Although there is a lot of climbing in the first 1/2 of the route, it’s in Colorado where you hit serious altitude with several passes over 10,000 ft (3000m) and a couple of 20+ mile climbs. On the positive side, most of the Continental Divide trail at this point is on old rail trails so most of the grades are do-able (about 4-5%) even on a singlespeed. Of course it does mean that you climb pretty constantly for most of the day.
I was pretty relieved to finally arrive into New Mexico – most of the major climbs were now behind me as were the hours I spent in lightening storms crossing the colorado prairie – being the tallest thing for more than 10 square miles on top of a ridge on a metal framed bicycle as lightening cracks close enough for you to feel the static would be one of the scariest experiences of my life. However, despite its reputation as being flat and boring, New Mexico had a couple of stings in its tail.
What New Mexico lacked in climbs it made up for in energy sapping peanut butter mud. This stuff clung to the wheels, frame, shoes… you name it. Given my complete fail at the Mawson Mega Marathon earlier this year in almost the exact same conditions this was my nightmare scenario with less than 600 km to go and unable to keep going.
Backtracking a bit… the enormity of the TDR race means that (in Australian terms anyway) you start in sub zero wintery conditions and then progress to a dry enveloping heat in New Mexico. Much like Australia, this turns the entire state into a tinder box with the trail going through some of the most affected areas. The massive fires this year mean that a couple of significant re-routes were in place. The disadvantage of an underground race which lacks any ‘official’ organisation means than finding out what they are is a little haphazard (and to tell the truth – puts back a little of the self reliance navigational aspect of the race that has been lost with the ability to simply follow a line on a GPS).
Myself and a few others were in the unfortunate position of not quite being fast enough to hit barricaded roads like the race leaders but fast enough that were were in Wi-Fi and mobile deadspots and didn’t get any e-mails etc letting us know which way the leaders had gone. Following the principle of trying to ride as much of the trail as possible (see TDR Rule 5) I ended up riding about 60 miles further than the route most of the other racers had taken and got caught in a massive thunderstorm which turned the road into energy sapping mud.
This section was a nightmare – the road was impossible to ride and the nature of the mud meant that I was needing to stop every 50 meters or so and dig enough mud out of the frame just so the bike would roll. I eventually bivvied at about midnight utterly spent. I then got caught in a major thunderstorm. Any hope of the strong winds drying the roads overnight was gone as the heavens opened.
I gave up trying to sleep at about 5am and got back on the road. It took more than 2 hours to get 7.5km but I finally got more or less on track. Of course by now I’d worked out that there was a shorter route than the one I was on. The sense of moral superiority about riding more of the route is not comforting when you realise that you’re behind.
The fire meant that most of the route to the finish was now on tar. I hit the highway at about lunchtime and after a litre of chocolate milk, a litre of gatorade and a bottle of coke I was on my way trying to catch up to Scott and his group. Just as an aside, the combination I drank is not good and not something I’d recommend you do before heading out into a 140km road ride in 35’C temperatures.
I pulled into Silver City tired and sore (my Brooks Saddle had collapsed and I’d been riding on the seat rails) and to my surprise ran into Scott and his group. With 20/20 hindsight I should have just grabbed some more choccy milk and gatorade and got going but I was pretty stuffed – I’d only had about 2 hours sleep in the last 24 hours and at that point had been riding / pushing for more than 14 hours. So I stopped, had something to eat and then got on with the chase.
The last 200km were mostly fun – a significant climb out of Silver City but then mostly downhill for most of it and for a change I even had a tailwind. Fast and fun – I love riding in the dark! The road to the Antelope Wells itself is a long lonely stretch into the desert and I was glad to be riding it at night. It was so flat and dark that when a couple of cars passed me (on the way to pick up Scott and co.) I was able to see their taillights for a good 45 minutes or so.
I was completely demotivated at this point – the road was flat and boring, I was exhausted from riding more than 28 hours and had lost the lead on the road after holding it for nearly a week. I just wanted to sit and cry… at just about my lowest point (with about 10 miles to go) a car pulled over and to my surprise Scott and another guy (Brett) I’d ridden with earlier in the race got out and started cheering – this made me smile and I worked out that if I kept up my pace I’d be in line for a sub 21day finish… just. Also they were yelling at me something about look under the sign which had me intrigued.
That last 10 miles was agonising – this was the culmination of more than 2 years of planning, I should have been elated but instead I just felt empty and drained. I finally crossed the line in 21 days, 23 hours and 26 minutes.
Antelope Wells is probably the loneliest place to ever finish a race – its a collection of border control buildings in the absolute middle of no-where and when I arrived it was still dawn and the border was closed. I had finished the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’d even done and there was no-one around. It was a very empty, hollow feeling. On the positive side, under the border sign I did find a care package from Scott – a bag full of ice containing some water (nice), a gatorade (ugh) and a beer!
As I sat waiting for my lift back to civilisation to arrive three more members of the Brush Mountain Lodge crew rolled in – this was pretty awesome as there was now someone there to share the moment with and best of all it was with some guys that I’d ridden with on and off for the better part of two weeks.
And with that my Tour Divide was over. Whilst not finishing the race would have been crushing, turns out that finishing has some mixed feelings as well – I’m pretty stoked about my ride but given that this goal has been part of my life for a couple of years now, not having it feels a little wierd. One piece of good news is that in conversations with Matt Lee afterwards it looks like that the few of us who missed the re-route details are going to get some time relief so seems like I’ll share the singlespeed win with Scott.
So the great adventure has now come to an end and with it maybe some answers that undertaking this sort of journey poses. To call the TDR race a tour understates the very real competitive feeling that exists amongst all the riders out on course – whether you’re aiming to beat the record or simply finish. To call TDR a race understates the inward journey that it takes you on – several weeks of being completely self reliant with no safety net makes forces a degree of introspection that at times is a little… uncomfortable.
After completing it I can really only say two things, firstly that the ride will change you and secondly that despite the pain, the discomfort, the fear and the loneliness I really miss it.