Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Tour Divide 19 - The final push.

I’d arrived at the fabled Pie Town, but being approx 6:30 pm, presumably after the Pie shops on the main strip had closed.  Hence I went straight to the Toaster House to see what options for resupply were available.  Unlike in 2017, the pantries seemed comparatively bare.  But I at least confirmed that the shower was working.  I donned my pack and helmet and cruised back to the main street (slightly off route), just to see if anything was in fact open.  The few shops all had ‘Closed’ signs in their windows but as I turned to head off, the owner of the Pie Town Cafe, Brad, ran out and suggested he could still fix me something in the form of a pulled pork sandwich and as many sodas and fries as I could handle.  I was so grateful! According to Brad, Beau Troesch, one of the riders I’d been shadowing for days, had left about an hour prior to my arrival.  The sandwich was saucy, spicy and delightful, and the garlic chips top notch - I ordered a second batch for the road. Whilst enjoying my meal I realised that the cafe had wifi on tap.  Messages crackled onto my Whatsapp page.  It was here that Greg back home alerted me to the fact that I was two and a half days ahead of my 2017 schedule - bang on for the mid 18-day finish I’d targeted. This can’t have been right.  By my calculation it was 1.5 days, with a 19-day finish more likely, but the number crunchers back home confirmed the extra day advantage.  My dozy brain had evidently done some miscalculations.

This realisation changed my thinking somewhat. I’d been stressing about having Anita, my partner, having to wait days for me at the finish - I’d been mentally preparing myself for a non-stop 500 km run to the border. Having the extra day meant I could navigate to the end with far less pressure, suffering, and be better able to manage dangerous episodes of “the nods” that would no doubt ensue. Although internally I would have loved a sub-18 finish, I was happy to let that go. To some extent this was already squandered courtesy of sickness, niggles, heavy weather through The Basin, and assorted sleep-ins. My position on the leaderboard seemed safe, with a 6 hr gap back to Alexandera, but you cannot underestimate the determination of Alexandera, whose resolve impressed me more than any of the other riders I’d ridden with. So I had some breathing space, but only a little.

I thanked Brad for looking after me, settled the ridiculously tiny bill and headed back to the Toaster House where a shower was in order. I was happy to take some time as I knew what was coming up. The shower was delightful. I dressed in my thermals, washed out my knicks, hung them out to dry, then settled into a lounge on the “porch of shoes” for a nap in the lovely afternoon warmth, setting my alarm for 90 minutes.  I awoke with a start as darkness was setting in, packed my kit, then at approx 9 pm headed off into the descending blackness wearing the spare set of knicks I’d not donned till this point.  On the run into Pie Town I’d been experiencing some new undercarriage issues so was hoping the fresh knicks with different tread pattern might help.  The plan was to ride till 2 or 3 in the morning, knocking off a chunk of the approach to the demanding Gila section.  Fat chance! The desire for sleep was wearing heavily.  I was crawling through a lovely pine forest with lots of great spots for throwing down the bivvy.  I’d had enough of riding past great camps, so pulled up early, just after midnight, with not even 50 km for the eve, crawled into my bivvy and marvelled at the constellations above as I slipped into a deep sleep. The alarm woke me at 4, but I stubbornly refused to move till 4:30, packed my kit, rolling again just on 5.

The forested area spilled me into an expansive rural valley that I’d follow for many hours before entering the shallow canyon leading to the Beaverhead Work Station, a fire-fighting headquarter servicing the upcoming Gila wilderness, with water and it’s fabled drink machine.  Naturally, it wasn’t working but one of the workers kindly opened it for me, presenting me with one of its two remaining cans.  

Photo Spencer Harding

That morning I’d occasionally ridden in the proximity of Lael Wilcox and crew (Rue and Spencer) who were now touring the route and collecting footage for their film.  We chatted over lunch at the picnic table. In contrast to me, and despite covering the same terrain, Lael looked fresh as a daisy. Very classy rider! In contrast I was on my proverbial knees, creaking and groaning.  Lael headed off for the Gila section as I attended to my nether regions, then sat out a brief downpour before leaving.  Seemed like the monsoon period was happening, with storm clouds brewing and dumping across the expansive horizon, which was also punctuated with smoke plumes from numerous wildfires.


