At a little more than 4,400 kilometres long and with 60 kilometres — yes, kilometres — of climbing, to say the Tour Divide is the world’s toughest bike race isn’t much of a stretch.
Starting in Banff on June 8 and following the Continental Divide all the way to Antelope Wells, the southern-most community in New Mexico, the Tour Divide is a bike-packing mountain bike race like none other.
Yukoner Tony Painter was one of 10 Canadians to join the 164-person field for the 2018 race and finished with a time of 23 days, 18 hours and 52 minutes — 30th of the 72 racers to finish.
“It was very gruelling,” said Painter. “It’s mostly on dirt roads, 70 per cent on dirt roads, … and it follows the continental divide, so it’s down through the Rockies so huge amounts of climbing.”
Racers need to be self-supported, meaning no support vehicles or supply drops.
“You carry everything from the beginning to the end,” said Painter. “Some people decide they might have too much stuff so they might post things back home, but I pretty much dialed it pretty well.”
With snow in the mountains at the start of the race and 40 C heat in the Chihuahuan Desert, packing was no easy feat and Painter said he thinks his supplies for the race — strapped to his Kona Raijin mountain bike — weighed about nine kilograms.
That figure included a tent, sleeping bag, a change of clothes and rain gear, but not a stove.
During the race, participants eat whatever they can buy at convenience stores since calories and ease of consumption are the name of the game.
“The most gruelling thing was probably the food,” said Painter. “You’re eating junk — highly processed, lots of sugar. You’re burning 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day and it’s almost impossible to eat that much food.”
Chocolate bars, burritos and pastries were the go-to foods.
“One thing that was really popular with guys was to get these sort of Danish pastry things that were packaged,” said Painter. “They probably have a shelf life of about 20 years, but there are 500 calories in them.”
As far as the burritos go, Painter said racers would buy them frozen, stick them in their pockets and eat them once they thawed.
Riding close to 250 kilometres a day near the end, Painter said he likely lost 10 pounds over the duration of the race.
The route included a whole host of different landscapes, including mountains and deserts.
“There is some really stunning scenery,” said Painter. “A lot of the time in the north it was quite similar to (the Yukon), so it was nice but nothing spectacular. Further south, in New Mexico for example, it’s the Chihuahuan Desert and you can see forever. It’s pretty amazing.”
As just the second Yukoner to take part in the race and the first to finish — Dylan Stewart raced northbound in 2013 but ran into flooding — Painter didn’t mince words when asked if he’d do it again.
“No. Definitely not,” said Painter with a laugh. “It was a pretty tough challenge — it really beat my body up. It’s taken two weeks to recover and I’ve still got numb toes. My taste buds were completely shot when I got back.”
Painter is no stranger to bike packing — he and his wife cycled around the world — so the idea of doing the race seemed reasonable after watching a documentary on the tour.
“I like a challenge and it sure is a challenge,” said Painter. “I’m 60, so I thought it would be a good year to do it.”
He trained on his fat bike all winter, and started using his race bike outdoors in April.
There is no training regime possible to accurately simulate the stress and strain of riding such long distances, but Painter said after a few days he settled into a rhythm.
“After two or three days, I hardly saw anybody,” said Painter. “You tend to see the same people because you fit into a sort of group — you’ve all found your place.… You might ride all day and maybe see somebody at a lodge or the end of the day.”
Painter said he plans to do some more bike packing trips — just without a running stopwatch.
“I would do more just bike packing I think,” said Painter. “It was good to do it once just to get it done.”
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org