The world’s toughest bike race is not in France.
So claim the riders of the Tour Divide. 2,700 miles. 200,000 vertical. 2 Countries. 4 States. Unsupported. It’s big. And remote and beautiful and for me, way out of the realm of possibility—for now. Each year that possibility becomes reality for a few more riders. This year, 48 of them will ride out of Banff, Alberta and point their wheels south toward Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
And it all starts on Friday.
There is no television coverage. No helicopters. No Phil Liggett. However, that does not mean that the race is shrouded in mystery, and that we all have to wonder and wait to find out how it turns out. In fact, it is one of the most uniquely covered races in all the world. With the help of SPOT messenger beacons, racer call-ins and MTBCast, we are offered an inside look at, not only real time results, but also the emotional and physical turmoil that each rider encounters.
It is every bit as engaging as any Grand Tour.
Your Guide to the Divide
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is a creation of the Adventure Cycling Association. It is unmarked, and covers remote backcountry terrain in Canada and the United States. Services are few and far between. Grizzly and mountain lion encounters are not uncommon, especially in the Alberta and Montana sections. For all its beauty, the route can also be mind-numbingly monotonous. It follows the spine of the continent, travels through dense forest, and open plain, and eventually into the harsh desert. “By route’s end a thru-rider will climb nearly 200,000 feet of vertical—equivalent to summiting Mount Everest from sea-level 7 times.”
Like solo 24 Hour racing, the Tour Divide came from the mind of mountain bike hall of famer John Stamstad. Riders will ride under their own power, carrying what they need—maps, food, tools, survival and sleeping gear. They will resupply along the way in towns, drawing sideways glances from residents who may not quite know how to react to a dirt-crusted superhero looking for a slice of apple pie. The race will last 17-30 days. The current men’s record is 17d 21h 10m held by Matthew Lee, and set in 2007. Jill Homer set the women’s record in 2009, at 24d 07h 24m.
How to Follow Along:
The Leaderboard: Using SPOT technology, spectators—that’s us—can view real time status updates for each and every racer.
The Pod Cast: It’s difficult not to be inspired, and moved while listening to the daily call-ins from each racer.
Blog Updates: Transcriptions of call-ins, and other race updates.
Past Results: Finishing times from previous years.
I suppose it’s a subjective argument—which is more difficult—The Tour de France, or the Tour Divide. But then, I don’t really think that is the relevant question to ask. Indeed, the two races are entirely unrelated, different, and incomparable. However, the beauty in the Divide is its accessibility. That is, anyone of us can try it. Those riders lining up Friday morning, with a few notable exceptions, are in fact you and me. At least, they are in a representative, vicarious sense. And that is why the race becomes so dramatic and compelling. It’s easy to see Tour de France riders suffer. But that is their job. They ride and suffer for millions of dollars. It’s another thing completely to watch and listen to men and women who have left their cubicles and—no doubt scratching their heads—coworkers and families and expectations of sanity and normalcy behind in pursuit of the absurd and wonderful.
In 2008, while watching the race unfold I wrote:
With the Divide riders thinning out and finishing (or not) the route, I can’t help but wonder what thoughts tyrannized their minds as they pedaled the lonely miles along the spine of the continent. What giants did they battle? What demons did they suppress? What beauty did they discover? They return home differently. That awkward out of place-ness that follows any life altering event. They return like a seer, a prophet, as one who has seen and who knows. Only those who have been there will ever understand what that is like. I envy that misplacement, that experience, that knowledge. I want to understand it.
Today, I feel a hint of those same sentiments. I want to know what they know. Or will know, a month from now. And I will. Perhaps. Someday.
(All the images in this post were borrowed from here)