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Chris Arndt didn’t have much time to stop and chat Tuesday.

Arndt, who hails from Columbus, Ohio, was one of about 140 people who are racing through Helena as part of the Tour Divide. As he passed by Reeder’s Alley on his way up Grizzly Gulch, Arndt paused to woefully note that he slipped by seven positions when he stopped for lunch at Pizza Hut.

“They had all-you-can-eat pizza for $5. I bet I ate two,” Arndt said, with a wide grin below his helmet and sunglasses. “I was in the top 10 until just a few minutes ago and plan to be in Butte later today.”

With that, he put his feet back on the pedals and turned his mountain bike back toward the Continental Divide. He left Banff on Friday, embarking on the 2,745-mile ultra-challenge, and chances are he’ll make it to the finish line in New Mexico in about three weeks.

Rain or snow, day or night, the Tour Divide race clock doesn’t stop. When racers sleep, it’s usually on the ground in a lightweight bivouac sac and warm bag. There’s no sag wagon to carry extra gear or food, no one to pick you up if you do an endover the handlebars, and you fix your own flat tires.

Along the route, which mainly follows the Continental Divide, riders will face stream crossings, snowdrifts, lightning, mud, sand and possibly forest fires. It’s the longest, and arguably the most challenging, mountain bike time trial in the world.

Yet there’s no entry fee or formal registration. It’s run only by volunteers, and at the end of the ride, the winner of the Tour Divide doesn’t receive a trophy. There’s no payout. There’s only bragging rights.

“It’s just about honor and having a great personal experience,” explained Matthew Lee, who’s ridden in the race seven times and won it three. “You’re riding solo, 100 percent self-supported, in some ways in the spirit of the Old West travel. You are allowed to accept kindness of strangers on a serendipitous level, but there’s no pre-planning, and you can’t stay in someone’s house, but you can take cover in their barn.

“If the weather is good you just sleep beside the trail, then get up and ride.”

But in certain circumstances, a warm bed in a hotel is allowed, Lee added. One year, he was caught in a hail and snow storm near Wise River as he was descending a pass at about 1 a.m., and fearing he would get sick and not be able to finish the race, Lee paid for a room and rested before taking off again.

“It was absolutely brutal,” he said. “But I got lucky and still won the race.”

The race originated in 1999 when John Stamstad blazed the first self-supported individual time trial. It took a few years, but in 2003 Mike Curiak was the first to accept Stamstad’s double-dare. The next summer, Curiak organized what was called the Great Divide Race from the nation’s northern border to the south — or vice versa. Lee got them to extend the race into Canada, creating the current format. He notes that a challenger can race the route at any time during the snow-free months in the Rockies.

Lee, who lives in North Carolina, speaks of the ride in spiritual terms, seemingly recalling details from almost every mile. Riders are quickly dispersed along the course, and they often travel alone. He’s seen all types of wildlife — including grizzly bears — and notes that one rider this year already has spotted two mountain lions. Old mining cabins evoke ghostly visions of prior inhabitants and activities. Meanwhile, riders battle both pain and uncertainty.

“The average participant is a 40-something man who is looking for adventure in his life and pushing himself in a way he never has done before,” Lee said. “It used to be purely for speed, but it’s developed to be something in which we’re not professional athletes, but we’ll push ourselves and suffer just as much as a pro.”

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The event has an enormous following, with 40,000 worldwide visits per day on its website when the race is taking place. And along with the suffering come moments of glory.

Lee said the last year he raced, 2010, he exited off Priest Pass Road and flew down the nine miles of Highway 12, then turned onto Benton Avenue, which turns into Park Avenue. A few blocks from the end of the pavement, he heard loud shouts and cheers coming from the second story balcony of the Blackfoot River Brewing Company.

“I didn’t know what it was until the last minute,” he said. “People were hooting and hollering, and further down the route people were hanging out in front of some of the houses along Grizzly Gulch. It was really nice to ride through there, hearing from our small fan base.”


Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron

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