At certain times, Alice Drobna readily admits, she had to stop for a few minutes and cry. She was reaching the end of her rope, but she had no choice but to push on.
Quitting was not an option, because she was in the middle of nowhere and nobody would be coming to get her.
“You just have to keep going,” Drobna says. “That’s what got me through.”
The 39-year-old Bend resident this month won the women’s race in the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile mountain bike race along the Continental Divide from the Canadian Rockies to the badlands of the Mexican Plateau. The annual event bills itself as the world’s longest mountain bike race.
Bend's Alice Drobna rides through Montana during the Tour Divide mountain bike race. (Courtesy Alice Drobna / Submitted photo) - Bulletin
Bend's Alice Drobna rides through Montana during the Tour Divide mountain bike race. (Courtesy Alice Drobna / Submitted photo)
Drobna also set the women’s singlespeed (one gear) record for the race, which she finished July 5 in 22 days, 6 hours, 36 minutes — averaging about 123 miles per day. She placed 11th overall out of 135 riders, including 17 women, who started the ride June 13 in Banff, Alberta. As of Monday, 42 cyclists had finished, 42 were still en route and 51 had dropped out.
The self-supported bikers surmounted nearly 200,000 feet of elevation gain by route’s end at the U.S.-Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Most of the race is on dirt roads through the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia and the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Drobna survived six days of nearly nonstop rain in Canada and Montana, and excruciatingly steep and long mountain passes in Colorado and New Mexico, to be the first woman across the finish line.
“The key for me was to ride a fairly mellow pace, and steady,' Drobna says. “If you went too fast, or you tried to power a hill, you exerted yourself, and you had to think about the next day, and the next day. You always had to finish a day feeling good, so you weren’t super-tired for the next day.'
Drobna alternated between tent camping and sharing motel rooms with other riders in small towns along the way. She refueled with food and water at gas stations.
A native of Czechoslovakia who grew up playing soccer, hockey, volleyball and tennis in her home country, Drobna moved to Illinois after high school to attend college. She got a full-time job and, eventually, permanent U.S. residency.
Drobna did not even try mountain biking until six years ago, when she was 33. Her longtime boyfriend, Ross Winsor, got her into mountain biking, and she started competing in the National Ultra Endurance Series, which is made up entirely of 100-mile races. She did it all on a singlespeed.
The couple moved to Bend from Salt Lake City four years ago, and Drobna landed a job as a graphic designer for Hydro Flask, a Bend-based manufacturer of insulated flasks, and Winsor a job at WebCyclery, a bike and nordic ski shop, also based in Bend.
Drobna had always remembered reading about the Tour Divide race in a magazine back when she first started mountain biking. It remained in the back of her mind as she competed in the endurance series.
Last summer, she made the decision to enter the 2014 Tour Divide. Her supervisor at Hydro Flask agreed to give her a month off for the race, and Colorado-based Moots Cycles designed for her a custom-made titanium singlespeed mountain bike with a rigid fork and 29-inch wheels that weighs just 20 pounds. With all her gear, bike bags, food and water, the bike weighed closer to 45 pounds.
“I had them (Moots) change the geometry a little bit, so it would be more stable for endurance rides,' Drobna says. “It’s not as aggressive as a cross-country bike. This is kind of an overall, good-for-anything type of bike.'
Her goal was to finish the race in 25 days. One thing she was not prepared for was the heavy rain from Banff to Helena, Montana. With no towns or shelter on the second day, she rode 160 miles, arriving in Helena at 3 a.m. after 22 hours straight in the saddle. All the hotels were booked, she says, but one hotel allowed her and a few other riders to sleep on the floor of its lounge.
“The first five or six days, it pretty much rained the entire day or big portions of the day, so you were always wet,' Drobna recounts.
The weather cleared after Helena, and she was finally able to view the breathtaking mountainous terrain of the Rockies, as well as the wildlife. She saw black bears, moose, elk and nesting birds, and she was even woken by howling wolves and coyotes at night while tent camping.
Drobna hiked for four hours through snow during one section in Montana. One of her most challenging days, she recalls, was riding out of Del Norte, Colorado, and climbing the 11,910-foot Indiana Pass.
“The uphills just kept coming, and they were all steep,' Drobna says. “It was a very mentally challenging time. I was so frustrated that I actually shed a tear.'
While Drobna rode alone for much of the race, she would also find herself at times with a group of other Tour Divide cyclists who were riding at about the same pace, mostly all men.
She says the penultimate day, riding into Silver City, New Mexico, was the hardest. During a 30-mile ascent through the Pinos Altos Mountains, she got caught in a monsoon.
“You get to the point when you start yelling at the rain and cussing at the road,' Drobna remembers with a smile. “There were times when I had to stop and cry for a few minutes, because I was reaching the end of my rope.'
When she finally arrived at the border station in Antelope Wells, her eyes welled with tears.
“It was so emotional,' she says. “I let it go and cried a little. You know it’s done, but at the same time, it felt like just another stop. I want to keep going somewhere else.'
A friend from Arizona was there to pick up Drobna and celebrate with her.
Drobna finished about 15 hours ahead of Sarah Caylor, of Bolton, Ontario, who was second among the women. Racers were monitored by Spot GPS trackers to ensure they were following the correct route and to keep their times. Their finishing times were accumulative, so the clock never stopped when the riders did.
Knowing that Caylor was behind her helped motivate Drobna to push for 120-plus-mile days.
“When I found out she was behind me and she was gunning for me, I thought, now it’s going to be fun,' Drobna says. “Now it’s a race.'
Jefe Branham, of Gunnison, Colorado, was first overall across the finish line of the 2014 Tour Divide, posting a time of 16 days, 2 hours, 39 minutes.
The event offers no prize money, and each year about half of the entrants drop out at some point in the race, according to tourdivide.org.
“It’s pretty much just a personal challenge,' Drobna says. “I wanted to just kind of find myself, see what I’m made of.'