The Cycle Life: 10 Questions with a Tour Divide Favorite

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A gaunt Refsnider at the finish of the 2009 Tour Divide in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

If you think the Tour de France is the hardest bike race on earth, consider the Tour Divide. On this annual race from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, racers roughly follow the Continental Divide for 2,780 miles. Mileage and terrain are only part of the challenge, as participants must follow a strict code of self support by carrying everything they need and accepting no outside aid except for what they can purchase along the route. At 9 a.m. this Friday (June 10), 74 cyclists will take up the challenge. Because of record snowpack, the pervasive threat of wildfires, and the largest field in the race's history, 15 riders will set off northbound at the same start time from Antelope Wells, and another 14 riders will try the course as a time trial throughout the summer.

In the southbound pack is Kurt Refsnider, a Boulder, Colorado, based geologist who has to be considered one of the favorites to win. In his first attempt at the Tour Divide in 2009, Refsnider finished less than 12 hours behind ultra-racing legend Matthew Lee to take second place overall (and top rookie finish). Since then, the 32-year-old has gained precious ultra experience and racked up some impressive wins, including two formidable records on the Arizona Trail Race in 2010. The day before he set out for Banff, we talked to Refsnider about his goals, his rig, and the unpredictable challenges (think large nocturnal rodents) of racing the Tour Divide.

–Aaron Gulley 

OUTSIDE: To the average person, this race verges on insanity. What's the appeal?

REFSNIDER: While the Tour Divide’s distance isn’t unprecedented (look to the Grand Tours, Race Across America, etc.), the self-supported nature makes it one of the toughest bike races out there. But the course passes through some of the most majestic landscapes our country has to offer, and the solitary and introspective experiences are unparalleled. The race offers the opportunity to step far outside the bounds of daily life and narrow one’s focus to a single objective: forward progress.

What are your goals in 2011?

My goal had been to challenge Matthew Lee’s course record. The experience and endurance I’ve gained since racing the TD in 2009 should have put the record within reach, but with the snow detours for this year’s edition, that’s not going to be possible. So, having a deep-seated competitive drive, the obvious goal is to be the first one to Mexico.

How has your preparation and outlook on the race changed since 2009?

More than anything else, my confidence going into the TD this time around is orders of magnitude higher. Looking back to 2009, I recall a tremendous amount of nervousness in the weeks leading up to the TD. The longest self-supported mountain bike race I had done previously was only 360 miles, and I wasn’t sure if I could come close to completing the TD. I didn’t know how to pack and brought more than I needed. This year, I know the course and my gear selection has been highly refined. My training went as well as I could have imagined until April, when my kneecap met a rock in a minor crash while racing the Arizona Trail 300. It took six weeks for the injury to settle down, and I was forced to back off the mileage. But that means I’ll be starting fresher than in 2009.

What are you riding and carrying?

My steed is a Salsa El Mariachi Titanium frame with some customizations made specifically with the Tour Divide in mind. It’s outfitted with a White Brothers Rock Solid Rigid carbon fork, which smooths washboard better than suspension forks. I run a 9-speed SRAM drivetrain for its durability and the ease of finding replacement parts. My wheels, built by Mike Curiak at LaceMine29, are set up tubeless with fast-rolling tires pumped up to around 25 psi. Cane Creek bar ends and some cobbled-together aero bars provide additional hand positions. The complete setup weighs 20.5 pounds—not bad for a bike built for comfort and durability.

My kit includes clothing to keep me sufficiently warm in temperatures down to 25ºF, as well as Pearl Izumi rain gear and homemade carbon fiber mitts and over-socks to keep me dry. Clothing weighs approximately four pounds and lives in a prototype ultralight seat bag from Revelate Designs. At a bit under three pounds, my sleeping kit stashes below my handlebars and includes a 40ºF down sleeping bag and an inflatable mattress. I’ve used a lighter foam pad in the past, but good sleep is worth a few extra ounces.

