Women of the 2023 Tour Divide: Conversations from Wyoming

Photographer Danielle Vilaplana was in Wyoming during the 2023 Tour Divide, where she caught up with more than a dozen women riders to learn about their experiences. Find her portraits of the women who took on the iconic 2,700-mile route this year, their advice for future racers and tourers, and other impressions from the field here…

Interviews and photos by Danielle Vilaplana

“If I can’t do it brave, then I’ll do it scared.”

Of the 14 women I interviewed in Wyoming during the 2023 Tour Divide, April Drage’s personal motto stood out because it seems to represent the Tour Divide ethos, at least from an outsider’s perspective. There’s camaraderie and personal journey and highs and lows, but there’s also perseverance in the face of the unknown.

The Rocky Mountains are serious business, and a lot can happen in 2,700 miles. Rookies and pros alike worry about weather, wildfires, bears, mechanicals, tendons, mileage, and problems they can’t even fathom beforehand. Case in point: some of the most seasoned racers scratched this year.

  • Gail Brown, 2023 Tour Divide Women
  • Sasha Dowell, 2023 Tour Divide Women

These factors are daunting enough to ward off most bikepackers, but looking at a lineup of 201 riders with only 18 women is particularly intimidating. Even more so for non-binary riders; Arya Tenzin Namdol was the first registered non-binary racer in Trackleaders history.

Below, Lael Wilcox mentions the need to invite more people to join races like the Tour Divide. This means everyone: women, non-binary, queer, trans, and BIPOC riders too. Lael’s GRIT program and the Breakfast Racing Team (which racers Tom Schwemberger and Katie Dolan are affiliated with) are two organizations leading the way. But it also hinges on individual willingness to take the leap and do it scared, if need be.

Some of the women were chasing records and other racers, and some struck a balance between challenge and fun. In this series of interviews, 14 women (12 who were listed on Trackleaders and two who weren’t) share some quick thoughts on the 2023 Tour Divide. Find out what they had to say during our brief conversations and see a gallery of photos from Wyoming below.

Lael Wilcox

Lael Wilcox, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most afraid of going into this ride?

I was most afraid of smoke. I have super bad asthma, and there were fires in Alberta, so I thought the air quality might be really bad. And then with all the rain, it cleared out all the smoke, so I’m like, “Yeah it let pour!” If it’s smoky, I can’t continue; maybe if it rains, I can kind of trudge along. So, I’ll take it!

What advice do you have for aspiring Tour Divide riders?

A huge thing for me is just inviting more women, trans, and non-binary riders to come out and give it a go. We come from a place of people telling us we’re not strong enough, we’re not good enough, and it’s not about that at all. At the end of the day, it’s who has the discipline to keep going, recover, who can make good choices, who can be efficient, and I feel like these are qualities that women have. And then the fun part about that is you get to put the pressure on the guys.

Katya Rakhmatulina

Katya Rakhmatulina, 2023 Tour Divide Women

Have you mostly ridden alone? What has that experience been like?

Half and half. There are a few people I’ve been riding with. I like riding with people because it makes the ride go faster and I’m happier. I get in my head and think, “Oh, I’m behind,” and I actually have a mechanical right now, so I was thinking about it. I feel like riding with other people, you’re just chatting, and I’m actually not a social person generally. There’s nothing good going in my head. Pain, mechanicals, pain, mechanicals.

Is there anything you wish you brought that you left at home or vice versa?

The bag that rubbed my brakes. I also forgot pants on day one.

Broadly, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to others interested in participating in the Tour Divide?

I think it’s less physical than mental, so if people are like, “I can’t ride the bike that much,” I’d just tell them that if you have the mental capacity, that’s all it takes. And women, it’s really not scary out here at all. Grizzlies are the scariest thing, and there are a lot of people. I think someone was like, “I don’t want to be by myself,” and you’re not really by yourself. It’s all in your head, and it’s less physical than you might think.

