Keeping it real on the Tour Divide with Lael Wilcox

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“Keeping it real” on the Holyland Challenge, Israel, April 2015.  

The HLC 2015 was Lael’s first bikepacking race and only her fourth bike race, after the Fireweed 400 road race across Alaska, a local hill climb up Hatcher’s Pass, and a fifty mile fatbike race in Anchorage called the Frosty Bottom.  The Tour Divide is her fifth.

In the entire distance and duration of the Tour Divide, Lael never showered, never slept indoors, and only sat down to one meal, in Pie Town.  Even at the Brush Mountain Lodge where she got wrapped up in an almost hour long conversation with the hospitable staff, she asked to take her blueberry pancakes to go.  “Are you in a hurry”, asked the woman.

When we arrived in Israel from Sinai this spring, our plan was to follow the HLC track across the country, from south to north, then exit Israel by plane.  Instead, we spent three months in Israel, riding circuits along the HLC track, in the Judaean Desert, in the Negev Desert, in the Golan Heights, in the suburban center, and in neighboring Jordan.  We stayed long enough so that Lael could participate in the HLC, an event which is the cultural core of the Israeli bikepacking community, much inspired by the Tour Divide.  Israelis were astounded at her performance in the event without clipless pedals, without padded shorts or cycling gloves, without a sleeping pad, and without much more than a pack full of sandwiches and a sleeping bag.  The cotton t-shirt was also an anomaly in a culture obsessed with cycling kit and equipment.  Her rusting steel frame and worn 8-speed drivetrain were incomprehensible to many.  But that is what she had, that is what she had ridden for the last nine months through more than a dozen countries.  In the week before the HLC we selected this novelty t-shirt from a suburban shopping center along the HLC track near Tiberias.  This would be her race jersey for the HLC.

During the Tour Divide, Lael would call every day or two, usually while riding out of town.  She was concerned about wasting time.  In retrospect, I realized that she was so focused on the race she simply didn’t have the urge to report much to me.  The ratio of how much I cared and worried about her to how much she wanted to call me was greatly imbalanced.  I won’t hold it against her.  We spend a lot of time together.   Now that the race is done I’ve begun asking questions, and the answers I receive are incredible.  We’ve toured together for over seven years.  It thought I knew all of her secrets.  But her secret solo dirtbag lifestyle is all her own.

In Sparwood on the first day, Lael ordered three foot long subs.  She asked the Sandwich Artist to slice each footlong into four sections, and place each in a separate plastic bag.  That way she could eat on the bike.  She ate all of her meals on the bike in a similar fashion, a skill she developed on the Fireweed 400 last summer.  After falling ill on the first night, walking up Galton Pass, and barely arriving in Eureka, she disposed of two footlong subs which she was unable to eat due to her condition.  She wouldn’t consider another Subway sandwich along the route until Del Norte, where she packed a few sandwiches from the gas station for the ride up Indiana Pass to Platoro and Horca.  She told me she hates the bread at Subway, “the bread is half baked”.

Asked which foods she preferred from the stops along the route, she clarified that she prioritized quick stops to ideal nutrition.  The hot case in gas stations provided satisfying calories.  She discovered that Fritos and cheese– packaged gas station cheddar and colby, or sliced orange American cheese, or even local cheese curds in Lima– packed well into her Revelate Gas Tank for easy access while riding.  Now that’s a gas tank!  She purchased Clif bars to augment the real food, which are now commonly available in American convenience stores.  I’m sure there are a long list of food stories which will come out in time.  I’d be surprised if she can remember half of what she ate.

She didn’t eat any candy.  None.  No gummy bears, peach rings, Mike and Ikes, Snickers, M&Ms.  Near the end of the race, she started drinking some soda.  Dry heat has a way of making you crave carbonation, sugar, and cold drinks.  She mentioned that these drinks are packed with calories, which she’d be shoveling into her mouth one way or another.  She always drinks as much water as possible when it is available, and packs as little as needed along the route.  She relied upon tap water along the way, and frequently augmented that with untreated surface water when available to reduce the loaded weight of the bike, often using only a single water bottle.  Her maximum capacity was about 4L, which she only used once when leaving Atlantic City at night.  She used the bladder one other time when leaving Wamsutter, where she filled both water bottles and put an extra liter in the bladder.  Riding towards the Colorado border, she ran out of water and went searching on a remote oil drill site, wandering into an office on a Sunday when no one was around.  She found two half-liter water bottles, each with a few sips left.  On the rest of the route water was not a challenge.

She drank coffee infrequently, only when it was convenient.  Several times she pedaled out of town with a cup of coffee in her hand.  She admits to consuming a 5 Hour Energy about once a day.  She would pack it  away for the morning.  Rise, ride for a while, awake to the day naturally, then take it like a shot in the arm mid-morning and ride all day.  

Her sleeping system consisted of a Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag and a Western Mountaineering HotSac, a VBL which doubles in this situation as an emergency bivy.  This is equipment which she has been using for years.  The sleeping bag has a busted zipper and the fabric is ragged and fragile.  It has been repaired by hand in many places.  On at least one night, she slept in her helmet, which she discovered was a comfortable solution to supporting her head and staying off the ground.  She did not pack a sleeping pad.

