A few days previously I’d been in conversation with Davy and Geof about the final day. We’d been mulling over what we’d do when we got to Silver City. Davy was adamant that you’d want to ride on and get it done. I was sceptical about this. I felt that I’d probably want to rest up and finish well. I’d want my finish photo to be in daylight and for it all to end on a high.
Waking up in Lower Black Canyon campground I realised that I’d been talking utter bollocks. I was about 180 miles from the end, there was no way I was going to “rest up” at Silver City. This needed to be over. The previous day’s climbing and pushing had given my achilles another hammering. I started off sore but willing, this could be my final day! I really have cycled quite a long way haven’t I?
The Gila wilderness was not quite done with me yet and I suffered a few more miles of steep climbing for breakfast along with the final squashed subway sandwich of the race. On cresting the final big hill I applied suncream and took a short segment of video. Some suncream must have got onto the camera lens. This would have tragic consequence as we will discover much later.
The route then followed the continental divide down from the wilderness trail and onto a brief section of pavement heading through Gattons Park. This was utter joy after a long extended period of crumbly dirt roads. I was tempted to kneel and kiss it pope-like but that would have meant getting out of the cycling position which felt weird. I’d been in this position for three weeks now. I didn’t really know anything else, it felt like that was my life. The road caused some early reflection on the sacrifices I’d had to make to get this far.
Thoughts of home and family had been parked and locked away in an area of memory I’d rarely accessed. This was necessary (for me) in order to keep moving forward. These memories reminded me of a better place when things were getting hard and offered a real temptation to leave the current situation and take steps back to the comfort zone. I really did live in a “bubble” during the race and deliberately kept myself within. Every peak outside of the bubble made it harder to get back in. Best to stay there.
My physical well being had also been compromised. Years of cycling, touring and racing had taught me that sometimes you had to listen to your physical self and just stop. This went out of the window on day two. I’d suffered a lot of achilles and knee pain as I’d adapted to the route and the rigours of constantly hauling a heavy bike up extended climbs into thinner air. This pain was occasionally chronic. Back home it would have been dealt with by days of rest. Not here. I simply adjusted position and tried to ignore it. I found that it never got worse as long as I respected and coaxed the injury rather than fought against it. I discovered that our bodies are incredible things. They are pretty much designed for endurance and will continue to function well even when things aren’t quite right. I was worried that I was doing myself lasting damage by riding through the pain but within days of finishing it had subsided and I was riding again.
Finally I had stretched myself mentally on many occasions. You watch films and read articles prior to the race and build an impression of days of chilled cycling in incredible surroundings. There are a few moments of this but equally there are hours of high stress when logistics become uncertain, weather decides not to cooperate or bikes develop mechanicals. This stress can build and accumulate and if not managed well can start to eat into the very soul of your race. I imagine that it is this that causes more scratches than any physical hinderance but nobody likes to write it up as their reason for going home. Compound this with an element of self doubt (which I possess in spades) and you end up going a little bit crazy as you head down the line. I was definitely slightly unhinged at this point. Constantly talking to myself and trying to pick fights with non-sentient adversaries such as the wind or my fucking annoying seatpack that wouldn’t sit right.
This reflection did not last long as I had one final challenge before the big home straight. The Continental Divide Trail Alternative. Geof had euphemistically described this as “not the greatest amount of fun”. It’s a section of singletrack that cuts a corner of the Great Divide Mountain Bike route from a campground at Sapillo through to Cherry Creek Canyon. It was added to the route by a total fascist. I daren’t look up who as I’m scared I’d catch a flight to their house and insert the final ACA map into a place where the sun has never shined.
The track is hard enough to find even with trail cues and a GPS unit. It’s hidden away in dense tree cover at the back end of the campsite behind a load of RVs. The first 10 metres are fantastic singletrack but then it goes up steeply unrideable for a long time, climbing its way towards a hot unforgiving sun often in dense foliage with lots of horrible buzzy flying things for company. Once up, the views are spectacular and that’s the trail’s only saving grace. Striking high desert scrub and flowing rocky ribs stare back at you. I sat and stared back for a while trying to recover and sipping at my dwindling water supplies.