Hannah Simon

Hannah Simon, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What are your goals for this ride?

Just to finish it is the biggest thing, really, and I think my goals are kind of changing day by day. I think it’s cool to challenge yourself and do things like this really fast and efficiently, but at the same time, I get caught up in chasing and realize I am not enjoying it, you know? I’ve chosen some more comfort over competition. And I’ve just tried to find the balance of still allowing myself that challenge but then also getting to enjoy the thing that I’m doing.

How have you been received by locals and strangers?

That’s been one funny thing about the hair. I don’t know if it’s because I have a buzz cut and I’m a woman, or if it’s because I’m only the third woman they’ve seen so [locals] might give a little bit of a sidelong look or kind double take—which I’m used to from having a buzz cut. I do identify as queer, and I’m also a white person, so there are certain privileges that I receive a lot of the time without even knowing it. But again, with the buzz cut and the tattoos, I do what I can to push the boundaries.

What advice would you have for anyone who wants to do the Tour Divide?

I’m only a third of the way through it! But yeah, I guess pace yourself. It’s all about maintenance, as far as I can tell. You need to maintain your body, your mind, your bike, your food intake, your water intake. It’s just constantly being in touch with what’s going on both around you and internally.

Sure, it’s a race, but at the same time, you can’t be rushing around for two whole weeks. And it’s going to take you at least two whole weeks. So, I’ve learned to be efficient with my time, but also still stop and have a tourist take my picture in front of the Tetons. Just try to prioritize and strategize when you push yourself a little further than you normally would and when do you decide to stop early and start early.

How do you make those decisions?

It mostly has to do with where I’m going next. And that’s another piece of advice: it’s just one day at a time type of thing. I’m not planning for further than Pinedale from here, because you have no idea what’s going to happen between there and here. If you don’t set your expectations too far out, then you can be better at hitting those little milestones. I think most of what I wanted to say is believe you can do it. Because that’s kind of what these things are all about in a sense. You’re so much more capable than you think you are.

Sacha Dowell

Sasha Dowell, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most fearful about leading up to the ride?

This was the first ultra ride overseas, so all of those aspects. Even just little things like the currency, getting sufficient insurance… and bears? It’s funny because I’m fundraising for Free the Bears charity.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to others who want to ride the Tour Divide?

I would say do it! I didn’t really think about it, I didn’t research it, I just said I’m going to do it and I stuck to my plan. I’m doing it. I didn’t do a whole lot of planning, and maybe planning maybe would have made me feel not so worried about everything, but I think that’s just my way of leaving it to the last minute. I’m glad that I was just like, “Yep, I’m going to do it,” and then booked it and was like, “Oh holy crap, I’m really doing this thing!”

Don’t be afraid of doing something like this. You get so much out of it. Even if people are worried about going alone; really, sometimes you’re out in the middle of nowhere and a rider will come up behind you. So, I’m not really alone, alone. And I think you get so much from doing these things solo anyways. That’s why I love solo and unsupported bikepacking races—that kind of ethos of just relying on yourself and nobody else, and then you know you can do other things in life. I just did this amazing long bike ride, what else can I do?

April Drage

April Drage, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What are your goals for this ride?

It’s always just to have fun and see a new place. I just love being outside. I don’t plan, I just ride, and when I feel tired, I stop.

Was there anything that you were fearful of going into the ride, and has that impacted the ride in any ways?

I am on the spectrum, so the people are always what make me nervous. I’m just as likely to grab a route and go and ride it by myself, so signing up for a Grand Depart is usually the thing I’m most apprehensive about. You know, with all the other people, all the small talk, that’s the kind of stuff that stresses me out, and I think that having more women on the start line is helpful. There have been times where I’ve rolled up and I’ve been the only one, but I knew Sacha and some of them beforehand. I always just want to be three days in when you’re 90% of the time by yourself, as lovely as everybody else is.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to others interested in the Tour Divide?

I always say to myself, “If I can’t do it brave, then I’ll do it scared.” You get confidence by trying. If I’m worried, it’s worth just having a go.

