Tom Hainisch and Bryan Bergstedt survived.
The Bend bicycle racers completed the Tour Divide, which bills itself as the world’s toughest mountain bike race. It began June 9 and stretched nearly 2,700 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
To not be swept up in this year’s 50-percent drop-out rate, racers had to get creative. Or desperate.
Hainisch, for example, took to sleeping in sheltered forest service toilets.
“The pit latrines didn’t smell that bad,” Hainisch said, while sitting next to his son, Logan, 10, and Bergstedt in downtown Bend. “It kept the grizzlies out.”
A fellow racer taught Bergstedt how to cook on the go. By placing a microwaveable burrito in his cycling shirt’s rear pocket, after a couple hours, it would be hot enough to eat.
“You have a little microwave in your jersey pocket!” he said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Hainisch, 44, and Bergstedt, 60, completed the Tour Divide in 19 and 22 days, respectively. That pace required them to churn 140 and 120 miles each day. Impressively, both Hainisch and Bergstedt finished in the exact number of days they had hoped for — herculean efforts that earned them 9th and 20th placements.
Nearly 90 competitors scratched — including one Bend resident, who declined to comment beyond saying he would be back next year — in a field of nearly 200 competitors. At press time, more than 10 competitors were still traversing the Tour Divide. Winner Brian Lucido finished in under 15 days, just shy of the 2016 course record set by Mike Hall, who was killed this year by a motorist while competing in a bike race across Australia.
The toll the Tour Divide takes on riders is evident: Skin peeled from Bergstedt’s reddened ears, and Hainisch’s hands were so calloused they resembled sun-cracked leather gloves. While the friends had been resting for a few days, their bodies won’t soon let them forget the duress the race subjected them to.
“I just feel really lethargic,” Hainisch said. Bergstedt, who lost 20 pounds during the race and continues to eat around 10,000 calories per day, agreed. He had just gone on an easy 30-mile bike ride that morning; afterward, his legs stung with fatigue.
“I feel totally blah, like sleepy-tired. It’s a taxing toll on your body; it really is. (The Tour Divide) is a really long haul,” Bergstedt said.
Hainisch compared the race to the High Cascades 100, an upcoming 100-mile mountain bike race. But “if you did the High Cascades 100, 27 times in 19 days.”
The pair, who have both competed in the grueling local race, let out peals of laughter.
The Tour Divide, founded in 2007, traces The Great Divide, which straddles the Rocky Mountains and is considered the world’s longest unpaved cycling route. Competitors must carry supplies in bike bags and purchase sustenance, usually processed food, from mini marts. They may not receive help from family, friends nor road-side sympathizers. Throughout the competition, racers climb nearly 200,000 cumulative feet, which is like summiting Mount Everest from sea level roughly seven times. Free to enter, the Tour Divide awards gritty prestige in place of prize money. The course consists mostly of gravel roads with about 5 percent singletrack. Racers carry GPS tracking devices to allow officials, loved ones and race fans to keep tabs on their progress on the website Trackleaders.com
Many racers encountered bears. Hainisch and another rider came up on a grizzly on the Whitefish Divide Trail, in Montana, at twilight. It was walking in the same direction, but 20 feet in front of the pair along the same gravel road.
“It doesn’t even acknowledge us. We were thinking, ‘Should we blow our whistles and try to scare it?’ We had our bear spray ready. When we blew our whistles, it turned and looked at us. Then it kept walking. We just followed the grizzly for 10 minutes, which is a really long time to walk with a grizzly,” Hainisch said.
While neither suffered from saddle sores, Hainisch and Bergstedt faced distinct physical obstacles. Bergstedt left zig-zagging tire tracks as he fought daily bouts of drowsiness. Hainisch battled a swollen right hand as soon as the race began. Pain later inflamed his knee, preventing him from standing up on his pedals during climbs.
