Tracking Down the 2019 Tour Divide, Part 1
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Eight-year Tour Divide veteran documentarian Eddie Clark spent the last week tracking down riders during this year’s race. In this piece, he shares his experiences, observations, and a fantastic set of photos. See part one of his coverage of the people, places, and spirit of the 2019 Tour Divide here…
On June 14th, just over 150 people lined up at the start line in Banff for this year’s Tour Divide, one of the most followed editions yet. Former champions Josh Kato and Lael Wilcox, as well as a bevy of accomplished veterans and rookie racers alike, provided plenty of fast racing in the early days of the race through Canada, Montana, Idaho, and into Wyoming, where my coverage picks up. In most years it isn’t until racers reach Lima or sometimes even further south into Wyoming before they really start showing their abilities and intentions to make a run for the win. Think of it as a pacing game up until that point, if you will.
Day 6: After watching the blue dots move down into Idaho, I left my home in Boulder, Colorado, and bee-lined it straight for Pinedale, Wyoming, to get a last Trackleader’s spot update before heading up Union Pass to hopefully intercept racers the next morning near Mosquito Lake. I first came across Mosquito Lake during the 2010 Tour Divide, and instantly fell in love with the remote serenity and natural beauty of the location. Besides being a nice place to camp and take photos, it’s also right on the route, which is important when trying to keep track of racers since there is no internet or cell phone reception up there. I parked my truck just after midnight, slept in the driver’s seat for a few hours, and woke up to a pre-dawn view that was every bit as pretty as I’d remembered.
It was a cold night and morning up there, and a bundled up Josh Kato was the first racer I photographed for this year’s TD. At that time Josh was in second place. The night before, in Pinedale, I verified that he and Sofiane Sehili were both climbing Union with a fair gap between them and hoped they would both bivy there for the night. However, just before getting to the dirt road near Cora around 11:30 PM, I passed Sofiane on the highway, and he was cruising. I could have U-turned to catch him at a gas station in Pinedale, but there would be plenty of opportunities for gas station photos later on, and only one real chance for catching the other race leaders on Union Pass. I was still making coffee and breakfast when Josh rode by, and later I confirmed with him that, yes, I was cooking bacon when he passed by.
After getting photos of Josh riding by, I finished my breakfast and headed up the route toward the actual crest of Union Pass with the knowledge of there being a fair gap between him and the next riders. The dirt road was in decent shape with puddles here and there, but a lingering snow bank on top of the pass would prevent me from going further, so I headed back down route to the south fork of Fish Creek for this photo of Nate Ginzton with the majestic Wind River Mountains in the background.
Nate stopped here for a water resupply as it’s marked on Adventure Cycling Association’s map of the GDMBR (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route). Tourers and future racers take note, water from many of the creeks and rivers on the route is not safe to drink without being treated or filtered since cattle are allowed to free-range graze on much of these lands.
I then headed further back to Mosquito Lake for this photo of Chris Seistrup riding by. I parked my truck out of sight from the route, walked a ways off the dirt road, and crouched in the shade below a pine tree so as to not elicit any response from riders passing by, and I’m pretty sure he never knew I was there taking his photo.
I’d normally spend more time in this zone, but Sofiane and Josh were both on a heater of a ride and ahead of Mike Hall’s 2016 record pace, which I had based some of my race photography strategy on. Besides being a friend to me and many others, Mike was and still is the gold standard of the Tour Divide and self-supported bike racing. He is sorely missed by many. Taking their progress into consideration, I banged out some highway miles to attempt to catch up with Sofiane and Josh before they crossed the Great Divide Basin.
After pulling off WY Highway 28 to drive the dirt road to Atlantic City, a quick check verified Josh and Sofiane’s position from a new cellular tower that was installed a few years ago. Every year it seems more and more of the course has cellular coverage, and every year the route gets a little less remote and wild. We were on the leading edge of a big summertime storm, and the winds through this section were extremely strong.
