First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 102. Click below for subscription options:
In 2008, Jenn Hill raced the Great Divide race, down the spine of the American Rocky Mountains, finishing 2,400 miles away at the Mexican border a mere 22 days later. On a singlespeed. We’ve decided to re-run the article in Issue 102 she wrote to remind you (and ourselves) what a rock-hard rider she could be.
Words by Jenn Hill, pictures by Jenn Hill and Mike Riemer/Salsa Cycles
Leaving Del Norte under cover of darkness, we spin out of the desert towards the mountains. Cacti and sage brush give way to pines, packed dirt to loose gravel, and we start to climb as the sky reddens behind us and the horizon resolves into morning.
The gradient is harsh and my legs refuse to wake.The strip of grey rubble breaks what little resolve has crept back into the reserves over night. I walk stretches where the steepness increases the hurt beyond what is sustainable. Start riding again when the walking twists my calves into coils of tight wire.
On and on it goes, for hours.There is nothing in the UK that can prepare you for a climb this intense. No number of interminable road drags into blasting coastal headwinds, no quantity of impossibly steep hills failed and failed and finally conquered as the strength grows in painfully small increments. Switch your brain off; let the hurt go as easily as it comes. Resistance is futile. Crest the hundredth false summit and catch your breath, look around in disbelief as gravity grabs hold of your wheels and starts to turn them without effort.You’re standing on the roof of America and there’s nothing left to climb.
Brake. Feet down.The silence comes barrelling over the mountains in waves. Lean on the bars for a moment, blood pounding in my ears. Raise my head and stare at the snow patches still clinging to the alpine meadow, silver grass and muddied meltwater reflecting the light of the sun.This is the high point, 11,910ft up in the sky, and it’s all downhill from here to Mexico.
“Nothing brings out passion like a fight.” Chris Plesko
I fly out of Gatwick with a bike bag and a Camelbak to my name. I have a return ticket tucked into my passport but am not sure the same girl will be coming back. Goodbyes are difficult and painful, flooded with tears that have little to do with what is to come and everything to do with what drove me on this crazy journey in the first place.The Departure lounge is a welcome refuge of anonymity and quiet phone calls, and as the flight banks over the Downs and the sea I watch the trails I’ve called home for the past ten years disappear behind the clouds.
Calgary is a quiet city, full of cranes and half-built skyscrapers going up rapidly in the gap between winters. It rains often and much time is spent staring out of coffee shop windows, chatting to baristas, watching dipped umbrellas crossing the streets. Nobody has heard of the race and, by the time I leave, the whole endeavour feels unreal until the moment I crest a rise on the edge of the flatlands and see the Rockies, snow capped and stretching all the way across a distant horizon.They are bigger than anything I have seen in my entire life. Awe, fear and excitement slam home and I fly down the road, feet up and grinning, crying and laughing at the same time.
I ride my bike from Calgary to Banff and then on to the border as a prologue of sorts, breaking myself in gently with five days of gentle calm between the twin storms of end and beginning.The route proper slices five states, winding down the spine of the continent and not necessarily following the path of least resistance.When I get home in November I’ll find that my father has pinned a map of the USA from ceiling to floor and traced as best he could the trail as we rode it: the scale is shocking and I have trouble reconciling it with my experience, gaps between dots bearing no relation to my experience. I’m glad I didn’t do the same before I left as I would never have got on to the plane.Two thousand, four hundred and ninety five miles is blinding if looked at as a whole. Instead, I take one day at a time and every hour as it comes. If I am tired, then I rest; if I am flying, then I ride. I have no plan, no schedule, and am very much making it up as I go along, because it’s the only way I know how.
The border crossing is searches and signatures and a guard who tells me what I’m doing is dangerous and stupid. I don’t mention the Kananaskis wilderness I rode through a few days before, where the trees bore claw scars eight feet above the ground and a local hunter pointed out the locations of the grizzly dens I had ridden past on my way down the deserted valley. He asks if I have bear spray and tells me I should have a gun as well. For the people, not the wildlife. I draw breath to explain why I shouldn’t, then think better of it and roll away into the land of the free.
Spot the riders…
In Whitefish, Montana, it’s easy to find the riders.The first and only motel in town has several loaded bikes leaning against its bright white walls, doors open, cyclists’ legs stretched across beds inside. Quiet hellos are exchanged and slow conversations unfold. I realise that I belong here with these people, a world away from the forced bravado and ego puff of the UK’s 24-hour race scene.They are gentle and humble and share the anticipation of what we’re taking on. Mutual respect is a given and for the first time in months nobody asks me what I am doing or why I am here, just accepts that I am.
