The next morning, after spending 24 consecutive freezing and rainy hours hunkered down in his sleeping bag and tent under a covered shelter to avoid hypothermia, Gary Johnson found himself singing “Happy Birthday” to a grizzly bear walking nearby. south of the Canada-US border. .
The former two-term governor of New Mexico said he hoped the loud chirping would encourage the grizzly to get out of the way and not provoke an attack. He was to pass the bear and head to Red Meadow Pass, where he would then have to cycle through deep snow for more than four hours while pushing to Whitefish, Mt.
His nearly 2,700-mile mountain bike ride from Banff, Alberta to the Mexican border in Antelope Wells, NM was still in its infancy, and the Tour Divide once again lived up to its reputation. as one of the most extreme endurance courses in the world. races.
“A thought that crosses your mind all the time is, ‘Nobody understands what this is – nobody – unless you’ve done it,'” Johnson said Thursday as he still recovered nearly two weeks after finishing the race.
The self-driving bikepacking event requires overcoming obstacles that, to many people, may seem insane.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route covers some of the most rugged terrain on the continent where Rocky Mountain weather can be fierce and unpredictable.
Cyclists climb nearly 200,000 vertical feet along the route, which is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest seven times from sea level.
Johnson, 69, enjoys telling the maniacal and unforgettable stories from the track that are the reward for completing the punishing race that requires no entry fee and offers no physical or monetary prizes.
“That’s what attracted me to the Tour Divide in the beginning, it was, I mean, the sacred cow, at first glance it looks like a [expletive] “, Johnson said. “And it is.”
The route for this year’s race has been changed due to the closure of the New Mexico National Forests in the spring and early summer due to raging wildfires and high fire danger. This resulted in a course with approximately 150,000 feet of vertical gain.
Johnson completed the course in 27 days, 18 hours and 59 minutes. He started on June 10 at the Grand Départ in Banff with around 200 other competitors from around the world.
In an event in which typically around half of the cyclists who start the race drop out, this is the fifth consecutive lap the Tour Divide Johnson has both entered and finished (the 2020 race was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Johnson is the second-oldest finisher in the 2022 Tour Divide, behind fellow New Mexican Nat Cobb, 71, of Los Ranchos, according to trackleaders.com. Cobb, who completed the Tour Divide in 2014 riding the route north to south like the vast majority of cyclists, rode this year’s route going south to north. He finished in 27 days, 14 hours, 53 minutes.
Carl Gable, 63, of Santa Fe, was the fastest of the three New Mexican finalists. Competing in his first Tour Divide, the recently retired Los Alamos National Laboratory geophysicist completed the course July 4 in 24 days, 11 hours, 9 minutes.
Sofiane Sehili, a 40-year-old Parisian bicycle courier, won the race by finishing in 14 days, 16 hours, 36 minutes. He cycled nearly 75% of that time, resting for just 3 days and 17 hours.
While the fastest competitors take just over two weeks to complete the course, others can take well over a month. Some cyclists also ride the route as an individual time trial instead of starting during the Grand Départ.
The first five days for those who set off in the Grand Départ saw competitors battered by cold, rain and snow in southern Canada and northern Montana. It was at the same time, in mid-June, that devastating flooding and runoff caused the closure of Yellowstone National Park.
Cyclists had to push their bikes for hours through the snow. In previous years, there had been no snow on the course. Rains and runoff have also turned trails and roads into streams.
“In New Mexico, Tesuque Creek on the Winsor [Trail] is a big stream,” Gable said, “while up there things almost as big as the Rio Grande flowed through the trail and down the trail.
Competitors wear SPOT satellite trackers that map their progress along the course. The devices also have a button to press when passengers feel they need to be rescued by emergency personnel.
Of the approximately 200 cyclists who took the start of the race on June 10, 15 were airlifted from the course in the first days, the New York Times reported. Eleven cyclists were treated for hypothermia and four for trauma.
“The first five days were kind of survival first and miles second,” Gable said. “You really had to manage things to be ready to ride the next day.”
A seasoned ultra-endurance athlete who has competed in multi-day Eco-Challenge adventure races around the world, Gable made the decision to avoid the worst weather conditions by taking day zero and staying at a hotel. in Whitefish, Mont., where he stocked up on food and watched movies.
Johnson said he made the mistake of trying to move forward, leaving the town of Eureka, Montana at 3 a.m. in the pouring rain to try to beat the worst conditions at the upcoming Red Meadow Pass. About 3.5 hours later, he was shivering with cold and had to warm himself in his tent and sleeping bag under a U.S. Forest Service shelter, where he remained for 24 hours.
Johnson has climbed the Seven Summits – the tallest mountain on each continent – so waiting out adverse conditions in a tent was nothing new. But between the weather and recurring derailleur problems with his bike, he has not yet been able to use his experience to achieve his goal of finishing in 24 or 25 days.
“Why did I do [the Tour Divide] five times? Well, I never felt like I recorded my best time, and that’s always because of circumstances beyond my control,” Johnson said. “This year, we had a bad decision when I left Eureka.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because this is all just the reality of racing,” he added.
Most days, Johnson said he started riding at 5:30 a.m. and would go from 12 to 3 p.m. until dark. If he happened upon a city at nightfall, he would stay in a hotel, but most nights he was in his tent.
His biggest day was his last day when he said he traveled 22 hours and 230 miles to reach Antelope Wells.
New Mexico, Johnson said, may be the toughest state for cyclists due to limited towns where a competitor can pick up food and water.
In Johnson’s first Tour Divide, he said he ran out of fluid between Cuba and Grants and had to knock on someone’s door because he needed water to continue . Nobody answered, but he saw a case of bottled water in the garage. He said he ended up taking six bottles of water and leaving a $20 bill.
While the challenges are many, Johnson said the rewards of following the route along the Continental Divide were also great.
“I hope having done it five times in a row shows that I personally got a lot out of it, and that includes the serenity and the beauty of it all,” Johnson said. “It is without doubt the most beautiful ride a human being can take.”
Gable said one of his highlights was driving through Wyoming, getting a first glimpse of the Tetons, then riding towards them for five more hours and being right next to them.
“Seeing the world at the speed of a bicycle, I feel that you can really appreciate the country you are crossing,” he said.
Gable said he lost 12 pounds during the race. Johnson said he lost at least that and maybe more.
Most runners don’t have much left when they reach Antelope Wells and they never want to think about racing again.
But time can change their tune.
“I’m always on the lookout for the sequel and doing the same thing twice isn’t always the sequel,” Gable said. “Right now I would say no, but in two months I might say yes because I think I can do better knowing what I know now and thinking the weather will be better.”
Five Tour Divides seems to be enough for Johnson. He said he plans to continue taking rides around Taos with his partner, Kate Prusack, while imagining new ultra-endurance goals for himself as he approaches 70.
“After doing it five times, I guess I’ve been looking for enlightenment and I feel like I’ve found it,” Johnson said. “And the enlightenment is that we as humans take for granted the simplest things that are so joyful – those cups of coffee in the morning, being with friends, going skiing, the joy of cooking.
“Each year, I think those appreciations for me have grown tremendously.”