Thursday, July 14, 2011

Some Tour Divide Questions & Answers with Justin Simoni


Each year the Tour Divide provides an epic venue for riders to test themselves and their machines across thousands of mountain miles. In a year of record-breaking snow-pack, Justin Simoni met that challenge with courage, determination and a wonderful attitude of gratitude and resolve. Now back in Denver after weeks on the trail, Justin agreed to answer some questions about his ride.


When did you first hear of the Tour Divide and when did you decide to attempt it?

Fixie Dave (Nice)!

At the very beginning of my love affair with bicycles, I got word of a bike shop in town (Salvagetti) that seemed very friendly and was all about helping people get set up with the then somewhat obscure and fringe "fixed geared bicycle" that seemed appealing to me. I had just gotten rid of my car - my automative career lasted less than two years and hot-shot skateboarder friends in town were transitioning to becoming hot-shot fixed gear riders. I was retiring from skateboarding myself as well as a car-centric lifestyle. The shop's real focus at the time was having you bring in a bike you've found used that may need a little love and fixing it up with new components and making sure you really fall in love with cycling, too. The shop's owner, Scott, would tell you what to look for depending on the project you had in mind. Terms like, "track ends", "horizontal drop outs", "top tube lengths", entered my nascent cycling vocabulary.

Also working at the bike shop was this great big, friendly man named, Dave Nice. If you've met him, you can understand how hard it would be to miss him again, even in a crowd of thousands. In our introductions, he mentioned he was racing his mountain bike across the country in the Great Divide Race. Oh, and doing it fixed - no coasting, no gears.

"That's absolutely crazy." I remember saying to him. Scott, the owner of the shop and Dave snickered just a little, probably having heard the same response a number of times. Fixie Dave was one of the first to accept the challenge of racing your mountain bike across the country and it was exciting and tear-inducing to hear about his (mis)adventures. He garnered a fair amount of local coverage from his attempts, which I would read. The race stuck in my mind, growing year by year as I found out that I myself had a real love for taking bicycles on very, very, very long rides.

I also happened upon Kent Peterson's collection of articles - long before he moved into using a blogging platform, about his randonneuring career. Who knows how I got there, but five years ago, if you had searched online about fixed gear bicycles, it was a sure bet you'd wind up on either Sheldon Brown's encyclopedic site on all things bicycle or Kent's site of his reports doing such rides as the Paris-Brest-Paris. Kent's narrative of his own successful single speed recording setting Great Divide Race was the first written that really, I think, described the route in total. His photo of the Breckenridge Ski Resort from Boreas Pass struck a chord with me. I thought, "I've been right *there*, this race is in my back yard!". It made the race seem real to me.

So when I realized I love bikes and I love to ride bikes for weeks and weeks and once I played around with racing - mostly alleycats and the odd-cyclocross race (on a fixed gear, of course!) it seemed reasonable to me if not a little illogical to everyone else that I could take on a cross country mountain bike race. Getting all the moon and stars align to be available and to be in top physical condition to take on the race was all that was really needed.

How did you prepare for the Tour Divide?

One could write a book on preparing for the Tour Divide, but I really focused on fitness. Tour Divide racing is a multi-disciplinary venture. Not only do you need to ride your bike all day, you need to know how to camp ultralight, there's navigation strategies and it doesn't hurt to know how to elegantly communicate with a wide spectrum of different people. Still, making sure my body could take the torture of the length of the race itself seemed the highest priority.

I had already amassed a fairly large portfolio of month+ tours in some incredible parts of the world as well as smaller jaunts here and there. I felt transitioning from a routine of riding a touring bike all day and stealth camping at night for months on end, to racing a mountain bike all day and bivvying at night wouldn't be too hard. My tours would always turn into a race with the clock - doing a few hundred mile days in a row fully loaded to catch the plane back home just became the norm of my tours.

The summer before this year's race, I was rehabilitating myself from a leg injury, so I did more hiking than riding. The hikes would become marathon in length and my hiking partner and I bagged over a dozen 14ers. I would then transition my fitness into cycling the 100 miles to the trailhead of some of these mountains, with all my hiking and camping gear in a BOB trailer, summit the mountain and then ride the 100 miles home in a three day weekend.

That transitioned into finding off road routes to more interesting and technical climbs and all of a sudden, I was "bikepacking" without even knowing the term existed. It become fairly clear that my setup of a Surly Crosscheck fitted with the fattest tires I could put on, whilst towing a trailer was becoming a little obtuse. Learning about the ultralight setups of riders doing ultra endurance bike packing races was sort of a revelation, coming from a touring background.

This past January came around and I took a few days to write my personal Letter of Intent to send to the organizers of the Tour Divide, which spelled out what I wanted to accomplish and why and I focused a lot of my training to the goal that was then 6 months away. I'm not an expert on athletic training, but basically I started at the gym working on my body as a whole with high intensity work and slowly transitioned into long long bike rides, which transitioned into multi-day bikepacking rides. The last practice ride I did was a small part of the GDMBR itself. I think the trick of training doing enough to be in good physical condition without doing too much where recovery takes forever, which would limit you riding the long miles you probably need. Who knows? If I had a coach, I'm sure I'd be a lot faster.

