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- Aidan Harding crosses the Great Divide Basin—144 miles of sun-baked, barren hell that offers no mercy or resupplies. Aidan Harding crosses the Great Divide Basin—144 miles of sun-baked, barren hell that offers no mercy or resupplies.
by Jon Billman | photographs by Eddie Clark
Tour Divide—officially known as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race—is an underground-over-ground, point-to-point ultra endurance fest with nary more than a website as the organizing cement. No entry fee. No prize money. No legal waivers to sign. Start in Canada. Ride until you drop. Roll up cold, wet, and dirty in your sleeping bag. Repeat until you reach Mexico. Viewers online follow the race via GPS trackers. There's just the One Big Rule. No prearranged support. The route trucks for 2,745 self-supported miles through seven states and provinces and sends riders up over 200,000 feet of climbing. It's the longest, mapped, off-pavement, cycling route in the world. For the 48 racers who enter it's the most all-consuming race in existence. I am one of those racers.
Northern Terminus, Banff, Alberta, Canada to Roosville, Montana 215 Miles
Two days south of Banff, the Connector Trail is a mile long—one mile in a 2,700-mile race. But Tour Divide racers call the section The Wall. It's a conduit through which some of the wildest country in Canada flows into some of the wildest country left in the lower 48. Riders walk, scoot, and pull as they bushwhack. Hey bear! SPD cleat marks among the grizzly tracks. The jangle of bells. Hey bear!
The trail is a slick mess; an otter slide chinked with snow through the bush; blazed and mapped by a local hunting guide. Nobody trenched in any water bars. A few more seasons like this and it will wash away. But for now the Connector makes Tour Divide possible.
Heavy clouds spit rain into the bear grass. A century and a half ago this was bison country. Now the buffalo hooves have been replaced by the knobby tracks of 29er NanoRaptors and Pythons. Grizzly bears are not to be feared in general, but running into one at 14 miles an hour is a bad idea. So too is getting between a sow and her cubs. You're not cooking bacon in your tent. Hell, you're not even hauling a tent, let alone a stove. Some of the racers pack an illegal-looking gizmo that resembles a cross between a bottle rocket and a Saturday night special called a Bear Banger.
Attrition starts early and not all 48 through-riders make it out of Canada. Chauncy Matthews blows a turn and rides himself hours deep into the bush. He and Jeff Kerby call it quits at the border. Nineteen-year-old British rider Heather Dawe was on a record single-speed pace early. Our gears are matched (32x18) and I ride with her for 20 minutes before she gaps me on her rigid pink bike. A day later Dawe succumbs to the elements and pulls out. Robert Moczynski of Manitowoc, Wisconsin crashes on the loose descent from Galton Pass and breaks a collarbone just 11 miles from the States.
Matthew Lee, the 39-year-old Tour Divide full-course record holder, rides 195 miles on the first day—all the way out of the Flathead Valley. He makes the public cabin below Cabin Pass at 1:15 a.m. Erik Lobeck catches up to him the next day. "But it was strange," Lee says. "He wasn't even that glad to see me. When you're chasing ghosts it drives you crazy."
Roosville, Montana to Polaris, Montana, 531.3 miles
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route wasn't mapped until the 1990s, by Mac McCoy, author of Cycling the Great Divide:?From Canada to Mexico on America's Premier Long-Distance Mountain Bike Route. In 1999, using the maps produced by McCoy and the Adventure Cycling?Association, Mountain Bike Hall of Famer John Stamstad time-trialed the route, starting at the border station in Roosville, Montana. He made it to Antelope Wells, New Mexico 18 days, five hours, and 37 seconds later. The first actual Great Divide Mountain Bike Race (GDMBR) took place in 2004, when Coloradan Mike Curiak and Alaskan Pete Basinger battled for the win after a month of riding. There were seven entrants and four finishers. By the next year, Divide racing was attracting fans on the Web.
The somewhat controversial Canadian section was added as a prologue to the GDMBR in 2006—a 250-mile prologue. At first, the Canadian route stuck largely to pavement, but Adventure Cycling cartographers quickly drew racers into the bush.
My hands and toes are numb when I reach the border station, which is lit up like an alien craft. Whatever you do, don't tell the U.S. Customs agent that you're packing a Bear Banger or an illegal apple. The First and Last Chance Bar is still open, so there's fried food and Clamato red beers. I'll bivy in the parking lot, then start the climb for the Whitefish Divide and Red Meadow Pass, where there's still five miles of deep snow above 5,000 feet. The cuts on my ankles leave blood in the snow. Alaskan Grant Crosby strips naked and dives into a hole in the ice of Red Meadow Lake.