The Gila section is not to be underestimated, especially in the heat, traversing everything from gravelly to sandy to rocky roads.  Multiple short steep climbs and descents had to be negotiated - exhausting stuff, and the opposite of my much preferred tempo climb terrain.  Just like the Pondersosa Mesa section, the Gila is relentlessly winding and disorientating - real torture on the mind as you don’t feel like you know where you’re going or if progress is being achieved despite intense exertions.  To run salt into the wound, upon finally cresting the last substantial climb, the descent is so shallow and paved in heavy gravel that you’ve got to pedal to achieve any sort of speed downhill. That’s just not fair!

 Photo Spencer Harding

In fading light I finally gained the short road segment to the last major obstacle of the route, the CDT walking track.  Entry required some steep hike-a-bike onto a ridgeline before traversing gradually uphill.  The sun was setting as I pushed my bike onto the ridge, with the combination of smoke and storms providing a spectacular backdrop of red and orange hues. Much of the singletrack was then rideable, although one had to be wary of the slope, prickly thorns, and cryptic rocks hiding amongst the tall grass. That said, it seemed far more rideable, and dare I say enjoyable than two years ago, when I did it in the heat of the day.

The concentration required for navigating singletrack in the dark made time pass swiftly. I got the sense of being near the end of the sector when suddenly I felt the full force of my chest impacting a hard surface.  My front wheel had stalled against a rock concealed by grass resulting in body and bike rotating around it.  I lay still for a while, registering the drizzle and wondering if I’d broken anything. I pushed the bike off me.  I’d actually cracked a rib, but didn’t realise it at the time. The other point of major contact, my right elbow, was weeping blood through my sunsleeve. I was hoping it wouldn’t need a stitch, and decided not to remove the stocking, which was effectively holding everything together. No alternative but to keep going.  Only a km later I gained double track and then a dirt road which, after another climb and descent (there is always another climb) had me on blessed tarmac, grinding out the climb to Pinos Altos, from which a fast descent led to Silver City. 

Upon entering town major roadworks forced a trial-and-error wiggle, just to get to the McDonalds, which I hoped was of the 24hr variety as it was approx 12:30 am. It was! I parked my bike outside then ordered a burger, fries and their largest vessel of Cola.  You’ve no idea how long I’d been looking forward to this moment.  I switched on wifi and much to my amazement noticed that Ryan Simon and Beau were still in town just a few blocks away.  I’d assumed they would already be headed to the border to eke out a 17-day finish, achieved if they got there before 8am that morning.  According to trackleaders they’d been idle for 3 hrs.  What was going on? I ordered a second round of burger and chips, got myself bathroomed, guzzled more coke and planned my next move.  I had to assume they knew I was in town.  Moving to a gas station for resupply might provoke action.  Regardless, I was definitely going to push through to finish this thing.  Literally across the road from the gas station/Denny’s where they were holed up was a Snappy Mart.  Not quite knowing how the next 200 km would play out I just collected my usual resupply items, including sandwiches, then just before leaving noted that Beau had already departed - 10 minutes ago.  The drag race to the line was on!  Ryan was an exceptionally gifted athlete, evident by being so damn fast on a single speed, but the relatively flat run to the line was unlikely to suit him if not for a headwind.  It was Beau I was worried about. He was riding a very distinctive Salsa Cutthroat I’d spied at many gas stations - a more road-style machine than mine, and running slightly faster (narrower) tyres.  After a 25km sealed climb out of town we would hit the dirt for a 50km sector, before reverting to tarmac for the last 125 km.  As Beau was a tall athletic chap I figured that once we hit final tarmac I’d struggle to match his pace.  Any move would have to come on the 50 km of sand preceding it.

My knees and ankles had been surprisingly well behaved in previous days, with all the objections now coming from the nether regions.  If only I could keep complaints from the backside to a minimum the legs could perhaps shine.

