Incredibly, today would possibly be the last day I dragged myself from slumber, painfully dressed, had a Snickers breakfast, packed, and rolled out. But it wasn't in the bag by any measure. Whilst there was a lot of tarmac to cover late in the day, first we had to deal with whatever the rugged Gila mountains had in store for us. There was still 100 km of lumpy profile to deal with, the most challenging of which was likely to be a 10 km segment of the CDT; the continental divide walking trail.
The first kilometres had us drifting through some heavy smoke in places, with burning stumps still visible, the remnants of what we hoped was a control burn. Further up the track kilometres of freshly pruned scrub confirmed this. Just like during the difficult day between Abiquiu and Cuba, there was considerably more lumpiness in reality than was evident in the profile. Lots of steep pinches to burn the legs, and rutted descents to torture ankles, hands, and basically rattle everything that hurt.
Finally we got to the last major technicality that separated us from Silver City, the CDT, which had us pushing bikes up steep scree almost immediately. My frail ankle, tendons and groin weren't enjoying any of it! The effort did, however, avail us of views across unusual terrain we'd not seen before, with oddball succulents in poses and colours as though drawn by Dr Seuss. Having gained elevation some delicate singletrack wound across ridges and gullys, sometimes forcing another walk up steeper pinches. We'd stop and rest in the shade of trees here and there.
Finally, after an exhausting first half of the day, at about 1:30 pm we rolled into Silver City. Miro knew its layout well, having raced the Tour of the Gila on multiple occasions. I envied both Craig and Miro as they elegantly lifted an extended leg over the back of the bike whilst coasting to a halt before dismounting. I stopped then did my signature move of painfully dragging my leg awkwardly across the top tube frame bags. I hobbled into the restaurant behind them and sat with Craig and Miro as an ensemble for the last time. Miro even had a couple of visitors drop by to wish him well. As we ate Craig was having his bike serviced at the bike shop 'round the corner.
We had approximately 200 km to crunch to get to the Mexican border, largely on tarmac, and largely flat, and we had till 8 am the next morning to get it done if we wanted to finish inside of 21 full days. Anita and I exchanged a few texts. She was in the country, was following progress and was ready to come pick me up, cautioning me not to leave too late given the time other riders had taken to reach the end. The wind direction was hardly ideal, but not awful either, most likely a cross wind for most of the journey. Whilst it was pretty hot in the sun we didn't dither too long before kicking off and were back on the road at 4 pm.
The section out of Silver City is on tarmac, and a little way in we got flagged down by a car carrying bikes in the opposite direction. Three kiwis jumped out who'd recently finished, including Rob Davidson whom I'd chatted with back in Banff, and who finished 5th outright (in 18 days, 10 hrs!) Also present was a Belgie, Ben Steurbaut who'd smashed it in 16 days 13 hours, despite breaking a fork descending Fleecer Ridge whilst in the lead. Having replaced it he then broke his frame, and still managed to finish (3rd outright!). Obviously built for this sort of race. We exchanged congratulations but of course hadn't quite finished ourselves. Back to the grind.
We turned onto the last dirt sector with the angling sun and a brief taily allowing us to appreciate the beauty of the New Mexican desert, punctuated by more oddball Dr Seuss plants spotting the landscape. It was still warm and we had the odd break in a ditch quenching thirsts. A mini bottle of warm coke lugged by Craig mostly fizzed all over the ground. Passing through the vast property of Thorn Ranch we were escorted by the local friendly black dog for a few kms. Just out for a run, it seemed.
Darkness came and with it the route angled more into the wind. At Separ we turned and paralleled the highway on a side road till at last the dirt was left behind for good, with nought but 100 km of empty sealed road to deal with. Foggy glows would periodically light the black horizon, and in time turn out to be an oncoming car, a property light, or even, eventually, the tiny outpost of Hachita, where a tiny store had remained open for us. Belgie Ben manned the till until Jeff Sharp, the manager, arrived. It was still warm so I indulged in three ice blocks and a coke. We stayed about 30 minutes, hobbling about the shop, chatting with Ben and Jeff and generally procrastinating.
Finally we set off on the final leg, getting passed only by Tour Divide related vehicles. First Jeff passed us en route to picking up the two women, Ricki Cotter and Lee Craigie, who were finishing just hours ahead of us. On their return leg their car pulled over and once again congratulations and hugs were passed round. It was nice to put faces on names of riders (and initials) we'd only occasionally been privy to on Trackleaders. Next car to pass us heading south was Miro's pickup, and last car to pass us, just 10 km shy of the border was Anita. Timing! I'd been waiting for this moment and endured so much for so long to have it realised. It was so good to see her here, on the opposite side of the globe, waiting for me. With 3 miles to go and the border lights glowing from the other side of the rise, we'd agreed that Craig would ride as hard as he could to the finish. Craig was clearly the strongest of our trio and deserved to finish ahead of us. Miro and I just limped it in, side by side, as best we could.
Arriving at the gates at just on 3 am was quite emotional for all of us. I burst into tears when embracing Anita, as seems to be my custom. Over 30 minutes we exchanged hugs, took photos and tried to celebrate with a beer or Coke. I was so stuffed I really didn't have the energy to drink anything, but just enough to slowly break the bike down and help load it into the car. Whilst doing this it stuck me how little you actually need to travel 4400 km through mud, rain, dust and snow, from one side of a country to the other. But you do need a good dose of gumption, which I think all three of us, in fact everyone who rolled the dice, had to conjure in order to realise this outcome, this conclusion, which I think I'm still coming to terms with a week after finishing.
Using the logic of the "adventure map" whereby no matter how hard it was, as long as you didn't die then you had a good adventure; then yes, it was a bloody terrific adventure on many levels. It certainly wasn't easy, or clean, or even enjoyable for protracted segments, but it was ours, and we shaped it in our own way and owned it, and that in itself is probably enough. I honestly don't know if I'll be back for another shot, or for just touring sections of it. It's still too raw and confused. My toes and finger tips are still numb, both hands are almost useless, showing the classic symptoms of compressed ulnar nerve damage (ulnar neuritis, or the appropriately named handlebar palsy) which will likely take months to redress, and my achilles and groin injuries still have me hobbling round like a very old man.
So be careful what you wish for if you are entertaining thoughts of doing the Tour Divide. Chances are you'll find yourself challenged in ways you can't imagine. But that, in and of itself, and the inescapable task of addressing these uncertainties and pitfalls is part of the allure, and heightens the sense of accomplishment you'll feel crawling out the other end. Not to mention experiencing the splendor of some pretty amazing scenery. It's raw, it's out there, it's waiting!
(302 km, 2560 m, approx 15-16th overall in 20 days 19 hours)
PS: if anyone is interested in a somewhat verbose (lengthwise) view of my Tour Divide experience in pictures and some video set to music I thought appropriate, here are some links - each version in 2 parts, which can be watched on Dropbox;
87 min version;
67 min version;