The dirt is buffed, soft, sweeping, and fast. The corners are banked. I find flow for the first time since leaving Banff. But I'm out of water. Rider's left, a green metal roof pokes through the canopy. The property is gated. I ring my commuter bell and decide to open the gate and help myself to the outdoor spigot when a woman comes. In Montana, you assume everyone is packing. She's smiling, but she looks like the lightweight Glock type. "For Heaven's sake," she says, "please come in. I was in the sanctuary and thought I heard wind chimes." I remember her only as Sister Lemonade, a nun. She introduces me to Brother Tim. They've never heard of the race, never seen other riders, never saved anyone from dehydration before. She serves rhubarb cake and refills of homemade lemonade, tart with agave sweetener. She and Brother Tim lead me into a small sanctuary filled with stained mountain sunlight. We kneel and Brother Tim says a prayer.
"Did you stop at the hermitage?" I ask Minneapolis racer Brad Perry over expensive soup at a lodge that night. We'd just had a close call with a skunk at speed. "What the hell are you talking about?" he says.
A few nights later the light rain turns heavy and we stand in a dripping tractor shed above Lincoln and the rain melts our cookies before we can eat them. On a bike, good rain gear keeps a deluge out for about 45 minutes, then holds it in for the rest of the day.
The next morning it snows big frosted flakes. Butte, Montana is home to the late Evel Knievel and Levi Leipheimer. Levi's brother Rob runs The Outdoorsman, one of the best bike shops in the Northern Rockies. He's paid his crew to work all night and sip PBRs to wrench our machines—for free. Rob Leipheimer tells a racer, "I've been to five Tour de Frances, and what you guys are doing is way harder."
South Pass City, Wyoming to Silverthorne, Colorado, 405.1 miles
June 23. Divide veteran Cricket Butler, Stephen "The Cincinnati Kid" Huddle, Dave Tremblay, and I form a loose gang toward the back of the pack. I'm not connected to my wife Hilary with a cell phone, in part because I'm trying to follow antiquated Tour Divide racing rules. The barmaid in Atlantic City, Wyoming, at the north edge of the Great Divide Basin, lets me use the bar phone. Hilary tells me that Vermont rider, Dave Blumenthal, who is two days ahead of us, was in a bike-auto accident in northern Colorado and was life-flighted to Denver with head trauma. That's all she knows. I inform the group, then learn that Tremblay is Blumenthal's training partner back in Vermont. The table goes silent.
"Are you two buddies?" Cricket asks Tremblay.
"No," he says. "I've only known him a year."
We flow into the high sagebrush desert of the Basin. The evening is pleasantly cool and a tailwind carries us to camp at Diagnus Well, an artesian oasis in the desert that pumps the best water I've ever tasted through a rusty pipe. The water there is so delicious, I know, because of its sheer existence. Antelope congregate here, as do feral horses, cattle, sheep, and their seldom cowboys and herders.
You can see the dust wake of Halliburton rig trucks servicing gas wells 15 miles away. The brown dust reminds me of the hole in the Gulf of Mexico spewing brown oil and I wonder if they've plugged it yet. I'm alone again and stand against the headwind.
I make Rawlins at dusk and meet Tremblay, Cricket, and the Kid at the 24-hour diner. The table is choc-a-bloc pancakes and coffee and milkshakes when Tremblay gets news from his wife on a borrowed cell phone. "Dead," he mouths. Blumenthal was 37. He left behind a wife and a four-year-old daughter. It wasn't the pickup driver's fault.
Tremblay wants to quit, but something in the routine of re-supply and laundry keeps you moving forward. And then there's this web posting from Blumenthal's wife:
Keep riding. We need someone to cheer for. Think of all those rides you and Dave did together. Don't make them for nothing. Be safe. Lexi
Wyoming tries to keep us—the headwinds under the Atlantic Rim are fierce for 50 miles. Crossing into Colorado, I want to camp where Blumenthal had slept the night before the accident. But I miss the Hahn's Peak Basin turn in the dark, shoot down a hill, and have to climb two miles back out. I unroll my bivy sack and get a little fitful sleep. In the morning I climb up a mile and a half to the watershed divide, which still holds snow. Mosquitoes are breeding in the melting edges.
