Tuesday, December 23, 2008

1 - Go

[This is the start of my diary of the Great Divide Race. I'll download the images now (with broadband at work) and do the words during the holidays (next week). This will be as full account as I can manage. It will be boring in places - that's the nature of the GDR. Most of the pics were taken on the fly - sometimes it shows. There are a handfull taken by other people (thanks to David Blaine, Carl Hutchings, Mary Collier, Pete Basinger, Bill Drake, and Carl Patton). Some of my best shots are shown in earlier posts, but I will not repeat them here.]

20 April: I've been slack (and busy) so obviously haven't made any progress. Here's my 'Spoke' article to get things moving along:


High Noon, June 20: Roosville, Canada/USA Border
There was an enormous sense of excitement as 18 Great Divide Race hopefuls lined up on the lawn at the border station. Months (or even years) of preparation lay behind us; 4,000 kilometres along the American Continental Divide lay ahead. Snow-covered passes, sleep deprivation, deserts and dodgy food were just a few of the known challenges. The cut-offs that required riders to maintain a 24-day finishing pace was another. But the unknown challenges – there lay the real adventure.

Two shots from the pre-race briefing at a Eureka cafe. I arrived a little late after posting all my excess gear home. Between huge mouthfuls of pancakes and scrambled eggs, everyone is paying careful attention to the details of race rules and call-in requirements.

David sets out from his hotel with his single speed steed. Thanks to his blog (The Great Divide Project) and having met him in Spokane a week earlier, he seemed like an old friend already.

Todd getting set to do the business on his singlespeed cyclo-cross rig. His bags are home-made from sail material. He has an aerodynamic time-trial helmet.

This is Keith's touring bike set-up. The load on the rear rack flipped upside down during a rough descent (and his rear tyre ripped thru the sleeping pad and his jacket before he could stop).

Reiner, the German flying ace, once help the world record for the amount of climbing done in 24 hrs. He said he was there to check out the course before coming back next year to set a new record!

John, who had pulled out during his previous two attempts, found that his third time was indeed lucky.

Fred was one of the most experienced endurance racers in the field.

Carl was picked at the guy most likely to finish if things turned nasty.

Jenn was also riding a 69'er with a rigid carbon fork. 'What were the chances of that?' I thought. She also chose to ride sans derailleurs.

Me - so happy to be on the start line.

The startline - with Canada in the background.

Rushed introductions and photographs filled the last moments where nervousness might otherwise have felt overwhelming. Then there was a quiet ‘go’ from the organiser and a few cheers from the half-dozen spectators.

Fred and Noah spring to the front. Noah's grandparents were 10 miles down the road waiting to wave him through town, so he made sure he was in the lead with a big smile.

Carved bears with fishing rods - I was a long way from home.

We were off. Recent illness dictated a sensible game plan, but within 30 seconds I was in the lead with experienced Canadian Fred Wilkinson and youngster Noah Dimmit (on his second attempt). I just couldn’t help myself. After three hours they’d dropped off the pace and were out of sight, and I was left wondering if lead position was really the best place for an adventure-race novice in bear country.

Fortunately, 15 minutes later three riders came past as we approached the business end of the first mountain pass. There was a single-speed, a geared 29’er and a touring bike, and we all stopped at the top of the climb to consume precious calories and congratulate ourselves. The sky was blue and the road clear of snow. We’d covered the distance of a normal cross-country race, with loaded bikes, and we felt great. How long could that last?

Andrew and Geoff cruise up to the first big pass.

During the descent from the pass Geoff Roes and I broke away. He looked extremely comfortable, having ridden to the start-line from Utah. After 20 minutes at his pace I began to hit the wall. It was rather depressing; we were just four hours into a 20-day race. I stopped to refuel and collect stream water, and several riders passed. Some appeared to be time-trialing while others looked like they were on a Sunday group ride. I latched onto a bunch and chatted while my batteries recharged. The conversations are almost forgotten already, but the sense that they were really good people remains – the sort of people you’d be happy to get lost with.

Red Meadow Lake, near the top of the second big climb.

Near the top of the second big pass of the day, single-speeder David Blaine came into view. We marched through the snow along the top together for 45 minutes and then began the big run into Whitefish at the 100-mile mark. Whitefish was a rare opportunity to re-stock with quality food. I filled a shopping basket with mashed potato and peas, fried chicken, chocolate milk, fruit and sports drink, and then sat outside on the pavement with fellow racer Keith Flury to dine. We were covered in mud and looked like bums.

Keith follows me out of Whitefish in perfect riding conditions.

We set off half an hour later, overfull but happy, and rode until 11 pm when we reached Tom’s house in the country. Tom is a cyclist who welcomes all Great Divide riders to camp on his lawn, and his homemade rhubarb slice helped create a party atmosphere that night. We’d covered 196 km since noon, and by midnight there were eleven racers camped in one spot. Only the eventual winner, John Nobile, went any further. Four of the other five starters camped much further back and were moving too slowly to make the race cut-offs.

Day Eight: June 27
By now I was averaging 200 km per day without burying myself for more than an hour or so. Jenn was catching up whenever I stopped and we were looking forward to sharing the long lonely ride through the intimidating ‘Great Divide Basin’ desert.

Day Nine: June 28
I got up at 4 am to avoid the impending heat. There was a big day ahead but my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t eat. After a couple of hours’ riding we stopped for breakfast with David Blaine. He and Jenn had envious appetites. Without being able to take on fuel, I had to wave them farewell and settle in for 10 hours’ sick leave. Coming face-to-face with the possibility of failure was certainly the low point of the race. I wondered if this whole venture was a huge mistake.

