Tracking Down the 2019 Tour Divide, Part 2
In part two of our Tour Divide recap, Eddie Clark gets into the thick of things as the weather goes south in the high mountains of Colorado, capturing a stunning set of photos that show why the Tour Divide is one of the “most demanding and beautiful bike races in existence.”
Words and photos by Eddie Clark
Day 8 continued: Picking up just after leaving Brush Mountain (part 1), I took this photo of a limited eastern view of the notorious Sand Pass and Sand Mountain North to the top and left. This is what those who crossed Sand Pass had to contend with. To get an eyeball on route conditions, I drove to the bottom of USFS 42, which comes down from Sand Pass and joins County Rd 62, which goes to Clark, Colorado. It was quite muddy and not worth possibly getting stuck on for the sake of a few photos of tire tracks in the mud and snow. It hardly looked like better conditions or any sort of weather window.
I continued on past Clark, passing the Canadian tourers who had already crossed Sand Pass, and then into Steamboat to refuel and reassess the blue dot situation. Steve Halligan and Nate Ginzton were nearby, but it was merely cold and wet in Steamboat Springs, hardly photo worthy, and their stories of Sand Pass could wait for later. I made a highway run much further south to intercept Josh Kato and Chris Seistrup on the south side of Lynx Pass before darkness set in. It was in this section that Chris somehow got past Josh without realizing it. It was cold and I waited inside the dry, warm cabin of my truck, occasionally starting the engine to run the heater. Finally, at 8:35 PM, Chris came into view and said hi as he rode by.
Back in the truck to stay warm, the minutes ticked by and I eagerly awaited Josh’s arrival before running out of usable light for photos. In the distance an orange helmet appeared and I jumped out to recompose for the main photo I wanted to take. Click, click, click as files wrote to the card, and boom, I nailed the shot of him standing on the pedals and riding toward me. The hair on my neck stood up because I knew got something mighty powerful given the conditions and how Josh was riding his bike. I took more photos, and surprisingly he stopped to briefly chat. Concerned, he first asked about Sofiane and if he was okay. Josh said he had been calling out to Sofiane while on top of Sand Pass, and saw his tracks all over, but never saw Sofiane. All he knew was that Sofiane’s dot had gone back to Brush Mountain. I assured him Sofiane was okay and resting back at the lodge, but that he was done and probably going to scratch. With the cold setting in, Josh rode off to keep his internal heater going.
The fading light gave way to night and I headed down the route a couple miles only to be stopped by the Rock Creek crossing, which was flowing with a very high volume. With my flashlight on high I could see two sets of tracks going up to it, and then nothing on the other side. Driving through it to continue was not an option. Days later I asked Chris and Josh about that night, and they both said the creek crossing was quite cold and nearly waist deep.
It started raining again so I put my Tacoma in 4×4 and retreated back to highway 134 to avoid the risk of getting stuck in the mud or fresh snow. Back at the highway crossing, Steve Halligan rode up and I advised him to be careful if he decided to cross the creek. Thankfully, Steve decided against crossing, and instead spent the night in a nearby abandoned cabin. Worried about Steve making it across, I tried driving to the other side via the highway and another dirt road, but was quickly thwarted by several downed trees. The mud was so bad on the way out that I barely kept my truck from sliding into the ditch. Conditions were atrocious and showed no signs of getting better, so I pulled off the highway at a campground a mile or so to the east and slept for the night.
Day 9: Chris found an abandoned USFS bathroom to seek shelter in that night, Josh bivied under a temporarily clearing sky, Steve stayed in the abandoned cabin by Rock Creek, and I never heard where Nate Ginzton stayed. It was another very uncomfortably cold morning, and I drifted back to sleep after waking before dawn to more snow. An hour passed and it was snowing hard, really starting to accumulate. It was time to get down nearby Gore Pass at 9,527 feet before things really went sideways. Evidently, Josh woke up covered in a couple inches of snow, and was also quite motivated to get moving. Both Josh and Steve ended up crashing in the snow and mud while descending to the small community of Radium on the Colorado River. Steve just got a bit muddy, but Josh landed hard and hurt his shoulder to the point he was having trouble changing gears with his touring-style shifters.