On the coldest nights and mornings, she would wear all of her waterproof equipment to bed if needed.  On the bike, this would help her warm up quickly.  “Mornings are always slow”, she said, “but by the afternoon, you’ve already ridden a hundred miles and the weather is warm and you’re flying.”  

The ride from Grants to Silver City is the longest section of the route without services– about 240 miles– except for the two pie shops in Pie Town.  A store is several miles off route on the rural state highway, so not a worthwhile option to TD racers.  Lael packed food for the ride to Silver City in Grants, expecting to miss business hours at the Pie-o-neer Cafe.  As she rolled out of Pie Town Kathy yelled at her through the window to come back.  She toured the kitchen and sat for two slices of pie and some leftover chicken pizza.  Kathy’s husband Stanley reheated some coffee.  Kathy packed several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a banana for the road.  Lael enjoyed a slice of peach pie and a slice of apple crumble.

Lael signed the TD pie registry, which will be billed to Salsa Cycles who sponsored each rider with two slices of pie, and noted Josh Kato’s name.  I’d told her from Grants that he had won the race.  Lael told Kathy.  She was excited, and recounted how nice he was.  Neil and Jay didn’t stop for pie, so Josh was the first rider to present his custom Salsa Cycles top cap for two free slices.  Inside the cafe, Kathy asked to see the top cap.  Josh went outside and removed it from his bicycle to prove to her that he was indeed a valid TD racer with the metal (and mettle) to prove it.  Later that day, as photos of Josh and his top cap cycled through social media, a representative from Salsa Cycles called the Pie-o-neer Cafe to let them know that the racers don’t actually have to remove the top cap from the bike.

Exiting the Gila section of the route, turning onto the CDT, Lael ate her last handful of nuts from Grants and took her last sip of water.  She would refill water near the end of the CDT section from a stream.  She stopped at the McDonalds in Silver City at about 11:30PM with 128 miles left to the border.  She packed 20 chicken nuggets, large fries, 8 cookies, a McDouble, and a french vanilla latte.  She stopped at the gas station for a 5 Hour Energy and a few bars.  Aside from this short stop in Silver City, she moved almost continuously from the road crossing at Highway 12 south of Pie Town, all the way to the border.  That’s 275 miles.  

At a gas station in Montana, a woman commented that Lael had “that windblown look”, referring to her hair.  Thereafter, she kept her helmet on at all times.

Thirteen miles from the finish, a cat crossed the road.  “It strutted”, with wide shoulders and pointy ears.  Just when she thought this was a lackluster section of the route to an anticlimactic finish, she realized it was one of the most remote parts of the route, despite being on pavement.  She saw one bear from Banff to Antelope Wells.  

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Lael Wilcox congratulates Joe Fox at the finish in Antelope Wells, NM, the least used border crossing between the USA and Mexico.  Photos courtesy Monica Garcia.  Top photo Nicholas Carman.

  

Lael Wilcox finishes Tour Divide 2015 in 17:01:51

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Lael was in and out of Silver City, NM in a hurry.  Despite the late hour, the 128 miles to the border, and a bloody knee and bruised shoulder, she pushed to the finish and kept ahead of her nearest competitors.  She is the first to Antelope Wells after the record-setting lead group of  male riders.  Photo courtesy Lucas O’Laughlin.

Lael Wilcox pedaled to the Antelope Wells, NM border crossing this morning at 9:47AM Mountain Time, with a total transit time of 17 days 1 hour and 51 minutes (17:01:51) from Banff, Alberta, Canada.  Her time improves upon Eszter Horanyi’s 2012 record of 19:03:35 by more than two days.

Lael pedaled from her home in Anchorage, Alaska to the start of the Tour Divide in Banff, Alberta.  Recently returning from a ten-month period of bicycle travel in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and the Middle East, she quickly prepared a new bicycle for the race and left Anchorage in just over a week, departing May 15.  The 2140mi ride to Banff took 19 days, a pace largely defined by time constraints, enabling a week of preparation and recovery in Banff before the event.  Joining the 150 other riders at the Grand Depart in Banff, Lael began her ride down the Great Divide Route to the border of Mexico with a powerful 183mi day into the Canadian Flathead backcountry.  That night and into the morning, she battled bronchitis and severe bronchitis induced asthma, continuing through the first week of the race, with lingering cold symptoms throughout the event.  On the fifth day of the Tour Divide, Lael pedaled 100 miles from Ovando to Helena to consult a doctor.  A chest x-ray and other diagnostic procedures were performed and she was prescribed an inhaler, antibiotics, and other treatments to alleviate symptoms.  She left the hospital at dusk and rode until 3AM to regain her position as the lead female.  Within a few days her condition improved and she ran away from the field, including the other female competitors.

Based upon a technicality where Lael did not have the most current GPS track for the route, as she was riding from Alaska to Banff when it was quietly published, her position with regard to the other competitors will not be honored.  However, her time will be recorded as a record-setting solo ITT.  I spoke with Tour Divide organizer Matthew Lee this morning and am confident that his decision comes with the same integrity with which Lael approached the ride.  The unofficial time recorded on Trackleaders is 17:01:51, although I extrapolated from her last position just over a mile from the finish and her rate of speed to estimate 17:01:47.  Either way, very fast.

The weather for much of the Tour Divide 2015 has been ideal and competition was high.  Josh Kato set a new men’s course record in 14:11:37.  Four other male finishers also improved upon the old record set by Jay Petervary in 2012.   

