When you think you can’t come up with a harder challenge, something amazing crops up – check out this guest post from Aidan Harding, who completed the amazing Tour Divide race.
The Tour Divide is a 2,700 mile off-road race with no support and no checkpoints. Racers choose when, where, and how much they sleep. So, sleeping on the side of the trail is normal and hotel rooms are a luxury. Starting in Banff, Canada and finishing on the USA/Mexico border, the route repeatedly crosses the Continental Divide, frequently exceeding 10000 feet of elevation. A lot can happen in 2,700 miles and this year was no exception, both for me personally and for the event as a whole.
Record snow levels and a late melt had some people dubbing it The Tour de Reroute. Faced with the possibility of either having racers push through 30 miles of snow at a time or diverting them around the worst of it, the reroutes were published a couple of weeks before the start. I was sad to miss out on some of the spectacular high passes, but if I had been forced to push through the snow I probably would have missed my flight home!
Going out there, my aim had been to go for the win. I had come 3rd last year, and done the “experience” part of Divide racing. I knew I could finish, so I was planning to come back stronger, better kitted out, more determined, and more experienced. I wasn’t the only one, though. Kurt Refsnider and Ethan Passant were two Colorado racers with impressive credentials and ambitions. And then there was Jefe Branham… a dark horse in events over 5 days but known to be able to go without sleep for days.
A group of 6 of us set out fast on the first day, covering 160 miles in 14 hours. I wanted to keep in touch with the front, and then push hard as soon as I felt ready. As far as I knew, it was working, but Jefe was not part of that lead group. He had ridden right by us without sleeping at all, and established a significant lead. Could he keep it up?
In that first week, Kurt, Ethan, and Jefe were sleeping less than 4 hours a night and pulling away from me. I was moving more efficiently than last year, but it was not enough. The vast sagebrush desert of the Divide Basin came and went. The Basin is a stretch of 140 miles with no food or reliable water supply. I stretched it into 210 miles without resupply as I rode through the settlements on its edge at night, trying to stay in the race for the lead. I was just holding the gap with the leaders, but the sea of empty, impassive land and strong headwinds gave me plenty of my own problems to consider.
The first day in Colorado was a wet one. I slept on the trail, the verge of some trees offering scant protection. Mud during the day varied from a slight suck on the tyres adding rolling resistance, to full-on bucking and surfing over thick black filth that yearned to jam tyres into frames. My hands were so cold that I had to tear open the wrappers of my lunch with my teeth. But, the real hurdle came 130 miles later at the end of the day. I hosed my bike back to life in Silverthorne but, as I did so, I found a crack in the frame. The chainstay was damaged all the way through and there was no way I could continue the race in that state.
I felt numb. I had been in 4th place and looking to improve on it. In dark moments on this ride, you often hope for some legitimate reason to pull out and have an easy life. Here was a perfect excuse, but I didn’t grab at it. With almost no conscious will from myself, I started making enquiries: If could get back to Steamboat Springs (90 miles north), then Kent Eriksen would look at it for me. One of the most esteemed titanium frame builders in the world was ready to help, so I jumped on a bus.
In Steamboat, Kent cleared his existing work and set right about fixing my bike. They welded over the crack and added a new supporting strut. Nobody could be sure if it would hold up, but the chances looked good and it was over to me to do the rest. The rules say that you can get a ride backwards on the course to fix a mechanical, but must pedal back. So, I hit the road with 90 bonus miles to get me back to Silverthorne and resume the race.
In the next few days, I had the perfect combination of my favourite terrain (Colorado mountains) and a fire inside me. I worked hard to get back from 11th place. It was tempting to finish the ride at touring speed, but The Divide means more when you’re riding with everything you’ve got. In the first day, I picked up 4 places. I used my experience to make sure I had enough food and water to skip some towns or ride through them outside business hours. I had nothing to lose, so I pushed as hard as I could.
Southern Colorado rolled into New Mexico and water became the most important thing of all. I was carrying just 5 litres to cross 100 miles of desert and then gulping as much as possible to redress the balance when I could. I was setting off before dawn to put in miles before the heat of the day came to fruition. But resting at mid-day would be wasting riding time, so I would end up salt-encrusted and grateful for the relief of sunset. Some miles came easy: smooth climbing on an easy gradients, hitting 40mph on a dirt road descent. Some miles came hard: Soft sand climbs for miles, rocky descents so big that they would be at home in The Lake District.
In the end, I finished 6th. I had closed the gap on 4th and 5th but didn’t manage to catch them before the border. Not the position I had wanted, but I had overcome adversity and improved my abilities in this kind of racing. I made new friends, and rejoiced to see old ones. I saw elk swimming through a lake so rough that the wind was whipping white caps onto the waves. I couldn’t complain about 18 days spent like that.
The key things in my equipment choice were: simplicity, flexibility, and reliability. So I rode a Singular Pegasus 29er with a rigid carbon fork and singlespeed gearing. Light weight, and no suspension or gears to worry about. It rode great, and the big wheels ate up the miles superbly. All the rotating parts on the bike were from Hope – made for UK muck, so I knew they would go the distance. I was proved right when a fellow racer’s bottom bracket fell apart after only 6 days. My Hope one is still spinning perfectly. For tyres, I went tubeless with a Maxxis Crossmark (rear) and Ikon (front) on Stans rims. They lasted the whole distance, even surviving a nail in the rear about half way through. I used an odd ratio of 34:19 for the drivetrain, so that was a great excuse to get tidy a Velosolo chainring and cog. Choosing clothing for everything from high mountains to desert is tough. A Gore Alp-X jacket shrugged off rain and wind, and packed away in a tiny space. I had never used arm or leg warmers before, but the Gore ones I took were superb: extra insulation, and easy to roll down as the heat of the day came. I slept in a Terra Nova bivi bag with a Rab Neutrino 200 down sleeping bag – just enough for conditions on the trail. Full listings of the equipments I used can be found at: http://www.aidanharding.com/?p=337
We are in awe Aidan, what an amazing ride! You can read more about the Tour Divide here.