by Darrell Jones, Tom Ebbern and Francis Sutherlund
A lifetime goal for three guys who set the bar high. The youngest rider was 60 years. Our blog covers their personal journey through forgotten passes of the Continental Divide.
The Tour Divide, a grueling 2700-mile mountain bike route tracing the continental divide from Banff to the Mexican border, epitomizes challenges and triumphs. Participants face arduous terrain, extreme weather, and unforeseen setbacks. The journey showcases a tapestry of experiences, from struggling with fitness and heat in New Mexico to overcoming mechanical failures and relying on the kindness of strangers for sustenance and support. The mental fortitude needed to endure the relentless physical demands emerges as a significant aspect of the adventure. The camaraderie between riders, the vast stretches of remote wilderness, and the diverse landscapes encountered along the way contribute to a rich tapestry of memories. Despite illnesses, cramps, and the verge of collapse, the determination to conquer personal fears and limitations drives these cyclists onward. The Tour Divide becomes an opportunity to confront vulnerabilities, expand horizons, and ultimately, bask in the gratification of pushing boundaries. Here are their unique individual stories:
So, you want to do something EPIC?!
As this is my 60th birthday year, I told myself, and others, that I wanted to do something big and EPIC!!
It was in February of 2022, that Tom Ebbern and myself were on a cat ski trip at Mustang Powder and we ran into a good friend of ours, Jeff Resnick, who was also booked on a trip there.
After a few post-ski beverages, talk turned towards the idea of doing the Tour Divide, a ride of the biggest and most epic of endurance challenges. We all agreed that this is something we wanted to do, and what better challenge for my 60th EPIC birthday year!! After all, I’ve been training and doing endurance events and challenges for almost 40 years. This will be the culmination of all of that endurance building to help me through this super challenge.
We then set out for the next 16 months, planning, strategizing, accumulating gear, and of course obsessing over the Tour Divide for 2023. Different dates were tossed around, but we all agreed June and July were the most logical. My dilemma, I had two nieces getting married, one in June, the other in July. I had a window of June 20th to July 20th, no pressure!
We arose at 4:30am and started out to Antelope Wells. This is the official start and finish point for the Tour Divide route. Tom and I began our trip to Silver City, NM, a daunting 200km ride across the New Mexico desert. But we were feeling good and we were excited.
Things were going well, and we discussed a resupply at Separ, except, that we thought it was on a different section of road that we were now riding on. When in fact it was just off the highway that we turned off of, big oops!! As we continued on it was only getting hotter now, 42-44C, with no cover. I don’t do well in heat to begin with, never mind the fact we were getting depleted on water. We continued and I got more and more depleted, eventually running out of water. I then ended up cramping so bad that I almost fell off of my bike. I was in trouble and delirious. So much so, I told Tom to ride on and leave me to the buzzards. He fortunately had a small amount of water to share but I was too far gone at that point. It was time to call our friend Jeff who was already in Silver City, fortunately again I had cell service. I was able to reach him and explain our situation. He was able to get the owner of the motel we were to stay at to drive out together and meet us with water and cokes. After one look at me, he knew I was unable to continue. A rescue was in order, and I was shuffled into the SUV. At 160kms, I was done!! Tom continued on as he was in much better condition at the time to do so. Jeff on the other hand became my support person back at the motel. I eventually came around but was in pretty bad condition. In hindsight now, I was probably close to heat stroke and in need of saline IV injections.
Amazing how after enduring this situation the body comes around. I ate, drank and drank some more and somehow rallied to begin the next morning. Off we went to embark on Day 2.
These are the trials and tribulations of riding the Tour Divide. Never knowing what the day presents.
We talked that maybe we pull it back and set a new plan to get me to the Canada-US border in the allotted 30 days. But, I said to the guys, let’s just take it a day at a time.