One of the things I had to do to prepare for this race was, you know, learn how to ride a mountain bike! It was only in April that I purchased the bike I was to race on. I hadn't ridden a mountain bike since I was a teenager - a hand-me-down Miele. The rest of time I just rode what I had. I'd ride my fixed gear in everything, or my road bike up countless mountain passes - even took my touring bike for a spin here and there. Whatever I was in the mood for. I started trail running a little bit and snowshoeing with my hiking partner up a couple of 14ers with various amounts of success.

During the winter, I also became a major armchair mountaineer and became enthralled by stories of climbing The Eiger, or Fitz Roy or some of the major ice routes around the world. These men and women seem to be able to take on the most incredibly nasty and dangerous conditions. Like ultralight bikepacking races, there was a movement not so long ago to streamline equipment from the traditional method of laying siege to a mountain which literally took dozens of personnel and months to "attack", towards a two person team with minimal gear to get up much more technical routes much, much faster. Speed became their main tool to accomplish these exceptionally technical routes. The parallels in techniques of these two sports really stuck in my head.

I also read a lot of books about personal struggle and survival; Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book, "Wind, Sand and Stars" about crash landing in the middle of the Sahara Desert while attempting to set a speed record, Laurence Gonzalez's books, "Everyday Survival" and "Deep Survival", which really goes into some good theory on how to keep your skin while doing something like a adventure race like the Tour Divide. As well as a good smattering of Edward Abbey books. All these books really helped me make intelligent choices while in the more isolated parts of the Tour Divide. Kept me thinking straight when I was extremely isolated and attempting going through very out of condition parts of the route.

I would wager the training for the race took around 30 to 40 hours a week, around 1200 miles of riding a month on various surfaces, with various bikes, going at a variety of intensity. I just kept it fun and interesting. The one thing I didn't do was enter any races. I haven't raced a bike in years to be honest - not much of a racer! This is no small chunk of time and there was an incredible amount of sacrifice made.

You transform yourself into living this monk-like existence: Wake up, ride for 9 hours, eat everything in sight, get enough work done to sustain; do it again the next day. Don't forget to rest. I started missing my friends - it felt like I was living abroad, while living right at home. The riding was certainly the best part of it all - if that wasn't fun, there would be any real reason to do it at all! Since I was so new to mountain biking and I live fairly close to so many trails, every outing was a time for discovery of trails and tracks on terrain I thought I knew quite well. Becoming more intimate of my environs felt special. I knew areas by the roads that went by them, to the dirt tracks that went through them, to trails that went up to the highest parts.

When did you first decide that you were going to attempt the original, non-modified route?

Well, I think everyone was intent on doing the standard route, until the rumors of incredible snowfall - twice as much as the norm, a one in four-hundred year winter in the mountains rang true and talk of reroutes started. It was only a few weeks before the race that the organizer started spec'ing out the reroutes and sending out the notices about them. The Wyoming reroutes didn't come out until days before the race.

I'm sure they were trying to keep reroutes to a minimum and only make the calls if absolutely necessary. Tough calls for sure, and most likely the right ones. If you *only* prepared for a border to border mountain bike race, you weren't prepared enough for what was in store for you without these reroutes. My physical preparation already included tons of snowshoeing, hiking and running - and lots of reading about backcountry survival.

With that type of experience, it seemed like madness not to do the actual standard route - six months of major training and investment of some fairly expensive gear. When you get into a good form you sort of feel like you can take on anything.

I did a four day practice ride along part of the actual GDMBR in late May, riding from the Frisco section to Salida hoping to pass over Boreas Pass, which was absolutely snowed in, from the point the road turns to dirt at the trailhead, to the Selkirk Campground on the other side. Before heading out towards Breckenridge, I stopped inside a Recycled Sports store and asked,

"Got any snowshoes?"

"Yeah, maybe in the attic..."

They had two pairs, so I bought the pair that had a guy that looked like me in the logo - big bushy beard, crooked smile - told them I was going to attempt cycling across Boreas Pass - pushing the bike, wearing the snowshoes if needing to. They wished me luck. Most of the locals thought it would be fairly impassible - *I* thought it was going to be impassible, but the worst that could happen would be that I would have to, at some point, turn back and take a paved alternative and have a pair of underutilized snowshoes to haul back home to store until next winter.

I think about 9 hours after I started hitting snow, I came out the other side of the pass and road down to Como, hit South Park and its major headwinds and a few days later, was in Salida with a slightly bushier beard and crookeder smile and a deeper understanding of what the snowed in parts of the routes would be like and good practice on techniques on how to get a loaded down bike through that type of snow.

So, I proved to myself that it was doable, albeit quite slow to get over a snowed in pass. Why the need of the reroutes at all? I shared some of the photos of making it through online, looking for a buddy to do the standard routes with me, but no one was 100% interested.

