Inside the Hardest Bike Race on Earth With Eszter Horanyi

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Hornanyi takes a breather atop Powell Point during the 2011 Dixie 200, which she went on to win.

This morning, June 8, over 100 riders will line up in Banff, Canada, to undertake what might be the hardest bike race on earth. The Tour Divide, which began as the Great Divide Race but has now morphed into this longer iteration, sees riders traveling some 2,700 miles along the Continental Divide from Banff to the small outpost of Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on the Mexican border. Riders race completely self-supported, carrying everything they need for the journey that they won't be able to purchase along the way. The current Tour Divide record of 17 days, 9 hours, and 1 minute was set on an individual time trial ride last summer by Victor, Idaho, native Jay Petervary.

Lining up for her maiden Tour Divide is Crested Butte, Colorado, racer Ezster Horanyi. Of the hundred-plus starters, Horanyi is just one of 10 women who will attempt the race this year (not including Caroline Soong, who is racing on a tandem with her partner and 2011 Tour Divide winner Kurt Refsnider). And though it's her rookie attempt, Horanyi has to be considered a favorite to win the women's race and possibly even set a new female record. Judging by some of her most recent results—1st woman and 3rd overall at the Stagecoach 400, 1st woman and 9th overall at the Arrowhead 135, 1st woman and 5th overall at the Colorado Trail Race—she's also likely to finish faster than the majority of men in the race.

We caught up with Horanyi earlier this week as she was traveling to Banff and asked her how her final race preparations were coming. Thanks to SPOT tracking technology and, you can follow Horanyi and all the racers in real time as they battle their way across the country in coming weeks.

So 2,745 miles—are you ready?
Isn't it 2,751 miles? I've done everything I can do to be ready, so I guess that makes me ready. With something this long, I feel like aside from the basic nuts and bolts of bikepacking, there's little more that I can do besides be ready to think on my feet for any situation I run into. I can't wait to hit the trail.

This race is much bigger than anything you've previously done.
I read Jill Homer's book Be Brave, Be Strong last summer when I was procrastinating with getting ready for the Colorado Trail Race. I'd known that I wanted to race the Divide someday, but reading the book cemented the race as the big goal for 2012. It's definitely a leap of faith. I've planned everything this past winter and coming summer around doing the race, and there are so many things that can go wrong in 2,751 miles that it seems almost miraculous that people can finish it.

What's your goal?
Finishing is always the first and primary goal. All my decisions out on the trail will be made with that in mind. I'm hoping to have a smooth ride, and smooth tends to equate to fast. My wedding anniversary is on June 26, and I'd love to be back for that.    

That's almost 150 miles a day for nearly three weeks! How did you train for that?
Going into the winter and spring, I fully expected to be doing endless miles on dirt roads, but in hindsight, I feel like I only did a handful of really big rides. I work with Lynda Wallenfels as a coach. She put together an amazing program this spring that was full of fun events like the Stagecoach 400 down in Southern California and a couple of other shorter events close to home. I rode with all my gear a bit, and the past week has been spent shredding singletrack on my rigid fork and aerobars at home.

What are you riding, and what's on your bike? How can you possibly carry everything you need?
I'm riding a fully rigid 29er steel Waltworks. I have Stans NoTubes wheels, Maxxis Crossmarks, and a mix of XT and LX components for a 3×9 drivetrain. I'm all about maximizing the durability-to-cost ratio.

I stressed about my gear a good bit because with shorter bikepacking races, you can look at the weather forecast and be fairly confident in your clothing choices. With something this long, there's no way to pack for every scenario. Then I came to the realization that I'm not going to be comfortable all the time regardless of what I pack, so to pack what I know will get me through 98 percent of scenarios … and hope for good weather.  

Horanyi's Tour Divide race rig on a dry run in Colorado.

Is there anything you probably should have cut from the kit but that you couldn't bear to forego?
My camera. It weighs almost half a pound but I couldn't imagine going without.

The women's record of 24 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes seems within your reach. Are you thinking about that?
It's definitely in the back of my mind. As far as snow goes, I think it'll be a fast year. But the fires in New Mexico could cause a detour, and then it might or might not count as an offical record. It could also pour rain on us the entire time and cause miles upon miles of miserable mud, so everything is conditions dependent. I think that I've controlled for all the variables that I can control for and there's no point in thinking or stressing about everything else. In the end, I want to finish, and finish happy and healthy.

Nevermind the female record, in most of the races you've done, your times are more on a par with the men. How do they take that?
You'd have to ask the guys on that one. I think that there's a growing contingent of women who believe that in races like these, women really can compete with the guys. In a sporting culture where that rarely happens, that's neat. In the end, racing smart and preparing and just dealing on a day to day basis plays a lot more into success and failure in these races than anything else.

What's your biggest fear going into the race?
Grizzlies. Rednecks. Running out of water. And flat tires. I hate changing flat tires.

Do you ever think about a DNF?
I fully understand that there are circumstances that could cause a DNF. Injury, family emergencies, getting struck by lighting, getting eaten by a grizzly bear … these things are out of my control. I don't think about quitting because I'm bored, or tired, or my rear hurts.  

What are tactics in a race like this? Do you pay attention to others?
I focus on me. My goal is ride from start to finish as fast as I can so what anyone else is doing doesn't really concern me. If I can make it to Antelope Wells and say “I couldn't have gone any faster. That was my speed limit,” then I'll be happy with my ride regardless of how times or placing shake out.

There's bound to be plenty of suffering. How do you keep it fun?
I remember all the cruddy jobs I've worked in the past. I figure that any day I get to spend riding, even if it's in the rain, snow, sleet, or hail, it's still better than working Lift Operations and watching my life go by one chair at a time. I also have certain places that I've read about, Tour Divide lore, that I want to see: Rob Leipheimer's shop in Butte, the Brush Mountain Lodge outside of Slater, Absolute Bikes in Salida, Pie Town in New Mexico. So instead of focusing on making it to Antelope Wells, I get to focus on fun places I want to see.

What would you say to folks who might be toying with the idea of doing the Tour Divide but who think it's too big or overwhelming?
Do something smaller first. Go tour for a handful of days, fall in love with bikepacking. Then commit to the idea and get to work making it happen. I firmly believe that given enough time and the proper preparation, anyone can complete the route. The biggest hurdle is saying, “I'm going to make it happen.”

Three weeks of riding—what will you be listening to?
I broke my iPod last fall, and I've been a complete cheapskate in replacing it. I haven't ridden with music since then, and I don't really miss it. The only problem is that now I tend to have one song on repeat in my head for an entire race, which can be infuriatingly annoying, especially when I only know a handful of the lyrics. But I tend to spend more time talking to myself and daydreaming than actually singing.

—Aaron Gulley

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