At the time, it was fortuitous timing for Sofiane as he had already left Atlantic City and was pushed at an incredible clip by a massive tailwind from there to the Wamsutter dirt road that takes a right turn and heads south out of the Basin. It would be interesting to look up, but my guess is Sofiane set a record time from Atlantic City to the Wamsutter dirt road this year. Josh’s dot showed him in Atlantic City, and just as I arrived I saw him talking to Wild Bill about renting a cabin. The sky had opened up with rain and a lightning bolt crashed down between Josh and a cow just outside of Atlantic City, garnering some wild mooing from the cow and second thoughts of riding onward from Josh. He turned around, came across Wild Bill upon riding back down the hill, and got a cabin at the Miner’s Delight Inn to avoid not just getting soaked, but getting stuck on a muddy dirt road that the Basin can be notorious for. It was also a chance to warm up, eat some food, and get a few hours of sleep.
I spent roughly 45 minutes photographing and talking to Josh while the rain poured down outside of the cabin. After it seemed to let up just a bit, I made the decision to head into the Basin with hopes that the dirt roads wouldn’t be too muddy. At this point there would be no catching Sofiane in the Basin unless he got caught out on the muddy dirt roads, but at least I’d hopefully be able to photograph other riders.
When the skies are so ominous, heading into the Basin can be a risky decision. Over the years I’ve seen more than enough deep ruts in the dirt roads out there to know how muddy it can get, so when once I got a comfortable distance into the Basin – but not too far from Atlantic City – I parked for the night on top of a nice rise with good views and hoped that the rains wouldn’t be too substantial. Almost no matter what the weather does, sunrise and sunsets in the Basin always seem to take on a magical quality, and this evening was no different.
Day 7: Josh rode by in the night while I slept, and Chris Seistrup and Nate Ginzton got by me in the pre-dawn hours before I crawled out of my sleeping bag. It was another even colder night on the Divide, and I later heard it had gotten down to 18°F (-8°C)! Lael Wilcox would ride by in the late morning, followed by Josh Ibbett, who wasn’t too far behind. As expected, neither would stop, and both just kept pedaling.
Since I was still close to Atlantic City and able to refresh racer locations on Trackleaders, I headed back to catch up with Evan Duetsch and Kai Edel. Both were still in Atlantic City at the Miner’s Grubstake Inn, and had just finished up their lunch.
When I think of the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, I think of remote, barren hills creating simple and beautiful rolling landscapes with big blue skies and puffy white clouds, just like this scene that Kai Edel is riding through. Spending a night and day in the Basin is definitely one of my favorite parts of photographing the TD.
If you’re lucky enough, you’ll come across a herd of wild horses while out in the Basin, which is truly a remarkable experience. While photographing them, the older alpha mare kept her eyes fixed on me in case I might approached them. I’ve actually taken her picture before in previous years, but this time her alpha stallion was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a different stallion, an Arabian (not pictured), that was trailing behind and probably still earning their trust or just staying out of the fuss of the herd.
When you see this sign (above-left), you know you’re in the right place and not wildly lost in the Great Divide Basin, which spans a couple hundred miles in almost every direction.
If there were an armpit of the Tour Divide, it would have to be Wamsutter, Wyoming. There’s not much to see or do in Wamsutter unless you work in the petroleum industry or are driving I-80 and need to stop. This photo (above-middle) of Josh Ibbett is one of the nicer views you’ll see there.
Steve Halligan on the last section of dirt in Wyoming, just before the descent toward Savery, WY.
In the distance, snowcapped mountains and dark skies would be all the foreshadowing racers needed about the difficulties that a snowy Colorado would bring.
In another vain attempt, I leaned on the gas pedal to try and catch Sofiane and Josh before they left Brush Mountain, only to arrive just after 10:00 PM with only Chris Seistrup present. It was raining, muddy, and cold, and I was quite tired so my visit was brief before I retreated to the back of my truck for another cold night’s sleep.
Day 8: Upon hearing some commotion, I got out of my sleeping bag, grabbed a camera, and took part in the picture of a picture of a picture fun with Chris Seistrup and TD veteran Billy Rice, who happened to be at Brush Mountain, just before Chris headed off to pedal, push, and carry his bike over Sand Pass.
Is the camera lying? No. Through the morning and day of June 22nd, the sun would shine through the clouds only to be followed with brief showers.