New Mexico was relentless with the extreme heat and challenging terrain. But we seemed to get through each day and inching closer to Colorado. I set a new goal as I was still struggling at times with the heat, if I make it to Denver, I would be happy. But knowing in the back of my mind that wouldn’t suffice.
As we got into the Santa Fe National Forest my psyche changed and I was physically feeling better, we were at higher altitude, so it was somewhat cooler, and we had forest around for shade. As well, there is something about being back in the mountains that changes one’s attitude. Maybe just maybe I could actually finish this daunting bastard!!
With a challenge of this magnitude, 4500kms and 60,000m of elevation gain, one has to take each day and focus on just that day. Otherwise, it gets too overwhelming and the brain has a way of tricking you into thinking that it would be easy to quit. It did cross my mind a few times. But I became more determined to complete this ride.
Yes, we had many challenges along the way. Resupply was probably our biggest challenge, especially in New Mexico. Places where we thought we could get water and food sometimes didn’t materialize. For instance, we had planned to resupply in Pie Town, New Mexico. When we finally arrived, everything was closed. A church where we thought we could get water; the spigot was locked!
Luckily another church had water that we desperately needed. We found a local hostel that takes care of hikers on the GDT as well as bike packers. The custodian had food prepared, ice cold beverages, a hot shower, and even a bed to sleep on. We were in luck! There were many instances along the way where Trail Angels gave us a helping hand, providing food and water and helping to keep our spirits elevated. We were very fortunate.
Each state had its own challenges, Colorado with high mountain passes, the highest point on the TD, Indiana Pass, at 3631m. But we definitely acclimated for these high altitude passes, from the moment we departed Antelope Wells, NM, at 1427m, we continued to increase in altitude along our journey.
As well, luck was on our side with great weather. Maybe a bit too hot in some regions, but very little rain. Wind was even at our backs for a good part of the ride.
Wyoming, with the Great Basin, was relentless. A vast open space with the gravel road we were on that just kept going on and on. The road surface was the big variable, some smooth, other parts rocky, and other parts with terrible wash board. On a couple of sections, we did get rain and it rendered the road impassable. Terrible clay with the consistency of peanut butter that just kept accumulating until our wheels couldn’t turn. We would clean off the bikes the best we could and would have to wait for the road to dry out before proceeding or find an alternate work around.
We managed to get through this section of Wyoming in a day and a half. Long distance and hard riding. But, in Tour Divide fashion, every day is hard!
Once through the basin we were heading back into big mountains with mountain passes. By now we were in a groove and just kept our heads down and continued to get through each day. Our daily goals were 150kms and 2000m of ascent. We were on track, but the days were long and gruelling, with each day we were getting closer to Banff.
Idaho was next, no big surprises, some steep rocky climbs, dusty with a healthy dose of heat. But, there was a rail grade section that seemed to go on forever with heinous washboard sections. Always something!
Up next, Montana, with it’s numerous challenges. Rather daunting “hike a bike” sections, like Fleecer Ridge, too steep to push a bike up the main track. We had to push them in the grass to the side in zigzag fashion. A very long and difficult climb. Lava Mountain Pass, steep chunky rocky sections, that required we carry our bikes up and over parts of the climb.
Montana is a huge state with a lot of varied and challenging terrain. But we continued to pick away and kept on pace until we reached the US-Canada border. A milestone day when we crossed the border at Roseville.
We are now in Canada, up next Galton Pass, 1100m climb with its 15-17% grades. We had a scorcher of climb with temps reaching 42C. Thankfully we had freshwater streams to help keep us cool!
After reaching the summit we had the “wall” to deal with on the other side. An extremely difficult single-track section that requires a good amount of hike a bike. Another huge day but we make it to Wigwam campground, exhausted.
The next day we make it to Fernie for a much needed resupply, restaurant, and lodging with a hot shower. And lucky for me a bike shop to deal with a bad rear hub.
Up next day very early we set out for a massive day that kicks us in the ass with Koko Claims hike a bike up and down. A shorter day of 132kms but 2430m of climbing, we were cooked.