You think the hard bit is done, but think again as things get properly worse. A vein of singletrack hugs the contours and transports you through a sea of harsh planty stuff that is sharp and annoying. This track verges just on the right apex of unrideability to deliver maximum frustration. You think you should be riding but are often pushing. You’re tired enough to realise that a mistake could have big consequence. A lot of the drops are steep and there is nobody here to catch you or press your emergency button. This goes on for an interminably long time. I know of a few riders who crossed it in the dark. Huge respect as I couldn’t contemplate the combination of wayfinding and intense concentration. I was so slow along here that I fully expected Geof and Davy to catch and pass me. I also expended more swear words on this section than any other segment of the race. I just wanted it over, why wouldn’t it just go away!
Riding down one steep loose section I heard a voice. “Man you cleaned it, sweet riding“. That is he first and last time I will ever hear that in my cycling career. It was another bikepacker, a veteran of the Divide just out on a brief excursion north.
There are many miracle medicines in this world. Some stave of HIV, others fight viruses and one gives you a stiffy even if in the same room as Jacob Rees Mogg. But the greatest medicine in the world is well chosen encouragement. Here was I at a real low and this guy opened his drugs cabinet and delivered a few words that completely turned my day around.
“Man! high five <whack> you’re killing it. You’re done, nothing hard to do from here. A few little bits of climbing but it’s all easy, congratulations dude, you’ve nailed it, high five <whack>“
He described the rest of the route as if it was all downhill. A gentle pootle to Silver City, some food then basically flat to Antelope Wells on easy roads. This is just what I wanted to hear even though it was maybe a little underplayed. We chatted a bit more and off I went. I wish I’d caught his name as I owe that guy for injecting me hard with the spirit of getting it done.
His predictions came mildly true. The CDT Alternative broadened into rideable double track prior to hitting the road. There was a bit of a climb up to Pinos Altos but that was doable. Then I zoomed down into Silver City rode through a set of “Closed road” signs and skidded to a stop outside of McDonalds. I’d ridden 55 very harsh miles, was tired, hungry, ultra thirsty and in huge need of a poo, oh and of course, ice cream.
I’m not really a big fan of McDonalds restaurants. I know they have their place in society but I invariably find them a little bit grotty and hugely soulless. They are basically eating factories. Designed to quickly add heat to cheap components, ensconce them in unnecessary packaging and then spread them all round the faces of noisy children. But McDonalds provide the hallowed duo of the McFlurry and Vanilla Milkshake. When you’ve been riding in the desert heat most of the day this combination fixes all ills instantly. I’d been thinking about it for miles along the CDT trail.
I stood in a queue of families impatiently tapping my feet as they ordered every combination of burgers possible by shouting from the payment counter to tables at the back of the room.
“Fries with that“
“Germain, you want fries?”
“You want fries with your filet-o-fish“
“I don’t want filet-o-fish momma, I asked for cheeseburger“
“<Sigh> who’s having the filet, was that Daniel“
“DANIEL!! Get off Sam Junior! you having filet-o-fish?”
Every family repeated this ritual constantly distancing me from my desired duo. Until finally it was my turn.
“What can I get you sir?
“Good day, thank you. I’ll take a Quarter pounder meal, large vanilla milkshake and two McFlurries please“
The lady pointed to an ice cream and milkshake machine shaped void behind her. That’s it I am boycotting McDonalds for life. My one and only reason for visiting had been whisked off for repair. I sat and sulked my way through a shitty cheeseburger and a large Fanta. Time for a gathering of thoughts.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon. It was searingly hot outside and here I had air conditioning. I had 120 miles to go. All easy according to my medicine friend. What to do? Wait out the heat? Cross the final desert section in the dark, or just get on with it?
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the logistics of finishing are not that straightforward. Antelope Wells is a border crossing open between 9am and 4pm each day. There is nothing there. No shops, no buses, no train station not even a chalked finishing line or podium. Nothing.
Once you finish you take a picture of yourself by the gate and somehow get home. Fortunately the Tour Divide has an institution in Jeff Sharp. Jeff runs a shuttle service from the finish line to Silver City or other transit points. He has a house in Hachita, 40 miles from the end, where you can recover eat and sleep if required.
