Fay Cunningham TD 2017
2300hrs July 6 2017 the final hours
My phone alarm disturbs me..a quick glance at the time tells me I have been asleep for 90 mins. I’m in Silver City, the Palace Hotel a marvellous olde worlde hotel curled up in clean white sheets, Garrett is curled up beside me, Andrew is nearby. Wearily we stir and start our ritual pack up of bike and bags. This will be the final time.
We are tired and beaten down from a fight through the heat, hills and wildfires of the Gila but a destination beckons and for one last time we muster strength and courage, 124 miles to go.
It’s been so hot ..I had placed my water bladder in the freezer hoping to cheat the heat, its frozen solid, impossible to wrangle it into place within my frame bag I am exasperated and cross with my stupidity frantically trying to thaw it out enough to stuff back into the place it has occupied for this journey, finally it yields and we push our battered bikes and bodies out onto the street. We needed some supply I forget what so make a beeline for the nearest service station….closed. More frustration and on we pedal following the purple line. The road begins to rise, I love riding in the dark, it’s cool and quiet and the darkness is pierced only by our flashing LED lights. We crest the summit, stop for food, delicious healthy sandwiches greedily consumed…the wholefood grocer I thank you. Eventually the tarseal ends and we turn left, the road is sandy, wash boarded and fast. We are back in our happy place and silently we move along our pace quickening, too quick in my case and I wash out in sand crashing heavily headfirst. Stunned I fret; I can’t crash out now, not this close. I sit and breathe, remove my helmet and breathe some more. OK no serious damage, head hurts but so does almost everything else, harden up, get going..a message I have repeated many times in the last few weeks. Helmet back on, pedal, pedal hard the boys are ahead.
Together again we move across this barren desert as the tarantula’s scurry beneath our wheels. It’s dark, eerily dark when out of the dark comes a dog, a large black dog and he runs alongside us, quietly, quickly for many miles escorting us closer to our destination, ensuring we keep the pace up, keep the focus going.
Out of the darkness lights start to appear, moving lights, red and white lights in a straight line. It’s the Interstate filled with freight trucks, so many times on this journey we ride through total isolation and out of nowhere we are spat back to civilisation, I am never ready, never prepared to shake the peace and isolation, never ready to be reminded that this will not be my reality for long just a stolen time in my life so ordinary.
This is Separ, we stop awhile and sit beside a disused gas station, parked beside defunct petrol bowsers are defunct cars, the traffic pelts our senses, the wifi is strong and free, the second sandwich is scoffed but not required. We are fuelled now by anxiety, tentative relief, adrenaline, excitement. I post a quick note on my route page…telling the dot watchers that this race is going through the night…they already know, they have been the most loyal and ardent of dot watchers..I love them for that.
Route notes are checked… tarseal all the way. We push off again, our notes lied, again. Its rutted dirt, slow dirt, noisy beside the Interstate dirt, we hate it.
Andrew moves off, caught in his own emotion of what has gone before.
We turn right, it’s almost light and we are looking at the famous distance marker Antelope Wells 65 miles. I stop for a quick photo and start to wilt, for the first time I stop and push my headphones into my ears, turn on the tunes..a stirring acoustic mix courtesy of Apple music, turn up the volume and begin to turn the pedals, trying to dull the feelings of relief, excitement, pride and extreme sadness. Today the Tour Divide will finish for me and I am oh so sad/happy.
Focus is eluding me as I search out the buffalos we are warned to watch out for, battle the stifling heat and avoid the stares of the border control police who move up and down this stretch of road menacingly.
There are no buffalos, the terrain is obscured by shimmering heat, despite the flatness I pass a sign indicating I have crossed the Continental Divide for the final time. My eyes start to search the desert for the border..I come up with nothing. We turn left into a howling headwind..how fitting there are 5 miles to go. I howl back at the wind and pedal. Garrett and I come together side by side we pedal toward the buildings we can now glimpse, this must be it I conclude. On we go; Andrew comes by in a car cheering us in madly snapping pics of this most delicious moment.
That most iconic of all border signs welcomes us to Antelope Wells. We have travelled here by bicycle, a distance of 2732 miles. I reach for my spot tracker and press the off button, we turn and embrace, Andrew joins us and we embrace again, silent, smiling we are done.
I’m somewhere between Calgary and Banff pedalling toward the looming mountains. I’m sick, really sick, the scenery is meh and the traffic thunders past while I struggle to maintain my paltry shoulder space. What was I thinking…..
I probably wasn’t thinking ….I am after all more than middle aged, a very ordinary woman who loves to ride bikes but does so quite badly. I have been a Tour Divide groupie for some years, a keen dot watcher and researcher of the course and its racers but never really thinking this thing was within my reach or ability. Several years ago I committed to riding the TD (in my mind) and promptly fell off my bike in spectacular fashion necessitating a 6 month recovery and serious consideration of whether I should even continue to ride given this was just the most serious of a number of accidents.
I moved my focus from straight forward MTB to bike packing and this ignited my love of riding bikes even further. I am lucky to live and play in New Zealand where there are endless dirt tracks, gravel roads and hideous hills on which to hone my skills and in a fit of madness I signed up to the local TD equivalent Tour Aotearoa. A little shorter and for a local perhaps a little more comfortable but daunting never the less for someone such as me. Long story short I was hooked and looked again at committing to my long term love the Tour Divide.
And so I signed up for 2017 and here it is 2 days from the start I arrive in Banff. This pretty Canadian town is abuzz with impressive bike packing rigs and even more impressive slender lycra clad fellows strutting around town bursting with confidence.