Once down Gore Pass and into Kremmling, I got a rider dot refresh to find Josh was approaching Williams Fork Reservoir, a place I had photographed Eric Lobeck back in the 2010 TD. It was raining again when I found Josh, and I drove past him and up the wet, muddy dirt road a while for a good composition. He didn’t flinch as he rode by, just full warrior mode, him against the Divide and everything it was throwing at him.
Satisfied I wouldn’t get a better photo of Josh, I looped back to intercept Nate Ginzton and found him just before he topped out on the climb from Radium. In a rare moment, I was able to see through Nate’s persistent poker face and it was obvious that he too had done his share of suffering throughout the night and morning. Soon after, on the same climb, I encountered a frazzled but still upbeat Steve Halligan, who was looking forward to a warm meal in Kremmling.
With no better option than to move forward, I headed south on Highway 9 to go up to Ute Pass in hopes of catching Josh before he got to the descent. He zipped by before I get there, so I took a photo of the snow-covered Gore Mountains across the valley as a testament to Colorado’s record snow season.
Heading south back down to Highway 9, I stopped in Silverthorne to buy a down blanket to use in addition to my sleeping bag. I was totally over being so cold every night. I’ve had some cold nights on the Divide, but never such a stretch as this year. With a little time to spare I headed up to Boreas Pass, where the winter gate was still closed despite the nearly passable condition. I hiked up to get a parting photo of Chris climbing the lower portion of Boreas Pass Rd with yet another snow squall on his heels. According to Chris, there was very little snow atop Boreas Pass, which he indeed made short work of.
Josh, Steve and Nate had all stopped in Summit County, so I made the run over Hoosier Pass to get more photos of Chris as my timeframe to photograph him was quickly coming to an end. I found him having a break to eat and call his wife on the dirt road south of Como. He was in good spirits and appeared to be having a really good time despite the conditions. It probably helped that he threw all of his kit in the drier at a laundromat in Breckenridge and filled his belly with hot food while waiting. It turns out Chris is a hemophiliac and in racing the Tour Divide he was also raising funds for the charitable organization Save One Life.
Day 10: The weather finally let up and clear skies emerged as I photographed Josh and Nate on the route between Como and Hartsel with the snowy peaks behind them. Much further back on the route, the now large group of racers finally started leaving the warmth and comfort of Brush Mountain to forge on and over Sand Pass.
A close up of cue cards and the cockpit of Chris Seistrup’s bike while he was inside the gas station at Sargents buying a ridiculous amount of food.
After catching up with Chris at Sargents, I headed up the west side of Marshall Pass to document a snowy pass crossing. Minor TD detail: the western side of Marshall Pass is almost always significantly smoother than the eastern side. Needless to say, the fear of difficult snowy Colorado passes shared by many racers early on was maybe a bit overhyped. With the snow year we’ve had, it was surprising to see how fast it melted away. After Steve walked the only remaining bit of snow, he turned to me to ask how much further it was to the top of Marshall Pass. I then pointed to the sign behind him, and it elicited a victory salute that he was quite happy about.
Josh Kato soon passed me near the top of Marshall Pass and I gave him a few minutes before driving back down to Sargents where I found him loading up on food and liquids. He’d been having GI issues for a bit and said the coconut water had been working well for him.
From Sargents, I took some shortcuts to catch up with Chris before he got over Cochetopa Pass, but just missed him. After Cochetopa Pass there really isn’t much opportunity for sunset photos as the route descends to the east, not to mention it would be impossible to catch him on that downhill. From the pass I backtracked and found Steve in some nice light riding south toward Upper Dome Reservoir with the San Juan Mountains in the distance. Quite the pretty place to be at sunset.
I moved a bit further back up the course to this area where I took some memorable photos of Mike Hall during his 2014 TD ride. Since Mike’s death, driving through this section has brought out some pretty strong emotions for me, but that is another story for me to tell soon enough.