Lael rode a 2015 Specialzied Stumpjumper Expert Carbon World Cup with a carbon Chisel fork.  The details of the bike can be found on my post “Lael’s Stumpjumper”.

Thanks to Lucas O’Laughlin and Monica Garcia for picking Lael up at the border, and for housing her for the next few days.  Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the best bikepacking gear, period.  Thanks to Charles Tsai at Intelligent Design Cycles for the SP PD-8X dynamo hub.  Thanks to The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, AK for helping us get the bike together in time.  Thanks to all of Lael’s fans along the route that shouted from their rooftops, jumped out of the woods on dirt roads, or intercepted her at rural gas stations.  Thanks to those that sent photos of Lael from along the route.  Thanks to Jeff in Jasper, Michelle in Canmore, and Keith in Banff for logistics and housing before the race.  Thanks to all of the other riders out there for making this such a special event, for keeping the spirit, and for riding a bike.  Thanks to Michael McCoy and the Adventure Cycling Association for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.  Thanks to Matthew Lee and Scott Morris for the background support of the Tour Divide.  

Thanks to Lael for inspiring us all, with a smile.

Please comment below if there is anything you’d like to tell Lael.  If there is something you’d rather not share here, you can contact her directly at lael.wilcox@gmail.com

I’ll post some finishing photos later today as they come in from Monica at the border.

Tour Divide Update: Silver City, NM

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Tour Divide AK command center at The Bicycle Shop, Anchorage, AK.  At the moment, Lael is pushing to the border at Antelope Wells, NM.  She hasn’t stopped pedaling since Sunday morning and should finish before noon, Mountain Time.  

She called several miles out of Silver City.  I’m holding the saddle rails of a donated 12″ wheel Magna, recently unpacked and assembled by a 13 year old and a three year old on the front lawn.  Joshua has been ripping around on a 12″ Specialized Hotwalk since last summer, a pedal-less walking bike designed to instill the basic mechanics of velocipeding.  The chance donation of a pedal bike by another family, who never found use for it, is well timed.  As soon as we set the training wheel height and the saddle, we set out to ride.  Even before I arrive, he is calling it a mountain bike.

Pedaling is hard.  The motion is challenging.  The leg strength is not there, or at least not the coordination, and the combination of plastic pedals and cowboy boots is not ideal.  The bike only steers to the right as Joshua looks all around shouting orders to everyone.  “I’m in charge.  Let’s go the ‘kishla Park.”  We follow, and I assist from the left end of the handlebar to keep course.  In time, small realizations lead to riding.  Within the hour we are riding around an asphalt ice rink.  Jada piles feathery cottonwood droppings, instructing Josh to aim his tires at them.  He does, and the moment of focus is a victory.  He’s riding a bike, and is in control.

Lael immediately tells me, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, or in trouble with the principal.  “I fell.”  

She landed on her knee and shoulder.  It was stupid, less than 100 ft from the pavement coming down off a technical section of the CDT.  It was getting dark and she didn’t see some rocks in the road.  She’s mad, embarrassed, aching.  She doesn’t want to see anybody.  It’s not serious.  I can understand her feeling, but I don’t share the emotion exactly.  The thing that she is doing is deeply real for her, chasing miles down dirt roads into the night.  Falling is disappointing, yet it also shakes her brain into a sense of hyper reality.  She’s talking like it doesn’t matter any more.  Who cares about this thing.  I agree, but I remind her that she’s chased this thing since June 12 in Banff, since May 15 in Anchorage, and since the HLC in Israel.  It all started with that three day solo ride from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat on the Israel Bike Trail, a manicured backcountry singletrack route across the Negev Desrt.  If that ride went well, she would race the HLC.  If the HLC went well, and she enjoyed it, she would race the Divide.  After her three day ride to Eilat she was flying high.  She hasn’t descended since then, and my fear that she has been flying too close to the sun grows more real.  Her spirits are back on the ground, covered in blood and dust.   

Joshua continues his never-ending right hand turn, bumping into the boards of the Scotty Gomez neighborhood ice rink.  The first time we sat him on a pedal bike at The Bicycle Shop last summer, he said, “I can’t do this”, which no one in the family had ever heard from him before.  We decided on a walking bike, but not the pink one to which he was so attached.  There were tears, everyone had a different idea of how to herd this opinionated two year old, and we left the store.  But I selected a red Hotwalk and we took it home along with Jada’s XS Specialized Myka.  The next day, the red bike was his favorite color, he decided.  He began walking from the saddle that day.

While tightening the axle nuts on the Magna this evening, sitting in the grass out front of the house, Joshua asks me, “Do you miss Aunt Lael?”  

Yes.

“Me too” he says.

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: The Gila, NM

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Lael and Kathy at the Pie-o-neer Cafe, 8000ft, Pie Town, NM.  Photo courtesy Pie-o-Neer Cafe.

