One Question, Five Voices: Taking on the Tour Divide
In our third installment of One Question, Five Voices, we ask a group of Tour Divide finishers to share their secrets for mentally preparing to race from Banff to Mexico along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Read on to glean some insights for getting into the Tour Divide mindset, whether you’re hoping to set a new record or just want to make it to the finish…
Cover image by Brett Ziegler (@bziegler)
Have you ever wondered what it takes to prepare your mind (and body) to take on a massive race like the 2,700-mile Tour Divide? We did, so we asked five inspiring riders to share their pre-race strategies and routines. Plus, as a bonus, we had them give us their picks for the best Tour Divide tire.
How do you mentally prepare yourself to take on the Tour Divide?
Crested Butte, CO
Fear is what prevents many people from starting the Tour Divide in the first place, and rightfully so. Some will also quit midway through due to fear. A two, three, four week race is demanding, and while physical power is an important aspect, being mentally prepared is crucial. If you’re not mentally prepared to be beaten down, cold, wet, dealing with a nagging injury, alone, scared of the dark, scorching hot, dehydrated, out of food and water, dealing with a flat, broken spokes, blown up dynamo hub or bottom bracket bearing, tired of riding, or missing your family and friends, simply remind yourself this is an endeavor you signed up for, and one that is 100% attainable.
A useful exercise I do prior to all of my big bikepacking rides (and even day rides, occasionally) is to think about a realistic scenario I might encounter on the trail and how I’d react when it happens. I think about things like how to handle a slashed side wall, a mechanical problem, a heavy storm, a closed store when I’ve banked on it being open, and so on. Expect the worst, because the worst is bound to happen at some point over the course of your ride. Knowing how to react will get you though those moments.
Another thing I do to prepare is make sure my bike is completely dialed before the race. Are my bags properly attached? My tire pressure set, bolts tight, and calories accounted for? Do I have enough batteries for my lights, and do I have a back up way to navigate? I’ll also make sure my body is rested, which will help me mentally focus on the task ahead.
For most people, the Tour Divide is more of a mental battle than a physical one. Nothing can replace experience, and that’s why it took me years to finally take it on. My final piece of advice is this: the morning of the race, sit at the end of your bed and tell yourself that you’re going to finish this beast, because there’s nothing sweeter than standing in Antelope Wells with a beer in hand, knowing you just rode down the entire spine of the United States.
I ride to the start. Both times that I raced the Tour Divide in 2015, I rode from my home in Anchorage, Alaska. The first time, I left Anchorage on May 4 to ride 2,100 miles from Anchorage to Banff. I took a week off and then started with the Grand Depart. I had bronchitis-like symptoms and extreme difficulty breathing on the first day of the race. I nearly dropped out, but struggled through the first week until admitting myself to the emergency room in Helena, Montana, where I received antibiotics and an albuterol treatment.
Within a couple of days, my condition improved. I increased my mileage and bested the existing women’s record by two days. Yet, I returned home to Anchorage feeling unsatisfied with my time. What if I hadn’t gotten sick? I knew I could ride faster. So, I biked out of town two weeks later. I rode from Anchorage to Whittier, took the ferry to Bellingham, and rode 850 miles to Banff. I took a week off before setting out for an individual time trial on the Tour Divide. During that attempt, I took another day and a half off my time from June, setting the women’s record at 15 days, 10 hours.
Riding to the start of a race gives me time to acclimate. I become in tune with my bike and the weather and the terrain. I think it’s particularly important to spend that much time in the saddle before an event. It allows my body to naturally find a comfortable position on the bike and gets me used to spending all day there. It also gives me time to think and prepare for the magnitude of the race.
The Tour Divide isn’t won in a day or two or three. The current record is 13 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes. Every minute counts the same as any other. To establish a fast time, you need to have the mental fortitude to sustain a level of urgency over a two-week period. As Mike Hall said, “You must crave miles.”
My mental prep is mostly driven by my goals and strategy. I think a lot as the start nears, and visualize the actual effort and processes it will take to achieve those goals. I walk through many different scenarios in my head. I visualize riding by myself, in the rain, walking through the mud, resupplying efficiently, and riding strong. I mentally go the distance, ending with the last pavement miles to the border and finishing the Tour Divide, which is always my primary goal.
