It’s been two weeks since the finish of one of the hardest endurance events in my career – The Tour Divide and its finally starting to sink in. I have reflected of the month long journey and the following highlights might offer some insights to the event if you are considering it in the future. As many of you know, I don’t write detailed race reports, but shorter summaries of the learning lessons so you can use some ideas and of course not make the same mistakes as me! I will never forget this brutal event as it was my 3rd 30-day endurance race (Triple DECA Ironman, Trans Am and Tour Divide) and it offered plenty of surprises and challenges along the way.
Congratulations to everyone who toed the line of this epic race. My good friend Brent Goldstein who was one of our partners in crime riding together through this journey stated it best, “Ride the Divide movie was false advertising”, as it only showed the easy parts. Riding with “The 5 Dividers” Mario & Vincent Hamel (father son), Chuck Lee and Brent Goldstein enhanced the experience sharing the journey with others and bonds forever. We all finished. The overall finish rate was 47%. I will cherish the memories with these friends forever.
Starting on June 8th in Banff, Canada, just like 2016 Trans Am, my number one fan and super queen wife, Jan came along to wish me well as it would be a month till we saw each other at the finish in Antelope Wells New Mexico. The good news is that with an extensive push for the last 3 days we actually finished in 29 days, but sadly I missed Jan at the finish line as she arrived the following day. It was a start of a journey that I will never forget and my 3rd 30-day endurance race (Triple DECA Ironman, Trans Am and Tour Divide).
Tour Divide Difficulties
I clearly underestimated the difficulty of this event as a rookie. A similar statement from all the rookies I rode with during the event.
No matter how prepared mentally we were for the weather, riding in 30-40 degrees with rain, snow, sleet and hike a bike beyond in Montana was just crushing to deal with day after day.
Sleeping in daily wet, cold, sleeping bags/tents created a new experience for sure.
Montana climbs and hike-a-bikes were beyond any expectation I envisioned.
Montana mud was expected and we had our full share of pushing through mud and more mud, which absolutely ruined the drive chains and bikes.
Ko KO Claims mountain climb – 4-hour hike a bike up a mountain and avalanche was an experience to never be forgotten. All we heard about was the “Wall” and it’s all hype, Co Co Pass and the hike a bike sections to Union Pass were significantly more taxing on the body than the Wall – enough said.
Carrying so much water and food offered a completely new challenge compared to Trans Am and most days we planned for 2 days of water and food.
The actual Tour Divide course is different from the ACA maps for many sections and being a map guy, Trans Am was easier to follow with the maps.
New Mexico fires caused many re-routes and without any lakes, streams or water – YES we had to go through a garbage can looking for water in water bottles. Chuck Lee and I were on the constant look on the side of the road for half or quarter filled bottles of any liquid! As a heavy sweater, water became more of an issue in the southern states of Colorado and New Mexico.
The heat was prevalent in Colorado and New Mexico over 100 degrees and many have stated that it’s not as tough as Trans Am with the open roads and no shade – maybe I missed it somewhere we suffered with plenty of sun, heat and no shade.
Everyone is different but seriously consider taking a bivy over a tent. I took a tent tarp and after Montana I slept on top of the tent/tarp like a bivy.
Practice significant hike a bike time in training and also get used to being miserable and camping with everything wet for several days in cold wet weather.
Self-supported races make you think non-stop and that’s what makes these events so unique compared to supported races with aid stations. Don’t over plan every single thing; the fun is the surprise and thinking and planning non-stop. The surprise of a 20-mile climb including washboard is easier to deal with when you just have it happen.
Ride this race with another athlete. After day 1 in the middle of the Canadian Rockies and for most of the race, you are in very remote and long distances from any town, house or people. If you are not going to win the race, experience it with others, its way more fun with more safety.
Expect multiple chain breaks, if you are dealing with a heavy mud season in Montana. Typical with mountain biking.
As most veteran Tour Dividers told us, if you can get out of Montana then you have a 70% of finishing. Montana is a beautiful, stunning State and a personal favorite but the terrain and conditions are extremely harsh. When I look at a comparison in the two races (Tour Divide and Trans Am), nothing compares to the brutal struggle of Montana on the Trans Am Bike course.
I figured that I should carry a lightweight small micro stove just to make coffee in the morning and was only used once. When water is so desperate and not knowing where the next stream is, I did not want to waste any water. Waste of weight, don’t take one.
I took an extra cycling kit (bibs and shirt) and only needed one extra pair of bibs.
- Riding with the 5 Dividers was exceptional.
- The mountain views and vistas and remoteness make you feel so small in the wide-open spaces of the mountains.
- We saw a Grizzly Bear and babies a few hundred yards from our bikes on the trail.
- As expected we saw wild horses, cows, elk, fox, and eagles – The animals were amazing!