At this point, Josh’s health was deteriorating rapidly. A couple days later, from the chair of his hospital room in Del Norte, he recalled how this section to Del Norte was a massive struggle to maintain his power output and ability to breath. Later on that night he woke up vomiting and in very rough shape, but somehow managed to limp into Del Norte to resupply. After taking the left turn out of Del Norte to head up Indiana Pass, his heart rate was registering at 210 BPM while pedaling on flat ground at a slow pace. Not wanting to die on the pavement in front of the hospital, Josh turned off course and checked himself into the ER.
Josh is an ER nurse, and he knew that continuing on could be fatal. Without divulging his medical condition, the early tests at the hospital returned worrisome results that signaled the end of his Tour Divide. Thankfully, he’s okay, and as I write this he’s been driving backward up the route to meet all the amazing Tour Divide riders still living the dream. His goals for this Tour Divide were to race to his best ability, to ride at Mike Hall’s pace, and to finish the race. With those sorts of goals, two out of three isn’t so bad.
Day 11: Originally, my plan was to drive to the lower flanks of Indiana Pass to sleep for the night, but I quickly realized how tired I was. I was in the back of my truck and asleep long before I would get to Del Norte. While yet again I just missed Chris, I was able to drive until the reported six miles of snow started just south of Summitville on the south side of Indiana Pass. Finally, I got to ride my bike! I rode and pushed some snowy sections to just past the cut-off to Elk Pass to photograph this wonderful snowy sub-alpine setting. The snow section really wasn’t so bad and probably 85% was ridable. A couple hours later Steve arrived and I took a bunch of photos before having a brief chat and wishing him good luck and a fun rest of his ride.
Unexpectedly, I got cell signal and refresh the rider locations to see Josh was still in Del Norte and Nate was on the middle section of the climb. The Indiana Pass climb from Del Norte ascends roughly 4,000 feet over 23 miles, and is the biggest climb on the route, topping out at 11,910 feet, which is also the high point of the GDMBR. I waited at Indiana Pass and grabbed a couple photos as Nate pedaled by with his poker face on point.
Day 12: I slept lower down on Indiana Pass and leisurely drove down to Del Norte, thinking Josh must be having problems since his dot, from a zoomed out view, appeared to still be at the Organic Pedeller. Once down, I realized his dot was actually at the hospital a block away, so I went to check on him, knowing I was probably the only person around who understood what he’d been putting his body through for the last week and a half. In his room, doctors were visiting with him to check his condition and making plans for further tests. He was clean and seemed to be fine despite some worrisome test results. We talked for probably an hour or so about his issues, the race, and shared some more stories. Relieved to know he was okay and in good hands, the time came for me head out and work on wrapping up my coverage.
After a quick gas stop in town, I headed north up the route to wait at the lower cusp of the Old Woman Creek section, where you can look down and south to Del Norte while also having a great view to see riders coming from a long ways out to the North. I’d been through here before, once at night and once during the day, but for some reason I’d forgotten just how scenic and expansive this area is. It just has such a different feel from much of the route, especially anything in Colorado. Thinking back to when I was a kid and wondering about the West, these landscapes are exactly what I envisioned. It probably helped having a snowy, wet winter and spring to contribute to the lush green conditions that are not normally present here.
First through was Tony Lesueur. Looking good, he stopped briefly and told me about how he had been riding with no light system and a back-up battery-powered navigation device. One of the drawbacks of carbon wheels is that they can and probably will break sooner or later. Unfortunately for Tony it was his front rim that broke, which was laced up to a Dynamo hub that powered his lighting and main navigation system. He’d been riding for a while with a newly replaced front wheel and no on-bike charging, which was pretty remarkable given his riding pace.
An hour and change later, Peter Sandholt came by slowly without stopping and remarked on how difficult this section had been. Thirty-five minutes later Stefano Romouldi arrived. In his thick Italian accent he had much to say about the wind, except he pronounced it like wine but with a “D” on the end. It got me reminiscing to the TransAm race in 2014 when we filmed Paulo Lauretti talking about the wind in the movie Inspired to Ride. Regardless of how you pronounce it, the wind does not play favorites along this section in the afternoon, and everyone who came through had a hot and stiff headwind to contend with from La Garita to Del Norte.
With a small gap to the next rider, I moved a bit further up the route for a change of scenery. Evan Deutsch would be next, then the trio of Josh Ibbett, Lucas Ratcliff, and Kai Edel all came through in close proximity.
