The Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement bike race in the world and climbs almost 200,000 vertical feet.
The length of the Tour de France varies year to year. Last year it was 2131 miles, the year before it was 2262 miles. Pavement all the way. The longest off-pavement bike race in the world is 2745 miles long and 90 percent of it goes through the U.S.A.
The start line for the Tour Divide can be found in the parking lot behind the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta, Republic of Canada. The race runs through Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and finishes on the U.S./Mexican border a little south of Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Tour Divide follows a route mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association and crosses the Continental Divide 29 times. Riders will climb almost 200,000 feet of vertical.
I ran across the race while looking for a movie to watch on Netflix streaming. I saw a poster for Ride the Divide and decided to give it five minutes. The film tells the story of the 2008 race, features three riders as they deal with it.
There is Mike Dion, 42, Denver lad, Tour Divide racer, and the film’s executive producer. There is Mary Metcalf-Collier, 34, almost-a-local living in Idyllwild, Riverside County, who wants to be the first woman to finish the race. And there is Matthew Lee, 41, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who has won five times as of 2010 (he didn’t race in 2011).
I’d forgotten how much empty country there is left in the United States. Punch-you-in-the-stomach, rip-your-breath-away gorgeous country. That alone makes this movie worth watching. The film has epic countryside, an epic race, engrossing characters, great music, now add film editing that is so tight the entire production seems spontaneous. Hunter Weeks, the director, shot 210 hours of film in order to make an 80-minute movie. There are no dead spots.
The race is militantly off-highway. The route took four years to map. Matthew Lee talks about a day in the early part of the race: “It’s full-on mountaineering with cornices and huge side slopes. You can’t find the trail. It’s route finding. It’s everything. It took us four hours to go, like, four and a half miles.”
Sixteen racers started the 2008 race, eight made it to New Mexico. Winners and top competitors require 15 to 20 days to finish. Think 150 miles and 16 hours a day on a bicycle. Riding on dirt. Over passes. On an unmarked route. There are days when food, water, and lodging are 100 miles or more apart.
One caveat about the movie. The participants are pros in that the director, Hunter Weeks, is a credited producer on five movies, credited director on four movies, and more. Mike Dion, at the time of the shooting, was a race participant and the producer of this film plus one other. And Matthew Lee, the race winner, at the time of the shooting, was billed as the co-organizer of the Tour Divide race. The casual moviegoer thinks Dion and Lee are regular guys, with wives and families and jobs, who enter this incredible race. They’re not. Dion and Weeks are movie guys. Lee is the race director. The race, however, is still incredible.
Regard Rule 7. “Tour Divide is a web-administered, do-it-yourself challenge based on the purest of wagers: the gentlemen’s bet or agreement. Nothing to win or lose but honor.”
You can run the race anytime, but there is a Grand Depart on the 2nd Friday in June. A one-of-a-kind race needs one-of-a-kind rules: “There is no Banff pre-start meeting. There are no checkpoints or officials on course. Riders alone are responsible for their safety. Riders alone must police their conduct. There is no mechanism to communicate to riders on course.
“Tackle it truly solo or as part of a common start, but do it all yourself; all the pedaling, navigation, resupply, and camping; all the suffering. Indeed, with zero on-the-ground administration by organizers, the idea of Divide racing as an ‘event’ is mainly a construct of the online community that follows it. To these voyeurs, it’s virtual racing at its finest.”
Online community of voyeurs is where we come in. Riders carry SPOT Satellite Messenger locators to transmit their location via satellite so we can follow the race on an online Google map. You can see a racer’s route history, checkpoint times, average speed, and distance covered.
The race starts on June 8 at 11 a.m. You can follow the Tour Divide live at tourdivide.org/leaderboard.
By the way, the same people who made the Tour Divide movie are premiering their new bike film Reveal the Path. There will be a showing at Hillcrest Cinemas at 4 p.m. on June 20. Filmmakers will be attending the event.