Another part of my mental prep is having a “clean plate” and a clear head. That means making sure my home life is stable, the grass is cut, the bills are paid, there’s no static with my partner or friends, and so forth. Try to clean up all those loose ends! They will haunt you otherwise.
In the end, mental prep is important, but the real key to success is my approach and attitude when I take on such an adventure. My mental preparation (or lack thereof) stems from my personality, experiences, attitude, and perceptions. I don’t question whether I’m going to finish. I’m not nervous about sleeping outside in bear country. I don’t wonder what I am going to do if my bike breaks, nor do I worry about my mental fortitude or toughness. I love being out there and I look forward to the unknown in hopes of learning more about myself.
- Be confident, but not cocky.
- Be stoked, live in the moment, and embrace what you are doing.
- Be positive and take the good with the bad. For example, rain and mud just mean a chance to nap!
- Forget the words “stop” and “quit.” There’s only one place to stop, and that’s Antelope Wells.
- Enjoy every second!
Simply put, having peace of mind is the best way to prepare. The Tour Divide is a huge undertaking, and most riders will only have one shot at it because of work, family, and finances. So, there’s pressure right from the start. There are a few things that need to happen so you have the peace of mind and focus needed to get you to the border.
Know the reason and driving force behind your choice to take on the Tour Divide. Once you’re clear on your reasons, you will find your focus. Have a realistic goal and play within that goal. Consider giving yourself some extra time to complete the route, knowing that anything and everything might not go according to plan. For example, if you set unrealistic daily mileage goals or don’t have enough time to ride, you’ll easily start feeling like you are falling behind. In your head, you’ll have failed, and your race/ride will be over.
Set yourself up for success and do the work. You know what you’re signing up for, so make sure your body, bike, and gear are completely prepared. When you’ve ridden the miles to prepare for such an event, your body will be fit and you will know your bike and gear like the back of your hand. You’ll have perfected being efficient and thought through how to handle almost every possible scenario.
Most importantly, make sure you’ve taken care of everything at home. If a single thought enters your head that you need to be somewhere else or doing something different – it’s over! Be sure your family life and work life are in order and that you have the support and time away to accomplish what you set out to do.
My mental preparation for the Tour Divide, or any bikepacking race, relies on three things: training, bike/gear, and route research. Showing up in Banff with a solid spring of training behind me, a well thought out and tested bike/kit, and good route knowledge gives me confidence and puts me in a good mental space for the ride.
When training, I don’t follow a strict plan, I just ride a lot of miles and hills in varied conditions, often loaded. There are surely more efficient ways to physically prepare, but that’s what works for me. This is all just a game, after all, and I like to keep training fun.
I spend lots of time agonizing over bike components and kit options, as well as fully testing and tweaking those choices before a race. In optimizing my gear, I focus on balancing weight vs. durability, packing just enough, and making sure contact points are comfortable. Having thought out and used everything on my bike and in my kit, I know that I’ve done what I can to minimize bike and body breakdowns on route.
For route research, I keep things simple, but spend significant time verifying resupply locations, hours, and other vital information that I include on a printed elevation profile. This annotated profile is a nice supplement to the GPX track.
Beyond all that, perhaps the most important mental lessons I’ve learned through participating in 11 bikepacking races since 2010, is to not put an arbitrary cap on goals that may limit my best possible result, to remain flexible, ride my own race, and above all to keep smiling. It also helps that I really don’t mind being dirty, exhausted, and alone, and that I find a unique joy in the extended mental and physical challenge of ultras like the Tour Divide.
Bonus Question: What are the best tires for the Tour Divide?
- Maxxis Crossmark – Neil Beltchenko
- Specialized Fast Trak – Lael Wilcox
- Teravail Sparwood – Jay Petervary
- Maxxis Crossmark – Cricket Butler
- Vittoria Mezcal G+ – Dylan Taylor
Finshed the Tour Divide? What are your secrets for a good ride? Let us know in the comments below!