What was your moment of greatest doubt?

There were two points where I felt major doubt.

The first was in Sparwood at the point of the first reroute. I was with a group of riders in the virtual grupetto, most of whom had camped at Elkford the night previous. We were gathered at the A&W, eating breakfast.

Decision time. I could either go Left into the Canadian Flathead or go Right onto pavement for an easy border crossing. I still had not found anyone interested in doing the standard route with me - I was looking for partners more for safety than anything else. Even though a vast majority of the riders on the Grand Départ thought packing snowshoes was an essential part of their kit, the, "snowy" Elk Pass on the first day was really no big deal - more mud than snow and riders were literally given away their 'shoes to the residents of this little Canadian town.

Staring intensely at my map, studying the Canadian Flathead Section and knowing that the snow line was at an incredibly low 4300 feet, I could get a rough estimate on how many and how long the snowed-in parts were: three very, very long parts. Probably random patches of snowdrifts in heavily shaded areas. Not even a clue on the sorts of condition of the road that wasn't under snow could be like - completely under water? Deteriorated to be unridable, being unmaintained since last summer? All to take on alone in a very bear-saturated part of the country, with no real chance of seeing a large amount of people, or anyone, since, well, everyone else would be snowed out, too. Walking in and walking out was sincerely your only choice, unless you have a major 4x4 vehicle with a winch and about the same amount of time as I had to take it on foot to manually dig yourself a track.

I decided to go for the Canadian Flathead, thinking that one only takes a single turn at this game called, "Life" and at worse, I would simply admit defeat if the track got too impassable and backtrack. The pull of adventure was also way too strong to ignore.

If you listen to my first call-in stating my intentions, you can hear my voice wavering on the decision I made - it was a gamble and even though I wasn't a true GC contender like Kurt Paul or Jefe, I was intent on putting in a good time and much of that was put into major jeopardy by taking the Hard Way. I was extremely nervous as I made my way South to Flathead Road and saw snow on all the low laying peaks. "What am I getting myself into?", was a thought that crossed my mind once or twice. It seemed as if the entire 130 miles of the Canadian Flathead that I needed to cross could be under snow. I just had no idea. It could have been a major, major blunder. It could have been my race - think about training so intensely for six months and ending such a race in Canada! Embarrassingly for sure.

The second point of major doubt was in Idaho, where I was up against yet again, a major reroute around the Wyoming high passes. Just like the Canadian Flathead, this reroute changed the personality of the whole race significantly. Not knowing the area personally, I sought the advice of a local owner of an ATV rental shop, that just so happened to be sharing a building with the Subway sandwich shop. With the Chevron on the other side and a lodge across the street, that was town. I was interested to see what gear he had available, just in case something caught my eye that I could utilize. I told him what I was intent to do. He tried his best to persuade me not to.

"These passes, you're looking at 10, 20, 30 miles of snow!"

"Uh-huh."

"This is major bear country, you're going through."

"Yup."

"30 miles could be 50 miles, there's just nothing else over there."

After the Canadian Flathead and going through the snowy passes in Montana - which were much, much more technical - and dangerous, I was on a natural high that I could take on anything.

Something he sold caught my eye - a large pool float inner tube, with a covering where the donut-hole in the middle was. I told him that maybe I'll pick one of those up, find some rope and make a harness. I could then put my bike in that and instead of pushing my bike 30 miles, pull it 30 miles. And oh - did he have any rope laying around?

With the best of intentions, safety seemed to be a top concern for this gentlemen and his clients, he tried to shoot down my idea of pulling a make-shift sled with 50 pounds of gear 30 miles across something like Union Pass. This time I listened. I take a local's experience and advice very seriously and if this guy says it's impossible... maybe it was? I studied my maps a little more and realized that I was indeed, out of my mind. I dashed off an email to Matthew Lee basically stating that I've met my match, that it was a fun ride, but from now on, I'll have to take the reroute through Wyoming - oh well.

Within minutes the Subway store got a call from Matthew, looking for a dirty mountain biker and the worker gave the phone to me. Matthew was pretty certain I could do it. One thing stuck out from all the things he said,

"They don't know who you are."

What I realized is that I also forgot who I was and - of course I could do this! To have someone like Matthew also have the belief that you can accomplish something makes a big difference. I think we can all relate to someone just believing in who you are changing the outcome of your life. That outside perspective can help, especially when you're a little phased from such a killer effort and have just had a delicious Subway sub. Sometimes you are your worst enemy. Matthew never told me to do it - but he told me he believed it was possible and that's all I needed, just a little coaching from the guru.

I stopped by the Chevron and bought some more peanut butter and was on my way across the first snowed in Wyoming pass, just like that. The ATV rental guy was a little more than impressed. He himself turned from a disbeliever to someone that really wanted to see this thing happen and became both an ally and a major source of resources for me to utilize - I took over his office area, his computer and his phone. I couldn't have done it all without his help. That sort of story often repeated itself in my race.

