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Changing plans in Colorado

By Emily Chappell

The day after Juliana dropped out of RAAM, the eight of us woke up in a hotel in Durango, Colorado, and wondered what to do next.

Some of us, like my mechanic brother Sam, were disappointed that they’d been pulled from the race when they were only just getting going. (He’d been rubbing his hands with glee as he imagined all the future breakdowns he’d have to fix.) But others of us were strangely elated. Rather than feeling sad that Juliana’s ambitions now lay in ruins, I felt euphoric, as if I’d finally reached the top of a long mountain pass I was climbing, and started to speed down the descent. For the last four days I’d been watching someone I care about put herself through more and more suffering, knowing that my job was to keep her going through the pain, rather than try to alleviate it. And now she’d finally stopped. The worst was over – even though Juliana herself was in a terrible state, hobbling into the breakfast buffet with wild hair and bags under her eyes, and grimacing as she lowered her saddle sores onto a cushioned chair.

“Morning team!” beamed Billy Rice, Juliana’s coach and on-board medic. “We’ve gotta get back on the road. If we hurry up, we might just catch Mike Hall as he comes through Breckenridge. And then we’re heading over to the Brush Mountain Lodge – Kirsten’s got food, cabins and a campfire waiting for us. Hurry hurry!”

Mike Hall's Trackleader dot in Breckenridge

Billy Rice, as you may know, is famous for riding the Tour Divide route five times, most recently with his sixteen-year-old daughter Lina (who now joined us on the RAAM crew, giving our team possibly the highest proportion of female endurance cyclists in the race, since we also had Divya Tate on board. Not that anyone was counting), and was by this point equally tolerated and beloved among our team for his boundless energy, infallible smile, and apparent inability ever to switch off. The rest of us stayed slumped over our coffees for half an hour longer, before reluctantly stirring ourselves, and settling back into the car seats we’d already sat in for four days straight, to drive what turned out to be the entire length of a fairly large US state.

I can’t remember how many times we cursed Billy Rice during the 15 hours we spent driving that day. But there were moments when we were also grateful. An hour or two after leaving Durango’s sunny riverside we found ourselves standing two miles above sea level, straddling the continental divide on the 3,309m Wolf Creek Pass – and despite the lack of oxygen in the air, I found myself bouncing and dancing around the car as soon as I was allowed out of it. RAAM rules had prevented me (as support crew) from cycling for the past few days – but now here I was among some of the most beautiful mountains road in the world, under a cornflower blue sky, with my Shand Stooshie lashed to the back of the car and almost a week of pent-up energy to burn off. I was tempted to start cycling right away, obliging Sam and Divya to crawl along behind me at the same torturous pace at which we’d followed Juliana for the last few days. But we still had hundreds of miles to go before bedtime – and what was more, we had a friend to meet in Breckenridge.

Mike Hall

Mike Hall, variously known for cycling round the world in record time, winning the TransAm Bike Race and inflicting similar hardship on other riders via his own Transcontinental Race, was around 1,700 miles into what even then looked likely to be a record-breaking assault on the Tour Divide. If we hurried, Billy told us, compulsively refreshing the Trackleaders page, we’d be able to intercept him in Breckenridge, and the dot that some of us had been anxiously watching for the past week would magically and momentarily turn back into a person we knew and loved. Mike had posted his phone home from the start of the race, wanting to eliminate all possible distractions, so he would have absolutely no reason to suspect we might be nearby – as far as he was concerned we were all busy with a very different race, hundreds of miles to the south, out of sight and almost certainly a long way out of mind.

Our little convoy of vehicles sped impatiently through Breckenridge’s tangled traffic, desperate to find Mike before he left whatever café or gas station his dot was sitting in on the edge of town and disappeared onto the trails. If we missed him, I thought, perhaps I could jump on my bike and chase him down, even if the rest of the team couldn’t follow. It would be worth it just to say a quick hello, hand him a bottle of chocolate milk and see whatever surprise, confusion or delight happened to cross his face.

But eventually we found him. There was his bike, propped up outside a gas station, covered in dust, and with a cursory sprinkling of Apidura luggage. And inside, dithering between the aisles of junk food, was Mike himself.

Mike Hall's Tour Divide 29er

“Oh, hello” he said casually, as we crowded eagerly around him. Then a small double-take. “Umm, aren’t you supposed to be…?”

Juliana told him of RAAM’s unexpected turn of events, while Billy asked him if there was anything he needed, knowing already that he would almost definitely say no, being as he is one of the most passionate and meticulous followers of the self-supported mantra.

