By Eddie Clark
(June 21, 2012) NORTH AMERICA—With much anticipation and trepidation, 105 cyclist (the largest field ever) rolled out of Banff, Canada in less than ideal weather to get under way with the south bound grand depart at 8am on June, 8th. As if the 2745 mile long unsupported bike race isn't tough enough, racers were immediately riding into pouring rain and snow as they braved known grizzly bear country in the Flathead Wilderness.
In years to come, racers will look back on the this year's Tour Divide as one to remember for it's incredibly testing conditions. The near freezing temperatures combined with rain then snow and more rain throughout Canada and northern Montana took its toll on everyone. To compound the difficulty the weather presented, the unending miles of mud and pushing across snowfields in the first two days wrecked bikes, ankles and knees without pity. Mother Nature showed everyone why this really is the toughest bike race in the world.
While all of the early front-runners took shelter in Eureka to warm up and dry out, Ollie Whalley and Craig Stappler decided to press on in the face adversity since there was still plenty of daylight left. Their move was rewarded with a hole in the bad weather that gave them a gap over the field that they still hold today as they ride across New Mexico.
By the fourth day, numerous rookies and even some very experienced veterans had scratched due to sickness and injuries that resulted from the atrocious conditions. Those who pressed on did it by fighting colds, taping ankles and relying on the pain killing and inflammation reducing wonders of large quantities of ibuprofen.
A re-occurring theme this year is; If you press on, you will be rewarded with better conditions than those behind you. That was the case with the first ten to make it to Helena, MT. The three mountain passes over remote forest roads between Lincoln and Helena were dry and fast for those front-runners, but everyone else got rain and mud to further hinder their progress.
It wasn't really until you got south of Butte that things started drying out. Like always, riders limped in to the Outdoorsman in Butte to refurbish bikes and bodies before heading across southern Montana. Surprisingly, dry roads and tailwinds have blessed the passage through southern Montana, which is also known for its race-ending muddy conditions. Just as surprising as the nicer weather was the lack of snowfields on the Ashton, ID to Flagg Ranch, WY section as well as Togwotee Pass and Union Pass.
The tailwinds also sent many racers across the Great Divide Basin in record time, but it was all for naught as everyone except the two leaders were brutalized and demoralized on their ride from Rawlins, WY to the sanctuary of Brush Mountain Ranch in the tranquil mountains of northern Colorado. While this section isn't talked about much, every veteran knows just how steep the rolling hills are, and that this section can be quite windy (a very large under-statement).
Dylan Taylor recalled, "The cross winds were so bad that we were getting blown off the dirt road so we had to walk the steep hills. At one point I was holding onto my seatpost with a death grip as the wind lifted the whole bike off the ground."
It was obvious just how bad this section was once riders got to Brush Mountain Ranch, and had a chance to decompress. Hard as nails Canadian Serge Chiason who was in third place at the time nearly broke down as he recounted his battles across the windswept plains.
If anything, crossing Colorado is appearing to be a relief for the riders with warm pleasant weather and a dry route. Even better is the fact that the forest fires in New Mexico have abated enough to offer up a full course for the Tour Divide racers.
While the leaders are now riding across northern New Mexico, it remains to be seen if the sweltering heat will beat them down enough to prevent them from breaking Mathew Lee's long standing course record. Also in contention for new course records are the leading solo female rider Ezter Horanyi, and last year's solo male and female winners Kurt Refsnider and Caroline Soong who are tackling the route on their custom Salsa tandem mountain bike.