Ana Jager admits she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she signed up for the Tour Divide.
The self-driving bike race, which covers 2,745 miles from Banff, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is as isolating as it is grueling.
But Jager was inspired by a local heroine, her friend Lael Wilcox, who broke the 2015 Tour Divide women’s record.
Jager, a 25-year-old East High graduate, saved some feats for her own run, winning the women’s division this year in 19 days and 54 minutes.
“It’s definitely an intimidating thing to sign up for,” Jager said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into at first – or all the way through really. It was a beast in its own right.
Wilcox “is a Tour Divide legend and has become a friend of mine,” she said. “She is definitely my local hero. She made films about the Tour Divide and she inspired me enormously.
Traveling the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route featured challenging trails and over 200,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. But weather conditions along the way only added to the physical strain of the race, Jager said. In Montana, she battled deep snow and ended up doing a lot of trail riding in the beginning.
It involved “hours and hours of pushing my bike through deep snow when I was expected to ride, so it was a challenge,” she said. “It definitely had some physical repercussions, like my Achilles and my knees really took a bit of a hit from walking a lot.”
Toward the arrival in New Mexico, she had been warned to prepare for arid conditions and scorching heat.
“But then it turned into, like, just these ridiculous monsoons,” she said. “And we were riding like I had never had so much rain. It was crazy. I got really, really cold and wet one night in particular because of those monsoon rains. It was definitely a low point in the whole experience.
The race allows competitors to use the facilities throughout the course, but no personal escorts are permitted. Jager camped most of the trip, but stayed in hotels for a few nights of bad weather.
“Taking a shower is a reset to a surprising degree,” Jager said with a laugh.
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As the days passed, Jager found herself in a position with a chance to win. But then she encountered bad weather, which changed her motivation.
“I was like, ‘I don’t care about the placement, I just want to finish this thing,’ because it was so hard,” she said. “So, I don’t know, it kind of faltered with how much I thought about the placement because the real challenge was doing it.”
Sofiane Sehili, a Paris-based endurance athlete, won the men’s race and the overall title, reaching the finish in 14 days, 16 hours and 36 minutes.
Jager had raced the Kenai 250 before, but hadn’t done a longer distance until the Tour Divide. She said she did a mix of cross-training to prepare, including lots of skiing and fat-biking in the winter. But generally she prefers to take more practical rides. She commuted to work every day and coached through the GRIT mentorship program that Wilcox co-founded, which meant daily commutes with college kids.
“I just like to ride my bike,” she said. “I like to ride from my house and go to Arctic Valley or I went to the valley (Mat-Su) then went for a bike ride with friends. I just like to ride a bike to get around. So I think I’m using that as an excuse – ‘OK, how can I, like, adapt to longer rides and kind of cover ground?’ ”
Jager’s family is filled with athletes, including his brother Luke, who is an Olympic skier.
“My dad really likes the bike stuff,” Jager said. “My mum is a great runner and she has done a lot of cycle touring in the past. I think it’s always been like an influencer. My whole family is very active. My brother is a big cross-country skier, so we just kind of have an active vibe in my family.
Back in Anchorage, Jager is in recovery mode.
“I took a lot of naps,” she says.
But she said one of her goals for finishing the race was to be back in time to watch her brother run the Mount Marathon in Seward on Monday.
Jager isn’t sure what her next challenge will be, but she hasn’t ruled out another race at the Tour Divide.
“It’s kind of funny, there are groups…people are obsessed with it,” she said. “And often, people who do it over and over again. It just seems crazy to me after doing it once, but another part of me understands that because there are so many little bits you can get to grips with. Finding good places to camp and good resupply systems, and you kinda like, dial all those things in. And that seems like a really satisfying thing to get better at every time you do it.
Jager said she was grateful during the race to hear from friends, family and supporters, which kept her going.
“When things were tough and I would get a text, (it was) like, ‘Wow, that’s so, so cool that they’re looking at me,'” she said.