I immediately settled into a solid tempo on the long pavement climb up to White Signal, with the breeze coming across my right shoulder.  It’s always hard to tell the true direction of wind as it swirls around hills and knolls, but if this breeze were true it would mean a taily was in the offing once I turned south onto the dirt.  Sure enough, a tailwind! What’s more, the surface of this sandy track was perfect, with a light dry crust courtesy of recent rain that had just dried out.  This meant I could ride hard with confidence in the aero position.

After only a few km on the sand I thought I saw something red flicker far ahead in the inky blackness.  I pushed a little harder.  More red flashes associated with a pale white hue, and not fixed but definitely moving.  That’s got to be a bike!  A few km pass and I’m slowly closing in. Suddenly a flash of white light blinks in the distance, presumably a helmet light swivelling to scan the terrain behind.  Now he knows I’m coming! I close fast up a long uphill drag then realise that Beau has stopped and is waiting for me at the crest of the hill.  In hindsight, Beau was probably expecting Ryan, but got me instead.  I pulled up next to him and we had a brief chat.  I mentioned my over-the-bars adventures on the CDT, and Beau mentioned how shattered he and Ryan had been after passage through the Gila.  Beau also mentioned the possibility of rain.  Enough procrastinating.  We’ll rolled off together and I gradually picked up the pace, noticing Beau’s more cautious approach to the fast downhill straights and corners.  That was my cue.  I wound it up a little more, then a little more, just wanting to break the elastic.  Fast as I dared on the downs, and putting out solid power on the ups of each roller. Eventually I felt a gap form.  All I had to do was maintain it for another 150 km! The course at this point consisted of long straights with the occasional corner or adjustment of line.  The gap was growing, evident by being able to complete a straight with no evidence of chasing lights.  I wanted to keep the pace high for two reasons - I’d need a good gap once we hit bitumen, and there was the odd drop of rain falling.  If the heavens opened then it would become a lottery as to who got through and in what order.  Just like in 17, a dog at full gallop accompanied me for several kilometres through Thorn Ranch (albeit brown, and not black), dancing just ahead of my front wheel, and flicking an intermittent stream of sand and grit into my face.  It eventually tired and I suggested it take a break then pester the guy chasing me.

The sky started to lighten, and a distant light on a stalk indicated the approach of Separ, the intersection with the freeway, and the start of the last 125 km of bitumen. The sun cracked the horizon as I exited the last of the rubble and onto the sealed.  I had no idea how far back Beau was, but in all of my previous encounters with him he’d been very efficient and eager to press forward, so I had to assume the chase was on.  I made a brief concession to stop, take some pics, take a pee, and get some music organised.

So commenced the last 125 km, settled into my aero position, trying to maintain 30 km an hour, all on a diet of snickers bars and Gatorade from my backpack bladder.  I still had 3 L of water in the frame bag but with the finish only hours away I probably wouldn't be needing it. The shadows shortened, coincident with the elevating temperature, and the minutes ticked by. I’d occasionally break position to scan the road behind, which was mostly clear, apart from imaginary shapes in the heat shimmer giving me a gee-up.  With 50 km to go I came to the conclusion that Beau was probably just riding it in, rather than chasing in earnest, but I couldn’t be sure, so kept the gas on till almost the end.

The kms ticked down, 40, 30, 20... Geez Anita was cutting it fine.  The thing about the Antelope Wells border crossing, which I know as I’ve done this thing before, is that there is only the one road in or out.  In the last hours only a few trucks and the odd passenger vehicle had passed - I’m sure Anita would have slowed and at least given me a wave.  10 km, 5 km, 1 mile, I can see the damn thing now!  I’d welled up with tears a few times over the last few km, knowing the odyssey was almost over, but now here it was.  I approached with two guys cheering me in, neither of which were Anita!  I came to a stop and was embraced by Bobby, then Seth, blubbering a little over each of them.  Both TD vets, they understood what it means to finish this thing.  Bobby and Seth were from Oklahoma, and were there to pick up Ryan.  I couldn’t believe the coincidence as I’d been listening to the Oklahoma soundtrack (Surrey with a Fringe on Top, of all tracks) as I rolled to the finish! How crazy is that?  We instantly shared some sort of affinity as we chatted about the race and the impending arrival of Beau and Ryan, whom I’d been stalking for half the race until sneaking through at the end.

