2017 Tour Divide Overview

2017 Tour Divide Overview

posted in: Bikepacking | 13
OverviewPart 1Part 2 – Part 3

Well, I survived!  My bike survived!  We both took some damage, but made it to the Mexico border.  I’m currently back in Tahoe, drinking a coffee and reflecting on the trip. I must say I’m happy to be sitting on my butt right now, trying my best to avoid some leg cramps that keep flaring up since finishing.

This is the beginning of a 3 part series.  If you want the jist of things, you are on the right page.  If afterwards, you want to know about how each day went and maybe see some photos, click through each of the subsequent posts (Part 1 – 3).

 

So. How’d it go?

Well, I can honestly say I think that was the hardest thing I’ve done to date.  I mean, starting a company is probably a larger overall challenge, but this was definitely more intense on a day to day basis. Still, as time passes, my memory is already failing me and I find myself thinking “It wasn’t so bad… I should try again”. But I’m sure that wasn’t the case if there were times I was seriously considering dropping out of the race.

So why would I want to drop out?  The physical element was tough, but it was nothing compared to mental game you start playing in your head when things start going wrong. I knew the race was going to be tough and I remember telling myself that even if things started going wrong, I would just slow down and finish. I don’t think I realized how hard that would be when you are really immersed in the race.

Early in the race when I was putting in some huge days the mental game was easy.  My mind entirely focused on strategy… Where am I going to stop?  Where is the guy behind me going to stop?  Can I push a little farther?  Skip a resupply?  Wake up earlier or go to bed later?  Looks like it’s going to rain, I’ll just keep riding until I find shelter.  How many calories do I need to cram into my bike bags for this next leg?  Should I get 3 or 4 cookies?

It wasn’t easy, but it was exciting being in the front of the pack.  It was insane amounts of riding, my saddle was causing me some crazy pain (like I had to wince for the first hour of riding until my mind figured out how to block out the pain), my ankle pain was building since tweaking it on some ridiculous hike-a-bike on day 1, my achilles were sore, my left hand was going partially numb, it hurt to walk…  all of this was easy in comparison to the mental games that came when I started to slip from the front of the pack.

The trouble began at the end of day 4.  We had to climb 3 passes before rolling down into Helena to wrap up a 160 mile day.  I had been riding with Rob, a 50 year old trainer and 3rd time Tour Divide veteran from New Zealand… he was a badass!  We were finishing up the final pass, it was still wet from storms earlier that evening.  We were tired, a little bit grumpy from the length of the last pass, but I felt good.  I remember smirking every time I heard Rob cussing.  Then, on the start of the decent, my front tire got sucked into some soft mud when I was checking my gps and only had one hand on the handle bar.  My bike went tumbling and I did a semi-graceful front flip/roll and came to a rest on my back.  I remember saying… “I’m ok… just give me a sec”.  I checked my bike out first, as you do. I was not happy at what I saw.  My aero bars snapped at the handholds where my gps and light were mounted, meaning I had floppy light for the rest of the 15+ miles into Helena.  Then, I remembered the sting I felt on my elbow and thought… great I probably ripped my rain coat.  I did, but to my surprise there was also a lot of blood on my coat dripping out of the torn holes.  Upon further inspection I found I nice deep gash in my elbow that could use a few stitches.  I cleaned it up quick and threw a bandaid on and we finished the ride into Helena, checking into a budget hotel a 2 AM.  Rob jumped into the shower and I jumped on my bike and rode a few miles to the ER where I got a few stitches.  By the time I showered and crawled in bed it was 4:30 AM and Rob was going to wake up in an hour.  I wanted to continue on with him, but I knew I was going to need more sleep and I was going to need some time to fix up some of my gear before heading out.  So… Rob continued on while I slept a few more hours.

It was late in the morning by the time I fixed things up, grabbed breakfast, and rolled out. I was feeling pretty wiped out today and was bummed I had dropped back a bit.  I started breaking down mentally when I got back on my bike after lunch.  Some intense saddle pain and rainstorms had me in the worst of moods.  I was slow, I kept asking myself if I was really racing now?  I felt like slowing down was the same as giving up.  I felt like I was either all in, or out.  I pushed on to Butte that day and got a hotel with Andrew, who caught up to me as we rolled into town.  I wish I had gone straight to bed instead of look for dinner, because morning came way to quick.

