INTERVIEW: JEFE BRANHAM
There's a good chance you've never heard of Jefe Branham, but it's a name worth knowing. Jefe is the winner of this year's Tour Divide race, a brutal mountain bike event with no entry fee and no prize money that begins in Banff, Canada, and finishes in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, some 2,700 miles and 200,000 vertical feet later. The racers are entirely on their own – there are no markings on the course to show which way to go, no cushy aid stations full of smiling helpers and healthy snacks, only miles and miles of grueling dirt roads, singletrack, and pavement.
Jefe, a 41 year old bike mechanic from the small town of Gunnison, Colorado, completed the race in 16 days, averaging nearly 170 off-road miles a day, and finishing ahead of his nearest competitor by two hundred miles. That's a mind-boggling amount of riding - just imagine waking up every day for over two weeks and riding for 17 to 24 hours at a time with minimal sleep, all by yourself, miles from civilization. It's an impressive feat, and one that takes years of training, preparation, and the ability to push through pain and suffering that would leave others curled up and whimpering in the fetal position. Jefe's no stranger to this type of event – he first did the Tour Divide in 2011 aboard a singlespeed, and ended up placing second overall. He's also a repeat winner of the Colorado Trail Race, which covers 550 miles with 75,000 feet of climbing. We caught up with Jefe once he'd had the chance to eat food that wasn't bought in a gas station and to sleep for a few nights in his own bed to find out more about his experience at this year's Tour Divide.
How do you go about training for something like the Tour Divide? What kind of preparation went into getting ready for this year's race?
Well I rode a lot, I rode a lot in the 12 years prior to the TD and in the 6 months leading up to the TD. I did all sorts of core workouts, but really it is all about the years and years of getting my as kicked in the mountains. After 24 hours it is 80% mental, being somewhat ready for the gut punches and ass kicking that WILL come! Tell us about your bike set up – what did it weigh fully loaded down? Do you think a rigid fork is the way to go, or would a bit of suspension helped?
Ibis Tranny 29er, Niner Carbon Fork, SRAM XX1 drivetrain w/36 tooth chainring, Avid BB7 Brakes, Stan's No Tube Arch EX rims, XO Rear Hub, SP Dynamo front hub, Maxxis Crossmark EXO TR tires. I never weighed the bike, I didn't want to know. It had what I thought I needed and I didn't want to put a number to that. As far as rigid vs. suspension, rigid is simple, light and low maintenance...it is rough as hell out there sometimes, but mostly it is dirt road, plus with suspension I would have had to stop every day or so and rebuild it Did you run into any major mechanical issues? What tools do you carry?
After five days of rain, snow, and mud I had to replace my roached out brake pads, lubed my chain a lot and tightened a few bolts that rattled loose, that was all. But I had a few tools and repair items with me, like extra spokes, chain links, and master links, zip ties, duct tape, bailing wire and an assortment of bolts and stuff like that. I carried a multi-tool with a chain tool, tire levers and a micro Leatherman.
How about physical issues? How did your body deal with such a brutal undertaking?
Still smiling, Jefe cranks out the miles near Doyleville, Colorado.
It hurt like hell - my knees swelled up, feet and ankles swelled up, butt was a terrible mess, not to mention the sleep deprivation. I took 2-4 Aleve every day - that shit is amazing. This race makes your body go into full revolt - everything gets pissed off and hurts, which is why it is such a mental game. Everyone hurts, but the ones who keep pushing hard through the pain will get there sooner. What do you use for lights? How much time did you spend riding at night?
I used an SP Pd-X8 Dynamo hub that powered a Exposure Revo light. More light means safer riding, and I also had a Fenix ld22 on the helmet as well. I rode at night a lot - I was putting in anywhere from 17-24 hour days out there, and lots of that was in the rain. Yes, my eyes are tired. What do you use for a sleeping bag / pad?
When I first started doing this stuff there wasn't any commercially available stuff that I could find, plus I have been sewing for years so I started making my own gear, then destroyed it and made it again. For this race I was able to make some pretty damn light bags that held up well to the abuse.
Is it difficult to consume enough calories every day? What's your diet like during the race?
There's plenty of time for soul searching and introspection during a race of this magnitude.
Eat, eat, eat and dream about eating more. 80% of my food came from gas stations, so Fritos, gummy worms, salami, ice cream and 5 Hour Energy was on the menu. Also some diner food, whole rotisserie chickens from grocery stores and some Mickie D's. I ate junk food and lots of it - I bet I spent like $1000 on food. It is kinda gross, really. How much sleep did you average a day? Did you have a pre-set plan of how much rest you were going to allow yourself each day?
Oh, my demon was not enough sleep. I went out hard in the beginning, too hard and didn't sleep much at all in the first three days, none the first night, 1.5 hours the second night, 3 hours the third, also did around 600 miles. I cooked myself right off the bat and was tired for the rest of the race. I would say I slept 3-5 hours a night most of the time. I tried to push it again at the end and sleep less, but ended up taking cat naps to keep my eyes open....
Looking back, what was the hardest part of the whole race?
Finished. 2,735 miles in 16 days, with an average of 169.64 miles per day.
Oh man, it was so hard, Mud, snow, rain, admitting to myself that I was not going to do it in 14 days, admitting to myself that I was not going to break the record, getting out of my bivy as the alarm goes off when all I want to do is sleep. It's hard to say which of these was harder, it all kicked my ass. If I was to say one thing, it would be letting go of my dreams of setting a very hard to break record. What was the best part?
Sunsets, big huge sunsets in awesome places, traveling down the whole spine of the country on my own power, seeing so many cool places, watching them come and go so many times a day, seeing and meeting great people, and finishing still alive and sane! Now that you've won the Tour Divide, what's next?
Riding singletrack, drinking beer, hanging out with my dogs, car camping, supporting my teammates at races, and maybe I'll even try dating again.