The process for using Jeff is to drop him a line from Grants and tell him you’re on your way. He tracks you down the line and will often be at the end waiting for you. If not you wait and eventually he turns up. He’s a lifesaver as without Jeff I’m not sure what I’d have done. So a night finish is not as bad as it may seem as Jeff may be there waiting. If not simply hunker down in your bivy until he turns up. Which he will.
Working on a 10-12mph average I was definitely going to finish in the dark. I emailed Jeff telling him where I was and that I was going to hit the road now. Then left the sanctuary of McDonalds air conditioning. At a gas station over the road I filled up to capacity with Gatorade and headed out of Silver City on highway 90.
Mr medicine man had brushed over this section. It was a long series of extended climbs all of which were entirely unwelcome in the afternoon heat. A decent size verge offered shelter from fast moving traffic but I’ve definitely ridden in better places.
At White Signal highway 90 was left behind in favour of the Separ Road. I was back on dirt track, wind on my back and whooping my way along like a shit two wheeled cowboy. “Yeee haaa! Antelope Wells I’m a coming to getcha“. The rapture didn’t last. Road and wind direction messed about a bit and I went from whooping to grovelling. I was drinking heavily in the heat and concerned that I’d not have enough to get the the finish. So held back on the slurps moving to sips instead.
At Thorn Ranch things were becoming increasingly horrible. I wanted to empty my drinks bottles into my throat in one go but the only realistic refill option was the trinket shop at Separ. Would it be open when I got there? My eta was somewhere between 5 and 6pm. I worked on the principle that it wouldn’t and continued to ration my water. But, counterproductively increased my speed in an attempt to arrive before closing. Two miles prior to the shop it was 5:50pm and I was out of the saddle sprinting, driven by the notion that surely it would close at 6pm.
I got there at about 6:01pm
It was open.
They had ice cream.
I did two passes of shopping in the store. The first was ice cream and cold cans of coca cola. These lasted about a minute. Next was something I’d avoided for every day prior. Energy shit.
I recognised a growing fatigue that had begun to manifest itself from Silver City. This was not muscular, it was the dreaded sleep urge, a need to lie down and just shut eyes for a while until it went away. I’d seen other riders buying energy shots daily and necking them with a vigour. I am not a fan. Some of them seem to be verging on the edge of performance enhancing drugs with high concentrations of taureen, caffiene and all sorts of other chemical bollocks. But this was my last day and I was damn tired. I needed another boost as medicine man was long gone. I decided to give one of these things a try. I spotted a five hour energy shot on the counter. Five hours was what I needed as I had 70 miles to go. Let’s see if it would work.
Sat at a bench outside inspecting my haul I was approached by a lorry driver who asked if the store was open. I said “yes” but hadn’t allowed for the time I’d been resting outside. It was past 6:30pm the place was now shut. We chatted a while mainly about all the bikes he had and was going to ride. He lifted his paunch and jokingly presented his incentive. He then spotted my five hour shot and recoiled in horror. He told me of lorry drivers that crossed the USA wired upon the things. He told me how dangerous they were and urged me to throw it away. I watched him depart, contemplated his advice and then necked it. I expected to perform like Popeye right after some spinach. Instead I felt mildly nauseous and in need of another ice cream. But the shop was shut. Time to move on.
The wind was on my back as I left Separ on a dirt road parallel to a busy freeway. It didn’t take long to get to highway 146 the final section of the Tour Divide. This is basically 65 miles of flat paved road leading to Antelope Wells. I already ridden 110 miles to get to this point. I’d thought about this moment many times leading up to the race. I’d imagined huge emotion as I made the final turn of the race knowing that in a few hours I would be done. Strangely that emotion didn’t arise. Instead I felt weirdly non-plussed. This was just more riding. It’s what my life had become. A series of bits of more riding. And more riding was needed to get this done. So more riding was what was going to happen.