Coming out of Butte I was still battling some saddle sores, and then the knee pain came.  I added ibuprofen to me diet for the next couple of days, but had to slow down even more. My ankle had also become increasingly stiff and painful.  I was really struggling physically and mentally.  I was worried I wouldn’t recover or that I would end up pushing too far and have a lasting injury.  I was really depressed that I wasn’t pushing harder… I was in a race and didn’t feel like I was racing.  I always said I would just slow down if I needed to, but I couldn’t change my mindset.  I wasn’t touring, I was racing.  If I wanted to tour, I could go to bed before sunset, stop and eat at restaurants more often, stop for some coffee or beers and relax more… but I wasn’t here to do that.

A couple days after Butte, after some mediocre mileage days, I was finally starting to feel good again.  I had slipped into around 20th place, but felt like I could really start pushing again and to see if I could catchup to some riders.  So… I stopped in Pinedale after the last of the big climbs in Wyoming to get a good meal and resupply before pushing late into the night.

Well… that’s when I got “Pinedaled*” (thanks Uncle Steve for the term).  Unfortunately, the good meal was all but good to me.  The stomach problems began about 30 miles past Boulder, WY and around 9:30 PM I decided that I needed to stop riding and try to sleep this bug off.  Well that bug was food poisoning, and it woke me up after a couple of hours to vacate my stomach contents.  It did that again a couple hours later, and then I laid in the ditch until 10 AM or so when I decided I might have the strength to get out to the road… that or I was sick of laying in the sun with the mosquitos and flies.  I made it about a mile or less down the road after a mix of pushing my bike, resting, trying to ride, and pushing some more.  I didn’t have any energy, I wasn’t going to be riding that day.  I decided that it was a fairly safe bet to hang out at the intersection at the top of the hill and wait for someone to drive by and see if I could hitch a ride back to town.

*Pinedaled:  When your goals and expectation are ripped away from you and replaced with terrible stomach pains, puking, and fun digestive problems.

I ended up laying in the dirt at that intersection until around 3 PM before I finally got a lift.  Meanwhile several riders passed by, asking how I was doing.  There wasn’t much to be done… I had food and water, just no energy.  There was no immediate emergency, I just was ready to be done laying out in the sun.  I was about to put up my tent, when a drunk guy on an ATV pulled up.  He was flagged down by Tyler, a rider who passed by earlier.  We were contemplating some options when a couple of climbers drove up.  They were heading to Pinedale and were willing to shuffle their gear around to cram my bike and I into the back, and just then the man of the hour pulled up.  It was Jeff in his truck.  He was heading back to his RV in Boulder and had a nice empty truck bed for my bike.

Jeff was awesome.  He is an ultra runner so he knows all about endurance events and pain.  I set my tent up outside his RV and he set me up with a shower and a couple Coca-Colas to settle my stomach.  He even made a simple dinner that was easy on my stomach. I took a couple naps and we chatted over dinner about overcoming challenges.  He shared a story that I kept coming back to again and again on my trip.  On a 100 mile race, he was about half way into the event – feeling terrible, cold, and wet.  He was describing how your mind looks for any and every possible reason to quit. He talked about how while he was running he started to develop a pain in the back of his head and how another runner in a past race had complained of head pain which later turned out to be a brain aneurysm.  That runner died shortly after the race.  So Jeff was thinking, oh boy, maybe I’m at risk for a brain aneurysm, maybe I should drop out… he then reached back and realized his headlamp was twisted around and jabbing into the back of his head.  He adjusted it and the pain instantly disappeared. “Damnit!  I don’t have a brain aneurysm!  I don’t have a good excuse to stop now! I have to keep running!”.  We both got some good laughs over dinner and from then on, every time I was feeling like I had a valid excuse to quit, I remembered this story and thought, “Well, it’s not a brain aneurysm, I guess I have to keep pushing on!”.

Jeff took off the following morning and I stayed another day in Boulder because trouble started on the other end of the digestive system.  The next day I felt about the same, but decided that I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for this stomach bug to pass.  The going was tough for the next four days… every time I ate I had stomach cramping and had to make a lot more bathroom stops than normal.  At night, my stomach would do flips while I slept and would pull me from bed to take care of business. The caged monkey in my brain was loud… and he was not happy that I was still riding.  I wanted to quit.  I was low on energy, slightly dehydrated, wasn’t eating enough, and mentally struggling. I had slipped back in the pack big time and catching up to the front of the pack was out of the question.  I wasn’t enjoying myself, I was slowly racing by myself, with my previously set goals out of reach.  What was I doing out there?  Still I didn’t have a brain aneurysm and damnit… I told myself I would finish this thing.  So I kept riding.