What was the best surprise of your ride?

The race is so multi-dimensional it's truly hard to pick out a best or worst of anything, but the amazing people I met along the route was a complete surprise. The support you feel with everyone's excitement made a huge difference in my race.

What was the worst moment?

The worst moment was most certainly the morning I got off the bus back in Denver, home. I thought, "Here I am, back in my safety zone". Taking a month to get somewhere and having it take 12 hours to make it home, easily with a simple cheap-fared bus ride was just a little depressing. Long bus rides like that alone are never really ever much fun.

Did you have any exciting animal encounters?

The most exciting animal encounters were the bear prints on the road up Flathead Pass - the first really snowed in pass. There wasn't one part of the track that wasn't covered in them. The forest is so dense up there, that all the animals take to the road to travel themselves. If there wasn't bear prints, there was bear scat, if there wasn't bear scat, there was the scattered plume of some animals fur or feathers from a successful kill. The pattern was sustained through the entire snowed in part. I didn't even have bear mace.

Became pretty exiting once the daylight faded and I was taking on the route in the dark. A few actual bears were seen, but nothing that I would call a direct encounter. I sang too loudly and too off-key for most anything to even want to get too close to me.

What was the best moment?

The entire race was one of the most incredible adventures I have ever done and I'm not one to shy away from a spontaneous and often ill-planned romp through unknown territory of either the inner or outer landscapes of the universe.

That first night in the Canadian Flathead again was truly special. I had made it to the Forest Service cabin with tired muscles and a major sigh of relief, knowing at the very least, I didn't have to deal with sleeping outside with an off-the-scales bear presence and a large collection of chocolate and peanut butter treats. The area was absolutely vibrating with bear energy. All alone in this vast, mostly untouched wilderness, in this small cabin alone, not even knowing when the last visitors could have been, having enough wood to build a roaring fire in the stove to last the night - even being able to use it to toast the bread to my peanut butter sandwiches and dry out absolutely everything I brought in my kit. Just me and Miss May on the cheesy girly calendar tacked to the wall. Only thing to read was the various names and dates carved throughout the interior of the cabin. Wondering where everyone else must be on the route and what they were facing. And sadly, knowing I'd have to make my own escape from this refuge as early as possible, if I was myself to get across the border the next day - having two more snowy passes to get through, a lot of unknown territory and that bit of insanely steep "singletrack" that connect two roads on the route to deal with.

How much night riding did you do? What kind of lights did you use?

I did quite a bit of night riding. An early day for me would start at 7:00am, so to get an honest day, I would ride until past midnight. I also encouraged myself to not end a massive snow trudge in the snow itself.

In hindsight, I'd limit the amount of night riding to the minimum as there's simply just no way to go as fast at night than during the day, especially if you don't know the route intimately. Too many things are against you to make good headway.

The only exception to this was if you wanted to beat the heat in the southern part of the route. I tried, pretty unsuccessfully, to change my sleep schedule to have siestas at 12:00pm to 4:00pm in New Mexico and a major stumbling point was a wonky sleep/wake routine.

For the equipment itself, I just had a blinky light for the back of my helmet and some Black Diamond head torches for the front. Nothing fancy or special, probably picked them up on sale at REI one year - took 3 AAA's each. If I was hitting a mountain pass at night, I would ziptie one of them to the top of my helmet and wear the other around my forehead, so that I had as much light as possible in front of me. This technique was mostly used in Colorado - my fastest state by far. After the snowy passes of Canada, Montana and Wyoming, the familiarity with the Colorado terrain just seemed, even with its lofty passes, to be the easiest part of the route and the last real chance to make up any time.

How much camping vs hotels? What are your thoughts on each kind of experience?

I motel'd it far more than I would have ever thought I would. I can literally sleep anywhere so the appeal of a warm bed and comfort wasn't really the reason - I don't sleep in a bed while at home. During the 6 months leading to the race, I would either sleep in my bivvy, or sleep in what I usually sleep in, a hammock strung up diagonally across my room!

But, again, the snowed in passes seemed to change the game of this race significantly. Trudging up a snowy pass at .6 mph, rather than riding up it at a safe 8mph and trudging down a snowy pass at... .6mph rather than a good 25mph clip takes a lot of time, but also energy out of you. Instead of playing an intelligent game of keeping in constant motion and reserving your energy - cycling smart for the long haul, trudging through unknown amounts of wet snow is a tiring full-body activity that can easily leave you spent. Resupply points also turn from a 12 hour ride to two to three days of mixed riding, hike-a-bike and snowshoe trudge. To say nothing of the damage the bike takes on in those conditions.

So at some points, I simply needed to take some 1/2 days to recoup. Checking into a room, cleaning all my gear, drying the gear, dropping the bike off to get what parts that needed replacement replaced, fueling up from not resupplying for two/three days - it's nice to have a home base to do this, especially when you don't really have an extra pair of anything to wear while washing what you do have - I went with a bare minimum clothing kit, really, just because I also was bringing the snow trudging kit with me. Epic times!