Steve Halligan and Nate Ginzton arrived just before 7:30 AM and grabbed a quick hot meal while George the Brush Mountain ranch dog ensured no scraps would go to waste if they fell to the floor. By 8:00 AM, Nate was back on his bike and Steve was getting a complimentary goodbye hug from Kirsten. Tour Divide Fact: Kirsten at the Brush Mountain Ranch holds the record for giving the most Tour Divide hugs.
The train goes off the tracks. All morning, all of us at Brush Mountain had been wondering just how bad Sand Pass was, and then we noticed Sofiane’s dot going backwards. Billy Rice drove up the very muddy dirt road to check on him, and when he returned Sofiane’s bike was on the back of Billy’s 4Runner. When Sofiane rolled his bike up to the lodge, he declared in a weary, defeated voice that he was done. I kept my camera pointed at the ground out of respect because misery does not always like photography. After he entered the lodge to warm up, I took photos of his still dripping wet socks that he’d worn all night and morning in a raging snow storm. After photographing his bike, I went into the lodge and sat next to him. Sofiane moved slowly and sipped his coffee with the 1,000-yard stare of a shell shocked veteran. He was done.
After getting some coffee and food in him, he went on to recall his night on the pass and how the new and still falling snow had obscured the route and visibility so much that he was unable to see which way to descend. Unable to find the route down or to stay warm enough in that situation, Sofiane turned around to follow his tracks back to the safety of the lodge. That night, nearby Steamboat Springs Ski Resort recorded 20 inches of new snow. For what it’s worth, Sofiane is an incredible ultra racer, a nice person, a TD veteran with an equal third place finish, and I sincerely hope we get to see him out here again challenging Mike Hall’s record.
Days later, I was able to talk with Josh Kato about that night. The thing that saved Josh was his ability to get in his bivy bag with his emergency blanket and everything on to warm up for a few hours under a big spruce tree before heading down the pass. Otherwise, Josh feared he would have gone hypothermic from exposure to the elements if he had tried to keep moving. It also helped that Josh had the familiarity and experience of being a recreational backcountry skier, whereas Sofiane lives and works as a bike messenger in Paris, France. Two very different backgrounds. One thing both Sofiane and Josh do have in common is the bravery they displayed in taking on those conditions. It will be talked about for years and is the stuff Tour Divide legends are made of.
Also at the lodge that morning were two young men from Vancouver, Canada, who were touring the route for their very first time. They were properly equipped with their gear, and like eventual winner Chris Seistrup, they had taken every opportunity to ride, push, and carry their bikes with touring gear in the snow during the winter leading up to this year’s race. I may have helped talk them into heading up by rationalizing that since they were on an adventure they might as well send it because they’d certainly have more fun dealing with the challenge than waiting at the lodge for better conditions. By this time Josh Ibbett had arrived and was fueling up in the lodge. At 10:30 AM, the boys from Canada sent it right over Sand Pass, and later that day I saw them both hammering out the miles just past Clark, CO.
Twenty-one minutes after the Canadians left Brush Mountain, Lael rolled up for a quick refuel. Just before leaving I caught Lael and Kirsten having a good laugh about something. It’s hard to know what was so funny since Lael always seems to be in a positive mindset and is always smiling or laughing about something. I missed Josh Ibbett rolling out earlier, but at 11:07 AM I caught Lael rolling out with an M&M ice cream sandwich in her hand.
About an hour and a half later, both Lael and Josh Ibbett returned to Brush Mountain with muddy bikes and wheels that barely turned. Obviously, the route was quite muddy, which had already been confirmed earlier by Sofiane and Billy Rice. Lael and Josh washed off their bikes and decided to make another attempt in a few hours in hopes the route would have dried up some by then. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to download photos, back them up, and recharge batteries as Evan Deutsch and Kai Edel arrived. Sensing a turning tide in enthusiasm after the new arrivals learned of the conditions, I seized the moment and somewhat dry conditions to make a run for it by heading backward on the route, into Wyoming, back into Colorado a bit further east, and around Sand Pass to continue chasing the leaders.
To be continued. Check out part two here!
About Eddie Clark
Eddie Clark is a professional photographer in Boulder, Colorado, specializing in action, adventure, and event photography. Eddie’s documented eight Tour Divide races over the past 10 years and has produced some of the most iconic images in ultra-endurance bikepacking. Follow Eddie on Instagram @eddieclarkmedia and find more of his work at eddieclarkmedia.com.