Alexandera Houchin

Alexandera Houchin, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most fearful about leading up to the ride, and has fear impacted your ride?

That I picked the wrong gear ratio. I trained so hard, and it feels like I’m wasting my chance. I just can’t ride anything. I just did it and trained with it, and I don’t know, it’s just different. I’ve just been walking my bike, and I love climbing, so it’s just really heartbreaking.

What advice would you give to new riders who want to do the Tour Divide?

I would just tell people to think about the “why” behind their ride and whether they’re racing as a part of the official unofficial race (30 days or fewer) and to hold on to that for the weeks it takes to finish. There are countless excuses and reasons to quit, but nothing feels better than making it to Antelope Wells after testing yourself day in and day out. The motivation to move forward has to be stronger than the desire to quit.

Marie-Soleil Blais

Marie-Soleil Blais, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What are your goals for this ride?

I want to do the best I can. It’s my first bikepacking race, so really I have no idea. I race professionally on the road, but that’s so different. But I’m kind of done with road cycling, so this is a new challenge for me. I’m not sure I’m going to do more, it was more a test to see if I would like it. Somebody suggested, “Why don’t you do the Trans Am?” and I’m like, “No! Off-road is fun!” I’m not good at it, but it doesn’t make it less fun.

What advice would you give to new tourers who want to do the Tour Divide?

I think to not be afraid of failing, in a way. For me, this is a learning experience. I cannot fail. When you do your best, you can only become stronger. And more capable. There is no failure possible.

I see a lot of women who are scared of doing something, like, “Maybe I’m not going to be good.” For example, in Tucson, I like to train with the guys, and I will get dropped, and a lot of women are afraid of training with the guys because they’re afraid of not being good enough, but it doesn’t matter. Once you’re past that fear of getting dropped, you just go and you get dropped and you get better.

Gail Brown

Gail Brown, 2023 Tour Divide Women

How have you been received by the locals or strangers you’ve encountered along the route?

Oh, everybody genuinely, without exception, has been so kind and helpful. I think it’s clear through some of Montana, there’s people with very different belief systems but their values of kindness and generosity are just astounding. Everyone has been so nice.

Do you have any quick advice for anyone who wants to do the Tour Divide?

I think to not get overwhelmed by the size of it or the scale of it. Once you start to break it down everything becomes a bit more manageable. But, equally, you don’t have to start here—like you don’t have to do this at all. I guess my advice would be work out—via doing some smaller races or other bikepacking trips—whether you feel that you’d enjoy it or whether you’d like to explore this, and if you do, then yeah, go for it! I think we sometimes glorify this stuff, and it doesn’t have to be this; it could be something else.

I’ve done a fair few races now, and I think they’ve all built into being able to do this and made me feel that I’d be able to do it. I think it’s a bit more psychologically manageable if you’ve done stuff like this before.

Katie Dolan

Katie Dolan, 2023 Tour Divide Women

Is there anything that you were afraid of going into this?

I’m still just really scared of the cold after last year. I have fully waterproof gear and feel a lot safer this year.

Is there anything that you brought that you wish you hadn’t or vice versa?

No, I’m so happy with everything I brought. I have lobster gloves and really warm clothes. And a really warm quilt.

What advice do you have for other people who want to do the Tour Divide?

You’re going to be able to do more than you think. The majority of it is power of will. But if it’s caught your eye, and you’re dreaming about it, you should just go for it.

Kristen Tonsager

Kristen Tonsager, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most fearful about leading up to the ride, and has fear impacted your ride in any way?

I was terrified of bears. All the bears. I’ve been yelling and singing through the fires to distract them, and I feel like after the first or second day in Montana, I kind of stopped thinking about them. So, I guess I’m getting more bear comfortable, but I did have a lot of fear of the bears at first.

Do you have any advice for people who want to do the Tour Divide?

