Starting in Banff, Canada and finishing in Antelope Wells, New Mexico at the US border crossing, the 2745 mile (4417 km for the rest of the world) Tour Divide has become the quintessential self-supported ultra-endurance bike race that all others are measured by. The route itself closely follows the Continental Divide on a path first pioneered by Mike and Dan Moe in 1984, and later formalized as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route by the Adventure Cycling Association in 1997. I first started photographing this odyssey of a bike race in 2009, and this year marked my eighth year for doing so.
With prior commitments, my coverage started at Mosquito Lake near Union Pass, just north of Pinedale, Wyoming. Being a 2745 mile race, the first several days are a matter of the front runners settling into a pace while trying not to dig too deep. For Sofiane Sehili, a bike messenger from Paris, France, this equated to a 62 hour ride from Banff to Helena, Montana with 57 hours of that being in the saddle. When Sofiane reached Union Pass, he was well ahead of the 2016 record pace set by the late, great Mike Hall, who won the 2013 and 2016 editions. I passed Sofianne in the night but pressed on to my planned destination knowing I'd hopefully have other chances to get photos of him in the coming week.
After getting photos of Josh Kato, Chris Seistrup and Nate Ginzton on Union Pass, I quickly refueled in Pinedale, which also serves as an important stop for the racers as it's practically their last real stop to make repairs or replacements to their kit before heading into the barren Great Divide Basin.
Rejoining the route at Atlantic City I came across Josh Kato taking shelter from a nasty storm rather than riding into certain slow going mud. It's 100 miles from Atlantic City to Wamsutter with plenty of opportunities for wrong turns along the way, no water or food to be found, and hardly a place to be caught out in bad weather. Just ahead of Josh, Sofiane would grow his lead by riding with a massive tailwind across much of the Basin, just ahead of the storm and rain.
That night, Josh would head into the Basin while I slept in the back of my truck, and Nate Ginzton and Steve Halligan would pass in the early morning hours. A cold night and morning would bring then 5th placed Lael Wilcox by as I waited with camera ready, and Josh Ibbett would follow soon after.
A quick loop back to Atlantic City found Kai Edel and Evan Deutsch finishing their lunch at the Miners Grubstake Inn while they checked Trackleaders for racer position updates one last time before heading into the Basin themselves. To ensure racers stay on-route, they all carry a Spot beacon which relays their position for the world to see on the Trackleaders website, as well as providing a safety net for getting emergency help should it be needed.
In the Great Divide Basin, gentle hills roll on for as far as the eye can see with nothing but prairie grass and sage, and a rare herd of wild horses to be seen if you're lucky. It's one of the few remarkable places left where you can go for a whole day without seeing anything or anyone else.
With a brief stop for fuel and supplies in the small oil and gas town of Wamsutter, racers head south towards Colorado where an unusual winter storm was brewing.
When racers get to the Tour Divide sanctuary of Brush Mountain Ranch in northern Colorado, they can get a warm meal, take a shower and sleep in a soft bed if they so desire. However, those luxuries are often skipped by racers vying for the win. Race leaders Sofiane and Josh both stopped for a quick meal and headed up in the dark of night to climb over Sand Pass, which tops out at just under 10,000 feet. Being in the northern extents of Colorado in the Elkhead Mountain Range, it typically receives the brunt of bad weather from winter storms dipping down out of the north.
Unfortunately for both of them, they were also heading into a rare winter-like blizzard that dumped 20 inches of snow at nearby Steamboat Springs Ski Resort that night. It spelled the end of the race for Sofiane and left Josh in survival mode bivying in the dark under a spruce tree to warm up until first light when he could make better progress in the extremely cold, trying conditions. Back at the lodge, 3rd placed Chris Seistrup took advantage of the situation to eat, grab a few hours of sleep and head up at dawn, which turned into his winning move of the race. Further behind, Steve Halligan and Nate Ginzton made a quick refuel and headed up just a few hours later. After their departure, only a couple of young men, Matt and Eric, from Vancouver, Canada touring the route for the first time would make it over the pass for the next two days. While others would be turned back by mud, the commitment by those five to forward progress via pushing and carrying their bikes proved to be the key break in grabbing the race by the reigns to establish the winning breakaway of the race.
