James Olsen recounts his Tour Divide adventure

Editor’s note: We were tipped off to this story by Jeff Jones, creator and namesake of the Jones mountain bikes. Olsen rode his Jones 2,858.75 miles to finish fifth in the 2013 Tour Divide from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, N.M.

I didn’t ride quite as far, but you can read my first impressions of the Jones bike here, and a long-term review from our sister magazine Dirt Rag here. – Adam, online editor.

Words and photos by James Olsen.

Just over a week ago I arrived at Antelope Wells after 17 days and about 5 hours of the most intense riding experience of my life. I’m back at home now, I’ve been meaning to get something written down for a few days and it’s only now I’m starting to accept that it’s in the past, no longer waking in the night feeling that it’s time to get up and roll along the trail for a while, warming up before settling in for another long day in the saddle. The Tour Divide was everything I went out there for, it was beautiful, intense and at times almost crushingly hard and it got the best out of me.

Firstly, my bike and kit. I bought a Jones Titanium Spaceframe a couple of years ago and it changed my riding. Really, this wasn’t just new-bike love. Longer rides went by in comfort, the handling was addictive and motivated me to ride almost every day and the comfort meant my rides got longer and my fitness improved noticeably.

I bought a steel diamond frame with truss fork for holidays and bikepacking trips and found it was the perfect tool for the job. Comfy and efficient but also a huge amount of fun downhill—a bike-packer ride that wasn’t ever dull or a compromise when we found unexpected gems of trails. Not once did I think “If only I had my susser here…” on those trips. For the Divide there really isn’t a bike I’d have felt so confident in.

I used my steel diamond frame for the frame-bag space and the Ti truss fork for less weight–it all counted. The Velocity P35 rims let me use my tires at maybe 17-18 psi at times when the washboard roads were beating me up, or simply when I wanted to roll more easily along the rougher trails. Others were sticking to 40+ psi and thinner, lighter rims and I think I had an advantage there. I’m certain I was getting less beat up than other riders.

I used Geax Saguaro 2.2 tires that do roll very well and work well on both loose or hard ground but I think a bigger tyre would have been a wiser choice. Fast-rolling 2.4 tires aren’t so widely available but perhaps the tread is less important at lower pressures. On the roads an Ardent 2.4 at 40psi would’ve been slower than the Saguaro, but on balance it may have been faster or comfier over the rougher sections. I saw a couple of Surly 29×3.0 Knard-equipped bikes on the route and eyed up their tires enviously.

A Ti Loop H-bar was the perfect bar for this kind of ride, plenty of space for lights, computer, route maps etc as well as the grip options. A good number of racers were using them this year.

I used a single 34t oval chainring and a 12-28 six-speed modified cassette on a Hope singlespeed hub, using three single-speed cogs and three Shimano cassette cogs stacked up. This was a really hard-wearing combo in the gears I used 80 percent of the time (16, 19 and 22 rear) and I was confident 2,800 miles wouldn’t put too much wear on them. The shifting wasn’t as slick as a normal cassette but it was ok, like a singlespeed with a few options either side of my usual 34-19 ratio.

The straight chain line and front single ring would have been a benefit in the infamous Divide mud, but it was my downfall on a fast road section at the end. A triple may have been a wiser move, certainly if I’d known it was going to be generally so fast and dry I would have fitted one. Shifting was done by a bar-end shifter with a Paul Component mount and I used XTR v-brake levers on BB7 brakes with 160mm and 180mm rotors. Pre-greased cables were a little sticky at first but ran smooth the whole way and I only used one set of pads. My wheel set uses the same spokes throughout so I only carried 2 spare spokes. All my kit came to around 11 lbs., just under 2 lbs. for my sleeping kit on the bars, 3 to 4 lbs. of clothes and waterproofs in the seat pack, the rest was a camelback for food and water and in my frame bag that had extra space for a full 2-liter water bladder if needed.

As for the ride, the Tour Divide isn’t that well known outside mountain bike circles but the number of entrants has increased sharply the last few years and blue-dot watching (trackleaders.com) has added a new spectator dimension to races like this. This year there were 140 or more of us, mostly gathered at the YMCA Lodge in Banff on the morning of June 14, heading south.