Fortunately my digestive system gradually began functioning again and by early evening the wheels were turning, slowly, towards the desert. At 11 pm I crawled into my sleeping bag on the side of the road, coyotes howling in the distance, with a sense that all was well with the world.

For the next five days I rode solo 99% of the time, with an MP3 player blasting out Ravel or Nina Simone or Flight of the Concords. Solitude made focusing on the race easier, but my goal was to catch up with David or Jenn, more to share the experience than to pick up a placing. After Wyoming’s sparse landscape, the Colorado mountains and wildlife seemed even more impressive than Montana’s.

By the third of July I was starting to struggle; the heat and long days were catching up. That afternoon, while enjoying the descent off Carnero Pass at around 50 km/hr, a large mountain lion appeared around a corner. I skidded to a halt about 20 metres away from it and considered my chances of surviving an attack. They seemed slim. The mountain lion looked back at me and decided to yield the road. I was amped with enough adrenalin to last another thousand miles.

Near the end of the day Jenn appeared in the distance. I was so happy to have some company. Unfortunately she was starting to suffer from Giardia and was falling off the pace. The next day we rode together a little and shared a Fourth of July barbeque in a remote settlement. This was also the day I crossed into New Mexico, the last State of the race and the State where my wife and baby were holidaying. This was the point at which I’d decided to give it everything until the finish.

Day 17: July 6
The days were getting noticeably shorter further south. I woke at 5 am, having camped near the top of the longest climb of the race, and expected to be out of the mountains by mid-morning. My legs had different ideas. It took about three hours to warm-up, but I didn’t dare rest anywhere for long. Just a few days earlier a man had been eaten by a cougar nearby, and there were fresh tracks on the sandy road.

By midday I’d reached the safety of Cuba (the town) and was faced with the prospect of a hundred asphalt miles through desert. This was reservation land where services were few and far between. It was tempting to stay for a siesta, but instead I filled my back pockets, sleeves and shorts with ice and went for it. Head down, on the aerobars, the miles flew by. Just after dark a storm lashed down and it was out with the jacket, over-trousers and bike-lights. As the lights of the next town came into view, as if cued by my subconscious, I was overcome with weakness.

The first budget motel appeared just in the nick of time. It lay on the neglected Route 66, tucked in between a busy rail yard and modern freeway. Tea consisted of some biscuits and soda from the office shop, but I was too tired to really care. With another 280 km knocked off, the finish seemed almost within site.

Day 18: July 7
This day was almost a reflection of the one before: a long stretch of isolated tarseal followed by even more remote gravel road. The map showed just one shop, 165 km away from the town I left in the morning. As it turned out, that shop had closed months ago. I was in huge, open, sparsely populated country. A desperate inspection of the map indicated that the next shop down the line was another 160 km further south.

Over the next 20 hours I saw just four vehicles and flagged two of them down. Both drivers were happy to hand out emergency food supplies from their glove box and to listen to a short story of a bizarre bike race across America. The early afternoon brought a wonderful sight – the Gila Ranger Station had a drinks machine. Chink, chink, chink… click, whir, ka-thud! What a beautiful sound.

Six cans of soda and half an hour later there was a very different, somewhat sinister sound. A lightening storm rolled in just as I was about to climb up onto the Continental Divide. Torrential rain was accompanied by booming thunder, and massive cracks of electricity filled the sky. I hid under a bridge for a while as the creek rose, deciding which was the better risk – death by drowning, lightening strike or starvation. The possibility of electrocution won out (nice and instant) and I set out riding like a madman.

Along the top of the Divide, as the vegetation became more and more stunted, I hunched over lower and lower, pretending to be four foot tall. The lightening closed in until it could be seen striking the ground a couple of hundred metres away.

After a full-on time-trial out of the mountains, I arrived at the tiny town of Mimbres – 325 km from the last store – to find the only shop had closed 45 minutes beforehand! I scored a Clif Bar from a local woman and blitzed the next 30 km into Silver City. As the city limits came into view the incessant rain finally caused my lights and bike computer to fail. I staggered into the first fast-food joint in town looking like I’d escaped from an insane asylum via the sewer system. Bent, but not broken.

Day 20: July 9
The last, horrible day of the race dawned fine and calm. It promised to be a furnace in the desert until a thin layer of cloud slid mercifully overhead mid-morning. There were no large climbs, no rough tracks, no storms. Just 201 km of rolling dirt and straight sealed roads, so long and flat that they disappeared beyond the horizon.

I’d had enough. All I wanted was to reach the Mexican border and go home to my family. Fortunately, my American in-laws were waiting to pick me up at the finish, Antelope Wells, a border station with no well and no antelope. The last 70 km of road had way-markers every mile. I put my head down and watched the white line fly by, desperately hoping each time I looked up that two mile-markers would have passed rather than one.

The final stretch took an hour longer than expected, but eventually a building appeared in the distance between the Joshua trees and cacti. It slowly took a clearer form. Then, quite suddenly, Bill and Janet appeared just 20 metres away. I was done. My smile stretched from ear to ear and I was filled with relief and gratitude. There was no finish banner, nor any other humans.

The satisfaction of having completed the Great Divide Race took weeks to fully sink in. Of the eighteen starters, just two Americans, two Brits, and one Kiwi finished the entire course. John Noble set a course record of 15 days and 2 hours. Even Giardia couldn’t stop Jenn – she finished in 22 and a half days. I spent 19 days and 5 hours on the Divide. Much of that time is a blur, but there are many vivid memories of camaraderie and natural beauty that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.