The Tour Divide "......it's the hardest form of bike racing, period." The second Friday of June each year a small number of intrepid ultra-endurance mountain bike racers competing in the Tour Divide leave Banff in Canada for a solo trip into the wilderness, with the hope of arriving alive about three weeks later at the Mexican border.
The Tour Divide is a standing challenge which originated circa 1999 when John Stanstead completed an Individual Time Trial following the Adventure Cycling Association's official route. The challenge is to traverse a fixed course alone and unaided at race pace. The Adventure Cycling Association or ACA call the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route the longest off-pavement bike route in the world. A distance of 4,345 km (2,700 miles). There is more than 61,000 metres (200,000 feet) of climbing or equivalent to climbing Mount Everest from sea level seven times. The route runs from Banff in Canada to the Mexican border. There is an option to complete the course in the opposite direction. The course can deviate from year to year, regulated by the official map.
Race guidelines state that, "The Tour Divide challenge is based on one guiding principle: Cycle the GDMBR end-to-end, as fast as possible in a solo, self-supported fashion."
Another guiding principle from the manual is "Tour Divide is a web-administered, do-it-yourself challenge based on the purest of wagers: the gentlemen's bet or agreement. Nothing to win or lose but honor." You'll get a beer and a handshake at the finish line for your troubles.
Racers can choose between "Grand Départs" from either end of the route. A second option exists for riders to compete alone in an Independent Time Trial, in the tradition of the first Time Trial challenges. The concept of the Grand Départ is a more recent addition. The basic pretext to the existence of the race is that riders can be tracked via GPS and their progress monitored online. There is no audience participation via the roadside, in fact the rules forbid relatives or friends interacting with participants along the route as each competitor must abide by a stringent code to go it alone. This means long days pedaling through rocky mountain ranges in all weather, terrain where mountain lions and bears roam, or thick swarms of mosquitoes await to ambush racers while they battle the demons in their head. All the while an eager online community monitor their progress, armchair spectators, remote and unseen by the competitors.
There are no team buses, no sponsors, no team mechanics, no instantaneous intravenous rehydration, no soigneur, no mechanic, no team psychologist, no screaming fans providing an adrenaline rush to the top of the mountain, no private chef's, no media hype - no help whatsoever. In fact this race is the antithesis of European pro racing. Outside Magazine credited the race as being tougher than the Tour de France. "The world's toughest bike race is not in France". The Tour Divide caveat clearly warns would be competitors with a series of questions, enough to scare away the most intrepid of racers.
FROM Tour Divide caveat "Self-supported grand tour racing (ie. >2 weeks) along the GDMBR is like none other. Simply on scale, it's the hardest form of bike racing, period. To be competitive for the overall, one must ride ≥150 miles/day. There are no rest days. And if volume alone isn't taxing enough, one must also navigate, acquire resupply, clean/wrench the bike, find shelter each night, bathe when possible, and keep one's wits about it all. No entourages follow athletes. It cannot be compared to today's 100-milers, 24hour racing, or even 3-5 day stage race events. It's easy to be attracted to the romance and camaraderie of a 'shared' cross-country MTB adventure. The rugged Divide backcountry is not the place to learn solo 'racing' is not your speed or style. Are you a seasoned multi-day bikepacker? Have you ridden back-to-back off-road centuries? Are you an expert level mountain biker? Are you a veteran of Primal Quest-scale multi-day adventure races? Are you a proficient bike mechanic; skilled navigator; competent at self-rescue? If you cannot confidently answer yes to most of the above, it would be wise to consider simply touring the route or taking more time to prepare for a true blitz."
Reading this it's clear to see the Tour Divide race is not for those weak in mind body or spirit. The race does have the effect of reducing competitors to tears while their bodies are subjected to extreme weather and daily torture as distance averages must be maintained, over extreme terrain. Yet is this really the "hardest from of bike racing"? The rules certainly make it hard. The Tour de France itself began in similar fashion, over dirt roads, riders repairing their bikes in blacksmith's shops, a relentless daily grind of individual suffering.
Here we have a brand new ultra-endurance mountain bike event run in the tradition of the original European tours. An ultra-endurance event requiring "self-rescue" plus mechanical and navigational skills. Maintaining an average of about 240 km per day over extreme terrain in all weather conditions, carrying, riding and repairing a heavily laden mountain bike makes this race difficult. Add to this that you must go it alone without support and the challenge becomes one of monumental proportions. Less than 100 people have ever started and even less have finished.
The race organisers advice of, "Simply on scale, it's the hardest form of bike racing, period", creates a paradox when comparing this race to any other across the globe. Here's the easiest way to find out if you think it is "the hardest", watch Ride the Divide, a film directed by Hunter Weeks and produced by Joe Cantwell. Executive Producer Mike Dion attempted the 2009 Tour Divide while his crew filmed the race. Ride the Divide charts the journey of Dion, Matthew Lee and Mary Metcalf-Collier. Go check it out, it's easily accessible in the iTunes store or you can organise a "living room" screening via the Ride the Divide website. The film also supports the Livestrong Foundation.
Once you've watched Ride the Divide and answered the question of whether "Simply on scale, it's the hardest form of bike racing, period", share what you think with other readers using the comments section below.
The official Tour Divide race website in case you decide 240km plus - per day - in the dirt sounds like your cup of tea.
All images courtesy of Tour Divide