Tailfin sat down with two of this year’s Tour Divide participants, R&D Division rider Josh Ibbett and 10th place finisher Daniel Connell, to discover the key lessons they learnt from riding the Divide. Whilst some apply directly to riding the Tour Divide, these insights are super useful for any rider looking to set out on their own personal challenge, from first-time multi-day trippers to seasoned riders wanting to take on the Divide themselves.
The Tour Divide is synonymous with ultra-distance off-road racing being, for many, the ultimate challenge held above all others. To experience the Tour Divide has to be on the bucket list for any aspiring bikepacker.
Labelled as the grand tour of MTB, the Tour Divide follows the North American continental divide travelling south from Banff in Canada to finish at the Mexican border in Antelope Wells. The 2022 route covered a distance of over 2665 miles (4289km), with riders climbing a staggering 110,000 ft (33,832m) over the entire journey. The fastest riders look to complete the route in around 14-15 days, whilst many of the starters are taking a more tourist pace and are still on the route at the time of writing (38 days after the official start date). This year’s race was won by Sofiane Sehili in a time of 14 days, 16 hours, and 36 minutes. The record is still held by the late Mike Hall, who set a blistering time of 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes in 2016.
What makes the Tour Divide so unique and an incredible challenge is the incredible variety of terrain, and climatic conditions riders can expect to encounter along the route. From snow-covered high mountain passes requiring hours of hike-a-bike in the north to the sand-strewn washboard tracks and wide open, parched desertscapes of the south. Just trying to pack to cover all eventualities is a logistical headache in itself. This year’s edition was made even more epic as it was punctuated by extreme weather conditions. Storms closed passes and saw riders having to be rescued in the north, riders experienced block headwinds for days and rain in the south turned usually bone dry surfaces into claggy peanut butter. It has been an edition for the history books.
Every rider that takes part in the Tour Divide comes away with a huge wealth of learnings from experiencing the route and the conditions. It can shape the way you approach any future long-distance ride, how to pack, the difference between what really is essential and what is a luxury, and let you know just what you can cope with. Let’s dive straight into the lessons.
Josh Ibbett’s 10 Lessons from the Divide
1. Respect the Divide
You are not in charge. You may think you are in control, but the Divide is boss. Respect the condition, respect the mountains, respect the weather, all the places you ride through and the people you meet. Anything can happen; conditions can change at the drop of a hat, and you have to embrace the changes, embrace the Divide, surf the wave, adapt when required and see where you end up.
2. Make a plan and expect to change it
Make a solid game plan before you start. Form a sleep strategy, maybe a loose schedule and plan what you need to eat and drink. Then refer to lesson 1 and be prepared to totally replan in an instant.
3. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best
Two lessons in, and a theme seems to be emerging! Prepare for the worst conditions and hope for the best. Carry an extra burrito in your bag just in case, pack excellent wet weather gear and don’t skimp on somewhere warm and dry to sleep. With a bit of luck, you’ll be cursing the extra weight you are carrying through the sunny dry mountains; in reality, you’ll be curled up in your sleeping bag in a pit toilet with all your clothes on while eating the aforementioned burrito at 2 am. Also, make sure you are comfortable hiking for hours on end… it can happen.
If your car runs out of fuel, it stops. The human body is the same. The Divide is a long slog, and your reserves will gradually be depleted as the event goes on. Try and keep ahead of the curve and eat all you can. Sometimes a short break in a diner for a real meal will pay itself back further down the road.
The world of ultra racing is often dominated by heroic stories of riding non-stop through multiple nights. However, the truth is that this just isn’t sustainable over the course of a 2-3 week event. Get your sleep routine dialled from the start and try to keep it consistent. You can always skip a night’s sleep later in the race if you feel like it.
6. Keep going
The difference between a bike tour and a bikepacking race is usually the time stopped. Even riding at 1mph is still faster than standing still, and this really adds up over the Divide. Just try to keep moving and keep the stops short; it all adds up.
7. Look after yourself
Looking after yourself is the combination of a few of the lessons above. Eating and sleeping are key, but contrary to lesson 6, sometimes it’s also good to stop. Taking the time to dry out wet feet for 15 minutes may well save you more discomfort further down the line. A 30min stop for a real meal may be what you really need and could save you cracking an hour further down the road. Sometimes you have to be willing to slow down to go faster overall. But just don’t use looking after yourself as an excuse to stop when you could actually just keep going.
8. Test your kit
Test your kit and trust it. Go for a couple of multiday rides before the event. Make sure you ride in all conditions and practise putting on and taking off layers. Know where to pack them in your bags for easy access, and make sure you don’t lose anything on that first test ride. Knowing your kit inside out, what to wear and when and how to pack it will all save you time on the Divide.
9. Leave room for extras
The classic bikepacking mistake is to pack your kit perfectly before the ride only to realise that everything expands when it all gets wet and dirty, and you are tired. Not to mention running out of room for all that extra food you realise you need. Make sure there’s a little extra room in your bikepacking packs before you start; you won’t regret it.
10. Enjoy it.
The Tour Divide is a unique and magical thing. Just enjoy the ride.