I guess most of us had discovered bikepacking in recent years, seen “Ride the Divide” or read Jill Homer or Paul Howard’s books and been hooked on the idea. Some had been planning the race for a couple of years, others for less time. I fell into the “less time” group. At New Year’s I decided I wanted to do something committing on the bike and the Tour Divide was big and exciting enough to really motivate me (fear is a good motivator I found).

Multiple-race-winner Matthew Lee’s posts on Divide racing attitudes and ethics on a forum clinched it for me, it was a race that seemed to appeal when racing rarely does so. For five months my spare time was focussed on little else. There was no race experience in my past to base any confidence on but I had done plenty of reasonably long rides and bivi trips in the past. I feel at home when alone and outdoors and I love sleeping under the stars. I felt confident in my self-sufficiency and felt that I could answer a reasonably confident “yes” to the “Are you up to this?” check-list on the Tour Divide site. Or at least, ‘yes, after some preparation’.

I also had found the perfect bike for my long rides and overseas trips in my Jones bike. What I needed to do was get myself in shape for the demands of the race, finalize my kit and decide on some kind of strategy.

I wanted to race in a certain style, influenced by what I’d read about the original Great Divide race and Matthew Lee’s approach to Divide racing. I really wanted the Divide to be a tunnel that I entered into with the only way back to home comforts being the finish line, or retirement from the race. That meant (to me) racing without a phone or GPS, being 100 percent reliant on myself for bike servicing or repairs and I wanted to sleep out trail-side every night and find a rhythm that worked with daylight hours and my body clock to maximize rest or minimize physical and mental disruption.

The Divide route was to be an open-air experience and roofs were off-limits between start and finish. I think a few more storms would have tested that aim towards the end, but I’m happy that the stormy nights were times when I pushed on out of town in the evenings, set up camp in the dark downpour and lay safe under my small tarp as the lightning lit up the fabric every few moments. Other nights, the storm threatened, tested my resolve then backed down and let me rest with only a light drizzle that couldn’t disturb my coma-like sleep.

Before the race I said that these ideals or ethics may cost me a few places but racing style was important to me, I had some kind of “clean, onsight” kind of climbing ethics in mind that could only really be done once as a rookie on the route. Ask me about ethics after I mis-read my cues again or rode miles past a turn and spent a stressful time uncertain whether it was the right one and you’d have got a different angle on Divide racing! GPS is a good thing if you want to go fast and phones are a faster way to find out about fire diversions, but adventure and uncertainty is also part of the experience.

I think I had a couple of advantages in the race that made up for a lack of race experience and helped keep me in the top five most of the race. One was being happy to sleep trail-side anywhere and in almost any weather which saved me time, the other was having reliable equipment. I was confident in my bike and gear as I’d used it in roughly a Divide’s worth of distance of bikepacking and touring trips before without a single issue. Some of my kit was fairly new but simply a lighter or simpler version of what I’d used before. Some other things I’d do differently next time having completed the race, but that’s always the case with an experience of that magnitude.

The training went well and I enjoyed the long overnight and weekend rides I did in preparation. By the time the race came around I was nervous, scared almost, but raring to go. If you love long rides and existing with the minimum of possessions the Great Divide is a wonderful place to be. Remote in places but rarely dauntingly so, it’s a route where you’ll often feel very small under dramatic skies and expansive views. The feeling of open space is simply huge. If it wasn’t a race there would have been times when I would have got off my bike and just sat or stood in the middle of these great spaces, trying to take it all in. But it was a race and that added a pressure I never predicted.

I’d ended up in the top 10 on day two; when Billy Rice (a northbound rider nearing Banff, who would then turn around to ride south, completing the first TDR double last week) stopped to say hi and tell me there weren’t many ahead of me I realized I was making my way towards the front of the field. After that there was no letting up, I wanted to do well. If I was going to be happier at a slower speed I could tour the route another time.