Finally, my health and with it my mood improved after Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  I felt like I had an appetite again and could start picking up my pace.  From here things got easier, even if the riding got a little harder.

I think that is the best explanation I can give of how things went.  It was tough physically, but that is easy to anticipate.  I heard it was tough mentally… I thought this was mainly tough in that people couldn’t handle the long hours riding alone.  I was prepared for this and it was never a problem.  The problem was managing expectations. This was harder than I could have imagined.  I found a quote from the current Tour Divide record holder (and sadly now deceased) that had some excellent advice, something I’ll try to remember when the going gets tough.

“Enjoy it, don’t lose sight of just how lucky you are to be out there and above all, manage your expectations. If we treat things as a pass or fail test we can torture ourselves over the outcome but if we can consider it more as an experiment with an uncertain outcome from the start then we always at least get an answer.”

 

– Mike Hall

Gear / Preparation Thoughts

Overall, I feel like I was as well prepared as I could be.  My bike worked out really well and I thinking my conditioning was as good as it could have been for the time I had.  Next time, if there is a next time, preparation should be much easier as I already will have a lot of the gear and won’t need to stress about the logistics and the unknown.  It will be really focusing on riding and some strength training.  That said, there are a few gear items I’d consider changing up.

Bivy vs Tent

I think that I might look into a bivy (waterproof-ish sleeping bag cover) instead of a tent.  The tent was a nice weather security, but I found I could almost always find a structure to sleep under if I rode long enough.  I only used my tent once the entire trip (minus a sick day), which was after a day of struggling and deciding I was going to go to bed early and get a full nights sleep.  It did rain that night so I guess it was nice, but ideally if I was in race mode that night I wouldn’t have camped there.

Long Sleeve Shirt

I found myself having to change layering frequently or settle with being uncomfortable.  I think a light merino wool long sleeve would have been nice to have a long for times when it was a little chilly for just my rain coat.  If I put my puffy on I would be sweating in minutes.  Maybe being on the chilly side wasn’t a big deal, I just found it hard to get comfortable in some temperatures up north, or early morning riding.  I actually had one packed, but pulled it out last minute figuring I would deal with it.

Rain Protection

Next time I would put a fresh DWR coating on my rain shell before the start. I was a little disappointed how quickly my rain coat was wetting out.  I still stayed mostly dry, but would start to feel damp when it rained hard.  Another issue with the cold/wet was my hands.  I had two pairs of gloves, one pair warmish riding gloves and one pair rain shell mitts, but by the time I decided my hands were really cold the shell mitts over wet gloves was less effective.  I might pickup a cheap warm pair of gloves to use in the northern states after my first pair gets wet.  I would give them away or toss them as I got farther south.

I would also consider bringing cheap 3/4 rain pants next time.  I didn’t bring anything but leg warmers this year.  It was enough, but there were a few times where I was pretty cold and thought about how nice it would be to be a little drier and warmer.  Coin toss?

Drivetrain

As for the bike, I was happy with my 1×11 gear ratio.  Obviously, an extra low and high gear would have been nice, but I probably would have thought the same thing if I had them.  I rarely found the need to have more high end gear and I figured that if I had lower gears I would have rode slower on the ascents, so maybe the 10-42 gear range was perfect. It’s also readily available in a lot of bike shops.  One thing is for sure, 11 speed chains don’t last long out there.  They wear so quick in bad weather, that you might find yourself replacing the rear cassette as I did.  Something to think about.

Watch / Alarm Clock

I only had my iPhone for an alarm clock.  Next time I’ll probably bring a watch as a backup.  Some nights my phone was basically dead and I would ride with just my headlamp so I could charge up my phone enough via my dynamo to make sure I could set an alarm.  A couple time I went to bed with 5% or so charge with my fingers crossed that my phone wouldn’t die during the night and I would sleep 12 hours on accident.

 

The Stats

I ended up walking through the gpx files and trackleaders to pull together some of the interesting stats.  If I missed something throw it in the comments and I’ll see if I can add it.