Daniel Connell’s 10 Lessons from the Divide
1. Nothing is more important than constant forward movement.
The Tour Divide is a marathon, not a sprint, and the more time you spend on your saddle, the faster you’ll make it to Antelope Wells. Riding at a fast pace is great, but riding slow is fine too. As long as you maximise your time spent moving forward, you’ll put yourself in a position for a competitive finish time.
2. Positivity is priceless.
By nature, the Tour Divide will test your ability to remain positive in challenging situations. Relentless weather conditions, “peanut butter” mud, mechanical bike issues, gear failure, lack of sleep, and bodily malfunction – are a few of the many obstacles that are common on the trail. The first step to overcoming these adversities is to tackle them mentally by choosing to keep your spirits high. Remembering how lucky you are to be on the Tour Divide, to begin with, is a good start to inspiring some positivity in tough times!
3. Consuming calories should be treated like a job.
The more calories you can put in your system, the further and stronger you’ll be able to ride. It’s not always easy to stuff yourself with food – especially in the first few days as your body is adjusting to its new rigorous schedule. At times you’ll need to force yourself to put down high-calorie foods such as doughnuts, coffee cakes, and peanut butter even if you don’t necessarily feel hungry. A good way to tackle this job is to figure out roughly how many calories your body needs per hour of riding and try to stick to a plan of consistently supplying yourself with what you need. For me, somewhere between 400-600 calories per hour was sufficient in addition to consuming as much as possible right before sleeping every night.
4. Hours spent sleeping comfortably are worth more than hours spent sleeping poorly.
It is almost always worth it to push on further to get to a solid sleeping location rather than calling it slightly earlier in a poor sleeping environment. That can include finding a bed to sleep in when possible but is also applied to sleeping at lower elevations for warmth, finding an outhouse or “pit toilet” at a public campground to sleep inside in wet or windy weather, and choosing a sleep location outside of potential animal disturbance locations whether it be mosquitoes or grizzly bears. Four hours of deep sleep is equivalent to or better than six hours of poor sleep.
5. Bear spray is important to carry, and its placement on the bike should be safe from hard contact points.
Unfortunately, I learned this one the hard way… All it took was a few rough descents with my bear spray canister rattling against my shifter for a small puncture to occur and for the bear spray to rapidly coat my face, legs, and bike bags. As one could imagine, that was not a particularly enjoyable experience!
Bear spray should be carried in an easily accessible (and strategically placed) location for the entire route between Banff, Canada and Pinedale, Wyoming, which is the last area on the route within grizzly bear territory. Not only is it a responsible decision for your own safety, as bear spray is proven to be extremely effective in preventing fatalities, but it is also a responsible decision for the wellbeing and safety of the bears themselves, as it is common practice to euthanize a bear that has displayed extreme acts of aggression towards humans.
6. Gear should be tested under variable conditions as much as possible before depending on it during the Tour Divide.
The Tour Divide is the ultimate test of durability for gear and components. Your body, bike, and kit will be exposed to every form of weather ranging from blizzards to extreme heat and everything in between, and it’s important to make sure everything is up to the test. I did not thoroughly test my sleeping kit in super wet conditions, and I suffered many nights attempting to sleep in a wet down-feather sleeping bag. That’s a mistake that will certainly not be repeated in the future!
7. If a section of trail feels too demanding to ride, there is nothing wrong with walking it.
This falls in line with the mentality of constantly moving forward at all costs. It’s certainly fun to challenge yourself to ride up steep and challenging technical sections of the trail, but it’s not worth it if it’s going to cause unnecessary joint/muscle pain or a potential crash. Plus, oftentimes, walking up the real steep stuff can be just as fast as riding it, and your legs will be better for it in the long run.
8. Power naps during the daytime can lead to safer and faster riding overall.
On the Divide you are pushing your body to operate on minimal levels of sleep. Occasionally this can lead to dozing off a bit while riding during the daytime. Not only is riding at that level of fatigue inefficient, it can also be quite dangerous. Even though the goal is to be moving forward as often as possible, sometimes taking 20 minutes to lie down and close your eyes on the side of the trail can pay off massively for the remainder of the day, and those 20 minutes are earned back through stronger riding.
9. Stick to your game plan, and don’t let other riders dictate your race.
The Tour Divide is personal. Despite it being a race in which your time is ranked against other riders, at the end of the day, it’s a personal journey that’s going to look different and feel different for each rider. You should have a loose game plan going into the race and try to stick to it as closely as possible. Decisions to push harder or take it easier should be made based on what you know you are capable of and how your body is feeling at any given moment. Being inspired by those around you to push harder can be a good thing, but taking it too far can lead to overexertion beyond your means.
10. Enjoy yourself.
It should be obvious, but it can be easy to overlook the importance of having fun at times, especially under the competitive racing mentality. You ride faster when you’re having a good time, so do whatever it takes for things to be enjoyable. Whether it be listening to tunes, dancing while riding, or letting your imagination take over and creating scenes in the sky through different shapes in the clouds – do whatever brings you happiness and puts you in a joyous headspace that allows you to enjoy as much of the riding as possible even in the “character building” moments.
If you enjoyed reading Josh and Daniel’s lessons from the Divide and are interested in finding out more about bikepacking, endurance racing, or the latest Tailfin product releases, why not subscribe to our regular newsletters?