How did you handle the transitions from wilderness to town?

Some of the most intense memories I had were coming into town. The rerouted section between the safe haven of Helena and Butte was one of the hardest sections I had to deal with, not because of the amount of snow, but generally the absolute crazy deterioration of that 4x4 track. Everything was thrown at you, snow drifts, quick sand, mud, rocks, rivulets everywhere, everything. I rode into Butte around midnight in a rain storm. Going from rough 4x4 track to interstate highway was interesting enough, but seeing the spectacle of so many lights that make up even a smaller city like Butte was absolutely breathtaking. The lights coming out of the Canadian Flathead, which I also got out of finally in the middle of the night had the same other-worldly feel to them, but we're talking about a factor less of lights.

Other than that, towns were a spirit-lifting sight. They usually equated to the thought of getting food and a little shelter from the elements, if not only temporarily. And when I say, "town", it could have been as small as the Clark Store - not many elements are needed to be a wonder in the Tour Divide: some sort of food and some sort of person to buy the food from. If they had the holy trinity of the Tour Divide: Bacon, Burritos and Coffee, all the better, but as Jill Homer says, bikers can't be choosers.

Breckenridge was a little whacky, just because it was in full-on summer season so there were a few instances of running into more easy going people in vacation mode. Really, I never had the feeling of being too dirty to interact in town. After awhile dirt becomes simply protective, "Road Patina" and once you tell people you're doing the Tour Divide and maybe explain a bit to them what that means, you sort of get Carté Blanche on your appearance - people are just in awe.

What wound up being your favorite food?

Many foods became favorites! Sometimes just having food was enough to fall in love with it. Peanut butter - a giant, pound and half jar of the stuff got me through between Pinedale and Rawlins, straight through the Great Divide Basin. My budget in Wyoming was pretty tight, so all I ate essentially was peanut butter and bread I sourced from restaurant kitchens. They'd sell me an entire huge loaf made from a local bakery for cheap. Adding jelly in Pinedale was a revelation.

Chocolate of all shapes and forms was an instant spirit raiser. Once it got hotter, chocolate in thin colorful candy shells ruled the day. Jelly Bellys were my favorite pure sugar fix - much more plentiful on the route than I would have thought and the only food that I almost sent myself via Post Office general delivery. You can take a few minutes, popping two Jelly Bellys in your mouth with a coffee bean to get a major little boast in energy.

I am and always will be a coffee junkie and just having coffee available made for a better experience. I got into the mode of always ordered a Chili Relleno if one was available. The best pie I've ever had was at Pie Town - the Apple Piñon pie made my day and it wasn't just because the next resupply point was across the Gila, and not because I was tired and not because the road leading to Pie Town was essentially a flattened sand dune - it was just a really good pie. Really greasy messy breakfast plates were essential. Anything in Burrito form. Bacon.

The downside, especially with stopping for food is that you can't be too into enjoying it, you kind of need to shovel it into your mouth and keep going. The Tour Divide is not a Tour of Table Manners, sadly.

What did you learn (bad or good) about your equipment? What would you improve & what would you keep the same?

Having bought my first mountain bike in April, I have little to base any comparisons upon. But, that same bikes shop I initially went to to get advice on my first bike was still around, actually absolutely flourishing and their raison d'être was simply to make you love and fall in love with cycling. In all those years - and this is a oft-repeated story of many of their customers, I never bought a bicycle from them, just a pile of parts and some wrenchin' time. But, when it came to the Tour Divide, I knew they knew what I needed, especially since they had a former multiple veteran on their history's roster.

I told them "Hey I'm doing the Tour Divide! What bike should I use?!" And they pointed and said, "That one." A 2011 Kona Big Kahuna. I did a little bit more research on bikes - what others were using, why, how much all these things were going to add up to - and especially the availability of everything and a few months later I went back to my local bike shop and said, "OK, let's get it!" And that was that. I knew that the shop curated the equipment they brought in to worked well with the local terrain and in the Front Range you have single track that goes up and then goes straight down. You need a pretty lively and aggressive bike and I really enjoyed knowing this thing was a freakin' bronco.

I was a little apprehensive about using it for the Tour Divide, but it worked out great. I think it's been shown that a wide variety of bikes work out great for a spectrum of different riders.

That bike was kept pretty stock - put my favorite saddle on, the pedals I'm familiar with and a slightly longer seat post - that's it. If I was to do it again, I may not have opted for a 10 speed setup - Tour Divide bikes just take a major beating, especially when you ride in conditions where you may just skip the day if you were doing a day ride. Perhaps a more robust groupo could have been found that wasn't as finicky as my setup became after mile #2,000, after everything gets really worn in and nothing can be replaced, without replacing everything. Single Speed? Internal Hub? Fixed? Belt Drive? These are all tantalizing alternatives.

You did this ride on a pretty low budget. What's your best money-saving tip?

