Tour Divide: The Most Difficult Bike Race On Earth You’ve Never Heard Of

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A record-setting field of racers is nearing completion. Some race for the experience and some for the physical test. Some race to see if they can truly achieve their dream, some out of curiosity, and some for the idea. Some race to win.

On June 9, 77 people will converge on Banff, Canada. They will be full of cautious optimism and nervous energy. They will take a final shower, drink a final beer, and sleep in what could be the last bed they see in the next month. The next morning, before the sun shows on the Canadian Rockies, the racers will be starting the most epic race that most people have never heard of: the Tour Divide.

The premise is simple: no outside help, no shortcuts, bicycles only, and the first person to Mexico wins.

The 2,745 miles along the spine of the continent has a tendency to punish racers in every capacity: physically, mentally, emotionally, and even mechanically. It’s just a rider, a bike, and the divide stretching out before them.

Around mile 700, the trail descends four miles from Elk Park into Butte, Montana. This is a milestone of sorts, as racers turn right onto Harrison Avenue and pull their two-wheeled steeds into the parking lot of The Outdoorsman Sport Shop. The challenges of the previous miles are obvious at this point.

Rick Smith is the head mechanic at The Outdoorsman. Being a mechanic on a trail of this nature can be both daunting and exciting. “What I do as a mechanic working on each rider’s bike can mean the difference between a successful, uninterrupted journey or an unhappy ending.”

Smith credits his extensive training for his success in aiding riders. “My personal standards for excellence are high, which is why I get recurrent annual professional factory service training on new products and am a recent graduate of the USA Cycling Bill Woodul Race Mechanics Clinic held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. I currently hold a USA Cycling Race Mechanic’s License and am a Barnett Bicycle Institute Certified Bike Mechanic. As a result of my professional training, I have learned to leave nothing overlooked, to attend to the tiniest details, and to routinely double check my work before a bike leaves my stand and heads back out on the GDBR trail.”

The Tour Divide, officially called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race (or GDMBR), takes place on the longest off-pavement cycling route in the world. Racers must navigate through two Canadian provinces and five states. If you are lucky enough to reach Antelope Wells, New Mexico — the finish line on the U.S.-Mexico border — you will have lugged your bike and gear up the equivalent of seven Mt. Everest summit climbs (and that’s from sea level, mind you).

“Over the past few years, it has become obvious that this is a race like no other. Countless hours of racers sharing their experiences as I worked on their bikes has provided some insight into their motivation for tackling the world’s longest mountain bike race,” says Smith.

Consider the elements: a 100-degree temperature difference over the span of the course, grizzly bears, mountain lions, post-holing yourself over snow-covered passes, mud so thick you could turn a vase, rivers crossings swollen by spring runoff, and 18+ hours of never-ending pedaling and trail. Throw in an international border crossing and the skill set required of these athletes in astounding.

Smith, understandably so, stands in awe of these athletes. “The Tour Divide CDT route through Montana from Roosville to the Idaho-Wyoming border east of Lima has historically been a deal breaker for over 40% of race entrants. Deep mountain pass snows in the north, steep terrain, heavy rain storms, and miles of Bannack Bench mud, have tested the mettle of many a racer.”

Maybe it’s the daunting, masochistic challenge of a possible accomplishment that shows itself just beyond the horizon that attracts these brave souls. The 2011 start list shows not only 77 racers leaving Banff southward, but also has 14 names competing on the south-to-north race route, and nine people committed to a time-trial version of the race (racer versus the clock rather than a field of competitors). The improbable journey over North America’s most rugged terrain by human power attracts a certain type of person.

“All of their unique stories weave a tapestry of their common deep love for adventure across the top tube and the intrigue the trail holds for facing and overcoming unknown personal physical and mental challenges, all set against the backdrop of the stark isolation and reality of a grueling 2,745-mile pursuit of one’s inner truth,” says Smith.

Whether you’re an introvert, goal-oriented, or an adventurist, this brutally simple and epic race will challenge the racers in ways they have may have never known. The recent documentary, Ride the Divide, touches just as much on the mental and emotional tolls as the physical ones. The trail lies evermore at your feet and despite days upon days of never-ending pedaling, the end is just as far off. You are alone and the world is vast.

Smith agrees. “For me, their journey is the ultimate test of human physical and emotional endurance which pits each rider against the demands of terrain, weather, wildlife encounters, traffic on steep remote mountain roads, resource management for survival, course navigation, mechanical failure, physical injuries, fatigue, and social isolation.”

Why individuals pursue a goal such as this may be an unanswerable question. “If it were me, it would be to meet almost insurmountable physical and mental challenges head-on and overcoming them through self-reliance and exceptional resource management. The ultimate outcome: to answer all those nagging questions from the committee in your head.” Smith also plans on tackling these reasons as racers arrive this summer. “I’m going to ask every racer this year this question to gain some insight.”


A racer’s bike rests in the stand at the Outdoorsman Sports Shop. The afternoon is turning to evening along the Continental Divide. The drivetrain is shot, brake pads almost nonexistent, and mud coats nearly every  inch of what appears to be a bicycle. It’s a miracle both rider and bike got to this point. The first wipe across the top tube reveals a sticker.

Pedal damn it.”

The motivation for a quest like the GDMBR is as numerous and varied as the thousands of miles it covers. The lure of an epic conquest is, as well.

“I wish I could ride along to experience the adventure,” Smith concludes, wistfully.

By Jon Wick


About the Author

Jon lives in Butte, Montana, spending most of his time on skis or bikes; sometimes both. He began travel writing while teaching in Korea and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech. Jon has begun writing his first book, The Story of Will, whose movie rights are still (very) available. Catch more of Jon at (@ExpedJon)

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