The descent is steep and chicken-and-babyhead-bad for six miles, then it turns into a sweeping groomed snake with bermed turns. I'm doing an easy 35 mph through the corners. The gravel is disturbed at the accident site. My thoughts are with Blumenthal, certainly, but also with Tremblay, just a couple hours behind me.
"I am not sure why I denied being Dave B.'s friend when asked at that table by Cricket," Tremblay says. "It wasn't right. Dave was different. Not a drop of poser in him. I never quite figured him out. Maybe I was thinking of Dave's other, closer friends, and felt I hadn't attained that ranking. Later, I saw in his blog that he met me 'and we hit it off right away.' I had hoped that was the case but never really knew."
Silverthorne, Colorado to Platoro, Colorado, 315 miles
"Dude, you need to get some pancakes," says a kid named Chris, the chief wrench at Carver's bike and ski shop in Breckenridge after I try to convince him that my front tire is flat. It isn't. "See," he says, bouncing the wheel against the floor. "Full of air." Maybe this is what it feels like to be old and senile—aches and illusions.
By Hartsel, an electrical storm blows in from the west. Next to automobiles, lightning is probably the biggest danger on the GDMBR. I ride on solo. A tourist in tall socks warns me against riding my bicycle given the weather. But the tailwind is ridiculous so I ride on. Five miles out a guy stands on the porch of a brand new cabin and yells, "Are you crazy! It's storming! Get in here!" I wave and ride on at 22 mph. Another five miles down the trail, I realize it was Tremblay yelling at me from the porch.
Rocks turn green and more egg-shaped. The lightning has gotten bigger and louder. I find an old shack at just under 10,000 feet. Lightning crackles and pops and chases me onto the porch. The door is open. A Playboy magazine with Tina Fey on the cover. Can of Raid. Pace salsa. Rat shit on the couch. Rat shit on the table. Which Code of the West will the cabin owner follow—shelter to weary travelers, or shoot trespassers on sight?
Platoro, Colorado to Pie Town, New Mexico, 431 miles
On a map, New Mexico looks flatter than Colorado, but on a bike it doesn't feel it. The riding is hard, which helps to keep your mind off other things, but the veil is thinner here. I saw a Navajo ghost on this section in 2007. In the dawn light, Tremblay is convinced he sees the mythical desert beast Chupacabra—a coyote with the face of a child. Or is it a child with the face of a coyote? I forget. Unquestionable are the reservation dogs—with pit bull blood—that charge us.
More than a week ahead of us, race leader Matthew Lee fights a tough headwind into Grants, then hits the McDonald's at 9:30 p.m. He parks his bike against a window and sits in the booth so he can keep an eye on it. Just as he finishes his milkshake, a bandit in a blue bandana grabs the bike and rides off.
"On the way to the police station, I remember my SPOT tracker is in the handlebar bag. Renewed hope!" The police smell a catch. The signal comes through: The bike is a half-mile from McDonald's!
A couple had followed the guy from the burger shop. He cut into a neighborhood, crashed, then got up and ran. The whole ordeal, burger to bike recovery, only cost Lee an hour. He's ridden the GDMBR seven times and is the current record holder (17 days, 21 hours). He'll win the 2010 race faster, but a wildfire near Abiquiu shut down a section of the route, so his new record of 17 days and 16 hours comes with an asterisk.
Ode and Coda
Pie Town, New Mexico to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, Southern Terminus of the GDMBR 303.1 miles
The map reads: "Due to illegal alien activity and drug trafficking it is advised that this alternate only be ridden during the day. You may or may not see the Border Patrol, the 'Minutemen,' Mexican coyotes, and other tourists."
French racer Nicolas Senie's makes the border early in the morning, then catches a ride north with a couple Mexicans in a pickup truck. They say they're headed to Phoenix. "Get out," they tell Senie once they hit I-10. "We're not going to Phoenix."
At the border, we have beer and sandwiches, but everyone is thinking of Blumenthal and his family back in Vermont. I've sworn again that this is the last time I'll tempt the Divide, but I know it isn't true—the Divide gets into your core. I wasn't prepared to become obsessed, but it happened. What surprised me most is that I became obsessed not with a race, but with a place, the formation, the Divide, what the Nez Perce called The Center of the World.
Somewhere up there atop the backbone of North America they'll install the titanium 29er ghost bike that Steamboat's Moots Cycles is building in memory of Dave Blumenthal. It's a fitting homage. As is taking another lap down The Center of the World.
From the Spring 2011 issue