On the morning of Friday, June 9, 190 brave individuals set out from Banff, Alberta, on a 4396 kilometre race, south to Antelope Wells on the border of Mexico.
Over the course of this journey, the unassisted mountain bikers will travel through two Canadian provinces, and five American states. The riders will endure nearly 200,000 feet of vertical climbing, and some aim to complete this in just 14 days.
As an unassisted race, the only means of direction racers have is their GPS. Their positions are live-fed online, so those viewing can see if they went off course.
Those crazy enough to sign up for this journey must not only be a skilled biker, but also a survivalist. As some complete this perilous journey in 14-20 days, others may be up to a month behind them. Sometimes, services and amenities are over 250 kilometres apart, and riders are forced to camp wherever they can find shelter.
In this race, there is no entry fee, and no prize for first place.
“It’s the satisfaction you get from taking yourself places, and trying to finish it,” said ex-Tour Divide northbound winner and Fernie local, Paul Attalla. “It’s usually not even the finishing that’s the best part. The (best) part is that you persevere, and you get to enjoy this incredible moment… you’re stripped of everything, any kind of baggage you have is gone and you’re just trying to survive and go day-by-day.”
The route sets out from Spray River Trail in Banff, and works its way through backroads, over mountains, through gullies and over hills. Riders travel south to Elkford, west through Crossing Creek Road, south on Bull River Forest Service Road, east on Sulphur Creek Road, onto Irving Road, Hartley Lake Road, and finally onto Dicken Road which leads into Fernie. In just the first day, riders travel approximately 273 kilometres.
The last time the route was diverted through Fernie was in 2011.
This route is new for the racers this year, as they previously would ride on the highway. Going through the Bull River Valley eliminated any risks associated with being close to traffic.
Brian Lucido of Atascadero, California and Ben Steurbaut of Bredene, Belgium were first to arrive at 7-Eleven in Fernie at approximately 10:13 p.m. They had left at 8:00 a.m. that morning. Lucido’s goal is to finish the course in 18 days. Steurbaut aims to complete it in 16.
Arriving in Fernie, the two riders were exhausted, cold, dirty and hungry. As 7-Eleven was the only shop left open, each filled shopping baskets with chocolate bars, sodas, cold cut sandwiches and pieces of hot pizza.
Lucido closed his eyes as he sipped his hot coffee, evidently chilled to the bone. However, considering the distance they had travelled, both were incredibly calm and relaxed.
Asked if they were going to continue on, Steurbaut said, “No, I’m going to sleep.”
Both riders left together after packing provisions, and set out looking for a motel.
As of Monday night, Lucido and Steurbaut were still together and had made it to Basin, Montana.
Josh Kato, a 40-year-old nurse from Cashmere, Washington was next to arrive at 10:55 p.m. He was followed soon after by Ty Hopkins of American Fork, Utah, and Thomas Hainisch of Bend, Oregon. While the others stayed in town, Josh split away from the group, sleeping on the side of the road just south of Fernie. As of Monday night he was traveling solo in Montana, 15 miles from Basin and a 47 mile gap between the closest person behind him.
“It felt like we’d never get here, right?” said Kato as Hopkins and Hainisch walked through the door.
“Oh man,” said Hopkins.
Hainisch said he felt that he and Hopkins did relatively well, although it was a tough day.
Hopkins hopes to finish in 18 days, and Hainisch, in 19.
Kato spoke to the ‘pie pudding’ mud they faced between Elkford and Fernie, which forced riders to carry their bikes through five kilometres of muck. Despite having travelled so far, Kato was all smiles and completely relaxed.
“I’m having a great time,” said the veteran. “How can you not? You just get out and ride your bike, I mean come on!”
Kato acknowledged Lucido, and said he has the right mindset to finish the race in 14 days or less.
“He had the capability to leave me in the dust at any moment,” he said. “In fact, he kind of did.”
“(There’s) a really good group of people this year,” he added. “Most everybody I’ve met so far has a really good attitude.”
Near the end of his journey in 2015, Kato struggled with a mental low that almost caused him to end the race, 650 kilometres from his destination. With any race as long as this, Kato knows it’s more of a mental battle than physical, although both are challenging.
Despite struggling near the finish, Kato pushed on and set a new men’s record after meeting his opponents 200 kilometres from the finish. With 160 kilometres left, he started sprinting, and finished ahead, beating the previous world champion and surprising everyone. Kato finished the 4417 kilometre race in just 14 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes. This record held until the following year.
Kato suffered knee injuries in 2016 after being run off the road by a pickup truck. When asked how he was feeling physically this year, he smiled and said “A little sleepy, but besides that, pretty good.”
Kato admitted that his physical conditioning was not the same since last year, although at this point it’s too early to tell whether that will have an affect on his performance. He’s still aiming to complete the course in 14 days.
Mounted on the front of his bike is a white rubber ducky with red horns. Kato said this is something to keep him company and talk to as he rides.
Asked the most important thing to keep in mind during a race like this, Kato said, “Have fun, just go with the flow.”
To follow the racers live on their journey south, go to Trackleaders.com/tourdivide17.