Banff is now awaiting us for the next day and the completion of the Tour Divide. We have 120kms and 1650m of climbing to complete, but we did it! Words can’t describe this feeling of accomplishment. It took every ounce of determination, a little blood, sweat and tears!!!! I was so lucky to have two friends to share this with. Sadly, we lost Jeff halfway through due to a death in the family. But Tom and I worked together to finish this beast with smiles on our faces as we crossed the ‘course is complete, signal’, on our Garmin devices, near the Banff Springs.
Bucket list challenge, checked, and not to be done again. Not sure how to top this but there is always another challenge out there. This is why I continue to keep my fitness and strength at the level it is because there is always another challenge to take on.
Thank you, Coach Cory, for all you did to help me prepare for and complete the Tour Divide Challenge!!
The biggest Thank You goes to my wife Alison for all of her support and for putting up with all of my obsessing regarding this challenge. She is my biggest fan and Super Support Person!! I love you Ali!
Riding the Tour Divide was a bucket list adventure for me so this year I decided it was time. Its a 4,400 km self supported bikepack race from Banff Alberta to Antelope Wells which is at the US Mexico border in New Mexico or as in my case, the north bound version from Antelope Wells to Banff. It follows the continential divide (about 60,000 m of elevation gain) on a combination of gravel, sand, rock, mud roads with some singletrack, some hike-a-bike and some paved sections.
While it technically a race, my objective was to finish it and not be destroyed so eating as well as we can and sleeping 7 plus hours a night in my tent or a hotel was key. We rode on modified Salsa Cutthroats with 100 mm front shocks and 1x12 mountain bike gearing. Fully loaded with 7 litres of water and food for 2 days the rig was about 70 lbs. With more than a year of planning, I left Antelope Wells on June 20 this summer with two friends and we hit Banff 30 days later.
It was an amazing experience and one I will not forget for a long time. Despite detailed planning, we ran into trouble managing water on our first day with confusion on resupply that nearly ended the trip 8 hours into it as we ran out of water with +40-degree temps and slow travel on rock and sand roads. It would not be the only time on the trip that we would saved by extremely friendly locals.
I was truly amazed at how remote and unpopulated this route is with several times being hundreds of miles between water and food resupply. Many parts are like the dark side of the moon where you can go 10 hours of riding or more without seeing a person, car or house. Many times, it seemed like a scene in the Last of Us.
The ride was certainly a physical challenge (TSS of 12,700 over 30 days) but the biggest challenge was in your head as it can defeat you long before your body taps out. All in all we had an unbelievably great trip. We all got stronger physically and mentally as we progressed north and the weather, despite some initial heat issues in New Mexico, was very good. Although Im biased, the scenery got better and better the further north we rode and hands down the Canadian portion was clear winner of pure raw mountain beauty. No crashes and despite bolts rattling off the only serious mechanical issues happened very close to towns with great bike shops (Whitefish and Fernie). While most racers start in Banff and end in Antelope Wells, I really glad we did the reverse. Antelope Well is only a border crossing that looks like a prison on the moon with a giant wall behind it. It would feel like riding to the end of the world vs end in Banff? No contest.
I've competed in many ultra-endurance road and mountain bike events in the last decade but this was certainly the pinnacle. One that I would highly recommend to others. The Tour Divide was one a done for me, but I am already starting to think about the next transcontinental bike-pack adventure.
Dr. Francis Sutherland
“If everything went perfectly there would be nothing to talk about”
TD is a 2700-mile mountain bike packing route that zig zags down the continental divide from Banff to the Mexican border. Most days involve significant climbing on some of the worst gravel roads and trails in America. A fully loaded bike, with food, clothes and tent etc., can weigh in excess of 50 pounds. The route can be raced, solo unsupported, or toured ad lib. Any way it’s done, there is certain to be some suffering.
