Banff, Alberta, Canada. June 8.
My goals were this:
⁃ Have fun
⁃ 15 days
In that order.
Milling around at the YWCA, the start line for the Tour Divide. “Crazy Larry” (as per his own insistence) is wrangling everyone for a group photo before we roll out. The air is a buzz of nervous energy. I can feel it oozing out of myself too. The stress, the pressure I’ve put on my self, 2 years of preparation, 6 months of devoted training. This is it. I can’t help but cry. It certainly won’t be the only time I cry over the next two weeks.
Finally we grab our bikes and roll over to line up. Final hugs and well-wishes exchanged with the rest of the Australian crew; Gareth, Ben, Seb, Dane and John. I’m lined up next to Bailey Newbrey. We introduce ourselves and shake hands. Little do I know at the time that this will be the man that will hunt me down across a continent over the coming weeks, however this will also be the last time I see him.
It’s 8am. Larry starts riding and the mass of 160 riders falls in behind him for the neutral rollout to the trailhead. I make sure I’m first on his wheel. I’m nervous about getting caught up around too many other riders. I want to be one of the first onto the Goat Creek Trail so I can hit it hard and drive the pace early. I’m not trying to send any messages or make anyone hurt, I just want to string out the riders around me a bit to ensure I have some space to ride and relax.
Rolling up the Flathead was one of the most awesome experiences of the race. Buzzing on the excitement of getting under way and chatting with the other racers in the shadow of some of the most beautiful, shark-toothed, snow-capped mountains I’ll maybe ever see. A massive grin on my face, all the stress melting away. This is the only place I wanted to be.
I hit the bottom of Koko Claims with both Seb Dunne and Richard Dunnett. Ty Hopkins was also stopped having a quick break before we all launched our attack on the brutal climb. The trail, if you can call it that, is a steep passage more resembling a boulder-strewn river bed than a road for most of the climb. It’s tough work pushing your bike up, but we all knew it was coming and I actually quite enjoyed it, taking in the scenic views and embracing the hard work. I’d already coined a mantra for myself for the race and it was apt here: “relentless forward progress”. I could see some of the other riders around me were having a harder time than I was and that only made it more enjoyable for me. Not in the sense that I took pleasure in their suffering, but that it was a reaffirmation of what a positive mental attitude could do for me. I put my head down and powered off up the hill after the Kiwi Jacob Roberts.
Day 2 started at 2:30 am, rolling out of town to chase down Seb, Seth and Bailey who’d all pushed through town or gotten an earlier start. I passed a Bailey-shaped lump in a bivy on the side of the road in the darkness.
A few more tough climbs, including Galton Pass which really hurt, and we are out of Canada. A small group of us crossed the border together. I was the first out of Eureka and it was the last time I’d see Seb.
After being treated to great weather (albeit headwinds) for the opening stages of the race, Montana turned up the cold and rain. The rain started as I threw out my bivy under the awning of an antiques store in Columbia Falls and was still falling the next morning. I only made it 40km before soaked, shivering and dangerously cold I was forced to pull into the Echo Lake Cafe in Swan River for a second breakfast and coffee to bring my core temperature to a safe level before continuing. Jacob rolled in shortly after I arrived and we would spend much of the day riding together as the rain continued to fall. We parted ways in the afternoon at Holland Lake Lodge; Jacob needing to take a break while I was apprehensive to get started on tackling Richmond Peak.
The climb was steep but the real fun started on the singletrack push over the ridge. The trail was buried in over a foot of off-camber snow. Heavy flurries started to fall while I was up there and I marched on, following in Richard’s footsteps while trying not to slip down the slope and fall into the open space below. The going was tough and slow but a wry grin was spread across my face. This was everything I could have hope for and more, trudging my way along in second place of the Tour Divide and within about an hour of the lead.
The morning of the fourth day, rolling out of Basin, MT after a short sleep on the floor of the small town post office – shared with Richard Dunnett – we rolled out of town together. He faded away in the distance behind me, slowed down – unbeknownst to me – by injuries sustained in a crash coming off Lava Mountain the night before. After spending the first 3 days leapfrogging around the top 5, this was the moment I really took the lead. I wouldn’t see another racer again for the rest of the race and would only relinquish the lead once, for a few hours in the middle of the night in Idaho when Bailey passed me as I slept. I returned the favour in the morning.
The days began to blur together. They all start the same: poking my head outside my bivy, balking at the frigid air outside, withdrawing my head all the way back inside, pulling my sleeping bag over my face while I fumble around opening a Clif bar and shoving it in my mouth and savouring my last warm moments. The sun isn’t up yet, although some days there may at least be a hint of light in the sky. Throwing my leg over my bike, I brace as I lower myself into the saddle and take those first pedal strokes. My butt hurts and my legs are stiff. Some days it was raining, others dry, but I was always in my rain gear just to stay warm. As the first hours of the day wore on, my body would start to get going. The saddle sores beat into submission and the muscles, joints and tendons of my legs starting to warm and loosen up. The suns first rays peaking over the mountains around me and as it rose, so did the haze lift from my sleep deprived mind and my eyes began to open properly. Knowing how fortunate I was to be out there, it would be a good day, no matter how hard.
Into Wyoming I began to deal with the long term effects of sleep deprivation for the first time; never having raced for longer than 4 days previously. It was wreaking havoc with my hormones and my emotions were all over the place. I cried a lot. For joy, with desperation, at the beauty and awe of the landscape around me, and a lot: with pride. I was consolidating my lead – stretching it out to almost 100km by the time I hit the Colorado border – and coming to terms with the fact that even though it was far from over, all my hard work was paying off and I’d ridden my way into a commanding position. It hit me hard.