Prepare, and don’t be afraid. It is hard. It requires all skills of riding: mountain, gravel, road. Awareness. I think it’s mentally and physically challenging, but it’s so worth it. I had this lady in the bathroom in the Subway in Eureka and I was in there and she was cleaning and she knew what I was doing and the last thing she said to me was, “It’s okay, its worth it.” And I said “Hell yeah, it is!”

I think no matter how long it takes you, no matter how fast or how slow you are, it’s about your own journey. Yeah, we’re racing, but just go for it and enjoy it and don’t worry about everybody else. That’s what I keep telling myself.

Lucy Eykamp

Lucy Eykamp, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most fearful about leading up to the ride, and has it impacted your ride in any way?

Weather. And dealing with cold. I biked down last night in the rain and found a toilet to sleep in. It was clean, it was fine! It didn’t smell! There was a mouse in it, apparently, and it ate some of my food. But I was out of the wind, out of the rain. The weather is obviously making my decisions today, like what am I going to do? I pushed hard yesterday to get as close to here as possible, but then this weather, and how I’m feeling… I’m like, “Is it a smart thing?” You don’t want to get caught out there.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to do the Tour Divide?

Get strong. Really, I did weight sessions a lot. You have to be fit. You have to be strong to be able to push and manipulate a heavy bike over rocks and roots and up and down mountains. So, make sure you’ve got strong tendons and ligaments and muscles. Otherwise, make sure you have the right experience. Don’t just think it’s a walk in the park if you want to race it. If you want to tour, it’s a different story. I would get strong and just know you’ve got the experience to make the right decisions.

Ingrid Taumaunu

Ingrid Taumaunu, 2023 Tour Divide Women

Is there anything that you wish you brought that you left at home or vice versa?

Not really. I think if I was a bit smarter, I would have gotten a bit fitter. I probably took this one a little too casually, and it’s one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. I’ve done lots of rides all over Europe, New Zealand, top of the crop, and I’ll never come back. Sorry!

What is one piece of advice you’d give to others interested in doing the Tour Divide?

Just don’t take it for granted, and don’t think it’s easy, because it’s not. And come prepared with all your gear, because if you come without warm gear or something like that, you’ll hate it. And I know a couple who have. Come with everything, ride with everything.

Wibke Schneider

Wibke Schneider, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What are your goals for the ride?

Just reach the Mexican border, that might be fine for me. I have plenty of time.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to others interested in doing the Tour Divide?

Meeting fantastic lovely people and the stunning nature are the reasons you have to do it. And you have to love riding bikes, of course.

Zoe Huston

Zoe Huston, 2023 Tour Divide Women

What were you most fearful about going into the ride?

I think maybe just not being able to keep up? There’s always a little bit of fear like, “What if I’m disappointed in myself or what if I can’t meet my goal?” Just that internal monologue pressure. Also bears, and the dark, and lightning.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to ride the Tour Divide?

I think just engaging in an ongoing conversation with yourself about what your values are and what’s important to you. What kind of challenges you want to face and what makes you feel happy and strong. Just being willing to have those conversations over and over again, because sometimes they change day to day, and sometimes they change hour to hour.

Also remembering that while bikes are a tool for joy and fun, they can also be really hard and bring up sadness or anger or grouchiness or frustration, and there’s room for that too. If you feel sad on your bike for part of the day, you’re not doing it wrong. That’s okay. There’s a full range of emotions that you experience when you spend 16 hours a day on your bicycle, and for me, it’s important to have space for all of those and to not feel down on myself because things are hard and I feel sad.

That’s how biking goes, they’re feeling machines. So yeah, I spent two weeks on a feelings machine. You feel the feelings, and that’s okay.

Danielle Vilaplana

About Danielle Vilaplana

Danielle Vilaplana is a writer and photographer in Utah and Wyoming. She has taken photos for Patagonia, Bedrock Sandals, and other brands and focuses on the moments-in-between. Find her on Instagram @vilaplanet or DanielleVilaplana.com.

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