Come race day I wave goodbye to backs I’ll never see again. Though the Divide is long, the disparity in daily mileage is not that great and as energy and ability ebb and flow between us, it’s common to roll through a town and see familiar bikes leaning against walls, sunburnt grins flashing behind massive vats of Coke. I spend entire days catching riders on a climb, being passed by them on the descent and then repeating the process a few miles down the road. Occasionally we ride together for longer stretches, chatting about the race and our homes, dreams and ideas, pasts and futures. Sometimes we share motel rooms and curse each other’s snoring, waking to a flurry of activity as everybody tries not to be the last to get up and away. Pride counts, even when you’ve worn holes in your shorts and are reduced to fishing old peanuts out of the pocket fluff to get you to the next town.Wandering through Kremmling feeling faintly desperate, I bump into Geoff. Unsmiling and wasted, he leads me to a bar around the corner amd we share a quiet supper as he tells me he is quitting the race. I know that the decision is his alone and that nothing I can say will make him feel any better, so I sip my Coke in silence and try not to think too hard about why quitting hasn’t even occurred to me yet.
As the miles roll on it becomes clear that I might just make it. Every day has its own character and covering vast distances means I often see the sun set on a wholly different place. Montana is mind- blowingly beautiful yet filled with a sense of the everyday; we pass houses and farmsteads where people raise their cattle and drive their kids to school, making the splendour feel mundane. Idaho is brief and tarnished with the trappings of ski resorts and the money they bring; Colorado is mostly steep and very lonely, despite the increased contact with civilisation that begins and ends with its borders. Southern New Mexico is a land of straight roads and big skies.
Fewer mountains, slower moving time.
Wyoming is unremarkable and dominated by ‘the Basin’ that occupies my thoughts in the preceding days and erases them entirely while trapped in its hundred-mile vortex of aimless directions and incessantly acrid wind. Escape comes in the form of an absolutely straight road with expansion joints every ten metres. Bump, bump, bump. I start to count them but the horizon never comes closer and darkness is chasing hard from behind. As the sun goes down I’m riding the banked asphalt velodrome of the Mineral X road, lights on the interstate glittering silently distant, fire melting into chocolate black. Massive hares flank me through the sagebrush, eyes sparkling in the shadows as they run effortlessly for night.
“What’s for lunch? I’ll take it all please…”
Food is fuel but miles kill appetite.Too often I can’t think of what I want to eat when faced with rack after rack of bewilderingly unfamiliar snacks, so resort to Coke and M&Ms. Simple calories that slip down unnoticed, bright enough to be toys. McDonalds and Subway are saviours: often back to back in the malls that line the strips, they allow me to buy and eat the first half of a sub, then move next door for one or two double cheeseburgers and a vanilla shake while stashing the second half of the sandwich in my pack for supper. Starbucks is double Frappucinos with extra cream and sugar, roadside diners mean pancakes, eggs and hash browns, gas stations are ice cream sandwiches at nearly a thousand calories apiece.Yet still I get thinner and thinner until my quads and calves look painted on and my ribs make shadow ladders beneath my skin.
Long miles wreak havoc on a rider’s body and the ten thousand miles of preparation only attempt to minimise the effects, not eliminate their cause. Saddle sores and chafing are inevitable when you’re riding over 100 miles a day, blisters and numbness, scratches and scrapes.The tan lines are incredible and are still there a year later but long miles hurt.The pain they inflict is something you can either cope with or you can’t. My mind is tougher than my body, and as the race wears on I ride standing every morning for ten miles, sometimes more, before the painkillers and resolution kick in and sitting on the saddle becomes bearable again.
Climbing Colorado’s Meaden Peak takes a long push up an unrideable trail, wet with snowmelt and slush, a boulder-strewn cliff in the pool of my light.The endless shoving of uncooperative wheels and relentless twisting of a tired back drags on tendons, knee pain building horrifyingly rapidly until every step is screaming agony. I bite my lower lip until I taste blood, taking three steps, then two at a time. Then just one, pausing to breathe deeply with every metre crawled and face the doubts head-on.The darkness gets deeper, outside and in, and fear starts to nibble at my heels.