For tips, a good comfortable bivvy/sleeping bag/pad sleep kit will cost you the same as two nights in a fleabag motel in a tourist trap town - so get one, peanut butter and bread (find flat breads, tortillas, etc for packability) can take you hundreds of miles and lube that chain daily, if not twice - three times if you can. A major cost penalty in my race was replacing worn out parts.

If you do the race, always be a good steward for the race - never forget to tip at a restaurant, don't leave a mess in the bathroom when giving yourself a 5 second paper towel bath, never snub a fan that may be following you and don't do questionable things while out on the track, even though you're racing - don't litter, don't blatantly camp where you shouldn't, don't go into private property, etc. Just basic things. Having manners is a way to save yourself in the future. If we all get a reputation for being unsavory while racing, the locals are not going to be so friendly while we visit their towns.

I really could have raced the race cheaper than I did, but perhaps not as sustainable, if that makes any sense. I bought my bike at my local bike shop, since I'm a loyal customer - could have gotten it online cheaper or used various shop hookups to get it at a lower cost, but nothing like that really felt right - if I had payed my dues and earned the respect of a company that wants to help me with gear costs, that would be a different story, but this is all a new thing to me.

Being a part of a community is far more valuable - the wrenches helped me understand my machine, the shop itself rooted for me during the race. Knowing I'd come back and be able to have a few rounds of beers with all the wrenches and sales people and the owner was good inspiration while being in the dumps.

Other than that, it's just the way I already live my life. I was already living without a car free, so bikes were how I got around anyways. The place I live in is small and shared with a few people and close enough to downtown and the resources I need. Most of the activities I do are creating stuff or interacting with people and/or their projects - lots of artsy activities and not a life of consuming. To deal with the major amount of food I ate while just simply training for the Tour Divide, I bought a huge, 25lb bag of brown rice and each meal just became "rice with..." and then something a little more exciting.

One of the main reasons that mountain bikes never really appealed to me was that the mountain bikes I see daily are perched on top of cars. In my location one needs to drive 10-30 miles to a trailhead, before taking a ride. At least when training for the Tour Divide, that extra 20 - 60 miles per ride was perfect training. Another tip Dave Nice may also give you, as he himself had his home base in Denver for a few years.

In some ways, on the Divide you are very isolated, but in other ways you are very connected to people. What are your thoughts on that?

A major appeal to me about the race was the isolation - and I was more than thrilled to be über-isolated when taking the standard routes - as much as I love being around and interacting with people, being alone is how I recharge myself. As isolating as some of those sections were, going on a bicycle tour in a foreign country that you're learning the language of, while riding through is a much more isolating situation.

As for being connected, I opted to have a SPOT GPS, but for the most part I tried to forget it was there. It always caught me off guard when I get super fans of the Tour Divide on the side of the ride yelling, "Go Justin!" or the bike shop all ready for my imminent arrival. The former brings your spirits up, the latter saves you a bunch of time - the bike shops all along the route were incredibly accommodating helping you get tuned up in a very busy time of the year for them. Many of the people who you would speak to would then follow you throughout the race. Perhaps that's one of the ways I got a such a strong fan base.

What kept you going through your toughest times?

Times were tough?! Perspective I guess - you're racing this race and sincerely, it's the greatest race in the world, with this wonderful network built around it, be it the community of internet fans, the towns and its locals you go through, the bike shops along the way, the other racers - it attracts a special breed you know - to the organizers and everyone that puts in so much of their selves towards the race. It's a complete privilege to be out there doing what you're doing. I felt I owed it to people to race a good race and give it my heart and soul. There were incredible days and there were not so incredible days, but there never was a day that I completely lost my cool for more than five minutes. If things were miserable, again the perspective that pain is temporary helps greatly. Coffee tastes phenomenal after getting out of a tough section. Living this monk-like lifestyle while training, I didn't have a girlfriend at home to miss, but solitude is a place of strength for me. But, seeing my Brother, who lives on the route in Breckenridge and who I haven't seen in over a year was a huge help to get through Colorado and into New Mexico.

I did also bring along music and intense and emotional situations like racing in the Tour Divide really makes you feel very connected with some of the lyrics and moods that you listen to. It could have been a simple playful song by Joanna Newsom I could let part of my mind wander into while trudging up yet another snowy pass in the early early morning, or some dance music on those huge tracks of road in the Great Divide Basin or South Park. I have to thank Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, who's discography of simple songs I think I sung out loud and completely off key with ad-libbed in lyrics to fit the situation I was in (mostly, about bears) for getting me through the Canadian Flathead section.

New Mexico dealt you some wild cards. What were your thoughts on the final day on the trail?

My last day in New Mexico is where I crashed my bike going down a bumpy hill and had to take myself out of the race to visit the ER.

Canada, Montana and Wyoming were hard areas to get through, with all the snow trudging and the rest of the mixed terrain. I passed into Colorado with so many friendly faces and familiar terrain, it seemed by far to be the easiest and fastest section to get through. New Mexico, on the other hand was a solid test of all my experience during the Tour.