Naturally I found myself close to other riders on different strategies and with different strengths but the Divide evens things out soon enough. Racing so closely with Alex Harris for over 2,000 miles taught me a lot as well as stretched my ability and my mental strength, I found I could pedal longer and harder than I expected but the lack of sleep and need to compete with a very experienced racer/adventurer was tough, it wore my nerves down at times but it also stopped me slipping into default tourer mode when I felt tired or close to being beaten by the scale of the route.

I don’t think we were ever more than a few hours apart and all I could go on were tire tracks. If there weren’t any signs of Alex’s tire tracks ahead of me, every time I stopped for any reason I was looking behind me and the pressure built. I learned soon after riding with Alex for the first time that he had experience and a source of strength that I would find it hard to compete with when things got difficult, and it was simply a case of when that happened, not if it would.

Things got difficult after La Manga pass, going into New Mexico. Alex and I were low on food but had eaten well in Platoro, 30 miles or so earlier. We were headed into the first of New Mexico’s wilderness stretches, the Cruces Basin, a very beautiful area that we first saw through rain and a fog of hypoglycaemia as we separately tried to make 800 or so calories each last well over a hundred miles of mixed ground. At times it was among the hardest terrain of the route and all of it was at high altitude.

We both knew it’d be hard as we went in, we’d briefly debated the wisdom of going off-route for 30 miles for food or the ethics of hitching off-route. I didn’t want to hitch or delay but I also wanted food. I remembered Aidan Harding’s comments about considering how a racer-to-be would feel when much-needed resupply points were closed, leaving another half-day’s ride to the next point. I thought it was something I could cope with.

Bravado was called out as Alex decided to head into the wilderness. I think the racer in him knew it could be a pivotal moment in our two-man race. Maybe he was just calling my bluff, I don’t know. But I had to follow. As I pushed uphill in the rain to save what little energy I had only ten miles in, he slowly rode away and I felt alone for the first time in the race. I’d enjoyed riding alone for so many miles before that and at times I wanted to break away from Alex simply to ride alone again, but after the first week’s fatigue I wasn’t up to putting more than relatively brief, almost futile gaps between us and I also enjoyed his company.

The Divide racers’ dilemma perhaps, you need a strong head to race the entire route solo, refusing any company. Further up the trail I found half of the small bag of trail mix that a couple on quad bikes had given us earlier. Alex had split it and left it clearly on the trail… “This really was half, honest! : ) ” it said on the bag. Riding alone was losing its appeal, tough times are better faced as a team but this was a solo race and more so now than before it really felt like a serious, solo race for me.

Dark, irrational thoughts closed in and I thought I may end up losing a few places as I walked, then stumbled, for miles and miles to the next potential food supply but my decision had been made and only I could affect the outcome or take the blame.

It turns out that years of long rides and often-poor pace management had taught me a lot about managing “the bonk” and by eating a tiny amount every twenty minutes I eventually stabilized and perhaps much of my lethargy was due to altitude, or caution-induced. I then had a reckless moment when I ate more than half of my only cliff bar in one go and as the sun went down my energy returned. I caught Alex shortly after turning my lights on and we rode together until we emerged onto a five-mile road climb between the wilderness/forest park areas at around 11 p.m.

It felt like a fairly lucky escape but there were still 50 or more miles to go before any hope of resupply. I was pretty sure that the first possible source of food would be shut anyway, as often had been the way. “Don’t get your hopes up”. I chose to bivi there and rest despite saying earlier that pushing on through the night was a good plan, since by then it was a clear night and getting colder and shivering costs calories. My thin but cosy down bag and cushy Neo-air mat was calling again. Alex had only a bivi bag and down jacket so he pushed on to the next shelter which turned out to be only six miles away. We remained within an hour or less of each other but all I knew the next morning was that I was following his tracks again.

The next day in the town of Abiqui I bought the Divider’s breakfast of two double cheeseburgers each with fries, a large milkshake and large Coke but only after being unable to get any cash at a post office and riding past two cash-only shops over the previous 30 miles. I was also caught at the post office by Liam Crowley who may not have got the friendly hello he deserved from this tired, run-down rider. Sorry Liam… He then gave me a spare bar in a generous offer that I won’t forget.

