctantly, I woozily pedal away, using the palm of my hand to shift gears and pull the brake levers. There is nothing I can do that these racers cannot do. And yet – I feel a sharp pang of guilt.
Eager to get warm, I ride fast, passing single-speed Alice, who – stuck in one gear – furiously spins her legs on the flat terrain. I notice Beth on the side of the road, fiddling with her complicated belt drivetrain. “I’m fine!” she shouts, “mud in the belt-drive!” Simplicity has a cost. So does complexity.
The garrulous Texan catches me as I ride along Elk River through Elk Valley, between high, heavily wooded mountains. “I was riding right behind the guy,” he gushes, “his wheel washed out, and he went down, and I almost went down with him.” I shake my head, “The weight savings isn’t worth it; a cross bike may be light, but it isn’t sturdy enough.” The Texan nods solemnly, “I’m not sure he’s going to make it. One of the doc’s said his face is broken. We got him woken up and wrapped in layers. We punched the Search and Rescue button on his tracker, but God, it’ll take ‘em forever to get all the way out here …” His words dissipate into the vast valley. Dead silence.
As we ride, the Texan tries to tell me why he is here. A broken heart and an unfulfilling job propelled him to put his possessions into storage and ride away, just like that. He rode from Texas to Banff, much like the female frontrunner, Lael Wilcox, who rode from Anchorage to Banff. While most racers do not ride 2,000 miles to “warm up” for Tour Divide, most follow a deep impulse to the Divide – an impulse we do not really understand.
I watch Tech’s coal mining trucks crawl over the mountains, like giant mechanical ants.
Two hours pass. Finally, SAR sirens disrupt the still silence. An ambulance flies up the road, then another, and another. “You go ahead,” the Texan insists, “my knee is hurting, and I can’t afford to repeat last time.” The Texan raced Tour Divide two years ago but quit (aka “scratched”) in southern Colorado, forfeiting his leading position. He lost the spirit. “It’s lonely up front,” I remind him, pulling ahead, unaware that I am in second place.
~~~ Elkford, mile 110 ~~~
The first thing I see upon entering Elkford is an inn attached to a Chinese restaurant. Relieved, I roll up to the establishment, soaked and freezing. My mud-caked bike sprays goop with every pedal stroke. I attempt to yank my right foot out of my pedal, but the mud has fused my cleat to my pedal. I crash onto the hood of a parked car, setting off the car alarm.
The innkeepers, an elderly Chinese couple, rush out, eager to unstick me. They unclasp my right shoe buckles, freeing my foot. Uttering something in Chinese, they gesture toward a spigot, hose, bucket and sponge. My right shoe still attached to my bike, I wheel my bike to the makeshift “bicycle cleaning station.” They are ready for us, bicyclists, not miners.
It is 3 pm, and I am the only racer at the inn. Most racers will ride well into the night, but I do not want to risk hypothermia or drivetrain failure. Soon, racers are pulling up to the wash station, clamoring to clear the mud from their bikes, especially their drivetrains. Most continue on to Sparwood, another thirty miles. Many continue out of dogged adherence to a preconceived plan or from peer pressure, real or imagined.
I buy the first room at the inn, where I immediately take a hot shower and slip into clean, warm clothing – cycling tights and a base layer. I toss my muddy clothing into the basement washing machine. When I return to the “bicycle cleaning station” to retrieve my drying bike, I find Alice cleaning her bike. She looks over at my bike, “Nice job on your bike.” Her eyes seem to add, ‘maybe you do know a thing or two.’ “Want to split my room with me?” I offer. “Very tempting, but I think I’m going on to Sparwood.” She pauses, “But I’m gonna chill here for a while, get warm. Wanna grab some Chinese food?” I nod “yes”. I am starving.