I knew going into the state that the heat would play a very large role in my success or failure. In the northern sections, I could snowshoe in bike shoes without socks for hours on end, seemingly oblivious to the cold, bivvy at the top of a snowy pass in alpine conditions while it rained and snowed around me and chuckle about how I had a touch of hypothermia that night in the next call-in, but heat on the other hand was a desperate problem.

I did my best to stave off dehydration, bumping up the water I could carry to around 1 1/2 gallons and trying to be smart about not riding in the hottest parts of the day. But, I still wanted to blaze through New Mexico as fast as possible. I probably took the beginning part of the state - a fare bit of just road, too fast - I just felt unstoppable. When I finally got to dirt again, I was at less than 100% to deal with it all. The road to Pie Town was miserable and the Gila in total was just something I was trying to get through as fast as I could. I lost perspective that I had almost three weeks of constant riding under my belt with 0 rest days and I was then asking my body to perform even harder.

Water really just didn't quench my thirst and I was always nervous about where the next resupply of water was, hearing from North Bounders I past that windmills were dry and pumps locked up.

Food also didn't satisfy - I just never got much feedback on my body on what it wanted and how much of it was needed, so it was just this guessing game of how to properly handle my body.

The intensity of the sun was also an issue, as I'm faired skinned, but I did my best with high quality, high SPF sunscreen, along with sun covers.

Gear was also beginning to fail at an astounding rate. The bike's drivetrain was just in bad shape, and select gear combinations seem to work, while others just skipped the chain and made me lose my speed. Small annoyances that turn into large ones when you're going through symptoms of heat exhaustion and trying to race a time trial. It all became a little too unreal when my pedal exploded, North of Cuba and not really having a bike shop to service it with a replacement until Silver City - the last bike shop on the whole route. I bought a replacement pedal at a Walmart, but when changing out the broken pedal, I managed to break my multitool in half - the pedal was just stuck in so tight into the crank. If it wasn't for a piece of rope I found on the road I used to tie the broken pedal to my shoe, I'm not sure what I would have done, really. And of course, this is when you finally get that flat from all the thorns you keep hearing about, your sleeping pad springs a leak and your shoes are just not all that comfortable anymore.

So my final *day* on the trail actually started out on a good note - the day before, I wisely took a half day, knowing that I couldn't do the little CDT singletrack section to Silver City safely without being completely hydrated and completely rested and completely good on food. The Gila section was tough, for all the reasons I listed. Instead, I took the 9 mile penalty and went off route to Lake Roberts to have about five enormous meals, plenty of water and to get plenty of rest. The next day I felt focused and out of that strange heat exhaustion daze, I left early to beat the heat and felt fine. Finished the section at around 10:00 am without too much trouble. The trail seemed a little loose because of the type of dirt that it's made up of, erosion seems to be a long term problem I mentally noted, but that's it. I also was looking forward to getting into Silver City, checking the bike into a shop to give it a good cleaning and a fresh set of pedals and hanging out for a good four hours until around 4:00pm, eating another few meals and planning my last attack of 120-odd miles to the border that I was planning to do between 4:00pm and 4:00am. There was just a few more miles of dirt and a few more miles of pavement to pedal away. No problem. I mean, look what I had already done!

Where I had my accident was just after the CDT section. There was a bumpy downhill and I just managed to hit a good bump - it felt like a dirt jump, at a good clip, got airborne and landed in a bad way, destroying the front wheel and hitting my shoulder pretty badly. Plenty of people had taken the same road without incident, my bike has never failed me, especially when the route got technical, so I can only say it was operator error. There was a turn coming up, so I wasn't even trying to go down at any break-neck speed, I was just making sure I didn't miss the turn. There was a major emotional meltdown, embarrassingly, amongst strangers who had stopped to take me to the ER where I realized that the race - ever so close to being finished was now over in a different way. But like everything, perspective helps and I was glad I wasn't hurt more than I was, the bike can be repaired and there's always another time or another adventure. It wasn't crying Sour Grapes, that would be denying the very focus of my entire year, but rather accepting that what happened has happened. You can do everything right and still not get what you want. Accept that, move on, learn. The Tour Divide was the most incredible ride of my life - the crash only made it even more unique and amazing to me.

How are you healing up? How is the bike? Is there anything your fans can do to help you out with medical bills or other expenses?

The diagnosis I got at Gila Regional Medical Center was good news and the care they gave me there was absolutely wonderful. While waiting for the doctor, they brought coffee and I watched a little of the Tour de France! The doctor showed me the X-ray, which showed no broken bones or dislocation, just a bad sprain which should just heal up on its own. I was amazed as the pain I felt during and after the crash was the most intense I've ever felt for anything in my life, but the doctor explained that this also was a good sign, if I had a clean break of a tendon or bone, it wouldn't have hurt quite as much.