Next to arrive, 10 minutes later, was a very sheepish Anita.  The ranch she’d stayed at had power problems that morning so she couldn’t check on progress, but she did have a text alert from a friend, which she finally noted (s*#%!), jumped in the car and hoofed it. In her defence, in 2017 it took me 10 hrs 30 min to ride the 200 km from Silver City to the end.  This time I made the leap in 8 hrs 10 min. According to Strava records (which not everyone logs, it should be noted), my 6 hr 29 min 170 km run from White Signal to the end is second to Josh Kato on his winning ride in 2015. It’s amazing what you can do on two snickers bars, 2 litres of Gatorade, an annoying haemorrhoid to keep you honest, coupled with a tailwind and the fear of being run down.

Beau, then Ryan eventually finished.  “You sneaky bastard” was Ryan’s immediate comment upon arrival.  Yep.  My opportunistic run jumped me two places up the leader board behind Peter Kraft Jn, with whom I crossed paths many times in 2017.  Peter had a terrific ride this year finishing 12th. Sorry guys, I couldn’t help myself, but that’s racing. My time of 18:02:09 was close to being a 17 and change finish, which I think I could have achieved had I not had the giardia issue to deal with, but in this style of event that’s also racing.  If not giardia something else might have eventuated.

Antelope Wells photos Bobby Wintle

It was nice to be able to share some moments with everyone; riders, partners, followers, at the finish. I think everyone is tremendously satisfied just making the end, regardless of the fine details.  Both Ryan and Beau were rookies, which in my opinion is a considerable handicap compared to knowing the course.  Ryan was the fastest on SS to finish this year’s race. The concept of doing the TD on SS still blows my mind. Chapeau to you both!

This TD was more satisfying for me than my 17 run for several reasons.  On reflection, in 17 I really had no idea what I was in for, where I was going, or how to proceed in such a quest.  Consequently I gravitated towards other riders, particularly at the end of a day, surfing off their collective experience, and allowing decisions to be made for me. Part of that was the deep-rooted fear of the unknown, of camping out in a foreign country that contained mythical beasts like bears and mountain lions. Hence, the survival instinct was front and foremost, but I’ve no regrets how it played out, and I got to know some great people along the way.  In 19 however, I wanted to be more the master of my own destiny, and actually enjoyed being on my own for days at a time, just dancing my own steps and being in tune with how my body was feeling, rather than having to hurry to match a different agenda.  Consequently I generally rode at a more sedate pace, rode longer into the nights, and didn’t trash myself as much. I was also far more prepared to walk steep pinches than strain legs unnecessarily.  Overall this allowed me to cover more ground in a less ragged state.  I still had issues with ankles, knees and backside, but I was better able to troubleshoot on the fly and keep the pedals turning, mostly.  

A few thank yous.  Firstly to Anita for being so supportive of me having another crack.  It means so much to me that you not only said yes, but were so proactive in helping me be as prepared as possible. It was so lovely seeing you at the end - the big carrot on the end of the stick, even if this was fractionally mis-timed.  It was lovely hobbling ‘round watching hummingbirds in the aftermath. Secondly to the rest of the gang back home focusing an eye on my dot and keeping intermittent correspondence humorous and upbeat - and for the great poetry! It made me feel you were part of the journey too - I hope this was also reciprocated to some extent from your perspective.  And lastly, to the other riders, especially the rookies, who inspired me on many occasions.  In moments of hardship, uncertainty or doubt I’d reflect on them and marvel at their grit and resolve, and remind myself that I was that person once before, and could be so again if I put my mind to it.

I’m very happy with my TD19 result, to the extent that maybe I’m now cured, although I know full well how this event gets its hooks into you, sometimes without you even realising. After all, for anyone with a masochistic bent who’s into bicycles, it’s one of the grandest adventures there is.  Time will tell.

On the mend at Squaw Valley, CA.


  1. Congratulations on an epic adventure in the fullest sense of both of those words. I loved your write-up and reflections on how you were feeling mentally.

  2. Epic effort, Langles! Thanks for documenting your travails in such detail.

    1. Cheers Paul. Long time no see. Hope all is well!