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.
How does one prepare to race one’s bicycle for three weeks, self-supported, across the spine of the U.S.? Its an interesting balance that for me continued well into the race. The keywords are “race,” “bicycle,” and “self-supported.” This is not totally like a stage race where you compete in your set distance and group in a matter of hours on a super light bike, drink your recovery drink, go home, shower, stretch and get ready for the next stage. Its also not totally just a bicycle tour, roaming across a large area taking time to look at the surroundings and taking side trips. Its both! You have to quickly as you can move across the landscape but at the same time be responsible to fix whatever breaks should it, out in the middle of no where. I had a conversation with Richard after the start of the race on day one. He was from Wales and was an ex professional rugby player turned adventurer who has climbed some pretty tall mountains and transected Antarctica. We joked about our pace. You know I know my tempo pace and my sprint pace, even my endurance pace, he said. But I don’t know my three week race pace. Training is a whole other grey area.
There are two camps I feel when it comes to the race. There are those who show up fit and blast off the line, going until they explode then holding on for dear life. Then there are those who show up not so fit slowly building steam and hoping to just keep building steam until the end. I hoped to be in the later camp. I asked around for advice found a great answer from Eszter, the then women’s record holder. She said go into it at 60% (or was that 80%?) fitness. Then don’t go out too hard and just let your body ride into shape. You want to peak around week 2. Then hold on for dear life until the end. Right, so basically do some riding, not too much, know what it’s like to ride with all your gear, show up to Banff and go, but not too fast at first. God I hope this works. I did some racing earlier in the year, dropping out of some after a few failed experiments. I did some leisurely bikepacking excursions with my new gear just to see what it was like. I am notorious for overtraining, not resting enough, and showing up to races exhausted. It drove me crazy to not be out riding all the time leading up to the race. One thing to think about though is when you ride your bike for one hundred or so miles a day every day that as long as you can just do that, fitness will eventually come.
What this means however is you must be able to accept that you will suffer at first. If you plan on going fast later you will suffer in the beginning as your body adjusts to constantly moving. Its impossible to not suffer. Even if you do train how can you prepare for riding that far for that many hours for that many days? You’re not just tooting along on some flat country roads, there’s over 200,000 feet of elevation gain throughout the entire race. I’ll admit I wondered whether my body let alone my bike would hold up. Your bike is not the lightest thing either, everything you need to survive for the next three weeks is on it. Part of the complicated preparation equation is your gear. Weight does matter when you climb mountain passes day in and day out, a pound over that distance can mean a lot of energy saved. You don’t want it too light otherwise you compromise durability. You have to ask yourself what are you and are you not comfortable with dealing with? Can you handle day in and day out of sopping wet socks? How do you fare when your hands go numb? How much water should you be able to carry? How hungry do you get? What’s the longest you’ve gone without getting out of your chamois? All of these can be answered easily if the answer was for a day’s trip but when you think of weeks the answers change or really there is no answer as you have no idea. You just have to trust you’ll figure it out when you get there.
The night before I left I was a wreck. I was scared, nervous, and second guessing myself left or right. Should I bring the hydration pack or shouldn’t I? I don’t know! A poor night’s sleep, a flight at the crack of dawn (thank you Dad for getting up at 3:00 A.M. to drive me there), and I was on my way, committed to whatever I had packed in that box hoping it was all I would need to ride my bike home. Arriving in Banff I was awestruck, it was breathtaking! Watching the Banff Mountain Film Festival as it traveled through Tucson, I dreamed of what it would be like to be there. And there I was, in Banff! I gave myself one day to arrive and settle in. One full day to get what I needed done, and then the next morning I would be off. The nerves had gone away. It was just time to do it. Time to throw it all to the wind and may the chips land as they do.
Last year was abound with horror stories of the first five days being continuous rain and snow. Hours were spent schlepping bikes and gear through snow covered mountain passes and trails. Nothing could prepare this desert boy for anything like that. I hoped for the best but knew I was too far away from home and too much was invested in this to just drop out and ride home if things went south. Finishing was the ultimate goal. We lucked out at the start, and despite a forecast of rain, we managed to get rolling without too much ado. This would change bringing wind and eventually cooling off enough for snow. Nothing stuck around for long which gave us all a break but created most rider’s worst nightmare, mud. I feared a massive drivetrain failure and as a mechanic the sound of mud piling into the chain and gears made me cringe. I would quietly apologize to my bike and prayed that it would hold together throughout this trip. Really though, my bike and I had seen nothing yet.
The road into Elkford had mud that was a viscous soup. It piled in between the chain links so much the chain would ride on top of the cassette surfing up and down gears, forget pedaling it just skipped. I stopped to clean my chain and gears from a side stream. I had ridden most of the day with Eleanor. She was on a single speed that had a belt, much like you find in your car engine, instead of a chain. Aside from mounting the belt, it was a bike that was nearly invincible. As we rode she made a comment about even her bike getting clogged with mud. At a certain point I turned around to talk to her and she was no where around. I pulled over to clean my bike again and wondered if she’d come rolling up. I had enjoyed her company throughout the day. Some guys rode by and I asked if they had seen her. They said mud had piled up so much that her belt popped off and she had to clean it. Dang, thats rough, I thought. I waited a bit and kept rolling. It wasn’t long before I was cleaning my bike again, and again, and again. Finally the weather opened up and the ground dried just enough to roll into Elkford for hot cocoa, a refueling, and continuing on.
The convenience store was a mass of riders all enjoying warm fluids and lots of food. Outside the weather was pouring rain. Some riders looked horrified at the thought of going outside and decided to call it a day, getting a room at the local inn. I mentally prepared myself for a cold, rainy, onslaught putting on all of my rain gear for an all out assault to Sparwood. I left Elkford and began to climb up to the single track. It was beautiful. The clouds were clearing and the hillsides were a dark thick green in the fading light. The climb quickly warmed me up and soon I was on the dirt road leading to the single track. I ran into Jill as she and I had a hard time finding the trail. To be fair there were absolutely no markings for its existence other than a few tire tracks. We rode through the single track to another dirt road that lead to Sparwood. It was there we encountered the worst mud or as a friend calls it, Devil’s Mud. This mud sticks to everything and seems to just exponentially pile up upon itself. Attempting to ride a geared bike through this would surely mean instant drivetrain death. So pushing is the next alternative. However, pushing is not much easier as now you’re slipping and sliding as the mud piles up on your bike making it heavier and heavier. I just began to laugh at how absurd it was. I looked back to watch Jill clean her bike with a stick. Brilliant. I too began to scrape mud off of my bike. Finally we cleared the mud and got to a long descent. I decided to let gravity and the rotational force of the wheels fling the mud off for me as I coasted downhill.
We descended to a small section of pavement that lead us the last five miles into town. Sometime during my conversation with Jill I asked if she was going to get a hotel room? She replied that she was going to go find a place to camp, after all, this was a camping ride. Silenced by her, I quietly pondered my own willingness to accept what this ride truly meant. On the paved road Alice caught us. Both she and Jill were veterans of the Tour Divide. Pulling into Sparwood, Alice asked if I was going to get a hotel room. God that sounded so nice, I think so, I replied. We found a place to hose off our bikes and then made a beeline to the only inn in town. After checking into the hotel I took what felt like the most amazing hot shower and crawled into wonderfully dry sheets. I was happy that at least for tonight I was not camping.