Lael is gaining ground on the women.  Even on a short day– only 156 miles– she has stretched her lead to the point that she is over 300 miles ahead of the next female competitor.  Two riders, Joe Fox and Andres Bonelli, have gained some ground and are riding steadily behind her by about 17 miles.  If they all continue pace they may never see each other.  If their paths cross, we may have a race to the border for sixth place.  Lael slept early last night and started on the bike at about 3:30AM.  She only rode about six miles before stopping for another three hours.  Either she decided that a little more sleep would be necessary, or was disturbed by something or someone in her original location.  Perhaps she suffered a mechanical in the dark, fumbling with cold hands.  These things are hard to say from cold digital data, and a solid reminder that the even 9.4mph pace that every rider seems to keep, exists outside the digital vacuum in which we read it.  It hails, it is hot and dusty, there are headwinds, broken forks, saddle sores, and frequent stops to eat, resupply, refill water, lube the chain, lower tire pressures, talk to people, navigate the route, plan the day ahead, eat pie, and sleep.  Yet, the strongest riders in this event seem to be set to autopilot, pedaling a consistent trajectory for up to 20 hours a day.  I know for certain that at least three of those things happened yesterday for Lael.  Steady headwinds and sidewinds slowed much of the ride into Grants.  The Pie-o-neer Cafe in Pie Town reports 36 seconds of hail yesterday, amid thunderstorms.  And, Lael seems to have gotten her pie.

Kathy Knapp, from the Pie-o-neer Cafe, reports: “I spied her our the window– leaving town- and yelled at her to come back.  GOOD LUCK Lael!!!”  

Lael got a glimpse of the Pie-o-neer where I spent a magical evening back in 2011.  I rolled into town on the bike in November.  On the same day three southbound CDT hikers occupied the Toaster House, the local free guesthouse for thru hikers and bikers.  The Toaster House is the gift of Nita to the community of self-propelled travelers through this corner of New Mexico.  Catron Country, NM reportedly has no traffic lights.  But there is a house adorned with toasters, full of beds and couches and old magazines and a wood stove– and most importantly, a shower and a freezer full of frozen pizzas and pies.  Nita has moved a few miles down the road and has left something very special for us.  She accepts donations to keep the freezer stocked.  One day years ago when her kids were young, she invited a lone hiker into her home.  This is how she learned about the CDT, which passes on the dirt street in front of the house  She has made an effort to invite weary travelers to her home ever since.

Back on that day in 2011, I enjoyed a few slices of pie and free wifi for several hours as a customer at the Pie-o-neer.  I was was invited to return later that evening with the others, after hours, to a private gathering.  Some friends of Kathy’s were coming from out of town.  A table of food was presented, red wine, and at the right time, there were pies.  Several small tables of friends, including our now-showered group of hikers and bikers, enjoyed the dimly lit space, sitting close to the wood stove on this cold November evening at 8000ft.  The dishwasher plays the guitar, Kathy and Nita sing, and a few other friends join with instruments and voices.  The set list is Arlo Guthrie Guthrie and Joan Baez, and other hits from the era.  These hippies didn’t go to California.  They found a better place on the Continental Divide in remote southwestern New Mexico.  Near the end of the evening, Nita and Kathy lead the group in the Kate Wolf classic “Across the Great Divide”.  I’d ridden my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra from Maryland to New York and Ontario, out to Banff, Alberta and down the Divide to Pie Town.  Nearing the end of my five month odyssey, there couldn’t have been a more perfect song for the moment.  I will always be grateful for that song in that place at that time.  Of the three hikers I’d shared that time with, I was sad to learn this past year that one of them, Benjamin Newkirk, was killed in a climbing accident in the Sisters Wilderness near Bend, Oregon.  Ben and I stayed in contact.  I helped him prepare for his first bike tour.  After countless miles in the backcountry on foot , he transitioned well to cycle touring aboard a Salsa Vaya.  But his place out there was on foot.

Salsa Cycles provided Tour Divide racers with commemorative Pie Town top caps at the Grand Depart in Banff.  The stem top cap, a small part on the bicycle, could be used as a token worth two free slices of pie in Pie Town.  Thanks Salsa Cycles!

Dylan Taylor and Alex Harris both finished yesterday ahead of 2012 record pace.  Congrats on the strong ride!  Lael and her group will be next to Antelope Wells, sometime tomorrow.

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Grants, NM

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I’ll will never understand how Tour Divide riders pedal from Canada to Mexico with those cumbersome colored dots.  They really should consider a digital version.  Goofing off on FR 70 near NM 126, Santa Fe National Forest, NM.  Photos courtesy Elizabeth Quinley.

Lael crushed the 4000ft climb from Abiquiu yesterday, which I interpreted from Trackleaders data, verified by her account over the phone while riding out of Cuba.  She rode fast through the entire section from Abiquiu to Cuba, except for the time when a high school friend from Alaska, now living in New Mexico, dropped by for an impromptu photo shoot in the woods.  Some things never change with these girls.

The big news today is that the top three men have finished, smashing Jay Petervary’s official record from 2012 by more than a full day.  There are some fascinating details to the newest record.  Jay’s 2012 ride finished in 15:16:14.  In 2013 Mike Hall blazed the course in 14:11:55, but a necessary detour around a wildfire in New Mexico voided his claim to the record, although it was more than a day faster than Jay’s performance.  There are plenty of people that recognize Mike’s ride for what it was– the fastest Tour Divide ride ever– but lacking official record status has left that footnote to wither in favor of Jay’s official record.  But we knew it could be done, thanks to Mike.  He posted the first sub-15 day time on the Divide.  Until this year.