I must go faster, yet I’m too tired. I need to rest, but it’s too cold to stop up here at 10,000 feet. I have to keep going, even though every step rips down my leg, taking my confidence with it. It’s just a matter of hanging on.The descent is just as painful, though mercifully faster; hanging on to the bars and gritting my teeth I tell myself I’m covering distance now and this is A Good Thing. Make it to Steamboat and you can stop. Bribery, coercion. Hold on ‘til Steamboat. Nearly there.
At the next junction, still miles from Steamboat but conceivably off the mountain, I unroll the sleeping bag, pull on all my clothes and crawl into sleep beside comforting tyre tracks in the dirt, dragging my wrecked limbs behind me through freezing dreams.Waking before dawn and staring at the stars, I stretch gently beneath the layers and it’s as if the night’s hell had never happened. Everything is fine again and I roll down the hill towards coffee and breakfast with a grin of relief on my face.
“Don’t cry. Pedal.” Anon.
Dawns on the Divide are wonderful times. Feeling the warmth of the first sun ray as it slips between the mountains, the spirit lift that comes with the day’s opening glow and the peace in its gradually diminishing departure, all of these things are what make the frequent pain and the tedium only incidental and quickly forgotten.There is a magic in experiencing every dawn, dusk and the moments in between that allows you to appreciate the passage of time that’s diminished by four walls and a roof over your head.
Occasional overnights in motel rooms mean hot water and a chance to scrub my blackened limbs until they sting with cleanliness but inevitably I wake in the early hours, scared by the humming silence of double glazed windows and distant traffic.The greatest joy is to leave these places and pedal out under the sky, ready for the day to begin, feeling the breeze start to lift with the sunrise and knowing that you’ve earned another fresh start to your life.
I realise quickly that returning to normal ways is going to be very hard indeed and I struggle with anything which connects me to what now seems like someone else’s life.The mandatory phone-ins* are painful. Even though I have so much to say to the few I hope are listening, I find myself empty headed and numb when hooked up to the crackling static, stuttering more than usual and struggling to get the words out. I navigate the frustrations of calling cards once to phone home and speak to my mother, standing outside a gas station staring at the mountains and imagining the English summer rain she says is hammering the windows. She sounds tired and far away and I know that she’s worried, that I am putting her through hell as I disappear literally off the map for hours and sometimes days, but I also know she understands what I can’t give up, even for love.
After the call ends I sit for an hour on the forecourt in the sun, watching men in jeans and cowboy boots come and go in their trucks. Drained by the effort of sounding sane, shepherding my thoughts into coherence, I wonder whether the absolute selfishness a task like this requires makes me a bad person. My musings lead me in circles and back to the point where I started: I have experienced more happiness in the past few days than I have in years and therefore it can’t be wrong.
I am a self-contained unit, everything I need right now is strapped to my two wheels and I can ride in and out of other people’s lives, passing through them and taking little, leaving no trace. It’s a simple and seductive existence and I think rarely of my life in boxes back in the UK. I do miss my friends and often wish they were here but in the bottom of my backpack is a small drybag that I don’t open once for the duration of the trip. In it are my iPod, my mobile, my passport and a £20 note.There are also notes, drawings and photos from home, carefully folded to six inches square.The bag is marked ICE, more to make a point for my own benefit than that of potential rescuers, and though it doesn’t see the light of day until I’m holed up in Oregon recovering, the knowledge that I carry the love and wishes of my friends with me is sustaining.
Crossing the Divide, while riding down it
As the miles roll on, the Divide crossings mount. At some there are signs and I lean my bike against the post to take a picture. I have a vague plan to frame each and every one to remind myself of where I’ve been but I miss the Divide so much when I’m done that I can’t bear to look at the pictures and they sit on a card gathering digital dust for months and months. When I eventually load the files, I find that they tell only half the story and that my memories are just as vivid as the moment in which they were encountered.Words scrawled in the sand in New Mexico by friends and fellow racers who had passed hours before, hightailing it to the end. Blue spiders raising menacing forelegs under torchlight and the dog-sized hares who kept watch in the Basin. Rolling high with a tailwind over the Divide at 3am, lying on my back in the sage brush and failing to count even an inch of the stars.The dry scent of forests that see more sunshine than cloud, the smell of hot rain and lightning in the badlands above Del Norte. The crunch of snow underfoot and the hammering of washboard. The sunset howling of wolves in the Gila and the hollow thunder of cattle running unseen through darkness along the long road to Mexico. The bittersweet and beautiful final sunrise.
Somebody wrote, not too long ago, that those who ride the fastest, the hardest and the furthest have something to ride away from.The Divide made me believe that they’ve found something to ride to. Even if it’s just another sunrise.
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