Editor’s note: Roadrunner Bicycles co-owner Elliot DuMont completed the Tour Divide Mountain Bike race last week. He finished in 18 days, 12 hours and 47 minutes. The time earned him a 13th place finish. I invited him to share his thoughts about the race here and Bicycle Tucson and fortunately he accepted. The following is the second part of several recounting the race and how he got there. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here.
Things will go wrong. You’ll miss that store you were planning on getting food from. The bike shop will be closed. Something unforeseen will come around the corner leaving you on the ground. You’ll forget to charge something or get batteries. You’ll be left to improvise, to ration food and water, you’ll have to change your trajectory, or limp into town with your tail between your legs. On the morning of day four, my stuff sack holding all of my sleeping gear ripped along the closer end. I used the compression straps tied backwards to hold everything in but knew if I was caught in a prolonged rainstorm I can forget sleeping. I repeated a piece of advice I saw in a Bikepacker Magazine article: be flexible. Sometimes you’re tired, hungry, and fatigued and you just want something to work out and it doesn’t. It’s a long race and things can be put back on track in no time. When I was road racing, getting a flat or having a mechanical could mean crucial seconds gone. In contrast, even with 4 days to go when New Mexico decided to get real with me, I still had 500 miles to make up for lost time. The race aspect of the Tour Divide has an interesting effect on your mental faculties as time progresses.
I saw Colorado as the time to punch it. There would be a lot of climbing, and with my layover in Steamboat Springs I would need to make up time. On the plus side, I was able to rehydrate, recharge, and gorge on giant milkshakes. Milkshakes are a valuable commodity on the Tour Divide as I found out. There will be times you feel invincible. You’ll want to go as hard as you can, you slept well, you have plenty of food and water, you’re set but this can mean total bonkage. The hardest thing is to maintain a consistent pace. Keep the pace tolerable. I still let myself go and would push the pace when I felt really good. As time went on and New Mexico came into view I found that good days where I would push were followed by hard days. My legs ached and I couldn’t find a decent tempo to save my life, I had trouble breathing right, and I would burn through food as if it was water. So this is what it means when they said to just hold on for dear life until the end.
New Mexico doesn’t mess around. It is the final test before you finish. Do you have your head screwed on right? How’s your bike? Are you sure you have enough food and water? When I entered New Mexico, that morning, the temperature was incredibly cold above La Manga Pass. I don’t know exactly how cold but I had all of my warm clothes on with little effect. The grades are steep and after a brief window of pleasant temperatures the thermostat gets turned up. The afternoon sky is usually full of scattered and fast moving thunderstorms. I was warned about New Mexico and halfway heeded the warnings. A friend of mine and veteran of the Tour Divide, Mike, warned me to not get caught up in the epic. Don’t let crazy stories of lightning, or bears, or mud distract you from doing your thing. A lot of times those stories can be dramatized. I tried to keep a level outlook on New Mexico but there’s a lot of New Mexico that’s truly a test.
A crash resulting in a bent wheel on the first day in the Land of Enchantment slowed me down and in some ways was a blessing. I remember cruising through the forest between Vallecitos and El Rito unable to go more than 10 mph on the descent. As the sun set, huge thunderstorms blanketed the surrounding mountain ranges. The clouds lit up bright orange between the pine trees. The temperature was more like what I was accustomed to in Tucson. It was beautiful and over the past few weeks, was the closest feeling to home. Another layover in Abiquiu gave me some time to get recharged and settle down while I figured out my front wheel. Leaving Abiquiu the next day in the afternoon I raced thunderstorms around mountains and over mesas. I thought I had them beat but they convened when I headed up to the summit. I don’t know if it was paranoia with the gusting winds or if my leg hairs really did stand on end but a split second later lightning struck above me. I was off my bike and huddled by the side of the road hoping the storm would pass. For about an hour and half, I would move a bit then would stop to wait for the storm. Another rider approached. I decided I was being paranoid and joined him. As we approached the top of the climb (about 10,300 feet), I noticed a lot of hail inches deep crusted the ground. I also noticed fresh tire tracks cutting through the hail. Later I would find Martin, from the Czech Republic, huddled in his sleeping gear by the side of the road. He had nearly burned through all of his food when he became trapped when the storm opened up near the top of the climb. He was low on food and very cold. After checking to make sure he was ok, I continued on. I stopped to sleep at the end of the dirt section above Cuba. It was a short day because of the late start but it had its own fill of excitement, I was glad I played the paranoid card.