Jay and Neil battled all the way from Banff, with Seb Dunne, Josh Kato, Alex Harris, and Dylan Taylor in tow for much of the race.  Alex and Dylan dropped back in Colorado and New Mexico; rather, they got dropped.  Seb busted his fork.  Josh was trailing most of the way, never far behind, but always at a deficit.  In New Mexico, Josh attacked the course and caught Jay and Neil in Abiquiu, only to be left at the store as soon as he arrived.  This continued for some time, all the way to Pie Town, where Josh would catch the leaders, ride with or near them, and get left in town or on the course.  He was coming from behind. On the last night, Jay and Neil bedded down in the Gila together.  Josh– presumably unaware of where his competitors were exactly, as we know from Trackleaders data– continued into the night just long enough to pass the two sleeping dogs.  He camped not much further down the road.  It is reported that he knew they were sleeping along the route, and that he was afraid his light would wake them.  By morning, all three riders were together, pushing over the 8 miles section of the actual Continental Divide Trail to Silver City.  All three riders stopped at McDonalds’s in Silver City.  They all left about the same time.  Then Josh dropped the hammer.  Jay and Neil chased.  Josh won.  

There are more details unfolding on the Bikepacking.net forums, and the stories will soon come from the racers themselves, but Josh simply rode faster from Silver City to the border.  He pedaled faster, he stopped less.  It is reported that he ran out of water with 25 miles to go and for fear of cramping, pulled some water out of a culvert.  Even if it had made him sick, he would have made it to the finish in front.  The water was “nasty tasting” according to a follower who was present on the route to the finish.

Josh finished in 14:11:37, faster than Jay’s 2012 run by more than a day and 18 minutes faster than Mike Hall’s 2013 run.  Jay finished in 14:12:03 and Neil finished in 14:12:23.  The top three finishers all improved upon Jay’s 2012 record by more than a day.  Dylan Taylor and Alex Harris are both ahead of that same record pace.  Dylan has hardly slept in days, across most of New Mexico, and will finish in the around noon on Saturday.  

In a distant sixth place, Lael is battling headwinds on her way into Grants, NM this morning.  She is about 250 miles ahead of Eszter Horanyi’s 2012 record pace, and 270 miles ahead of Bethany Dunne, the next female competitor in this race.  She reports from Grants that she tore a large hole in her sleeping bag last night, as she camped near a barbed wire fence in the night.  We’ve already replaced the slider on the zipper once before, and she’s repaired numerous large tears in the bag.  After four solid years with the Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag, the fabric is weathered, faded, and weak.  She will leave it in Grants in a place where someone may find it.  Unsure if she will reach Pie Town before the two pie shops close, she will use the extra luggage capacity for the 240mi push to Silver City.  Lael pedaled 184 miles yesterday.

I am excited to report that Seb Dunne, who had left the route due to a damaged fork, managed to secure a carbon Niner fork with assistance from Andy Peirce, a framebuilder in Del Norte, CO.  The fork shipped overnight express.  Seb rejoined his wife Bethany on the route near Horca and will continue with her to the finish.  Bethany is tracking about 20 miles behind Eszter’s record pace.  

Thanks to Elizabeth Quinley for the photos and the LW bubble.

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Abiquiu, NM

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Looking back toward Abiquiu on a weekend Jemez Loop with Jeremy on the Velo Orange Campeur, in 2012.  Cerro Pedernal stands in the distance.  Our route from Santa Fe to ABQ around the north side of the Valles Caldera via the San Antonio Hot Springs intersected a section of the Great Divide Route.

Lael climbs Polvadera Mesa this morning out of Abiquiu, the last big topographic obstacle before the horizon clears toward the border.  Thereafter, she rides over a hundred miles of pavement beyond Cuba, sandy roads to Pie Town, and the relentlessly rolling drainages of the Gila– and 8 miles of the actual CDT– to Silver City.  She ascends the chunky 4000ft climb alone, forty miles ahead of her one-time competitors.  We rode here very late in the season back in 2011, experiencing snowy, muddy roads and very cold nights.  This is the north side of the Jemez Mountains, where we used to play when we lived in Albuquerque for a season.  She has less than 500 miles to the border.  

Heat and afternoon thunderstorms are forecast every day, beginning yesterday on her ride over Brazos Ridge.  I spoke with her this morning from Abiquiu and she said the mud slowed her down a bit.  She pedaled 156mi yesterday from her campsite halfway up Indiana Pass to Platoro, Horca, La Manga Pass, up Brazos Ridge, across NM 64, and through Vallecitos.  There is a bit of chunky stuff in there, and a lot of topography.  She camped just short of El Rito and began riding at 4:30AM.  She will arrive in Cuba later today, and will begin the long paved ride to Grants, and to the Pie Town turnoff.  Daily thunderstorms are exactly the reason why the paved alternate between Cuba and Grants is allowed during the race.  The caliche mud in this area would stop the race.  She also reported that new owners at the store in Horca equate to prepared foods only, no store.  She said it took forever to get her food for the ride ahead.

Jay and Neil rode close toward the end of the day and camped together for several hours in the night.  Josh Kato rode late to catch them, unknowingly passing them in the night to camp less than a mile or two away.  All three are riding together into the 8 mile CDT Alternate, which is the official TD route to Piños Altos and Silver City.  The race continues.