For navigation, I have a computer to follow the printed cues, a GPS as backup in case of computer failure (it happens all too often), and notes about services, distances, and times along the route. My bike repair kit includes two tubes, plenty of chain lube, essential tools, and spare parts for almost any imaginable mechanical failure. For my body, I have a small first-aid kit, chamois cream, a generous supply of ibuprofen, vitamins, and electrolyte tables. I’ll have the capability to carry 1.5 gallons of water if needed and treat surface water. All these small bits add up to five pounds, bringing my total bike weight to 33 pounds. 

Refsnider's 2011 Tour Divide rig fully loaded.

What does a typical day in the Tour Divide look like?

My alarm almost always goes off before first light, and I spend a minute peering out at my surroundings. Having arrived in the dark, I don’t have a good feel for exactly where I am. My mouth hurts from the constant eating, my lips are chapped from the sun and wind, and my legs and knees ache from the constant pedaling. I pull out a muffin, sandwich, or on a bad morning a few candy bars, and try to get 800 calories down the hatch before packing up camp. Once on the bike, I often ride for 10 or 15 minutes before finally sitting down on the saddle. A sore butt never wants to be on the saddle first thing in the morning.

As I ride slowly and get the legs working again, I look through the notes for the day and figure out what to expect. I look at the sky and try to predict what the weather is going to do, and I slowly increase my effort. A good day will see 60 miles by lunchtime, and I try to get a hot meal in a town every day before settling in for another five hours of sleep.

How do you stay fueled?

I need a minimum of 6,000 calories a day in a race like this. A solid meal every day is important, whether fast food or otherwise, because even 300 calories an hour for 19 hours falls a bit shy. I normally eat vegetarian, but in these races it’s a challenge to find appetizing, readily available, and protein-rich options without eating meat, so I don’t hesitate to do so. Gas station food provides the bulk of my caloric intake, and walking up to the cash register with $40 of food is not uncommon. Nut rolls, cheese crackers, Twix, beef and cheese sticks, burritos, ice cream sandwiches, chocolate milk, and Mountain Dew are my favorites.

How has the snow this year affected your outlook of planning?

My goal had been to chase the course record, and when it became apparent that snow was going to be a major issue, I decided to start in New Mexico and race northbound, which would still have allowed me to contend for it. But the snowpack in Wyoming is melting far too slowly, so I reverted back to a Banff start and accepted that records are out the window this year. To deal with all this snow, I’m packing some kiddie snowshoes and an extra pair of knee-high socks to prevent my shins from being bloodied by icy crusts.

TD entries have doubled from last year (51 in 2010; 99 in 2011). How do you feel about races like this gaining traction?

I’m torn. While I enjoy the company of other racers in mass start events, I worry that a herd mentality is bringing more unprepared participants to the start lines of ultra races. Events like the TD are all run informally as “group individual time trials.” Organizers have no insurance, courses are set on public roads and trails with no permits, and businesses along the way often go out of their way to help support racers. More riders means more people knocking on restaurant doors after closing, more calls ahead to bike shops asking if they can help get a bike repaired after hours, and so on. This hasn’t become a problem yet, and hopefully I’m being pessimistic and growth won’t have the negative effects I can imagine.

These races are also all run on the honor system, and cheating (taking short cuts, deliveries of parts/food to riders on course, etc.) seems to be a bit more of a problem than it was a few years ago. I worry that more racers will be participating for the wrong reasons and such occurrences may become more frequent. Time will tell.

What’s the single hardest thing about the TD?

For me, the biggest struggle of any day is getting up in the morning and eating that first bit of food. Most parts of my body ache, I invariably don’t want to eat the breakfast food I have, it’s cold out, I might be already shivering upon waking, my damp cycling clothes aren’t particularly inviting to change into, and I have to cover another 160 miles before sleeping again. Once I’m moving, life improves dramatically, and eventually I realize that I do enjoy what I’m doing. But those first 20 minutes of each day are pretty awful.

Any experiences from the 2009 race you’d rather not relive this year?

Things went amazingly well for me in 2009, though the weather was atrocious, with rain at least part of every day for the first two weeks. My shoes never dried out in the first week. Porcupines also seemed out to get me (or get smashed by me) in the dead of night, so I’m curious to see how many of the pointy critters I encounter this year.

Thanks to SPOT tracking technology, you can follow Refsnider and all the racers in real time.

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