I had thought it would be cool to clock at least one 200 mile day in the Tour Divide. Many people do it, but it would be the furthest I had ever ridden at one time. The stretch from where I camped above Cuba to Pie Town seemed like a perfect opportunity for such an endeavor. The first 170 of those miles would be paved, followed by 30 or so on dirt. I filled up in Cuba with a resupply planned for the Apache village of White Horse, halfway to Grants. Nearing White Horse I was low on food, sadly the convenience store as stated on the map does not exist. So I pushed on to Grants. Moments like this started to wear on me: I was starting to get tired of things not working out. Following the advice I read prior to starting this journey, I kept moving. Staying still you are no closer to getting food or water. Even if you have to ration your food, keep moving. I was cooked entering Grants and spent a good amount of time refueling before heading out into the heat for Pie Town. My body and mind were worn down and I decided that the best way to get to Pie Town was to chill the F out. I started slow and let myself enjoy the scenery, letting let my body and mind come into themselves. The Malpais Wilderness was incredible to skirt along. Finally reaching the dirt road 30 miles outside of Pie Town. I took no chances with leftover mud puddles. I dismounted to walk around them. Soon the sun went down, the moon was bright enough to ride without a headlight. I cruised into Pie Town around 11 P.M. I had done it: 200+ miles. I was stoked.
The stoke factor was boosted ten fold by a slice of pecan pie waiting for me inside the self-care hostel, The Toaster House. Nida, the lady who owns the house, had saved slices of pie from the Pioneer, one of the two pie restaurants in town, for all the riders who would be arriving after the restaurant had closed. The next morning I set off early, determined to make it to Pinos Altos. That meant only one more day on the trail. However, before reaching Pinos Altos I would have to cross the Gila Wilderness.
My friend Jefe warned me of this section. It had caught him off guard on his first attempt at the Tour Divide. I was legitimately scared. He mentioned before the race that I should probably stock up in Grants before heading out. While in Grants I had filled every jersey pocket, nook and cranny full of food. Snickers made my map bag on my handlebars bulge, trail mix and Fritos had me expanding my saddle bag to its fullest. I even strapped an extra Subway sandwich to my handlebars. This food was hopefully enough to last me the 80 miles from Grants to Pie Town, then Pie Town the 150+ miles to Pinos Altos. On the way to the Gila Wilderness, I was again rationing food making sure I had enough. I would stop every ten miles and eat a Snickers and some string cheese. I had a mental breakdown nearing the last water resupply the Beaverhead Work Station. I was scared of not having enough food, I was hungry, the wind had picked up in the form of a headwind as a storm passed, and the road turned to shit. I wanted to eat and not worry about running out of food. I wanted to gorge myself on water. I just wanted to ride without the fear of a storm. After gathering my senses I made it to Beaverhead. Another rider who I had caught on my way there mentioned I needed to make sure my head was on right; this was some gnarly shit we were about to enter.
I drank a few bottles of water and ate a bag of Fritos and some jerky. I made sure all of my water was topped off. I studied the map. The other rider had left already and was well ahead of me. Finally the advice of just keep moving went through my head. The Gila wasn’t going to ride itself. I set off. The first climb set the stage and immediately I was in my lowest gear grinding away. This was the smallest of all the climbs. Cresting it and diving down into the next valley I found a comfortable tempo. I hit the next climb and was able to maintain the tempo. Near the top I saw the rider that had warned me of the Gila earlier, passing him I joked, it’s a good thing I like to go up. I cruised over the top of that climb and descended into the valley after that. I cruised into the first of the three big climbs. I realized this wasn’t so bad. Actually, this was fun and beautiful. My eating was great and I never felt hungry. I found my pace and began to love the Gila. This stretch became my favorite section of the Tour Divide. Finally descending to the highway, all that was left was a section of actual continental divide single track before a paved climb to Pinos Altos. I pushed upwards until around 12:30 A.M. when I finally called it a day.