Total Miles: 2732 mi (excludes 30 bonus miles from Boulder, WY to the place where I got sick and took a ride back to Boulder)

Total Elevation Gain: 173,000 feet  I found different numbers for this, but this was approximately the average I pulled from the 10k point gpx route file and the higher resolutions gpx file.  It could vary slightly due to the fire reroute in New Mexico.

Finish Time:  25 days 1 hour 51 minutes

Overall place:  36th

Total # Racers: 170 (racers that left with the Grand Depart)

Total # Finishers:  63 (at time of writing, 29 days in)

Avg. distance / day: 109 miles

Avg. distance / day (excluding 2 sick days with no riding):  118 miles

Avg. ascent / day:  6872 feet

Avg. ascent (excluding 2 sick days with no riding) / day:  7468 feet

Biggest Overall Day: Day 1 – 165 miles – 14,000 feet (Days 1-4 were biggest).  I had a bigger distance day right at the end, but not as much climbing and I just didn’t sleep much since I didn’t have to ride the next day.

Avg. Moving Speed:  8.5 mph (per Trackleaders metric)

Avg. Sleep Duration: ~5.5 hours?  I’m not really sure… I didn’t get into the numbers (I could dig into Trackleaders data to get a more accurate estimate), but I based this estimate on the following:

  • Days 1 – 5:  slept about 4 hours a night
  • Days 6 – 11: think I slept on avg 5-6 hours a night
  • Days 11-13: Ignoring sick days (no riding) sleep schedule
  • Days 13 – 25:  I was trying to be in my sleeping bag by 11 PM and out of bed before 6 AM (so ~6-7 toward the end).  This was much more enjoyable, but if I was in the front of the pack competing for a position I would have cut the sleep back.

I think the 4 hours a night was a little rough.  If I did it again I would try to be more strict about getting at least 5 hours and no more than 6.

Avg. Riding Duration:  ~14 hours moving time per day.

Avg. Riding Duration was Calculated this from SPOT Trackers moving duration metric of 13 days 08 hours 55 minutes… so this assumes that moving duration is accurate.  I subtracted out the 2 days of no riding for this calculation.  I would like to see this number higher if I do the race again.  This likely means too much futzing around with my bike and sleeping gear in the morning/evening and too long of food/resupply stops.

Detailed Trip Summary

I started to create a big expandable table with the day by day breakdown, but I was finding it was taking me forever to create.  So rather than one gigantic post, I’m going to release it in a couple parts to make it easier for me to work on in stages, and more importantly, easier for you to read.

So, click on the following link to read about Part 1 of the trip:

Tour Divide Part 1

 

13 Responses

  1. Bill Knutson

    Great overview Brad. Looking forward to reading the detailed reports. What you accomplished is amazing.

    • Thanks Bill! Plenty of stories, hard trying to remember them all… it feels like a blur now!

  2. Jack Knutson

    Brad,
    Just wanted to double up on what Bill said. Bill, Kris, and I were following your ride closely on a daily basis. I may have spent a bit too much time flying around on google earth to get a better view of the terrain and circumstances you were dealing with at any given moment.

    And, just to say it again: What you accomplished is amazing. Well done!

    • Thanks Jack! Glad to hear you enjoyed following along – hopefully didn’t distract to much of your work day ;). Appreciate the support!

  3. Jeff Iverson

    Amazing! Great job finishing, considering all the challenges. Sue and I are really proud of you!

  4. David Hutchison

    Wow, Brad, YOU are a badass! Amazing accomplishment! Congrats.

  5. Jeff Brown

    What an interesting change of events you had to deal with during your ride. Certainly fun to follow since we don’t see any riding conditions like this back in the Midwest.
    Hope you get a chance to ride this event again.
    Cheers

    • Thanks Jeff! Hope I get to give it another shot too. Maybe in my 30s 🙂

  6. Wow – what an amazing ride! I really enjoyed reading your write up of it. I was checking out the stats and wondered about a few other things: 1. How many hours a day did you ride on average? 2. How many hours a night did you sleep on average? 3. What was your average speed when you were riding?

    • Hey Sean! Good questions. I updated the post to try and answer this question, but in summary:
      1) ~14 hours moving time
      2) 5-6 hours?
      3) Trackleaders said my average moving speed was 8.5 mph

      See the post for more details on how I calculated these and some other thoughts.

    • Thanks for answering my questions!

Leave a Reply