I made the turn and settled down into the aero bars. These 65 miles were going to need a coping strategy. I decided to break it down into ten mile sections. I had three bottles of pepsi on the bike. The deal was to be this. Ten miles, a snack, half a bottle of pepsi then ten miles more. Some sort of distraction was required as the wind was now in my face and every mile on the road is marked. This plays horribly on the mind as each mile marker takes an age to arrive. I tried ignoring them but they catch your eye like a car accident on the other carriageway. You don’t want to look but are compelled to.
The first ten went very quickly indeed. I was low and focused and felt powerful. I hammered those out in thirty minutes. This was going well and I’d be done around 10pm. Now for some Pepsi and the next ten. Slower, but still good enough. Celebrate with a Snickers bar. Then back down to the task.
It was now getting dark and the wind had increased. I’d lost my initial vigour and this was becoming a grind. Music didn’t help as the wind interfered too much. I needed a medicine man again, where was he? I’d been alone on the road for hours when a car pulled alongside with window down. It was Jeff.
“Hey Dave, that you?”
“Yes, mate, I’m going to be a while“
I’d thought he was off to meet me but it turned out Zoe and Nic were to be his next passengers. He told me that I was catching them fast and he’d try and convince them to wait at the end until I arrived.
Brilliant the incentive I needed. Despite the wind I knuckled down to the task. The grovel to the end morphed into a minor race. I needed to get there before the others ran out of patience and asked Jeff to take them home. This would mean an extended wait. Fuck waiting. I need to be done.
I pressed on with the ten mile strategy. The wind was preventing warp speed but I was still fast enough for a raggedy arsed bikepacker with 2700 miles in his legs. Pedal pedal pedal. Shout at the wind, “Fuck off, go away. Why now? I’m nearly fucking done!“.
Fifteen miles from the end I saw a set of headlights. I was filled with the dread that the others had waited too long and decided to leave. Huge relief when the car stopped and a strange lady shouted “Hi!”. It was Nic’s family. He’d finished and they had been there to pick him up. I was so glad for him as he’d packed the previous year. I later found out that he’d broken a hub on the mesa above Abiquiu, forced to return to town to get it fixed. He’d suffered terribly with saddle sore yet had fought on to finish. Good man.
I asked him how he felt?
“Don’t know” was the reply. They congratulated me and headed back to Canada.
More miles. More fighting into the wind and more frustration. I just want to get it done, please let me finish. Then a final kink in the road and a shallow descent. A favourable wind for the last three miles and a brief flirtation with pleasure. I was being allowed my final flourish. I actively looked for the mile markers to count them down.
The last mile. The end of a 2740 mile bike race. The end of three weeks of cycle tramping. The longest period of continuous riding I had ever done. What had driven me to get this far and how had I managed it? I’d packed in lesser rides and failed at easier tasks. How come I’d made it here?
Well, I’ll let you into a secret. I had bits of magic on the bike that had carried me to the end. The first was a letter from my wife. Hidden in my luggage and found as I packed my bike the night before the grand depart.
I am so proud of you, you can smash this this adventure. I know you are strong. Both physically and mentally. We are 100% behind you and love you enormously. Just remember – it is just one more pedal stroke. Just one more… We will see you when it is done.“
I lived by that advice all the way down the line. Just one more pedal stroke. I also rode knowing that my ride was being lived vicariously by those who cared. I had to finish it for them as much as myself. I kept Helen’s note in my wallet, ready to be read at the darkest of moments. Fortunately it never emerged.
I also carried one of my Dad’s RAF flying badges. He’d passed away in February. He’d followed every one of my cycling epics and I knew that’d he’d have been glued to my tracker. I was still raw from holding his hand as he’d left us from a care home bed. I’d not been able to do anything to stop his passing but I could try and achieve something in his memory. His badge had gone the distance but he’d have been a bit narked by the Snickers bar that had melted onto it along the way.
Finally I had another badge. From a (it’s not a race) challenge event I’d completed in 2014. This was a 200 kilometre ride in north Wales to be completed in under 24 hours. I came in somewhere around 22 hours 40 minutes placing fourth. The route is legendary amongst UK bike packers as it was ridiculously hard. You can read about it here The badge reminded me that there were times when I was not completely useless as an athlete. That occasionally I was able to step up and push on when others were giving up around me.
