Tour Divide 2023 - first afterthoughts

Tour Divide 2023 - first afterthoughts

Trying to condense my experience of riding the Tour Divide into basically a postcard from Antelope Wells is no small feat, perhaps more of a challenge than the ride itself. I can say that at the end of this much anticipated adventure, I was left mostly satisfied but also unsure as to what to make of it. As I lay napping in the heat after reaching my destination, I was equally confused about how I felt & overwhelmed with gratitude for the people I met & the support I received along the way.

The riding itself is rarely my worry when I sign up for an adventure such as this. In fact, the nature of this particular route (a bit hilly, kinda long & not at all technical) seemed to suit me perfectly. Instinctively, I knew my body would know just what to do to ride strong to the end & I’d be happy ticking along making progress each day. For months, I’d been excited to get deep into this route, to lose track of time & abandon the concept of routine itself. The thing that had me stressing more than anything else in the lead up to this Tour Divide experience, was the thought of the small talk in Banff & in those first couple of days beyond; before the distance spreads people out enough for me to be alone. Physically alone (in terms of human company) is usually the least alone I ever feel & it’s such a rare treat to spend time like that.Hanging out in the departure lounge in Banff, in the days before the start of the race, my anxiety about the grand depart (a record number of riders all setting off on the Tour Divide course at once) had reached fever pitch. This being the focus of my apprehension, says a lot about me & naturally, proved to be indicative of the aspect of the ride that I ultimately found the most challenging. 
Naturally, the big day (the 9th of June) came & went & I survived that epic roll out. Departing with other mid-packers, a good 45 minutes after the first wave of riders, with my headphones firmly in, I managed to breathe through the anxiety & enjoy the stunning surrounds. The last thing I wanted to do that morning (or any other) was answer all the perfectly valid questions that event small talk is made up of; it seems that “how long will it take you”, “what’s your time goal” & “how much will you sleep” are the ultra endurance version of “how’s it going”.My answers to such questions rarely satisfy the asker & that tends to lead to more questions... I don’t ride to numbers, have a schedule or a particular quantifiable goal. Riding with a structure like this, somehow detracts from the freedom that I love so much on these adventures. My rides are (gleefully) dictated by feel. In every sense. That’s what got me out bikepacking in the first place after all; the need to breathe & to work out how to feel again, navigating my way through social work burnout. My approach to these excursions has evolved from this foundation. It’s hard to find a more meaningful goal than to ride for joy itself. 

I had more fun than I expected to in those first few days on the Tour Divide, winding my way through Canada & into the USA. I found friends in Wes & Badjo & in the dark & the mud. I found my own rhythm as the crowds thinned & I happily lost myself in what felt like the wilds out there. Somehow, as the days accumulated over the first week or so, of just doing what I felt like, sleeping or not, riding, walking, checking out the tiny towns & enjoying the sensation of all the variations of weather (even a hail storm that made me feel especially alive), I managed inadvertently to get myself a little tangled up crossing paths with some of the racing folks.

Amazing people, thriving on the thrill of the chase, the strategy, the game of it, pushing their limits & loving it. I admire these people, their drive & ability to keep hustling for position across the course. Somehow, in awe of these racers, the echo chamber of my mind got a bit carried away. I couldn’t help but notice how different I am from all of these incredible folks & so the inner voice went to town; why aren’t I like that, maybe I should be pushing & pursuing, looking at the tracker, going on a sleep diet & making sure not to give an inch, maybe I’m just too slow, too lazy, too whatever to do what I should being doing, this is a race after all. After spending a whole life not quite fitting, then finding this niche little spot for myself in bikepacker land, only to find myself othered again was somehow not very motivating. Add to this a headwind, the not quite steep enough climbs of Colorado, a few minor physical niggles, the continued lack of meaningful gluten free nutrition & for a minute or 500, I felt honestly demoralised. In fact, I swore off jumping on a grand depart ever again. 
I was then annoyed with myself; disappointed that I had let the comparison with others get in my head, detracting from this once in a lifetime experience.

I spent some time reflecting on the inherent assumptions in this bike race context; that doing something faster makes it somehow a better or a more valid experience. I began to struggle with the visibility that comes with reducing myself to a dot on a racer tracking page. The knowledge that every time I stopped to take in my surrounds or chat with locals or whatever, that there was data being collected, thus casting my stopped time in a presumably negative light. I worried that I was letting people down by treating this trip as a holiday & not riding to my limit. Thank goodness for voices of reason over WhatsApp to help me reel this mental madness back into neutral.

Unsurprisingly, physically distancing myself from others, then ignoring the tracking page altogether again & being present in my own ‘holiday’ experience, I returned to the all important business of having a fun ride. Phew!

For so many reasons, New Mexico was a revelation in so many ways. I felt like myself again, the terrain was a surprise; steeper, more rugged than expected, wonderfully hot & oh so scenic. I was back in rhythm & life was once again so good! As luck would have it, the nights (my favourite!) were warm & inviting too. This final section of the course was one that I had looked forward to for the entire ride. I loved the idea that this route started in terrain that was especially foreign to me, the frosty mountains of Canada are a stark contrast to the outback in Australia, & that I would be riding towards a familiar friend, a hot desert. What better way to wrap up an adventure like this?! It did not disappoint, it was in fact, better than I had dreamed it could be.

To summarise, this little glimpse into my Tour Divide journey could serve as a glimpse into just about any long distance bike ride. The real challenges encountered aren’t visible, they live in the confines of one’s own mind & are best overcome by a nap, a good snack & a voice of reason. I’m lucky that these speed bumps were short lived & that the lessons learnt will serve me well the next time that inevitably, my little touring heart signs up for the grand depart of a bike race. I recently heard another rider describe their approach to ‘racing’; their race only being “against Father Time”. There’s a lot to be said for this approach, I think it holds a lesson for us all.

Word by April Drage 

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    1 comment

    You write so wonderfully. I recently titled a ride ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ after that Roosevelt quote, because it’s so easy to use other people’s perceived accomplishments as some kind of metric of your own self worth or success. Which of course is ridiculous, but it is still oddly reassuring to see that someone like yourself who I regard as one of the ‘legit bikepackers’ (whatever that is lol) has the same insecurities. Regardless, it’s still an impressive achievement!


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