Listen to “Columbine” by Townes Van Zandt, a song about setting free, about reaching and falling, and throwing the pedals to the wind.  It is a song about a girl, through the symbol of a flower, but it might as well be about Lael riding a bike 170 miles a day.  It took me by surprise when I heard it for the first time in months, earlier this week.  Petals and pedals are the same when sung.  Keep those pedals dancin’ Lael!

 

Cut yourself a columbine, tear it from the stem

Now breathe upon the petals fine, and throw ’em to the wind

Watch the petals dancing, see ’em twirl and sing

Now all your pride and prancing, how much does it mean

 

Watch the petals start to fly, and then come falling down

Aw, hear the wind begin to cry, as she sees ’em touch the ground

All lady like and flower fair, some day you’ll have to fall

And you can find me standing there, to catch you if you call

 

“Columbine”, Townes Van Zandt, 1969

 

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Indiana Pass, CO

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Greg, a cousin of a bike friend from Anchorage, AK intercepted Lael at the top of Marshall Pass yesterday morning.  They’ve only met once, so when Lael saw him she said “Hey, I recognize you.”  He tried to give her sandwiches, which she declined.  Greg reports, “she looks good/strong, but sounds horrible with a lingering cough”.  Photo via Nathan Bosch.

Arriving in Poncha Springs later than the boys, Lael stopped at a corner store for food and camped across the street under a tree.  She was on the bike by 4:30AM, pedaling the 3400ft up Marshall Pass at a brisk pace, alone, ahead of the others.  For the rest of the day, she fought off the group at her heels, gained some distance while riding, lost some of that distance in the final miles to Del Norte, but still arrived about a half hour ahead.  She stopped in Del Norte for about a half hour and pressed on up Indiana Pass, one of the single greatest climbs on the Divide.  The top of the pass also marks the high point on the route at 11,920ft.  The other riders stayed in Del Norte.  

Lael called while riding the bike path out of town.  She still has a lingering cough, although she reports no respiratory distress.  When I rattled off questions about her physical condition– butt, knees, Achilles, hands?– she admitted her knees felt a little creaky in the early morning, that’s it.  As far as I know, she has not slept indoors or showered since Banff.  She’ll be due for a long hot soak in a few days.  The border is less than 700 miles away.  She rode 176 miles yesterday over Marshall Pass, Cochetopa Pass, Carnero Pass, and then about half of Indiana Pass before laying down to sleep.  She will cross into New Mexico this morning and may reach as far as El Rito or Abiquiu tonight.  

The lead group has splintered.  Alex Harris is riding well behind the other riders now.  Dylan Taylor has ridden through the night to put down some miles.  Josh Kato, who caught the two leaders in Abiqui, has made chase and stayed close.  That is, until Jay and Neil each arrived near Grants last night, and each of them rolled out with just over 3 hours of sleep.  This is the race to the finish.

Jay rolled out a few minutes ahead of Neil and has been hammering the pedals, opening a 16mi gap going into Pie Town.  Neil is riding strong, and is chased by Josh Kato 23 miles back.  Dylan is 54 miles behind Josh.  The race for the record is between the top three, although gaining 39 miles on Jay in the last 200 miles won’t be easy for Josh.  In fact, staying in the lead won’t be easy.  Riding long days, repeatedly, is a challenge for all of the riders.  But to finish a long battle with a gloves-off boxing match to the finish is going to hurt.  

Jay Petervary celebrated his birthday yesterday.

Seb Dunne, the sixth component of the lead group of men, has walked and hitched back to the San Luis Valley of Colorado, and is searching for a new fork between Alamosa and Del Norte.  His current fork, damaged beyond repair, has a tapered steerer and accepts a 9mm QR.  I chatted with him this morning and it sounds like framebuilder Andy Peirce might have a workable solution for him in a used Salsa fork (which has a straight steerer, so would require another headset) .  He also mentioned ordering a Whisky carbon fork from QBP via expedited shipping, which is available for 15mm thru-axle only (he may have an SP/Exposure hub with an adaptor).  Alternatively, Del Norte is only 80 miles from Salida, which may present a solution.  BTI is located in Santa Fe, NM and may be able to ship quickly.  His fork folded at the crown.  Thankfully, he was uninjured.  

Seb hopes to get back on the route as soon as possible to continue his ride, even if at a “touring pace”.  However, it sounded like he would be happy to get back on route and hammer a few long days to the finish to post a strong time.  If so, he and Lael may cross paths.  Can Seb and Lael hunt down Alex Harris to collect the $1M prize from The Munga?  The South African Divide-style race, which was first scheduled in December 2014, promised a $1M prize purse built from $10,000 entry fees and corporate sponsorship.  Failure to procure sponsorship and budget the event forced organizers to cancel The Munga.  The website for the event describes the proposed 1000km race along a marked course across the interior of South Africa as “The Toughest Race on Earth”.  It further states, “Being tough is not a right or a privilege.  It is a choice”.  The history of racing along the Great Divide Route is about 15 years old.  Entry to the event has always been free.  There are no prizes.    

Both the men’s and women’s records are set to fall this year, set at 15:16:04 and 19:03:35, respectively.  Jay is riding about 230 miles ahead of his record pace from 2012, with four others ahead of the historical data for that ride.  Lael is about 140 miles ahead of Eszter’s pace from 2012, and if Bethany Dunne can put in a strong ride through New Mexico she may also improve upon the current record.  Eszter Horanyi, the most decorated female bikepacker ever (by a long shot), has written a thoughtful post on her blog Zen on Dirt titled Watching Tour Divide Records Fall.    Elsewhere she writes, “If there’s someone who’s going to take my record down, there is absolutely no one else in the world who I’d rather it be than [Lael]“.  Thanks for being awesome Eszter!  A record 18 women started the Tour Divide 2015.    