So this is it, I thought, the last day. I slept in to let a rain storm pass. I don’t think I’ll ever be top endurance material, I like to sleep too much. I cruised into Silver City after the brief climb to Pinos Altos and stocked up on copious amounts of water and food. It was 124 miles to the border and there would be two stops before the finish line. I was carrying way too much water but there was a possibility of triple digit temperatures so I decided to play it safe. I cruised along the highway outside of Silver City and finally connected with the last dirt road that would take me the 30 miles straight to I-10 and starting the last 75 miles of paved road to the border. As I rode, I became increasingly uncomfortable. As I said earlier, the race has a way of integrating itself into all forms of your day. I stopped eating at sit-down restaurants because the service (whether good or bad) was always too slow for me and I could feel time being wasted. I had to work hard to have polite conversations with curious strangers wanting to know what I was up to. In my mindset I found I could set up camp in five minutes and take down and be on my bike in 15 if I stayed in my riding clothes. As a result I spent the last eight days in the same jersey and shorts, only taking them off to go to the bathroom. As I started to sweat things became critical “down there” on the ride to the freeway. Arriving at the convenience store I searched desperately for some relief, a cream or antibiotic ointment, anything to help ease my discomfort. I found some aloe vera gel. I went to the bathroom for application. The one and only bathroom stall was occupied and there was a line for the urinal. Not here. I went to look for another secluded spot. As I walked out into the main room, I saw another rider, Josh, had caught me. My competitive drive kicked in and I hopped on my bike determined to not get passed.
On the dirt frontage road things worsened. I applied the aloe but this only provided temporary relief. I knew the real answer to my problem was to air things out. If only I could just lay in the sun for 30 minutes! Then things would be ok. I couldn’t, Josh was right behind me. I rode for a bit and looked around. then it hit me, yes I was next to I-10, but I was also out in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. The drivers were passing me at 5 times my speed. If there’s anything I learned camping next to the road it was that most people are so concerned about their tiny microcosm that they take little time to just look around. I decided I would do it. I stopped, took off my chamois, attached it to my saddle bag inside out in the sun, and remounted my bike, naked from the waist down. Much to my surprise it was quite comfortable. I guess after 2600 miles my saddle finally wore down. I giggled the entire section of frontage road. It felt so good to finally have a bit of air down there. Remounting my chamois I was incredibly relieved.
The last bit to the border, although relatively flat, was the biggest test of all. It was long, hot, and straight. The road went through a valley with mountains so far on either side it was hard to get a sense I was moving at all. Stopping to cool off at the water spigot in Hachita, the last stop, Josh passed me. Screw it, I said, this is the end. I hopped back on my bike and made my way to the border. The first 15 or so miles were nice with a slight downhill. Miles ticked by quickly. The last 40 were not as easy. A wind was added to the slight uphill slowing progress to a whopping 8 mph. The end was so close yet still so far away. It was an open road and no technical skill was needed. I had enough adrenaline to physically push through whatever, but my mind was the hardest of all to control. It was a pretty emotional last few hours. My left leg decided in my push to the border to act up, 2700 miles and now you act up? I stopped a few times to stretch it out. I lost my mental focus and pondered whether I would ever finish. The mocking words of Leslie rang in my head, the race that never ends. Why won’t you just end? I thought.
Finally I crested the seemingly never ending hill and descended the 100 meter slight downhill to the closed gates of the border crossing. I was greeted by my dad who had caught me in Hachita on his way to the border. Josh and his friends cheered me in. It was over. I hugged my dad and a few photos were taken. Josh left. My dad went to go grab a beer from the truck for me. I sat on the pebbles around the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol sign. The light was fading, it was almost 9 P.M., the breeze covered my skin and I stared northward. I felt totally drained, I was empty. I tried to think of what just happened. I tried to remember all the memories, the emotions, the people and the places. Only one thought filled my head. I just stared. That was big I thought. That was really big.