“No ta, I’m alright” said Mike, and Juliana and I instantly had the same idea – I drifted to the back of the store and gathered an armful of chocolate milk from the chiller, while she gravitated back to the car and came back with handfuls of her own energy products. While Mike paid for his supplies and tried to get his head round the sudden and unexpected presence of Billy Rice, we covered his bike in as much food and drink as it would hold, then said our goodbyes and went off to the far corner of the parking lot to clear out and restock our own vehicle.

Juliana Buhring with snacks

A couple of minutes later Mike came over to us, his helmet full of the food we’d tried to give him.

“I’m going to have to give this back to you” he said, with the calmness of one whose principles stand completely unquestioned. “But thanks very much all the same.”

He seemed a little less stunned than he had when we all walked into the gas station – as if he’d now got used to this unexpected intrusion from the outside world. We chatted about this and that as he rearranged his luggage, tightened his straps, and got ready for the next push up into the mountains.

“I’ll see you in Belgium!” I said, by way of farewell. He looked at me blankly for a second, then remembered that, somewhere very far off, in a life half-forgotten, he was the Director of the Transcontinental Race.

“Oh yes!” he grinned. “This is the prototype jersey for that, by the way.” He indicated the sleek grey seal-like pelt he’d been wearing constantly since he left Banff, and pointed out a couple of tiny tweaks he was planning to make before making it generally available. This was the Mike Hall I knew and loved. I remembered the last time we’d ridden together, when he’d told me about the tests he was doing on a batch of dynamo hubs he’d been sent, methodically wearing out one after the other, in order to figure out their precise lifespan. It was this painstaking attention to detail, I thought, for testing things to destruction and making them work just right, that had ensured him all his past successes, and had now put him on course for a new Tour Divide record.

We watched him set off up the hill, then got back in the car and carried on north, trying to digest how momentous, and yet also how very ordinary it had felt to run into a friend so improbably far from home. I remembered Mike stopping to talk to me from the Transcontinental race car the previous summer, in the middle of the night on the upper reaches of Mont Ventoux, briefly puncturing the personal nightmare I was battling through at the time, and calling “see you in Sestriere!” with the same nonchalance you might tell your colleagues you’ll see them in work tomorrow, or your housemate you’ll see them that evening.

Several hours later, long after midnight, we wondered if we might ever see anyone we knew again. We were following a increasingly panicked rabbit down a winding gravel track somewhere in northern Colorado. No matter how much we sped up or slowed down it carried on bounding along ahead of us, I had twice got out of the car to chase it off the road, and we were beginning to think we should just run it over – when finally Brush Mountain Lodge appeared to our left, glowing out of the darkness like a blessed vision.

And much as we had taken Billy’s name in vain over the last few hundred miles, cursing him for making us drive another 15 hours and blaming him for everything from the creepy gas station attendant in Steamboat Springs to the rabbit that would not get out of our way, we forgave him instantly when he handed round the whisky, and introduced us to Kirsten and her pizza oven.

Kirsten is a well-known institution on the Tour Divide route, and I already knew her name from listening to Mike’s stories and reading endless blog posts and books about the race. On a 3,000-mile course that mostly avoids civilisation, she is one of the few reliably friendly faces, and for a month or so every summer, Brush Mountain Lodge becomes the most eagerly awaited stop on the Tour Divide. Kirsten avidly watches the Trackleaders dots as they make their way down through Wyoming, and when the filthy, dehydrated and exhausted riders finally appear at her door she greets them with beer, coffee, and as much food as she can cram into their stomachs and jersey pockets. Most stop to rest for a few hours (and some for a few days, as Mike did in 2011, struggling with an achilles injury), and all are sent off with a peal of cowbells. (The toughest part of their entire race last year, Billy and Lina told us, had been riding away from Kirsten’s place.)

A couple of riders were sitting around the campfire when we arrived, and I quickly got talking to Stefan Maertens, who turned out to have raced alongside me in last year’s Transcontinental, and readily offered me a place to crash in Belgium before this year’s. Perhaps it’s not really that strange that we, an assorted bunch of ultra-racers, should be constantly running into other ultra-racers – in fact, we had deliberately sought them out. But it still felt distinctly magical to be here, in this place thousands of miles from home that I hadn’t known existed or that I’d ever visit, swapping stories with people whom I had unwittingly shared the road with a few months before, and would be seeing again in just a couple of months, in a small town on the other side of the world.

Tour Divide trail

The following day dawned bright and beautiful. Hummingbirds and chipmunks whirred and darted about the veranda as we drank our coffee, and all around us the mountaintops beckoned. Finally, finally I was allowed to go out on my bike. I fidgeted impatiently while Sam refitted the stem he’d borrowed from my bike to adjust the height of Juliana’s bars, and bit my tongue when Billy insisted on lending me his Garmin, so that they’d know where to look for me if I didn’t come back. The assembled Americans took great delight in giving me a whole stand-up routine of comical and conflicting advice on what to do if I saw a bear, and Kirsten almost reflexively offered me some food for the road. And then my feet clicked into the pedals, my whole body breathed a sigh of relief, and I pedalled furiously off along the dirt road that led away from Brush Mountain Lodge, whooping as I went.