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Marshall Pass, CO

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Stella presents a banner on the south side of Boreas Pass yesterday.  The banner reads “Go Lael!  You can do it!”.  Stella will attend a week-long mountain bike camp later this summer.  Read all about it and check out the whole photo series on the Big Dummy Daddy blog in a post titled “Go Lael, go!”  Photos courtesy Andy Duvall, aka Big Dummy Daddy.

It is a good morning for sleeping outside.  Josh Kato awoke at 3:30 this morning to put some miles on Neil and Jay, both of whom had camped in Abiquiu (edit: I erroneously reported that they had taken room at the Abiquiu Inn, although it has been clarified that they slept on the porch of a building), a quaint and beautiful corner of New Mexico made famous by artist Georgia O’Keefe.  Neil and Jay spent more than eight hours in Abiquiu, and while they’ve lost their lead to Josh’s early morning push, being well fed and well rested will likely keep them charged for a race to the finish.  Josh has just arrived in Abiquiu at 7AM, as Bode’s General Store opens for the day.  The route out of Abiquiu climbs Polvadera Mesa, one of the hallowed climbs of the Great Divide Route.  Beyond Cuba, NM the route passes a long stretch of pavement on an approved ACA Alternate route through Pueblo Pintado to Grants.  The route continues to Pie Town, then through a narrow slit in the Gila Wilderness to Silver City, and across US I-10 to the border of Mexico.  The ride from Abiquiu to Cuba is the last big climb on the route.  The Gila section tends to be regarded as one of the toughest sections on the route for southbound riders, featuring a relentless series of climbs and descents, a shallow roller coaster compared to the topography of Colorado and Northern New Mexico.  Reaching Silver City marks the end of the mountains, and a race to the border on a mix of paved and unpaved roads.  Virtual spectators have speculated that some of the top riders may ditch some gear for the race to the finish.  Other wonder if the two will cross the line together, or race the final pavement like the bell lap on a track.  Perhaps they plan to ride to the finish without rest?  But whatever arrangements Jay and Neil have conceived in the past 11 days, or in the last 8 hours, may be unsettled by the presence of a third rider.  We have a race!

Lael also made an early move out of Poncha Springs this morning, starting on the bike around 4:30.  I can’t say for sure, but I suspect she poached camp in town somewhere.  She didn’t call, and seemed not to turn on her phone, which is a sign that she is focusing on riding and recovery.  She has not developed any strong daily patterns due to a variety of unexpected circumstances along the way– especially illness– but 4:30 seems to be her regular waking hour to maximize daytime riding.  

Three riders beat her into Salida and Poncha Springs last night; all seemed to take a room indoors.  Another rider, Rob Davidson, arrived later in the evening but has diverted back to Salida.  He is likely in search of bicycle service from one of thee three great shops in town.  Salida is the last place for bike repairs and parts until Silver City, about 700 miles away.  It is one of my favorite towns on the Divide, best enjoyed in the context of a tour.  In fact, we’ve been here twice before.  We first passed in 2011 on the Great Divide, riding a strip of the CDT and CT along the Monarch Crest trail from Monarch Pass to Marshall Pass.  This was Lael’s first day of singletrack mountain biking, at almost 12,000ft on a drop bar Surly Long Haul Trucker.  The next year, we passed through Salida on an abbreviated trip along the Colorado Trail, pushed up Foose’s Creek to the Continental Divide and looped back to town via Silver Creek and the Rainbow Trail, before hitching a ride to Interbike with Anton van Leuken from the Salida Bike Co.  Lael’s been up and over Marshall Pass three times.  Pedaling at a steady rate this morning, with three boys in chase, this will be her fourth.  She is now in 7th place overall, although Seb Dunne is reportedly stuck in the mountains of southern Colorado with a broken fork.  The climb from Poncha Springs is about 3500 ft.

Riding 170 miles yesterday from outside Kremmling, CO to Poncha Springs, CO, Lael continued pace with her group.  My cousin Brent, who lives in Breckenridge and has been following the race, reports “Lael came through town around 11:40AM– she looked good.  Stopped briefly to chat but kept right on pedaling in hopes of catching the guys on the pass.”  It looks like the two riders ahead of her missed the turn for the Gold Rush Trail near the top of the pass and gained a few minutes.  Nearing Como, Lael was surprised by another local fan.  Andy, aka Big Dummy Daddy, and his daughter Stella waited along the roadside with a handmade sign, hoping to exchange high fives and hugs for a few moments.  Andy has graciously accepted us into his home on two occasions, once when we began the Colorado Trail at Waterton Canyon, and another time when we returned from Ukraine and hitched a ride to Loma, CO to begin a ride to Utah and Arizona, late one summer.  Andy reports:

We successfully found Lael, and I’m happy to report that she’s looking good and sounding well, except for the remnants of a crusty cough.  We caught up with her a few miles north of Como, near Little Baldy Mountain.  I put together a post from our experience titled “Go Lael, go!”

Stella is enrolled in a week-long mountain bike camp in Waterton Canyon later this summer.  It makes me so happy to see Lael and Stella together in this context.  It is a good week for girls on bikes.