Thankfully, because of my previous issue I had with my leg (which was also bike-related), I had saved up for health insurance, which I had kept. Crappy health insurance, but beats having nothing. There's a little I'll have to pay for the copay and a lot for the X-Ray I'm sure, but I don't have the final bill, yet. I was transported to the ER by a fish and game police officer that just so happened to be in the area I had my accident, so no ambulance or helicopter ride to pay for. I was really, really lucky. The human body is a surprisingly resilient thing. I was also kind of happy I had put in some solid gym time in training to build up my entire body, instead of just working on pedaling.

Bike is still currently in Silver City - I opted to have it sent later, since the shoulder injury prevents me from really lifting anything for a while. I didn't even want to figure out how to get it on and off the bus I was riding home. I'll rebuild the taco'd front wheel and replace the drivetrain eventually and we should be good to go for another round of adventures. I can't say I haven't thought of a few trips in some out of the way places I already want to take.

I can't possibly thank the bikepacking and Tour Divide community enough for their intense interest in my race, in their support to my fundraising project - as well as the fundraiser for Dave Blumenthal and his Daughter's college fund. You've all collectively already have done so much for me, I already feel severely indebted to all your kindness and selflessness you've given to a relative unknown member of your community that just decided to take a road a little less traveled and found it to be a most delicious way to race the race. I'm more interested in seeing if there's anything that I can do to help anyone else's projects within the community.

As I said in my final call-in the love and support shown to me makes me aspire to just be a better person myself. This is an unfair and unjust world we live in - filled with imperfections and compromises and it's truly difficult to exhibit the amazing qualities I've personally seen and felt. You've all given me some amazing hope. Thanks, everyone. Your support of my ride has even touched members of my family that haven't been as close as I we all would probably like to be and the race has really started bringing us all together in mutual support - it could very possibly be this amazing catalyst for us all being better to each other. Big stuff.

I will keep people updated with my recovery, but I think it's just a matter of time and rest - and some good coffee to be drunk. If complications come up, I'll certainly let the community know and ask for guidance.

What's the next adventure?

Ha! I think for a while it'll be fishing with my best friend at Turquoise Lake up in Leadville and having a beer or two, while keeping a look out for bald eagles. Catching up with friends. Figuring out my next art project, getting my screen printing business organized, becoming reacquainted with my instruments for the marching band I'm in and sincerely writing a 5 year life plan. It may be time for me to go back to school, or move away from Denver to somewhere else. Who knows? Sometimes, adventures have months of preps, sometimes it's more like a few hours notice. Both types are delicious. Probably try my hand in being the best partner I could possible be in a romantic relationship - now that's something that's filled with unknowns and danger!

There's obviously other adventure races I'd like to take on with a bicycle. The Colorado Trail Race is really attractive, as I could simply pedal to the starting line, but it's really questionable that I and my bike will be mended up in time for the start of this year's race in a little over two weeks.

Looking a little more into the future, my snow trudging and love of cold-weather encounters during the Tour Divide makes me think that the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska is right up my alley. It's a costly venture, so careful thought would be needed to be done if that's really what I want to do. If I decide to go for it, I'd sincerely live part time in the Colorado Mountains in an old cabin I'd take over, completely off the radar and feed this myth of this crazy guy with a bright red beard that spends all this time alone practicing cycling like a monk practices a martial art, preparing for cycling half way across Alaska and the like.

I don't have enough perspective to say if I'd do the Tour Divide again, but if so, I'd continue to respect it as a race and try to put in a good time - perhaps under 20 days? Maybe attempt to yo-yo the course? Is that even possible?

What is your advice to folks thinking about riding the Divide?

Respect it. Respect the facts of the race - how long it is, the conditions you'll be thrown. Respect the community built around it and respect the towns you go through. It's simply not an easy race. Be a steward of the race itself while racing it. Be prepared physically and mentally and follow the old adage of, "know thyself". Be prepared to do more than just ride your bike 16 hours a day, there's just a whole lot more to it. The Tour Divide is unlike anything else - it's special and fragile. Be ready to deal with surprises and remember to keep a positive attitude and get ready to love being cold, wet and isolated most of the time.


7 comments:

Mike said...

...look forward to reading this on the train ride home. Thanks !

Richard said...

nice blog, i enjoy riding . Richard from Amish Stories

Mike I. said...

Nice interview. Really enjoyed that Justin had not ridden mountain bikes and just rode with a stock setup for the race. Makes his story all that more accessible to those of us who are not ultra athletes, but still appreciate the extraordinary effort that it takes to compete in a race like this.
Here's to a speedy recovery.

Josh M said...

Great information and interview. Thanks to you and Justin.

Ted said...

Kent - great post - anything that you would add having done the race yourself?

Emily said...

Great interview! thanks to you both for taking the time. Your ride was inspiring, Justin, and the authenticity and drive you demonstrate here are inspiring.

Marcy said...

Watching "Ride the Divide". That ride is EPIC! I have enormous admiration to anyone who takes it on that challenge. Wow!