After yet another move, here came Bear Stillwater. I wasn’t sure what to expect since I’d never heard of him, but I was intrigued by his name. While his red Coca-Cola jersey photographed well, it was mildly surprising, and regardless he looked good on the bike and seemed to be having a great time. And last for this photo session was Kim Raeymaekers, who was definitely in a spot of bother and was just fine with stopping for a moment to chat.
Kim pedaled on into Del Norte and I was left with some time and a decision on my hands. Retreat down the bumpy 4×4 road to Del Norte and hope for gas station photos, stay put in this wonderful place that also had 4G cellular reception, or gamble on catching Alexandera Houchin in a place I’d already photographed before. The decision was easy, I cracked open a beer and went for a sunset walk in the high desert of the Rocky Mountains.
Day 13: I awoke to yet another sunrise on the side of the route and was going through the motions of making coffee and breakfast on my tailgate when Lael Wilcox rode toward me. My back was turned and she startles me by saying, “Is that Eddie Clark?” I spun around and said hi and we made quick comments about how pretty it was there as she rode by and off into the distance. The early morning weather was perfect, the light soft but warm, the setting serene, and I was happy to see Lael out doing what she loves.
Taking a highway shortcut through Saguache, I rejoined the route east of Cochetopa Pass not too far from the highway and waited for the dots to arrive. Usually, I’m pretty good about taking notes while on the TD in a little notebook with dates, times, mileage, rider name abbreviation and any relevant information. However, on this morning and with no cell service, all I have for the gentleman in the red jersey is a note of him being on a Trek Superfly hardtail, so if anyone knows this man, please do give him some credit in the comments below. Next to come through was Robert Goldie, but a cloud beat him there, ruining the light.
One of the variables on the Divide is the weather. It doesn’t just affect the racers, but also the photographers and their images. So many times I’ve been foiled by a cloud, and of course as if on cue, the clouds rolled through again, obstructing my nice light as the new women’s leader Alexandera Houchin started to approach in the distance. I held the camera on her, still focusing, and miraculously the light shone through, allowing me a quick few photos as she rode by.
Wanting more shots of Alexandera, I hustled up the route to Carnero Pass, where I hoped she would take a short break after the long climb. Of course, the unknown racer and I would get stuck behind a cattle drive along the way, which was mostly amusing and a little bit stinky. If you’re riding the route, you will almost certainly get stuck in or behind a cattle drive at some point.
I parked atop Carnero Pass a little too comfortably in the shade and dozed off while waiting for Alexandera. Thankfully, I heard just enough of something mechanical to wake up, grabbed a camera, and ran over to take some photos before she rode off. I introduced myself and asked if she wouldn’t mind hanging out for a moment while I take some photos, and actually she was happy to stop and talk for a bit, noting that she has been really chatty on the ride. We shared some thoughts on the race and talked about gear choices and bikes, which eventually leads into her telling me how becoming a singlespeeder has changed her as a cyclist. In prior events, Alexandera rode a geared bike, and just recently made the switch to just one gear, which I state is all you need to garner a laugh and “hell yeah” from her. She said it freed her of comparing herself to others like when she was riding geared, and now just goes out and does it the simplest way possible with no cares because it’s all she needs. How can you not like Alexandera? Conventions be damned, she’s doing it her way and probably having more fun than anyone else.
As I wrap this up, Alexandera appears to be close to exiting the Gila, and hopefully she is well and not out of water. The Gila can be one of the hottest and driest places on the route, so let’s all hope for a cool tailwind to push her along. If all keeps going well, she’ll be the first woman to finish the Tour Divide this year, and most likely also set a new women’s singlespeed record.
Over the weekend, Chris Seistrup took the overall win with a time of 15 days, 11 hours, and 24 minutes. Steve Halligan and Nate Ginzton finished not too far behind for an incredibly noteworthy ride by all three. In closing, it must be said that everyone who takes on the Tour Divide is a winner and worthy of much respect as it is one of the most demanding and beautiful bike races in existence.
UPDATE: Congratulations to Alexandera who finished early this morning. Details 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.