Words and photos by Greg May.
“36 hours on the tour divide”
Nine long days and over 1,900km of dirt had passed under my wheels to reach Pinedale, a town at the edge of the Great Basin in Wyoming. For many this is the entry into potentially the most difficult section of the race, where prevailing winds and rain often reduce a rider to a hiker at some point in the next 500km.
Those nine days had been spent racing my way to where I am now, shunning the company of others, trying to live this race as fast as I can. The riders I’d spent the first few days of the race with are behind me. Those I never saw are far ahead of me. The ones I’ve been chasing, well, one is behind me and the other is ahead, but not by far.
Midnight Day 9 – Somewhere
The final road section into Pinedale is an annoyance. Fifty-five kilometres of blacktop at the end of a 200km day of gravel and relentless pass climbing. It turns out to be pretty much the only tarmac my wheels will touch in all of Wyoming. I’ve caught and passed Bailey; the rider I’ve been chasing, then passing, then being passed again, then chasing again. We’ve been at this for the past three days since Ovando in Montana. Two states ago. It’s becoming comical.
Catching another rider I don’t know well enough to want to talk to, I start to coast. I make excuses about needing to pee as they coast with me. It’s not me, it’s you. I don’t know why I feel like this. I keep soft pedalling when I should be riding hard. I know there is a motel at the end of this road. I know there is a 24-hour gas station. Deep down, I know I want Bailey’s company for the next two days. If only for an hour or two each day.
Pedal – coast – freewheel buzz. Pedal – coast – freewheel buzz. The sound of a singlespeeder on the road graces my ears amidst the fornicating frogs and the creaking crickets. Bailey rolls up and we start to coast the last few kilometres into Pinedale together, chatting about our lives, relationships and dreams. Not the normal things you talk about with someone you’ve known less than ten days. The Divide does this to you, strips you back and lets you open up. We’re all the same out here, we may as well strip back the daily bullshit we carry.
1:00 a.m. Day 9
We roll into the gas station in Pinedale – 255km done for the day – and hit the drinks section. We’ve both been running on empty for a while, and the draw of cold fluids is immense. We wander around filling grocery baskets with random foods – some for now, some for breakfast. The other rider is still walking around like a zombie firing off paranoid stares at us, questioning, still in race mode. I avoid him like the plague.
We walk over to the motel with our carrier bags full of weighty hedonistic treats. A room is split. Bikes dragged up stairs to our room and dumped unceremoniously in the corner. The contents of our bags are dumped on the bedclothes and attacked. Packets ripped open and the contents strewn about in no sensible eating order. Coke with melon pieces. Caesar salad wrap and Haribo. It goes on and on as I stand in the shower drinking a litre of chocolate milk while scrubbing my body and kit into a semblance of clean before leaving them to dry. It’s 2:30 a.m. before we set the alarm for four hours sleep.
7:00 a.m. Gas Station 1 –
Sleep came easy, as the old adage goes, “There is no insomnia on the Divide, but there is forgetfulness.” We both wake sometime around 3:30 a.m. wondering what is going on. My body feels like a furnace, and I’m worried I overdid it yesterday, assuming I’ve got heat stroke. Air conditioning…next time remember to turn on the air conditioning. I drop off once the cool breeze takes over.
We check out at 6:30 a.m. and walk over to the gas station to begin the ritualistic eating and packing of bags. It’s hot already, in the high 20s and it’s only going to get hotter. Any food with weight is consumed. I know I need to pack in a lot of fluid and every litre is an extra kilogramme I need to lug around. Suddenly I realise why a veteran I know told me, “Batteries are heavy. You’ll understand…”
I pack as much fluid as I can onto my bike and me, an extra 5kg added to the bike with fluid leaking from each of my own orifices. Food is the usual well-tested combination of Pop Tarts (490 calories – S’mores flavour), granola bars, a few Clif Bars, almonds, and Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls – 300 calories is a 30g parcel. I describe these to another racer as: “A turd from the Nougat Fairy, dunked in caramel, rolled in peanuts, then tossed in the sea to salt them.” I miss them so much.
As we leave the gas station we chat – not about normal life, but about the wind, which we think may have given us its blessing for the crossing. We ride the crosswind the 16km to Boulder before we swing a hard left onto dirt and a howling tailwind. We’re so stunned we don’t realise that we’ve just past a rider who was at the other gas station, someone we didn’t expect to see here.
8:00 a.m. Gas Station 1.5 – Boulder, Wyoming
Justin had already been up and riding since 4:00 a.m. With 70km under his wheels he stopped in Boulder to refuel and rest up before the Basin. I’d last seen him at the end of day five when I pushed out of Lima and rode late into the night chasing Bailey’s tail lights. One part of me was happy to see him pull up to 30 minutes later, the other part was confused and mildly pissed off. Ten minutes later it was like he’d been there all along.
The first 100km of the Basin passed in a blur while we obeyed Dividers Rule #1: never stop with a tailwind. The descents are taken on the aerobars spinning out 42*12 on gravel roads while stuffing food in my face. Speeds over 50kph are not uncommon on these stretches and I tip over the 70kph mark at one stage. A quick regroup happens in Atlantic City where we refill our now empty water bottles while gorging at the bar and hiding from the searing sun. The shop is out of food, the bar only opens three days a week and the heat is getting worse. I can’t imagine how it’s going to be for the people behind me when they arrive to a closed city that is more of a homestead.
We push on out of town and divert from the touring route onto the Tour Divide race route. We’re off the maps now, just the little pink line on my GPS to tell me where to go. Like a tram track or rut, either way, I’ve got no idea what I’m getting myself in for. The route climbs up to the high desert plateau again, and I start to understand why this is described as ‘committing’. Gravel road turns to access road – to doubletrack – to singletrack – finally to no track. Just me and the pink line. By 10:30 p.m. I’m starting to realise that I’m not going to make Wamsutter. I try to push on a bit longer and realise I’m done for the day. I ride a bit longer and slow down to let the sweat evaporate before I crawl into the stench of my bivi pit and pass out for a few blissful hours of rest.
4:30 a.m. Somewhere – The Great Basin Wyoming
As I stumble around cramming stuff into my bags, I watch the promise of sunrise lure me into consciousness. It’s cold, I’m hungry, and I know it’s at least five hours before I get back to major gravel roads. Suck it up buttercup, you chose to be here. The normal trail-side breakfast of a Pop Tart, 400mg of Ibuprofen and some Aleve is dispatched before I clip in and start rolling. I know Bailey and Justin will have got further along than me, but I know they will still be asleep. The failings of youth, I chuckle to myself.
Three hours later I meet my first NoBo rider heading the opposite direction. We stop and chat and share trail beta on what lies ahead. It’s not a long talk, but it gives me time to strip down layers and be a social animal. Always being efficient. He mentions two riders getting out of bed he saw 30 minutes ago – I know it’s them – I push a little harder on the pedals.
Cresting the final hill I can see Wamsutter below me and gas station number two. A massive Love’s interstate truck stop is belching out petrol tankers in my direction, and it’s hard to miss. All downhill from here. Subway and coffee for breakfast. Coke and Pop Tarts for lunch. Gravel and sun for dinner. Pizza and beer at Brush Mountain Lodge for supper.
I clip in and start the final descent to find the others in the shade. Unspoken words are shared by simple stares. It’s 12 noon as we roll out again, and we’re a little over halfway through the Basin. We’re already screwed for the day. Another day. Another gas station. Another decision to quit declined. Here’s to many more.
I can’t wait for this to end.
This article appears in grit.cx magazine issue 009. You can buy the issue or subscribe here.