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Tour Divide Update: Ute Pass, CO

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Lael bares her teeth as she packs her seatbag at the Brush Mountain Lodge Monday morning, a friendly place for Divide riders to resupply in remote northwestern Colorado. Photos courtesy Brush Mountain Lodge.

From her four day push across southern Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming into Colorado, Lael has caught the second fastest group in the Tour Divide 2015.  The lead group of six riders, about 300 miles ahead, are all riding ahead of the current record pace set by Jay Petervary in 2012.  However, leaders JayP and Neil Beltchenko are still short of Mike Hall’s blistering 2013 pace, calculated by the times in which they pass through certain towns.  Mike’s ride to Mexico was spoiled by a technicality as wildfires forced a reroute from the sanctioned TD track.  He finished more than a day faster than Jay’s 2012 ride.  Jay and Neil aren’t far off Mike’s pace, and they’re trading punches from early morning to late at night.  Jay has held the upper hand, but Neil hasn’t flinched.

Lael’s is tackling the riders in her group one at a time.  She’s caught three of the six, with three more just ahead.  I expect she will begin to outrun them by the time she reaches Salida, if not sooner.  Thereafter, she’ll enjoy wide open roads to Mexico.  She has less than 1000 miles to go.

Yesterday, Lael stopped at Orange Peel Bikes in Steamboat Springs, CO to have her bottom bracket replaced.  The SRAM PF30 has been in service for just over a month and came stock on her Specialized Stumpjumper.  JayP also stopped at Orange Peel to replace his PF30 bottom bracket on his new Salsa Cutthroat.  Lael called from Steamboat and reported that she was feeling good.  She hasn’t said those words exactly since before the race, so I am relieved to know that she is finally enjoying her ride.  While in Steamboat she also purchased another headlamp, as she had lost hers the previous night.  She also reported that the Great Basin was as famously windy as expected, and that she was wasting a lot of time on that day.  She stopped to talk at the Brush Mountain Lodge, to a woman in Clark, CO touring the Great Divide on a Bike Friday, and in Steamboat for service.  No offense to those that she has met along the way, but she is working hard to cut the fat from the day and stay on the bike.  I’ve also noticed that her riding speed has dramatically increased since the illness has faded.  She is climbing faster than most of the riders around her.  

Once in Breckenridge, Lael will be riding familiar terrain for some time, at least to the New Mexico border.  We rode the Divide and assorted dirt roads down to Santa Fe in 2011 with Cass, Nancy, and Greg.  I continued to Silver City, before joining Lael in Alaska for the winter.

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Tour Divide Update: Brush Mountain, CO

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“All smiles” at the Grand Depart in Banff.  Check out this awesome photo set from the start of the race on The Radavist, including a great shot of Lael’s Revelate Designs tattoo on her calf and her shiny new 36T X-Sync chainring.  Photo: John Watson at The Radavist.

No news is good news.  Since recovering from a week of serious illness, Lael has pommeled the pedals and crawled back into a strong standing.  From memory, she was the 10th place rider on the first night after a very difficult 183 mile day, at the first sign of respiratory issues.  The next morning she walked over Galton Pass in respiratory distress.  Four days later, she pedaled over 100 miles from Ovando to Helena to the hospital.  She was in and out of town in less than four hours, with a handful of meds, a full resupply for the ride to Butte, and the hope that the worst of her problems may be over.  That night, riding until 3AM, she  passed Alice Drobna and Bethany Dunne in the dark, hiking one of the more challenging sections of the route as they slept.  Lael was up early to maintain her position, but on the next night, she was forced to camp early once again as respiratory distress ended another day.  The following morning I received a phone call from Lael at the Montana High Country Lodge.  She said she’d try riding a few more days like this, but she would not ride all day and pass out every night in an asthmatic fit.  Even if she could, technically, she wouldn’t.  She was afraid of the condition and was riding well below her target.  She would, one way or another, continue along the route, but not necessarily in the context of the race.  

She called from Lima later that day and said she felt well enough to continue.  She finished the day at 183 miles at Red Rock Pass.  The next day she rode about 191 to the base of Union Pass.  Then about 172 route miles to Atlantic City– plus a few extra as she ventured off route on the old TD track, a discrepancy that was resolved in Pinedale with an updated track to include the upcoming Wamsutter reroute.  She technically finished that day six miles beyond Atlantic City at the edge of the Great Basin.  Crossing the Basin and the rest of Wyoming in one push, Lael pedaled another 173 miles again yesterday to the base of the Brush Mountain climb in Colorado.  She stopped at the Brush Mountain Lodge this morning and remains in the company of five other riders all within 20 miles, all riding well below the 20 day pace.  Besides the lead group of 6 men pushing record pace three hundred miles ahead, already through Salida, there is only one other rider in Colorado at the moment.  Michele Miani is an Italian southbound rider whose tracker indicates his position in Steamboat Springs, but he is not shown on the Leaderboard function of Trackleaders.com.  Officially, this puts Lael in 13th place overall.  Whereas she was once in about 26th place overall, and was trading positions with Alice and Bethany, she is now the lead female by about 140 miles.  Lael is less than 1200 miles from Mexico.

Hey Steamboat, Breckenridge, Salida, Del Norte, wave to Lael as she passes!