And finally I saw lights. And a car. And Zoe lying prone in the road. And an iconic gate with “US Customs and Border Protection” written upon it. 20 days, 15 hours and 52 minutes after leaving Banff I’d arrived at Antelope Wells in 23rd place.
How did I feel? Like Nic, I didn’t know. I still don’t. You expect a massive rush of emotion but it wasn’t there. Geof had mentioned this to me and Davy in the previous days. His comment, “no emotion, you leave it all on the trail“. And he may well be right.
I congratulated Zoe. Said “Hi” to Jeff and grabbed a beer from his coolbox. I tried to generate some sort of profound emotion but it was absent. Weird. I’d just … finished. It was done. I was now a bouncing dot on Trackleaders and could go home.
I gave Jeff my camera to get the iconic photo finish at the end. Remember the suncream? What a twat. The ONE photo you need on the Tour is your finish picture. Mine was a blurry mess as the lens was half obscured by the cream. To be honest I would not have it any other way. It’s a perfect metaphor for me. The picture says all it needs to. I set out to achieve something and I managed it. Not in the most graceful of ways and with plenty of fuck ups down the line. Like me the picture is annoying but you have to hand it to the guy illustrated, he’s actually done what he said he would.
Zoe, Jeff and I spent a while chatting. Jeff was pretty tired due to the nature of his task, constantly driving up and down that road. Finally bikes were racked onto his car and we were off up the highway under power. This motion was horribly fast after weeks at cycling pace.
I tried to process it all as we headed north. But conclusions were not forthcoming. There’s a whole lot more story to tell in my journey home to the UK. It includes huge kindness, deceit, frustration and a barber who is in need of a rapid career change. I’ll write that all down soon but just getting this far has been exhausting so let me leave you with a few thoughts.
The Tour Divide race is not what you will be expecting it to be. You’ve probably watched “Ride the Divide”, read a few books and imagined yourself on the “postcard divide” as I call it. There will definitely be postcard moments, amazing vistas, gorgeous sunsets, huge meals, cold beers, stunning wildlife and even some singletrack. But there also won’t be. There will be other moments which you won’t have catered for. Moments that I and other riders cannot describe as they will be yours. Some you’ll cherish and others will destroy you. Go into the race ready to embrace these moments and you’ll come out of the other side.
The race is less about logistics and more about you. The horrible thing is that you can’t know whether you are ready for it until that last mile prior to Antelope Wells. Up until then it’s up to you to navigate each moment that presents itself and see whether you’re ready to move on. Hopefully from my writings you can see that I had many moments across a wide spectrum of experiences. Challenges came from all angles, weather, terrain, personal relationships, food, water and those fucking mosquitos that should be napalmed from the planet.
Did it change me? Did I find myself?
Nope. Not really. It underlined who I am. It reinforced what I already knew and allowed me to take one more step closer to the grave with a little bit more achievement ticked.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat. I don’t even know why. Two days after the ride I recorded a video message to my future self urging me to STAY AWAY. I reminded myself of the sore things, hard things and horror weather. But still I’d chose to ignore myself and go back. It gets under your skin. As I’ve said previously you become something/someone else during the race and I enjoyed the masquerade. I wouldn’t want to go quicker or slower. I have no ambition to do better. I just want to be out there doing it again. I mourn Dave of the Divide. I loved that bloke and need to find myself in his shoes once more.
Should you ride the Divide?
Of course you fucking should. What on earth are you waiting for? If I can get to the end then so can you. As Helen said, it’s just one more pedal stroke. Get a bike, some form of luggage and line up. What could go wrong? Well everything and nothing. But you have no way of knowing until you try and if you’ve enjoyed my journey then I ‘m sure that you’ll enjoy yours more.
Thank you for staying with me to the end. Sorry for all the swearing, can’t help it, it’s me. Oh and America. I love you. Please don’t change and keep saying ROWTE instead of ROUTE. That goes for Canadians as well. But let’s agree that biscuits and gravy are a joke to wind up the tourists. Much like our own beloved jellied eels.
If you like a bit more swearing then I made a bit of a film. Production values are somewhat lacking but you’ll get a proper feel for my ride. However, I suspect you’ve had enough already.
Love you all