Over coffee I meet 2 women signed up to start..they are nervous, even anxious, fretting about the race. I calmly tell them “it’s just a bike ride”. It’s a lie of course, for me it’s a one-time only attempt, something I had invested years of planning and training into. I had travelled half way across the world, just starting was never going to be enough, I had to finish. They don’t make it. Those lycra clad fellows..well many of them didn’t make it either.
I felt prepared, had done my homework, was ready….this was to be tested before I even turned a pedal stroke. I collected my spot tracker, there were no batteries included. Banff was stripped of them by racers better prepared than I, fail number 1.
One final task was to collect the top cap entitling me to 2 free slices of pie in Pie Town if I were to be lucky enough to make it that far. They were being handed out by a high profile chap in these circles…he couldn’t have cared less about the nervous folk, the back of the pack ordinary folk and suddenly I felt out of my depth, fraudulent almost., fail number 2.
The middle (I’m not going to write a blow by blow account of each day..if you are interested I did keep a mostly daily journal found here https://www.facebook.com/More-middle-aged-MTB-madness-302920690157743)
Stories of riding the divide are punctuated by tales of repeated gear failure, body failure and mind failure..overcome or not.
I wanted to go home on day 2……that was the only day. Day 1 was as ever wet and cold and this year we were punished by miles of energy sapping and bike destroying mud as we moved between Elk Pass and Elkford. But it was OK, what I was expecting, what I had prepared for.
Day 2 held the unknown section…..the now infamous reroute, someone has coined it ‘KokoLoco’…its madness really mostly unrideable and I got as close to breaking as I ever have. A pitiful 70ish miles and I was done. In my mind’s eye I saw my dot being relegated to the dreaded touring status and I quickly learnt that the mind was the tool that needed sharpening, this sort of weakness was going to send me home.
I reset the mental clock, put the koko nonsense behind me, fuelled with terrible coffee and egg muffins I was back in the game 30 extra miles to be ridden.
And so it was, the daily cycle of early rises and late night finishes, of pushing up passes and racing the descents, days of the most stunning scenery you will see. Days of dodging hailstones and lightning storms, searing heat in the day and freezing high altitude temps in the night, mud and snow, headwinds and smoke. Days of dodging the person eating wildlife. Days of extreme fatigue and loneliness, days of embracing the kindness of strangers and shared experience with fellow racers. This is life on the Divide, theoretically it requires resilience, flexibility of thinking, grit and determination to succeed. What I typically put forward was fear and fatigue, frustration and disappointment when I missed my targets and arrived when the stores were closed, tantrums upon finding the lithium battery spot empty again, glee when the servo sold my favourite choccy milk, tiny things taking on out of proportion importance, struggles with saddle sores and swelling. Somehow though my mind was strong and so were the legs. I ticked off the states one by one. Canada done, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and eventually New Mexico. Each had its own challenges, none easier than the other, but each quite beautiful, willing to offer up physical beauty in spades and dole out physical and mental anguish to an unprepared racer if you were not on your guard.
This year was by all accounts a tough year, lots of rain, lots of mud, lots of miles to trudge through snow, the kokoloco, wildfires and extra miles. It was hard, very hard some days impossibly hard for me. Everyday there was something to drag me to my lowest and everyday something to raise me up…
I can’t speak to broken bikes, broken bodies or even broken minds. That either makes me a fraud, lucky or as tough as nails 🙂
Mechanicals there were none, my steed was my best ally, and it stayed the distance and saw me there. I learnt how to look after my steed, it looked after me, I changed the brake pads…once.
My body started to crumble, it realised I wasn’t going to give it a break and so it started to heal instead and my mind…well it’s a pretty old mind, it’s seen a few things along the way, had a few challenge’s.
I have a friend ..he did TD 2016 and admitted to me it made him cry, 3 times. I gave myself one more..I called it my crybaby allowance I didn’t use one.
There will be some who will say that my rookie 27 days was not a success. It’s an argument had each year..what does racing mean, what is an appropriate time, what makes you a winner.
Pfft to them.
I raced the divide, I gave all I had each day I was riding, no half days, no rest days, no easy days..just hard, long and wonderful days. That’s all I need to know. Last year’s ride cannot be compared to this years, and this years cannot be compared to next. If you ride and give each day your all, maintain the minimum daily mileage plus some, obey the rules and ride with integrity then you are a racer.
I righteously say this having finished and of course there were many more that did not finish than did. Such is the toughness of this race and I do not mean to infer that they are not successful, no doubt they are but my measurement of my race was to finish as a pink dot. Not a white dot or an orange dot, a pink dot.
I am not your typical bike racer, I am not an athlete, my gear is not too flashy, it’s appropriate, its practical, well used, reliable ..just like its owner. I saw strangers gasp as I rode up to resupplies and removed my helmet, caught them whispering to my fellow racers…..I think they were amazed to see someone such as me doing something such as this. What they didn’t realise is that most of the time so was I!
I thought long and hard about what it might take to be a Tour Divide racer before I became one…..I still can’t answer the question but I encourage any reader thinking about it to become one. You will succeed or maybe not, your body, bike and mind may last the distance or not, but you will unquestionably have taken a ride on the not so well travelled side of life, you will have exposed yourself to strangers in a way we seldom do in our real and predictable lives. You will see and experience the kindness of strangers at a level that will restore your faith in human kind. You will have had more than a bike ride ….and you will be a different sort of human because of it.