Well, its been about three weeks or so since finishing the Tour Divide MTB Race, and its probably taken me about that long to process to a point where I can write about it.
Since I got back the two most common questions people have asked are ‘How was it?’ and ‘Are you going to do it again?’. To get it out of the way lets go through these first.
How was it? The answer to this is both very long and very short. The short version is that it was awesome – the most amazing experience I’ve ever had on a bike. The longer version would take more words than I’ve got time to write!
Would I do it again? I can remember thinking quite clearly as I arrived in Antelope Wells how grateful I was to finish and that I never ever wanted to do it again… as time goes on and the aches and pains subside I think more fondly about going back but realistically its such a big commitment and there are many more experiences out there to be had. So no, not really planning to get out and do it all again!
Now that’s out of the way…
I started thinking about riding The Divide about 2 years ago – on the advice of a friend I’d watched a documentary about the race and then borrowed some gear to give bikepacking a go (yes Adam MacBeth – this is your fault) so you could say that this trip has been in planning for a while! However, it wasn’t until the flight from LA to Calgary that the enormity of the undertaking really began to hit me – by the time I arrived in Banff I had gotten myself worked up into a such a state that I was feeling physically ill.
I’d decided to get to Banff about 6 days before the ride to give myself some time to just chill out and get my head into the right space and this turned out to be one of the best decisions of the whole experience. My early arrival meant that I was one of the first racers to arrive and had plenty of time to just relax. It also meant I got to see people as they arrived and participate in a bit of pre-race banter. Although I quickly worked out that sitting with a bunch of guys obsessing about the same thing just wasn’t helpful to my mental state so I tended to avoid most of the other racers!
With a few pre-race rides around Banff and Canmore under my belt it actually became a serious effort to stick around to the Grand Depart and not just take off on and ride it as an Individual Time Trial! The feeling of waiting for the start is hard to put into words but its a mix of anticipation, fear and doubt. I was simultaneously looking forward to the adventure whilst at the same time dreading the test I was about to go through.
What if I failed?
The race start itself would be instantly familiar to anyone who’s shown up to any Australian MTB Marathon or endurance race – a mix of nervous banter, fast guys trying to get their bikes as near to the start point as possible, groups of friends quietly talking and geeing each other up and of course some, like me, gazing off into the distance just trying to mentally prepare for what is to come. Finally the moment comes and you’re off and can just lose yourself in the initial concentration of fighting for a place on the trail – in other words much more like the start of a 100km race and not a 4500km one!
I deliberately hadn’t really worked out much of a race strategy as such – pretty much my goal going in was to finish. I knew I had some good distance in my legs but my ‘plan’ – if you could call it that – was to just ride to how I felt and not get hung up on just how far I was riding. This meant that I was pretty hazy on where I’d stop but I knew I wanted to make the US border by the end of the second day (about 400km) which meant I was aiming for somewhere around the 200km mark or so on that first day.
Unsurprisingly, the field spaced out pretty quickly and I just settled into a rhythm and got on with it – just like one of the many rides I’d done in training. 11 Singlespeeders started the race and I was keeping a look out as I caught people to see if they were fellow nutters (not as easy as you’d think given the popularity of Rohloffs and other internally geared hubs at this race!) and I was pretty pleased to get to the first resupply point (a shop in a caravan park at about the 110km mark) having passed about 4 of them.
Even at this stage I was beginning to appreciate the advantage that being able to have a quick stop was going to be – I must have made about 25 places up at this point by just grabbing what I needed and heading straight back out again – It really doesn’t matter how fast you’re going… pedalling always beats someone sitting around having a yak!
I eventually made it to Elkford (175km) after about 10 hours of riding – I was thinking that this might be a decent place to stop for the night. The rain had started to come down and I was starting to get get pretty cold (US / Canada high country summer is usually colder than Sydney winter!) But a pizza, followed by another pizza at a gas (service) station and I decided to see if I could make the 60km ride or so to the next town. Yeah – the race makes you think funny, after a 175km ride, doing another 60 after dinner seems a logical thing!
At this point I discovered a part of this race that no-one really prepares you for – the intense friendships that you form with other riders. I had ridden most of that last section on my own but then a couple of Kiwis on geared bikes (Nathan Mawkes and Chris Bennet) caught up with me and we rode the last 20 or so together – just a bunch of blokes out on their bikes chatting and chewing the breeze just like pretty much any trail ride. It still amazes me weeks after the event just how close I still feel with some of these guys even though you spend very little actual time together and its one of things I really cherish about the experience.
The next instalment from Arran will be online next week.