By the time I hit southern Colorado I was climbing up to the high point of the course. It may have also corresponded with the low point of my race as I was left exhausted and gasping for air on the back side of Indiana Pass. It’s easy to realise now that it was no coincidence. Days of intense effort, peaking out at 3600m, the altitude was finally extracting it’s toll of admission on me, but at the time, I wasn’t able to put that all together. I just knew I hurt, I couldn’t breath, and I wouldn’t make it to Antelope Wells in that condition.
A 30 minute nap in the shelter of a church in Horca was just enough to rejuvenate me to push on into the night. After knocking off a few more climbs, getting rattled around by baby-heads and hike-a-biking up a few steep pitches I eventually made it to Brazos Ridge in the pitch black. I climbed inside my bivy in all my clothes and for a brief moment before I passed out, I looked up at the star filled sky, listening to wolves howling off in the distance and smiled. Any doubts of what the hell I was doing out there were gone and I was refilled with a new sense of determination even before I’d taken a second of sleep.
As the second week wore on I began to reach my limits. That is my limit of sleep deprivation, my physical limits, the limits of the effects of altitude, the limits of solitude, I began to ask myself one question. In fact I screamed it, bellowing at the top of my lungs in desperation, with no one else around to hear it or see the deranged man willing himself through the mountains. Maybe it was also partially in attempt to wake myself up as my eyelids drooped heavily in fatigue: “DO YOU WANT THIS?!?! HOW BAD DO YOU WANT THIS?!?!”
In the middle of the Gila in 40+ degree heat was the only time I came close to wanting to quit. Faced with a seemingly endless labyrinth of ridges and canyons I felt desperately stuck. I couldn’t comprehend the effort it would take to get out. But then reality struck. There was no one else out there. No sag wagon to get in. Not even shade in which to rest, or streams to refill my dwindling water supply. If I stopped moving I was in serious trouble. I had no choice but to get myself together and continue, no matter how slowly.
My body and mind were in full revolt. Different parts of myself seemingly splitting in to different personalities and all wanting something different. We argued with each other a lot. Sometimes in an internal monologue, but often yelling at each other out loud. My left knee just wanted to stop pedalling, my eyes, sick of staying open wanted to shut for a bit, and sometimes did so of their own accord even though we were riding, but my brain, the boss, had other plans: forward. Everyone else argued but ultimately cooperated.
After escaping from the Gila, the Sapillo singletrack caught me by surprise. I was oblivious to its inclusion in the course. It starts with a steep hike-a-bike, before the grade mellows out, but the trail was narrow, rocky and off camber. The sun was well and truely set and although I couldn’t see much beyond the narrow beam of light projected from my handlebars I could tell it was a long way down if I crashed or overshot the trail. I proceeded with caution and became increasingly frustrated with how slow I was going and how close I was to Silver City. At some point I became convinced that my GPX file was wrong, or outdated and that I shouldn’t be on that trail, but without any cell reception to confirm or reject my paranoia, there was nothing I could do but push forward.
After the trials and struggles of the day I made it into Silver City around midnight. I shared a coffee and a conversation with a local as I gorged myself with food and packed my bags for the final 220km stretch to Antelope Wells. My plan was to ride through the night and with any luck make it to the border before the southerly winds and the heat picked back up.
I took off into the night fuelled with burritos, and “5-Hour Energy” and the pure-adrenaline of the excitement of finishing. Of winning.
I charged down the Separ road, dodging jack-rabbits and sleep demons. I was tired but buzzing. I would have jacked my eyelids open with cactus spikes if I’d had to. Nothing was going to stop me.
I turned onto the dead-straight, paved road leading south to Hachita as light began to fill the sky. The road stretched away to the horizon in front of me and above it soared the most majestic blue peaks. I got down into my aero bars and mashed the pedals. 28km/h, 30km/h, 35km/hr. I did the math, under 3 hours to the border at that pace, I was confident I could hold it for that long.
I emptied myself, tapping into a reservoir of strength and motivation I didn’t know I had. 50km to go. Nothing could stop me. 25km to go. Under an hour. I’d done it, or so I thought.
The Tour Divide had one last jab to throw before it would surrender. The wind lifted fiercely. A hot, dry blowdryer, roaring in my face. I was crawling. 20km/hr, 15km/hr. I only had a few small sips of water left. All the moisture was robbed from my mouth as I struggled forwards. I ran dry. My head slumped. This was torture.
I desperately pushed down on the pedals with all the effort I could summon but still felt like I was getting nowhere. Finally, a spec appeared on the horizon: the border station that is Antelope Wells. I drove hard, launched into a sprint and finished with an endo up to the border fence. I had done it. 15 days, 2 hours, 8 minutes.
My mouth had become so dry that I couldn’t talk. I’m not sure I could have found words to use if I could.
For 15 days I lived the most simple existence. When I was hungry, I ate. When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I slept. Beyond that my world was little more than pushing down on a pedal, and every time it came back around, pressing on it again, ad neuseam, remembering every now and again to look up and take in everything around me. I kept moving when I didn’t think I could, or didn’t know how, but somehow found a way, or didn’t have any other choice.
These words aren’t my own, but they sum up Tour Divide with poetic succinctness: “Amazingly beautiful scenery to be soul crushed in”.
I’ve got a feeling that I’ll be back.