BUTTE — Each summer, cyclists taking part in the Tour Divide mountain-bike race can be found in Montana as they make their way on what many would call the journey of a lifetime.
Launched in its current form in 2008, the race is a more than 2,700-mile trek between Banff, Alberta, Canada, and Antelope Wells, a small boarder town in New Mexico.
Over 100 cyclists from throughout the world and the United States travel to participate in the race, often facing steep grades, high temperatures and unruly weather and wildlife, but also breathtaking views from the vantage point of the Continental Divide Trail.
Butte 100 race director Gina Evans has been operating Linked Adventures bike shuttle service for two summers and said she’s met many Tour Divide riders through her business.
The Montana Standard accompanied Evans last week as she deposited a Tour Divide rider to his previous checkpoint after he stopped in Butte to have his bike repaired.
John Bolton, of Portarlington, Ireland, said his recent breakdown wasn’t the first time he’s experienced mechanical trouble during the race.
On his fourth day of racing, Bolton broke both pedals off his bike, requiring the native of Ireland to travel 87 miles without what most people would consider an essential piece of biking equipment.
“That’s just to show the extreme situations these guys go through,” said Evans, noting that when a biker faces mechanical failure along the ride “there’s no other way (to fix the situation) except to keep going and get to your next town.”
Bolton, 50, said this is his first year participating in the Tour Divide but that he’s ridden in several cycling events in his native country, including a route from the north to the south of Ireland in which he rode 379 miles in 27 hours and a 1,243-mile trip around the country that lasted seven days. In addition to riding around Ireland, Bolton has also kayaked around the country, and in case you haven’t already started reconsidering your New Year’s resolution, Bolton operates his own fitness studio and has trekked to Mount Everest base camp.
“You want to see what your body is capable of doing,” said Bolton when asked what drives him to take on such challenges.
For many of the events in which he participates, Bolton raises money for Laois Hospice in Portarlington and he says his ride in the Tour Divide is no different. Over a 15-year period, Bolton said, he’s raised 100,000 euros for the facility.
Meanwhile, with sun-kissed faces and tattooed arms, Alex Houchin and Andrew Umentum sit down for a burger and beer at the Wise River Club, 36 miles southwest of Butte on Highway 43.
Houchin and Umentum, of Wisconsin, say they aren’t officially participating in the Tour Divide this year, but last year Houchin traveled the Tour Divide route and made it all the way to New Mexico.
Tom Davis, who owns the restaurant and lodging area with his wife Lynda, said every summer the Wise River Club hosts cyclists like Houchin and Umentum, who often stay the night in the club’s six cabins.
Davis said he’s met riders from all over the world. Davis is from Scotland and said love is what brought him to Montana when he met his wife Lynda years ago while working in Butte.
Although the 100-plus cyclists who depart each year for the Tour Divide come from diverse backgrounds, what many of them have in common is the ability to tell a good story.
'Ride the Divide'
Denver resident Mike Dion has had the opportunity to tell a few of those stories.
Dion is a filmmaker who grew up in Great Falls. In 2010 he produced a documentary on the race called “Ride the Divide.”
Dion said Tour Divide has its early origins in the late 1990s, when Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association published a Continental Divide cycling route, which consisted of a patchwork of trails, gravel paths and Forest Service roads. At the time, Dion said, the route was known as the longest off-pavement mountain-bike route in the world, so it didn’t take long for someone to challenge themselves to see if they could travel the entire 2,774 miles.
That’s exactly what happened in 1999 when cyclist John Stamstad became the first person to travel the entire route unsupported. As Dion explained it, an unsupported rider is someone who travels self-sufficiently without the help of friends or family members, toting his or her own food and water and anything else a person would need to make the journey.
Tour Divide cyclists continue to ride unsupported today, which Dion said speaks toward the spirit of the race. Unlike flashy races like the Tour de France — which come with sponsorships, large crowds and cars following alongside the riders like a pit crew on a racetrack — Dion said Tour Divide is about solitude, endurance, and self-sufficiency, absent of pomp and circumstance.
Bonnie Gagnon-Larvick could perhaps be described as a quintessential unsupported rider with her bike weighed down with two small bags filled to the brim with just the essentials.
Gagnon-Larvick said this is her second year riding in the Tour Divide and that when she crossed the finish line last year she felt more relief than elation.
It was a well-fought journey.
During last year’s ride, Gagnon-Larvick narrowly dodged a rattlesnake that leaped across the trail and hit the frame of her bike. The snake missed her legs, which she managed to lift in time, but some of the snake’s venom sprayed against her calf.
“There was never a time during the race that I felt like quitting,” said Gagnon-Larvick, noting that she was shaken up by the experience. “If ever there was a close call, it was that moment.”
But for every run-in with wildlife she encountered, Gagnon-Larvick also encountered views that took her breath away.
“You go (through) the most thick, lush forestry you’ll ever see. The scent of pine in all the trees is so overwhelming that you can’t help but take, I can’t help but take, a deep breath and smile.”
Surprisingly Gagnon-Larvick doesn’t think about much when she’s on her bike. She merely lets her mind relax and absorbs herself in the beauty of her surroundings.
But when a thought does cross her mind, Gagnon-Larvick said, she mostly thinks about the things she’s thankful for.
“It’s going to be how grateful I am for not only my surroundings and having the chance to do this race, but also for all the people that supported me.”