From that point on, I saw a lot more of Liam. He’d been behind us for almost a week but something had lit his fire and he was riding well, he’d closed a half-day or more gap with what must have been a tough all-nighter across the Cruces Basin from Platoro, a big effort that didn’t seem to cost him in the long term.

In the final miles of our Tour Divide we passed each other as we napped separately for an hour or so or paused at food or water points within 125 miles of the finish. I wanted to ride right through to the finish but sleep deprivation was building and mild, continual hallucinations affected me and falling asleep on the bike for brief moments happened too regularly. Waking and swerving across the road without crashing showed how in tune you can get with your bike after 17 days of almost continual riding but there was a real risk that I’d crash out of the race within sight of the finish.

I had an hour and a half’s sleep under a tree as light rain continued to fall and was back on the bike soon after 4:30 a.m. As dawn broke across the beautiful final desert stretch I was riding strongly but following in Alex and Liam’s tire tracks. Passed Separ, I saw no tracks and got my head down for the last 65 miles of road to Antelope Wells. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized I really was going to finish the Tour Divide, relief that it was almost over was mixed with sadness of a journey’s end, something magical grasped.

I thought I may be about to finish third, unthinkable to me really despite having spent a number of days between third and fourth position and as good as that thought felt, I tried not to dwell on it. It just didn’t seem possible. When I saw two dots behind me on the horizon I upped my pace to my limit, I felt good that morning and thought I could hold the pace for another 35 miles to the finish but whether I actually could, I’m not sure.

My 34×12 top gear was good for a speed that was about as high as a rider with 2,800 miles in their legs could maintain, but Alex slowly reeled me in. I sat up and we regrouped as Liam joined us. For a few miles the pace dwindled and we joked about all of us being caught again as we slowed up – half seriously, as we knew Brian Pal (top US rider that year) had been riding strongly and gaining ground in the last few days.

A truck drove past and pulled into the road side. A big guy in a checked shirt, Texan hat and suspenders got out and stood in the center of the road. His pose was pure wild-west, ready to draw. As we rolled up to him he smiled and held out cans of cold condensation-dripping Coke. Lloyd and Roger Payne, thank you for the best welcome committee possible. Racing was off the cards as we drank two cold Cokes each, then it went back on the agenda as a final sprint was mentioned.

From the one mile out roadside marker.

Potentially painful.

We were at mile three and I was itching to go. I did feel good, but I was tired enough not to realize that my 34×12 top gear wasn’t going to get me past either Liam or Alex on a flat road. But finishing as racers was the only fitting way to finish, there wasn’t to be any joint-placings among us.

By the time we wound up the sprint, I was back in 5th spot watching the others ride away over the last few hundred yards. It wasn’t a welcome sight yet somehow places mattered less to me then. In the early days I was elated to be top 10, as I moved up the field the only place that mattered was the one I held then and the racing had motivated the best riding I’d done. Ranking mattered less to me than how we’d ridden and coped with the challenges, racing all the way yet happy to ride together when our timing and pace matched.

I’d stuck to my no outside-influence bike service and sleep-out-every-night plans and had nothing but pride and satisfaction for how the race had gone. I’d finished, after all. As much as I’d have turned myself inside out to have got third place, Alex truly deserved his podium spot and at the time I’d have traded that cliff bar with Liam for a place any day. The 17 days had gone by in a blur of huge vistas and wide-eyed discovery, tiredness and endorphins and massive appetites. I’d ridden in sublime places with great people and seen how welcoming small-town American people could be toward tired, smelly bike racers with accents they rarely could place. I’d met Kirsten at Brush Mountain Lodge and Megan and Clay at the Toaster house for not much more than an hour or two and it had felt like I’d known them for years. All the fatigue and pain that was to follow as my body went into a minor breakdown a few hours after finishing were worth it.

And I’m looking forward to tomorrow – unboxing my Jones, simply lubing the chain and riding my local trails again.

More photos

See more of James’ photos from his trip in his Flickr gallery.

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