All races require a little bit of research. A podunk crosscountry race with little emotional importance may only require knowledge of when and where the start is, and maybe the length of the race. A more involved race plan may benefit from knowing the elevation profile, if and when there are feed zones or aid stations, and the amount of time that past racers have completed the route. In the past, completing a multiday route would require careful studying of maps, preriding sections of the course, and the ability to navigate, day or night. With the increased use of GPS’s in addition to cue sheets, the navigation factor has been greatly reduced as long as the batteries in the GPS don’t run out. While my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants side would be content to follow a combination of the cue sheets, which are spectacularly detailed for the Tour Divide with bits of history and local knowledge thrown in for good measure, and my GPS, I’ve learned that having knowledge of a route will greatly increase the chances of success.
So in an attempt to be slightly better prepared for the Tour Divide than knowing when and where the start is, I’ve started tapping into various knowledge bases for the race. In the digital age, the knowledge and detail about the route available trends towards infinite as there are countless blogs detailing personal journeys, books on the route, people who are more than willing to chat about the race and route over a cup of coffee. And then there’s Google Earth, which might be a bikepackers best friend when it comes to studying a route from afar.
After a recent bikepacking adventure in southern California where I rode the route blind following a GPS with a cheat sheet of what miles had water and food resupplies, I learned a great deal about what information could come in useful when riding a route with no local knowledge.
Firstly, at a very basic level, knowing food and water resupplies is crucial. While there is generally a plentiful amount of water available on the Tour Divide, at least according to everything I’ve read, food resupplies are less reliable. Knowing basic mileages between points won’t always be an accurate measure of how much water is needed, but at least I won’t head into the Great Basin across Wyoming with a liter of water and a cinnamon roll. Since there really are only on the order of two dozen towns on the route, keeping a list of them isn’t going to take up a lot of ink. Added to list can be the address of each local post office as I plan on sending myself food drops whenever possible to try to reduce the amount of gluten I’m going to have to put in my belly. Gluten gives me gas and something tells me that the gluten-free options along the route are going to be minimal. As far as I can tell, the only reliable fast food chains in each town are a Subway and a Pizza Hut. Stellar choices.
Then there’s a level of deeper knowledge, namely knowing what is available in each town. This is where blogs, books, and Google Earth come in handy as people love to talk about all the different places they ate in each town and Google Earth has a handy little feature that pops up a grocery cart indicating a grocery store and a fork and knife indicating an eating establishment. The list of towns can now be modified with a list of fast food chains, local cafes, grocery stores, and gas stations in each one of them. On this level of detail, a list of established campgrounds can also be added and lists of inexpensive motels in each town incase night falls and it happens to be pouring rain. I like to think I’m tough, but faced with a riding over Boreas Pass at night in a rain storm might make a motel in Breckenridge seem awfully appealing.
The next level of route obsession would not only include all the eating, drinking, and sleeping establishments along the route and within a reasonable distance off it, but would also include what hours said establishment would be open on various days. This may seem like a trivial piece of information to acquire in the age of the Internet, but surprisingly, small cafes in the middle of Montana don’t always have a website that can be easily accessed to check hours ahead of time.
Outside of knowing where resupplies are, there exists various levels of course knowledge. At the basic level, there’s an elevation profile which, at the very least, can give a sense of which sections of the route are at high altitude, where there are long flat sections, where there are 20 mile climbs, and where there are screaming descents. But, as any cyclist knows, distance and elevation gain and loss mean nothing on a mountain bike. I’ve traveled comfortably on fast dirt roads and covered 40 miles in two to three hours. I’ve done a race where the middle 40 miles were covered in deadfall and it took me 24 hours to complete the distance. I’ve ridden 50 mile sections of trail in under five hours when it was dry and then dragged and carried my bike over the same trail in the rain for nearly 10 hours. This variability is all part of the mental game of racing multidays. I’ve learned that expectations only lead to disappointment so I’ve tried to curtail guessing how long it’ll take me to get to the next landmark, be it a road intersection or a town.
Knowing that road and trail conditions change every year with different snow amounts and change on a daily basis due to rain, sun and wind, I’ve been trying to decide how much of the course I actually want to try to preride, seeing that I’ve been on exactly 8 miles of it. Initially, I was worried that people who have seen the entire route before would have a huge advantage over me, who will very much be following the GPS line with a printout of the elevation profile, but my bikepacking experience last weekend changed my view on it and I’m actually glad I have only a minimal idea of what I’m getting into. The bikepacking course I was racing, the Stagecoach 400, was setup as a lollipop with a 25 mile stem. On the way out, the route dropped from 6,000 feet from Idyllwild, CA., to 4,000 feet to the Anza Borrego desert. The first half of the drop was on dirt roads and the second half of the drop was on a steep trail. The whole way around the 350 mile loop, through all the giant hills that I climbed, pedaling and pushing, I dreaded the climb back up to Idyllwild. When I finally got to the hill and climbed up it, it seemed half as long as I remembered and I felt stupid for dreading it for the better part of three days since many of the hills out on the course were far harder, but without knowledge of them, I couldn’t dread them ahead of time.
So I’m starting to think that aside from a rough idea of what the route will be like, and a very good list of places I can eat and drink, I’m in a good position to approach this race as the grand adventure it’s sure to be.