This was my second go – in 2019 I raced the route but stopped in northern New Mexico with tendonitis. This year I toured solo starting 2 days ahead of the racers. The challenges started quickly. Day 2 was a huge bonk after hiking the Coco claims and riding the Bull River Valley in surprising heat. A buddy (Keenan C) rescued me in Fernie and then rode me to the border in the pouring rain the next day. The fitness was just not there (full time work and advanced age limited my volume of training). I would have to decrease my distance and ride myself into shape. Planned 100+ miles days morphed into 80.
While Canada includes some of the most technical climbing and descending, Montana seems to go on forever and includes the biggest climb over Lava Mountain out of Helena. Record rainfall left the roads and trails like a swamp, Sigh! However, this allowed some fitness building into Wyoming. Over a week of rain saw me sleeping in motels with mud on the menu most days. Some of this was merely annoying and some was completely bike stopping with frame caking clay. The only option was to get off the road and walk.
By Wyoming the fitness was finally there, and I started to pull big days with up to 16 hours of riding (140 miles). The Tetons went by without seeing anything but rainclouds. By this time, I was riding with a fellow from Seattle who designs howitzer barrels (very much in demand). Union pass is usually not difficult but unfortunately a rainstorm changed all that. As it turned out we raced each other up (for no particular reason) and so got all sweated up before heading out onto the ridge in a tempest of wind and rain. By the time we got to the end of this exposure both of us were hypothermic. A slippery muddy descent saw us in real trouble at the bottom. The second “save” of my tour then occurred. We stumbled into the Strawberry Rescue Shelter with the stove already lit. Amazing luck.
The Wyoming Continental Divide Basin is one of the major hurdles on the tour divide. It is a desolate desert, >150 miles of nothing but wind, heat and frightening thunderstorms. My partner developed knee pain and departed! I rode through the evening and night, camped and got through unscathed. Watching an incredible sunset transform into blackness punctuated by lightning strikes certainly got my attention. Hurricane force headwinds during the day caused much suffering to many riders who did not pay attention to their “windy” app.
Riding into Colorado held much promise as I now felt strong and confident. I had also learned to eat out of convenience stores (pizza, burritos and chocolate milk). Sigh, it was not to last. As I worked towards Breckenridge, I became increasingly ill, first with a cold, then a productive cough, then shortness of breath. I could barely climb the bike path hills into town. On arrival I called for help. Linda drove down from Calgary to do the third “save” of the trip. Unsupported became supported. She insisted I see a doctor who put me on corticosteroids and antibiotics (oxygen saturation low 90s). In short, I had pneumonia.
I lay in bed for a total of three days. Steroids make you feel better than you really are. I restarted riding but found the high passes quite difficult. Indiana pass >11,000 feet was skipped, and I started in on New Mexico (NM) which was my real goal as I had stopped here in 2019. Linda’s support made this possible. NM was a hard nut. Temperatures were close to 40 degrees in the desert, the roads were rough and there was no water. There was also a surprising amount of climbing as dropping into a canyon required climbing out. I don’t think I have been more scared in my life heading out into the heat and desolation. By riding reduced distances partly in the cool of the night, I managed to limp my way to the Mexican border at Antelope Wells. All that greeted me (besides Linda!) was the Trump wall.
New Mexico turned out to be a catabolic catastrophe. Extreme heat, illness and sleep disruption caused anorexic and low caloric intake while extreme exercise caused high caloric demand. This resulted in a 15-pound loss of mean muscle mass. I reached the border probably just before complete collapse – “can I go home now”!
Everyone who rides this route has a different, but very rich, experience of people encountered, places ridden and untoward events. It is an intense adventure where you put yourself “out there” in a position of vulnerability. For me it was not really about ticking a box but rather an experience where I pushed up against my fears. The Tour Divide is a multidimensional undertaking requiring planning, fitness, logistics, resilience and luck. Sometimes it is important for us to get out of our comfort zone and experience something that is perhaps a little raw, even primal but in the end exciting and highly rewarding.