I raced across the plateau, watching the vast green countryside spreading out around me, aware that, just as Mike’s dot had briefly transformed itself into a real person the previous day, now I was witnessing the terrain I’d read about in all those Tour Divide race reports coming to life before my eyes. The sky was clear and bright blue above my head, and all around me the dark green scrubland rolled away towards soaring mountaintops, some of them still speckled with snow. I was already very high up, I realized, recognizing the curious sense of energy and excitement I’d felt at similar altitudes, in the Alps and the Himalayas, when I’d expected my body to be sluggish and exhausted from lack of oxygen, and instead found it brimming over with joie de vivre, and the urge to go on.

Tour Divide trail

The track followed a small bubbling river for a while, then wound slowly upwards, across meadows strewn with wildflowers and through a grove of glistening aspen trees, whose rustling leaves seem almost to purr as I rode through their drifting shadows. I was going too fast, I knew, but I couldn’t help myself. I’d been cooped up in a sitting position for – well, it felt like weeks, but really it was only four days. Perhaps it was that I’d been forced to watch someone else cycling up and down glorious mountain roads, when really I’d rather have been doing it myself. The loose stones rattled under my wheels as the path deteriorated and I raced over furrows of dried mud, up the steepening gradients towards the pass, the bike feeling so light, released from the scant kilos of bikepacking luggage I’d carried for the last three weeks, that I was almost floating.

Tour Divide trail

Once or twice I reluctantly conceded to the lack of oxygen at 3,000m and stopped to rest for a moment, drinking in the great silence as my breathing slowed and I gazed out through the crystal clear air, back across Alpine meadows to a horizon of peaks, wondering what might lie beyond them, wondering if someday I might come back and find out. But the thin air was counterbalanced by my joy and excitement at finally being back on the bike, and the sensation that something was pulling me onwards and upwards, to the top of the pass, and perhaps even over it (though Billy had warned me that the descent into Steamboat Springs was one of the most technical of the whole Divide). I felt my lungs swelling open like sea anenomes as the tide comes in, as if I were finally learning to breathe for the first time, and my mind almost overflowed with excitement as I pressed onward and upward, the gradient rising so that in the end I was forced to get off the bike and push, and the track curving tantalisingly up the final few metres of the climb, luring me forward with that elemental desire we all have to get to the top, and to see what’s on the other side.

And then there I was – nothing more above me, the world at my feet, and to the south of me a turquoise blue lake, a tiny town on its shores, and a new range of snowy peaks beyond. I stood there for a long time, regretting that I could (or at any rate should) go no further, then turned north again and thundered down the rocky descent back to the aspen trees, before roaring along the gravel road back to Brush Mountain Lodge at speeds I’d normally struggle to maintain on smooth tarmac. I might as well empty the tank, I thought, given that we had another four days of driving ahead of us before we reached the East Coast. Back at the Lodge, no one seemed to have moved. The hummingbirds were still hovering about the veranda, a couple of Tour Dividers were resting in the shade and swapping stories with Billy and Lina, Kirsten was beaming maternally as she watched the cyclists putting away indecent quantities of food, and Juliana was more awake than I’d seen her for days, and starting to get a gleam in her eye that mirrored my own.

What if… we mused between us, what if we did the Tour Divide together in 2017? She was in need of a bit of fun after the rigors of RAAM, and I was in the dangerous post-ride headspace of wanting more of what I’d just had, and temporarily believing anything was possible. I had never considered the Tour Divide before …well, apart from reading all those books and race reports, watching Mike Dion’s film more than once, and obsessively following the tracker while the race was on.

Oh dear. Maybe this was just a good idea waiting to happen.

Kirsten put on another pot of coffee and everyone pitched in as we planned the hypothetical trip we might make next summer, knowing that it might well already be too late – once you’ve told people about an idea like this, it rapidly starts to take on the status of a Plan.

Tour Divide trail

We decided that as novices we’d stand no chance in the actual race, but we could start a week before everyone else, wave at the leaders as they passed us, make it to Brush Mountain Lodge in time to help Kirsten with the mid pack, and then aim to finish the ride before the 30-day cut-off (after which ‘racers’ are demoted to ‘tourists’). And then maybe we could race for real in 2018.

“I’d be up for that” piped up Lina.

“So would I” announced Archer, who currently doesn’t even own a bike, but is apparently looking for a new challenge.

And, just like that, a plan was made.

posted by steven - July 13th, 2016