- The Lodge and Innkeepers were beyond and treated the Divide Riders like Royalty. High Country Lodge, Wild Bills, Brush Mountain Lodge
- The Great Basin, Fleecer Ridge were as good as advertised.
- Colorado was my favorite state and with all the climbing.
- You become an exceptional climber after 1 week!
- Drinking water from a discarded
- Small town USA – when we eventually got to a town
- Generosity of Trail Angels
- Coca-Cola consumed – approximately 90 20 oz. bottles
- Sleeping in the 4 wall old log cabin and having to remove cow manure from the entire floor.
- Butts Cabin non-sleeping of 11 athletes packed into a space that holds about 6 or 7 and the all night snoring!
- The last 60 miles of the ride on the road heading to the Mexico border and looking for the small green mile markers.
- The 10 hours in Steamboat Springs Colorado at the Steamboat Ski and Bike Kara shop repairing our bikes.
- The generosity of a customer of Steamboat Ski and Bike Kare (he was out of town and the bike shop called him to see if I could buy his SRAM lever as there were none in any bike shop or even Denver) to give me a brand new SRAM shift lever/brake lever so I could continue the race. We had to literally drive to his house and go into his barn (he was not home but told us how to get into the barn) to get the lever and return to the bike shop to have it installed. He would not allow me to pay for it since I was doing the Divide, amazing!
I can write out an exhaustive list of everything I took in my bags, but there are so many YouTube videos and ideas that you can use those for your planning. The following were a few items that were valuable and also things that did not work as expected:
- Cedaero bags – The bad, my top tube bag screwed into my bike frame, however the screws continued to come loose and the bag was hanging on by one screw for most of the race. The good, my custom frame bag (screws as well) worked extremely well and never moved an inch.
- Ortleib saddle bag – Wheel rub occurred and was expected like Trans Am, but the bag is extremely well made and 100% waterproof – tested and with the rain we had nothing ever got wet. Good news is Ortleib with repair the few seam holes.
- I purchased plastic wire ropes that bended and held my main waterproof food bad on my handlebars as I improvised on the course.
- Make sure you test you equipment on very rough and rocky down hills – I constantly had gear flying off the bike!
- Take a mosquito net for your head – Thanks Brent for this! Mosquitos were beyond in Montana and Wyoming.
- Sleeping bag – consider a quilt/bag – lighter and plenty warm even when it went down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit and our bottles had ice in them in the morning. Wear puffy coat and all clothes and I
- Camel back bladder in the frame bag was so much better than wearing a backpack personally. Trans Am I wore a backpack and it’s just not the most comfortable ride with extra weight on the neck.
- Consider aero bars. The descents are unbelievable in the Tour Divide.
- The Salsa Cutthroat worked very well overall. Two broken chains and only one front tire flat that I repaired. Shifter broke but was able to get it replaced.
- Bar Yak Aero bars were indestructible! Not only did they handle my entire cockpick of gadgets and aero position to relieve hand pain, they also held my heavy food bag. Check them out at www.baryak.com
Tour Divide and Trans Am Bike Race are Completely Different Events
Many who have done both Trans Am and Tour Divide may have differences of opinion, but in my opinion after doing both, the Tour Divide is clearly a harder race physically to finish. We all ride these self-supported races for different reasons, but personally I enjoy the aspect of being self-sufficient, no entry fees and meeting new athletes and people in the local areas of travel.
The Tour Divide Race is more demanding to the overall body and mind. By no means is the Trans Am easy – it’s a bear no question and I struggled many days crossing the US especially with needing to keep aware of traffic which is a non-factor in the Tour Divide. Trans Am was very hot in 2016 with the first week of over 100 degrees, but one thing it offered was the ability to find plenty of stores for food and water. When racing the Tour Divide, you are constantly on the look for water and food and not knowing exactly how long it might take to target a specific distance. For example, 100 miles between convenient stores/towns is common in the Tour Divide and depending on the climbs it can take 12 hours or more to get to a store. Riding on roads is significantly easier and faster than biking through rocks, mud beyond, and hike a bike through snow and rocks. Covering 100-120 miles for most athletes (of course not the elite racers who are in another category like the Trans Am elite) in the Tour Divide could take 12-18 hours and even with the climbing in Trans Am, it was typically never a problem cranking out 150+ miles a day. There are a few areas of technical mountain biking, plenty of washboard and rocks so it’s not all smooth gravel roads. Get ready for rocks; mud and plenty of hike a bike fun. Overall, I would say that Trans Am was personally more enjoyable but that's coming from a road rider first and foremost.
If you are interested in reading more detail of our experience (and pictures), check out Brent’s blog. It’s very well written and highlights our journey along the continental divide. www.skibrent.blogspot.com.
Thanks so much to Jan for always supporting me in these long adventures!