A dispatch from the world’s toughest mountain bike race.
Last weekend, my wife and I spent several days bikepacking in the San Juan Mountains, along the New Mexico-Colorado border.
We were inspired by the racers of the Tour Divide, the 2,745-mile self-supported mountain bike race from Canada to Mexico, and specifically by our friend, Jefe Branham, who was leading the race and passed along some of these same trails a few days before us.
While we were out pedaling, Jefe finished his long ride and won the race in a staggering 16 days and two hours. It’s a hell of a feat, and we hope to interview him next week—after he’s gotten some sleep.
On our weekend tour, I ran into another Tour Divide rider, 47-year-old Rob Davidson, who reminded me that this race is an accomplishment for every single rider who tries it. Only a freakish fast few will contend for the win, but everyone on the course pushes themselves to, and sometimes beyond, their limits.
Most of the riders are averaging more than a hundred miles of mountain biking per day, logging very little sleep at night in minimal bivies, and contending with everything from snow up north (which went for days on end this year) to high winds, thunderstorms, and blistering heat down south. The few miles I rode with Davidson provided a snapshot of what it’s like to ride the Tour Divide.
When we rolled up on Davidson, he was on the side of the dirt road fiddling with his bike and sipping the last of the water from a Coke bottle. His sun-chapped red face told of the 17 days and counting he’d been out in the elements, and yet he smiled and joked with the ease of someone who’d only been riding a few hours.
I offered to take a photo, and he tipped his empty bottle to me. “Yeah, tell them I’m tired, hungry, and dry,” he said with a thick Kiwi accent. Davidson came all the way from New Zealand for the Divide.
Davidson remounted his bike, a Ventana with a Niner carbon fork and Gates Carbon belt drive powering a Rohloff internal hub, but just a few hundred feet up the road he had to stop. The cabling was sticky and not functioning properly, and often he had to climb off the bike to shift gears. He’d had the issue fixed back in Ovando, Montana, but it started acting up again.
And with no bike shops anywhere near the course for the remainder of the race, there was nothing to do but bear with it.
Having to dismount each time you want to shift would drive most people batty, but Davidson just laughed. “Better that something on the bike malfunctions than something on your body, like a knee,” he said with a smile. “I’m lucky.”
It was 9 a.m., and Davidson said he’d already been riding more than four hours. He’d slept in the ditch next to the road, where he’d passed out from exhaustion. “I just lay down and figured I’d get back up when I got cold,” he said, explaining that he’d crashed out wearing his kit and arm and leg warmers. It had been pleasant compared to the freezing, wet conditions he’d faced back in Canada and Montana. But at 10,000 feet, it still wasn’t warm. When he woke around midnight, he realized he was still too fatigued to ride so he’d climbed into his sleeping bag and slept until first light.
As we rode, Davidson asked where the nearest resupply point was. I told him it was another 30 miles up the road, in the village of El Rito, and Davidson reiterated that he was hungry. I offered him some of my food knowing full well he wouldn’t accept. Tour Divide rules prohibit taking outside support except at commercial operations.
He said it was his own fault he was low on calories. “I skipped the resupply at Horca. I’d been riding with two other guys for several days, and I just decided I needed to make a move,” he said. “I started with a goal of 20 days, and I won’t hit that. The weather up north was bad. But if I can hold my position, I’ll finish in eighth place.”
He said it with pride. It’s easy to imagine that only the first few guys in this race are going fast while everyone behind is simply out for a pleasure tour. But Davidson was clearly racing.
We ground up a short hill, climbing at around seven miles per hour, which is relatively fast considering how much gear Davidson had loaded on his bike. On the next downhill, he sunk into his aero bars and I had to pedal hard to stay in his slipstream. I was impressed how well he was moving after 17 days of riding.
As we climbed another short rise, I asked him why he’d come. Davidson gestured with both arms at the mountain scene around us. “How can you not want to come ride in this?” he asked. “Every day I’m surrounded by elk and deer.” He’d seen only one black bear so far and almost seemed disappointed that he hadn’t encountered a grizzly. “This is the granddaddy of all endurance races. You just have to come and try it.”
A half hour after I’d met Davidson, we rolled into Plaza Blanco, a tiny mountain enclave that’s not even marked on most maps. A small shack with a hand-written sign marked “Summer Store” greeted us, and a friendly woman beckoned for us to stop. The tiny general store had been closed when I’d passed through Saturday, but was now open for business.
Inside the store, I spied cans of Spam, a refrigerator of sodas, and lots of packaged food. Davidson was ecstatic.
Jen and I left him there to feed and pedaled about an hour down the road to our car, then we drove to a restaurant for a big lunch. Over green chile cheeseburgers and mojitos, we imagined Davidson sitting by the side of the road in bliss with a can of Spam, a Mountain Dew, and a handful of Snickers bars.
Later that afternoon, as I laid down for a nap, I thought of him churning along desert roads in the heat. And before I went to bed at 11 p.m., I checked the tracker. Davidson was still on the move.
Thursday, Rob Davidson was only three hundred miles from the finish in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. You can follow him, as well as the progress of all 133 riders who started 19 days ago in Banff, at TrackLeaders—though it won't tell you anything of the pain they must be going through. Davidson, though, is still heading for that eighth-place finish.