Before going to the restaurant, we head to the basement to drop our bikes off and to dry Alice’s clothes. The long basement corridor is now crowded with dripping bikes. As Alice drops her clothes into the drier, a blonde, female racer bursts into the laundry room, followed by the Chinese innkeepers. “Right here! Sleep!” the young woman points to the concrete floor, crying out words in broken Euro-English. “Pay for room?” the Chinese woman queries. “No money,” the woman whimpers, throwing her hands up in the air, “freezing,” she points at the egress window, directing their attention to the sleet outside. The Chinese man firmly shakes his head, “not allowed.” Alice and I slide out.
Once at the restaurant, Alice orders Chow mein and a Caesar salad at the restaurant bar, without even looking at the menu. I copy her order. Everything Alice does is automatic, like she has done it all before. The restaurant is empty, except for an attractive young local sitting a few barstools away. He smiles at us, and Alice smiles back. “You’re lucky you didn’t break your pretty face,” he shouts at me, laughing. The Bartender, a woman in her fifties, chuckles, “Don’t worry, sweeties, that biker made it out okay. Pretty broken up, but he’s gonna live.” For a moment, I see myself as the locals likely see me – a crazy lady risking her life for escapist adventures. But right now, the Divide feels more real than “real life”.
Two plates of fresh Caesar salad and two plates of steaming Chow mein arrive. I wash the mounds of food down with a large domestic beer. Alice drinks water. “This is way too much food!” she complains, “we should have shared.” Belly bursting, I stare at my almost-empty plates. I am winding down, and she is winding up, marshaling the motivation to ride another thirty freezing, muddy miles. “How do you think you’ll do with the mud?” I ask. “I have no gears for a reason … less shit to break. Lady, I don’t do bike maintenance!” Alice promptly packs up her leftovers, slaps some bills on the table and skips out.
As I head back to my room, I encounter my Minnesota friend Dr. Mark in the lobby. He and his youngish sidekick – a tall engineer named Dan – have just purchased the last room. “How did you guys get so far behind,” I unthinkingly blurt out. An experienced ultra endurance athlete, Dr. Mark is small and lean, with a kind and open face, large spectacles and laughing, sky blue eyes. He has a full head of thick, salt-and-pepper hair. “I stayed with the guy who crashed. Not much I could do, other than stabilize him,” Dr. Mark sighs, “we need to make up mileage tomorrow. If you want to start with us, we’re leaving at 5 am.” Feeling recovered, I agree to join them. Tomorrow we will enter the Flathead National Forest, extremely remote grizzly country. I would rather not ride alone.
By now, the racers have completely overtaken the inn. The disoriented innkeepers attempt to minimize the damage, as hoards of dirty bikers schlep dripping bikes and greasy gear to and fro. Even the hallway to my room is clogged with bikers, sleeping four and five to a room.
I am about to enter my room, when I notice the blonde racer, setting up her bivy bag outside my neighbor’s room. “What’s your name,” I ask. She answers with a serious sounding name I cannot pronounce or recall. “Peggy,” she tries again, offering me a simpler nickname. I learn that “Peggy” is twenty-two, a Czech attempting Tour Divide on a paper-thin budget. “I have two beds, and you are taking one – END OF STORY!” I insist. “Ok,” she relents, “but I bivy.” Peggy sets up her bivy bag on the floor, taking advantage of a little known exception to Tour Divide race rules: a racer may accept offers of “shelter” – albeit not a “bed” – from strangers. Within ten minutes Peggy is out cold, having set her alarm for 3:30 am. I swallow a sleeping pill, since I have difficulty sleeping after riding all day. The medicine delivers dreams.
I dream that I am biking on a beautiful bike. Suddenly, I hear popping, ringing and rattling. The chain splinters, chainring bolts fly off, a crank arm loosens and the headset is stuck. Unable to pedal or turn, I stop to repair each part. But as soon as I start riding again, my parts break again – first the brake pads, then a pedal, next my rear derailleur. Finally, I realize that this machine cannibalizes its own parts.