Shortly after the Canadians headed up, Josh Ibbett and Lael, who had switched positions in the Basin, respectively made quick initial stops only to be turned around by the mud. It would be the end of their chances for winning the Tour Divide. Afterwards, more riders showed up and it would be almost two whole days after the storm passed before another person braved pushing and carrying their bikes over the snowy, mud-entrenched mountain pass.
For two days, the lead four racers battled through cold wet temperatures, rain, mud and one more snowstorm before breaking free of the bad weather south of Boreas Pass outside of Breckenridge.
|"I was going 22.3 mph on a soft roadbed. Eddie had parked along the road and was snapping photos. I could barely see him through my effort but I remember almost every single detail at this one moment in time. I was almost trance-like as I rode past him.|
My right shoulder was subluxated from a crash the previous night and I could not reach to my bar-end shifter smoothly and had to let out a deep groan every time I did. My feet were numb to the point of pain. My right knee was swollen and ached with every stroke of the pedals. Also a result from the previous night’s crash. The only meaningful sensation in my right arm was pain. My vision was slightly blurry, hence no sunglasses on at the time despite the cold rain stinging my eyes as it hit me. Every fiber in my legs was on the fine line between total collapse and total power output. I was beginning to have difficulty breathing and perhaps a touch of chest discomfort but maintained a deep, rhythmic tempo with my lungs. The cold, wet air made that hugely challenging. I was hungry but my stomach churned and was on the verge of releasing its contents. Water and mud had worked their way into my rain gear and wicked away precious warmth. Only the very core of my being was warm despite my physical output. I had woken up in my bivy covered with about 3-4 inches of snow the morning of this image. It was as if there was a small fire deep inside that could not get fuel to burn any bigger. I don’t recall actually thinking during the 100ish miles around this image. I was in race mode while my body was trying to survive. I then rode up and over Ute Pass in falling snow.
Eddie’s shot causes a very visceral response every time I see it.
My experience at the time of this image is not unique. It is the reality of the Divide." - Josh Kato
For Chris Seistrup, one last key tactical move would be to dry his cold wet kit in a laundry mat in Breckenridge while filling his belly with hot food before the next big climb over Boreas Pass. Behind, the three remaining leaders all stopped in Summit County to recover from the testing conditions of the prior 48 hours leading up to this point. It would serve as the last gap that saw Chris Seistrup through to finishing the race in Antelope Wells where he would take his first Tour Divide win.
While Steve and Nate were climbing Indiana Pass, which is the biggest climb and the high point of the Tour Divide, Josh Kato came undone. Having trouble breathing and dealing with a racing heart rate, Josh turned off the route in Del Norte, CO and checked himself into the emergency room at the Rio Grande Hospital. Tests revealed some bad results, and it would be the end of his Tour Divide. Nate and Steve continued on to take 2nd and 4th place respectively for this year's Tour Divide.
The next day, I spent photographing the remaining chasers north of Del Norte, pictured below, who at that time were essentially racing for fourth place and to just finish the route.
Another victim of the winter storm was Lael Wilcox. After retreating from the winter storm to Brush Mountain, she later scratched herself from the race for a self-imposed rules violation of visiting her girlfriend. Un-deterred from doing what she loves, Lael continued on in a very fast touring mode to finish the route.
Last but certainly not least, my coverage finished with Alexandera Houchin from Minnesota. Alexandera won last year's race and returned this year on a singlespeed with a new found love for its simplicity. She'd continue on to take another women's Tour Divide win while also setting a new women's sinsglespeed course record, hiking boots and all!
I think in this sentence you mean "after" the storm had passed " .... be almost two whole days before the storm passed before another person...."
Also, was Steve 3rd or Peter Sandholt 3rd?