“When I did have moments of — ” Hainisch said before trailing off. “Quitting was never in my brain. Now, did I want the day to be over? There were definitely those moments. A lot of them,” Hainisch said. “I was ready for the race to be over, but I was going to push until the end, always.”
Bergstedt said he felt similarly driven, yet during a point near Breckenridge, Colorado, — around the race’s halfway point — he “came to wit’s end” and quit the day’s ride at 1:30 p.m. He took a hotel room, did laundry, ate and packed in a good night’s sleep. Competitors typically slept no more than five hours, usually in bivy sacks — sleeping bag liners — or one-person tents.
“It’s not the thing to do, but that’s what I did,” Bergstedt said. Using hotels is allowed and not uncommon. “In the morning, I had such a different frame of mind.”
Matthew Lee, 46, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, founded the Tour Divide in 2007. A former professional racer for the Cannondale mountain-bike factory team, Lee said he got into ultra-distance bikepacking because he was “looking for way to unplug from home, to be insulated into his own little world.”
Lee said this year’s 50-percent attrition rate is pretty high, which he attributes to the weather. Fair-weather years saw a dropout rate as low as 25 percent. This year, Lee received only one SOS message by a racer who encountered another suffering from hypothermia on a mountain pass near Fernie, British Columbia. An ambulance responded. Lee is sympathetic, particularly toward those who tried to tackle the Tour Divide in fulfillment of a bucket list.
“People fall in love with the idea without having explored the nuts and bolts and reality of it. They get out on the course and they say, ‘Man, I’m miserable; there is no reason to carry on.’”
This year’s Tour Divide has been defined by challenging weather and new route additions — which included boulder fields — and snowy mountain passes that required hiking with the bike. Torrential rains in Montana turned clay roads into stretches of mud so thick and sticky that not only was riding impossible, but even rolling the bike was touch and go, Hainisch and Bergstedt said.
“You’d just push, stop. Push, stop,” Hainisch said, pointing to a photo on his phone of mud caked onto his wheels. “Sections that would take me five to 10 minutes to ride would take me two hours to push.”
More than once Bergstedt wondered if the dried ruts in the road belonged to Hainisch, who was further ahead and experienced muddy conditions about six times in the first half of the race.
“We all had the same rain, but 100 miles behind Tom. The soil that I was experiencing wasn’t as sticky; it wouldn’t build up. By the time I got to (Hainisch’s) mud, it had dried up enough that we could ride it.”
Average days involved elevation gains of 9,000 to 10,000 feet. The toughest day consisted of 14,000 feet.
“I had a moment where I was like, ‘This is the hardest climb yet,’” Hainisch said. “The climbs were relentless. You were either going up or down for (much) of the course until you got to the second half of New Mexico.”
Tour Divide competitors who persevere are glad when they encounter amenities, not to mention humanity. Several restaurants along the course are important landmarks, including Brush Mountain Lodge, in Slater, Colorado, which sits on a tall incline. There, Kirsten Hendricksen, who operates her family’s business, greets competitors, no matter how dirty, with hugs. The embraces evolved organically, Hendricksen said. She realized racers had been riding for weeks without any human contact. Sometimes people cry in her arms.
“Because of where I sit on the race route (200 miles past the halfway mark), people are worn-out and vulnerable. I get this beautiful opportunity to get to know them when they’re really raw,” Hendricksen said. “It’s a real privilege, honestly.”
Per the lodge’s summer policy, diners only incur requests for donation. Hainisch gave $20. Bergstedt was so taken aback, he plunked down $40. Lee said the lodge is where racers begin to realize that the Tour Divide finish is within reach. Hendricksen likes to joke with them that “it’s all downhill to Mexico.”
On June 27, Hainisch reached Antelope Wells, New Mexico, near the Mexico border.
His father and his son, Logan, were there waiting. Logan was impressed by his father’s beard. And by his smell.
“He smelled like a skunk,” Logan said with a grin. The 10-year-old hugged his dad anyway.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org